Ah hell. Not a pink elephant at all for her, since she didn't have a clue what he'd thought.
This really was screwed up and now he'd made it worse. He needed to unscramble his brain to get through this, tough to do when his eyes were full of Nikki's legs...and more. "What did you think I was apologizing for last week?"
"For passing out on top of me seconds before the act." Pink tinged her cheeks, but he suspected it had nothing to do with the steam rising from the water around them. "And I figured you were apologizing most of all for walking out the next morning and never calling."
"That last part, absolutely. The first part, God yes, I'm apologizing for that now, as well. I'm sorry for being in no shape to ask you to stay the night with me and for being selfish enough to do it anyway."
"I can't believe that for all these months you thought we slept together." Confusion smoked through her eyes. "At least you're off the hook for that."
"Not even close. Doesn't matter that my body shut down, the intent to make love to you remained even though I knew I should stay away." He rested his chin on her head, remembering enough of that night to know that nothing, nothing was more important to him then than being with Nikki. And that unsettled the hell out of him because he still felt the same.
"Maybe you would have had second thoughts if you hadn't passed out."
"I doubt it. I'd wanted to be with you for so damn long." Which brought them back to the present. "And here we are again."
"Except things went better this time." Her smile granted forgiveness he still wasn't sure he deserved.
"I want afterward to be better, too." He clasped her hands in his, linking them over her stomach.
"Although I can't image how the 'during' part could be any better."
His thumbs brushed along the soft undersides of her breasts, perspiration from the heated water dotting her chest and begging him to taste her. "I would take that as a compliment, but you had twenty-three years of buildup going."
"Who says I went totally without for twenty-three years?" Pure sensuality emanated from her smile. "I'm a woman who can take care of herself."
He choked on a cough. Take care of herself? She couldn't mean... He searched deeper into her narrowed eyes and holy crap, she most definitely meant exactly what he thought.
Carson linked their fingers tighter, holding hands as much touching as he could risk with his body on fire from just her words. "Now there's an image I could enjoy for a damn long time."
Nikki's smile widened and she guided one of his hands down her belly, dipping deeper into the water. "Or you could enjoy it along with me now for real."
His brain went on stun, then revved to life because no way was he missing out on a second of this fantasy come to life.
Nikki reclined back against his chest, her knees parting in the move of an awesomely bold innocent. She guided his hand lower, her hand over his cupping the core of her.
She brought their other fisted hands up over her breast, unfurling her fingers until she flatted his palm to her pebbled peak. Slowly she guided his hand along her skin, her impossibly tight nipple tightening further. He swallowed hard.
Her mouth tipped in a slight smile. She couldn't miss the sway she held over him and damned if he cared about his surrender so long as she continued to lead his touch, growing bolder as her pupils widened with unmistakable pleasure.
He throbbed harder against the sweet press of her bottom.
Her other hand, underwater over his, twitched, tangling his fingers in short dark curls, dipping into moist heat and rubbing slow circles with his fingers against the hidden bud beading as tight and hard as her nipple minutes before.
Much more of this and he would explode. He started to pull his hand away and she held him firm, her breathing faster, her heart hammering so hard he could feel it through her back against his chest.. .until her spine bowed forward in time with her gasp, another, then a low moaning exhale as she sagged against him again, a limp, soft weight.
He soothed her through the aftershocks with steady pressure, whispering in her ear, "Definitely an image to carry with me. You're one helluva woman, Nikki Price."
Her head lolling, she nuzzled his shoulder. "While I can take care of myself, I've found it's all the better with you along."
Tomorrow, he would take her up on that. For now, he held her while the water chilled around them, reminding him of the cold reality.
He was fast losing control of his feelings for this complicated woman.
So much for believing she could keep things uncomplicated with Carson.
Stretching her leg to toe on the faucet to reheat the bath, she couldn't decide whether to be totally mortified by what they'd just done or simply languish in the afterglow and warming water. Sheesh, when she decided to let down her boundaries, she really went all the way. "You were totally right about a bath relaxing me."
His light laugh ruffled her hair, uneasiness seeping from her toes.
Carson's arms tightened, their hands linked over her stomach. "Thank you for trusting me to be your first."
"You're welcome." Definitely not simple anymore. From the minute she'd met him, she'd wanted him to be her first.
"Do you mind if I ask why you waited so long?" He stretched his foot to turn off the water.
He'd shared so much about himself and his growing-up years, it seemed selfish to hold back, especially when her past was so much less traumatic than his. "My parents had to get married when my mom was only eighteen. Mom was already pregnant with me. It's not something we discussed, but I always wondered if they fought because of me."
"You know better now, right?"
Sort of. "Chris told me he brought up my 'premature' birth once and Dad almost decked him."
"Since your father's one of the least violent men I've ever met, that says a lot for how much he must love your mom."
"Yeah." The silent tension had grown so thick over the years, she couldn't wait to leave for college. "Still, Chris and I weren't surprised when they drew up divorce papers. They had a tough start, followed by a rocky couple of decades before everything came together for them."
Saying it out loud resurrected memories of childhood nights crying in her bed while her parents fought downstairs. Crying harder when they stopped talking altogether. "So why did I wait? I just wanted to be really, really sure before I committed even a part of myself to a guy."
Would he freak out now? Or would she beat him to the punch?
Nerves pattered in her stomach as she realized how close she was to giving more than a part of herself to Carson, a man who didn't cry for himself, but teared up over Bronco's little girl possibly losing her daddy.
Jeez, how selfish of her to have forgotten what brought him to her in the first place tonight. "Are you okay after everything that happened this afternoon?"
"I'm leveled out now. Thank you for letting me spill my guts like that back in the truck." Before she could answer, he flicked the drain on the tub, water sucking out. "We should dry off before we turn into a couple of prunes."
Vulnerability might be long suppressed, but she'd seen his sensitive side now and couldn't forget. She hauled herself from the tub and grabbed a coral towel, reaching for another for Carson from the wicker basket, wishing they could simply dry each other off and go to sleep. Instead, she kept thinking about what demons must be rumbling around inside of him after a day like today. Leveled out wasn't the same as okay. She knew that well from watching her parents interact after her father's capture in the Middle East.
Carson's capture, as well.
Nikki tugged the towel into a knot between her breasts. "What happened today must have brought back some awful memories of your own time overseas."
He grunted, toweling his legs dry.
Carson never just grunted. He might dodge direct answers but he was always, always polite. She thought about backing off and letting him have his space...but then she remembered how that tactic had nearly destroyed her parents.
Holy cow, was she thinking about being a couple? Well, she wasn't not thinking about it. She couldn't lie to herself. She had feelings for this man that deserved exploring, which meant no half-measure crushes where they never looked below the surface.
Towel drying her hair, she stared at his steamy reflection as he stood behind her tying his towel around his lean hips. "I heard my dad's version of what happened to your crew overseas." The towel slid from her shaking hands. Kneeling, she scooped it into the hamper. "It took him a while to talk about it, but after he and Mom started marriage counseling, they decided Chris and I should know what happened when he was shot down and captured by those warlords. We're adults after all. They both decided they'd sheltered us too much from things growing up."
"Do you agree?" He draped his dog tags around his neck.
Tugging the comb through her gnarled hair, Nikki wished her life could be as easily untangled. "Certainly Chris and I knew something was going on between Mom and Dad. It was tough growing up with him gone so much, and Mom pretending everything was fine."
She turned to lean against the vanity, taking in his golden gorgeous face marred only by a tiny scar along his jaw. A scar that somehow made him all the more handsome for the human imperfection.
A scar he'd gotten during his time in the Middle East.
She traced the faded white line cutting through his five o'clock shadow and wondered about the scars he carried inside from his childhood, as well. "Hearing the truth might have reassured us since sometimes reality isn't as bad as what you're fearing."
He enfolded her hand and pressed a kiss to her wrist, right on her racing pulse. "You're talking about something else now."
"And you're a perceptive man."
Carson dropped her hand and strode from the bathroom. "If you're thinking about my parents, the reality is at least as harsh as whatever you would imagine."
The tile chilled under her feet as she stood in the doorway. "They hurt you?"
His back to her, he snagged his flight suit off the rocking chair in the corner. "Coked-up people don't know their own strength and lose a lot of inhibitions."
She wanted to wrap her arms around his waist, press her cheek to his shoulder, but she also didn't want to risk stopping his flow of words. She sank to rest at the foot of her bed in the middle of tangled sheets and the scent of them together. His handkerchief rested folded on top of her laundry and she still didn't know what that middle initial stood for.
Had anyone ever cared enough for this man to know everything—even the darker things—about him? "I'm so sorry."
"Don't get me wrong. I could handle getting slapped around, and I could defend myself when one of Mom's stoned friends came barging through my bedroom door."
A gasp slipped free. Her fears hadn't even come close to the reality.
He glanced over his shoulder, face harder than she could ever remember seeing it. "I was fine, Nikki, but when I caught some high bastard on top of my sister..." Turning away again, he yanked the uniform zipper up his body. "I went to one of my teachers for help. Other teachers and even the cops had blown us off in the past—or my folks bought them off. Who knows? But this teacher, Mrs. Godeck, she was different. Stronger. She told my parents she was going to make their lives hell if they didn't send us both to boarding school. Somehow, she stood them down."
Thank God for Mrs. Godeck.
He dropped into the rocker and laced his black combat boots, left, right, done. "Are you ready to go back to your folks' place? I need to report in early today and take care of all the fallout from the barracks bombing."
She was sitting in her towel, for heaven's sake, and it was—she glanced at the clock—four in the morning. Unease prickled. He couldn't be walking on her again because she'd gotten too close....