"I'm not walking out," he echoed her thoughts so perfectly it spooked her. "I truly do head into work at five or six on a normal day."
"And this isn't a normal day."
Taking her hands, he knelt in front of her. "Not by a long shot."
His explanation made sense, but still, something wasn't right. "I understand about commitment to your job."
He squeezed her hands. "I want you to be careful when you go back to work."
"Of course I will."
He could take his distance and shove it. She kissed the faded scar. "I'm also checking in this week with Reis about some thoughts I've had."
And to find out more about those creepy calls to her parents' house. She wanted more facts before she told Carson so he wouldn't freak needlessly and lock her whole family in some hotel until her father returned.
Carson tapped her forehead. "Memories?"
"Crummy ones, actually, but I hate feeling helpless."
His throat moved with a long swallow. "Helpless sucks."
For a second the connection between them shimmered to life again, a thin, fragile thread she needed to handle with a feather-light touch.
From his thigh pocket, his cell phone chimed—at four in the morning? The thread snapped.
He growled. "I'm starting to hate that damn thing." Rising, he dropped a quick kiss on her lips as he whipped his cell phone from his pocket. He glanced at the LCD, his face blanking. "Sorry. I have to take this."
Carson stepped out onto the balcony to talk in private, his voice low. Even with his reassuring kiss and words, she couldn't shake the feeling there was something more he was keeping from her. She thought about those two men she'd seen him with the night of Gary's death, and how Carson had neatly avoided saying anything about them when she shared the memory.
Staring at the broad plank of his shoulders as he stood outside taking his mystery call, she told herself they were still early in this relationship thing. Be patient. Build trust.
Except she couldn't help but think of how long her mother had told herself the very same thing.
Sliding the balcony door closed behind him as he stood outside in the chilly night, Carson tucked the phone to his ear, his head still pounding from the discussion with Nikki. He was trying, but he couldn't miss the searching in her eyes, the need for something more he wasn't sure he had in him to give after his screwed-up childhood.
However at the moment, the person on the other end of the phone needed him. That loyalty had to be a top priority. Without the support system, none of them would be worth a damn to anyone. "Hello?"
"Carson? Will, here. Sorry to call so late." They used first names in the program, even when they knew the surname.
"How's everything going?" All right, he hoped, because as much as he tried to channel his thoughts into being supportive, he couldn't stop thinking about Nikki, being with her—and the mind-blowing discovery that they hadn't been together months ago before he'd passed out.
He'd always been a heavy social drinker. That sense of family in a gathering had sucked him right in and he would stay until the bell rang for last round. He'd tried a few times to cut back, but with no lasting luck—until he'd bottomed out that night with Nikki and realized he needed to join A.A. He still had a long road ahead, but his sea legs were back under him and he owed a debt for that.
Free time was in short supply, but he volunteered every spare second to a local support group that served as a catch-all for relatives of people with a variety of addictions. "Hey, Will? You still there?"
"Yeah," the older man cleared his throat, voice raspy from years of smoking to fill the empty hours without a beer at the racetrack, "Vic called."
Not Will's problem tonight, but rather the guy Will was sponsoring. Will had been sponsoring Owens, as well, since Will belonged to both AA and Gambler's Anonymous. "At four in the morning? Must be bad, but at least he called."
Vic Jansen had caught the potential drinking problem early, recognizing he was having a rough time since he'd lost his daughter, using alcohol to numb the pain. Carson had a feeling Vic would make it through, and once he had his life back, the guy had the makings of being a rock-solid support. But first, they had to get Vic to tomorrow.
"He needs someone to come over and talk. My boy wrecked the truck and I don't get it back until the morning..."
"I can cover it." Easy enough to drop in since Vic lived on his forty-two-foot sailboat docked near Carson's smaller one. Hell, he understood well how tough the nights could be. At least Vic was making the call rather than landing on the wrong woman's doorstep. "Thanks for the heads-up."
"No problem. Let me know how it goes."
"Roger." Carson disconnected and stuffed the cell phone back into his flight suit pocket.
Now he needed to figure out how to leave without seeming to bolt through the door. He wasn't sure where he and Nikki were headed, but again she'd held him through a hellish night. As much as he didn't want to lean on anyone, he couldn't ignore the fact that he kept ending up on her doorstep when he needed someone.
Which cycled him back around to being a taker, the thing he hated most. So what the hell to do? Deal with it one day at a time until he got his head out of his butt.
He rolled the glass door open to find Nikki dressed again. God, she looked great in those short fuzzy sweaters, softness and bright colors calling to his hands, touch me. He cricked his neck through the temptation to explore tangerine angora. "I'm sorry. I have to go."
"Work." Kneeling, she nodded, fishing a canvas bag from her closet, the hem of her sweater inching up to reveal a strip of her creamy back. "I understand."
Work? Carson hesitated a second too long and she glanced over her shoulder. He wasn't fooling her for a second, but couldn't say more. "I would stay if I could."
He hated lying to her. For the first time he considered telling her about his alcoholism. Why had he held off so long? Had he been enough of an ass back then to keep the secret so as not to taint her hero worship? A distinct possibility he needed to make right, and soon.
At least then she would understand moments he had to leave at the drop of a hat for a non-work-related call when he couldn't give her the specifics. That confidentiality was crucial in A.A., something he couldn't break even for Nikki. It sucked bad enough that Reis had investigated Owens's sponsor. How he'd found out the confidential relationship, Carson didn't know.
Okay, so he would tell Nikki about his drinking problem, but it wasn't something he could drop on her then sprint out the door. And he did have to sprint. "We're still on for sailing this weekend?"
"Sure." Canvas bag at her feet, she tugged open a drawer and shuffled clothes into the sack.
Thank goodness she was packing. While he was okay with them hanging out here together for a few hours, having her move back in—alone—was another matter altogether. Hopefully this hell would be over before she needed to use all those socks.
And satin underwear. Mint-green. Grape-purple. Lemon-yellow and funny how the mind focused on food adjectives for tasting. Tasting her. Was she wearing tangerine-orange to match that sweater?
Think of something else, pal. Pronto.
His fingers grazed a notepad by her phone, tore off a piece of paper and started folding. He'd picked up origami on his own one dark night, desperate to keep his hands busy with anything other than a bottle.
"I'll call." And he would. She was just within her rights to doubt him. Fold. Tuck. Don't touch Nikki. "Come on and I'll drive you back to your parents' place—and don't even suggest staying here."
"I'm not reckless. I know that I'm not some supercop or investigator. I'm a teacher, something I hope I'll be allowed to do now that I'm off the official suspect list."
She slid a neatly pressed pair of khaki pants from the drawer and he realized she was packing work clothes. Of course she would return to her job now that her name was cleared. Back to students who slashed tires and schools with metal detectors.
He forced himself to breathe evenly and crease the edge of the tiny form taking shape. "Do you have a gun?"
"No." She dropped another sweater, purple to match that grape lingerie no doubt. "And I'm not going to keep one with Jamie around."
He knelt beside her, his hand falling on top of hers to stop her speedy stowing because too easily he could envision her someday packing up to walk out of his life for good. "I really am going to call."
"Of course you are." Her hair swished forward to hide her face. "Carson? What's your middle name?"
Huh? God, he would never understand women.
He cupped her head, silken strands sliding over his skin until finally she looked up at him. "Alexander. My full name is Carson Alexander Hunt the fourth."
Searching her translucent gray eyes, he found wary consent a second before her hand glided up to his shoulders. Her mouth met his, no doubt about the mutual move. Here at least there were no misunderstandings or hesitations, just a driving need.
And if he didn't stop soon they would be doing a lot more than kissing.
He eased back. "I don't want to rush all the things I have to say, but come this weekend, we need to talk."
Her fingers toyed with the nape of his neck, her lips teasing over his. "I'd rather do more of this."
He pressed the one-inch paper tulip in her palm. "Certainly possible."
If she didn't run screaming and packing for good after their conversation.
* * *
Her every nerve screamed with tension.
After a jam-packed week of waiting to be alone with Carson, Nikki batted three helium balloons down and out from the passenger seat of her Ranger, clamping a folded Welcome Home, Dad banner under her arm. The three Mylar balloons would be a flyaway mess on the flight line, but Jamie loved them so she'd decided they could just tie the red, white and blue trio to her little brother's wrist.
Patriotic balloons trailing after her, she made tracks toward the big blue Air Force bus that would transport the families out to the tarmac to greet the returning aircrews.
True to his word, Carson had called her, every day this week for that matter, always checking in with her brother, as well, for a security update. Carson had even sent her flowers the morning after they'd made love. Not generic red roses, but a dozen, each one a different color. The note read how they reminded him of her sweaters and the brightness she brought to his life.
She'd cried—who wouldn't?—and slipped the card into the plastic picture holder in her wallet along with the origami tulip so she could look at both again and again in hopes of overriding the impending sense of doom. Their quick conversations had done little to diffuse the anxiety. His workweek was insane with the bombing and returning flyers. And since her return to the classroom, she'd been playing catch-up.
They were talking, some of the conversation sexy and longing. He wanted her. No question. It wasn't like before. But still... She'd been hurt, then angry for so long, this shift left her a bit off balance.
Panting puffs in the cold, she made it to the bus and climbed up the steps with seconds to spare. She waved to her mom and brothers in back and plopped in the lone remaining seat up front. Surely she would feel better once her father was safely home, then she and Carson could have their sailing date.
For real this time. Her hands clenched around her purse with that silly-sweet note from Carson inside.
Brown and brick buildings sprawled on the other side of the windows, reminding her when somehow she'd ended up here in a VOQ room with Gary Owens. God, she'd done a one-eighty from before, being certain the time had come to leave Carson Hunt behind forever. Now that she wasn't so focused on jabbing pins in a Carson voodoo doll, she was reminded of all the things she'd liked about him the first go-round.