Page 19

"Do you believe him when he says he couldn't have been the father? He's sixteen, almost seventeen. I understand teenagers have sex." She was proof of that one. "But Chris hasn't seemed to go out much in anything other than groups."

J.T. dropped the boot on the floor beside the other. "I think he's telling the truth. Except I can't help but wonder what's up with this friend Miranda or whoever she is. She's obviously sleeping with someone, and she didn't turn to the father. What the hell's wrong with the guy that she wouldn't go to him?"

The unspoken accusation of Rena keeping the pregnancy secret flicked her conscience. "I know I should have told you about the baby sooner."

"Thank you." He nudged one boot closer to the other with his toe, lining them up before leaning back in the chair when in the past days he would have unzipped his flight suit partway, made himself at home. "There's obviously a problem there. If he's a violent type, then he's not going to like his girlfriend turning to Chris."

"You're thinking about the car accident?"

"Just running through possibilities. I can't seem to get away from the fact that you were in Chris's car, and damn it, that van swerved deliberately. Not some drunken weaving. Once the van hit you, it didn't so much as take out a trash can on its way off. The driving was deliberate and smooth."

"A disgruntled boyfriend?"

"Could be an explanation. Hormones and rage together can be a lethal combination."

"And you need an explanation."

"Don't you?"

"Accidents happen."

"And sometimes they don't." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Look, I don't want to argue with you about this. Especially not now when it seemed like maybe we were making some headway earlier. We never finished our discussion in the truck—about trying to work things out."

Headway that ground to a halt when he'd made it clear he wanted to come home for the baby. She'd gone that route once and ended up with her heart shredded. "We've tried before—"

"Hold on. I'm not talking big plans. Just keep things like they are for a while longer. We still have the weekend before you can drive. There's the question of what's going on with Chris. Why shake things up?"

Because she didn't think she could survive watching J.T.'s broad shoulders walk out of her life again.

"No need to decide now. Tuesday, I have a flight I can't cancel or change. Lots of prep work, too. Why don't we regroup after that?"

Putting off answering seemed easier than discussing anything else tonight with the taste and smell of him still on her. "Tuesday, then."

"Good. This is the right thing, babe, you'll see." He scooped his boots up and stood. "'Night, Rena."

He leaned and kissed her. On the lips, lingering a full two seconds beyond a peck but not long enough for her to gather her thoughts and object.

Then he was gone, the familiar thud of his steps echoing up the stairs.

And thank God he hadn't pressed her for more, because just like twenty-two years ago in the back seat of her BMW, she was afraid she couldn't tell this man no.

"Dad, I want to quit working at the restaurant."

J.T. stared up from the weight bench at his son spotting for him in their garage workout area. "What brought that on?"

"Just don't like it there."

"You're going to have to do better than that." He extended his arms, sweating through his third set of ten reps. His job required less lifting these days as things became more mechanized, but the physical exertion still let off steam. He had steam to spare at the moment, and he needed the time to check up on his son. "A man doesn't quit on his obligations."

Accusatory brown eyes stared back down at him. "Really?"

"There's a difference between divorce and quitting." He huffed through lifts. Muggy gusts of air through the open window by the tool bench provided minimal cooling, merely moving around the scent of sweat and motor oil.

"Sure, whatever."

"Seven, eight," J.T. counted to calm his frustration as well as mark his repetitions. "Nine, ten."

He hefted the two hundred fifty pounds onto the brackets, releasing the bar with a clang. He swung his feet around to the side, snagging a towel from the floor and swiping his head. "So, son? Reason for quitting?"

Chris shrugged, baggy T-shirt rippling. "Exams are coming up. I need to study and, like, with those extra deliveries Miranda was talking about, the job's taking up lots more time. I was thinking I could, uh, quit at the restaurant for a few weeks and then find something else once summer starts."

"Why not ask for a couple of weeks off?" He grabbed the gallon milk jug filled with water and tipped it back, chugging.

Chris swiveled away to adjust the weights, decreasing to one-twenty for his go-round on the bench. "My boss, Mr. Haugen, won't go for that."

"Do you want me to talk to him about time off or cutting out the deliveries?"

He jerked around. "No!"

J.T. set down the jug on the Astroturf covering concrete. "Did he let you go and you don't want to tell me?"

"I'd just like to find something else."

The reasons made sense, but something didn't ring true in his tone. Bottom line, though, he couldn't make his son stay with the job. Chris could just screw up and get fired if he wanted out that much. "Fine. I can't argue with a kid who wants to study more. But I do expect you to find something else once school's out. You're not going to lie around here all summer while your mother and I are at work."

Chris dropped onto his back on the weight bench, feet to the side on the ground. "Is this about the stuff in the trash again?"

"Partly." J.T. stepped in place to spot for his son. "I understand you feel that you can't betray a friend's confidence. But be careful. If this girl's boyfriend starts gunning for you—"

"He won't."

"Are you sure, because—"

"He won't."

O-kay. He wasn't getting any more out of Chris on that one. Although he almost hoped the angry-boyfriend scenario was true, because then there wouldn't be unanswered questions. One angry teen was a helluva lot easier to deal with than original concerns about a gang. Or that something might have leaked about his surveillance flights.

J.T. stared down at his son on the bench. "You owe your mother an apology for what you said the other night. You hurt her."

So did you, his son's eyes accused silently. "I'll tell her I'm sorry."

Chris hefted the weight bar off and closed his eyes. Concentration or avoidance? Either way, the shutout was obvious.

Two sets of ten later, Chris replaced the bar, ducked around it and sat up. "No sweat about the summer job, Dad. I got a line on something at the squadron pool party. Spike told me he heard they were looking for lifeguards at the base pool. He said he thought I had a good shot at getting a slot."

"Ah, now I get it." J.T. sat beside his son. "Bathing suits."

A sheepish grin twitched across Chris's face, just like the time J.T. had caught him flushing Legos down the toilet.

He hadn't thought much about Chris and swimming, or that his son might have different sport preferences than his own interest in football and wrestling. But since Spike had once been a professional diver during his stint with the CIA, if the guy thought Chris could handle lifeguarding, then it must be so. "Not a bad way to spend the summer and earn money. Sure a helluva lot more fun than the way I spent my summers as a teenager. I'm lucky now to be doing something I enjoy."

Chris picked up his water bottle, rolled it between his palms. "Why did you go into the Air Force?"

"Where I grew up, it was either join the military or work in the steel mill. In my family, when we turned eighteen, we had to head out and earn a living. No hanging around to 'find yourself.' Six picked the mill. Three of us enlisted."

"But why did you enlist instead of doing what your other brothers did?"

"You're going to college."

"I know. But why did you decide to join up?"

"If you're thinking about the military, you need to know this isn't an easy job." J.T. scratched a hand up his tank top along his ribs where a phantom ache twitched. His eyes gravitated to his tome of Shakespeare's plays, currently tucked sideways between his ratchet set and buzz saw. "Be sure you're called."

"Were you called?"

"Not at first."

"Huh?" Chris's jaw slacked. "No way. I thought you lived for this stuff."

"I do. Now." Or God knows he would have never pulled his family through the moves and stress. "Back then, I just wanted out of that town. I joined for the GI Bill, planned to get a degree, thought after that I'd work in some office. Hell, I'd run the whole damn steel mill."

"So why aren't you?"

"Because once the airplane took off, I heard the call." He could still feel the rush of that first training flight, the lift, the sense of purpose, the chance to make things happen and not just have things happen to him. "After that, I decided I didn't want to get out for the four years it would have taken me to get a degree. Why should I anyway? I was doing exactly what. I wanted."

He'd had more money, security and benefits than when growing up. He hadn't counted on meeting Rena and wanting to give her more.

"And you met Mom."

Was the kid a mind reader? "Yeah, I met your mom."

"How do you know when you meet her? The one?"

J.T. studied his son, used some of that Rena-insight stuff he'd just started 'to glean. And ah crap, sometimes it was better not knowing. The poor kid sure as hell wasn't the guy who almost knocked up the girl.

But he loved that girl anyway.

Clasping his hands between his knees, J.T. searched for the words to make this one better for his kid. A hopeless deal when he couldn't even make things better for himself in the woman department. "You've gotta go with your gut on that one, son. There's no clear-cut answer. You just know when you see her."

And wasn't that the truth? Rena had been so hot that day, still was. But honest to God, he'd fallen for her laugh.

"So if Mom was the one, then why did you decide to split?"

"Now, there's the million-dollar question." He tugged his weight-lifting gloves tighter on his hands. "Sometimes right for one person is wrong for another. Sometimes you meet the right person at the wrong time. Sometimes it's the right person at the right time and you do all the wrong things because you're a dumb ass. Basically, it's a real crapshoot getting all the rights lined up at the same time." He glanced sideways at his son. "Any of that make sense?"

"Yeah, it does." Chris stood, crossed to the weight rack, lifted the curl bar. "So what do I do about it … if I have that problem, right person, wrong time?"

"Hell, Chris." J.T. joined him and started alternating curls. "If I had the answer to that one, do you think I'd still be sleeping across the hall?"

"Guess not."

Arms pumping, J.T. thought about telling Chris he didn't have to make any decisions, but hesitated. His son had asked a man's question and deserved a man's answer.

J.T. slowed the reps, replaced the weights and faced Chris eye to eye. "The best I can offer you is the knowledge that you're in the same boat with the majority of the male population. Women are a mystery. And the guy who figures out that mystery could sell the secret for enough money to buy the whole damn factory."

Something he now knew wasn't his calling, even if that factory could buy Rena everything she deserved. Damn but he'd wanted to give her more. Yet even as his gut revolted at the thought of a repeat of three months ago, a repeat of what he'd put Rena through, he knew he wouldn't walk away from the Air Force.