"Yeah, I do." Her grip firmed again. Not painfully this time, but holding on in a way she hadn't done in a long time.
Emergency vehicles squealed to a stop beside them. Doors flung open. He didn't want to let go. God, he'd missed her needing him. What a damn selfish thought.
She frowned. "J.T., I really have to tell you—"
A paramedic jogged toward them. "Hold the thought, ma'am. Sir, please move so we can get her out faster."
J.T. backed away. "We'll talk later." He would promise her anything, even one of those conversations she craved. "Hang on and we'll talk all you want soon."
The paramedic chanted a litany of encouragement to Rena while crawling through the passenger window to sit beside her. He placed a C-shaped collar to stabilize her neck, draped her with a protective blanket.
Then noise ensued, grinding and groaning of metal as the Jaws of Life pried her free. His wife's every wince sliced through him during the endless extraction.
Of course, he already knew just how difficult it was to cut Rena out of anywhere. Hell, he'd been trying to cut her out of his life for months without a lick of luck.
Christos Price hated whatever dorky unlucky star he'd been born under. It totally sucked being doomed to a life of geekdom.
Elbow hooked out the open window of his mother's car, Chris finished clearing the gate guard's station leading into Charleston Air Force Base housing. At least with his friends Shelby Dawson and John Murdoch he could be himself without worrying about being cool.
And he was anything but cool.
Chris accelerated past the never-ending pines and oaks lining the street. He could wear double his regular wardrobe of baggy cargo shorts, open button-down shirt over a T-shirt, and the extra layers still wouldn't be enough to pad his bony body.
What guy wanted to be the "spitting image" of his short, scrawny mama? Geez. Scrawny wasn't a problem for girls, but it really blew monkey chunks for guys. Especially when all the other dudes in high school were so freaking big.
He was tired of hearing that five foot eight was a respectable height for a sixteen-year-old and that he would hit a growth spurt soon. Easy enough for his dad to say from three inches over six feet tall with more muscles than a linebacker.
Then his dad would ask him to work out together. Like wrapping a few muscles around his spindly arms would help. Can't make something out of nothing. And that's exactly what he was.
Clicking the turn signal, Chris rounded the corner toward Shelby's house. At least he wasn't getting pounded at school anymore. His friend John Murdoch kept the bigger guys off him, the ones who called him a marching-band wimp just because he played the trumpet. Murdoch played the saxophone and nobody called him a geek. Of course he was tall, a senior, tall, a wrestler, tall and had a girlfriend.
God, she was so hot. Nice. Totally hung up on Murdoch.
And, hey, had he mentioned the guy was tall?
Except Murdoch was also a friend, which meant staying away from his girl. Not that she would have noticed a dweeb like him that way.
But man, he noticed her.
Her corner lot came closer. Shelby sat cross-legged on a quilt in the side yard playing with her little brother while Murdoch sprawled asleep. She didn't see him yet, and Murdoch was out for the count, so Chris allowed himself the rare moment to just look at her.
Her silky black hair swished over her shoulder in a ponytail. And—oh yeah—her bikini bathing-suit top with jean shorts showcased her belly-button ring. Suh-weet.
He pulled into her driveway. Wanted to pull her right to him and kiss her. Of course, he was more likely to grow ten inches by the end of the day.
"Hey, Chris!" Her greeting floated through the open window. "We're gonna order pizza in a minute. Can you stay?"
Even her voice was hot.
"Yeah, sure. Let me dig out my CDs first." And will away the evidence of exactly how hot he found her. Layered clothes weren't helping him much today on a number of counts.
Teenage hormones totally sucked.
But he couldn't go home, not yet. He needed to give his parents time alone. Maybe then his mom would finally tell his old man why she'd been puking her guts up every morning for the past couple of months. Her stomach was already poking out a little and still she didn't say a thing to anybody about being pregnant.
She must think he was a clueless bonehead like his dad.
Chris turned off his cell phone so his parents couldn't razz him about coming home and snagged his CD case. He would hang with Shelby and Murdoch for a while, and pretend everything was okay. Pretend that his parents weren't splitting. That he didn't love a girl who belonged to his best friend.
And most of all, pretend he wasn't hiding from a threat in his life that even tall John Murdoch couldn't warn away.
"Don't move, please, ma'am," the paramedic warned.
Pain jabbed from her ankle up her thigh. Rena gripped the edges of the gurney, taking mental inventory of her body as much as her muddled brain would let her while she stared up at the entrancing sway of oak branches overhead.
An air splint immobilized her foot. Her teeth cut deeper into her lip to bite back the need to cry out. She couldn't have pain meds anyway because of the baby. Besides, she welcomed the ache that kept her conscious and reminded her she didn't hurt anywhere else, like her stomach.
Rena gripped the gurney tighter. Love and protectiveness for this new little life surged through her until the pain faded. She'd barely allowed herself to think about this baby she and J.T. had made the night he'd returned from Rubistan.
She had to tell the paramedics about her pregnancy soon, but her mind was so woozy. She would explain once J.T. was safely off to the side, rather than risk springing it on him without warning.
Why hadn't she told him sooner? It wasn't as if she was waiting for a miraculous reunion first. She would have to tell him, today, but later in her hospital room, away from the others, when he wasn't about to crack a crown from clenching his teeth.
If only he would step away, but J.T. always did his duty, and being by his wife's side right now would rank right up there as a responsibility.
A car door slammed. She couldn't turn her head to see.
A voice. Who? Her muddled mind sorted through… Bo Rokowsky, a member of her husband's squadron.
Bo would make the perfect distraction to keep J.T. occupied at the moment.
She patted his arm. "Go talk to Bo. I'm fine."
J.T.'s scowling eyes flicked from the uniformed workers back to her before he finally nodded. "Okay. But I'll only be a few yards away if you need anything."
"I know. Thanks." She tracked his towering body retreating as best she could without moving her head until he disappeared.
She opened her mouth to tell the paramedic about the baby—
"Ow!" Her foot jerked in the paramedic's grasp.
J.T. landed right back in her line of sight. "What's going on? Is it broken?"
"We won't know for sure until we get X rays, sir," the paramedic answered.
X rays? Not while she was pregnant. And especially not during her first trimester. Pain flashed through her foot again. A whimper slipped free.
The paramedic called to his partner, "Seventy-five milligrams, Demerol."
"What?" Rena struggled to understand through her pounding head.
"Just something to help you with the pain, ma'am." The uniformed man swung toward her with a syringe.
"No!" she shouted involuntarily.
J.T. stepped closer. "Yes. Do whatever she needs. Rena, you don't have to grit through this."
Oh, hell. She needed to spit this out fast and quiet to the paramedic. "I can't take any medications."
"Ma'am, really, this will help settle you." The syringe hovered closer to her arm.
Damn. Damn. Damn. No more time for quiet, reasonable explanations.
Rena inhaled a deep breath that stretched achy ribs. "I'm not agitated. Just pregnant."
He'd already taken one missile strike this year. Didn't seem fair a man should get blindsided twice in a few short months.
Boots rooted to the ground, J.T. watched Rena being loaded into the EMS transport. She stared back at him apologetically without speaking. There wasn't time or privacy to talk anyway since the paramedics had moved even faster after her surprise announcement. A whole new set of medical concerns piled on now that they knew she was pregnant.
The lone word knocked around inside his brain along with anger at Rena for her secrecy—and an undeniable surge of protectiveness for this new child. J.T. braced a hand against the oak-tree trunk, forced his breaths to stay even.
Rena was pregnant. Again. Well, they'd sure celebrated one hell of a reunion after his return from Rubistan. One with apparently lasting results.
More of that protectiveness chugged through him. Five minutes ago, he hadn't known this kid existed. Now he did and that changed everything.
He understood Rena well after twenty-two years, and she was too proud to let him back in the house because of the baby. The woman carried around enough pride to break the average human being.
The EMS truck lights cranked on. He pushed away from the roughened oak, tossed a quick farewell and thanks to Bo before stalking toward his truck.
J.T. slid inside and slammed the door. Shifting into drive, he steered off the curb to follow the fire department's EMS down the tree-lined street.
He would have to tread warily with his wife. Because damn it, he wasn't walking away from her now any more than he would have twenty-two years ago when she'd been pregnant with their daughter. He may not have planned on this kid, but already it lined itself right up there equally with Nikki and Chris in importance.
And what about his feelings for Rena? The gut-shredding fear he'd felt when the van started toward her?
The pine-scented air freshener dangled from his rearview mirror, swayed hypnotically while images of the wreck pounded through his brain.
He couldn't think of that. Not with so much at stake and convincing her likely to be a hellacious battle. Safer to focus on the work ahead of him.
Priorities in order, he fixed his mind on a dual mission as unwavering as his path behind the emergency vehicle. He had a family to patch together. And a niggling question to solve.
Why had the van swerved deliberately toward Rena's car, rather than away?
Tucked into her hospital bed, Rena extended her arm for the nurse's routine blood pressure check, antiseptic air making her long for the scents of home and the comfort of her own bed to gather her thoughts. Her foot throbbed from the sprain and four stitches, but her baby was okay and that's all that really mattered.
She would face the fallout with him soon enough, once everyone left. Doctors, crewdogs, their spouses. There hadn't been a minute to talk between all the visitors and giving police statements during what was turning into the longest evening of her life.
Well, except for when she'd waited to hear if her husband had been located after his emergency landing in Rubistan. Since J.T. was the only married crew member, the squadron commander had come to her house along with another flier's wife to tell her…
The plane had gone missing. Shot down. A special ops reconnaissance helicopter had been deployed. Hours had felt like years.
Okay, so this was the second longest evening in her life.
Rena looked toward the door, adjusted her hospital gown. "Come in."
The door creaked open, a blond head peeking around—Julia Dawson, the wife of the previous squadron commander, an approachable down-to-earth woman in spite of their husbands' differing ranks. "Hey, there. Is it okay to visit now?"
The nurse patted Rena's arm. "Everything looks good. I'll come back later for the rest so you can visit with your friend." She circled round the empty bed in the semiprivate room on her way to the door. "Buzz if you need anything."