Okay, he was trying not to be an ungrateful brat. Geez, he was already lucky his parents hadn't killed him for holding out about what happened at the restaurant. But like, couldn't they at least pick him up on time? As if it wasn't bad enough everyone would see his "mommy and daddy" drive up to get him.
At least no one had tried to pound him today while John Murdoch was absent and couldn't stick up for him.
Chris slouched lower on the bench. He was really, really trying not to screw up and piss off his folks. He'd actually turned down four different rides because, if his dad didn't think it was safe for him to drive himself, then he shouldn't take rides with others his age—even if one of those "others" was this really cute babe from his Spanish II class.
Nope, he'd called Bo. A mature choice. Right? Since that's who Dad picked to stay over when Mom was in the hospital.
And at least Bo drove a cool Jeep with the top down most of the time rather than a dorky parentmobile.
"Hey, Chris?" Shelby leaned over the back of the bench into his sight line. "What's going on? I thought you were using your mom's car 'til everything works out with buying you another one."
Geez, her dark hair smelled good swinging right there beside his face. He could even remember how soft it felt when he'd hugged her while she cried.
He looked away, down, scuffed his gym shoe over gum stuck to the concrete. "Dad drove me in today. He's late picking me up."
She slung her backpack over. "Do you want a ride home?"
Make that five ride offers and one of them from Shelby. And he couldn't accept even one. The day just got suckier by the second. "Nah, thanks. I already called Bo to come get me."
"Bo? He's cool. Great Jeep."
"Yeah. He got a Jet Ski to celebrate his cast coming off."
"Really cool." She circled around to the front and plopped down beside him. "How about I wait around with you?"
There wasn't any reason he couldn't talk to her. School was safe or his dad wouldn't have let him come. "Sure. Thanks."
A bus chugged by. Arms hung out the windows. The shouts and laughs and we're-free noises carried on the wind.
He lifted his shoe off the gum, a long stream of hot sticky pink stretching. "Everything going okay?"
"Great. Really great." Turning, she hitched a knee up onto the bench, a mega-hot knee pressing against his thigh. "Listen, Chris, I just want to say thank-you for being there when I needed a friend. I mean, I don't know who else would have been so cool about everything and not judged me and just helped me—"
He kissed her.
Oh God, he was really kissing Shelby Dawson. He didn't remember leaning or even deciding to do it. But her face was right there and Murdoch—the lucky bastard who got to do it with her and probably didn't appreciate her—wasn't around. And her lip gloss was all shiny and he had to know what it tasted like before she moved or he would die.
Her breath hitched. He heard it. A tiny gasp thing that said maybe this was okay and she wasn't saying no or pulling back. Her mouth softened a little and he leaned forward, angled his mouth over hers more fully.
She jerked away. "Ohmigod."
Her eyes widened. She touched her lips with a hand that shook.
Double crap. He was so screwed. "I'm sorry. I'm not sure what I was thinking by—"
"I had no idea."
No idea he liked her or no idea she would like him? His heart shifted from double time to triple, pounding like the bass drum rallying the football crowd.
"Chris, you are absolutely one of my best friends in the world."
Thud. Stop. The friend word.
His heartbeat started again, slow, pushing against the ache in his chest. "Your friend, huh. Gee, thanks."
"I'm so sorry if I did anything to lead you on."
Get it together, Price. Salvage some pride. "Hey, chill. It's no big thing. I totally understand. Just thought I would see, if, well, before you move—"
"Stop, please." She clamped her hand over his mouth and blinked back tears. "God, Chris, I'm really sorry."
That she felt this bad over trampling his heart to bits notched his pride up a little. He clasped her wrist to pull it away from his face and tried not to get too hyped by the way her pulse throbbed so fast against his fingers.
He placed her hand on her knee and gave it one more hinting try. "Since you and Murdoch are hardly together anymore, I wondered—"
"Uh, Chris?" Her gaze shot down to the sticky gum before coming back up to him. She winced apologetically. "John's not here today because his dad took him for a late registration at the college I'm attending. He changed schools for me."
That was it then. Shelby was moving and John Murdoch was going with her and the guy deserved her because he'd made the tough choice to be with her. "I'm glad for you two that everything worked out."
"Are you okay?"
"Of course I'm okay. It's not as if I was in love with you or anything. I like you, all right? And I thought if Murdoch was out of the picture I'd better make my move fast before some guy moved in ahead of me. I mean, Geez, Shelby, you're hot."
She gave him a watery smile. "Okay. Enough. Stop it. And thanks."
"Sure." He tracked his eyes back to the Bazooka bubble-gum blob, not a big fan of seeing her pity-stare right this minute.
Yeah, the tree, bus stop, road hurt less to look at, especially now that he saw a Jeep rounding the corner, a guy in a flight suit driving who—the black vehicle revved closer, clearer—was Bo Rokowsky. "Hey, there's my ride. I gotta go."
Chris hooked his arm through his backpack on the ground by the bench and stood.
Rising, Shelby stopped him with a soft hand on his arm. Her eyes went from sad to kinda confused. "And Chris? About what happened just now, you know, with the kiss." Confused changed to—surprised? "For what it's worth, you're really good at it. I mean really good."
Pink popped along her cheeks before she started looking over at the tree, bus stop and road before her gaze fell somewhere short of his face, more like his shoulder. "Well, uh, I need to go, okay?"
"Sure, catch up with you later." Chris shuffled backward toward the Jeep, watching until she got in her car and drove away. His dad's words niggled to the surface, bringing understanding, if not peace.
Right person. Wrong time.
He pivoted toward his ride. "Thanks for coming over, man," Chris called out. "My folks aren't answering at home or on their cell phones."
Bo downshifted to a stop. "No problem. I'm still flying the desk. Just tapped someone to cover me for a few." Snagging the green flight bag from the front scat, he pitched it into the back. "Hop on in and let's get you home."
"Ready whenever you are." Rena clenched her fingers in J.T.'s flight suit.
His heart pulsed steadily against her fist as she sat with winter coats and sweaters tickling her head. At least they weren't helpless anymore. They had a plan, a chance, hope. The nail file had even helped saw and pry at the persistent knots binding her wrists. They'd kept the ropes loosely in place, would soon slip her gag back up too so their captor wouldn't be alerted.
Part of her wanted to stay inside the closet until the very last second possible to stretch her time with J.T. But they couldn't afford to wait much longer and risk Chris coming home. Already, he must be questioning why his father hadn't arrived. Please, please, please, Lord, let Chris be irresponsible and just go hang out at a friend's house.
Not something they could count on.
J.T. tunneled his fingers into her hair, locating the knot in her gag. His hands hesitated, stroked along the sensitive nape of her neck. "I'm proud of you, babe, and how you handled that bastard out there. We have this chance because of your quick thinking."
"I hope it's enough." She allowed herself one precious last minute to look at J.T.'s face in the dim light, checked that he wasn't hiding some injury from her. His pupils appeared evenly dilated … but his eyes seemed different somehow, distant. Not cold, but focused, steely.
Ready for battle.
And finally she understood about that mental switch of his. How could she have lived with this man, slept with him for twenty-two years, carried his children, and never have seen such an integral part of him?
How utterly ridiculous to think that even though her mind had always understood he served in the military, until now she'd never known the warrior. She'd prided herself on her love for this man, only to find she'd missed out on half of who he was.
J.T. lifted the bandanna. "Time's up, babe."
Panic, adrenaline, resolve washed through her like sheeting rain. She wanted to shout for fate to wait. She needed another moment to process these new emotions, just one minute.
Thudding steps grew closer, louder.
Eyes closing, J.T. slumped back against the wall, but with adjustments, angled to spring faster.
The door jerked open. Their captor's body blocked the bulk of the light, only a few beams streaking around him. Even so, spots danced in front of her eyes, finally clearing.
"You." He pointed the gun dead center toward her chest. "Get up."
Why was he coming for them? Although this certainly worked better than concocting some reason to kick the door and draw him over.
Rena shifted awkwardly, as if straining for balance but in reality shielding her body from the gun's line of fire, shielding her baby. Giving J.T. a clear path to launch.
She could see J.T.'s muscles bunch. Anticipation pulsed from him.
"Damn it, come on," Mr. Narcissist barked, all mannerly pretenses gone. "Apparently you weren't lying, after all, about the schedule. Some guy from base just pulled up in your driveway."
He waggled the gun, gesturing for her to rise. "The doorbell will be ringing any—"
The back door opened. "Mom? Dad? Everything okay? I tried to call."
Dread pierced her more effectively than any bullet. In seeking to protect one child, now she had another just as precious in danger.
Mr. Narcissist jerked to look—the perfect chance to jump him. Except now he had his gun pointed at Chris, her son standing pale-eyed and swaying in the archway from the kitchen to the hall, with Bo stunned to a stop a few steps behind him.
Damn. Damn. Damn.
"Chris, get back," she shouted.
"Don't move, pal." Gun level, the man reached down and jerked Rena to her feet. Her hands still tied slackly, she stumbled up, her knees protesting after so long folded. "I'll put a bullet right through your mother."
"Mr. Haugen?" Chris gasped.
Chris's boss? Hadn't that guy already been questioned in regards to the Miranda Casale issue?
And likely released. Hell and damn. Their hope of getting out alive evaporated now that they had a name for their attacker. He couldn't let them live. And obviously everyone would know that.
An exasperated sigh slid through the mask right before he peeled it off, sandy-colored hair standing on end. "You never could learn when to keep your mouth shut, could you, pal?"
Kurt Haugen pitched aside the mask, grabbing her arm again before she could inch more than a whisper away. The barrel of the gun cut into her side. She didn't dare risk more movement even with his attention focused on Chris and Bo.
She stole a quick check on J.T. in the closet. His eyes opened, not much but enough for her to know he was awake and plotting. He stared straight at her, two fingers flicking. She frowned. He repeated the flicking gesture until she understood.
He wanted her to lead the man away, keep him occupied. Give J.T. a chance to slip out and catch him unaware.