"My dad tried, along with one of my uncles, a couple of my cousins. But even with all the successes in A.A., I've seen failures, too. Hell, I was a selfish failure with you seven months ago."
She shifted to face him, her hands falling to rest on his thighs and searing through his jeans. "So you're doing this totally selfless thing in pushing me away, which proves you're actually a really good man. You've put us in a no-win situation, pal."
He gripped her fingers. "Jesus, Nikki, you just don't know how bad it was."
"Or maybe I know how good it can be."
Her optimism could be contagious, dangerously so. "I'm glad that you've had a life that leads you to trust that easily."
"So you're walking out again?"
"We're on a boat. I'm not walking anywhere." They were definitely stuck here until they hashed this out one way or another.
Her jaw shot out again. "That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Being with you scares the crap out of me, no question about it. That night I saw you at Beachcombers, it rocked me. Hard."
The mast creaked and groaned as an ominous silence stretched between them. "And you've been dry since last May? No more blackouts?"
He'd already answered that once. What was she driving at? Even as he understood he hadn't done squat to deserve her trust, he wouldn't escape the sense of impending doom, thickening the late-afternoon air. "I'll admit, seeing you at Beachcombers that night was tough for me."
The boat pitched to the side, mast cracking, leaning.
Seconds away from crashing into Nikki.
Screaming, Nikki grappled for the boat rail. Anything stable in her abruptly tilting world as the mast leaned, held only by a couple of pathetically frayed metal lines.
"Carson!" she shouted, extending her arm toward him as she slid backward, toward the ocean.
"Jump!" he barked back. "Get clear of the lines before the boat pitches—"
A crack split the air as the mast careened out of control. The boat lurched to the side, catapulting Nikki airborne with only a few frozen seconds to gather her thoughts before...
Water gushed up her nose. Frigid and dark as she sank, not at all like the clear depths of a pool.
Up or down? Nikki couldn't determine which way since the bubbles swirled all around. All she'd learned in swimming classes said follow the bubbles but the underwater world churned and her senses shrieked conflicting messages.
She kicked. Against seaweed? No. Stronger. Slicing. Lines from the boat.
Ohmigod. Panic urged her to gasp, but she kept her lips pinched shut. She struggled to slide the metal lines—shrouds, Carson had called them—off her ankle and wrist. Shrouds? How horribly ominous that sounded.
And what an interesting word to tell her little student later. What an off-the-wall thought that stung her eyes with tears over the possibility she might not get to share in expanding his vocabulary any longer.
The watery world closed around her, wrapping like a blanket. Or a sail. The fabric sealed to her skin.
Her lungs burned, her skin numbing. Her brain even more so.
Panic gave way to terror that this might really be beyond her control. She could die.
How could she have been caught so unaware that she didn't notice the mast crashing toward her until too late? She'd been obsessed with the dream of Carson in the VOQ room the night Gary died.
Carson. Terror squeezed tighter. Where was he? If he'd been knocked unconscious, he could be drowning even now.
No. Hell no. She wouldn't let it happen.
She didn't care what he may have done the night Gary died. If Carson had been there, she was certain he didn't remember. . .none of which mattered if she couldn't find him now. She kicked against the restraints seeking to suck her deeper, ignoring the bite of metal through her skin.
The bubbles sparkled, brighter, her head lighter, her arms and legs sluggish even as she continued to fight. Not much time left. Now that she was seconds away from checking out, too, she realized that the image of Carson had come in a dream, not in a memory flash like the recollections she'd recorded in her journal. Her confused and terrified mind could well have been playing tricks on her.
Something bumped against her. The boat? A shark? She shivered even though she'd long gone beyond numb.
Light pierced her cocoon. Death? No. The sail parted, sliced open, Carson's form looming as he split the water with sluicing sweeps of his arms, a knife in his hand.
He was alive. Relief threatened to steal precious seconds. She had to help or he would die trying to save her.
Kicking, he plunged down, unwinding the line encircling her ankle while she loosened the snaking vise around her arm. Freedom.
He clamped her to his side, surging up. She blinked back unconsciousness, but couldn't escape the stab of guilt over even thinking he could have lied about the night Gary died. Carson may have kept the alcoholism a secret, but this man would never have let her hang for his crimes. That much, she knew with a certainty as strong as the muscled arm banded around her.
The world righted as her equilibrium returned, up, up, blasting through the surface by the wounded boat. The massive keel along the bottom had righted the craft, even if the mast stretched a good thirty feet or more along the water, lines and sails such a tangled mess she wondered how he'd found her, much less freed her.
His feet trod water, brushing her with vital reassurance. Still he held her. "Are you all right? The mast didn't hit you?"
"I'm fine." She gasped, lungs aching, her feet pumping now as well since she didn't have to worry about dragging him down. "Thank you. Ohmigod thank you. And are you okay?"
"Fine." He didn't look fine. In fact he looked really pissed, his eyes stormy below a purpling bruise on his head.
Well, she was petrified to her toes. Only an idiot wouldn't be. They were in near-freezing waters, and while there were boats in the distance, they needed to book-it over before somebody lost a foot—or worse—to exposure.
"Somebody's head's gonna roll for this." Anger simmering, Carson paced in a back office at Beachcombers, while Special Agent Reis jotted notes. "I'm thinking it's going to start with you soon, Reis, if you don't figure out who the hell's trying to kill Nikki before she remembers what happened."
The horror threatened to crash over him again as heavy as that boom. The mast giving way, tipping the boat, launching both of them into the water. Then watching Nikki sink in a tangle of shrouds and sail.
His boots pounded hardwood floors in the antebellum building, intense, louder.
"Major, I understand you're frustrated." The agent sat on the corner of a desk, working a piece of gum while he typed notes in his PDA. "A freezing dip in the ocean will ruin a good mood."
"No." He stopped short, the window behind Reis providing too clear a nighttime view of the dock where someone intent on harming them had lurked in the past couple of days. "A deliberately broken mast will do that to a person."
"We can't know that for certain until your boat has been recovered and examined."
Carson wrenched his attention off the dock, back to the present and getting answers this man had the power to provide. "And I'm telling you, I keep that craft in tip-top shape."
"You weren't at all distracted today?" The agent tucked his PDA into an inside jacket pocket. "Couldn't you have screwed up locking the mast in place?"
For a second Carson wondered if maybe...then as quickly shoved aside the doubts. "I've been sailing by myself since I was ten." Which now that he thought about it didn't sound all that safe, but he'd been an expert in ditching his parents and nanny in those days. "And on the job, my life and the lives of others depend on following checklists. I do not 'screw up' in the air or on the water. Inspect those lines. I bet you'll find someone filed through the metal just enough to weaken one or two of the shrouds. Even a couple of small cuts would be imperceptible to the eye, while posing an insidious danger. Once the sails filled and pulled the lines taut, it would continue to fray until it snapped."
"An angle to investigate. I'll look into that once your boat has been impounded. I'll also ask around about activity at the dock."
Tension downgraded to half power. The guy was doing everything he asked, keeping him posted with all the facts.
Or was he? Had they all been wrong to assume Reis was top-notch at his job?
The door swung open, Nikki stepping through in a borrowed jean jumper from the proprietor, Claire McDermott, the dress a couple of inches short on Nikki, but dry.
And tempting with that extra stretch of exposed leg.
Reis straightened from the desk, his interrogator-perceptive eyes ping-ponging between the two of them. "Ms. Price, I assume you're all right."
She pulled up alongside Carson, fidgety, but understandable given their ordeal. "I'm running out of those nine lives, but otherwise okay." Her gaze skipped around the room full of spice plants. "And, uh, I think I remembered something on the boat right before all of this happened."
What? Carson's attention snapped as taut as the lines right before they'd popped.
"It wasn't a full-out memory like the other times, more of a mishmash dream. But I'm certain of one thing." Her restlessness settled into steely resignation. "There was another person in the room with Gary and me that night. A man. A blond man."
The implication sucker punched him. No wonder she'd gone tense after their nap and then asked him about blackouts. She thought he'd gotten drunk, gone after Owens and then forgotten.
His alibi only lasted until two in the morning with the emergency on the flight line that had called him away from his meeting. So he had no way of accounting for the in-between hours—except for a freaking zoo of origami animals he'd folded through the night to distract himself from thinking about seeing Nikki at Beachcombers, knowing she was dating another guy.
Reis pulled out his Palm Pilot again. "That Watkins kid has dark hair."
Nikki winced. "Which he colors according to his mood."
"His father has gray." Reis clicked away while Carson's mind churned through this latest revelation. "Could the man you're remembering have had silver hair instead of blond?"
"It's possible, but I don't think so. And the clothes didn't seem right for Billy Wade. Jeans and a flight jacket."
Which gave her all the more reason to doubt Carson.
Reis shoved off the corner of the desk. "That could still be the father since retirees keep their leather jackets. But are you sure it was a man? Women have short hair, too."
One of Owens's old girlfriends on a jealous rampage?
Reis's talent for thinking beyond an obvious assumption was promising—and frustrating. How the hell could they rule anyone out? A military man or woman, active duty or retired, blond or gray, who happened to be right-handed. That could be half the flying community.
Nikki closed her eyes as if trying to recapture the image on the back of her lids. "If it's a woman, then she's really tall. It's all fuzzy, but I'm almost certain it's a man." Her lashes fluttered open as she shook her head. "I'm sorry. That's all there is."
Screw keeping his distance. Carson looped an arm around her waist, so grateful to have her warm and alive against him, he didn't bother to hide his feelings for her. "I think that's enough for one day, Reis. The medics wanted to admit her, but acquiesced if she would promise to rest."
The OSI agent pocketed his PDA again. "I hear ya." Halfway to the door, he stopped. "She's still staying with her parents, right?"
"Hello?" Nikki stiffened. "She is right here—"
"Major," Reis continued, "how about once you take her home we meet back on base and go over some personnel files to see what we can dig up?"