She paused midtwist. "What happened to doctor-patient confidentiality?"
"We're married." For better or worse, they'd vowed. Vows that were about to be broken if he didn't ignore the chemistry and put a stop to this. "I already logged in a call to my commander for a lighter schedule while you recover."
"J.T.," she warned, arms reaching up as she finished securing her hair. "Remember that you left the last time. I'm not the only one who said we don't have a chance."
And that's what he got for talking. All the more reason to guard his words, so she couldn't throw them back in his face later.
He plowed ahead. "I can't be away from the squadron totally now." The drug surveillance flights with the feds were too sensitive to pass off to anyone else. Since he was already in the loop from the overseas mission, he'd been tapped for the flights. Bringing another loadmaster up to speed this late would cost valuable days anyway.
What a helluva time to have a family crisis. "But all my flights will be at night, when Chris is around."
He ignored the burn in his gut that told him those flights would only bring more stress to his wife if she knew the truth about the mission. But there were so many things he could never share about his job.
However, since C-17 night flights were common around Charleston, his wife wouldn't question late takeoffs any more than anyone else in Charleston. All of which made the craft the logical choice to cart the DEA's surveillance equipment—much the same as used during the fateful flight in Rubistan.
With a little luck—okay, a lot of luck—the high-tech equipment loaded down on those pallets would eventually cough up the crucial link to who the hell in the States had sold them out overseas.
And more importantly, how.
J.T. tamped down the twitch of conscience over keeping it from her. After all, he'd had twenty-two years' practice. "I'll be asleep during the day, so you don't have to worry about me being underfoot. But I'll still be on call for whatever you need. Simple. Reasonable."
"I'll manage just fine."
"How do you plan to take care of yourself while Chris is in school? Nikki's exams start next week, so she can't help."
J.T. searched for signs of Rena weakening but she was too preoccupied playing with her hair and driving him crazy. Low-blow time. "You need to be careful for the baby."
Rena sagged back into her pillow. He'd won. "God, J.T., you don't fight back often, but when you do, you sure fight dirty."
"I save it for the battles worth winning." His victory felt hollow as he inventoried the worry, fears, in his proud wife's gaze.
"Fine." Her hands fell back to her lap, a lone curl sneaking free to bob against her chin. "Whatever. You're right and you know it. Thank you for the help."
Where had her fight gone? Seeing Rena deflated, defeated, worried him more than the purpling bruise on her forehead. But he couldn't afford to back down, as dangerous as pressing ahead too hard and fast. "I'll take some stuff back over to the house in the morning."
"Why not now?"
"Because I'm staying here."
Starch inched back up her spine. "But Chris—"
"Bo's staying over." He dropped into the chair beside her bed. "I'm not budging on this one."
Fire heated her brown eyes and J.T. rushed to forestall her argument. "You owe me right now for not telling me about the baby sooner." A truth that seared his gut. Canting forward, elbows on the edge of her mattress, he continued, "Now go to sleep and I'll read my book. It's not like I haven't watched you sleep before."
Her breath caressed his face.
Her face only inches away.
The familiar scent of her favorite peppermint mouthwash and flowery perfume washed through his senses along with images of sharing a bed. And somehow it didn't matter that they were in a hospital, or that divorce papers had already been drawn up.
He wanted her. She wanted him. With an inevitable intensity that had almost incinerated them both three mouths ago.
Tears sheened her brown eyes. From hormones? Or another reason?
Something cracked inside him and he didn't want to examine the fissure too closely to see what lay beneath. But he couldn't stop the urge to take her in his arms, not for passion, just to hold her—
She flinched away.
And he hadn't even moved yet. Apparently she'd read his intent in his eyes and didn't want his comfort. Fine. Okay. No surprise. His hands fisted against the mattress.
She blinked away moist emotions. "Just so we're clear. It's two weeks. And during that time you won't be watching me sleep,"
"Roger." He read her loud and clear. Not that he'd expected to park his boots under her bed—yet—but it still smacked being reminded of the fact.
Leaning back in the hospital chair, he fished his book from his pocket, the weight of her eyes on him a heavy reminder of all their unfinished business.
He resisted the urge to look back up, which would only instigate a conversation he sure as hell didn't want. Strategy. Too much was at stake here with only fourteen days to persuade her to give things another try. Again. He'd soothed her temper in less than that often enough before. Problem was, the determined glint returning to her eyes made it totally clear.
He wouldn't be able to get n**ed with Rena to win her over this time.
Two weeks alone with J.T.? Gulp. Surely, given all that was at stake now, she could hold strong against the temptation to ditch her clothes every time those long legs of his lumbered into the room.
Still, the upcoming fourteen days of intimacy scrolled through Rena's mind as endlessly as the winding roads through her tree-packed subdivision on her way home from the hospital. Brick and wooden tract houses whipped past her passenger window, a much safer view than staring at her hot husband driving. Even peripheral glimpses of him rocked her thoughts like hanging ferns at the mercy of a Charleston tropical storm.
Nope. She wasn't looking at him. Just staring at his reflection in the passenger window.
J.T.'s window open, gusts puffed inside to flap his unbuttoned, loose Hawaiian shirt over a white T-shirt. Unlike Chris's baggy style, J.T. kept his T-shirt tucked into his khaki shorts, neatly leaving his trim waist and flat abs right there for her to admire even in profile reflection.
She pulled her gaze away, down, found no relief there, either. Thickly muscled legs worked the clutch, brake, gas—shorts putting plenty of tanned skin on display. Her fingers curled at the memory of exploring the bulging cut of tendons, the masculine texture of bristly hair.
Rounding a corner slowly, careful as he cruised past an overgrown magnolia, J.T. draped his wrist over the old Ford's steering wheel, a truck he'd rebuilt himself as he'd done with their fixer-upper home. This talented man could repair anything through sheer determination, ingenuity and sweat equity.
If only relationships were as easy to maintain.
Their two-story white wood house eased into view. Vehicles packed their driveway—her sedan, Julia Dawson's minivan, Bo's Jeep, Nikki's compact car. Welcome buffers against the tension so she would spend less time alone with J.T.
And how could she not be touched by Nikki's visit? Her eldest had come home to check on her. So sweet, her easygoing daughter with an oversize heart. The breakup had hurt her most, even though she showed it least. "Nikki's here?"
J.T. eased off the gas pedal, cruising to a stop on the narrow street. "She drove in this morning for the day. She's heading out after supper for an all-night study session. I didn't have a chance to tell you with all the out-processing at the hospital. You ready to go in?"
She nodded, conversation time apparently over for her husband. Looking back, she wondered now if they'd been doomed from the start to a life of miscommunication followed by quiet distance—Tag's family full of stoicism and silence, hers reverberating with chatter but so much of it lies and anger. Even if she knew better now, with her newfound counselor perspective she could see what a shaky foundation they'd built from the start.
For this baby, for her other two children, she would hold strong. She would model healthy relationships in hopes of helping them build ones of their own.
J.T. ambled around the hood of the truck to her side, opened the door, filled her eyes. He extended his arms, Hawaiian shirt flapping in the breeze, crisp white cotton, stretching across an endless chest she could lose herself against.
He couldn't really expect to carry her? He waited, arms out. Unmoving.
She knew he could do it, just wasn't sure she could hear the heartbreaking reminder of other passionate trips in his arms that ended oh so differently than this one would. "Would you pass me the crutches from the back, please? I can make it up there on my own."
"Damn it, Rena." His eyes snapped along with his voice. "Is it really that distasteful to have me touch you?"
His arms dropped, hands hooked on his hips, narrow hips, his fingers pointing a direct arrow to—
Her eyes jerked up. Heat delivered a double whammy to her cheeks, then pooled lower. Hotter. "What?"
"I know you can maneuver around on crutches. And I realize the doctor said everything looks okay with the pregnancy. But you know as well as I do that I can carry you inside. The strain will be less than your trying to maneuver with crutches. Why exert yourself? Unless my touching you is so damned awful."
"Yeah. Oh." He hooked a hand on the open doorway, just over her head. "I'm sorry if my touching you is a problem."
"It's not a problem." Not how he meant, anyway.
"Good. We've always put the kids first. This baby shouldn't be any different."
Rena swung her legs to the side and out, waiting. Bracing herself for the feel of his hands on her body, the unyielding wall of his muscled chest against the give of her own softer flesh.
Broad palms slid under her, one arm around her back, the other under her knees. By instinct, her arm glided up and around his neck. Her fingers found the bristly shortness of the hair along the nape of his neck. Only a soft grunt from him indicated any reaction.
And the reaction wasn't from exertion.
Even with the few extra pregnancy pounds she'd packed on, carrying her posed no hardship for her honed husband. He kept in tip-top shape for the physical aspects of his job that even more mechanized cargo holds couldn't completely eradicate.
So many times she'd stood in the doorway leading to the garage and watched him lift weights, his muscles straining and shifting under sweat-sheened skin. Determination and focus. Strength.
She drew in a shaky breath and found the scent of him, fuller, stronger. How could she have forgotten the familiar potency of his smell—pine soap and musky man? Clean. Arousing.
What the hell was with the immutable, near-insane physical attraction she felt for this man? Would she spend the rest of her life starving for his touch?
A daunting thought.
His gym shoes thudded along the flagstone path and up the wooden porch steps. Already voices drifted through the door along with someone playing show tunes on the piano. The lace curtains rippled with the movement of bodies inside.
Only a few seconds more in J.T.'s arms. A few seconds more for the memories to tempt her. Unstoppable images so she didn't have to waste energy trying to tamp them down.
Yes, she and J.T. had hurt each other, done so many things wrong, but some things right. And at the moment, all those beautiful, special, right things about her marriage blossomed through her mind. Did he remember them, too? She couldn't change the past, but she had control over the present, and she intended to make sure J.T. carried something positive with him from their years together.
Her hand fell to stop his on the doorknob. "J.T.?"