"Of course I would tell you." She scavenged a smile. "And you would have found out all the details anyway since you're Gary's commander."
He kept his eyes forward on the traffic-packed road, watching the streetlight. "I would have found out because I'm worried about you."
She let herself soak in the concern in his voice until the light turned green.
"Thank you." She blinked against the glare streaking through the window as the sun peeked from behind the clouds.
Her head thunked back to rest and she watched the telephone poles whiz past as they drove toward the winding bridge. Everything blurred from exhaustion and more. Definitely more than she wanted to acknowledge because then she would have to admit that spending time with Carson was important. "The hospital put a rush on my lab work. Someone slipped Rohypnol in my drink last night."
His curse hissed long and low. "And somebody's going to pay for that, no damn question."
"At least I understand the memory loss." Although that piece of knowledge came with another sense of having been violated. Who'd done it? She'd finished one drink before Gary arrived, and been almost through the second when he slid up beside her, elbow on the bar smiling as if totally unaware that their relationship was going nowhere. How could he have not realized?
Or had he? "I should be relieved I'm not suffering some mental break from trauma, right? Instead I'm just…"
"Pissed off. Of course you are." He glanced over at her, gray eyes steely with a repressed anger glinting through. "You have every reason to be upset."
Damn it, he'd given up the right to be her friend a long time ago. "Please quit being so nice."
"You want me to be an ass?"
She cranked the heater higher even though she knew the chill went bone deep from things that had nothing to do with dreary January weather. "I'd like an excuse to holler."
"I could take you out on my boat to the middle of Charleston harbor and let you yell if you think it would help."
"Are you sure you don't want me to call your mother?"
"No. I'll tell her. Later though—" She stopped short as an awful possibility pushed through her muzzy mind. "Do you think what happened will hit the news soon?"
"The basics, but the names are being withheld until Owens's family is notified."
She squeezed her eyes shut, guilt pressing hard against her chest over the crushing pain Gary's parents would suffer. Because of her?
"The investigator is withholding your name for your own safety."
What? She shifted in her seat to face him. "I thought they believed I'm guilty."
"They saw the wisdom of at least considering other options."
"I didn't do anything."
"Thank you anyway for staying with me today."
"Your father would have my ass if I didn't look out for you. Sharing an enemy prison cell forges a bond I can't explain."
Those days when her father's crew had been missing, then reported taken by enemy warlords, had been hellish. She'd feared for her father's safety as well as for the man she'd thought she loved—even if at that time Carson had not noticed her beyond a kid sister kind of way.
She so didn't need to think of later right now with him sitting so close and her in need of comfort in a big way. Who wouldn't be rocked by what had happened? But she was strong. She could hold on until she got in her apartment where she would have a long soggy cry in her bathtub. A man was dead, a man she'd cared about enough to date. A man she'd kissed and apparently nothing more, thank heavens, but he deserved to be mourned. Even if he'd done something so horrible she'd struck out and killed him.
Bashed in his skull.
Bile burned high in her throat. "Pull over."
"Pull over or you're gonna need your carpet cleaned."
He whipped the truck across two lanes and onto the shoulder. She jerked her seat belt free and lurched from the cab to the swaying reeds and tall marsh grass.
Thank God he didn't join her while she heaved up her empty guts. If only she could pitch the horror of the day into the marsh grass, as well.
Finally, she straightened again, weaving as she sucked in chilly winter air until the double vision of afternoon traffic meshed into a single world again. Turning back, she found Carson leaning against the passenger-side door, waiting in case she needed him, but not intruding.
Emerging sunlight glinted off his blond hair and sunglasses now shielding his eyes, his body every bit as tall and strong and appealing as the first time she'd seen him strutting across a tarmac when she'd been waiting to welcome her dad home from an overseas tour. She was too tired and heartsore to feel attraction, but God, how she yearned to rest her head on that broad chest.
Instead, she planted her feet into the grassy incline and made her way back up slower than she'd descended.
She stopped beside him. Traffic whooshed past in blasts of wind.
Carson passed her a handkerchief without speaking. She took the small folded linen from his hand, three tiny initials embroidered in the upper corner. She studied the larger "H" with a "C" and "A" on either side. Who carried monogrammed handkerchiefs anymore? Apparently Carson. She'd thought he was a friend, had even shared a bed with him and didn't even know he carried a handkerchief, much less what the "A" stood for.
Nikki swiped the cloth across her mouth before clutching it in her fist. "Thanks."
"Are you all right now?"
"Who would be?"
"Right answer." His curt nod gave away less than his shielded eyes as he stood in the freezing mist without the least shiver. Maybe he seemed so perfect because he wasn't even human. "It'll take the drugs a while to wear off."
She sagged to rest beside him against the truck, drags of the prickly cold clearing her head. "So I didn't hurl because I'm an emotional wreck after all?"
"Over in Rubistan, after your dad and I were rescued, I barely made it to the barracks bathroom before I lost the MRE the soldiers gave me."
She pressed her fingers between her eyes against the ache his image brought. She'd hurt for him then and wasn't anywhere near as distant as she wanted to be now. "I appreciate your telling me that, especially since it must be difficult for you to talk about that time. My dad still doesn't discuss what happened over there very much."
Carson shrugged it off his broad shoulders as if it were no big deal when they both had to know otherwise. "We handle crap like that in different ways. The important thing is that you deal with it."
"Even if that means hurling in a ditch."
"Hey, join the trauma-hurling club." The strengthening sun glinted off his smile as brightly as it did his golden hair.
"And you're a badass." A badass who happened to look like an angel who could lead a saint to sin.
"So are you."
Ohmigod, everything had been easier when she could keep her distance from him. She could almost delude herself into thinking he wasn't as—charming?—no, that wasn't quite right. Carson had seemed nice, a flat-out nice guy she'd liked, admired, wanted so much she'd been a blind idiot.
She really needed to go home fast. "Thanks for the quick reflexes in pulling over. I'm ready to leave now."
"Are you sure you'll be okay alone?"
"You can't be offering to stay with me?" She knew full well he had to get back to the squadron. Already he would have to work late into the night to clear through all the work and crises that would have piled up while he was out of the office—
Why had she taken so much note of his work schedule when she'd been dating other guys? It had been bad enough before when she took note of everything about him, back when she'd thought he felt the same attraction.
Carson swiped his sunglasses off and dried them on the leg of his flight suit. "I do have to get back to work, but I could pull together supper for you before I go. I haven't eaten today either, and I'm actually a competent cook."
He stopped midswipe on a lens. "You do?"
Oops. Might as well fess up. He probably knew anyway and pretending she hadn't once followed him around like a silly puppy would only hint she still had feelings. While she might still have feelings, they sure weren't the tender kind anymore. "I used to pay all sorts of attention to what you did back during my 'crush' days."
His smile pulled tight. With guilt? He hooked his glasses on the neck of his uniform again. "So let me cook for you then."
Invite him into her apartment? Not a chance. "Thanks, but the drugs and the whole... every thing... are still making me nauseous."
"Then I can sit and pass you crackers."
She so didn't want him taking care of her out of obligation. "Thank you, but you have work. I have papers to grade and laundry to do. You've done enough already."
Understatement of the year.
She could see he wanted to argue.. .but his cell phone rang again. His forehead creased with frustration, his hand gravitating toward his phone even as he obviously battled the urge to ignore it.
"You know you can't ignore the call. Take it. I'll be fine."
And she would.
If only his intense blue eyes didn't shout that he wasn't done with her yet.
He was done.
Carson leaned against the quarter panel of his truck and stared past the pool up at Nikki's apartment. She was safely inside, thank God. He'd walked her to the door. She hadn't invited him in—no surprise—but he'd waited until she assured him the place was safe and empty.
Now he could return to the pile of messages waiting for him at the squadron since he'd accomplished all he could from a cell phone for one day.
So why was he hanging out in a half-empty apartment parking lot, rain drizzling until it dripped from his hair onto his forehead? If he loitered around, staring up at Nikki's image moving around inside for much longer, somebody would call the cops on his ass. If he didn't freeze to death first even though he had his leather jacket back. Damned if the thing didn't smell like her now, a light flowery perfume and something unmistakably her. And double damn, but why could he still recognize her scent even after seven months?
He should just lose himself in work, order a deep-dish pizza and dig in for another 2:00 a.m. punch-out. Given the time change over in the Middle East, pulling a few extra hours at night worked well for speaking with the deployed squadron commander about routine business. Sure he could ask the new boss for advice on the whole mess, but the guy was swamped with duties overseas. Their old commander, Quade, had left two months ago and moved his family to the Pentagon for his next assignment, so he wasn't on hand to ask for advice, either.
Mentors were in short supply to help him out with this one. He was on his own in a job he hadn't asked for, wasn't even sure he was ready for yet. But the position had come to him anyway and he refused to screw it up.
The phone rang in his hand—again. He tucked the headset piece in his ear. "Major Hunt."
"Captain Lebowski from scheduling." The Chicago area accent cut through the earpiece. "We've got a problem I know you're going to find hard to believe, but when Reach 2-1-3-1 landed in Hawaii, the plane broke."
A broken plane and a crew in search of a tan. Great. Just what he needed today. "Yeah, amazing how that always happens on flights to Hawaii and never in Thule, Greenland. Let me guess on the ETTC—" estimated time to completion for a return home "—is a week right?"