Carson had backed away, his sexy proposition still echoing in her mind and pulsing heat through her veins. They'd returned to the gathering as if nothing happened—except that her dad had stuck to her side like glue until they drove home.
She tucked the Bob the Builder sheets around her little brother in his new race car toddler bed. He already snoozed away on his stomach, diapered butt up in the air under the quilted spread.
She glanced over her shoulder at her mom in a rocker with her swollen feet propped on the edge of the mattress. Nikki settled on the remaining patch of bed, next to her mother's puffy toes. "Are you sure you don't want me to keep him up at the apartment so you and Dad can have the run of the house?"
Rena patted her rounded stomach. "I'm not so sure we'll be doing any running, but we may take you up on the babysitting service for an afternoon sometime soon. For tonight, I think Jamie needs routine and to be near his daddy."
She totally understood and agreed. "People say kids are flexible, but I see in the classroom all the time how they thrive on structure."
"There's so much about the military way of life that's not normal for kids, I've always tried to keep what I could constant."
"I turned out okay for the most part." Other than a dead ex-boyfriend.
"I hope so." Rena nudged Nikki's hip with her crossed feet. "We're certainly proud of you."
"Thanks. I'm trying my best, even if I screw up."
All that water retention in her mother's toes tugged at Nikki's heart as she thought of the grief she'd brought during an already stressful time. She may not have actually wielded whatever bashed in Gary's skull, but she'd been on a self-destructive path for months.
Could she trust her judgment to have magically improved now? "I'm sorry I've caused you and Dad so much heartache the past few months."
Her mother studied her through perceptive eyes, taking a slow swallow from her glass of ice water while a couple of trucks growled along the deserted night road outside. "Do you want to tell me what happened to send you into such a tail-spin last spring?"
"Not really. Sorry." Telling would only make her mother upset with Carson when their relationship was about to become public. Really public, if the frozen tension on her father's face was anything to go by.
She should say something to her father before bed, even though she and Carson had discussed speaking with her father in the morning. Her mother wouldn't be surprised. She must suspect from how much time Carson had been spending around the house.
Had she known before? That "Mom Radar" was a spooky, perceptive thing.
Nikki refused to fidget like a kid. She was an adult. She didn't need her parents' permission, but she didn't want to make things tough at work for Carson or her dad. "I should let you go so you and Dad can enjoy your reunion."
Rena showed no signs of budging from her comfy spot. "I can talk a little while longer. Your father's busy for the moment anyway."
"Busy?" Uh-oh. Premonition trickled down her spine like the beads of condensation on her mother's glass.
"He's out on the porch waiting to talk to Scorch."
The sardonic words from an obviously pissed off papa echoed across the lawn as Carson opened his truck door in the Price driveway. Looming on the porch, J.T. pinned him with a shotgun-father look as piercing as any bullet, illuminated all too clearly by the lamppost.
Carson finished stepping from his truck, not at all surprised to find J.T. waiting for him. They'd both known he would come by, an unspoken agreement.
At least the irate father hadn't made a scene at the squadron in front of everyone, because Carson damn well wouldn't have stood for Nikki's name being tossed around. As if she hadn't already been through enough gossip lately.
Thank God, her father apparently felt the same.
But now, after all the welcome-home partying was done, there was no more evading the question that had dogged the man's eyes throughout the evening.
"About that 'sir' thing..." Carson climbed the front steps, meeting J.T. face-to-face. "You caught me unaware. My nanny ingrained in me young to respect my elders."
"Elders?" Biceps flexed inside his flight suit. "You're really not getting on my good side today…sir. And I'm thinking it's important to you to be on my good side."
No-damn-kidding. Nikki was tight with her family, one of the many things he respected about her, and he refused to cause friction in the Price household. "I don't want to cause your daughter any grief and if you're upset that would upset her very much."
A vein pulsed in J.T.'s temple, a bad sign from such a usually laid-back guy. "Is there something going on with you and my baby girl?"
Carson exhaled a long stream of cloudy air. He was definitely too old for this. But then he was dating a much younger woman, and hell, he wished his own parents had given a crap about his sister. He searched for the right words, the whole tongue-tied feeling completely alien for him, but then choosing the right words had never felt so important.
J.T. stepped closer, nose to nose and apparently more than a little miffed at Carson's extended silence. "Sir, I'm finding it hard to remember you're an officer. I'm finding it even tougher not to kick your ass off my porch."
"Go ahead. I was the one who peeled away the rank in there when I called you sir."
"It's one thing if you're seriously dating, but if you're using her—"
Anger snapped. "Hold it right there." He didn't get outright mad often, but then nothing was logical in his head when it came to Nikki. "I respect your daughter and count myself one lucky bastard that she chooses to be with me."
J.T. pivoted on his boot heels away, chewing on a curse worthy of the saltiest of crewdogs.
Well damn. That was a little insulting.
A lot insulting.
He understood about the older man's wish for a nonmilitary life for his kids, but hell, he wasn't a total slouch.
J.T. cricked his neck from side to side before turning back around. "Is this serious? And don't tell me to ask her. I'm speaking with you."
Carson stepped alongside the old loadmaster and leaned his elbows on the porch railing while a rusted-out truck chugged past, exhaust mingling with the scent of mulchy leaves. He scrounged around for the right words to make this better for Nikki, for this man he'd flown combat with, a lasting bond. "I've heard you say for years no flyboys for your little girl. Was that bull?"
"I want an easier life for her than this—" he gestured back and forth to their uniforms "—a husband who's always gone, and getting shot at too often."
Husband. He didn't even bother denying the possibility existed. He tried a different tack. "You're speaking from a raw place right now because of the bombing and how close it hit."
"Could be." J.T. nodded a concession, ever fair. "Still, the military makes relationships tough enough, and I suspect you've got some extra stresses mixed in battling a drinking problem."
Ah. The real reason he disapproved. Somehow the seasoned chief master sergeant had figured it out when no one else had. "What makes you think that?"
"I don't talk much, but I'm always watching, and you go out of your way to avoid drinking, overly so."
"Plenty of people don't drink for any number of reasons."
"Are you telling me I'm wrong?"
When it came to Nikki, he needed to be honest every step of the way, because there wouldn't be another chance with her. J.T. wasn't the type to bandy the info around the squadron anyway. "You're not wrong. I wouldn't deny the problem if someone asked, but it's also not something I choose to advertise. I've been working at this for a couple of years, been completely dry and in a program for seven months."
Had he sealed his fate with Nikki's father? No hope for approval, ever? Entirely possible and totally more important than he'd expected.
J.T. sagged onto his elbows alongside Carson. "Thank you for being so open. I know that wasn't easy and it tells me you do care about my daughter."
Carson relaxed—for five whole seconds before he realized there was a but at the end of J.T.'s sentence. "And?"
"I respect like hell that you've fought this and seem to be holding your head above water. But you have to know this isn't something a father would wish for any child of his to live with."
"I agree." He had the same fears but staying away from Nikki had just about torn them apart. They needed to work through this insanity one way or another. "I've tried my damnedest to keep my distance."
'Tried." J.T.'s hands fisted before he continued, "Past tense?"
"Again, I'll say that I respect your daughter too much to discuss this further." The guy couldn't possibly want a blow-by-blow discussion. "Nikki's an adult. She deserves to be present so she can speak for herself."
"That earned you a couple more points."
Of course the conversation would have been a surprise for her if she had been here. "Nikki doesn't know about the drinking and I would appreciate it if you didn't say anything until I have a chance to tell her."
A slow growl echoed from the burly loadmaster's chest. "You've been seeing my daughter and you didn't tell her? I can't promise to keep quiet about that, and I'm actually reconsidering that ass kicking."
Well deserved. No denying. "I don't mean for you to stay quiet forever. Just until tomorrow to give me a chance to tell her first. We're going sailing."
"Twenty-four hours?" J.T.'s fists unfurled against his legs. "That, I can do, but the clock starts ticking now."
Wind rustled through the trees, shaking a few more pine needles loose in a tap, tap, tap shower that filled the semi-comfortable silence. "Still want to hit me?"
"Yeah." A hint of a smile twitched the corner of his mouth. "But I always want to hit anyone who looks at my daughter."
They shared a laugh and Carson started to hope that maybe...
J.T.'s smile faded altogether. "Hurt her, though, and I will make you hurt back."
Carson stifled a wince over the inescapable reality that J.T.'s warning had come a few months too late.
"Hope it's not too late for me to be here."
Her eyes full of hot and brooding Carson, Nikki stepped out to join him on the small landing connected to the garage apartment. "I couldn't sleep."
She'd given up at midnight, digging her way into a pint of ice cream to eat away the disappointment when he left without speaking to her after his conversation with her father. Five spoonfuls into her double-fudge chocolate, she'd moved from disappointed to peeved. How could he leave her hanging like that?
Except here he was before morning and her anger eased.
"How did things go with my father? I hope he didn't give you a hard time."
Her father had scooped her mom up and off to bed, their need to be alone so transparent she'd slipped away without speaking to him. He was due his reunion, but it pissed her off that her dad had still found time to speak with Carson.
Hello? Last time she'd checked, twenty-three was a legal adult age.
"Your dad was rightfully concerned and surprisingly understanding. I didn't get my ass kicked, so I guess it's all good."
"Sounds too easy, but I'm not going to complain." Nikki rubbed her bare arms in the running tank, her thin cotton sleep pants not providing much of a barrier against the chilly breeze. And also not the sexiest lingerie, complete with flip-flops instead of the fantasy heels.
"I'd planned to wait until tomorrow's sailing trip to talk to you, but I had to see you." His hand pressed to the white wood slats behind her, his body shielding out the world. "I've been dying to touch you all day."