"Of course it's a week. Who can get a decent tan in under a week?"
"All right, what's broken? Where's the part gotta come from? Do we need to ship maintenance guys out?"
Carson listened while continuing to scour the parking lot for—what? Something. Anything he could find that might be off and account for the mess of the past twelve hours. Because if he could find the cause, he could fix it like that broken plane.
He should drop his sorry butt into his truck and leave. He'd done more for her today than required, and the attention would not go unnoticed in his small community of aviators once word leaked of the incident.
And he would.
But he wouldn't stay gone, just checking from a distance. He owed Nikki for how he'd treated her. She'd been there for him at one of the lowest points of his life and he had taken without giving a thing back.
He understood all about the importance of making amends except when those amends might harm someone. He'd stayed away for seven months because being close to her again would only risk hurting her more.
Well, now staying away wasn't an option.
"And that's it, sir," Lebowski wrapped up his summary, "I'll give you a SITREP at the end of business."
A situation report to add to the list of work, but at least his people were on top of things.
"Roger and out."
He thumbed the off button, relieved it wasn't another major crisis. The ADO—assistant director of operations—directly below him in the chain of command could have handled this one, but the old commander Quade had been such a micro-manager that the personnel around him hadn't broken the habit of calling about every nitnoid detail, which made the job more time-consuming than need be.
Quade was a helluva flyer, had been a dedicated commander, and no doubt cared about his people, even if his gruff demeanor implied otherwise on more than one occasion. But Carson had often wondered what would have happened to the squadron if Quade died while in charge.
Delegation was important. Sure there were times he could do the job better than someone less experienced, but if someone else could do the job well enough, that was okay, too. Otherwise how did anyone learn if they never had a chance to stretch their wings?
But what did he know? He was too damn young to be in this job anyway. Even with delegating, he was working his ass off so much he was lucky to get breakfast.
He tucked the phone back in his thigh pocket and stared up at the balcony marking Nikki's place, her UNC alma mater flag waving beside her sliding doors. His chest went tight again as he thought about finding her this morning, her spine so straight while she sat wrapped in that blanket. He would do anything to wipe away this horror for her. Any-damn-thing. Nothing would slip his attention in this investigation. And hell, suddenly he understood Quade's position a little better.
Because Nikki's safety was one responsibility he couldn't bring himself to delegate.
* * *
Nikki brushed her hand over the stack of sixth grade reports on farming techniques of ancient Egypt calling to her for grades, but she resisted. Her students deserved her complete attention and a fully functioning brain.
She needed air, space, sun, all in short supply on this rainy day. But at least her balcony would be less claustrophobic than the tiny apartment that had seemed so big when she first moved in last fall.
Nikki snagged her cordless phone from the cradle and slid open the balcony door. She really craved a long run on the beach but her aching body probably wouldn't hold up for any length of time. Too bad the pool was closed for the winter. The water, chilly though it might be, invited from below.
Dropping into a lounger, she started to dial her mother's number when the phone rang in her hand before she could punch the first number.
She checked caller ID and found "Caller Unknown."
Her stomach clenched. Residual nerves, no doubt. She tapped the On button. "Yes?"
Silence stretched for a second too long. Her nerves flamed. She started to hang up and sprint back inside when a cleared throat on the other end stopped her.
But he'd only just left. Standing, she scanned outside, past the swimming pool and found him three stories down in the parking lot, against the closed tailgate on his truck. She rested her elbows along the wooden rail, phone pressed to her ear as firmly as her eyes stayed locked on his tall, lean body.
"Did you forget something?" She'd returned his jacket, although she did still have his handkerchief.
"I seem to have overlooked doing one mighty damn important thing for too long."
The weight of his words seeped through the telephone. Did he intend for there to be a deeper meaning? Could he be referencing their night together after all these months? That evening she'd thought finally he'd noticed her only to have him leave the next morning and pretend the whole night never happened.
She wished she could erase that night from her memory as easily as she'd forgotten the one prior. "At least one of us has good recall today."
"I'm not talking about today."
"I know." How silly to speak on the phone while they looked at each other, but with a swimming pool between them and three stories of height, they were safe from touching.
Could he be as affected by her as she was by him? The disturbing and tempting thought spread soothing warmth through her on an oh-so-cold day. "Maybe we shouldn't talk right now with everything so jumbled—"
"I'm sorry for the way I behaved that night and the next morning."
An apology months too late.
She wouldn't be drawn in again. She couldn't bring herself to believe he was total scum, but something was messed up in that head of his and she didn't want any part of the fallout again.
Best to shoo him away fast before she did something reckless like ask him to come back up and inside. "You're forgiven."
"I don't deserve your forgiveness, but thank you."
She didn't want his gratitude. She wasn't sure what she wanted—okay, she knew she'd always wanted Carson—but more than that she wanted to safeguard her heart so she wouldn't spend the next two decades mooning over a man as her mama had done.
"Thank you for your help today. I really need to go now. Goodbye."
She hung up fast, a clean break, as she should have done the first time Carson had smiled a hello at a squadron picnic years ago. Better yet, she turned away, back into her apartment. She wasn't a twenty-year-old hero worshipping the new guy on her father's crew anymore.
God, had she really had a thing for Carson for nearly three years?
Nikki angled through the half-open sliding door and dragged it closed, phone still clutched in her hand. Time to finally place that call to her mother. She punched in her parents' number and waited through ring, ring, ring.
Chris. Her brother.
Her hands shook with adrenaline letdown along with the need to talk to somebody, and her brother was so the only person she could hang with right now. They'd forged a tight bond during all their family moves and their parents' marital troubles. She didn't care why Chris was back early from his New Year's road trip with college friends, but thank God he was.
She shouldn't drive anywhere because of the drug and nerves. Her brother could come over and pick her up. She couldn't stall telling her family any longer.
"Hey, runt. It's me. Could you come over? I've had a really crummy day."
* * *
His crappy day—hell, week—was finally about to end.
Carson gripped the stick on the C-17 and hurtled the craft through the sky closer to his home base. Only a couple more hours left until landing with the squadron representatives who'd flown out to Omaha for Owens's funeral.
He'd paid his respects to the family and worked like crazy not to think about the unanswered questions from the night the man had died. Still he couldn't help but wonder if Owens had been the one to drug Nikki's drink. And how had it happened at Beachcombers, the last place he would expect something like that to occur? Beachcombers wasn't some rave club, just a low-key seaside restaurant and bar where flyers hung out.
At least her brother was watching her and didn't seem to mind the occasional check-in call from Carson—under the guise of keeping tabs on J. T. Price's family while the man was deployed. He would continue checking in with Chris and with Special Agent Reis, while keeping his distance.
Game plan set, boots rocking the rudders, Carson lost himself in the sky as he soared the cargo plane through the clouds the way he escaped through hours spent skimming his thirty-one-foot Catalina sailboat over the waves.
Blue, blue and more blue...
He lived to fly, whether it was through the sky or along the ocean. That's all he'd ever wanted. He hadn't planned on a commander gig, but here he was, responsible for people like the crew around him.
Back in the cargo hold were loadmaster Picasso and inflight mechanic Mako.
Up front in the cockpit, new baby copilot Kevin Avery sat in the right seat and instructor pilot Nola Seabrook was strapped in a jump seat behind them.
God, when had he gotten to be the old guy? Except he wasn't that much older than these aviators. Somehow he'd landed on the fast track—he hoped because of his ability. Although he often wondered if his prestige-hungry parents had played some of their behind-the-scenes games in their high-power circles with congressmen who happened to be close buddies with a general here or there.
The military wasn't supposed to operate that way, but the whole thing had spiraled beyond his control. So he worked his ass off to be the best damn pilot, officer, leader possible in order to be worthy of his commission and whatever responsibilities came his way. Including checking on Nikki.
And did everything have to cycle back around to Nikki Price?
Jesus, he needed to start seeing other women. Except he didn't have the time or interest in anyone else. Work overload and stress maxed him out. He knew his limits and he recognized the danger signs if he pushed himself to the wall. He was trying to lose himself in the sky, and would have to find time to sail soon. All to fight the urge to take what he really wanted and could never have again.
Too many people counted on him. He couldn't risk screwing up. Stats read that every alcoholic's drinking affected at least four other lives. Any mistake he made would ripple through the whole squadron.
In spite of Nikki accepting his apology, what he'd done was unforgivable. He'd been so damn arrogant that night, thinking he was holding it together. That he was somehow stronger than his parents because he'd battled and won against his addiction.
His fall had been swift.
Attending his friend's wedding should have been low stress. Sure, drinks would flow, but he resisted that temptation every time he partied with his crewdog pals. He'd even hung out with his wartime crew before Spike's wedding. Life had finally been good again, the hell of their shoot down and capture in the Middle East past. He'd been cleared in the initial mandatory pysch eval. He knew with his family history he needed to be careful.
Then when he'd least expected it, everything flew apart. Why had seeing Spike that happy left him so damn shaken, enough to weaken and do something he'd been fighting for over a year not to do—hit on Nikki?
Next thing he'd known, he was looking at the bottom of an empty shot glass, then another, more following until.. .he couldn't remember more than spotty flashes of tangling n**ed with her in the sheets. Amazing flashes.
Flashes he also feared may have been brief and not nearly as good for her. Wasn't that a kick in the ego? And also a well-deserved punch to his good sense.
His fist clenched around the throttle. He fought the destructive urge to be with her every day. He couldn't offer her a damn thing, had tried to settle for friendship but knew now he couldn't go for half measures in any part of his life. He wasn't as strong at resisting temptation as he'd thought.