Page 25

Swinging his feet to the floor, he sat on the edge of the mattress, scrubbing his fingers through his hair. Minutes ago he didn't want to leave the bed and now he couldn't haul ass out fast enough. What the hell was wrong with him? The truth blindsided him like a bogey sneaking in from his six o'clock.

He'd fallen in love with his wife all over again.

His head fell into his hands. Hadn't he always loved her? He'd told her so. Sure as hell thought so. But somehow those feelings paled in comparison to the gut-gripping emotion twisting through him.

And that scared the crap out of him.

Now he had to accept the fact that she had been right about demanding more over the years—and about the ways he'd hurt her through a distance he hadn't even known he'd put between them. He had a helluva lot more backpedaling to accomplish than he'd thought.

Okay, so the stakes were higher. At least he had his feelings lined up. He would just tell her when they talked and make damn sure she listened.

Except he couldn't help but wish he had more to carry into this confrontation than three little words he'd used before without realizing their full importance.

Shoving to his feet and away from the temptation to wake his wife up with sex, a reliable connection, he headed for the bathroom and a lonely shower. Maybe the showerhead would beat some inspiration into his brain.

Dressed in a fresh flight suit, he loped down the stairs, his socks making no sound on hardwood. He wasn't sure he wanted to face the garage and all the hot memories there. One look at the weight bench and he would be right back in a world of hurt. But he needed to snag his boots and swap out the Velcro patches off his dirty flight suit onto his clean one.

J.T. paused at the base of the stairs. Maybe he could bring Rena breakfast in bed first. That would start the day on a nicer note.

As long as he didn't pick something that would make her hurl on his socks.

Around the corner, into the kitchen, he stopped short at the sight of his son. "Good morning."

Chris slouched against the counter, spooning a bowl of Frosted Flakes into his mouth, eyeing his dad with confusion. "'Morning."

"You sleep all right?"

"Yeah, how about you, uh, I mean—" Red-faced, he looked down and stuffed his mouth full of another bite.

The bed shuffle hadn't gone unnoticed. Hell, the door to Nikki's old room had probably been standing open. Keeping things low-key for his son had been the last thing on his mind when J.T. carried Rena up to bed the night before.

Still, Chris kept quiet. Shoveled cereal. Didn't ask if his parents were back together, which stung worse than facing the question, because silence meant the kid had stopped hoping.

Breakfast in bed with Rena would have to go on hold for a few minutes. J.T. poured a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk for himself and leaned back against the counter beside Chris, crossing his feet at the ankles. "You okay?"

He stirred soggy flakes. "I'm sorry for screwing up with the stuff at the restaurant."

Not the subject J.T. had been thinking of, but then Chris obviously wanted to ignore the other topic. "I'm not going to lie to you, son. It would have been better if you'd come to us right away."

"Because of Mom's accident?"

No soft-soaping that. His gut burned. J.T. tipped back half a glass of milk, without relief. Hopefully Spike would have some good news for him when they met in a few hours. "Yes, and also as far as having the authorities believe your side of the story."

Nodding, Chris shoveled another spoonful of soupy cereal into his mouth. J.T. waited, ate, the clock ticking by seconds over the door.

Pivoting on the heels of his athletic socks, Chris dumped the rest of his cereal down the disposal and made an overlong production out of washing the bowl. "When you were over there, in Rubistan, I mean—" he paused, washing the spoon—twice "—did you, uh, get scared?"

Water running, he eyed his dad sideways.

"Yeah." J.T. nodded, the understatement of the century. A dry smile tugged one corner of his mouth. "Sometimes so much I thought I'd piss in my pants."

Chris stared back. Shock sent his jaw slack. He dropped the spoon and shifted to face his dad full on. "Really?"

"Really." He'd always thought children needed to feel parents were invincible. Maybe finding out parents were human might not be so bad, after all. Sure would have helped prepare the kid for the breakup. "Only a fool wouldn't have been scared. Anyone can be brave when the odds are in your favor. It's what you do when you're scared that's the true measure of courage."

"Is that from Shakespeare?"

He hadn't even realized Chris knew he read the Bard's works. "Nope. Actually, it's from my old man."

One of the few conversations they'd had. Right after he'd found out Rena was pregnant. Strange how he'd forgotten about going to his father at that time until just now.

Other talks with his dad shifted around in J.T.'s head. Short exchanges, sure. His parents were just as closemouthed as he was, but they made their words count.

Had he done the same? "You don't have to go to school today."

"Yeah, I think I do have to go."

His son was becoming a man. "Okay, then." The kid was probably safer there than at home, anyway. "But remember, you can call me if you have any problems. I'll be there in minutes."

"Thanks, but I'm okay." He pushed away from the counter and started toward the door.

Make the words count. "Son?"

Chris turned. "Yeah?"

"Love ya." J.T. hooked his arm around Chris's neck and pulled him in for a hug.

His son hugged back. Thumping. Rena would have laughed over the fact that men had to hit while they were hugging, but hey, guys understood the lingo.

Thunking his son once more on the back, J.T. pulled away. "And you're still grounded 'til the end of time."

Grinning, Chris shrugged, baggy clothes rippling. "I figured as much."

"Go grab your backpack and I'll see what's keeping your mother."

Scooping a muffin off the counter for his wife, J.T. hoped the upcoming talk with Rena could go even half as well as the one with his son, simple, low-key. Otherwise, they were all screwed.

She was so screwed.

Inching back from the kitchen door, Rena steadied her steps if not her pulse. The image of father and son, standing together, white athletic socks on crossed feet side by side, squeezed all those pregnancy emotions until she could barely breathe. Watching J.T. and Chris in sync like that was … perfect, the family she'd always wanted.

Well, without bricks flying through her window.

The fear from the night before quivered through her again. Followed by the oh so vividly red memories of how she'd escaped that fear.

Slumping against the wall by a wrought-iron plant stand, she let herself enjoy looking at J.T. Waking up alone had been disappointing. But then she'd realized J.T. probably couldn't have woken her anyway, as deeply as she slept. She'd squelched down hurt, forced herself to think clearly. He was being considerate by letting her sleep.

Quit thinking with her hormones and start using her brain or she'd never get through this with her heart intact. But oh, as she stared at J.T., freshly showered and shaved in his flight suit, strong jaw and handsome face that only grew more appealing with age, her emotions did so want control over her.

She'd always enjoyed J.T.'s body; however that body became all the more tempting when the man inside was being so incredible. Of course, he'd always loved his children, been active in their care, took his turn walking the floor. But the talking? He'd left that up to her.

Until now.

Seeing him become the father she'd always known he could be made her wonder what their lives would have been like had he shared some of that openness with her over the years. She'd lost count of all the arguments and reconciliation talks—actually mostly her talking. And even if he was talking now, too, was it realistic to expect they could patch this up themselves?

This possibility of reconciliation screamed, "last chance." Which meant going for broke on the fix with the one thing they'd never tried.

Marital counseling.

How strange that she of all people should be scared of the prospect. Scared of what she would hear. Could that he why she'd avoided it?

God knows, J.T. wouldn't want to go. Even laid-back Bo dragged his boots at the prospect of spilling his guts and having his brain picked. Hell, she was frightened to her roots just thinking about it, too. But the more she considered the idea, the more certain she became that this offered their only hope.

Of course, that meant delaying any talk for a while longer, waiting for the perfect time rather than some car discussion to and from work. Logical, right?

Not a scared-as-hell stall tactic.

She entered the kitchen before they could come out into the hall and realize she'd been watching them. "Hey, guys. I'm ready anytime."

Chris's gaze ping-ponged from one parent to the other. "Uh, I gotta get something from upstairs."

He angled past and out before she could even hug him.

Rena stopped by the table, couldn't move anyhow. Facing J.T. after making love shouldn't be this … tummy flipping. Exciting. Scary. Much like after their true first time when she realized what they'd done changed everything.

Except after the real first time, he'd held her, kissed her. Damn it, if she couldn't have the holding, she at least wanted her morning-after kiss.

"Hi," she said softly, words suddenly drying up.

"Hi back." J.T. smiled, extending one hand with a muffin, the other with a glass of milk. "Breakfast? I was going to bring it up to you."

Emotions squeezed tighter.

He leaned down over the chair between them while she moved closer and, yes, she had her good-morning kiss even if he couldn't touch her, the chair between them and his hands full of her breakfast. And how sweet was that?

His lips moved over her with a firm, deep, slow kiss as if they had nowhere to go, no real world concerns. A kiss, right in the room where they'd enjoyed a hot encounter after his return from Guam when there had been plenty of sex but, heartbreakingly, no kissing.

His tongue coaxed her lips open, swept inside, connected, explored, sending her tummy into a flat spin. Then he kept right on kissing her so she couldn't say something that would mess this up, and God, but she was relieved.

With a final skim of his lips over hers, he stepped back. "I need to grab my boots and change patches." He placed her muffin and milk on the table. "Be back in a few and then we can leave once you're dressed."

Watching him stride into the garage where they'd made such passionate love the night before, she reminded herself that she had kisses back. That was a positive step. And now she knew what to do to keep them once they both finished their half day at work.

She also knew how hard her reticent husband would resist her solution. Which scared her all the more because this was it. Their last chance.

J.T.'s words echoed through her mind. Anyone can be brave when the odds are in your favor. It's what you do when you're scared that's the true measure of courage.

She sunk into the chair. Great.

With the way odds were stacked against her, her bravery points must be off the charts.

J.T. stood to the side while Spike clicked through the cipher lock at the OSI building. The opening door—thick metal like a safe—hissed with the release of air from the area sealed tight for soundproofing.

He followed Spike through security, down halls and past a mix of workers in uniforms and civilian clothes—the heart of military counterintelligence keeping base personnel clean. He hated like hell that anyone around him might have a part in drug trafficking.

At least he had the connections here to learn the worst his son could face.