He had enough on his plate staying sober and doing his job. Speaking of which, he had a young pilot here in need of leading right now. Being an Air Force officer was about more than flying. He had a duty to train, mentor, motivate future leaders.
The failure with Owens weighed heavily on his shoulders today. He'd been certain the man was shaking his gambling problem. He'd even begun attending support meetings with other addicts.
Carson thumbed the interphone button. "Lieutenant Avery, let's talk. Career planning can never start too early. What's your goal?"
The wiry young pilot who probably weighed all of a hundred and thirty pounds soaking wet answered, "To be the Chief of Staff, sir."
Seabrook snorted into the headset from the jump seat. "Lieutenant, it may have escaped your notice, but since Curtis LeMay died, all the Chiefs of Staff have been fighter pilots."
"Oh." The scrawny kid deflated in his leather seat.
Damn. You'd think she stole the kid's ice-cream cone. "She has a point, but things change. Military transport is the fastest growing airframe, and we're raking in those medals. So you never know. What's your plan for making Chief of Staff?"
"I plan to be the best aviator I can be, sir."
Ambitions were all well and good, but he definitely needed to have a sit-down with this kid later about specific choices for different career paths, or before he knew it, he would be in a job he hadn't foreseen, either. "How about we settle on a more immediate goal today, with tangible early results."
"And what would that be, sir?"
"You tell me?" Take some initiative, kid. Having a goal was great, but setting attainable immediate goals to get there was even more important. In the last three months, Carson had tried to be the mentor to Owens he hadn't found around himself near enough. A.A. meetings had taught him well the necessity of guidance and support, one-day-at-a-time steps.
"I'd like to earn a call sign, a cool one like yours, sir."
Avery thought the call sign "Scorch" was cool? Jesus, it came from the mortifying moment of setting his own mustache on fire with the flaming Dr Pepper drink in a bar.
Seabrook laughed, husky and slightly wicked. "So you're not enjoying the call sign always reserved for the newest aviator."
Avery winced. "No, ma'am."
"Then get to work earning a new name, Bambi."
Carson smothered a laugh at the lieutenant's shudder of disgust over the undignified moniker. "I'll keep my eye on you and see what new handle I can come up with."
"Thank you, sir. If it's okay, I'd like to step in back for a walk-around before landing."
"Roger, cleared to unstrap."
Bambi unbuckled the harness holding him in the copilot's seat and ducked out of the cockpit for the stairwell leading to the cargo hold. Captain Seabrook slid into the empty copilot's seat on the right and settled behind the stick, scanning the control panel. "Tough to believe we were once that idealistic."
"Maybe because we weren't." In those days his only plans centered around escaping his family legacy. The rigid structure of the military provided a blessed relief to a childhood spent not knowing what to expect from minute to minute with coke addict parents.
Lately he worried about the stress load sending him over the edge, something he was always on guard against and a part of why he kept his personal life as uncomplicated as possible. He dated, but low-key. He'd even dated Nola Seabrook three years ago, back when they were both Captains, when he was senior only in years and not her supervisor in any way. She was far more suited for him than Nikki, closer in age, they both understood the pressures of military life, combat, even captivity since Nola had been snatched during a mission in South America.
Surely the crappy-luck odds were about played out for them?
Of course now with his new promotion in the squadron, a relationship was out of the question even if he was interested. Which he wasn't, because the chemistry wasn't there in spite of her bombshell-blonde looks...and he couldn't shake a certain leggy brunette from his brain.
He definitely needed to keep his personal life simple for at least as long as the squadron stayed under his command. Lives depended on it.
Thank God the runway neared. Time to pull his attention back on landing this lumbering beast of a plane. An instant before he could thumb the radio button to contact the control tower, the headset squawked in his ears.
"Major Hunt, there's a message for you at the command post from Special Agent Reis. Something about an accident over at Nikki Price's place, a loose balcony railing."
His muscles clenched as tight as the knot of dread in his gut. Screw having someone else check on her and keeping his distance. The second this plane touched down, he'd be out the hatch and on his way to Nikki's side. Where he intended to stay.
Nikki considered herself a tough person overall, but had somebody painted a bull's-eye on her back while she wasn't looking?
She toed off the water faucet in her steaming bathtub that hadn't come close to easing the kinks and cold from her tumble off her balcony into the pool. At least she'd been able to control her fall enough to land in the water when the wooden railing gave way. Thank God for all those gymnastics classes her parents had paid for when she was a kid.
Her stomach still lurched just thinking about those horrifying seconds in midair. She rested her head back and wished she'd thought to turn on her stereo before she sank into the bubble bath. She could use all the help relaxing that she could scavenge.
Three stories was a helluva long way to fall and hope that the dive angle you'd taken would land you in the pool rather than smack you onto the cement instead. She'd no doubt made a record breaking cannonball splash. EMS techs called by her neighbor declared her unharmed, although she would be black-and-blue by morning.
What happened to her nice boring life? She was a junior high teacher whose biggest concern should have been whether or not her students made it to regionals for the history fair.
Her doorbell echoed.
She hauled herself out of the water and grabbed for her jogging shorts and T-shirt resting on the edge of the vanity.
The doorbell pealed again. Her mother, no doubt, since the gossipy little old man next door had called her family's house two seconds after phoning EMS. She really could have used a beach towel from him instead. It was darn cold in that pool in January, even in South Carolina.
When she'd told her mother about Gary's death, her mom had—no surprise—freaked. Nikki had calmed her down by tapping into her mother's training for suggestions on regaining her memory. Keeping a dream journal and making an appointment with a hypnotherapist didn't feel like much, but at least she was taking action, already unearthing snippets of memories.
When she wasn't busy diving off a third-floor balcony.
The doorbell stuttered while she tugged her clothes onto her damp body. "Hold on, hold on, Mom." She hopped, one leg at a time into shorts. "I'm coming and I'm gonna chew you out for not putting up your feet like the doctor—"a building sneeze tingled through her sinuses, down her nose "—aaaachoo!"
She snitched Carson's freshly washed and folded handkerchief from the stack of laundry on her sofa and tried to ignore the teacher voice inside of her that insisted tissues were more sanitary than a cloth holding germs. And was this stuffy nose cosmic justice for lying to her mom about having a cold last week?
She tugged the door open. Rather than "concerned Mama," she found "pissed-off hunky flyboy." Her fingers fisted around the handkerchief, tucking her thumb to hide the telltale corner peeking out.
Carson gripped the door frame, his sensuous lower lip pulling tight. "You're okay."
"You don't have to sound so mad about it."
His hand slid from the frame and before she could blink— or head back into her apartment away from temptation—he hauled her to his chest. "Jesus, Nikki, you could have died. I damn near had a heart attack when command post patched through an inflight call about this."
Hunky, awesome-smelling flyboy, who'd raced straight over after a flight just for her. Muscle, leather and all that concern made for a heady sensory combination, especially when she was already susceptible to this man. Her body obviously wasn't near as smart as her mind.
But her will was stronger. She edged her shoulders free, stepping back without meeting his eyes. "I landed in the pool." What was she doing staring at her bare feet beside his boots? She forced her gaze up to meet his full on, no flinching.
His hand gravitated to her damp hair. "How long ago did it happen if your hair's wet?"
She held still under his touch, the heat of his fingers steaming her skin from a simple brush of his knuckles across her cheek. Better to let him think the water was from her impromptu swim than mention she was n**ed in the tub sixty seconds ago. "Why did they call you?"
His hand fell away. "Your mother phoned my secretary at the squadron to track me down. She wanted me to check on you since her doctor has her on bed rest."
"Figures." Where was Chris when she needed him? "You'd think I was still in college."
"I think you're lucky to have a family who cares. Was she a little intrusive? Maybe. But I don't see her here hovering."
"You're right. I am lucky, and I don't mean to sound like a brat."
She might not want a relationship with him anymore, but her ego still nudged her to be careful. They were inching toward dangerous—tempting—territory every time they spoke.
He strode past. She grabbed the door frame to support her suddenly shaky knees.
She watched him saunter into her apartment, a place he'd never stepped inside before. Seven months ago she'd been finishing up at UNC. Their one night together had been at his place, a beach community bungalow he'd bought from another military family when they'd moved.
She wondered what he thought of her bargain-basement Pier 1 knockoffs and the scattered plants she'd grafted from her mother's garden in an attempt to fill corners she couldn't afford to decorate.
Why was she thinking about appearances now when she'd never cared about material things before? If Carson Hunt— obviously from wealth—was only impressed by a price tag, then she was well rid of him.
He stopped short in front of her class's latest history project. "What the hell is this?"
She laughed and damn it felt good, almost as good as the rush because he'd noticed her most prized possession in the whole place. Her students had crafted the towering project which made it worth gold to her. Nikki walked deeper into the apartment, surreptitiously hiding the used handkerchief under a throw pillow until she could wash it.
Nikki tugged a tissue from the end table on her way to the six-foot-high papier-mâché creation she'd brought home from school strapped into the back of her Ford Ranger. "It's a sarcophagus."
"Ohhh-kay." Hands hooked in the pockets of his leather flight jacket, he studied the psychedelic coffin propped against the island counter separating the small kitchen from the rest of the dining area. "While I don't claim to be an interior design expert, why do you have one in your dining room?"
She ambled closer, determined not to bemoan the fact she was wearing nothing but ratty gym shorts and a threadbare T-shirt over her damp body. "My students are studying Egyptian history. The kids have been crafting papier-mâché items to go in the tomb, and we tried to build this in class, too, but Trey Baker spilled his lunch inside the sarcophagus and tapioca pudding totally stinks when it rots, so I had to cut that part out. Although what kid actually eats tapioca? Most children I know like chocolate pudding with candy sprinkles or gummies, or maybe a cookie crumbled on top."