He had a way of finding a good quality in each person and relating to them on that level, rather than seeing the negative and judging. He excelled as a leader by giving everyone else a chance to succeed based on that strength, something she would do well to cultivate in her teaching.
The lumbering bus jerked to a halt on the tarmac, restless families standing, pouring down the steps. Rows of parked cargo planes loomed, waiting for their missing friends. Airmen lined up outside to escort the families and greet their returning squadron mates. Where was Carson? Somewhere in that crowd most certainly, since already in the distance, she could see the specks of approaching C-17s on the horizon.
Hugging her coat around her, she waited alongside the idling bus while people streamed out, her mom and brothers at the back of the line.
Kevin Avery peeled away from the other flyers in leather jackets and joined her. "Hey, Nikki. How's it going?"
She felt bad about the way she'd treated him back in "Anybody-But-Carson" dating days. He seemed like a nice guy, dedicated to his Air Force career. Thank goodness he was okay with being friends, and had even set her up with his buddy Gary.
Great. They all knew how that one had ended. "Everything's better. My dad's coming home and he's in one piece."
"Yeah, and I hear the investigators cleared you." He nodded, clean-cut hair, boots perfectly polished until they glinted in the afternoon sun. "That's good. I always knew it couldn't be you and I told Agent Reis the same."
Nikki scratched the back of her neck, but the itchy sensation persisted that she was being stared at. She turned, scanned the cement expanse. Carson was watching.
Watching her with Avery.
Darn it. Was Carson going to get all weird again and insist he was too old for her? She winced to think of herself two years ago hoping he would be jealous and notice her. How juvenile it sounded now. She truly had been too young for him then—what a surprise notion.
She wanted to reassure Carson that her eyes were so full of him that even when he wasn't around, no other guy existed. But he was working and she knew from years listening to her parents that PDA—public displays of affection—while in uniform were frowned upon.
But a smile would be cool. Right? Just as she started to grin at him— Carson winked. Quick. Then done. But the tingle lingered long after he turned away to speak with the aviators lining up in front of him.
And my goodness, she could sure keep staring at the tempting view of his oh-so-perfect tush in a flight suit, but someone might notice and she wasn't ready to go public with their relationship. Not yet.
If nothing else, she should let her parents know, although her mother had probably already guessed.
Her gaze skipped down and away, back to the present where... Oops. Kevin Avery had picked up on every bit of the exchange. She saw things through his eyes and her quick shuffle from Gary to Carson didn't look good. As Gary's friend, Kevin had reason to be confused, even pissed on his buddy's behalf. He had no way of knowing that she and Gary had already been finished. Even if she explained it, who's to say he would believe her?
She simply stared at him silently, fairly certain he wouldn't confront her if she didn't broach the subject.
He tipped his head toward the cluster of flight suit-clad aviators. "Guess I should line up with the rest of the welcoming committee. Glad you're doing okay."
As Kevin melded in with his friends, her mother sagged to sit on the bottom bleacher, the middle trimester of pregnancy already slowing her down while Chris followed with toddler Jamie.
Nikki extended a hand. "Hey Chris, let me see the little guy"
Rena grinned, taking the banner. "So Chris can catch me if I topple over the side."
"You said it, Mom, not me."
Squatting in front of Jamie, Nikki tied the ribbons around his chubby wrist, her heart squeezing as tight as the knot over how darn cute her youngest brother was. She hitched him up onto her hip and snuggled him close while pointing out airplanes.
Which took her eyes right back to the flyboys. Carson's eyes held hers across the tarmac. No wink needed this time. She saw it in his eyes, a warming. He definitely wanted her. She shivered.
"Are you cold, sweetie?" her mother asked.
Totally scorching inside. And oooh, wasn't that a tingly thought? Scorch inside her. "I'm fine, Mom, thanks. Just remembering how many times we've done this welcome-home gig"
And wasn't that a nontingly thought?
Then Carson's gaze slid to Jamie and her heart squeezed tighter, more so when something bleak sent clouds chasing through Carson's beautiful blue eyes. What could he want to talk about when they went sailing? They couldn't be jumping to a super serious level this quickly, and frankly, she wasn't sure she trusted him that much yet.
Shoot, she wasn't sure she trusted herself that much. None of which she needed to think about now anyway.
The cargo planes slowed to a stop, side stairs and back hatches lowering until each clanked on the ground. The high noon sun reflected off the lumbering beasts. People packed the bleachers and milled around at the side, excited chatter the common denominator.
How many of these had she waited through, waiting for her dad, holding her mom's hand tight like now? How many more might she wait through for Carson? He stood to the side with the rest of the squadron at attention as the cargo hold full of green-suited bodies came into view.
First down the ramp, a stretcher carrying Bronco. He'd made it through surgery, surprising everyone with his sturdy constitution by being cleared for transport to come home with his squadron. Never leave your wingman.
He would spend a couple more weeks in the hospital here, but with his doctor wife to keep him on his toes, he would be fine. Joker strode beside him with his arm in a sling, his free arm extended for his fiancée.
Yet even with the smiles there remained an underlying solemnity for the missing man. Gabby's body had already been flown to the small Maine town where he and his wife had been high school sweethearts. The base had held a memorial ceremony that left her hands trembling, even now just remembering.
And then from the middle of the mayhem emerged her burly father, big and alive, someone she'd alternately adored and resented all her life, depending on which country he parked himself in at the end of the day.
She liked to think she was past those childhood hang-ups, but couldn't ignore how messed up her life had become lately. She hated to think that her crush on Carson had been some sad father-figure deal. Ugh. Regardless, she knew her feelings for Carson were anything but familial.
Her father pulled back from Rena and turned to his two adult children, little Jamie scooped up in one arm.
"Hey, Daddy." Nikki stepped into his open arm. "Welcome home."
"Thanks, baby girl." He dropped a kiss on top of her head, a quiet stalwart man who somehow still left such a void of silence when he was away.
She blinked back tears she refused to let mar this homecoming and stepped aside. Rena returned to J.T.'s side, so much love humming between them, Nikki inched farther away to give them more space even in public.
Her mind winged back to her father's return nearly two years ago after being shot down and captured, how her heart had been in her throat waiting for Carson, too. By letting Carson into her bed, yes, she was entertaining ideas of forever. She couldn't ignore it. Some folks had a more casual approach to sex, and that was fine by her, but for her life, she simply wasn't wired that way.
She was well-equipped for military life, she understood it, she'd lived it. She knew all the jargon, headaches, heartaches—the joys, as well. Yes, she could handle this with her hands tied behind her back.
But did she want to spend the rest of her life waiting on a tarmac with tears in her eyes?
Carson hated waiting. And waiting to get Nikki alone this week had been hell.
Only a couple more hours until duty could be placed on the back burner for the night. First, he had to finish in-processing the returning squadron members—paperwork, customs, turn in medical records and equipment while the families passed time at an informal gathering inside the squadron briefing room.
Not much longer and things would wind down. He strode through the corridor from his office back toward the buzz of voices. A door swung wide from the public bathroom. He dodged, just as Nikki stepped out.
Thank you. A reward at the end of a killer week.
He stepped closer without touching. "Hey you."
She smiled back. "Hey you."
"I've been going crazy this week wanting to see you." He advanced again.
Nikki stayed put, her smile full but her eyes...sad? "I understand you're busy."
Did she want space? Jesus, he was thirty-five years old, way past college-type dating scenes. Honesty. If they didn't go with that, then they were screwed.
He cupped her elbow and ducked into his office, door still open but out of the mainstream of nosy folks. Clear for the moment, he allowed himself to move closer, near enough to exchange body heat as he flattened his hand on the wall behind her. "Just because I'm busy doesn't mean I'm not thinking about you."
Her smile filled her eyes now, too, breezily confident Nikki meeting him one for one. On a sexual level they were able to communicate openly. "And what did you think about when I crossed your mind?"
While they were being honest... "You usually crossed my mind naked."
"Would it be piggish of me if you were only wearing heels?"
"Do-me pumps? Hmm... I may own a pair."
"Really?" He couldn't disguise his surprise. She'd never been much for heels, but then her barefoot appeal turned him inside out more than any other woman in stilettos ever could.
"No, I don't." Her grin went downright wicked. "But I will by this weekend."
He let his growl of appreciation rumble up and out as finally he got to be near her again. "How much longer until we can be alone?"
"Heels." Just below his neck, she toyed with the tab on his uniform zipper. "Since I'm shopping you can put in your order. Red or black? What's your pleasure?"
"You." He canted closer, a whisper away from her lips glistening with a gloss he would have to kiss off soon. He ducked his head close to her ear to whisper, "And I very much want to be your pleasure once we're out on the ocean, away from the rest of the world, no heels, no clothes, no outside worries. I wish it was summer so I could love you on the deck, out in the open, kissing every inch of your body while the sun does the same."
Her hot, panting breaths puffed over him. "Close the door. Now. Five minutes. Nobody'll miss us."
His brain fogged with possibilities of what they could accomplish in five minutes.
"Scorch?" a bass voice echoed down the hall.
He hadn't even heard anyone approaching. Jesus, he was far gone. Carson jerked, kicking himself for being reckless with Nikki's reputation and glancing back over his shoulder to look at...
The father of the woman he was just propositioning.
Gulp. Carson braced. "Yes, sir?"
J.T. frowned, stayed silent.
Sir. Crap. Carson's hand fisted on the door. He, a major, had just called a chief master sergeant sir. Officers did not call enlisted troops sir.
But a man sure as hell said sir to the father of his girlfriend. So much for waiting for the perfect time to logically explain about his relationship with Nikki.
They were so...
She was so busted.
Three hours later tucking her little brother into bed, Nikki knew the confrontation was coming, even if her father had pretended nothing was wrong at the time. A quick unspoken agreement had zipped between the two men as readable as any newspaper.
No scenes at the squadron. Not a surprise since she'd lived her life being told to wear her best face on base. Be a good reflection of her father. She knew the drill.