She nodded, her blues eyes turning paler with the sheen of tears. She flung the drink into a nearby bin with extra force.
He only wanted to reopen a dialogue he’d probably been too quick to shut down yesterday. Somehow he’d gotten sidetracked and hurt her, the last thing he ever wanted to do. Time to detour them again.
Rick cashed in tokens for two medium-sized stuffed monkeys, one pink, one purple. He turned to the two women. “Ladies, pick your prize.”
Lauren rolled her eyes. “How lame.”
He noticed her eyes lingered on the purple, so he passed the pink to Nola and searched for a distraction from the awkward moment caused by his currently bratty daughter.
Dead ahead waited the perfect distraction.
Rick tossed the purple monkey to Lauren and jerked his head toward the bullet drop. “Come on.”
He gathered his crutches from where they leaned against the booth.
“What?” Nola cradled her monkey like a baby.
“If I don’t catapult my body out of something soon I’m going to go freaking nuts.” An understatement if ever he’d heard one.
He hadn’t realized how much he missed the sensation until he looked at that ride, something so damn pathetic in comparison to what he used to do on the job. And here he stood, shaking on the crutches in anticipation of climbing onto a kid’s carnival attraction. Talk about a revelation. He hadn’t left his past behind at all. He’d merely buried it under a mountain of determination to get through one day at a time.
Pausing on his crutches, he pivoted to his daughter, “Lauren, come on. The bullet.”
“Go ahead without me.” She stuffed her monkey under her armpit in a stranglehold and held out her hand in the universal “gimme money” plea. “I want a funnel cake. I’ll sit on the bench and wait.”
Rick considered ordering her to join them, but that would start another eye rolling, slouching, foot stomping, sighing, ad nauseam teenage response of disgust. Why had she crossed multiple states in the first place if she hated him so much? “Fine. We’ll meet you back here in five minutes and I’ll be watching you. Stay by the security guard.”
“Of course. I’ll get an extra funnel cake for you and Nola.” She wiggled her fingers. Money.
While Nola settled into the ride, he passed his crutches to Lauren for safekeeping and climbed into the seat. A teenager lowered the safety bars from overhead to lock them in place for the hydraulic lift before they were dropped. He watched Lauren sit with her funnel cake, happily chatting away with a park security guard, then turned to Nola.
Chalky pale Nola? The afternoon sun beating down on them left no room for misinterpretation.
She pulled a wobbly smile. “Have I mentioned that I hate heights?”
“Holy crap, Nola. I just assumed you would like this too. You’re a pilot for crying out loud.”
“I like to land with wings. Not a nylon pillowcase.”
“You should have told me no. I could have ridden by myself—or not at all. I’m not a kid who would pitch a tantrum if I didn’t get my treat.” He looked around for a way to call this off, but the ride was already full ahead and behind them. They were seconds from launch. Still, he cupped his hands around his mouth to shout—
Nola put her hand on his arm. “I want to share this with you. Let it go.”
He’d been with enough newbie jumpers to know distraction worked best, so he started talking, while periodically checking on Lauren. “I love to jump so much, sometimes I forget that others aren’t as addicted to it as I am. My mother vowed I gave her a heart attack when I was only two. She found me on top of the garage, ready to jump. I leaped off fences, swing sets, slides, car tops, balconies…and that was before first grade.”
“Your poor parents.” Her eyes lit as brightly as her grin.
“No kidding. I broke so many bones, they knew me on a first-name basis in the emergency room.” He reached surreptitiously to take her hand. “I’m sure my parents lived in fear of investigation by child services since I got hurt so often.”
“Is that how you came by your call sign? Lurch—like lurching forward?”
The ride jerked as if in tandem with the word lurch. Her hand jerked in his. He linked their fingers tighter.
“I wish. That would be far more dignified.” The capsule started its ascent upward. “On my fifth jump, I started feeling—how should I put it?—too confident. I made my way toward the open hatch, ready to roll, certain I could take the elements…and I knocked myself unconscious heading out the door.”
Her shoulders jerked upward with a burst of laughter.
He nudged her foot with his as they rose higher and higher, the people below growing smaller. “Hey, at least my call sign’s not ‘Sewer.’”
“Ohmigod, I’m not sure I want to know the story of how he got that one.”
“In his defense, the coordinates were off so it wasn’t his fault he landed in the sewage plant.”
She rolled her head along the rest to stare at him with serious eyes as blue as the sky he missed. “You really do miss it all.”
“There’s nothing like the jump.” Or was there? He stared into those endless blue eyes of hers and—
The bottom fell out. The capsule fell and his stomach welcomed the fall. Nola screamed, but a happy yelp so he allowed himself to savor the moment. His head thunked back, his eyes closed and…
Swoosh. The ride slowed as it eased to a stop all too soon. And that was it? Everything was over. He told himself the letdown came from the ride being so short, not a dissatisfaction from the experience. Parachuting took longer. That was the difference.
But inside him a voice niggled that there was something…missing. Something he didn’t have time to explore now because he had to haul his butt out of the seat for the next person to take his or her turn.
He followed Nola onto the landing and forced a smile he didn’t feel. “How was it?”
She kept her hand linked with his. “Pretty much like the first time I saw you.”
“What does that mean?” And did he really want to know right now when he was chin deep in questions about his own response to this experience?
She pivoted on her heel to face him, no smile in sight but unflinching. “My stomach jolted and I wasn’t sure if it was in a good or bad way, but there was no denying the reaction.”
He might have a number of questions, but on this he completely agreed. “Amen, lady.”
Rick tucked a knuckle under her chin and tipped her face up as he ducked to skim his mouth over hers. Thing was, though, that he couldn’t just taste. He always needed more when it came to this woman. The ride was never long enough, and he didn’t mean sex.
Pulling back, he stared down into her eyes and wondered what to do with that revelation. Luckily, he had time to ponder it a while longer since Lauren served as one helluva chaperone. “Let’s find Lauren.”
He took the steps slowly, arm looped over Nola’s shoulder as he made his way back to the bench. His crutches rested exactly where he’d left them…
But there was no sign of his daughter.
Nola thanked God and more than a few saints that Lauren was sleeping soundly in her hotel roll-out bed, her long dark hair splashed out over the pillowcase. Rick would take one of the double beds, while Nola slept on the other.
The ten minutes spent looking for the teenager at the amusement park had been the longest in Nola’s life. She and Rick had notified the park authorities, called the police. Just as the all-out search kicked into high gear, they found Lauren walking out of one of the restrooms.
The cops and park officials gave Rick and Nola indulgent looks. Too protective, overreacting, hyper- vigilant. She’d heard them whispering the judgmental assessments.
They didn’t know the fear of being kidnapped. She did. And she’d been an adult. She couldn’t even bear the thought of that hell being lived out by a child. Rick’s child.
Nola’s hands trembled around her cup of instant hot cocoa from the hotel’s coffeepot as she sagged into one of the chairs in the kitchenette area of the upscale dive crowded with bags since they didn’t know how long they would be gone. She puffed cooling breaths into her mug while Rick adjusted the lighting, darkening the sleeping area and leaving only a small lamp on in the kitchen area.
“Are you okay?” he asked softly, dropping to sit in the chair beside her and propping his feet on the nearby mattress.
“Yeah.” She nudged a second mug of hot cocoa toward him, blown away anew by how much he’d accomplished in a short time. It would be so easy to lean on a fella like this. “No. I’m still freaked out from this afternoon. I know you’re the one who should have the corner on the market for that since you’re her father and I’ve only known her a day. But ohmigod, Rick, I was so afraid I’d caused something to happen to your precious child.”
He reached over to grip her shoulder, his finger slipping inside her tank top to caress her bare skin with a hint of intimacy, even if they couldn’t take things further with Lauren in the room. “She’s all right. You don’t need to worry. I won’t let anything happen to either one of you.”
She should be consoling him. His daughter had been missing. Still, she couldn’t stop the shakes and guilt over the danger she’d brought into his life. “I appreciate your presence and your dedication. But you can’t know that. Bad things can happen so quickly.”
“I know, babe. I know.” He stroked back her hair. “Is there something else going on here?”
“While we thought Lauren had been kidnapped… it brought back some bad memories, more fallout from the job.” She sipped a bracing drink from the generic black mug. “I was taken captive on a mission in South America.”
“Holy hell. When?”
“Not too long after you hurt yourself, actually. We were sent to Cartina to aid in a smash and grab, to bring out someone from a drug lord’s compound.”
“Not your usual trash-hauling mission.” He took the mug from the table and knocked back a swallow.
“Not by a long shot.”
“So what went wrong?”
She couldn’t miss the dual intent in his eyes, concern for her and assessment, a need to understand on a professional level what had gone wrong as if perhaps he could have saved her. Would she have been rescued right away if someone like Rick had been sent out? She felt the shift inside her, the tiny voice whispering, Trust him.
“Our squadron commander went for a walk and didn’t come back. I got worried, didn’t follow orders, went looking for him. Everything went to hell when a rival drug lord staged an attack. I was caught flat-footed there in the middle of a jungle war.”
She downed the rest of her cocoa. “Definitely not my finest judgment moment, but you would have to know this commander. He was one of those who…well, he wasn’t the warm fuzzy type. He micromanaged the hell out of us. Then all of sudden we hear he had this wife who died, except maybe she was alive after all. Suddenly he had this vulnerable chink like the rest of us.”
“So you worried when he didn’t come back and went searching.”
“Right. And got caught in the middle of a turf war between two of the biggest badasses in Cartina.”
The horror of it washed over her again.
“Which group caught you?”
“It wasn’t a group, but rather the leader of one group fleeing after his compound was overrun. Luckily, he didn’t know I was military. I ditched my flight suit and just kept on my running shorts and the tank top I was wearing underneath. The last thing I wanted was to be identified as military to these guys.”
Nola shivered. She’d been under the knife so many times during her surgeries. She’d never imagined landing in the hands of amoral animals who cut people for pleasure. “I pretended to be an escaped captive of the other guy. I figured things would go better for me that way since I would have some value as a hostage.”