"My advice, son? Go ahead and quit the job at the restaurant. Study your butt off for the exams. Then enjoy the hell out of that lifeguard job. I'm betting one of those bathing suits works her way over to your tower by the end of the first week."
He clapped his son on the back, and even though Chris only scrounged a half smile, their talk had gone well. Or at least better than any talk before.
The door into the house squeaked, opened. Rena stood silhouetted, wearing a maternity jumper.
Who the hell sucked all the air out of the garage? Because he damn well couldn't find any.
This baby was real, and getting closer to being born. A dumb-ass obvious thought, still the speed of time ticking away hadn't hit him until then.
She wasn't showing much, but nearing the fourth month, there was no question. The silky green fabric skimmed her tiny bulge. "Supper's ready."
Rena's eyes lingered on J.T.'s shoulders—bared by a workout tank T-shirt. He could see her pupils dilate from clear across the garage. His heart rate revved in time with her rapidly rising and falling chest.
Chris snatched a towel off the hook. "Great. I'm starving. No surprise, huh?" their son rambled on in the thick silence. "Cool new clothes, Mom. Are you sure you're not carrying twins?"
Twins? Rena went as pale as he felt.
J.T. thumped his son on the chest. "Way to go charming your mother, bud. Are you trying to get us all killed?"
Chris winced. "Sorry. You, uh, look nice, Mom."
Rena gripped the railing and walked down the four steps into the garage with only a slight limp. Time was definitely running out before he would be asked to leave. Soon, she wouldn't need him.
Hell, she hadn't needed him at all since she graduated.
She stopped in front of her son, twisted a dainty fist in his shirt and tugged him down … to kiss him on top of his curly head. "You're forgiven for the twins comment, hon."
"And, uh," he stuttered, straightening, "I'm really sorry for what I said the other night." His thin arms wrapped around her for a rare teenager hug.
She patted his back with the same reassurance she'd given to lull him to sleep after toddler nightmares. "It's okay, hon."
"Thanks. Love ya, Mom." Toddler images aside, the pointed stare he shot his father over her head was definitely all man shouting, Hurt my mama again and I'll take you down. He blinked, returning to sixteen. "Catch ya' later, dudes, I'll just grab some food on my way up to my room. I gotta get some homework done. Thanks for the advice about the job stuff, Dad."
Their son's footsteps faded, but neither of them looked away from each other, her gaze still riveted on his shoulders and sweat-soaked T-shirt sticking to his chest. His eyes unable to move from the fertile curves of her body.
The primal need to protect her, have her, surged. The urge to lock that door and find new uses for the weight bench throbbed through him.
She backed, gripped the railing and found the first step. "I'll meet you inside."
The wind through the window molded her silky dress around killer legs and a gentle baby bulge.
"In a minute." Once he willed away the arousal.
Her retreat made it clear. No kiss this time.
At least he'd gotten one thing right during the talk with Chris. Chris would turn in his notice, ditch the extra delivery duties, and maybe they would use the extra time for more talks.
And since the added plans for tomorrow night's surveillance flight should net that final drug trafficking link, he would have a couple of days off to focus on his family. He could step up the pace on the romance crapshoot in hopes that someday he got it right.
"No hard feelings, pal," Kurt Haugen said from behind his desk, a stuffed swordfish mounted on the wall over his head. Circling around to the front, he extended his hand for a shake. "You've always got a job here if you change your mind. I appreciate a hard worker."
Chris tried not to let his exhale of relief be too obvious. He shook hands, firm, the way his dad had taught him. "Thank you, sir."
"But I'll need you to leave now." Mr. Haugen leaned back against the big wooden desk, crossing one tasseled loafer over the other. "Once someone quits, I prefer they go right away. Not that I don't trust you. It's policy."
"Sure. No problem." Totally. He couldn't wait to get out, and this was so easy he wondered why he hadn't thought of it before. "And thanks for being cool about it. Things are really tense at home, with my mom expecting a baby and stuff."
"I hear you. I live in a house of women." He tipped a framed family photo Chris's way, the gold rim outlining a smiling trio of Dad, Mom and little girl. "It's important to take care of them, keep them happy. You go easy on your mom, and I promise you it'll all be worth it when you see that new brother or sister."
"Yeah, uh, right" He shuffled his feet, ready to close the book on his crappy first-job experience. The lifeguard gig would have to be better.
Anything would be better.
Mr. Haugen replaced the photo and pushed away from the desk. "Well, no more of my proud-dad stuff. Take care and good luck."
Nodding, Chris backed away. He couldn't haul out fast enough. And best of all, he had some time to kill before his parents would expect him home.
He made tracks into the kitchen, the stink of fried fish sticking to him all the way through the door. Outside, he blinked against the sunlight—still bright even near sunset, inhaled a deep breath of salty air to clear his head.
Maybe he could grab a Big Mac and stop by Shelby's house, hang for a while. She was still pretty wigged out by the pregnancy scare and her upcoming move and the way Murdoch was pressuring her to change college choices this late in the game.
Chris kicked gravel. Didn't the guy realize how lucky he was to have somebody like Shelby? Pushing would just screw it all up. Which might not be so bad if it weren't for the fact Shelby would get hurt. And even if by some fluke she dumped her tall cool boyfriend for a scrawny geek, she was still moving in a few weeks.
It so sucked being a teenager stuck living with whatever the parents decided. Moving houses. Splitting marriages.
He tucked around lines of parked cars, putting more space between himself and the restaurant. Okay, so something good had happened today. And the lifeguard job wouldn't be so bad.
But his dad was high if he thought the bathing suit chicks would be hanging out around Chris Price's tower. God, especially not with his bony arms and legs out there and his nose all white from zinc oxide. They'd probably think the base signed on a circus act. At least he didn't have to worry about burning since he tanned like his mom—the one good thing he'd inherited from her.
He rounded the corner to his parking spot—yeah, Dad, away from the ocean and the salt so Mom's car wouldn't rust.
Someone lounged against his back bumper. A girl someone. Shelby? Hope cleared his head faster than the beach air. He stepped up his pace to a jog and saw…
Miranda. Crap. His feet slowed.
Make it official. He now hated Lycra as much as lies.
So much for an easy home free. He'd just talk fast and leave even faster.
Chris threw back his shoulders and walked straight for the car. No hesitation. Ignoring the bodacious bitch, he thumbed the unlock button.
"Hey there, Chris." She arched away from the car and slithered into his path. "I hear you're leaving us."
"Uh-huh. Exams. New job. Less hours. That's life." He reached for the door handle.
Her hand fell on his. Held. Squeezed.
Ah crap, crap, crap. He couldn't push her away, because an honorable guy never got physical with a girl. More of his dad's teaching.
But what was he supposed to do when she got really physical with him?
Miranda slid her body between his and the door. Her cologne wrapped around him and just about strangled off air. "You're sounding mighty cocky there, Chris. You wouldn't be getting any ideas?"
"Only about getting out of here." He pulled his hand off the door handle, which happened to be a little too close to Miranda's butt. Her gloating smile shouted that she knew it, too.
He crossed his arms over his chest.
She flicked her wavy blond hair over her shoulder. "Your quitting wouldn't have something to do with our little misunderstanding, would it?"
Do ya' think? "Nah. It's just what I said."
"About the misunderstanding part, you misunderstood that, too." She hooked a finger in the chain around her neck, sawed it back and forth, bringing the charm up from between her breasts. "So much misunderstanding going on. I'm not saying anything bad happened, but if you go around shooting' your mouth off, people are going to think something did happen."
She kept on stroking that chain, the dangling charm swaying, the red circle with a black triangle in the middle a freaking hypnotizing eye magnet straight down to her—
He jerked his gaze away. Up to her face.
"My reputation will be a mess, Chris. Word gets around, doors will close for me. Word will get around about you, too. People will think you just got away with it, but that you're really a mule. A carrier."
He swallowed down fear and a hefty whiff of her perfume. How could he have ever thought she smelled good? "I didn't have any idea what was going on."
"If you go to the cops with what you think you saw, and say there was something bad going on, do you think they're going to believe you're innocent? They're going to think you're trying to save your skin."
She dropped the necklace back to rest against her tanned skin. "And if, just if, something big really was going on, don't you think the people you're dealing with might be smarter than you?"
Straightening from the car, she flattened a hand to his face and patted. "But guys who play nice don't get hurt."
Miranda stroked her fingers along his chin on her way past, leaving him standing alone by the car wondering how in the hell he ever could have thought Miranda Casale was hot. She was a freaking snake in Lyrca. His cheek itched where she'd touched him.
As his dad would say, he was in a crapload of trouble.
Chris jerked open the car door, double-checked the back seat to make sure it was empty and climbed behind the wheel.
Locked the doors really fast.
Part of him wanted to crawl away and hide. Okay, most of him wanted to do that, but he'd been hiding for a couple of weeks now. Instead of getting better, things were getting worse.
He felt like puking. But he wouldn't. He would be like his dad. This was the time to be a man.
He would have to come clean.
God, did Miranda really think he was stupid enough to believe nothing was going on? If there had been any doubts before, her little chat cinched it for him.
If he'd been a mule once—his stomach roiled—then they would use that as leverage to make him do other things. Maybe worse things.
Sweat popped on his forehead, feeding his zits. He would have to do something. He would have to talk to his dad after his flight.
Used to be he could talk to his mom easier, but his dad and even Mr. Haugen were both right about keeping women safe. A pregnant chick needed to be protected most of all. No question, his dad wouldn't want this dumped on her. His dad also wouldn't want her left at home alone with this kind of crap hanging over their heads.
The car accident.
Sweat iced. His stomach pitched. Chris scrambled for the handle, stumbling out of the car with half a second to spare before he lost his supper on the gravel.
Doubled over, gripping his knees, he gasped for clean air that didn't stink like Miranda's cologne, fried fish and a screwed-up life.
God. What a wuss. He dragged the tail of his T-shirt over his mouth and staggered back into the car.
He didn't have time to be sick. He needed to get home to his mom. And if he wanted to make it there without more pit stops to heave up his guts, he couldn't think about what might happen next.