"She's doing—" Her mother paused, eyes narrowing. "Wait. How did you know it's a girl? Did your father spill the beans in spite of our decision to wait to tell everyone when he gets home?"
Nikki pulled her hand back and hefted her suitcase. "Lucky guess. I figured I had a fifty-fifty shot of getting it right and tripping you up."
"Brat." She swatted her arm with her gardening magazine. "Your father always did spoil you."
"And you need some spoiling today, too. Now how about put your feet up and I'll come down to check on you once I stow my gear over the garage?"
Nikki backed down the steps and over to the outside stairs leading to the garage apartment her father had modified. If her dad was here now, no doubt J. T. Price would worry about everything with Owens. He was concerned enough with what few details he'd been told.
Her father was overprotective, always had been. She'd actually felt sorry for the poor skinny high school boys who made it to her front porch only to be confronted by her six-foot-four-inch weight lifter father. He didn't scowl. But he didn't smile at those fellas, either.
What a sucky welcome home he would have if she didn't get this mess straightened out. While she wasn't some woman in desperate need of daddy's approval, she also wasn't overly thrilled at the prospect of worrying or disappointing him, either.
One day at a time. She would have to trust the OSI and Special Agent Reis to do their job.
Meanwhile, the best thing she could do for her parents— and for herself—was keep life level, help her mother out with some yard work. Not stress about what she couldn't control.
Her cell phone buzzed in her black backpack purse slung over her shoulder, and with an instinctive awareness she didn't want and couldn't escape, she knew it was Carson checking up on her again.
"Hello, Major, what can I help you with?"
Carson stepped deeper into the OSI agent's office, hoping for a few answers from Reis, who was currently slipping a tie over his head and tightening it to start his day. The guy stored ties in his office? A kindred workaholic, which boded well for solving this case faster.
And please God, clearing Nikki.
She hadn't answered his phone calls in two days, but he couldn't blame her. She'd left a message for him with his secretary, insisting she didn't need to speak to him directly, but that she was fine and staying at her mom's.
At least she was camping out where her college-aged brother could keep his eyes open. Carson refused to feel guilty for checking in with Chris, any more than he would feel guilty about stopping in to fact-check with Reis. "I'm here for an update on the Owens case and anything you may have uncovered about Nikki Price's accident."
His gut still burned from even thinking about Nikki plummeting from that balcony.
Distraction. He needed it. Pronto. So he studied the room for hints about this man who held Nikki's life in his investigative hands.
Framed soccer field posters from around the world splashed the walls with color—one even including a photo of Reis with a soccer trophy and bottle of champagne. He didn't need to avert his eyes from the liquor as he had in the early days on the wagon.
He could even remember now how Cabernet had been his vino of choice with steaks and Pinot Noir had accompanied him on more than a few sailing trips. He didn't crave as he used to, but the thoughts still crowded his mind.
Reis shoved aside an old carryout box marked from a gourmet deli. "How's Ms. Price doing after her tumble from the balcony?"
"Fine, barely rattled other than a cold from the freezing water."
"So you've spoken to her?"
Why was he asking? Reis probably already knew anyway. Carson avoided the question and simply stated, "Seems mighty coincidental to me, her railing giving way."
"Could be an accident."
"Or it could be someone trying to kill her before she remembers what happened."
"Do ya' think?" Reis quirked an eyebrow.
What an ass. But being openly antagonistic in return wouldn't get the answers he needed. "Excuse me for being slow on the uptake, but I fail to see what's so damn funny."
Reis rocked back in his chair underneath an autographed photo of Pele. "What's so damn funny? Watching you, Major. I've seen you work a crisis without flinching, with a calm I'd expect from someone more seasoned. But when it comes to a woman, you're just as human as the rest of us."
Well hell. While it might be true—all right, was true— what did this have to do with anything? He'd be irritated if he didn't admire the guy's no-bull attitude and sharp eye. "Call me Cro-Magnon, but it pisses me off when a woman— any woman—is in danger. It's my job to protect. I can't turn that off just because I'm not in combat."
"That's the only reason I'm not chewing your ass for thinking I'm idiot enough not to have considered the possibility someone may have tampered with her balcony. There're plenty of reasons somebody may have been angry enough to whack Owens over the head. His gambling habit. Or maybe Nikki Price had a jealous ex-boyfriend who didn't much like her getting busy with another guy."
An understandable possibility since thinking about Nikki dating other guys tossed acid onto his already burning raw gut even though he had no claim to her. He kept his hands loose, his face impassive. He'd mastered the blasé look with his new command duties.
Funny thing, though, Reis was giving him exactly the same blank expression. The investigator's words about ex-boyfriends being to blame shifted in Carson's head, settling into place a second before Reis leaned forward, elbows on his desk.
"So I guess you won't be surprised to hear you're on my suspect list, as well, Major."
How damned ironic that in spite of years of working to hide his attraction to Nikki, the agent had pegged it so fast.
If he was doing such a piss-poor job of keeping his emotions under wraps, then maybe it was time to confront this dogged attraction head-on with Nikki after all.
* * *
Nikki jogged alongside her brother, her running shoes pounding pavement with dogged determination. She shot puffy clouds of air ahead then plowed through the vapor. Too bad her cloudy memories weren't as easily dispersed.
Thank goodness Chris didn't want to talk because she had too much energy to work out. Instead, she kept her Walkman headset in place, hoping exhaustion and WWII era tunes— The Andrews sisters at present—would soothe her frustration over having her life hijacked.
She missed her apartment and independence. However as much as she wanted to return to her place and simply invest in a kick-ass security system, she couldn't forget her mother's strained face and difficult pregnancy. Her father was due home in another week. She could put her own needs on hold for a few more days.
Cars chugged past in the sleepy neighborhood, some turning around and taking detours for ongoing road construction, but she felt safe enough in the late afternoon with her brother alongside. Even Carson couldn't expect her to hole up inside indefinitely.
One foot in front of the other, she willed the runner's high to overtake her so she could block out the resurrected yearning to be with Carson, a light harmonic melody pulsing through her ears and thrumming in her veins. A swelling, sentimental ache she'd finally acknowledged the night she decided to break things off with Gary...
Nikki thudded along the planked boardwalk stretching toward Beachcombers Bar and Grill. Flight-jacket-clad bodies with dates packed the back porch, twice as many undoubtedly inside if the dull war was anything to gauge by. Finding Gary could take hours in this wash of brown leather and jeans. Better to park her butt at the bar and wait for him to find her.
A marshy breeze blew in off the beach, cold, but not enough to drive the congregated smokers back inside. She charged closer while sailboats bobbed along the nearby marina, lines snapping and pinging against masts in a mariner's tune.
But she wouldn't be lured by that song of Carson anymore. Tonight would be her fresh start. No more self-destructive dating losers who happened to resemble Carson.
One of the first things on her agenda, stop coming to a watering hole populated with flyboys from nearby Charleston Air Force Base. Climbing the steps up to the hangout housed in a historic clapboard two story, she pushed the rest of the way through, smiling and nodding at familiar faces she barely registered. Same old crowd, even on a Sunday evening.
The bass from the band pulsed through the ground, beach music blending with old rock tunes from her parents' day that had round-robined back into modern remakes. She sucked in a bracing breath, prepping herself for the upcoming confrontation. Gary had been a little possessive in the past when guys hit on her, but not violent. Still just in case, she 'd chosen a public meeting place.
She parted a circle playing quarters. "Pardon me. 'Scuse me." She ducked around an overendowed regular wearing Lycra and no coat in January. "Excuse me, Hannah."
Finally. The door.
Nikki dodged another couple between her and her destination—and slammed into a solid body. Her senses announced his identity before she even looked up.
Carson, full of musky scent mixed with fresh ocean air, unmistakably him. She forced her gaze upward and her feet to stomp backward when she wanted to stay smack-dab where she was and just breathe for a few minutes—or days.
She refused to duck and run. She had nothing to be ashamed of. He was the one who'd been a total jerk and if speaking with her made him a smidge uncomfortable, then too damn bad.
He hitched a foot on the step back into the main bar, shoulder on the door frame, a white paper sack clutched in his hand. "Hey, have you spoken with your father recently?"
And wasn't that just like him to bring up her dad every time they spoke? Thinking Carson stayed away because of her father stung a little less, since at least he had a reason—albeit a really stupid one. However if he'd simply been a user-jerk, then getting over him would be easier.
A lose-lose situation for her.
"Phone calls have been scarce, but the Internet has been awesome. He talks more through e-mail than he would over the phone anyhow."
"That's your dad."
"Are you meeting someone here?" Ah hell.
"No, just grabbing carry out on my way to a meeting." He lifted his hand gripping the paper sack. "Nothing like Claire's Southern barbecue wings after a day of sailing."
Claire McDermott was joint owner of Beachcombers with her sisters. Claire was a single attractive woman who happened to cook Carson's favorite food—and didn't jealousy suck? The guy was heading to a late meeting at work on a Sunday night, for goodness' sake. "So you're still sailing."
"I finally bit the bullet and replaced my old sixteen-footer with a used thirty-one-foot Catalina a couple of months ago."
She could so see him out on the water, sun bleaching his golden hair white, bronzing his chest while they both savored the waves and the day. She'd always admired his way of enjoying silence as much as a conversation. "Good for you. Life should be lived."
He stared back at her with eyes so blue she saw the ocean and really wanted to jump in, headfirst, no safety preserver.
He blinked first—thank God—and looked over her shoulder. "Are you meeting someone?"
She wanted to say no and see if he asked her to join him for supper, but she was smart enough not to act on that "want" with this man ever again. "Yeah, he should be here any minute."
His sky-blue eyes blanked. "I won't keep you then."
"Enjoy your wings and your meeting."
Nodding, he brushed past and heaven help her she watched his confident long strides since he couldn't see her unrestrained attention as he melded into the crowd. And how weird was it that suddenly she could see through that crowd just fine when it came to watching him?