Page 6

He scuffed a gym shoe again just as he'd done at nine years old when lying about dumping his sister's makeup into the sewer system. Squeak. Squeak.

J.T. pinned him with a parental stare and knowledge. "You knew already."

Chris stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Geez, Dad, and Nikki calls me a bonehead. How could you not notice Mom's getting fat?"

"Good God, son. Shh!" J.T. shot a quick glance at Rena to make sure she was still sleeping. "Don't let her hear you say the f word."

"Sorry." Shuffle. Squeak. "I figured it wasn't my place to mention anything and Mom didn't need to be upset in her, you know, condition. Guess this means you're coming home."

He intended to, but no need to raise Chris's hopes. "Your mother and I need to talk first."

Chris slouched, muttering something that sounded like a surly "About damn time."

J.T. bit back the urge for a reprimand on a day already full of enough tension. "Son, I'm sorry to say your car's totaled. The van that hit it wiped it out."

Chris paled under the bronzed complexion he'd inherited from his mother along with the head of dark curls. "Totaled?"

"Afraid so. Insurance will cover everything after the deductible, but it may take a while for the check to come through. There isn't money for a replacement until we get the settlement." And didn't that bite a chunk out of his pride, not being able to provide for his family.

"Sure. I understand. It's just good Mom and the baby weren't hurt."

The accident kicked right back to the forefront of his memory. He couldn't let the emotions shake his focus. The cops hadn't been much help and wouldn't be unless he could give them something more to go on. Figuring out what the odd black-and-red emblem on the bumper represented would be a good start.

Once he got his family settled.

J.T. stood, leaned against the opposite side of the window frame as his son. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah. Sure. Why wouldn't I be?"

Chris's tone and chalky face sent parental antennae on high alert. With deployments keeping him away so much, time with his son lately was scarce. What might he have missed? "Is there any reason someone would come after you? A gang from school?"

Meeting his father's gaze dead on, no shuffling, Chris answered, "I'm not mixed up in a gang at school."

Slowly, J.T. nodded, believed. "Okay, then." Still, he wasn't talking any chances on leaving Chris alone yet. "Bo's been waiting at the house in case we didn't find you first to tell you about your mom's accident. He's going to crash there on the sofa for the night so I can stay up here."

Chris straightened away from the wall. Anger snapped from his eyes, his temper another inherited legacy from his mother. "Geez, Dad, I'm sixteen. I can stay overnight on my own. It's not like I'm gonna throw some drug-flowing orgy while you're gone or anything."

God forbid.

"Bo will crash on the sofa," J.T. restated, unbending. Arguing never solved anything.

His son slouched back again, layers of clothes rippling over his lean body. "Okay, okay, stupid me thinking anybody could have an opinion."

While he sure as hell didn't intend to justify himself to a teenager, he needed to remember his son wasn't a kid anymore. Some explanation might go a long way for easing tension. "Chris."

"Yeah, what?" He stared at his shoes.

"It's been a crappy day, son. Cut me some slack."

"Sorry," he mumbled without meeting his father's eyes.

No, his son wasn't a kid anymore.

The teen years hadn't seemed as difficult with easygoing Nikki. But there hadn't been a marriage breakup in the works.

Since he'd be around more helping out while Rena recovered, he also needed to make use of the extra time with Chris. "What do you say when I bring your mom home from the hospital, we take a couple of hours and lift some weights?"

Not a bad suggestion and the only thing he could remember doing with his old man in between double-shift-work hours.

"Lift weights?" Chris shrugged. "Yeah, sure. Whatever."

J.T. fished in his flight-suit pocket and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. "Here, get something to eat on the way home."

"Thanks. See ya." Chris took the money and shuffled across the room, gym shoes squeaking long after the door closed behind him.

Dropping back into the recliner, J.T. snagged his book again, not that he expected to get much reading done, just pass time while he prepped for battle. As much as Rena might prefer full-out confrontations, he knew gaining ground back into their house would call for a more covert operation.

Rena grappled through layers of sleepy fog, blinked until her eyes adjusted to the sparse light in the narrow room that was private only because no other patient occupied the bed beside her. The antiseptic smell churned her stomach, but she welcomed the reminder of a healthy pregnancy.

A pregnancy now out in the open.

Her gaze skipped to J.T. sprawled in the corner chair, reading lamp on, paperback gripped in his broad hands. She couldn't make out the cover, but imagined it was whatever military-action bestseller hit the shelves recently.

J.T. filled her eyes as completely as he filled the chair. Such a large man shouldn't be able to move so silently, yet he did. Always. Magnetically. Until her world narrowed to dark hair, muscles and slow-blinking brooding eyes.

As tempting as it was to stare at his rugged handsomeness instead of dealing with real-life worries, she was through repeating past mistakes. She couldn't hide from the truth any longer. There wouldn't be a more private time than now for their discussion. "Hi, J.T. Good book?"

He glanced up, studied her without speaking for four clicks of the second hand on the institutional black-and-white wall clock. Closing his book, he righted the recliner. Both boots thudded on the tile floor. "I hope I didn't disturb you with the light."

"Not at all." She'd slept beside him in bed while he read many a night.


Where was some crushed ice and a water pitcher when a woman needed them? "How long have I been out?"

J.T. flipped his wrist to check his watch, a gift from their daughter, complete with stopwatch and listings of multiple time zones for his flights. "Just an hour and forty minutes. Doc says to wake you up every couple of hours through the night. The nurse will check in, too."

Which gave them twenty more uninterrupted minutes to talk in the quiet intimacy of a bedroom that wasn't packed with memories. The hospital at least made for comforting neutral ground for their discussion. Might as well confront things straight up. "I'm sorry for not telling you about the baby sooner."

Guarded eyes almost hid nearly banked anger. He shifted, slow, silent, tucking the book in the thigh pocket of his flight suit. "Why didn't you?"


The truth blindsided her while her defenses were laid low from the accident. Because she'd wanted J.T. to come home on his own. For her. Something that, for the first time, she completely accepted would never happen.

The last of her dreams, hope, love died. There was nothing left for her now but to strengthen her resolve to protect her children and her heart. "I was still reeling from hearing you'd been shot down and whatever happened to you in Rubistan, trying to sort through what happened to us afterward. Pretty difficult to do with so little information from your end."

Rena's words sucker punched him. Leave it to his outspoken wife never to pull punches. She stared back at him defiantly, daring him to talk about Rubistan.

He didn't need to think about it, much less talk it out. He'd lived it. Dealt with what happened, and wanted to move on, not bring everything up again until the top of his head blew off. He'd walked away before rather than—

Ah, she was pushing him to walk now.

Not gonna happen. "I'm assuming the baby was conceived after my return then. You don't look far enough along to have gotten pregnant before we split."

Although, good God, Chris was right. She did have a slight bulge under the white sheet. How could he have missed it? She would be three months along. While carrying Chris, she'd been unable to button her pants by that stage.

Damn. He was a bonehead not to have noticed or even considered the possibility.

"Yes, it was that night. I missed a pill while you were gone. I was … upset. Days jumbled in my head."

Her pain from then radiated just as powerfully now. Pain he'd caused.

He needed to regroup. Now. He turned his back, reached for the water pitcher, pouring a cup for himself, another for Rena.

"J.T.? It was an accident."

"Of course it was." He jerked around to face her, passed her a water glass. "I never thought otherwise."

Did she really think so little of him that she expected recriminations? Jesus. He might have hurt her, but never like that.

Brown eyes wary, she took the cup from him without touching. "You are not moving home because of the baby. Let's get that straight right now. Our reasons for splitting still stand."

He leaned back against the wall, crossing one booted foot over the other. "What were those reasons again?"

"Don't be an ass."

"Ah, reason number one." He drank half the cup of water in one swallow, icy cold along heated anger.

She'd called him a major ass during their fight six months ago about the number-two strain on their marriage. Money.

"I'm sorry." Rena's voice softened. She rolled the cup between her palms. "My temper is right up there on the reason list. I drive you crazy. I know that."

"Oh yeah, babe—" a slow smile crept over his face "—you've definitely always driven me crazy."

Well, hell. So much for smart strategies. But the unstoppable spark between them always had messed with their minds. Apparently still did.

"J.T., damn it." She slammed her cup down on the end table beside a basket of flowers. "That's what got us into this mess before. And again now."

His smile faded. "Don't worry. I'm not planning to pressure you about getting back together." No pressure about it. Slow and steady won the day with his wife.

"You're not?"

"No." Think strategy, not how much easier it would be to kiss her quiet. Not about how tight the knot twisted in his stomach over the thought that even if he made it home, they weren't any better off than before. "You made yourself clear when you pitched my barbells and books out on the lawn six months ago."

And the reason for that final fight? They'd argued over the flipping family Christmas vacation, for God's sake. She'd insisted his lengthy deployments were taking a toll, making growing apart too easy. His fault. He knew it.

So he'd offered to take leave. Not good enough. She'd wanted to rent a cabin in the mountains, something she insisted they could afford now that she was working.

Hell. As if he needed it thrown in his face that he couldn't provide for his family on his own. As if he needed reminding of all the things she'd had growing up. Things he couldn't come close to giving her.

A fact that had been stewing in his gut for twenty-two years.

"Well, J.T., tossing those possessions on the lawn was just the start of venting problems years in the making. Three months ago proved that." She gripped the length of her hair in her hands and began twisting it into a knot on the back of her head. "We'll just draw up a new set of divorce papers."

His eyes tracked the moves of her hands against her glossy curls. He'd always wondered how the hell she did that trick with her hair, had watched her hundreds of times, the memory of those strands gliding through his fingers never failing to make him hard.

He finished his water, pitched his cup in the trash. "Not until you're up and moving again. The doc said you need to stay off your feet for at least two weeks."