About ten seconds later Mako fidgeted. “Damn, you’re good with that psychological ops crap.”
“No PSYOPS about it. I may not be much on land, but I’m betting on even odds if I knock you into the water.”
“Well, damn. I actually believe you.”
“Smart man.” Rick couldn’t help but look at the scar that man carried. They all had burdens to work through. “About a lot of things.”
Mako’s shoulders relaxed as he went off attention mode and took a swig of his beer. “I take it to mean we’re not going swimming.”
“Not tonight.” He clinked drinks again as the rain picked up pace. “We’d better head back inside.”
Mako nodded and Rick turned his back on the open water with no little regret.
He got the message that he needed to be there for his daughter now, no more waiting for perfect legs. He would never be the perfect man, perfect father. But where did he fit into her world? Hell, where did he fit into Nola’s world, for that matter? Just being here tonight made him burn for things he could never have again. The water made him think he could do more.
Except until he could figure out how to fit into her world, he needed to stick to his original thoughts going into this night. He couldn’t afford to take things further with her.
And for some reason, that stabbed at him more than it had at the beginning of the evening.
Nola picked at the plate of chili-cheese fries in front of her as she sat with Lauren. The whole engagement party had been a blast—heavy finger food, live music and dancing. Noisy and fun, just the sort of squadron party they all enjoyed. She could see Lauren’s foot tapping under the table even though the teen kept her standard “life sucks” expression plastered on her face.
And gauging by Rick’s wandering off down the dock now that the rain muted the stars, apparently Lauren inherited her moodiness from her dad. Thank heavens for good old Mako, who’d enticed him to head back once the storm kicked up. The two were now ambling back along the pier toward the party.
Nola shifted her attention to Lauren again. “Sweetie, can I get you something else to drink?”
“Are you sure?”
“He doesn’t even want me here,” she blurted.
Nola struggled for the right thing to say, but she didn’t have any experience with teens. And why did teens layer three spaghetti strap tops that still showed their bra straps? “How can you say that?”
Lauren simply stared at her with that same “duh” look her father got. “I show up and the first thing he does is book me a flight home.”
Nola leaned forward and pointed with a French fry. “Be reasonable, kiddo. I’ve got a stalker gunning for me and because of me, your dad’s in the cross-hairs, too. He doesn’t want you to get hurt. You can’t fault him for that.”
“He barely even hugged me.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
The kid had a point there and Nola wanted to kick Rick. “Okay, his reception wasn’t the warmest, but you have to admit you caught him off guard—and you scared the bejesus out of him.”
“I’m an old, out-of-style lady. What can I say? But you get my point. Think about it.” Nola popped the fry into her mouth.
Lauren’s arms relaxed along with her practiced expression. “You aren’t even going to try and fake me out?” She actually reached for a fry, shaking her head. “Wow, you just won cool points on that alone. Okay. Yeah. My dad ignores me and it hurts.”
The teen stuffed a fry oozing cheese in her mouth, then another, taking her time chewing. Nola stayed quiet, giving her time to think and gather her words rather than pushing.
Finally Lauren swallowed and reached for her fork to stab up some of the chili…or rather just stab at the pile and not lift anything. “But I’m like him. If something hurts, I just get right up in that hurt’s face and stand it down. I’m not quitting. I want my dad in my life and not that lame-butt stepdad my mother has picked out for me. So here I am.”
“You are a lot like Rick.”
“Tough luck for me, huh?” Lauren dropped her fork with a clank.
“No, Lauren.” Nola reached across to take her hand before the kid could wrap her arms around herself defensively again. “It’s the luckiest break you ever got. You’re a fighter and a winner.”
“You met me, like, two days ago.” She didn’t hold hands back but she didn’t pull away, the long-fingered hand with nails painted alternating colors of pink and green to match the teen’s shirts—two of the three tank tops, anyway.
“I’m a quick people reader.” She squeezed Lauren’s hand with a reassurance she hoped the girl would accept and believe. “And your father has told me a lot about you.”
Her eager look just about tore Nola’s heart in two. Then Lauren went all blasé teen again. “So, like, what did he say?”
She started to share the things she knew Lauren wanted to hear, things that would make the girl like her as the bearer of good news… Then she stopped. This wasn’t her place. As much as she wanted to bond with Rick’s daughter, it would have to be done another way. She knew the right words to say now.
“Sweetie, you and your father have spoken through intermediaries and telephones far too often, in my opinion. If you want to know what he said, you should go right to him and ask him. Not call him. Talk to him face to face. Because he doesn’t use a lot of words, but those eyes of his speak darn near soliloquies.”
“Soliloquies? My old man? Are you sure we’re talking about the same person? Rick DeMassi, big fella. Weight lifter, military dude who thinks conversation involves ‘pass the potatoes, please.’”
“That would be him. My guess would be if you looked at him when he said that, you would see those big brown eyes saying he was sorry for all the meals he missed.”
And that was as much as she would reveal. Hopefully enough to nudge the girl into a real, face-to-face conversation with her father.
She’d tried her best to help them both rebuild their family. But would they have a place for her?
Rick thunked himself down in a chair beside Nola, not a hundred percent comfortable with the fact that his teenage daughter was dancing with the lieutenants. But they weren’t putting hands on her. Their dancing seemed appropriate.
And they seemed very aware of his glaring.
He wanted to blame his daughter’s dancing for the itchy sensation along his neck, but his instincts blared something more was going on here.
They were being watched.
Not something concrete he could call the cops and report. He searched the crowd, the perimeter, the trees, and could see nothing amiss. He could only sit and go quietly nuts.
“Rick?” Nola nudged his elbow. “Hello? Are you in there?”
He forced a smile. No need worrying her about something neither of them could change. He would just keep Nola and Lauren under close watch at all times. “Just reminiscing. Here we are, back in a bar again. I wish I could take you dancing.”
Her hand closed over his, her eyes so full of caring his neck crinked up. “I don’t need to dance. I have crummy rhythm and look pretty much like a gangly duck.”
“Bull. I’ve seen you dance before, if you recall, and you’re graceful and sexy as all get-out, lady.”
“Thank you.” She met his eyes straight on and let him see the unveiled emotion in her eyes. “I would rather sit here with you than dance, and that’s the God’s honest truth.”
He grinned, wanting things lighthearted the way they’d been that first night. Just for now. “Must be the chili-cheese fries.”
“You’ve found me out.” She reached across the table to take his hand. “We’ve already said all the wrong things. What does that leave for us to say this go-round?”
She wasn’t going to let him off that easy. But then that was one of the things he’d always liked about this woman, her grit.
“Hell if I know.” He flipped his hand to link fingers with hers. “More of that honesty I guess.”
Even under the cover of the bar porch, the mist clung to her skin, giving her a glow he wanted to taste. She shivered—from his watchful eyes or the chill, he didn’t know, but he shucked his jacket and draped it over her shoulders.
She burrowed deep into the denim coat. “Well, we both are certain you won’t leave me unsatisfied in bed.”
Memories of making love snapped between them, along with the fact that they couldn’t be together that way again as long as Lauren shared a room with them.
He squeezed her hand. “I like your bluntness.”
“Thank God somebody does.”
“Your ex didn’t?” He wanted to find the bastard, tie him to a tree and leave him there to be afraid for a good long time. Some things were worse than punches.
“I don’t want to talk about him. Even thinking about him makes me ill.”
She looked pale in the moonlight.
“Fair enough.” This whole ordeal with the stalker had to be wearing on her. “We should probably wrap this up and take Lauren home anyway.”
Nola rubbed her thumb over his knuckles in a teasing caress. “You don’t care for how the lieutenants are checking out your daughter.”
She had that right.
He tried to make light. “I refuse to acknowledge it’s even happening.”
At least she would be back at her mother’s tomorrow, which would take a huge burden of worry off his shoulders.
Nola jabbed her fork into the cheese and chili congealed on top of the leftover fries. “Have you considered letting Lauren live with you at the start of second semester? Once things have settled out here and you’ve got a place of your own?”
“I’m not equipped to be her father full-time,” he answered with his standard response.
“You keep saying that, but what if you don’t have a choice?” Nola set aside her fork. “You are her father and she needs you. Maybe you could settle close to her mother in…?”
“If you lived there, it would be easier with her mother close by.” She leaned on an elbow, closer to him, peering into his eyes. “Hey wait, you big fraud.”
“What do you mean?” He tipped back his chair, away from her too perceptive gaze.
“You do so want her to live with you. You’re just scared to death.”
Scared? He didn’t like the sound of that. Or the niggling sense that she might be right.
“You’re scared of failing.”
“Wow, it took you this long to figure that one out.” The woman was too observant for her own good. Being around her would be work on his part. He wouldn’t get away with jack. “You must be a flipping rocket scientist.”
“No need to be an ass just because I’m right.”
“I apologize.” As well he should, but damn, couldn’t she cut him some slack?
“Apology accepted. I know it hurts when someone hits a nerve. Rick, you’ve been given a second chance, not to live the life you had before, but to start a whole new one. Make it count.”
She was right. So right it cut deep. He needed time to let her words shuffle around in his mind until he could come up with a plan. He wouldn’t make promises to Lauren until he was certain he could keep them.
“Let’s table this discussion for now.” He scraped back his chair. “It’s late, and Lauren’s flight leaves early.”
“Just let me say goodbye to the happy couple and I’ll join you at the car.”
He did a walk-around of the car, checking the undercarriage and beneath the hood for a bomb. Deciding all looked clear, he joined Nola waiting by her door. “We’re set.”