What an odd thing to notice, but then she had reason to be in shock. Her wounded eyes seemed so much older than her twenty-three years right now, a dangerous thought for him to have since their twelve-year age difference helped him keep his distance.
He stroked his freshly bare upper lip. "That's what I get for shaving on the fly when I was running late." Because his few hours at home during the night had been filled with thoughts of running into Nikki outside Beachcombers on her way in to meet up with another man. "What happened here?"
She shrugged, the blanket slipping farther. "Gary is dead." Her voice was low, overly calm but thready, a thin substitute for her normally husky and—God help him—sultry tones. "You probably already know that."
"We're not sure. Sometime during the night he hit his head."
Hit his head? Drunk and stumbling around in the room? Possible. Yet something was still... off. "I'm sorry this had to happen to you. What can I do to help? Tell me and I'll do my damnedest to make it happen."
"Gary's the one we should be sorry for." Her fingers twisted in the burgundy blanket even as her face stayed composed. "Thank you for coming over, but the SPs have everything under control."
So why were they keeping her around?
God, he wished she were anywhere else right now. She should be on her way to work. She often went in early or on Saturdays to tutor at-risk students from other classes and schools. He shouldn't know so much about her, but his ears always tuned in when her father bragged about his daughter's graduation from college, her junior high teaching job, her latest marathon race.
Damn. He was a freaking sap when it came to this woman. Always had been.
Tearing his eyes away from her before he did something dumb like scoop her up and take her away, he stared at the shrouded body being hefted onto a gurney. "Owens was in my squadron. I have to be here for him, and your father would want me to look out for you."
Her father, a cargo plane loadmaster, was deployed to the Middle East. The last thing the Price family needed was more stress with J.T. in a war zone and his wife taking care of a toddler with another late-in-life baby on the way.
"I am okay." Nikki's teeth chattered faster in contradiction to her seeming composure.
"Right. And you're not in shock, either. Uh-huh." Carson shrugged off his jacket. No way did he want to think of her father right now or all that guilt would drive him to his knees.
He'd betrayed the man in the worst possible way, a man who was more than a friend, more than a comrade in arms. They'd been POWs together, the strongest of bonds.
He owed J. T. Price better than screwing the man's daughter. He couldn't make up for the past, but he could take care of the present by hauling Nikki out of whatever mess she'd landed her most excellent ass in.
Carson passed his jacket to her. She stared at the coat so long he wondered if she might simply ignore his offer. Finally, she took it from him carefully, without touching his hand.
The blanket slid around her waist as she shoved one arm then the other into his coat, a final shiver rattling her teeth. "I'm sure my dad will be grateful."
He wanted to tell her he'd come for her, too, but that wouldn't be wise with a cop within earshot.
The gurney wheeled past with the sheet covering the outline of a body. She went even paler under her deep tan. She tanned easily thanks to her mother's Greek heritage—and what an inane thought in the middle of hell. "You still haven't told me what happened? How did he hit his head?"
Maybe he should pull the SP aside and speak with him instead, but he couldn't bring himself to leave her sitting alone.
"I don't know. I had a couple of drinks over at Beachcombers. I was nervous about—"
Please don't let her say she was nervous about sleeping with Owens.
"—about breaking up with him."
Or maybe not because that gave them all the more reason to have fought.
"I don't remember anything after the second drink. I can't even recall leaving Beachcombers, just waking up here."
Nikki didn't remember? Or was too embarrassed to say? Either way, he could tell now wasn't the time to push her.
He could see the fear in her wide eyes. Her foggy eyes? Something wasn't right. Her dilated pupils stared back at him in spite of the early-morning sun through the windows and overhead light flooding the hall. Nikki didn't use drugs. He would bet his life on that.
Except no one ever believed his wealthy uptight parents were users, much less addicts, until his tenth grade English teacher. She hadn't been able to get the administration to do crap for him since his parents were six-figure contributors to the private school, but she'd pointed him toward Alateen. His parents weren't alcoholics, but the counseling principles had still applied for the child of addicts.
His teacher had also steered his parents toward enrolling him in a military prep school for his junior and senior years. A school far-the-hell away from his neglectful, abusive home life.
If Nikki had a problem, she needed help from someone better than him with his own secrets and demons.
"Maybe I should call your mother." He reached inside his thigh pocket for his cell phone. Nikki's mother, Rena, was also a counselor, even if she was on maternity leave.
"No!" She gripped his wrist with quiet desperation. Her slender fingers seared through his uniform sleeve. "Please. Mom has enough on her plate right now with Dad deployed, not to mention being over forty and pregnant again. She hasn't wanted people to know, but she's having a tough time with nausea, even a false labor scare. Please, don't call her. Okay?"
"You shouldn't be alone. Is there a friend I could call for you?"
She shook her head, tangled hair brushing her shoulders. "I don't want anyone to know, not yet at least."
"All right, but that means you're stuck with me." He shoved to his feet by the SP. "Have you finished questioning her?"
"For now. The lead OSI agent said he has more questions for later."
Carson glanced back into the room where two men in suits were crawling around the floor looking under the bed. The OSI was made up of part civilian investigators, part active duty military. Since the incident had happened on base, involving a service member, civilian police wouldn't even be involved. Would that be better or worse for Nikki? Who the hell knew anything right now except he had to get her out of here. "Then I'll take her home."
The cop stepped closer to Nikki's chair. "I'm afraid we can't let you do that, sir. She has to be checked out by a doctor first."
Doctor? They'd said Owens was the one who hit his head. Had something happened to her, too? That would account for the pupils and the confusion over what happened. "A doctor?"
He reached to brush back her hair for a better look at her face. She jerked away, flinching. From him or pain? Either way her hair swished to reveal a bruise on her cheek. What the hell had Owens done to her?
Scenarios he hadn't wanted to consider blared through his head. He'd assumed Owens died in a freak accident—slipped in the bathroom or tripped over his pants or rolled out of bed. Carson pinched between his eyebrows. He didn't want that image of Owens in bed with Nikki. But the image of Owens hurting Nikki...
Rage threatened to blind him. He blinked the red haze clear enough to function.
He scoured her clothes as if somehow he could develop Superman X-ray vision and find marks on her skin. No such luck, a curse and a blessing. But he did find other details he'd overlooked earlier—missing buttons on her silky shirt tugged on over a tank top. One of the knees of her jeans seemed more threadbare than the other, as if she'd skidded recently. He would wager money he would find a bruise beneath the denim.
There'd been an attack. A struggle. And somehow Owens had died.
"Nikki, did he hurt you?" Or worse. He blinked back the red fog again.
"I told you, I don't remember." Pride and a paper-thin bravado braced her shoulders. "Even if I did, this isn't your business or problem."
"Are you sure you don't want me to call your mother? She's going to find out eventually."
"And maybe we'll have a few more answers by then. I would like to get through—" she sucked in two shaky breaths "—the doctor's exam first."
She might not want his help, but he wasn't leaving her alone. He would protect her until she could take care of herself again.
He turned back to the SP. "She needs to leave. Now. Can't you see she's about to pass out? Who the hell knows what happened here but it's clear she was assaulted and needs treatment."
"Major, we're just doing our job and the investigator still needs to question her."
"He can do that at the hospital." He let all his anger seep steel into his words. "If she's been abused in any way and you've kept a traumatized woman sitting here alone—"
"We're moving things along as quickly as we can, Major, without compromising the crime scene."
"Is she being detained?"
"Then she's ready to leave for the E.R." He slid an arm around her shoulders and eased her to her feet trying not to remember the last time he'd touched her this way or how many times he'd been tempted to put his hands on her body again.
His only defense had been distance. And now it looked as if he wouldn't be leaving her side anytime soon.
Nikki tugged a surgical scrub shirt over her head and stifled a wince at the lack of underwear since all her clothes had been bagged for evidence. As if she didn't already feel exposed enough today.
At least the E.R. held more answers for her than her still-foggy head. She'd pulled it together enough during the police escort over to call in sick at school. Truth be told, she did feel sick, heartsick and body sore.
Paper crackled under her as she gingerly slid off the gurney, her toes hitting cold tile. Not as much of a shock as it could have been since she already felt chilled to her soul.
Bracing a hand on the cabinet full of gauzes, tongue depressors and latex gloves, she tugged on the surgical pants and knotted the tie before sliding her feet into the flimsy hospital slippers the nurse had given her. For the first time in her life she was grateful she could go braless. She could have sent Carson to her place to pick something up, but he wouldn't leave the hospital and she really didn't want him rooting through her underwear drawer.
What a silly thought. Except her brain seemed to hitch on the oddest details as if to fill empty space left by missing memories. At least the doctor reassured her it didn't appear that she'd had sex or been raped. She shuddered.
Any bruising stayed confined to her arms and ribs and Gary had been wearing his pants—even if they'd been around his ankles. All signs indicated if she'd killed him, she'd done so before penetration.
Her stomach cramped at the thought she could have taken a life, even in self-defense. She couldn't live with having killed someone, anyone, and to have known that person... Would she spend the rest of her life wondering what she could have done differently?
Or worse yet, never know.
Had she struggled and thrown him off? Or hit him with something? She was strong enough to do it after years of training on her university soccer team. She squeezed her eyes shut tight against tears so close to the surface, as if maybe she could find the memories from the night before glistening behind her eyes.
The shrink the E.R. had sent down for a consultation couldn't offer definitive answers, but he did say the memories could trickle back once her mind had a chance to adjust to the trauma of what happened.
Distraction. She needed a distraction and normalcy. She snagged her cell phone from the rolling tray and settled into a steel-back chair rather than the exam gurney that held too many invasive memories. The message symbol flashed on the LCD screen. No surprise. She clicked through the numbers. Two from friends and then her mother's number—four times. She wouldn't be able to hold her off much longer and she certainly didn't want her mom to panic.