Pain—and yes, anger—whispered through her veins. All of which strengthened her resolve to break things off with Gary. How unfair to date him when she still had this mess of feelings for Carson tangled tighter than those sailboat lines twisting in the wind.
He cleared the walkway and stopped. Waving?
She should look away. Leave. Quit staring after him like a lovesick dork. And she would in just a second.
Carson called to someone behind a beat-up truck but his words drifted away on the wind and out to sea. He waited to be joined by two men—an older, shorter man in a backward ball cap and another guy about Carson's age, taller in a plaid shirt. She couldn't make them out well from a distance and didn't study them overlong since she was too busy being more relieved than she should that Carson wasn't with a woman.
He walked with the two men toward his extended-cab truck where they all three climbed in. All? Apparently there wasn't a work meeting after all. It stung more than a little that he'd felt the need to make excuses.
Definitely time to leave and move forward...
Panting from her run, Nikki slowed on the sidewalk in front of her parents' next-door neighbor's, sifting through the mishmash of emotions from that night to simply analyze the event.
She'd already remembered that time prior to stepping inside, but relaxing did offer her a few more details—like the two men Carson met up with. Problem was that seemed so insignificant. She could only hope the relaxation techniques suggested by the hypnotist would help her recall more.
As if she'd conjured Carson from her thoughts, there he was, in the driveway with her mother, little Jamie barreling by the trailer hitch on his toddler scooter.
Her mom sagged back against the fender of Carson's truck, her hand pressed to her forehead. Nikki's stomach lurched up to her throat. Had something happened to her father? God, she'd been so selfishly focused on her own mess she'd all but forgotten that her dad was in the Middle East, not a safe place for military members on the ground or in the air.
Nikki ripped the headset from her ears and sprinted across the dormant lawn, over a low hedge toward her mother. "Mom?" She took her mother's elbow, determined to keep it together, be supportive. "I'm here. Breathe—"
"It's all right," Rena interrupted, straightening with a shaky smile. "Everything's fine. I only got a smidge spooked when Scorch drove up. I had a little flashback to the other time my husband's commander showed up on my doorstep. Of course I know you wouldn't come alone for a bad call. You would bring along a doctor and chaplain," she rambled, gasping. "But still..."
Carson jammed his fists into his leather coat pockets. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I just came to check on everyone. And you're right. I wouldn't be here alone and I wouldn't be wearing a flight suit."
He would wear his dress blues, all those ribbons across his chest. He could be a poster model for a recruiting office he filled out any uniform so well. What a silly superficial thought that made her wonder if her feelings were still the result of physical attraction and the old crush.
She didn't much like what that said about her.
He'd apologized, hadn't made excuses and seemed to be working on amends. Just because she didn't totally trust him, she didn't have to be rude. And the excitement circling laps around inside her stomach was simply nerves because of their history. Maybe she'd gotten it wrong over the past seven months by staying away from him. Perhaps spending more time with him would help her get over that.
Get over him.
He had to stop looking at her before her family noticed.
But Carson couldn't seem to reel in his attention from Nikki, her face glistening with sweat, her hair mussed, much like he imagined she would look during marathon sex. Which he would give his left nut to remember having had with her seven months ago.
The next morning, they'd been n**ed in bed together and he couldn't even recall shedding more than their shirts. He remembered well that incredible moment she'd unfastened the front clasp of her bra, freeing perfect pert breasts. He'd reached for her with both hands, could feel the shape and pebbling peaks of her against his palms even now.
His breathing hitched right along with a skipped heartbeat. How idiotic to think about sleeping with Nikki when standing in the driveway with her exhausted mother, worried brother and wild man baby brother currently trying to run over Carson's boots with his scooter.
Actually, it wasn't wise to think about getting n**ed with her at any time, because his self control was dwindling fast the longer he spent with her. But he'd figured out quickly in Reis's office that he wasn't fooling anyone, especially himself, by staying away. Best to convince her they could resurrect the light friendship they'd once had.
While keeping his flight suit zipped this time.
Nikki's brother Chris shuffled up beside them, his eyes locked on his mother's weary face, concern stamping a maturity beyond his years on his college-aged features. The kid had been bending over backward to help out around the house since his own brush with the law his junior year in high school. His part-time job at a restaurant then had almost turned deadly when the boy's boss had tried to use Chris as cash mule for drug money.
Damn, hadn't the Price family been through enough?
"Hey, Mom?" Chris cupped her elbow. "How about we go inside and I'll dig up some of that chocolate peanut butter and marshmallow ice cream you've been craving?"
Rena straightened from the car, her gaze shifting from Carson to her daughter and back again with too much perception for his comfort level. Rena tucked her hand in the crook of her lanky son's elbow. "That sounds wonderful, Chris. Then Scorch can finish, uh, checking on Nikki."
Nikki shifted from foot to foot, fidgeting in a way he recognized as her need to run. He completely sympathized, which steeled his resolve to make this right between them.
Carson tapped the earphones dangling around her neck, soft strains of something filtering through but unidentifiable. "What's playing?"
A smile teased at her full lips, no gloss needed. She had a shine all her own. "Want to guess?"
"Lady, I couldn't figure you out if I had a million guesses."
"Thanks, I think." She reached down to the CD player clipped to her Lycra running pants and turned off the music. "My secret shame—I'm a big band, WWII music addict. Ragtime, too. Anything over sixty years old, and I'm there."
"God, you're full of surprises." How odd to realize he didn't know her any better than she knew him. He thought he'd been the one with all the secrets.
"That's me, unpredictable as ever, although I have to confess that these days I'm in the mood for a boring life."
The past few days had to have been scary as hell for her. Carson cupped her elbow, which seemed surprisingly frail even through the thick cotton of her pullover and a body he knew to be toned from running, workouts and even her membership on a local rec-league soccer team. Thank heaven for those honed quick reflexes. Still, she had to be sore, bruised maybe.
He searched for signs of scrapes but found nothing visible. "Are you okay? You look tired."
She scrunched her elegant nose. "Thanks."
"Are you feeling any aftereffects from the fall? You didn't actually go into work today, did you?"
"I wish. But no work for me today. The principal thinks it's best I take a couple of weeks off."
"What the f—" He stopped short, biting back the word along with his anger at the injustice before shoving it all aside to focus on her. "I'm so damn sorry."
"Me, too. The principal was hanging tough until word leaked that DNA tests of the skin under Gary's fingernails matched mine, which of course still doesn't mean a thing since I was obviously there with him."
His jaw flexed with tension or—more unsettling—jealousy? "Having your life on hold must be hell."
"They're paying me, so I shouldn't complain, but my students..." She shook her head, ponytail swishing from the back of her Atlanta Braves ball cap. "I wanted to be there with them when they present at the regional history fair."
"At least we got to finish the display and the reports before my surprise vacation." She nodded toward the open garage door full of gardening supplies. "I'm keeping busy around here in the meantime. I figure I can sabotage most of Mom's gorgeous landscaping by the end of the week."
The perfect excuse to hang around here longer and launch his plan to resurrect their unlikely friendship.
"Want some help? For your dad, of course." He winked.
Snorting, she rolled her eyes. "You're picking on me, aren't you?"
"More than a little."
"I think I lost my sense of humor along with a few hours of my life." She scooped a second sweatshirt off the hood of her truck and tugged it over her head on her way to the garage. She could pull on five layers and his mind's eye would see the beauty underneath, his hands itching to tunnel inside for a second sampling.
"About my dad—" she sidestepped a table saw on her way to the wheelbarrow "—I had to tell him what's going on before the news filtered over there."
He walked up alongside her in the garage, the scent of motor oil arousing as hell when mixed with a hint of Nikki's soap. "That must have been tough."
"Totally sucked." She passed him a rake. "I was so proud of myself for being independent, and yet, here I am."
She emptied the wheelbarrow, tossing two bags of mulch on the cement floor and grabbing the handles to roll it outside. Empty oak branches swayed overhead along with evergreens. She'd run a couple of miles and now planned to cool down with yard work? This woman really did need a friend's support more than maybe even she knew.
"Independence doesn't mean stupidity." He scraped the rake over the yard, gathering a growing tidal wave of dead pine needles. "It's good, normal and damned lucky to have family you can count on who know they can count on you."
"What about your family?" She knelt to scoop up the growing pile of pine straw with her hands. "You mentioned a sister."
"My sister's married, lives with her husband in Ireland."
"Ireland? Wow, you don't hear that one all that often."
He rubbed his thumb against two fingers in the universal "money" symbol.
"Ah, lucky for them."
He shrugged, raking faster. The Prices seemed a helluva lot richer to him with their overflowing home and working class values.
She stared up as she rose to take the handles again. "The whole 'money doesn't buy happiness' notion? Hmmm... maybe not, but it sure pays the bills." She dumped the full wheelbarrow by the curb and rolled back to his next pile of straw. "What about the rest of your family?"
"Well, they don't have any problems meeting their bills."
"You have that look to you."
"That look?" He peered over his aviator glasses, liking the look of her so much it was tough to process her words.
"Prep school education. A far cry from my parents' garage jam-packed full of yard gear, greasy tools and workout weights."
Her implied censure gave him pause. He'd always known she had a crush on him. He knew he had his faults—big ass faults—but since she didn't know about his alcoholism, he'd never stopped to consider there might be other things she disapproved of about his way of life. That tweaked more than it should have. "I think you're insulting me."
"No. Only commenting on our obvious differences. Just because I feel you did a really scumbag thing a few months ago doesn't mean I believe you're an actual scumbag."