"I liked tapioca when I was a kid."
"Geez, were your parents health food nuts or what?"
Welcoming the chuckle, she leaned an elbow against the counter bar and smoothed down a straggly corner of newspaper sticking from the still-damp section. "Anyhow, I'm patching over where I cut out the damaged part."
She'd taken a break from repairing the project to eat supper out on her balcony. Memories of Carson's apology had drawn her to the railing and before she'd known it, she was tumbling heart over butt toward the pool. "It should be dry enough to paint by tomorrow."
"Shouldn't you be resting?"
Reasonable notion except every time she closed her eyes she saw Gary Owens's vacant dead stare. "If I rest, I'll think. I'd rather work. Although building a coffin really isn't helping take my mind off this whole mess."
"Macabre." She snatched up a piece of paper from under the phone.
"What are you doing?"
"Writing down the word." And trying to think about anything but the dead man and unanswered questions. She finished scrawling on the notepaper and tore the top sheet off from the soccer-patterned pad—a Christmas gift from one of her pupils. "I've got this student who's a word wizard. Feeding his brain is a full-time job. You use these words that are not the kind guys would usually choose."
"I can't decide if you're insulting or complimenting me."
"Neither. You just don't speak as informally as most guys I know."
"I'm older than most guys you know. Hell, I even eat tapioca, remember? If I said dude a couple of times, you wouldn't notice the other words."
"Still hung up on being a cradle robber, are you?"
His eyebrows shot up at her open acknowledgement of their past relationship. Relationship? One-night stand.
He thumbed the pad of paper, fanning through sheets until one piece peeled loose. "Shouldn't you be resting?"
"You already said that."
"Must be early onset Alzheimer's at thirty-five." Absently he picked up the stray piece of paper, leaned back against the bar and started folding. "I understand you need to keep your mind off things, but how about reading a book? Your body has been through hell the past few days. You should take care of yourself."
"I'm a young, resilient twenty-three, not an old thirty-five like you."
He stopped midfold on the soccer paper. "I'm guessing your mother and father encouraged you to speak your mind when you were a kid."
"What clued you in?" She smirked for a full five-second gloat before the fun faded with reality. "And how surprising that you always manage to bring up my dad anytime we speak."
"People have parents."
"Sure I do." His fingers started tucking and folding the paper again, drawing her eyes to his talented nimble hands.
Hands she remembered feeling over her skin too well right now. "Other than our tapioca conversation, you've never mentioned your parents once in all the time I've known you."
"I didn't crawl from under a rock."
She smiled slow and just a little bit impishly vindictive. "That's open for debate."
His laugh rumbled low and long, wrapping around her with far more languorous warmth than the ineffective bubble bath she'd stepped out often short minutes ago. Her body tingled with awareness, her br**sts suddenly oversensitive to the brush of cotton against her bare skin.
"Damn, Nikki, you never did cut me any slack." Shaking his head with a final self-derisive laugh, he bent a last tuck on the paper and extended his hand to her with the finished product cradled in his palm—an origami bird.
She inched backward, then caught herself. This was her home, her life. She stood taller and stood him down. "Stop trying to be charming."
His beautiful smile and laugh faded to a mere echo. "I thought you accepted my apology."
"I did." She wadded the tissue in her hand, tossing it aside with a final sniffle. Cold. Not tears. No more tears over this man. "But you can drop the charming friend act. There's no going back to how things were. You had your chance, and you blew it, dude."
His mouth went tight, his eyes dropping away from hers. Pausing. Holding. Right at her shirt level.
A damp T-shirt she now realized clung to her br**sts that happened to be hyperaware of the sexy blond hunk standing a reach away.
Carson's hands shook from resisting the urge to reach for Nikki and cup her br**sts that he happened to know fit perfectly in his palms.
And damn it all, why did he have to remember the feel and taste and texture of her in his mouth right now? Washed-thin cotton clung to her skin and subtle curves, begging to be peeled up and off so he could dip his head and lick away whatever water remained on her skin.
He needed to remember what had happened tonight, how she'd almost plunged to her death, would have if not for the pool below. The thought alone served as an effective cold splash on his heated body. That railing shouldn't have given way. This was a new complex with pristine upkeep. He couldn't ignore the possibility that someone could have tampered with the balcony rail, someone who didn't want her to remember what happened that night in Owens's VOQ room.
He could be wrong, but it was a helluva lot safer to err on the side of caution. "You shouldn't stay here by yourself."
Her spine went straighter, which just so happened to press her peaked br**sts tighter against the T-shirt. Counting to ten—twenty—he set the origami bird on the counter.
She folded her arms across her chest. "If you're offering to hang out with me, I'll have to decline."
"I never thought you would agree to that anyway. And quite frankly, I don't think it would be wise."
She bristled to her full five feet ten inches tall. "Because you're afraid I'll jump your bones? Well, you can be sure that even if I'd been the least bit tempted before, you've killed that spark."
Heard. Understood. And regretted.
"I'm more concerned with my own self-control." The words tumbled out ahead of his better sense. Not really a surprise considering how he always seemed to lose his head around this leggy dynamo who could outrace most men and kept a sarcophagus in her living room.
Her jaw dropped wide, started to close then went slack again. A bracing sigh later, she answered, "I don't know what you're expecting to accomplish with a comment like that, but you made it clear the morning after Spike's wedding that you don't want me in your life, and you didn't do it in a particularly nice way. If you had a sister—"
Her jaw went slack again, tempting him to kiss the surprise right off her face. Coming here had really been a mammothly stupid idea.
But before he could drag his sorry, horny butt out the door she continued, "Quit distracting me. My point is, if someone treated your sister the way you treated me, you would kick his ass."
"You're right." More than she could even know. He shoved away from the counter and her too-cute sarcophagus and idealistic too-young heart. "And since I don't want my ass kicked by your brother or father, it's best I don't stay here. I just had to see for myself that you're okay and make sure you're safe."
Did she have to look so damn conflicted? He was having a tough enough time resisting her when she told him to shut up with all that fire and spunk he knew she brought to bed with her.
She skirted around the sofa full of inviting green pillows that would spread perfectly along the carpet to make a downy lawn for all-night sex. "Good night then. Have a nice drive home."
"Fine, but you're not staying here, either."
Nikki stopped short. "Why do I feel the irrepressible urge to put my hands over my ears and shout, 'You're not the boss of me' ? Of course that would fit right in with your whole too-young-for-you mantra."
God, he liked her sense of humor. "You're good."
She snorted. "That compliment came about seven months too late."
"I meant at distracting me."
"Apparently not nearly good enough." She sagged to sit on the arm of the sofa. "Why are you so gung-ho on my not being alone?"
"With everything that happened with Owens, I'm concerned your balcony railing giving way might not have been an accident." He planted his boots deep in the plush carpet, the need to see her safe burning even stronger than the need to see her naked.
* * *
God, she hated being afraid of her own shadow.
But Carson's words kept rolling around in her head the next day as she parked her small truck in her parents' driveway. Late-afternoon sun dappled through the evergreens packing the yard surrounding the two-story white wood home.
She'd brushed aside Carson's concerns the night before, told him she would double bolt her door and think about what he'd said. She'd bristled out of pride and a need for independence.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
About halfway through her PowerBar at lunch, she'd come to the conclusion that safety was too important. She wouldn't be one of those airheads in a horror movie who went walking in the dark woods at night even when half her friends had already been whacked by some psycho with a gas-powered garden tool.
So here she was with her truck and a suitcase full of clothes. She didn't need a reality check. She already knew. Bad crap was happening. Gary was very dead and she'd darn near died falling off her balcony. Even if it was an accident, she would have been more alert to her surroundings before this mess. Until she could get her life settled again, she needed to be extra careful.
Her mother was worried anyway and in need of extra help with her difficult pregnancy. Why not take her up on the standing offer to stay in the garage apartment?
She could still come and go as she pleased, but would have her brother nearby. Sure sometimes he'd been a wormy little pest who once dumped all her makeup into the sewer. But now that he'd shot up to six foot four inches, he made a fairly decent crime deterrent.
And she sure had plenty of time on her hands to help her mom repaint the new nursery.
Her principal had suggested she take a weeklong vacation. Suggested being a loose way of putting it. She suspected a parent or two had complained after getting wind of what happened the night Gary died. Whatever had happened.
Gossip could be hell. As much as she wanted to dig her heels in, she could see the principal's resolve. Pissing off her boss now wouldn't be wise.
Her whole life was crashing down around her. She needed control over something. At least she could still tutor her at-risk high schoolers or she would go nuts.
She threw open her truck door, stepped out and reached into the back to heft up her suitcase. Carson was right. She was lucky to have a family support system. Her parents had worked hard to build this for their kids and finally for themselves, too. She wouldn't settle for anything less when it came to building her own life.
And suddenly she couldn't help but wonder what sort of childhood had Carson had. He'd mentioned a sister and a love of tapioca, but nothing else.
Before she could tap on the screen, the front door swung open. Her tiny mother stepped into view with an unmistakable belly and a headful of dark curls lightly streaked with silver. "Nikki!" She swung the door wider, her gaze skating to the suitcase on the plank porch. "I'm so glad you decided to take me up on the offer of some pampering."
"The garage apartment—no pampering, though, please. I was hoping I could help paint the nursery." She reached to pat her mother's stomach and stifled thoughts of having kids of her own. Now definitely wasn't the time. "How's my little sister?"