Her shoulders slumped. “Of course. You want me to go.”
He sighed and slung his arm around her shoulders again, obviously trying his best in a situation that had no doubt thrown him for a loop. “I don’t want you to go. You have to leave for your own protection.”
Her head spinning with images of Rick with his daughter, Nola trudged up the steps into her house. He’d handled the situation as well as any parent could when faced with a surly teenage runaway—a child so obviously hungry for love.
Nola snagged extra sheets from the linen closet. The sleeping arrangements would definitely change since they all couldn’t sleep in the garage. She imagined what Rick would want in the way of security. He would insist on sleeping in her living room after all, and Lauren would sleep on a roll away in her office. He would undoubtedly make arrangements to send her home ASAP.
The girl’s bravado hadn’t come close to covering her heartbreak.
Nola clutched the sheets to her chest. She knew Rick would place a call to Lauren’s mom and reserve a plane ticket for the girl. Meanwhile, the three of them would stick together like glue until Lauren had a seat on an airliner home.
No more hot tub moments. Nola had gotten her breathing space.
She should be happy. Instead she felt as if she’d screwed up and lost something.
Her phone jangled from across the room. She dropped the sheets on the sofa and rushed to snatch up the receiver in case Rick needed something more for his daughter.
“Captain Seabrook.” A low, electronically distorted voice eased over the line with insidious chill. “Did you enjoy your flight today?”
“Who is this?” Nola swallowed down a bilious dread and wished she had made arrangements with the phone company to have her calls traced. There could be no doubt but that her stalker had finally made contact. Did it mean he was getting more serious that he would risk a phone call? Things certainly felt more eerie, more horridly personal.
“I wonder how you paid for that airplane with all your financial problems lately. Your new man friend, I assume. I watched you both from the field. If only I owned a shoulder-held rocket launcher…”
He continued to talk about how he’d enjoyed his view from the ground. His words looped over her like an icy noose around her body. Thank goodness her flight had been a last-minute decision. If she’d planned ahead and somehow he’d found out he could have sabotaged the plane in countless ways.
Her knees folded and she sank onto the sofa arm. She couldn’t bear to think she would have caused Rick’s death. As much as she craved his comfort, she also longed to tell him to leave, go anywhere far away from her, but she knew well nothing would peel him from her side now. His protector instincts were too deeply honed.
As deep as her own, because she couldn’t leave his side now that he needed her help with his daughter. Hmm. What an odd thought and God, her mind was wandering when she needed to focus on what this maniac was saying.
She wished the cops had tapped her phone, or that Rick was in the room with her. Now wasn’t that the ultimate in selfish? She had no idea what she expected him to do, but she hated being alone with the mechanically altered voice. It could be anyone babbling on the other end of that line. A stranger.
Or someone she knew. “So you’re finally ready to talk to me rather than hiding behind letters.”
“Soon we will talk face-to-face and you will remember me then. Your time is almost up.”
“You say we know each other.” She shivered at the thought. Was it someone she faced on a daily basis? She wanted to scream. This person had filled her life with fear for long enough. “Be a man and show yourself now. Who are you? Other than a coward who doesn’t reveal his face.”
“Not a coward,” he insisted with pompous indignation. “A careful strategist.”
She forced herself to stay calm and think, not to let fear overtake her. She could use this chance to gain information. “What have I ever done to you to warrant you hijacking my life this way?”
“I am reasonable. You will understand when we meet face-to-face.”
She wanted to shout her frustration. She’d learned nothing except that she’d met him. Although with stalkers, they could imagine a connection based on simply brushing arms in a crowd, interpreting an accidental exchanged look as having a secret code.
In essence, she’d learned nothing. “When will that be?”
“Soon. Very soon.” He went silent for a few crackly moments and she thought he’d disconnected, then he continued, “You look quite lovely in that color of green, my dear. You really should choose it more often.”
Nola dropped the receiver as if it carried contamination. He knew what she wore. He’d seen her. He was that close. She raced across the room, toward the front door. She had to tell Rick and Lauren to get the hell into the house. This man was seriously gunning for her, and now she’d not only put Rick in danger…
But his innocent daughter—a precious teenager whose beautiful eyes mirrored her father’s—was in the line of fire.
Rick had longed for the days when he had people to protect and save again, but he hadn’t envisioned it quite this way. Now he had both Nola and Lauren to think about right at the time when the stalker seemed ready to make his move.
He had to keep Nola and Lauren safe as best he could. For the moment a large crowd seemed in order—and on the day after Thanksgiving, an amusement park fit the bill. As much as he hated the crutches, a full day on asphalt necessitated he use the damned things.
The hot dog stand steamed a tempting smell to his left, a definite must in the very near future. Meanwhile, he made his way alongside Nola, his eyes firmly on Lauren a few steps ahead strolling past the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Rick had thought he’d put his past behind him.
All his honed instincts and training had come roaring back to the fore the second Nola had shown up at the garage apartment door, her face pale. Once he’d heard about the bastard’s call and threat, Rick had found his rescue training resurfacing with a speed that let him know he’d been fooling himself. Injuries be damned, he couldn’t deny who he was.
That Others May Live.
His only focus now was to keep Lauren and Nola out of the line of fire. The police had sworn there wasn’t anything more they could do. He’d stepped up the pace and spoken with Special Agent David Reis of the Air Force’s OSI. They couldn’t do anything immediate, either. The police were following up on the identity theft, but it was a slow process since the stalker was obviously more skilled than a first-time hacker.
Still, that phone call changed everything for him. The look on her face after the call had rattled his foundations, something that deeply hit home. She’d battled too hard to survive her bout of cancer to be taken down by a faceless maniac. Rick refused to let that happen.
Hell. His chest pulled tight. He hadn’t realized until just that moment how much her admission of nearly dying had affected him.
Breathe, damn it, breathe. He couldn’t afford this kind of emotionalism, not now. He’d made a promise to Nola, and he’d made a promise to his child the day she was born.
He would keep both females safe or die trying.
They weren’t staying at her place. First up, he’d told Nola to pack a suitcase and meet him in the SUV. A quick trip to the ATM machine later and he headed out. Making sure he wasn’t followed, he’d found a hotel, paid cash in case the bastard was tracking his credit cards, and checked them in for the weekend until he could get Lauren on a plane back to her mother’s. He’d had to pull strings and stay in a dive to get around using a credit card, but he’d made it work.
He’d considered staying on base, but he would have to use a credit card there. And the bastard had tampered with her car in the parking lot at a military hospital.
Lauren had cried her eyes out. Stomped her feet. Slammed a door—kicked the door. He’d told her to save her tantrums. She could come for Christmas and they would talk then.
She’d called him a liar since he’d missed out on so many holidays in the past and the truth in her words had just about broken his heart. Keeping her alive was more important than hurt feelings.
So, now he was sticking to overpopulated places. Such as an amusement park.
Hauling his exhausted butt through thrill ride central, Rick figured if he kept the two females in his life busy and in large crowds, the unpredictability would up the safety odds. He wanted Lauren home safe and sound with her mom, but her mother simply said Lauren would run again, which Lindsay deemed more dangerous.
Tough. He was putting Lauren on a plane and Lindsay better sit watch over the girl 24-7 until he had Nola safe and could deal with his daughter.
Rick gritted his teeth against the frustration and the strain of walking through the park all day, even with his crutches maneuvering around tattooed inline skaters and parents loaded down with stuffed animal prizes.
Nola toyed with the straw in her soda cup after their lunch at the park. “I guess if I mention you should sit down and rest that would fall on deaf ears.”
“Your daughter isn’t going to love you less if you limp a little.”
“Let’s not go there again, Nola.” He thumped ahead with his crutches, sidestepping a spilled box of popcorn. “The weekend dad gig leaves me cramming a lot into a short time.”
“I’m not a parent at all. After putting my foot in my mouth yesterday, I’ve vowed to mind my own business.”
Now she decided on silence after the top had already been blown off his world and he could actually use some extra input?
“You mentioned wanting kids.” He watched for her reaction, for her consent to continue. When a passing family caused he and Nola to pause, he skimmed a kiss over the top of her head for reassurance before continuing. “I assume you meant with your ex-husband? Or is that too personal a question?”
“I guess you and I stopped respecting each other’s boundaries a long time ago.” She stirred her straw through the ice, reminding him too vividly of how seductively she’d drawn on her milk shake.
“Pretty damn much. Why not go ahead and go for broke?”
“Yes, I wanted children.” Her eyes lingered on a mother ahead pushing a stroller while a toddler raced alongside with a balloon. “He kept putting it off. The timing wasn’t right and so on. Thank God, though. We didn’t need to have kids together with the way things ended up between us.” She jerked to look at him. “No offense meant to you and your ex.”
“None taken. It certainly would have been easier if we could have stayed together.” He gestured for his daughter to hold up while he stopped at a duck-shoot booth.
Lauren—still sulking and “torturing” him with the silent treatment—leaned against the corner, feigning disinterest. He wondered what Nola thought of his child and wished he could play home videos of his daughter giggling as she chased bubbles. Smiling as she shared flowers. She’d been such a happy, generous kid once upon a time… Now, she seemed determined to ignore Nola.
Was this how she treated Lindsay’s Ben, who Lauren labeled a “dweeb”? If she behaved this way, it was no wonder they didn’t get along.
Rick leaned on his elbows, took the toy gun and began popping the tin ducks.
Nola chewed her bottom lip. “There were, uh, other issues with Peter and me…”
“You don’t have to explain yourself.” But he hoped she would keep talking anyhow since he found himself drawn to her no matter how much he tried to keep those boundaries shored up. He focused on the worn yellow waterfowl that had seen better days and downed the next, smaller row.
“I look at your beautiful daughter and I…”
He glanced over from his toy gun. “Think ‘what if.’”