"Listen up, ladies' man." J.T. settled a hip against the window ledge, batting aside a flowering something-or-other hanging from the ceiling. Waiting for Rena to go. Hoping it would be soon before he ended up outside. "You go anywhere near that flight kitchen and I'll tell the nurses over at the hospital what your call sign really stands for. We've been letting you get away with that 'Bo stands for Beau, want me to be yours' crap long enough. Hmm, just think if I tell them you're really—"
"Okay!" The squadron Casanova rushed to interrupt. "No need to say it out loud and risk somebody overhearing. These are government lines, dude, with people listening."
J.T. let a much-needed laugh roll free. "All right, then. You're safe for now. But I'll be double-checking that flight lunch of his for contraband Pixie Stix."
Why wasn't Rena leaving? His boots started twitching on the hardwood floor. Maybe he would just—
She sat up, started the car. J.T. exhaled a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The car backed to the edge of the driveway while a steady stream of after-work traffic flowed past.
"No Pixie Stix," Bo promised. "Wish I was going with you Monday. I'd shut Gabby up."
Hell yeah, they all wished Bo was flying, instead of indefinitely grounded until docs determined if his left hand would be worth a crap in the airplane once it healed. Flying. They all needed it, actively doing something to discover who had sold out their flight plan that day in Rubistan.
Although having Bo sit his butt in scheduling wasn't a half-bad plan for keeping an ear to the ground. God, the thought of one of their own turning traitor… J.T.'s fist numbed around the phone.
Not gonna think about that day. Keep it level before the weekend with Chris. "Looking forward to flying with you again soon."
"Yeah, me, too."
Quiet echoed again, the lines occasionally smattered with the background sounds of another phone ringing, conversations off to the corner. But J.T. was hooked in that experience—linked with Bo and the young officer's fears over never flying again.
J.T. scratched along the neck of his flight suit. Even after twenty-four years in the Air Force, he couldn't imagine hanging up his helmet. Flying also offered an escape and release since his personal life had landed in the crapper. He'd be screwed right now if he couldn't fly out his frustration.
Yeah, Rokowsky must be in his own personal hell.
Age and officer/enlisted realities might separate them, but the shared prisoner experience transcended all for a more casual relationship. A bond. J.T. searched for something to keep the guy on the line a while longer, until the edge eased from the kid's voice.
The parenting role came easy, and he figured Bo didn't get much of that since the guy didn't have any family. "What are you doing working the late shift?"
"Easier to call the flight attendant I'm seeing. She's in Japan this week."
"I thought you were dating a research tech from the medical university. Hannah something."
"Hell, mm, that was last Thanksgiving. I've had my heart broken at least three times since then."
Bachelor days. J.T. shuddered as Bo rambled on about all the ways Hannah had ripped his heart out before trouncing on it a few extra times.
J.T. sank to the arm of the overstuffed sofa, his gaze never leaving the front yard. Jesus, he was too damn old for that crap. Although the thought of indefinite abstinence pinched. Hard. And having Rena in sight—even out of reach in the driveway still waiting to leave—didn't help with all those images of the two of them tangled on the hardwood floor.
A van turned the corner. After that, finally a break in the stream of cars. Soon, she would be on her way.
The van roared, picking up speed.
Irritation nipped. Damn it, this was a residential neighborhood. J.T. reached for a pad to nab the license number on the front while Bo reminisced about heart-stomping Hannah. The van eased over the center line.
Into the wrong lane.
"No!" J.T. shouted even though Rena wouldn't be able to hear him. Or move out of the way. He couldn't be seeing—
The van surged. Forward. Faster. Rena jerked to look just as—
The van rammed her passenger door.
Grinding metal echoed.
He'd expected his marriage to end, but please God, not this way.
J.T. spared critical seconds to bark instructions at Rokowsky. "Call 911 and have them send EMS. I'm at the house. Car wreck. Rena. No time to talk."
He jammed the Off button. Tore open the door. Sprinted down the steps, vaulted the hedge. The car pinwheeled across the road. Rena slumped against her seat belt. The van recovered, righted.
Professional instincts? Calm in a crisis? Damn near impossible at the moment. But he scrounged, pulled them to the fore, logged as many details about the van as he could while his boots pounded grass closer to Rena.
Rage pumped through him with every step. The Cavalier slammed against a telephone pole. His wife's fragile body jerked inside like a rag doll. The crash thundered through the ground. Through him. The car bounced off, skidded sideways, tires squealing.
Stopped. Silence echoed, broken only by the hiss of the engine and a late day bird squawking its way out of a magnolia tree.
Glass glinted on the pavement. Jagged edges rimmed the door. Hand steady, his insides not so very, J.T. reached into the car.
"Rena? Damn it, Rena, wake up."
He pressed two fingers against her neck to check her pulse as his other hand yanked at the handle. The door held firm.
Her pulse pounded under his touch. Okay. One good thing to focus on instead of the bruise purpling her forehead. And at least no blood spurted that he could see.
J.T. sprinted to the other side of the car. Mangled. Dented. He gripped, hefted. Nothing budged. He could bench-press his body weight, but couldn't move the crunched metal.
Even adrenaline wasn't going to work this free.
He dashed back to the driver's side, pried the jagged edges of glass off, tucked his head inside, skimmed his hands over her face, shoulders, arms, checking for injuries and chanting, "Hang on. Just hang on and the paramedics will be here soon, but they're gonna need to talk to you. Come on and wake up for me."
Her head lolled toward him. Relief pressed like weights against his chest. "That's right, babe. Wake up."
"Baby?" she mumbled, dark lashes flickering.
Ah, hell. He shouldn't have slipped and called her that. But twenty-two years of marriage and intimacy were hard to shrug off just because his brain told him they'd reached the end.
"Are you okay, Rena?" He forced himself to speak carefully, say her name. Just her name.
Color drained from her face, leaving her deep brown eyes all the wider, darker. Her hand fell to her stomach. She swallowed hard. "I think so."
Her voice shook. Her teeth chattered. All unusual reactions from his normally feisty wife. Nothing brought her low. She never complained or faltered if illness or life kicked her. She just kicked right back.
For her to be this rattled, afraid even, scared the hell out of him. "You'll be free soon. I can't get the doors open. You were hit on the passenger side, and this side bounced off a telephone pole. I can't risk moving you until the paramedics check you out."
She frowned, fidgeted, bit back a moan. "My foot's stuck. I don't think I could crawl out anyhow."
His eyes fell to the floorboards. Blood trickled down her foot onto the plastic mat.
Damn it, where was EMS? Still no sirens. Only birds, wind rustling the trees, traffic on other roads cut the silence, the working-class neighborhood homes mostly empty at the moment. "Just hold still. Help will be here soon. They've already been called."
She blinked slowly. "I should tell you."
Her hand drifted over her woozy eyes. "Um, oh God, I can't think and I need the words to come out right."
"You're hurt, and a little shaken up. Nothing more. No need for gut-spilling." He hoped. "This isn't a good time for soul-searching."
What would she tell him anyway? He'd backed from emotional outpourings nearly three months ago when he'd returned from Rubistan. He damn well couldn't handle it now.
"You're right, of course." Her hand fell away from her forehead. "Maybe you should step away. What if the car blows?"
"It's not going to blow up."
"You should step away anyhow. Just in case."
"Somehow I knew you'd say that." She stroked his face with a limp and so soft, cool hand.
He stilled under her touch, hadn't felt it willingly come his way in months. What a damn inconvenient time to want her. But then adrenaline could screw with a man's better intentions, as he'd found out three months ago when he returned from Rubistan.
Her hand fell away, landing on her thigh. Her eyes flickered to the slowing cars driving past, to the handful of gawkers watching from sidewalks and windows, then back to the car. "Well, there goes the new paint job."
He smiled because she wanted him to. He'd do anything she asked just to keep her awake, talking.
"Babe, there goes the whole car." Babe? Damn. "Insurance should take care of it, though."
And by God, he'd wrap his family in a helluva lot more metal and air bags next go-round, no matter how deep it slashed his currently hemorrhaging budget. Maintaining two households with a kid in college while they were still paying off Rena's college debt…
Not the time to think about money, he could almost hear Rena saying.
He landed back in the moment. "Yeah, Rena."
"Would you please call the base clinic and let them know I don't think I'm going to make it in tonight?"
"They can wait. Dedication to your job only goes so far." He clamped his mouth shut. End of discussion.
He held his tone level, tougher by the second. "I'm not leaving this car until they have you out, so stop wasting energy trying to maneuver me away."
"I don't want people waiting around for me. Parents arranged sitters so they could attend this particular meeting. We have a guest speaker."
"Damn it, Rena, the guest speaker can start without you. Or they can just wait and eat cookies for a few extra minutes."
Hell. Great way to calm her, by fighting. He mentally thumped himself.
Laughed? Which stunned the fight right out of him.
Soft, breathless, her laughs tripped out with a huskiness that would have been sexy any other time but was too weak for his comfort level.
"Damn, J.T. We even fight about who's going to take care of whom."
She had him there.
Eyelids blinking slowly, holding closed longer every time, she stared back at him. He reached to take her hand from her thigh. Her bracelets slid, chimed, two sliding from her limp wrist to tink, tink on the floor of the car.
"Come on, Rena, stay awake."
Sirens wailed in the distance. About damned time.
She squeezed his hand without speaking, but her eyes stayed open longer at a stretch as she fought unconsciousness. He stared back, held her hand and willed her awake, sirens growing louder, closer. Pain glinted in her eyes, radiated from her tightening grip around his hand. His fingers went numb, but no way would he tell her, instead kept holding while praying the sirens would move faster.
Her gaze fell to their linked hands. Her grip slackened. "Oh God, J.T., I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cut off your circulation like that."
"No problem." He needed to keep her distracted, talking. "Reminds me of when you were in labor with Chris and transition hit you so hard and fast during the drive to the hospital. I was trying to recall all the coaching stuff I should be doing. Except I was scared as hell I'd be delivering the kid on the side of the road. Remember that?"