"So you belong to Al-Anon and A.A.?"
"Yes." Searching for words, he captured her hands in his, kissed her knuckles and kept them from distracting him into speaking without thinking, no doubt her intention. "Until I found A.A., nothing worked. It's still been tough. I truly believe that for alcoholics the booze affects them more or differently than other people. And through that extra effect it soothes something inside them, a pain or an emptiness or need. For a while you convince yourself the alcohol makes your life better. It's your friend because you live and cope at a higher level. Then the friend turns on you."
She linked her fingers with his so tightly he could imagine she might hold on forever.
"Those first few months without, there's this emptiness inside that begs to be filled. You also lose something in your way of life—the bar, the camaraderie of a beer and game of pool."
"I would imagine that's especially tough to give up in the flyer world."
"A.A. helps teach you how to fill that space, and of course there are over two million members."
'Two million?" Her eyes widened in surprise.
"And counting." He stroked the inside of her wrists with his thumbs. "I'm able to attend functions now that include alcohol without racing to phone my sponsor afterward— What are you thinking?"
She untangled her hand from his to tap his leather name tag. "How you said call signs come from a defining moment."
"I carry a heavy issue with me that's never going away." He rested his palm over hers tracing the word 'Scorch'. "This will always be there, and I know too well that it doesn't just affect the adults. While I appreciate that you're trying to be understanding, you need to comprehend how big a deal this is."
"I won't claim to know anything about the genetics involved in addictions running in families. Actually, I don't know much of anything about alcoholism. So maybe you're right. Maybe this is something I'm not equipped to handle."
His gut clenched. "I didn't say this is your—"
"Shhh. Listen. I'm saying I don't have enough information to make a decision, and it seems to me this affects both of us. So I should have a say in deciding something so huge."
He searched for a rebuttal...except what she said made sense, damn good sense. "What did you have in mind?"
"Let's go to an Al-Anon meeting together, let me see for myself what I'm in for. I'll go as a friend if the idea of thinking about forever totally freaks you out."
He fell even more in love with this amazing woman, wise beyond her years and deserving of the absolute best. "We've been n**ed together. I think we've gone past friendship."
"Can't we be both?"
At a crossroads, they would have to be both—or nothing at all. But then he'd pretty much already figured that one out for himself.
"There's a support meeting tomorrow night." Make or break time. He'd seen plenty of families and marriages saved by Al-Anon, but most of those people had a foundation before the troubles hit. He and Nikki were starting out with the baggage. He couldn't dodge the dark-cloud feeling that the night would only accomplish one thing. Helping her walk away for good.
As a trio of C-17s roared overhead for a night takeoff, Nikki stepped from Carson's truck into the parking lot outside the base chapel housing tonight's support group meeting. She hadn't expected the gathering to take place on base, and a smaller group promised less anonymity. Apparently Carson was cool with that.
They weaved around cars and other stragglers making their way toward the entrance, faces shadowy in the dim glow of the overhead halogen lamps. There was so much riding on this night and her nerves were wobblier than the funky heels she'd bought with the intent purpose of making Carson swallow his tongue.
Mission accomplished in that arena, at least.
He slid an arm around her waist as if he expected her to sprint before they reached the looming double doors of the social hall. "If you want to leave at any time, just say the word and we're out of here."
"You've said that twice already. Once when you picked me up, and again at dinner."
And dinner had been so sweet, a back corner table with candlelight and hand holding. He was trying so hard.
Or saying goodbye with a last supper.
"Nikki, I mean it. You don't have to do this."
Stopping by the front sign, she spun on her new heels with an old spunk that she refused to lose now. "Do you even want this to work? Or are you hoping walking in there will discourage me? You've talked about the genetics involved in patterns repeating themselves. Well you decided to break that cycle and sober up. Do you know how freaking outstanding that is? I think it's tough and heroic."
Shaking his head, he swiped aside her hair blowing in her face. "You're seeing things in me that don't exist."
She blocked his hand. "Stop that condescending BS. I'm seeing things in you that you've never allowed yourself to see. You even tried to hide them from me, but I said heroic and I meant it."
Was he subconsciously trying to sabotage this before they even made it through the door? And why? She touched his elbow. "Are you going to walk with me into that meeting, or do I go by myself? Because like it or not, I'm involved with an alcoholic."
"Believe me—" his jaw went tight "—I understand that well or we wouldn't be here. I just don't want you to get your hopes up for some magic pill answer tonight."
"There you go with the fatalism again." She couldn't stop the irritation from seeping into her voice when she knew this wasn't the time or place. Backing up the steps, she held up a hand. She refused to cry. "Hold on. I don't want to fight with you before we even get started. Just...just let me freshen up."
And pull herself together.
She spun away and shoved through the front double doors, head ducked as she made tracks past people to the restroom, Carson's stark, resolved face imprinted in her mind, his oh-so-calm, logical—depressing—tone echoing. He almost sounded like Billy Wade Watkins, always expecting the worst.
She gripped the edge of the sink, staring at her face paler than the white porcelain in her grip. Carson sounded like the child of an alcoholic, who'd numbed himself to expecting good things because then nobody could let him down.
Ohmigod. Why hadn't she seen the pattern before?
Because she hadn't been objective—like a teacher—when it came to Carson. Instead of picking a fight with him, she needed to hold firm and simply show him through her steadfast actions. He was right in saying she'd been unrealistic to expect everything to settle out because of one meeting.
A toilet flushed, announcing an end to her solitary haven. She smiled in the mirror at the stranger stepping from the stall. Resolute and ready to find Carson, Nikki yanked open the bathroom door and into the now-packed entry way.
So much for a small gathering. Where had all of these people come from? And why did so many of them look familiar?
Billy Wade—along with his father. She hadn't realized the teen's father was getting help for his drinking, and gambling, too, apparently. Vic Jansen stood at their side in what seemed like a supportive role when she hadn't even known Vic had a problem, either. Beyond them, more military acquaintances milled around.
Had each of them been told to put on their perfect face when on base, as well?
She'd been so judgmental of her home life problems growing up, never once realizing all the other military families in pain...drinking, gambling, even some parents supporting teenagers kicking a drug habit.
How many times had she told her students she wasn't looking for perfection, just their best effort? Something Carson needed to hear, as well, for both of them, because there would be no perfect reactions to all of this.
Just a very human, fallible best effort.
She retraced her steps through the lobby looking for him so they could enter the meeting together. She shouldered through, searching. She peeked into the gathering area, rows of folding chairs and a refreshments table, but no sign of Carson.
Maybe he'd gone outside to take a cell call. She stepped through the double doors into the parking lot, her heels crunching on gravel as she pivoted to look...
She bumped against someone, a hard-bodied guy. "Carson?"
A hand clamped on her arm, steadying her as she came face-to-face with…Kevin Avery? His cologne stung her nose, his blond hair glinting under the street lamp. "What are you doing here?"
Her question slammed around inside her brain, words spoken now and echoed in her mind from a night nearly three weeks ago.
His grip bit into her flesh. "I've been looking for you."
The ground spun under her feet, memories ricocheting around inside her head. Memories of him, a man she'd once dated because he resembled Carson.
She opened her mouth to scream, but he cut the shriek short with a hand clamped against her lips. Hard. Unrelenting. And horrifyingly familiar. She struggled, wrenching to the side, kicking out.
Releasing her arm, his hand swung down. A dull pain crashed through the base of her skull, once, twice. The edges of the parking lot fuzzed, narrowing along with consciousness. Her dream-vision of the night Gary died now made total sense as she remembered...
Kevin Avery standing over Gary Owens's dead body.
Where was Nikki?
Carson peered over the crush in the corridor for the second time, having already checked the social hall. He'd only turned away for a minute to talk to Vic, and now he couldn't find her. He'd even sent someone into the restroom to look for her. She couldn't have left after she'd been so emphatic about staying.
Damn. Damn. Damn it all, he didn't like this one bit. Where was she and how could someone have plucked her from a group this large?
He didn't like the itchy premonition scratching along the back of his neck. They were in a public place, for God's sake. He pushed through the crowd, making his way toward the double doors.
Stuffiness and noise of the packed social hall gave way to the crisp night air and silence, no sounds other than the occasional whoosh of a passing car. Unease kinking tighter, he scanned the packed lot of empty vehicles all the way to his truck parked at the end with someone inside.
He exhaled a long stream of relief into the freezing night.
Through the back window, he could see Nikki's outline. A stab of disappointment followed.
She'd already given up?
As quickly as the thought slithered into his head, he nixed it, making his way across the dormant lawn toward his Ford. He'd always been the one to walk away, not her. She'd taken a lot of grief from him in the past and still she'd given him another chance. A chance he didn't deserve in any universe.
If she was in the car, then something must have happened to upset her or she wasn't feeling well. Either way, he needed to quit thinking about himself and get over there.
She was right. He'd given up on the two of them before giving them a decent chance. He'd thanked her for trusting him, but what about returning the emotion?
He'd been let down by his parents so many times, let down by adults who should have been there for a kid, somewhere along the way he had stopped putting faith in anyone when it came to relationships. Sure he was a delegation kind of guy at work, but there were tangible gauges of levels of success.
No score guides existed when it came to this whole love gig. He'd told himself he loved her, but hadn't done a thing right in committing. In order for this to work—and hell yes, he wanted Nikki, forever—then he needed to start giving one hundred percent.
He slid into the driver's side behind the wheel, but Nikki kept her face turned to look out. Damn. He had some major backpedaling to do.
"Nikki, listen, I'm sorry about earlier." He stroked up her arm to cup her neck. Was she asleep?