“You want the number?”
Lindsay’s shock was unmistakable.
“Yeah, what’s so strange about that?”
“I tried like hell for years to get you to call her more often.”
The censure bugged him more than a little. He knew he’d screwed up in being “Father of the Year” material, but he had made an effort. “I couldn’t help it that there were times I didn’t have telephone service. There were times I needed to go silent. Communication is better now with cell phones and e-mail.”
Not that any of it mattered since he was out of the service anyway, something he would be telling Lauren and Lindsay soon. And maybe he was getting wiser thanks to the insights of a certain pushy—hot—lady pilot.
“Sure, whatever. I’m just glad for Lauren’s sake. I don’t have the number handy, but I’ll text message the number to you after Ben and I finish up our lunch at his partner’s.”
Sounded like Lindsay had the life she’d always wanted. “That would be great. Thanks.” He hesitated, wishing the towering pines lining the road could offer up some help on what he should say to smooth the way with this woman he would be linked to forever through their kid. “And hey, Lindsay?”
“Congratulations. I hope this guy makes you happy.”
“Thank you, Rick, he does.” Her normally confident voice went tentative, soft. “He may not be an out-there, big personality like you, but life feels good now. I’m at peace.”
“I’m glad for you,” he said, and meant it.
He thumbed the Off button and clenched the phone for a long moment. His feelings for Lindsay had ended over eight years ago. They’d said their goodbyes. But this farewell brought a finality and—he searched for the word—a peace for him, too.
His past was finally just that, in the past.
Nodding to no one in particular, he tucked his phone in his pocket and tossed his best grin to the fascinating woman beside him, determined to make the most of the rest of this Thanksgiving. “So, lady, what do you have in store for us today?”
“Take that right turn up there and you’ll see.”
He saw the turn and the sign for…a small county airport? She couldn’t be planning what he thought.
A tentative smile lit her face even as he sensed a big-ass storm cloud heading toward his day. “Just because you’ve been retired on disability from the Air Force anymore doesn’t mean we can’t take to the skies.”
Yoke in both hands, Nola guided the plane through the late-afternoon sky with none of her usual joy since she waited for Rick’s verdict on her gift. He hadn’t been rude, but his brooding silence worried her.
She’d been so sure he would enjoy this as she’d made her plans. She had her private pilot’s license as well as her military training, she’d asked a friend to let her use the small craft for a two-hour flight around Charleston airspace. Nothing fancy or hair-raising as they’d experienced on missions. Still, clear blue sky stretched out like a baby boy’s blanket to cushion them.
She’d expected Rick to absorb the experience, soak it up after so long without. Instead, he’d gone silent since the moment they’d pulled into the airport parking lot.
Maybe she was being presumptuous in assuming she’d caused his moodiness. Perhaps his quiet had more to do with his conversation with his ex-wife than the flight.
She thought about keeping her distance…but she and Rick had slept together, for goodness’ sake. She’d made a promise to herself to start embracing life again. If he didn’t want to discuss it, he could say so. And if he did, then she would have done well in gently broaching the subject. “So your ex-wife is getting remarried.”
Not a resounding endorsement for conversation but then didn’t all those Internet info blurbs indicate that men used half as many words as women to get their point across? If so, then those two words carried a lot of weight. She would toss another open-ended question out there for him to pick up—or not—as he saw fit.
“How do you feel about that?” A simple question, but once voiced, it scared her with how much she wanted to know. Wow, these tangled feelings scared the bejesus out of her.
He shifted in this seat, leather crackling, his serious face set in hard lines. “I don’t have any feelings for Lindsay if that’s what you’re asking.”
Whoosh. She hadn’t even realized she was holding her breath. “Wow, you sure don’t beat around the bush.”
“You’re the second woman to say that to me today.”
“I’m not sure I like being compared to your ex-wife.”
“My apologies.” His expression eased a little, closer to the Rick who romanced her with milk shakes and bubble baths. “I’m still in a mood from the conversation. Our daughter isn’t happy about the marriage and for that reason I’m not okay with it.”
“I can understand that.” She churned the info around in her head and couldn’t help but ask, “Why not have your daughter come live with you now?”
“You may not have noticed, but I’m still recovering from serious injuries.”
She should shut up. Should. And still she couldn’t stop from opening her mouth. “She’s fifteen, right? Well past the diaper stage.”
Uh-oh. His conversation had seriously fallen off. She couldn’t even say those were small words anymore. She’d better taper hers off now, too. “Hmm.”
“You have an opinion.” He traced his fingers along the copilot’s yoke in front of him, one that moved in tandem with her hands guiding the controls on the pilot’s yoke. “Go ahead and spit it out.”
“I’ve already said my bit. It’s not my business, anyway.” There. Now she’d wised up. Hush and enjoy the flight. She gripped the yoke tighter.
“You’ve got that right.” His jaw flexed so hard he might well crack a crown. “In case you haven’t noticed, I live in a one-room garage apartment.”
“Not for much longer hopefully.” Wait. She wanted to call back those words. She hadn’t meant them the way they sounded but backpedaling would probably only make it sound worse.
He cocked a brow. “Are you booting me out already?”
“You know better. I only mean I hope we catch the creep soon.” Where would Rick go then? Where would their relationship go?
An emotionally confusing question, especially when she still had the smell of him swirling through her senses. Why did she have to make this complicated? She really had intended this day to be special, but then he’d gone all brooding and silent on her. The confined space compacted the emotions to smothering levels until she had to speak or suffocate.
“There was a time I would have given anything to have a child.”
“Jesus, woman,” he blurted, “you don’t pull any punches, either.”
“Why should I? You’re a strong man.”
“Thanks.” Some of the anger smoothed from his angular features. “I think.”
She stared and realized what was niggling at her. His hands moved in synch with hers. “You have your civilian pilot’s license, don’t you?”
He jolted. Not hugely, just a hint, but enough for her to notice. She thought at first he wouldn’t answer. Then finally he nodded slightly. “I did, at one point. But it’s not current anymore since I haven’t been able to log airtime with an instructor this past year.”
“I’m an instructor. You can take the controls and it would be legal.”
His hands flexed. His gaze so hungry no way could she miss how much he wanted this even if he didn’t speak.
Why wouldn’t he go for it? She wouldn’t know if she didn’t ask. “Is it that hard for you to have anything to do with the past?”
“Don’t overanalyze me.” His voice, a low rumble invited no argument.
Nola stared out at the late-afternoon sky and found none of the beauty she’d enjoyed just minutes before, instead seeing more of a flattened meringue look. “I’m sorry if this wasn’t a good idea after all.”
“Ah hell.” He exhaled the curse. “Women have to make everything so complicated.”
He placed his hands on the yoke in front of him, feet on the rudders and she felt control slip away from her as he took over. And lookee there, those clouds poofed right back up, all pretty again.
Grinning, she lifted her hands away, slid her feet off and the plane continued on its path without so much as a bobble. His jaw flexed.
He didn’t look at all happy or peaceful. He looked more like the Biblical Jacob wrestling with his destiny.
The answers seemed so simple to her. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that you’re hurting your daughter with this ‘wait until I’m well’ attitude of yours.”
“Back off, Nola,” he barked without looking away from the horizon. “She’s my daughter. You don’t even know her.”
“No, I don’t.” She lounged back in her seat without once taking her eyes off the controls. “But I have a brain. I was a teenage girl.”
“So you have a few father issues of your own?”
He was far too perceptive for his own good. This flight was supposed to have been about giving him a moment of peace and here they were jabbing at each other. Maybe the flight and the call—and making love—had left them both feeling too raw for reasonable discussion.
“Okay, yeah, I’m strong enough to own up. My father walked and ignored me in lieu of his new bachelor footloose world. I was a messy loose end from his old life. He figured it was better to let me move on with my mom and her new husband, since it was a traditional family setup. Nobody ever thought to ask me. Now they’re all dead and I don’t have the chance to be with any of them.”
Much as she loved both her parents, she resented being shuffled around like a playing piece during her childhood. Could she help it if she felt a tug of empathy for Rick’s daughter?
“Nola, I’m sorry you’ve lost your family—” he offered her a nod of sympathy “—but one person can’t compare their life to another’s.”
Fair enough. She searched her mind for other possibilities for reasons for his distance. “Is your daughter some mega athlete?”
A grin tensed his jaw. “Hardly. Throw a ball her way and she puts her hands in front of her face and screams. She’s into theater and dance. She has an amazing voice. She’s more of a romantic.”
The pieces fell into place for her. “You want to live up to her heroic ideal of being a superhero Daddy who can save the world.”
His knuckles went white on the yoke. “Did you study how to go for the jugular or is it a natural instinct?”
Contrition nipped. “I’m sorry if I hurt you. I had a bigger point to make here if you would just—”
“Thanks, but no.”
Why couldn’t he see the heroism of his survival? Or that daddies were heroes to their little girls simply because they existed? “I would have given anything to have the chance to be a parent.”
He didn’t pull his gaze from the purpling horizon, but lifted one of his hands from the yoke and rested it on hers. “I’m so damn sorry you didn’t get to have your baby.”
She tapped the fuel gauge even though it was working just fine. “Aren’t you going to tell me how I should consider adoption?”
“It’s not my place to offer advice or platitudes.” And didn’t that comment speak volumes about how he would prefer to be treated?
The plane’s engines hummed in the stretching silence.