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“You think well on your feet.” He set his mug aside and rested his elbows on his knees, leaning closer. “You’re a tribute to the uniform.”

“Thank you.” She shoved her mug out of the way and cupped his face. “And no, I wasn’t raped, in case you’re wondering.”

A long exhale rattled through him. “I wasn’t going to ask, but thank you for letting me know. I also know, though, that there are plenty of other horrors. It must have been a hellish time.”

“Ramon Chavez was a strange man.” She sagged in the wingback chair. “A brute on the one hand, but with these old world values on the other. He didn’t think twice about slapping me around, but he never laid a sexual hand on me. It was as if he saw me as a rebellious daughter type and he was a tyrannical father.”

“A father with a gun to your head.” He gripped the arms of his chair with barely contained rage.

She nodded.

“For how long?”

“Time was so weird, surreal, but basically about three days.” Those days rolled through her memory again, the determination and the fear. Silence stretched now and she appreciated that Rick gave her the moment to digest those memories in this quiet room with nothing but the sound of the dripping faucet and Lauren’s gentle snoring.

Eventually—she had no idea how much later—he turned his mug around and around on the table and looked at her again.

“How were you rescued?” More of that professional assessment gleamed through, but with a steely determination that he would have rescued her faster.

“Rescued? I got away from Chavez myself.”

“Oh.” He blinked hard and fast. “I apologize for underestimating you.”

“I managed to stay alive long enough to find a time to overpower him and escape.”

She remembered well the thrill of that fight, the need for vengeance. It wasn’t a pretty feeling to realize how vulnerable she was to someone like Chavez. She’d been so close to plunging a knife between the man’s ribs while he lay there unconscious.

In the end, she’d palmed the blade, hog-tied him and run for the nearest city where she knew a safe house waited. “I bided my time and kicked Chavez’s butt. He died later in a tunnel collapse trying to infiltrate an airbase.”

“There is justice in the world.”

“I guess.” The death seemed too easy for all the grief he’d caused so many. “Although I would have preferred to see him stand trial for all the havoc he wreaked on people’s lives. I figure that just wasn’t meant to be.”

“You were denied your closure,” he offered with an insight she hadn’t expected.

“That’s quite a perceptive comment, especially for a man.”

“For a man? And that’s quite a sexist remark, lady.”

“I apologize.” Yipes. Open mouth, insert foot. “I have to confess I haven’t had much experience with men in touch with their emotions.”

“All right, I’ll ’fess up. They made me go through all sorts of brain-probe sessions during rehab. I’m full of cool, psychologically sensitive catch phrases.”

“Don’t be flip about this, please. It feels good to have you say something like that, to have someone understand, because, you’re right.” She could get used to having someone like Rick around. “I didn’t get my closure with the jerk who held me hostage. I may have knocked him out and run away, but I wanted to kick the crap out of him for how helpless he made me feel.”

It had been like a return to the hospital, at the mercy of cancer, not knowing if she would live or die, her options of fighting back limited. A totally hellish trot down memory boulevard.

Her hand fell to rest on his thigh. “We military types don’t deal well with the whole helpless thing.”

They shared a silent understanding, a link.

She could see that, all sensitivity aside, he wouldn’t outright admit how much it bothered him. So she would say the words for him.

“It’s a horrible experience losing control that way. But in a really strange, twisted way, it was also a liberating experience because I found my strength again.” She held up her hand. “No. Wait. I learned to trust my strength. I would wish that for you.”

“Are you deliberately being dense or you just slow today? We’re in two different situations. I’m not going to have my old life back.”

“You’ll build a new one.”

Mr. Sensitivity was long gone. Rick looked downright pissed. “How would you have felt if someone said that to you?”

“Just because I can still fly an airplane doesn’t mean I’m the same person. I lost a part of myself during that process.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. I know you went through hell and you’re an amazing woman to have come back. But that’s you and this is me. I’m not comfortable with the preaching. So if you value our roomie status, we need to end this conversation.”

“That’s quite a long speech for a man.”

“Then take it to heart.” He shoved to his feet, his eyes already on his bed and apparently leaving her to hers. “I must really mean it.”

How strange that just when she realized she didn’t want her space after all, Rick decided to rebuild his walls again.

Even a year later as he lay in the comfort of his hotel bed in historic downtown Charleston, Ramon Chavez could still taste the mud of the collapsed tunnel pummeling him. Even with the luxury of the high-class accommodations he’d sprung for, he couldn’t rid himself of the suffocating stench of fear as he’d clawed his way through to daylight. Having people think he’d died proved quite beneficial, however. He could move around with stealth to gain his revenge on those who’d caused him such pain.

One person in particular topped his list, a woman who had emasculated him, stolen his honor by taking him down in a fight. Honor, his manliness, those were everything to him and until he killed Nola Seabrook, he couldn’t regain his true self.

Once Rick DeMassi’s daughter had arrived, Ramon thought he would have a new tool to torture them, then…poof. They’d disappeared. His frustration had grown since that Rick had lost him with his fancy driving techniques. Where were they while he cooled his heels?

Ramon clicked off the remote control and tossed it aside onto the end table. He still couldn’t believe his bad luck in seeing the teenage girl from the diner in Texas show up here. What if she remembered him? If she saw him here and recalled him from before, the mention could set off alarms to Nola and her friend. Time to lie low and quit trying to follow them around.

He snorted. A convenient plan since he’d lost them anyway.

Still, he could set some additional traps in place for the final showdown, because eventually, they would have to return home. And when they did he would be ready for Nola.

This time away had actually played right into his hands.

Ramon grabbed the other pillow and stuffed it under his head, simply for comfort, not because his body nearing sixty years old was starting to creak. He kept in prime condition with workouts in the hotel gym and swimming pool.

He wouldn’t underestimate Nola as he had in South America. She was a strong woman. This time, he would weaken his opponent. He didn’t know where they were now, but he did know—thanks to his skill at charming a secretary in Nola Seabrook’s squadron—that her unit had planned a Thanksgiving weekend party at a local hangout, Beachcombers Bar and Grill. He only needed to poison Nola with a mild dose, just enough to slow her and dip the odds in his favor so she couldn’t fight back so fiercely.

This time, he would accept nothing but total victory. And he would take down anyone who stood with her.

Chapter 13

Keeping his emotional distance from Nola proved tougher and tougher when she looked so damn hot. Rick lounged against the dock outside of Beachcombers Bar and Grill and watched her throw back her head and laugh with her flyer pals.

The Saturday-night noise swelled with the engagement party for the Squadron Commander, Carson Hunt, and his fiancée Nikki Price. Her friends made him feel welcome, but he could only take so much of this world before he needed to pull his head together.

He could take a free moment for himself, knowing his daughter was safe with Nola and all her crew dog buddies at the party. Nola had kept his daughter glued to her side regardless of where she went and musical Lauren would enjoy the band pulsing away beach tunes.

Meanwhile, the water called to his soul, moonlight stretching a silvery channel for him to swim, to slice his arms through for hours on end. The ocean, the place where he’d felt most in control since he was a teenager diving into the surf to drown out the sound of his arguing parents. His ability to swim had stayed with him, even after the accident. In rehab he’d been able to outswim his therapists. The discovery had been a bright spot during months of hell.

Memories rained down on him like the gentle mist falling from the sky. Of dropping out of a helicopter into a stormy ocean to rescue an unconscious fighter pilot who’d ejected. Icy water, waves engulfing him.

He’d lost count of how many he’d lifted free over the years.

A thud, thud, thud on the dock interrupted his thoughts. He glanced over his shoulder and saw one of Nola’s crew members walking toward him, the in-flight mechanic…Rick searched for the guy’s name and could only come up with his call sign. Mako.

Mako called, “Hope you don’t mind if I join you.”

More like Nola must have sent the guy to look out for him and make sure he felt included.

“Just checking out this peaceful place.” It was all he could do not to dive off the dock right now. With any luck the storm clouds overhead would open and churn up the ocean for a wilder ride. “Great spot for fishing.”

“Peace is in short supply these days for us folks in uniform.” The easygoing guy pulled up alongside him and leaned against the dock, drinking his beer.

“Not for me. I’m out of the field for good.” When would that get easier to say?

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me sir anymore. These legs won’t be holding me up out in the field.” But in the water he could hold his own. Except his job called for more than the water.

“Whatever, sir.”

They shared a laugh, then clanked drinks together—his soda, Mako’s beer. Rick sure could have used one but couldn’t afford to dull his senses so he settled for a plain Coke tonight.

“For an easygoing guy, you’re surprisingly stubborn, Sergeant.”

“That’s what my mama says.” Mako rolled his beer bottle between his hands. “You earned the sir for life. No bum leg’s gonna take that away.”

Rick grunted, flicking a shell from the dock railing into the murky water below. Plop.

“Sir, no disrespect meant, but I was in a barracks bombing over there. My best friend left behind a widow and two little girls who don’t have a father to walk them down the aisle some day.”

Rick stayed quiet, winging a prayer for that family. Too easily it could have been Lauren without a father. He’d worked his butt off to get back on his feet again so he could walk her down the aisle.

“I met your daughter up there. She’s a great kid.”

Unspoken message received. He would get to walk his daughter down the aisle. “I’m guessing your call sign was never ‘Subtle.’”

“Nope. And I apologize if I’m overstepping. It’s been a helluva year for all of us.” Mako scratched a thin scar just beside his ear. “I’ve learned time is too precious to waste even valuable minutes being subtle.” He elbowed Rick in the side. “Besides, it’s not like you’re in any shape to whup my ass.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Rick stared him down with his best whup-ass glare while ever-so-slowly bringing his glass to his mouth.