She sagged limply against the seat belt. Strangely slack, not even startling at his touch.
The premonition blasted into full scale alert a second before a looming form rose from the backseat of his extended cab. Carson jerked, ready to launch, attack.
A gun pressed to his forehead stopped him cold. Avery at the other end stopped him colder.
"Major, I'm really sorry it's come to this, but Nikki's enjoying a little nap from a tap on the head." The traitorous lieutenant shifted the gun ever so slightly until it pointed at unconscious Nikki. "Drive, or I'll be having a piece of her while you watch."
No strange room or temporary amnesia this time. Even through the pounding in her head, Nikki recognized Carson's scent and the sound of his well-tuned truck.
And another cologne. Cloying. Hideously familiar.
The rest mushroomed back to life in her brain. Kevin. In the parking lot. Her mind blazed with thoughts of the night Gary died...then everything went dark.
Did Carson know? Had Kevin somehow stolen the truck?
She started to open her eyes—then rethought. For the moment she would stay limp against the shoulder harness anchoring her to the heated seats until she figured out what was going on.
"Avery—" Carson's voice rumbled from beside her on the driver's side "—you really don't want to do this."
Just the sound of him filled her with love—and dread that he should be here at all. She'd prayed he was safe back at the church, searching for her, alerting the cops.
Anywhere but here.
"Nikki didn't leave me any choice," Kevin answered from behind her. "She kept digging for the memories."
"You killed Owens?" The shock in Carson's voice echoed within her. Kevin and Gary were friends. Kevin seemed so clean-cut and honorable. Except hadn't she just realized— how long since she'd been at the support meeting?—that military people had flaws and bad apples like anywhere else. Like the police force or other professions that as a whole pledged to protect.
But ohmigod, this went beyond a simple problem.
"Well, Major, I bet on a few games every once and a while to pay off my college loans. A top-notch education is important for getting ahead. You should understand that since your family could afford the best."
Kevin's hot breath blasted against her hair as he moved closer to her. Did he have a gun? He must, or Carson would have taken him out.
The truck shifted into a turn. "A Chief of Staff doesn't have a gambling addiction and bash in people's skulls."
Leather behind her creaked. "A Chief of Staff definitely doesn't have the taint of a gambling addiction on his record—" Kevin's words tumbled faster, angry "—and Owens was going to out me, just because he didn't like my little sideline of taking bets to pay my college loans faster."
"You were a bookie?"
It was all Nikki could do not to blurt her surprise, as well. Good God, how did he expect to keep that a secret? The guy really was an idiot—or so deep in his addiction he'd lost all sense of reason.
"Owens was going to rat me out, something about loyalty to the program. Jesus, all I did was help a few of his buddies in the program make a little extra at the racetrack."
Avery had targeted Gambler's Anonymous members? The guy truly was lower than slime. For money or his addiction or ambition, he'd sold his soul and bartered a few more along with it.
"I couldn't let that happen." His tenor tones pitched higher, faster. High-strung and nervous could be an advantage if they caught him unaware, or a liability if he got twitchy. "I had everything planned perfectly for Nikki to take the fall for an accidental death, self-defense during a rape attempt. Even drugged up, she fought a little when I took her clothes off after Owens was dead. But that just helped set the scene even better."
It took everything inside her to stifle down a shudder of revulsion at Kevin's hands on her while she was helpless. Her cheek even ached with the phantom memory of being slapped. Carson's low growl, however, vibrated the seat.
Kevin's forearm slid around her neck, against her throat. "The Rohypnol I put in her drink should have made her forget everything, but almost right away word spreads around the squadron that she was getting some of her memory back. She must not have drank enough of the Rohypnol or she has some funky body chemistry. Regardless, I couldn't risk her remembering. I'd hoped the fall from her balcony would look like suicide from the stress."
"You tried to kill her?"
Nikki stifled her gasp of relief that Gary hadn't been untrustworthy after all, a fact she would savor later, but for now she needed to listen. And while she couldn't think of any logical reason for Kevin to spill all—beyond egotistical gloating before he killed them—she appreciated the bit of peace his words brought.
"I had the whole thing planned. I even sent her the fake e-mail from Gary to meet at Beachcombers. I sent one to Gary, too, with a half hour later arrival so I would have time to take care of her drink without him hovering over her like a lovesick nimrod. Thanks to that super sexy note, he really thought she wanted to get a VOQ room for a night together, and of course she was too drugged up to tell him otherwise. I'm so damn smart I even sent the e-mails from a base computer and the school library where Nikki tutors so they wouldn't be traceable back to me."
No wonder Reis had been checking out the high school.
Each of Carson's overly deliberate, controlled exhales filled the cab. "If you wanted her dead, why slash her tires?"
"That wasn't me. The way I hear it from Will, that kid of his really did have a crush on her. He would do anything to get her attention."
"Dude, you can't just shoot us."
Could Carson know she was awake and be filtering info? How could he know when she didn't dare give the least hint for fear Kevin would see?
Her heart squeezed at the notion that Carson was as in tune to her as she was to him. She'd longed for that connection and refused to lose it. They weren't dead yet, and damn it, she did intend to fight for her man. Whatever it took.
"Like I said, you haven't left me any choice but to kill you. But I'm more creative than that.... Pull over."
She peeked to orient herself and recognized the spot well—the small battlefield where they'd parked, talked. Made love. Water shooshed along the shore with none of its usual soothing tune. Why had Kevin chosen this location?
"Yeah, I followed you two here, and once I could tell you were nice and settled into the back of the truck for a romantic evening under stars, I headed over to your boat. Easy enough to file away at a couple of lines. Too bad you lived. But this time, my plan is foolproof. Brilliant in fact. Worthy of a guy on the fast track."
A rustle sounded from the back, like a paper bag.
"Just a little of this on the seat and even more in your system will explain why you drove the truck off the bridge while coming out to your favorite spot for a little romance."
A little of what?
The splash on her clothes hit an instant before the pungent fumes.
The unmistakable smell of alcohol.
The smell of alcohol saturated the air.
Soaked his senses.
Carson wiped his mind clear of everything but Avery 's face and watched for the right time to move. He couldn't let himself think of Nikki slumped and faking unconscious next to him. He definitely couldn't think of the lush harbor side park beyond his windshield. The secluded locale was too full of distracting memories of being with Nikki and how much they had to lose at the hands of this unbalanced megalomaniac.
Megalomaniac. Another five-dollar word to share with Nikki's student, and by God, Carson intended to live long enough to do just that.
His 9mm shifting to kiss Nikki's temple again, Avery passed the bottle of tequila toward Carson, glass glinting in the hazy glow from the dash. "Take it. I even left the worm in the bottle for ya, Major."
Carson closed his fingers around the glass neck, all the while envisioning it was Avery's scrawny throat. Not at all tempted to do anything more than snap it in two and let the amber poison pour away. But he couldn't do that, not yet when he needed to play along for a while more. "Your plan doesn't sound foolproof to me. In fact I can already see a dozen holes."
Talk, you bastard. That would offer up more time to think.
Avery reached behind him again—Carson tensed—and came back with a big buckle belt, which he dropped on the seat. "Owens's. I'm so damn smart I saved this as a contingency in case I needed to set up someone else for the murder." The leather belt thudded to rest beside Nikki. "You never did have faith in my intelligence or ability to lead."
Good God, the kid was a second lieutenant, not the boss. "Then how about you explain your genius to a slower dude like me."
"It's quite simple actually. I'll knock you both out, drive the truck off the bridge and swim away while you drown. The bumps on your head will be attributed to the accident, another tragic DUI."
Well hell, the plan actually sounded as if it could work. His fist clenched tighter around the bottle as he fought off the possibility of losing this battle, ironically fought on a small, nearly forgotten historic field. The whispers of past wars rode the tide's ebb and flow. "Lieutenant—"
"Don't try ordering me around. Not now." Avery grasped a fistful of Nikki's hair and yanked.
Damn, he'd thought she might be, but prayed she could simply sleep through this hell.
She blinked, not in the least groggy, apparently having listened to the whole exchange. "Carson, don't do it."
Avery tugged her hair tighter until the skin around her eyes pulled taut. "It's just a drink to save Nikki some pain and ease your own."
"He's going to kill us no matter what." Nikki's unwavering voice held a calm he wouldn't have expected from even a seasoned vet. "You don't have to do this for me."
He understood well what was going on here. There was no reasoning with this monster, only fighting to the death. Being captive had been bad enough with his crew, but seeing Nikki die and being unable to save her was beyond anything he could bear.
And even in the middle of the lowest point in his life, the heavy bottle in his hand didn't tempt him in the least. His mind was clear and focused on what mattered most. Nikki.
"I can make it painless for her. I really don't want to do this, but I can't sacrifice my whole future." Avery stared him in the eye without once shifting his weapon from Nikki, but Carson was ready to spring the second the man flinched. "Here's the deal. I'll knock you both out so she can drown while she's asleep. Simple. You just have to go along with my plan. But I can also beat the crap out of her and everyone will assume the injuries came from the wreck. What does it matter if you drink now? You're going to die. You might as well check out with one last taste on your tongue. You don't have to fight it anymore."
"Carson." Nikki's quivering voice drew his attention to her. "It's over."
The defeat in her tone pierced clean through him. He looked in her eyes, the neck of the bottle clenched in his hand with such easy familiarity. He expected to see anguish in her expression, even resignation.
Instead, he saw spunk, anger. Determination.
She hadn't given up at all. She was saying out loud what Avery expected to hear. Her eyes, however, were relaying something else entirely.
Carson glanced outside the windshield, no miraculous weapons to be found on the old battlefield, just the rickety bridge and water. He turned back to Nikki and realized they had everything they needed right here. Trust that flowed both ways.
He wasn't sure how, but she would get out of the line of fire long enough for him to take out Avery. If they died at least Avery couldn't hide a gunshot. There would be justice.