She couldn't bring herself to go into that much detail, but surely Josh would understand how those horrible details imprinted themselves in the mind after his college trauma with the gunman.
A strange new thought flickered. Why had she never thought of Josh understanding because of his past?
Likely because he seemed so damned invincible she couldn't imagine him feeling so weak. "Ben panicked. I think. I'm not really sure what was going through his head. He started the car."
She blinked back tears that wanted to slip into those streams of water Josh kept pouring over her with soothing regularity. "He drove for maybe a mile or two before the car went off the road. We rolled down an embankment. He died and somehow I survived."
The water stopped. Josh cupped the back of her neck with one hand. She didn't bother protesting, just let the comforting heat of his touch seep into her. "At the hospital, they all assumed my bruises—" the broken ribs "—were from the accident. I didn't see the need to tell anyone otherwise. It would have only hurt his family even more when they were already grieving."
She swiped the cloth off the floor, pressing it to her eyes, then up over her wet hair until she ran out of delay tactics. She looked up at Josh, his face calm even while veins bulged along his arms as well as his feet now. A pulse popped in his temple.
He shoved the washtubs aside with overly controlled movements. "You still didn't tell anyone? Just for you, to let it out?"
"And risk having it get back to his family? Or mine?" The towel fell to her lap along with her hands. "You know how overprotective my father is. When he heard that both Darcy and I wanted to go in the military, he blew a gasket. One of the few times he ever lost his temper with us. I stood him down straight off, but baby-girl Darcy had a harder time winning. The last thing I needed was more reason for him to think I couldn't protect myself. No. It was better just to let it go."
One brow shot up so high he didn't need to say a word.
"Or at least try to let it go." She twisted the damp towel around her hands. "I know it's been eight years, and yes, I still have boundary issues. I have some serious trust issues as well way beyond whether or not to let go during sex."
He hunkered beside her, letting her talk, giving her space. But did he have to be so broad and big and
looming in doing it?
She combed her fingers through her hair, more for something to do than from any real need to tame her short locks. A few months after Ben's death, she'd chopped off her long hair that had impeded her view on that horrible night. One of a million little ways she'd struggled to resurrect her confidence.
"My head can tell me all day long that he was just a creep, but I trusted that creep for nearly two years. And when a person you trust betrays you in such a fundamental way... It breaks something inside that I'm not sure I can ever fix. So yeah, you were right when we argued back at the apartment about me not giving my all to the marriage. I haven't been a hundred percent yours in ways that had nothing to do with sex."
There. She'd admitted it. God, why couldn't he just put his arms around her and tell her everything would be fine? Her body still hummed with the awareness from the way he'd seduced her with a simple hair wash.
And she suffered no delusions. She'd been thoroughly seduced by his touch. But where did they go from here? "Will you just sit down," she snapped, then felt like a total witch. "Please. Don't you want to talk?
Or ask me questions? Or yell at me for not telling you sooner?"
He lowered beside her, his long legs stretching to the end of the bedroll. "Do you want to talk more?"
About as much as she wanted an icicle in her eye. "Do you?"
"Right now isn't about me. It's about you. And actually, I think you've had enough of talking for one night."
Her stomach twisted tight with nerves ... and an undeniable anticipation that transcended good judgment.
"Oh. So do you, uh, wanna go to bed?"
Go to bed? Hell, yeah, he wanted to go to bed with Alicia. More than he needed air he longed to toss a few more logs on the fire, recline them both along the padded length of the stacked sleeping bags and celebrate that they were still alive. They wouldn't even have to worry about birth control thanks to her Norplant.
He always burned to bury himself inside her, an ever-present desire Josh didn't see waning anytime soon.
If ever. Especially not with her on a blanket wearing nothing but a red plaid bra-and-panties set, looking like the best gift ever waiting to be unwrapped. Her slicked-back hair reminded him too well of the feel of her seeping into him while he massaged soap into her scalp.
But right now, more than sex, he needed to hold her and he suspected she needed the same. So he watched for some sign that she wouldn't bolt if he gathered her pride-filled body against him and offered her the comfort he knew she would never let down her guard enough to request. Sex could wait.
Making love, he amended, because hell, yes, he loved her.
Even as pissed as he was right now over her keeping such an important part of her past from him, he couldn't deny the obvious any longer. He still loved his wife.
How damned inconvenient that he should figure it out at a time when things between them seemed bleaker than ever, with her words still hammering around inside him, pounding echoes of emotions that were anything but gentle. Anger. Rage. All at a dead man, which left no outlet.
He shoved aside his own selfish urge to stomp out his frustrations and focused on Alicia. "Bed it is. We both need sleep."
Tension dissipated from her lowering shoulders so visibly he almost laughed. Then he saw a flicker of disappointment in her eyes.
She wanted to do more than sleep? Whether it would be making love or sex for her, his body still shouted a great big throbbing go for it!
Not wise. She deserved the cosseting, holding, sympathy no one had known to give her eight years ago.
He tossed two extra logs on the fire. Flicking aside the edge of the double sleeping bag, he slipped inside onto his back, arm cranked under his head, and closed his eyes.
"You're not fooling me with that laid-back attitude, Joshua Rosen."
God, he loved her spunk that kicked right through after a day that would have leveled most people from the get-go.
"Good." He kept his eyes closed. "Then you'll know it's better not to mess with me right now. Climb in and go to sleep before you turn into a Popsicle."
More like a Dreamsicle, with all that creamy skin he didn't have to see to envision, and, yeah, he wanted to lick every inch of her.
Covers rustled and shuffled with the intrusion of another body—her body and heat. Fifty degrees felt like a furnace now.
She shifted, settled, then rolled right up against his side. Well, damn. There she went surprising him again.
Sure, she was only doing the practical thing, but practical wasn't always easy as he could tell too well from her rigid muscles.
He slipped his arm out from under his head, working not to elbow her in the minimal-maneuver room. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, drew her closer. Her sigh warmed over his chest as she melted against his side in cuddle mode.
Day by day, he forgot how small she was, the force of her personality, her confidence and expertise in the plane surpassing anything to do with height and frame. Right now, she felt very mortal against him, at the mercy of the elements outside and some faceless threat likely on their tail.
The clean scent of soap and the warm softness of her skin saturated his senses. He might not be able to fight the demons in her past, but he would damned well stand down any and every one in her present. He didn't even bother trying to ignore the primal need to protect. He just let it all seep into him while his body succumbed to exhaustion, sleep demanding he surrender his hold on logic and let dreams take command....
God, he respected this woman's no-surrender attitude in the air. Just what he needed in combat from a front-seater in his F-15.
Sky streaked past his windscreen, jungle below blooming with secondary explosions. He didn't doubt for a minute he could nail those narrow-margin bomb targets and hold off the enemy until rescue came for the pinned-down Rangers. As long as his pilot didn't blink.
He'd expected to walk her through the rough stuff on her first mission in Cantou, play the senior officer role. But she was holding up her end of the team spirit with twenty Rangers on the ground counting on them.
He'd been paired with her because of his experience in the cockpit. Her two-star daddy kept his eye on his kids — even when they didn't need it. And Vogue definitely didn't need slack. Her even breaths echoed in his helmet at a steady pace with his own.
She had plenty of stick time and skill, but the true test didn't come until that first hairy combat mission.
This one more than qualified and she was hanging tough, leaving him free to concentrate on his job.
Laser squirt. Target set. He launched his last GBU. Shack.
The victory was short lived since now their bombs had been depleted. "We're Winchester bombs," he announced, clipping updates to the commander on the ground. "All we've got left is about four passes of a twenty mike-mike." A twenty-millimeter mounted for a strafing run — a low level run with the pilot shooting the Gatling gun cannon at targets. Definitely hairy flying, especially while shooting.
Time to put Vogue's feet to the fire.
His headset crackled with the response from the ground. "Roger that," the Ranger commander answered, machine guns rat-tat-tatting in the distance. "We're taking a lot of fire from the north-south tree line.
Three hundred meters west of our position."
"Copy. Help on the way. Descending now." In concert with his call, Vogue dipped the nose of the F-15, catapulting them into the same fire that had downed the helicopter full of Rangers.
Bullets spit from their F-15 toward the ground. An enemy vehicle exploded. They were so damned close he could see a vehicle door fly to the side and slap the ground.
The plane slowed, swooped, turned inward into the spiral to reverse the negative G-forces into a more manageable positive level. Josh felt his G-suit compression pants inflate along his legs, pushing blood back up to his head so he wouldn't lose consciousness.
His fingers flew over his control panel, eyes scanning the sky, all the while he snapped updates through the headset, filtered information from the ground to Alicia—Vogue. Not Alicia. Damn, where was his head?
The pressure of G-forces increased. He fought against the fog, worked the blood back up to his head.
Vogue's voice popped requests and questions between labored breaths. Slowly the figures in mottled cammo morphed, transforming into jeans-clad students at desks.
In the middle of the jungle?
That didn't make sense. They'd saved those Rangers and been awarded a Silver Star for the mission.
Except when had dreams ever made sense or allowed their victims control?
Josh grappled for consciousness even while the nightmare sucked him deeper into a past with guns blazing in a time when no amount of confidence or training could save anyone. Except he took Alicia with him, and now there was plenty of blood everywhere.
Bullets tore into the ground. Faster, in circles. Faster still. Cycloning mud and blood up. Spiraling toward Alicia. And there wasn't a damned thing he could do to save her.
Her husky tones and heavy breaths filled his mind. "Josh? Where are you? Come on back to me...."
"Josh?" Alicia nudged her sleeping husband's bare shoulder. Gently. Definitely gently. She knew enough about combat nightmares to be wary of startling somebody in the grips of one. His mumbled radio calls and flight lingo left her in no doubt. He was deep in battle mode. "Where are you? Come on back to me.
We're here. In Alaska. Safe."
She stroked over his shoulder, down his arm to either ease him awake or soothe him into more peaceful dreams. How long had they been asleep? Was it Christmas Eve yet? No light filtered through the lone window. Low embers glowed from the fire, the murky dark shrouding the metal hut with intimacy.
Alicia continued to caress his shoulder and mutter shushing noises. Muscles bulged under her touch, launching a tingling shower through her while she was still too sleep-woozy to resist. Oh, boy.
She'd really expected them to have sex after his sensual hair wash. She'd actually hoped he would wash away the memories with his body against hers. His arousal had been more than obvious. She'd been more than a little turned on herself, and yet he'd shut her down. Fast. So what if he was being practical?
She didn't want him to feel practical around her.
Alicia jabbed his ankle with her toe. Josh bolted upright. She jerked back, flinched. His eyes snapped open. Blinking, his chest heaving, he scrubbed his hands over his face.
Guilt tweaked her. She was being selfish. He was right to keep his distance if just talking to her brought nightmares.
Sheesh. Like they needed any more complications in their relationship.
She forked her fingers through her dried-crazy hair and decided it probably didn't look any wilder than when she tousled it with gel. And why was she worrying about her appearance, anyway?
Because of Josh, whose close-cropped black hair looked just fine. Great, for that matter—right over a brow still furrowed. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I just hate the way dreams are so damned illogical." He scratched his chest absently. Did he have to keep drawing attention to those hunky pecs if he didn't intend to let her touch them? "It's like the cosmos is playing a big trick on me when I don't have my brain engaged to override it. Which is a lame thing to think since it's my brain doing the dreaming. I just need to clear my head."
He flipped back the sleeping bag and stood, leaving a cold draft beside her. Inside her as well. She watched while he stoked the fire to life, adding more wood from the two large stacks beside the cast-iron stove. Flames flickered higher, bronzing his already tanned skin in an amber glow.
Heat blossomed from the grate over her.
She needed to know how he felt about what she'd told him, even if it hurt. "Is what I said earlier freaking you out?"
He jerked to face her. "No. Absolutely not. Well, not the way you're implying, anyway." "In what way, then?"
She could all but see the wheels turning in his head as he struggled for words to corral thoughts bigger than simple language allowed. "And could you please, please come back into the sleeping bag before you freeze your cute butt off."
Shadows flicked over the smile playing at his mouth. "There you go, surprising me again."