With the horror of Nikki almost dying still pounding through his skull, there was nothing he wanted more than to keep her in his sight. But with her stiff in his arms and her avoiding his eyes, he couldn't help wondering if she needed space, and God knows he wanted to dig in with Reis and find something, anything, to nail the bastard who'd done this to Nikki's life.
Besides, after hearing the truth about him she might well decide to steer clear of him and he would have to love her enough to let her go.
What a helluva time to figure that out.
Her feet would never be warm again. Nikki wasn't so sure about her heart, either.
Sitting at her parents' kitchen table, she shook the can of whipped cream and squirted a hefty swirl into the steaming cup of hot cocoa her dad had made. What a crazy—confusing—afternoon. Finally, Carson was being open and honest with her, or at least he had been until the boat nearly killed them. He'd switched into protective mode again, dropping her off at her parents' with a toe-curling but too-brief kiss, before meeting up with Reis.
In her soul, she longed to grasp this new chance with Carson, but her emotions were all so surface level and exposed. She had to get this right—for both of them. She wanted to trust what he said about having his drinking under control, but he'd tossed so many negatives about the situation her way. She needed to be responsible enough at least to think through them.
Her lumbering father dropped into the chair across from her, silently drinking from his mug. Even more quiet than usual as he studied her across the wooden expanse, a new piece of furniture she'd helped her dad varnish after he'd bought it at the bare-wood store.
For an overprotective parent, these past days couldn't have been easy for him. She passed him the can of whipped topping. "Are you okay, Dad?"
"I should be asking you that, baby girl." His gaze rested on the raw ring around her wrist where the sail lines had immobilized her underwater.
"And I'm betting that because I'm your daughter, today was tougher on your ticker than it was on mine." She cupped her hands around the warm porcelain.
"You might be right." He set his World's Best Dad mug down slowly, his hand shaking ever so slightly but oh so tellingly. "I owe Scorch for saving your life."
"Are you okay with me seeing Carson?"
He nodded, suddenly overly preoccupied with how the can of whipped cream operated. "I'm not sure it would matter to you if I wasn't."
She sifted that around in her mind while sipping, chocolate and cream flooding her senses with childhood memories of other shared cocoa and late-night chats with her dad. She loved her father, no question, but she wasn't his little girl anymore. "It wouldn't change my mind, but it would matter."
"I know about his history." He rolled the can back across the table to her, his rugged teddy-bear face so compassionate she wanted to crawl in his lap and cry as she'd done during elementary school days.
Was it so wrong to seek his advice? Was that a step backward when more than ever she needed to add years in wisdom to her adult resume? Still she couldn't stop the words. "Am I delusional to believe I can handle a relationship with a recovering alcoholic?"
"You're too old for me to tell you what to do."
Was she? At the moment it seemed less mature to assume arrogantly that she had all the answers. "I'm learning that you're never too old to ask your father for advice."
"Which proves you really don't need me after all." He patted her hand clutching the whipped cream can in a death grip. "You're more than ready to leave the nest."
Parental approval sure did feel nice no matter what her age. She flipped her hand to link fingers with her dad. "Does that mean I'm out on the sidewalk?"
"Not hardly, baby girl." He squeezed back with a familiar comfort that stung her eyes with tears at this landmark moment.
She really was crossing into a new era of her life. Would it include Carson?
Nikki slid her hand away and took another warming gulp from her mug. "What made you and Mom stick it out so long even though things were rocky?"
"But we did quit."
"After over twenty years of working at it." She hadn't been surprised when her parents announced they'd seen a divorce attorney, but it still hurt even as an adult.
A rare smile creased her father's craggy face. "Your mother and I are particularly hardheaded. It took us a while to get it right."
"That doesn't help me much."
"I assume this isn't a rhetorical question."
"I wish. He also worries about me being too young. And I think he puts too much stock in your certainty that I'm not equipped for the stresses of being an Air Force wife."
"Whoa. Wait." He held up both palms. "Of course I don't want you to go through the struggles. This is a tough life after all, but I've never doubted for a minute that you can handle anything that comes your way as long as you go in with your eyes open."
"Who are you, and what have you done with my quietly looming overprotective father?"
His smile cranked broader. "Your mother and I are working on better communication. Never thought I would buy into the notion of counseling, but it helps. What your mother and I have is worth fighting for."
She'd known they sought help to put their marriage back together. They'd even invited Chris and her along for a couple of family sessions. Why not apply that to her situation with Carson?
He assumed the alcoholism was more than she could handle. He might be correct—a possibility that closed her throat—but he might well be wrong. Either way, he had been making a decision that affected both of them. She should be a part of that equation, and to do that, she needed more information.
She'd been so set on protecting her heart, she'd let him shield her, as well, and that wasn't right. No one had ever fought for Carson. Sure he'd sought out A.A., but as far as she could tell, other than a lone English teacher, no one had offered help.
Yeah, she might get her heart pitched back in her face again, but she loved this man. Deep down loved him, flaws and all. Damn straight she wouldn't be like her mother waiting around for over twenty years.
Nikki was ready to fight for her man.
"Do you want me?"
Carson lost total track of whatever Reis was saying to him on the other end of the phone, stunned instead by Nikki in his open office door.
From the determined look in her eyes, Carson suspected he had a fight on his hands. He just wished he knew which direction to check for the ambush.
He held up a hand indicating a one-second-wait while he finished his call to Reis about tapping the civilian police to do extra surveillance of the Price home. "Glad you're on top of this. I'll be in touch." He hung up the phone and redirected his attention to the hot-as-hell woman in front of him. "How did you get here? Please say you didn't drive alone."
"Dad's got leave since his return. He came in for some paperwork and I rode along." She lounged against the door frame, a seductress in khaki. "So? What's the answer to my question? Do you want me?"
"Before I answer, you should probably close the door."
Nikki stepped across the threshold, one long khaki-clad leg at a time—and holy crap, those were black heels to match her black silk shirt. Could her heels be the promised pair from their conversation a few days ago in this same room?
Tossing her lightweight jacket on the mariner's hook, she clicked the door closed and locked at the same time he instructed his secretary to hold his calls. Word was out about the two of them anyway, while he was still reeling from the whole concept of being in love for the first time.
They were already in over their heads, so he needed to grit back his concerns and forge ahead unless she said otherwise, because he wouldn't hurt her a second time.
He shoved aside the stack of files calling to him and wheeled his office chair back from the desk. "How about ask me that question again?"
Nikki narrowed the distance between them with hair-swishing strides. "Do you want me?"
That was a no-brainer. He took her wrist, careful of the raw ring from the lines, and pulled her into his lap. "So damn much."
Tunneling one hand into her hair and the other under her sweater, he kissed her until they both gasped for breath. He wouldn't be in any shape to get up from his chair for a long while, thanks to the sweet wriggle of her bottom against his crotch.
"Do you want to be with me? Not just tonight, but long term?"
He'd been prepared for her to walk, and now she was talking forever, something he couldn't deny that he wanted, too. With her. For a man with an extensive vocabulary, words were suddenly in short supply. He wouldn't run, but he couldn't blame her if she did.
"Damn it, Carson." She thumped his shoulder, then gentled her touch to skim tenderly over the bump on his head from pitching out of the Catalina. "Do you know how hard this is for me to say? I'm making myself totally vulnerable for you. The least you can do is give me an honest answer."
"Honestly?" There wasn't anything left for them but the truth. "I'm scared as hell of passing on my genes and I'm more afraid I'll ruin your life. You're not sure, either. Admit it, you thought I was the one who killed Owens."
That notion stung more than he would have expected even as she rested her head against his shoulder with total ease.
"If we're embracing this total honesty deal, then okay, I considered the possibility that you'd done it to protect me."
He struggled not to flinch. "You thought that, drunk, I would be capable of violence."
"I saw you in my dream." She tipped her head to glance up at him. Her silky dark hair grazed over his arm. "But I realize now it was a dream and not a memory, which means I've had to sift through to figure out which parts are real and which are distorted. The other times I remembered, I was awake so I could trust the full image."
"Are you sure?" He refused to have her fearing him. He'd lived that way for years as a kid and would not subject anyone to that hell.
"If you tell me, I will believe you."
Searching, he found trust in her eyes but couldn't bring himself to believe in what he saw. "So you do think I'm capable?"
"I know anyone is capable." Her fingers skimmed to the back of his neck, along his closely shaved nape. "I'm not sure I could kill someone coming at me. But I'm certain I could kill someone intent on hurting you."
He understood the feeling. "I did not kill Gary Owens. I was at an Al-Anon meeting that night with two other people," Will Watkins and Vic Jansen, "until I was called away to an emergency on the flight line. Then I went home and parked my sorry butt in front of the TV all night because I was missing you so much I was afraid if I went out I would end up on your doorstep."
Carson waited for her response, suddenly realizing that while he might not have a right to her unconditional trust, he sure as hell wanted it.
Finally, she nodded, rocked forward and pressed a long, close-mouthed but no less intense kiss to his mouth before settling to rest against his chest, arms still looped around his neck. "That's what I figured, but thank you for saying it for me anyway."
"Thank you." His arms slid around her and he stole a deeper kiss, needing to feel her warm alive body and banish the image of her wrapped in shrouds and a sail in a watery grave.
Her face tucked in his neck, she continued to tease his ear with feathery strokes that distracted. "Isn't Al-Anon a support group for family members?"
What had she just said and what did that have to do with her other hand scratching through his flight suit along his pec? He replayed her words and—oh, uh, Al-Anon. Talk about a cold splash. "I help out there. The support group is open to helping families of people with other addictions. I feel like I have something to offer family members, as well, since my parents were addicts."