He peered down at her. "Problem?"
She squeezed his hand, let her fingers linger in spite of his stunned eyes widening. "No doubt we're wrong for each other in a hundred different ways. But never, never have I found your touch distasteful. Far from it."
His fingers twitched against her, tightened, the only sign he'd heard her as his face stayed stoic. Unemotional. Handsome ruggedness carved in granite.
Still, he'd heard her, and her words meant something to him. Her defenses slipped, and she didn't have the heart to recall them, instead allowed the need building during their ride home to bloom.
She brought her hand up to rest on his neck again. "I thought you already knew that, except now I'm realizing maybe with everything else going on, you somehow forgot. Or wondered. And even though we both realize it's not enough, I just wanted you to know that we did share something mutual."
A smile dented a dimple in his face, so incongruous, and therefore all the more enticing. "Thanks, babe."
Her eyes fell to his mouth, lingered on the sensual fullness of his lower lip. She waited, wanted, even as pride wouldn't let her make the move forward. But if he leaned? She definitely wouldn't move away.
J.T. struggled to control the heat surging through him over something as simple as holding his wife. Damn it, he was not going to kiss her, no matter how good her soft hands and softer body felt against him.
He steeled his resolve. Steel? More like tinfoil, which meant he'd better haul ass inside. Pronto.
He twisted the doorknob. Disappointment flickered through her Godiva-rich eyes. Resolve shredded into foil confetti.
The door jerked open beneath his hand, snapping the mood. Thank you, Lord.
Chris lounged in the open portal with a bag of Cheetos clutched in his hand, fingertips deep orange from munching. "What took you so long? I'm starving and folks brought food that I can't eat until you get here."
J.T. looked away, up. "In a minute, son. How about unload your mother's things from the truck first."
"Sure," he answered through a fresh mouthful of cheese curls.
J.T. angled sideways, guiding Rena's trim legs over the threshold first. Over the threshold. Just as he'd done when they were young, nervous, full of plans.
Ready to break in the new mattress in their efficiency apartment.
Her fingers twisted in his cotton shirt, her touch as hot now as it had been then. Except today, she could hardly stand to look at him. She focused on the hanging ivy that, damn it all, he'd forgotten to water.
He stopped in the middle of their overflowing living room. Bo shared the piano bench with Nikki, playing the right hand from the open score sheet while Nikki plucked out the left. Well, if Nikki's plunkings could be called playing, his tomboy daughter always preferring running track to running scales.
And if Bo didn't move his ass a little farther down that bench—
"Mom!" Nikki bolted up with an athletic grace gained from hours on the university soccer field. Thank God for soccer scholarships, even partials. "Ohmigod, are you okay? Dad didn't call me until this morning or I would have come sooner. Probably why he didn't call me. Geez, like I couldn't drive after dark."
"I'm fine, hon," Rena rushed to interrupt. "The crutches are just awkward right now."
"Okay, good, that's what Bo said when he filled me in on the latest, but I thought maybe he was soft-soaping things so I wouldn't worry."
J.T.'s scowl deepened. Bo? She'd been talking with Bo?
So what if Nikki was already older than Rena had been when they married? He wanted his daughter to have a chance to be young. And while he liked Bo in the workplace, no way was Nikki getting near that squadron player renowned for wooing women with his guitar and singing. And apparently the piano now, too.
"J.T., you can put me down now. J.T.?" Rena tapped his chest lightly.
"Where?" he asked.
As he lowered her carefully into the overstuffed floral chair, he couldn't help but notice how easily they'd fallen back into marital shorthand conversation.
Footsteps sounded from the kitchen, down the hall, soft padding steps, seconds before Julia Dawson strode into the living room, carrying a blond-haired toddler on her hip. "Hey there, sweetie. I've plugged in a Crock-Pot full of chili. There's also a platter of buffalo wings."
While the two women exchanged greetings and food-reheating instructions, he tried like hell to ignore the warmth of Rena's calf as he arranged a pillow under her foot.
"Don't thank me," Julia insisted. "Thank my multi-talented husband. Zach made it all before he headed in to work for a couple of hours. I'm only the delivery person. A good thing, huh?" said the lady carpenter, more comfortable with a hammer than a spatula.
Rena inhaled, bringing her br**sts closer to J.T.'s face. "Everything smells great. You really know how to rev those pregnancy cravings into overdrive."
He finished adjusting the pillow under her foot, his fingers lingering above her ankle. Oh yeah, he remembered those pregnancy cravings of hers well. All of them, especially how her sensual appetites increased, too.
Julia hitched her son higher on her hip. "Well, I need to hit the road. Patrick's about ready for his afternoon nap."
Bo swung his legs around the piano bench, rising. "Little fella looks like he's getting heavy. How about I buckle him into the car seat for you, ma'am?"
A ploy to impress Nikki? Or was he just being a nice guy? Bo certainly seemed at ease with the baby—and with flaunting that "talent" right under Nikki's nose with a smile and wink
J.T. followed Julia and Bo out the door as Chris jogged past inside with a small suitcase and basket of flowers in his hands, Cheetos bag in his teeth. J.T. plowed ahead. He might not be able to do much about his wife, but he could make damn well sure a certain lieutenant kept his musical "talents" zipped up tight.
Rena watched her husband stride out the door after Bo and Julia, J.T.'s mercurial moods unsettling to say the least. One minute he seemed ready to kiss her. The next he was Sergeant Scowl. Then Mr. Sensitive with the footstool. Then back to Sergeant Scowl.
And she was definitely Counselor Cranky. Knowing her irritability came from pure sexual frustration didn't help.
Nikki plopped down on the ottoman, long legs folded to the side. "Do you need anything? A glass of water?"
"I'm fine for now, hon." Rena reached to tuck a stray strand of her daughter's chin-length bob behind her ears. If this sleek, earthy changeling didn't look so much like her father, Rena might wonder what rainbow Nikki had slid down into the hospital bassinet marked Baby Girl Price. "Thanks for coming home to check on me with exams starting."
"We don't all get much time to hang out together in the same house anymore," she said, her tone light, her clear gray eyes piercing. "Sorry I have to go back after supper. But where would I sleep, anyway, with Dad's stuff piled up in my old room?"
Easygoing kid? Not always. Nikki landed her sly digs in with the best of them. "Then let's enjoy this afternoon and the chili before you go. Your father's home to help until I'm on my feet since you and Chris have school. Nothing more and you know that. I'm sorry, hon, but that's the way it is."
"Like you helped him through after he got back from Rubistan." She nodded her bob into a steady swing. "Right. Got it. Lots of helping going on for two people who say they don't want to be married anymore."
Rena folded her arms over her increasing waistline. "Back off, kiddo. I'm the mom. You're not. Boundaries. Respect them."
"Sure thing." She reached to put her hand over her mother's crossed arms. "Hey, cool news about the baby."
"Thank you, hon." Nikki might be pissed, hurt even, but she never held a grudge. Rena envied her daughter the ability to let concerns slide off her. "You're okay with this? Not all embarrassed by your old pregnant mom?"
"Old? You've gotta be kidding me." She patted her mother's tiny bulge again. "And of course I'm okay with the kid. If you're happy about the baby, then I'm happy."
Rena placed her hand over her daughter's and let herself enjoy the momentary peace of simply celebrating the new life in their world. She blinked back tears.
"Oh Geez, Mom. Hormones, huh?" Chuckling, Nikki drew her hand away. "Have cravings kicked in yet?"
"God, yes." She swiped the back of her wrist over her watery eyes. "With a vengeance. I can smell those chicken wings from here."
Nikki's gray eyes flecked with sparks of mischief. "Be nice to me and maybe I'll fix you a plate once they're done heating."
"That's me. Always in trouble." Always in motion, too, Nikki scooped three granola-bar wrappers—starving Chris's, no doubt—off the coffee table, wadded them into a ball before lobbing them into a wicker trash basket. "How far along are you?"
What a loaded question since it would reveal the full extent of J.T.'s homecoming. Like her adult daughter wouldn't have guessed anyhow.
"Three months," Rena announced, then waited for the smart-ass comeback. Grown-up kids didn't accept quite as blindly as the little ones.
A knowing smile dimpled her cheek, inherited from her father. "A baby in time for Christmas. Cool."
Rena exhaled. Off the hook for now. Nikki pushed to her feet, starting a long-legged strut out of the room. Rena shifted in the overstuffed chair, adjusted her throbbing ankle on the pillow. She just wanted to get through this bizarre family reunion without an argument. One peaceful gathering. Bone-weary, heart-sore and more than a little rattled by the wreck and a short ride in her husband's arms, she didn't have the energy for confrontations before a serious nap.
They could all bolt back buffalo wings and chili and pretend everything was fine. Easy enough to do after twenty-two years' practice.
Nikki paused in the archway leading from the dining area back into the hall. She glanced over her shoulder, patting her own not-pregnant belly. "Oh, and Mom? Way to go, keeping those boundaries in place with Dad three months ago."
Winking, she spun away, glossy hair swinging against her ears with each cocky strut out of sight.
Rena wanted to call her daughter on that statement. Call herself, for that matter. But the brat had a point.
Thumping the minivan roof, J.T. stepped back from Julia Dawson's Windstar. She eased into the street and straightened, clearing the way for Bo's blocked Jeep to leave.
Which the young copilot would do, as soon as J.T. addressed one pressing matter.
J.T. jammed his hands in his pockets, dodging strategically planted clumps of flowers in Rena's tropical jungle that would put professional tour gardens to shame. He stopped beside the black Jeep. "Thanks for the help, man."
"No problem." Bo secured the canvas roof for an open-air ride. "Glad I could be here for you."
"You were more than just here for me. I won't forget." True. And he would do anything for this fellow crew member. Except give over his daughter. He wanted easier for his kid than the worries of military life.
A big part of the reason he'd left Rena, and now he had to figure out how to resolve all of that.
"Family's about more than blood relations, you know." Bo stared down at his wrist cast, flexed his scarred fingers poking out. Slowly. No wince. Not that showed anyway. His arm fell to his side heavily. "I owe you."
Spring sun baked J.T.'s head with reminders of a February desert sun in another country. "You don't owe me a thing."
God, he didn't want to talk about that time. Especially not now when he needed his defenses up in full force to work his way past his prickly wife.