“Got it.” Rick tucked his weapon out of sight in the small of his back. “We can’t go out with it showing. He’ll only make me throw it down.”
Somewhere in his fifties, the man looked as if he stayed in shape. She’d fought hard to escape Ramon Chavez, a narrow thing a year ago when she’d been in top condition, and now she could barely walk after the scorpion sting. Rick had an amazing amount of upper body strength, but one swipe to his legs…
She couldn’t afford these negative thoughts.
Her hand closed over the doorknob.
Rick’s hand rested on her waist. “Stay on the other side of me, away from him. I can’t worry about you and Lauren. I love you.”
He opened the door.
Good God. He dropped the “love bomb” like that and expected her to keep her cool? Nola scrambled for her scattered wits and—what do you know?—Rick used her hesitation to put himself between her and the gunman.
Rick braced a hand on the porch post.
Nola pulled up alongside him. “So you’ve finally decided to show your face.”
“I decided the time had come.” He caressed the gun along Lauren’s forehead in a sadistic show of force. “My timing. My control. You may have gotten the better of me once, but I will be the victor this time.”
Nola sifted through his words and could hardly believe how the pieces fit together. The man had come after her because of a wounded ego?
She stepped onto the porch, staying behind Rick, not because she felt she needed his shielding but because she didn’t want him distracted with worry. “How did you survive the tunnel collapse?”
“I am a strong man, stronger than anyone gave me credit for.” He hitched his arm harder against the terrified teen’s gut. “I clawed my way to freedom. Revenge can give you more strength than you could imagine.”
She hoped he was right because the need for a slice of vengeance for herself gnawed deep.
At the show of force against Lauren, a vein popped along Rick’s temple. “How did you get to my daughter?”
Chavez tut-tutted. “You two are so predictable. I knew you would send the child away. I am an Internet genius. When you booked her flight, I booked my own on her flight. It was no problem to overtake her in Atlanta when she went to the restroom on her own. I simply waylaid Lauren and told her that her father had been in an accident. Your daughter is truly too trusting.”
Nola rested her hand on Rick’s back in reassurance.
“I do not want to hurt this pretty young child. She has done nothing to me, but you know as well as I that there are casualties in war. It is up to you as to whether she will be one of them. Will you come quietly with me now? Or will you make this a fight?”
Their first order of business had to be securing the safety of Rick’s daughter. Nola knew that. She had beaten this man once before, she could do it again. She refused to think about what the scorpion’s poison had done to her system. Of course that would have been the man’s plan, to weaken her this time. Now it all made sense.
She came level, shoulder to shoulder with Rick, then moved down to the first step.
“I love you, too,” she whispered as she passed, and ohmigod what a time to make this realization.
They should have had more time… She had to think positively. Put one foot in front of the other.
Chavez eased his hold on the girl. Nola wondered if she could trust his word. What if he took them both hostage? But this man had always entertained a twisted sense of frontier justice. Somehow she believed he would let Lauren go. He meant what he said about his vendetta being with her alone. His reasons for killing her were bizarre to say the least, but his obsession was with her alone.
She also knew Rick’s code of honor was unbending. He would not leave with her still held hostage. He would die first. Without question.
Her feet faltered. How could she guarantee both the father’s and daughter’s safety? She couldn’t.
Her heart squeezed.
Lauren walked past her, tears streaking mascara down the young girl’s no-longer-jaded-face. Their hands brushed. Then Lauren ran for her father.
Nola closed the last few steps between herself and the man who’d held her hostage a year ago. Helplessness threatened to swallow her. Her worst fears came to life again. Battling free of him before had been so liberating. Why did she have to go through this again?
She couldn’t let the negativity show through or it would distract Rick.
Chavez gripped her upper arm, his fingers a steely, unforgiving band. “You won’t get away this time.” He jabbed the gun deeper into her waist. “Major DeMassi, I’m sure you have a gun tucked somewhere. Toss it aside. Now please, or I will start shooting.”
Nola watched Rick calculating until finally, he reached behind him and took the weapon from the small of his back and placed it on the porch banister, carefully. She made note of it, hoping one of them could use it later.
Soon, hopefully. She shivered against the stench of Chavez’s breath and the sheer evil and hatred radiating from him. She wanted to fight him again. She assessed the strength of his hold on her. He obviously still worked out. He’d been strong before—and seemed more so now. Getting away from him before had been a near thing with her at full speed. She had to be honest with herself. The scorpion sting had drained her. Even now, lethargy stole over her.
Could Rick hold his own against the man? Would his legs support him? She saw the determination in his eyes as he wordlessly shoved Lauren behind him. She saw the implicit instruction there. He had a plan. He wanted her to see to Lauren and he would take care of Chavez.
Then it hit her. Rick trusted her with his child. Something fluttered to life inside her that she hadn’t even realized was dead. Her ex-husband had refused so many times to have children with her, only to start a family right away with his new wife. That had hurt in a way she’d never fully acknowledged. And now Rick trusted her with his child.
A small moment. A big step. One she would savor later, because yes, she intended to have a later with this man and his child, and her own second chance at life.
Nola looked him in the eyes and let him read her implicit message, her joining in his plan. The communication flowed freely between them in a way she’d never felt with her ex-husband. She hadn’t even known what she was missing.
Chavez yanked her arm. “We’re going to leave now. I am a man of honor and I meant what I said about only wanting Nola.” He nodded to Rick. “However, if I were you, I wouldn’t try starting that car of yours anytime soon.”
Time to put this plan into action. She let her eyelids grow heavy, her body sag ever so increasingly in Chavez’s grip.
“Stop that!” he ordered.
“What? Huh?” She shook herself a little as if trying to shore herself up, then drooped again.
“Damn it, woman.”
Rick frowned, taking a step forward. “It must be the scorpion bite you inflicted on her. You wanted her weakened. You did this to her.”
“No closer,” Chavez warned. “She and I are going to leave now.”
Her eyes snapped open and made direct contact with Rick’s.
Now! her unspoken message shouted.
Rick shoved Lauren to the right as Nola chopped Chavez’s gun hand down. The gunshot split the air, sending rock and dirt flying as Rick launched forward. Chavez’s weapon skittered away and into the water.
Nola dropped and rolled out of the way, toward Lauren. She covered the child’s body with hers. Watching. Praying.
Rick and Chavez exchanged punches and ohmigod, the older man seemed to be gaining ground. Blood poured from a cut above Rick’s eye. Another punch landed in his gut. Grunting, Rick stumbled backward a good five steps…
Toward the watery drop-off.
Realization dawned. Rick wasn’t losing the fight at all. He was taking it to his playing field where he knew he stood better odds of winning. Two more punches put Rick’s heels on the edge of the water while Lauren screamed in fear as she tried to run for her father. Nola pinned the hysterical teen to the ground even as she, too, longed to run and offer help.
In a flash, his fist shot out and gripped Chavez’s shirt and they both went over backward. The splash swallowed both men, the water deep from the recent swell of rain.
She held her breath as if in sympathy. The murky waters churned with action. Bubbles roiled with no signs of a victor or loser. What if she was wrong and Rick couldn’t pull this off? His injuries had been extensive. How long could they stay under? How long had passed? The cooler temperatures would play havoc with their bodies.
Lauren whimpered under her.
Nola sat up and hugged her close. “It’s okay, sweetie, your daddy’s an expert at this. He’s trained for these kinds of waters. This is exactly where he wanted the fight to be.”
“He’s a hero.”
A hero. But also a man who had entrusted his child to her. Keeping a hand firmly locked around Lauren’s wrist, Nola jerked her up to run to the porch and retrieve Rick’s gun, because as much as she prayed that he would come out of those waters alive, she knew that life wasn’t fair and predictable. She’d made him a promise to keep his daughter safe.
Nola pulled her cell phone from her pocket and passed it to Lauren. “Call the police again and update them.”
Then she wrapped an arm around the teen’s shoulder and gripped the gun in her other hand. Waiting for the man she loved. The power of it didn’t come over her in some gentle breeze or pretty flowering. It smashed her over the head then squeezed tight, a strong emotion as big and powerful as the man who’d brought it.
In a gush upward, Rick exploded from the water, alive. Thank God, alive.
Emotions swirled inside her, bubbling higher and higher until tears flowed down her face and the gun shook in her hand. His angular features wet, his hair streaming and jet-black. In his fist, he held the limp body of her captor.
“Unconscious, not dead,” Rick gasped, then grinned. “God, you look hot holding that gun, all fired up and protecting my kid. Wanna get hitched?”
Choking back the tears of relief, Nola launched forward with Lauren while Rick tossed the unconscious Chavez onto the bank. Rick took the gun from her shaking hand and trained it on the bastard sprawled on the sandy shore, gathering up Nola and Lauren with his other arm.
Nola let the tears of relief flow and hugged Rick back, Lauren, too, this unexpected child who had come into her life. A stepdaughter. Wow. Mind-blowing. Exciting.
Sirens whined in the distance, but Nola barely noticed with her cheek pressed to Rick’s wet chest, his heart thudding in her ear. A heart she would listen to for the rest of her life.
Leaning against a tree by the marsh, Rick wondered at the hitch in his throat that lingered long after the cops had cleared out with Chavez in handcuffs. Lauren and Nola were inside cleaning up.
He’d already called Lindsay and told her he would send Lauren home tomorrow. His ex-wife had gone a little hysterical after hearing what happened, but her husband-to-be had taken the phone and offered an awkward thank-you. Something that meant a lot coming from the guy who would be spending so much time with Lauren over the next few years.
Rick figured he would use the time-out near the water to gather his thoughts. The water had served him well in the end, always his friend. Always home.
Except that wasn’t quite true anymore. He’d found a new home.
He pivoted to find Lauren waiting at the bottom porch step, her long hair wet from her shower. She wore her standard sleep pants and a raggedy T-shirt… Wait. Wasn’t that…? It was. An old T-shirt of his from an air show they’d attended together.
And she still wore it.
He had two choices right now. He could stand here and feel guilty. Or he could move forward on his battered legs and fix things with his daughter.