And they might well live. In fact, with Nikki by his side, the odds were damn good.
Eyes on hers, the connection between them hummed so tangibly strong he didn't need words. He raised the bottle, slow, as if torn, his hand shaking which kept Avery's rapt attention off Nikki for a few seconds.
Avery's rabid gaze stayed locked, as if he got off on the control. The Lieutenant's ambition and need for power was all too clear.
Carson didn't dare look away from the bastard in the back, but in his peripheral vision, he could see Nikki's right hand sliding down. For the first time he cursed the luxury seats because the motorized controls wouldn't allow her to slam the sucker back quickly and ram Avery.
But her seat back would lower fast if she released the latch and pushed.
Carson could read her intent as clearly as apparently she read his. The move was risky since it might force Avery's gun arm down, but it would catch him unaware. Carson would just have to take advantage of that surprise to adjust the aim.
Even as he raised the bottle to his mouth, the fumes stinging his nose, glass kissing him like a familiar lover—a lover who'd betrayed him—never once did the faith in Nikki's eyes fade.
Time to act.
Simultaneously, she slipped down and slammed back the seat. Avery grunted in surprise. Carson swung the bottle at the copilot's face, jacking the gun arm up in reflexive defense. Glass and tequila sprayed the cab. A bullet pierced the roof, a second through the windshield before the weapon clattered to the floorboard. Nikki ducked, grappling for the gun and clearing the way for him to grip Avery's shirtfront.
Ears still ringing from the gunshots, Carson hauled him over the bench seat, slamming the younger man's face into the dash, once, twice, until he sagged. Unconscious. Thank God.
He couldn't waste a second on relief yet, not until he had Avery restrained and in jail. Convicted to a lifetime in Leavenworth would be damn nice, too.
Carson hauled Avery's limp body from the cab, face to the ground by a rusted cannon, hands behind his back in case the prone man regained consciousness. "Nikki, look in the floorboard for boat lines. Get them, please."
The need for vengeance for Nikki—for young Gary Owens, as well—fired hotter. The dead copilot had struggled valiantly to get his life together and this selfish ass had stolen Owens's second chance. Avery's actions could have subjected Nikki to a lifetime in prison. There wasn't a punishment harsh enough for that.
Nikki clambered over the seat, tugging free a length of boat line. She pitched the rope. Looping fast with a skill honed from years on the water, he trussed their down-for-the-count attacker, hands, ankles, securing him to the small cannon. In some distant part of his brain he heard Nikki placing a cell phone call to the cops. With an extra tug to his best sailor's knots, Carson stepped away from Avery and opened his arms to Nikki....
Damn certain he wasn't letting her go this time.
The next day, Nikki twisted the key in her apartment lock, tickled to her toes to have her life, her job, her home back. Her heart, however, was forever given to Carson.
And if she hurried, she would have time to change before he arrived to pick her up for whatever mystery outing he had planned.
How he'd found time to make preparations after the insane night they'd had with Kevin Avery's arrest, she would never know. After her 911 call, Special Agent Reis had arrived, as well. The procedural intricacies were mind-boggling as the civilian cops debated with the military security police over who would get the first bite at Avery, one of his crimes off base, one on the government installation.
The SPs won. The kidnapping had begun on base after all, and the murder was the larger crime.
Nikki pushed inside her tiny apartment, no longer minding the bare walls she couldn't afford to fill yet. Instead, they represented all the time ahead of her and experiences to collect. Unlike Kevin Avery who would be locked up for life.
What a sad end for someone with so much potential. As a teacher, she couldn't help wondering where things had gone wrong for him. By the same token, she saw so many students with fewer advantages and opportunities who worked their butts off and made their own successes happen—without excuses.
After giving statements, she and Carson had swept away the glass from the cab of the truck and driven home with the windows open to air out the scent of alcohol and those hellish moments of abject fear. She'd called her parents with the details and to explain she was returning to her apartment. Her place and reclaimed life.
She slung her backpack up onto the kitchen bar with a hefty overloaded thump of work to accomplish. Hopefully with Carson at her side. Last night a shower together, making love, celebrating life until they both fell into an exhausted slumber had gone a long way toward settling her ravaged nerves.
Unloading her bag from a blessedly full day of teaching— a wonderfully normal day with her students and a job she loved—she knew now to cherish everyday life with her new found appreciation. She couldn't wait to show Carson her blueprints for a miniature Viking ship she wanted to build with her students for an upcoming unit.
She dropped to sit on the bar stool, her plans spread in front of her. What a long way she'd come in a few short weeks. Her crush-style visions of Carson had put him on a pedestal in a way that would set anyone up for failure. Now she understood the value of simple dreams and everyday life, the love of a good, wonderfully human man to build a future with.
Love was a journey, not a destination.
Her doorbell chimed.
It seemed her trip was about to begin before she had a chance to change from her work clothes into jeans. She raced across the carpet, peeking through the peephole, blithe acceptance of safety having taken a serious hit lately.
Her eyes filled with Carson still in his flight suit. A smile split her face and spread through her. Apparently he hadn't even taken the time to change, either, instead rushing over to see her.
She swung the door wide. "Hey there, flyboy. I missed you today."
He swept her into his arms for a kiss that sent that smile singing further through her veins before he pulled away to ask, "Would you like to go for a ride?"
She'd thought they were headed to her bedroom, but apparently he was sticking to his plan. "Do I need to change?"
Carson cupped her face, unmistakable love shining in his crystal-clear blue eyes. "You're perfect as is."
"Not hardly." She arched up onto her toes to steal another kiss, a definite perk on this journey. "But thanks."
He extended his hand and she clasped it without hesitation, snagging her purse and locking her apartment before following him to his truck, a new windshield in place along with freshly cleaned seats. The horror of Kevin's attack would be tougher to erase. Thank God they'd made it through together. Her grip on Carson tightened.
Twenty minutes of easy silence and hand holding later, they reached.. .a marine repair yard? She squinted in the late-afternoon sun through the chain-link fence until she saw— yes—Carson's sailboat suspended in slings. "Wow, they were able to salvage your boat. That's awesome."
"It'll take time before she's seaworthy again, but the hull is intact." He put the vehicle in park and turned to face her. "That boat holds some irreplaceable memories."
A blush burned her cheeks. "Maybe we'll make more memories when it's afloat again."
"No maybe about it once we get her back in the water about a month from now." He winked.
She studied the landlocked craft, winging a prayer of thanksgiving the sturdy craft hadn't capsized altogether. "Thanks for bringing me here. Seeing this helped take the edge off what happened."
"Hell." He thumped his forehead. "I never considered you might not want to sail again. Hey, no sweat if this is a problem for you. I can put this puppy on the market before close of business today."
"You would do that for me?"
"It's just a thing," he answered without hesitation.
"I'm not so sure about that." Her mind filled with an image of Carson on his ship whether it was on the water or in the sky. "At the very least it's a piece of who you are, a way to center yourself."
"I've found a new center."
This moment had been so very much worth waiting for. "Carson, I don't have a problem with sailing. I'm not that faint of heart."
"I never thought you were. You're the strongest person I've ever met." He traced her jaw with callused fingers that rasped so gently against her skin before pointing outside again. "Actually I didn't bring you here just to see the boat. Look closer. I had the shop do one repair right away. See? There. She finally has a name."
Nikki searched, squinted, until she could decipher— "Isis. For my Egyptian project perhaps?"
How fun, Isis finding a flyboy, defying even the constraints of geography and history. A whimsical, romantic notion.
"Most definitely inspired by you and your teaching." He slid his arm along the back of the seat and cupped her shoulder.
"Of course a bit of the legend is backward." She sank against his arm and into spinning out the symbolism of his thoughtful gesture. "Isis saved Osiris from drowning, but you saved me that day in the harbor."
"Honey, you saved me from drowning in ways that have nothing to do with water." He hooked a knuckle on her chin to tip her face toward his. "Knowing you has turned my life around, grounded me, lets me fly, everything at once. The way I remember the story of Isis, she brought Osiris back twice."
"So this is our second chance?"
"If you want it to be." His forehead rested against hers. "I love you, Nikki. I know the words aren't fancy or impressively multi-syllabic, but I mean it with everything inside me and look forward to showing you every day for the rest of my life, if you'll let me."
Her arms slid around his broad shoulders only to discover he was shaking as hard as she was. "God, Carson, I've been in love with you for almost three years."
"I'm sorry I wasn't the man I should be then, but I swear to try my damnedest to be worthy of your trust."
"I had some growing up to do myself." How strange to remember at this moment that she'd always told her students perfect wasn't required, only a best effort. Yet, she'd been expecting perfection from her parents, Carson, herself even, and because of that, she'd almost missed out on the purest perfection of all—true love.
His arms tightened. "I don't deserve you."
She arched back to stare him straight in the eyes. "Bull."
She flicked the zipper tab on his flight suit. "You deserve me and I totally deserve you. Although maybe you'd better not hold me to that when we have an argument, because I'm sure we will sometime since that's a part of loving and living, too." Perfect in its imperfection.
"As long as we get to make up and wake up in each other's arms." A passion she recognized well flamed to life in his blue eyes.
Nikki snuggled closer against his chest again, need sparking to life stronger, hinting it might be time to burn rubber back to her place. "Awaken to desire."
"Always," he whispered the promise against her lips.
Waking up in his arms.
She liked the sound of that very, very much....