She would never be able to forgive herself if her mother lost the baby because of stress Nikki rained on her family's already overloaded life. A call should buy her a little time at least. She retrieved the stored number and waited—for only a ring and a half.
"Mom, hi, it's me. What's up?"
"Nikki Janine Price, you were starting to worry me." Her mother's voice held more concern than rebuke. "Are you all right? Where are you?"
Uh-oh. She recognized that tone well. Mom already knew the answer, or at least part of it.
But she wasn't a sixteen-year-old trying to hide a C on her report card. "I'm obviously not at work."
A benign response until she figured out how much her mother already knew. She'd learned a lot about finagling words after listening to her young students try to play her.
"I know that much. I called the school to leave a message for you and they said you're home sick today. You sound stuffy."
Duh. Because she'd cried her eyes out all over a nurse about an hour ago. At least her mom didn't seem to know about Gary Owens's death yet. "I'm just a little congested, nothing a steamy shower and a nap won't fix."
She'd held strong all morning only to lose it when the doc put her in the stirrups. God, she'd gritted her teeth through pap smears before—bleck, nobody liked those after all—but she'd already felt so exposed, violated and outright scared to death. Tears were so darn embarrassing, even though the doc had patted her knee and said to take her time while the nurse passed Kleenex and comfort. Their sensitivity only served to make extra tears well up even remembering it now.
Her emotions were so fuzzy and out of control—like standing in a batting cage with one of those baseball pitching machines, and her reflexes too muddled to keep up with everything pelting toward her. All the more reason to stay away from her mom for a couple more hours.
She would go to her mother's house this afternoon and tell her in person before the rumor mill kicked in around base. Although the fallout in the press could be limited because of the exclusively military investigation.
"You didn't pick up at home, either. Are you at the doctor's?"
Mom radar. Its accuracy was scary. "Yes, I've seen a doctor." True enough. "Why did you call in the first place?" A new fear slithered through her hazy brain. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. Everything's wonderful in fact." Her mother's happiness darn near vibrated through the phone lines. "I had an ultrasound this morning and, well..."
The reason for her mother's call. Of course. "You wanted to share the excitement of the moment with someone since Dad couldn't be there."
"Pretty much, and who better to share it with than my daughter?"
Nikki pulled her tattered nerves together enough to speak a while longer, for her mom, for her dad, too. "Everything looks good?"
"Perfect so far for a forty-two-year-old mother-to-be. I just need to keep my feet up after the spotting and cramping scare." She laughed low. "Am I crazy to do this?"
"You and Dad are great parents." They'd just sucked at being married for the first twenty-two years. Now that they'd finally figured it out, they seemed determined to start over in every sense of the word, including with a new pair of kids since their first daughter and son were already grown.
She admired her mother's determination, even as she resolved not to put herself through the hell of waiting for years for a man to get his head out of his butt and commit emotionally. "Could the technician see if it's a boy or girl?"
"Yes," Rena paused, "but I want to tell your father first."
"You know how I hate secrets." Her parents had tiptoed around telling their kids the truth about their problems, as if she and her brother Chris couldn't hear the fights and feel the dark silences afterward. She and Chris had kept their schedules packed as teenagers trying to avoid the tension.
"You'll be the first to know after I get in touch with him."
Nikki scrubbed a hand over her eyes. The dizziness kicked into overdrive, exhaustion nailing her. "I'm glad everything's cool with Freckle. I'll be looking forward to seeing the pictures later today. Okay?"
"Are you sure you don't need—"
"I just want a nap, then I'll come by later this afternoon. I promise." She swallowed hard. "I love you, Mom."
She disconnected, already dreading the conversation to come and the burden she would place on her family because of whatever the hell she'd done last night, because of her poor judgment in choosing Gary Owens. Her father was flying in a hot zone and so didn't need the distraction of worrying about her. Although there was nothing she could do to stem the eventual tide of gossip that would flow through e-mail overseas.
Being an adult and independent meant accepting responsibility. What she did affected others—like her family.
Turning her back on her too-pale reflection in the medicine cabinet glass, Nikki scooped a rubber band from a rolling table and gathered her hair away from her face. She needed to get her life together and work on putting this behind her. No more nursing a ridiculous broken heart for a man who flat-out didn't care. She wouldn't be like her mother, losing years of her life waiting for a guy to realize what he was throwing away.
Besides, she had bigger concerns right now. Like getting through the interview with the OSI agent due to walk in the exam room.
* * *
Why wouldn't Nikki call a lawyer?
Thumbing the disconnect button on his cell phone call from work, Carson kept his eyes locked on the exam room door while he paced past the row of vinyl-covered chairs and sofas. If only he could infuse his will through the panel into the idealistic woman on the other side.
Growing up, he'd watched countless guilty-as-hell people get off with a slap on the wrist because of expensive counsel, greased palms and a few wealthy connections. How could she simply trust her entire future would be okay if she just told the truth? What little she could remember. He couldn't stomach even the possibility of Nikki losing her freedom when he knew without question that woman was not a murderer.
He'd spent the past couple of hours on the phone taking care of crises at the squadron, arranging for an officer, chaplain and doctor from a base near Owens's parents in Nebraska to make a notification visit. He wished the couple lived closer so he could have made the visit himself. But he would travel from Charleston to Omaha to attend the funeral, along with every squadron member available. Regardless of what Owens had done last night, he'd still been an officer under Carson's command.
The door swung open. The OSI agent ambled out, slow, but Carson wasn't fooled by the guy's sleepy-eyed act. Special Agent David Reis's cynical eyes were taking everything in, and Carson wasn't so sure cynicism would work in Nikki's favor.
Nikki stepped through a few paces behind the agent, speaking with the nurse at her elbow flipping pages on a metal clipboard, stray words drifting about lab results and release forms for her to sign. She seemed okay, steady on her feet and confident even in surgical scrubs that somehow managed to accentuate her mile-long legs and skim over gentle curves he had no business noticing, especially today.
Good God, regardless of how strong she looked, bruises still marked her arms and heaven only knew where else. He forced his hands not to clench. He kept tracking her moves, searching for answers—or at least clues—as to what happened when the uneasiness settled with the weight of a stare boring into him. Slowly, Carson turned. Special Agent Reis stared back with those half-open assessing eyes.
Carson nodded toward Nikki. "She's free to go?"
"Yes, sir, as soon as she finishes signing her release papers. We've covered everything for now. She just needs to stay in town until we have a few more answers." Absently, Reis reached into his inside jacket pocket, frowned then brought his hand back empty. "You're going to take her home?"
"Good." He fished into his pants pocket and brought out gum this time. "No matter what shook down in that VOQ room, she's had a helluva shock."
Carson tugged his leather jacket off the back of a waiting room chair. "Guess you can't tell me what she said."
"You'd guess right." He folded a piece of gum into his mouth. "Sorry."
"You're only doing your job." He understood all about that. He wouldn't get anything more out of the detective, but it wouldn't hurt to be amiable and form a connection that might lead the guy to give him a heads-up about info in the future. Carson nodded to the empty gum wrapper in Reis's hand. "Just quit smoking?"
Reis grin-grimaced. "Yeah, I still reach for the cigarettes. Doublemint sticks aren't helping much."
"Try drinking everything with a straw for a while."
"Like a drag from a smoke." His working jaw slowed. "Good call. Addictions suck."
"That they do." And since the opening was there, he continued, "Speaking of addictions, you need to know that Owens had a gambling problem. He seemed to have it under control, but..."
"Sometimes old contacts can still be hard to shake."
Nodding, Carson reached to stroke his mustache—damn it—only to find it gone. "I just thought you should know."
More than that he couldn't say without betraying confidences, and he really didn't know more that would be helpful. Still, he'd stuck to the standard squadron knowledge. Reis would have found out eventually. Carson had only sped up the process for safety's sake.
Reis studied him through half-open eyes. "Not that you have any reason to send me in a direction other than Nikki Price."
"I just thought you should know," he repeated.
"Duly noted." Reis tucked his gum pack back in his pocket and pivoted away.
Carson chewed on a curse harder than the investigator chomped gum. So much for keeping his damned drooling over Nikki a secret.
He could deal with the rest of the world knowing. But it was far tougher—and more essential—to keep the rogue attraction hidden from Nikki.
* * *
Rohypnol, a date-rape drug, had somehow been slipped into her drink last night.
Nikki settled into the bucket seat of Carson's sparkling Ford F-250, still rocked to her toes by the lab results that had arrived while Special Agent Reis questioned her. She hadn't been able to determine from the detective's expression if the news worked in her favor or not. Worst of all, there was less chance of her remembering now since the memory loss wasn't simply a by-product of trauma-induced stress.
A long sigh swelled low in her chest, rolling up without any real release in the tension kinking her muscles. The drizzly day outside Carson's windshield and pattering on the cab roof mirrored her mood. Thank goodness she wouldn't have to hold it together much longer. Another twenty minutes and she would be in her apartment.
Riding home with Carson was preferable to her trip over in the ambulance with Special Agent Reis. Barely.
Except she owed Carson big for the hours he'd spent looking out for her today so she wouldn't have to upset her mother. Sure he'd done it for her father, but he had seemed concerned for her, too...
God, she was already weakening around him again, the warmth and scent of his leather jacket more enticing than it should be. And while she'd always found his mustache sexy, his fully-revealed sensual upper lip was all the more enticing.
A dangerous thought.
Still, she should answer the unspoken questions lurking in the clammy air between them. "The doctor said I wasn't raped."
His knuckles went white on the steering wheel, even as his face stayed blank, aviator sunglasses hooked on the collar of his flight suit. "You didn't have to tell me, but thank you."