She totally agreed, arching into his kiss, into this moment she so needed and deserved after a stressful week of waiting, wondering as she resumed her life. He cupped the small of her back, tunneled under her T-shirt, his hand branding all the hotter in forty-degree air. Her tingling toes curled, toasty warm even in flip-flops. The searching sweep of his tongue ignited sparks along her nerves until she itched to shed her clothes, tug off his...
Not a wise idea outside, especially at her parents' house with late-night traffic whispering in the distance, closer, the sound growing until a truck rumbled down her street, a vehicle apparently in need of a new muffler.
Carson's mouth stilled on hers, broke contact, a tension bunching muscles along his shoulders. She opened her eyes and found him scowling—but not at her, his attention focused on something over her shoulder.
"Carson?" She ducked her head into his line of sight. "Are you okay?"
He tucked her aside, while keeping his gaze on the road. "I've seen that battered old pickup drive past at least three times tonight."
She looked around his broad shoulders. "Do you think it's someone assigned by Agent Reis to watch the house?"
He urged her back toward the apartment. "I don't know, but it looks damned familiar."
"You're right." She held her ground, squinting in the darkness, and realizing— No. She didn't want that to be true, but couldn't ignore the obvious. "That's my student. The one you called a thug. Billy Wade Watkins."
Without a word, Carson lifted her by the waist, deposited her in the apartment and thundered down half the wooden steps before vaulting over the banister to the lawn. He sprinted across the grass and over a hedge, toward the street. Good God, he was going to get run over. Her brain went off stun long enough to race after him, double-timing the stairs to the yard, her feet in flip-flops slipping along the damp grass, slowing her dash.
Carson reached the truck as it finished a three-point turn. He yanked the door open and hauled the driver out by the sweatshirt. Most definitely Billy Wade Watkins.
Even under the mellow nimbus of the streetlight she recognized her student well, baggy clothes, body piercings and black do-rag tied around his head. Her heart broke a little more to think she could have misjudged him.
Wait, she reminded herself. Hear his story. And get over there fast before the vein throbbing in Carson's neck exploded.
Her feet quickly turning Popsicle cold, she danced across the yard. "Carson," she called out. "Everybody calm down." She sidestepped the walkway hedge. "Billy Wade, what are you doing over here this time of night?"
Carson's grip on the boy's hooded sweatshirt stayed tight. "And don't even try to say you were just driving around or some other BS answer. I've seen you case this house three times in the last couple of hours."
"Billy Wade? Did you really do that?"
His eyes actually filled with tears below his pierced eyebrow. "I was only looking out for you, Miss Price. I swear. You've been having so much trouble. You've been really good to me. I wouldn't do anything to hurt you."
She studied his expression, beyond the tears that could well be of the crocodile variety. He was left-handed, but strong enough to have swung with either. Yet he seemed to be telling the truth. Still she couldn't miss the additional glint of something more.
Her heart hurt for the kid, but she couldn't ignore what logic told her, as well. This child was as big as an adult, and while she knew she hadn't done a thing to encourage him... And ah damn, what a time to be standing outside in her pj's, albeit more modest than most sleepwear.
"I think, uh, I'm afraid my dad might have been trying to hurt you." He swallowed hard, blinking back the glint in his big thug eyes. "Because maybe he's the one who killed that pilot and my old man's afraid you'll remember."
Nikki crossed her arms, rubbing away the increasing chill. "Your dad?"
"Yeah, he was that guy Owens's sponsor and they talked on the phone that day, and then Dad was out really late."
Carson's hand fell away. "You're William Watkins's son."
"Yes, sir. How do you know my dad?"
Carson hesitated, then answered, "Our paths have crossed at the base."
Carson didn't expand on the statement and just as she'd read the undertones in Billy Wade's eyes, she couldn't miss that Carson was hiding something now. Something she didn't have time to analyze as the porch lamp snapped on.
A door creaked behind her, broadcasting her awake household a second before her father burst onto the porch in sweatpants, tugging a T-shirt over his head. Her mother followed, slower, cinching her satin robe at her swelling waist.
Great. She'd wrecked her parents' reunion.
J.T.'s eyes radar-locked on Carson, then Nikki in her low-slung sleep pants and tight running tank, then right back to Carson again with a furrowed disapproval.
Geez, she was an adult woman. Her father really couldn't expect she would enter the convent. And darn, she had more important things to worry about now.
She was too old to be living at home, even temporarily. Yet as much as she wanted to politely tell her father to tone it down a notch, she couldn't ruin his homecoming. Besides, the cop sirens sounding from around the corner made a big enough to-do for one evening. Please God, this would clear away the chaos once and for all. And after the chaos?
Even with the end possibly in sight, she wondered if she would ever have the normal life she craved back again.
A day out on the ocean felt too normal with Nikki along.
Although Carson figured they were both due some peace after the chaos of the night before. His eyes on the distant cove where he planned to anchor soon, he gripped the wheel, sunburst nylon sail stretching tauter, the hull slicing faster through Charleston Harbor on a cloud-free winter afternoon. Nikki stood in front of him, equally as tense in the bracket of his arms.
At least they were finally away from the prying eyes of her father—who'd stayed out in the dark yard working on bogus-ass tasks until Carson gave up getting Nikki alone again. Apparently daytime outings with Nikki were cool by the old guy.
Sailing had been his solitary escape, alone on the boat even when there were boats bobbing or skimming in the distance. While he'd thrown a couple of fishing parties in the past, he'd never used his boat for dates, something private that would invade his sanctuary.
Now whenever he stepped on board, he would always think of Nikki with her face tipped to the sun or her swishing pony-tail pulled through the ball cap. Chocolate hair swayed in time with the boat's rhythmic cuts through the waves. Wind plastered her clothes to her lithe body he now knew intimately well.
And with that knowledge came a possessiveness he couldn't deny. He wouldn't be Neanderthal enough to voice it, but he couldn't ignore the primal pump of rage that still charged through him every time he thought about that teenage kid stalking Nikki. A kid who happened to be the son of Will Watkins, Gary Owens's sponsor.
The fact was now public knowledge, thanks to Billy Wade's outpouring to the cops. The kid swore his old man owed Owens gambling money. They must have fought that night and Nikki saw the accidental death that resulted. The boy had confessed to the hang-up calls, using pay phones to keep from being traced. He swore he'd been trying to get the nerve to tell Nikki his fears about his father, thus the hang-ups. He adamantly denied having anything to do with slashed tires and a loose railing. And the Rohypnol? That must have been from Owens.
Carson's fingers gripped the wheel tighter. This was all getting too weird for his peace of mind, but he'd had no reason to guess the kid at Nikki's school was the son of someone in A.A.
Reis was looking into Will Watkins's alibi that night. The military retiree had started out the evening with Vic and Carson, going to a meeting, but that had wrapped up by ten. What about after?
Will had some hefty demons on his back, battling drinking and a gambling addiction. Or had it really been the son, a jealous kid lusting after his teacher and trying to throw off the investigators in desperation?
At least Reis had solid leads to follow and Carson figured he would keep Nikki occupied and in his sights at all times. He just hoped what he had to tell her today wouldn't send her overboard.
Talking about his alcoholism never ranked high on his list of favorite pastimes, but he was getting better at vocalizing the feelings and experiences. Discussing it helped others just starting on the road to recovery. However telling Nikki and seeing the disillusionment in her eyes would be tough.
Autopilot activated, Carson stepped away from the wheel, untying lines to slow the boat and ready to anchor. Would she notice he'd brought them to the cove by the small battlefield landmark where they'd made love for the first time? The trees looked like any other, and the two lopsided cannons could have been from a dozen other sites. But he knew otherwise.
Damn. He was turning into a romantic sap. He welcomed the exertion to work off excess tension and the protective need to keep Nikki close. Safe.
Nikki caught his gaze with hers. "I'm okay," she said as if reading his thoughts. "Nothing happened to me last night."
He was in over his head with this woman.
Carson sidestepped away from her to drop anchor. "When I think of what could have happened to you, all those times you were alone with that kid..."
Restless, edgy, he tossed the anchor into the harbor with extra force.
"I was never alone with Billy Wade for just that reason." Nikki stowed lines, already having picked up on his routine with a perception and ease that further closed his throat.
Her words did little to erase hellish scenarios of other horrific possibilities. He was definitely in over his head.
Carson closed the gap between them and pulled her to his chest, not as gentle as he should have been but his emotions were far from temperate. "I just want to keep you safe."
"There's nowhere totally safe. Ever. For now could you stop thinking?" She stepped from his arms, holding his hand and backing toward the hatch that led to the cabin below. "Just feel."
He followed her step for step along the slick deck, grateful for the reprieve from discussion she unwittingly offered. He was only too glad to put off the inevitable. "There's nothing I want more than to feel every inch of you."
"Then by all means—" her hand releasing his, she shrugged out of her windbreaker and hooked her fingers on the hem of her pullover and tugged upward, right there out in the open air and cold "—indulge yourself to your heart's content"
He suspected the word wasn't too far off the mark when it came to this woman. Her windbreaker and sweater fell around her feet, leaving her in her jeans and mint-green silky T-shirt.
His hands shook as he hauled her back into his arms, only a few feet away from the solitude below deck calling to him.
With an empty bed.
They would get n**ed very shortly, no question about it, but first he had to taste her, fully, without interruptions from stalker teens or inquisitive investigators. Wind gathered speed over the stretch of ocean, encircling their locked bodies until Nikki shivered in his arms. From cold or desire? Either way, reason to take this party downstairs.
Slanting his mouth over hers, deeper, hotter, he hadn't been this nervous about ha**ng s*x with a woman since he'd been the virgin. Maybe that was the whole point. This wasn't just about having sex. He was making love to her, and as tenuous as their relationship was, this could well be the only chance he would have to pour everything into loving her.
"Thank you," she whispered against his lips.
"For bringing me here, to this place where we found each other for the first time. For knowing the gesture would be sweet and special."