Authors: Robyn Carr
He held the door open. “Get straight to the point.”
Nikki was determined that this was not going to be a replay of the last time she'd flown with him, when he simply ignored her opinion of his technique and walked away from the situation as quickly as possible. She entered his room and went to a chair by the window. Danny followed her and took the other one, leaving Bob to sit on his bed and face them.
“Danny tells me the box is challenging you.”
He shrugged. “It challenges everyone.”
“You're having trouble, Bob,” Danny said. “The FAA inspector said he wouldn't recommend you for a check.”
“Hell, that happens with regularity,” he said, brushing it off.
“It hasn't happened to anyone else we've got in the sim,” Danny pointed out. “In fact, the FAA has been pretty impressed over all.”
“Maybe it's my sim partner more than me,” he suggested.
Nikki scooted forward in her chair. “Bob, I've been a check airman for years. You had trouble when you and I flew together. Cut your losses. Save face. You don't have to fly in your job. As long as one of us is qualified and on the certificate, the FAA will give its blessing.”
he reeled, standing abruptly. Even Danny
started, swiveling his head toward Nikki in surprise. He'd had no idea she was going to do that.
But Nikki didn't startle. “If you pursue this, there's a good chance the FAA will fail you. It's almost guaranteed they're not going to give you check airman status. Before you have to live with that on your reputation, call time out. You're too busy and you manage the entire operation,” she pointed out, giving him way more credit than he was due. “You'll be ahead of the gameâwhen too many pilots call in sick on Christmas, you won't have to fill in. Make this your decision, not ours.”
he demanded, still standing.
“Yes,” she said coolly.
“Yes, ours,” said Danny.
“I'm as disappointed as you,” Nikki went on, “but the 757 doesn't appear to be your strong suit. Let it go before it gets taken away from you.”
“I can't believe you dare to do this, to suggest this. Who the hell do you think you are?”
She stood so she could meet his eyes levelly. “I'm the chief pilot and I'm charged with the safety of this flying operation. Think about this. It makes sense.”
“You'd better go.”
“Believe me, this is not fun for me,” she said.
Bob stood aside, stone-faced, waiting for them to leave. As they were walking down the hotel hallway, he called to Danny's back, “I'm going to be switching a few things around tonight. I'm going to fly with someone else.”
Danny nodded. “Suit yourself.”
That night it was Sam Landon who met Riddle at the sim. Of all the people there for training, he'd picked the one guy who hadn't flown in a long time. Nikki suspected it was to divert attention from his own incom
petence if the session didn't go well. She hung around the training building until they came out. They were both drenched in sweat. The FAA inspector had a cut on his forehead that she later learned was the result of hitting the sharp corner of the exit sign inside the sim during a particularly tumultuous ride.
Two days later, Bob Riddle went back to Las Vegas without taking a check ride. He was hanging his wings.
In the outdoor section of a small bar and restaurant right in the middle of the little college town, Nikki saw Sam reading a propped-up newspaper while eating a hamburger. She leaned over the railing. “Sam?” When he saw who it was, there was no mistaking the pleased look in his eyes. “Have room for one more?” she asked.
She sat across from him. “Well, I'm relieved to see you're still speaking to me.”
“Why wouldn't I be?”
“That fiasco with Riddle. You must have thought that was my doing. Or Danny's.”
“Riddle called me himself. Said Danny was not up to his standards and asked if I'd fly copilot for him. I said I thought he might be making a mistakeâI've heard Danny's very good.”
“He's the best. New Century got very lucky there. But you certainly didn't embarrass yourself. I heard you did a great job. And Bob has decided he just doesn't have the time to devote to both flying and running operations.”
“Is that the party line?” he asked, picking up his hamburger and taking a healthy bite.
“That's just what I've been told,” she said. The
waiter approached their table and she pointed to Sam's plate. “Bring me one of those, and a Coke.”
Sam took his time finishing that big mouthful of hamburger. He wiped his greasy fingers, then took a drink of water. Finally he said, “Riddle can't fly.”
“Is that so?” she returned.
“Look, I know you have to be political, and I can appreciate that, but if you let pilots of his caliber slip by, this company is going to be in big trouble.”
“I didn't hire Bob,” she said.
He put his elbows on the table and laced his hands under his chin, studying her for a moment. “But you know all about him.”
Nikki assumed he held her gaze to measure the honesty of whatever she said next, but something unrelated to this discussion was going on with her, just as it always did when she was with Sam. She felt herself growing warm, and it was not the balmy October afternoon or the sun. It was Sam. That rugged face, strong, square jaw, gorgeous big brown eyes under bushy brows. When he grinned, it sliced through her with a searing heat. He was going to think she was lying because she began to fidget and she could feel her cheeks start to glow. When was the last time she'd blushed? In 1980? “I know about him,” she said. “Don't let your burger get cold.”
He let a little smile slip through before picking up the sandwich again.
“Based on what the FAA inspector said about your performance, I was wondering if you're interested in the check airman program. It pays a little extra, but you'll earn it.”
His mouth was full. This time she had surprised him; he couldn't even chew. The corners of her lips turned
up in a smile. This was kind of funâdropping a bomb just as he bit into a big, sloppy burger.
After a moment he said, “Wow. I wasn't expecting that.”
“Why not? I hear you're an excellent pilot.”
“That so? They don't lavish the praise on you in the box. They're afraid it'll make you weak.”
“They told the right person. You want to think it over?”
“Yeah, maybe I better. Thanks.”
“It is a good deal, however. We haven't nailed down all the pay issues yet, but Danny and I have been talking to Riordan about a twelve thousand dollar a year bump in pay. In a start-up, that's decent.”
“In a start-up it takes you above the poverty level,” he joked.
Her cola arrived and she took a drink. He dived into that burger again and she just couldn't resist. “I bet you want to know what they said about your sim with Riddle.”
Caught with his mouth full again, he peered at her over the large bun. But this time he chewed slowly and swallowed. As the waiter passed, Sam beckoned him.
“Are you going to bring her food pretty soon?”
“I'll check on that, sir.”
“Thanks,” he said. He sat back in his chair and looked at Nikki curiously. “Were you a dentist in another life?”
Nikki was attracted to Sam in a very big way, and if she was honest, she had been since that first cup of coffee. It was something she was just going to have to live with, because there was no way she could let herself get
involved with him. He worked for her. She wouldn't risk it.
But a little over a week in the same hotel and training center threw them into each other's company quite often, and she grew to like him more and more. She loved his sense of humor, the easy camaraderie he seemed to have with his fellow pilots, and the way those few wild gray hairs defied the proper shape of his eyebrows. Then there was the strength of his forearms and the size of his hands; it seemed as if a planeâ¦a
would be so safe with him. Sometimes when she watched him, it really did feel as though the ground shifted just slightly under her feet.
This hadn't happened to Nikki in forever. There was that childhood romance with Paul, the disastrous rebound with Drake, which, if not for the kids, she would regret till the end of time. Once or twice over the years she had felt the stirring of attraction, but never at work. Nikki had never been big on flirting, either, so if a man didn't make a move, no moves were made. But she wasn't a total mannequin. She had managed a near affair with one of the soccer coaches after the divorce, but he was much younger than she was, and though he wasn't April or Jared's coach, it had felt a little too close for comfort.
She tried not to look at Sam too often or too hard for fear someone would pick up the cluesâfor fear
would pick up the vibes. No way would she complicate an already-complicated career position by introducing an office romance.
Not that such relationships were discouraged. On the contrary, if ever there was an industry in which work-related romances were common, it was the airlines. On the plus side, a lot of people had relationships or mar
riages and worked together successfully in the same airline for years. They had a great deal in common, after all.
On the minus side, there were the inevitable affairs that resulted from sending small groups of men and women out on the road together, where they worked in a very tight space and then spent their off-time in hotels.
But as long as the romances were between consenting adults and not destructive, the administration didn't have a problem. So that aspect had nothing to do with Nikki's hesitation. She had two very clear reservations. She did not want the men who worked for her to think she was just another girl. And she did not want to risk her heart and have it broken. Again.
So she looked at Sam now and then, felt that little lift in her heart, that unsteadiness in her stance, and covered it with a laugh. She might have the odd dream in which he was present, but as far as the other pilots knew, as far as Sam knew, their relationship was strictly professional.
She didn't even tell Dixie.
As for Dixie, Nikki had known that the room she was using at the new house was just temporary, but she had no idea how temporary. While she was in Phoenix, Dixie had found what she described as an adorable little house with an adorable little pool just a few neighborhoods away. “Within walking distance, if you can believe that,” she had said over the phone. “Carlisle and I are staying here with April and Jared until you get back, but we're going to make up my room for Buck so it'll be ready for him.”
“I can't wait to get home,” Nikki said. “Really, my first house.”
She was fortunate to be returning on a Saturday morn
ing so she could spend a day or two with the kids, getting to know her new house. If it were a weekday, she'd be haunted by the piles of work in her office, but after ten days away, she was more than due a break.
The closer Nikki got to Las Vegas, the more excited she became. As she drove to her new neighborhood, her heart pounded with enthusiasm.
It would feel so good to organize her house. To do laundry in her own laundry room. To wander into the kitchen late at night and find some tasty leftovers in the fridge.
She entered the kitchen through the garage and was greeted with the mind-bending aroma of freshly baked cookies. They were cooling on the cutting board next to the oven. She glanced around. The family room was immaculate with fresh vacuum tracks lined up perfectly on the carpet, and several magazines were neatly arranged on the coffee table.
In the living room, a vase held fresh flowers, and a couple of potted plants and a ficus in a brass pot were new additions. The sun slanted in through the shuttered windows, and the ceiling fan lazily circulated the air. A new area rug graced the marble foyer.
Nikki took her suitcase up the stairs to the master bedroom, where she found everything she owned put away in perfect order. There was even a shoe tree in one of the walk-in closets, obviously purchased by Carlisle. In fact, everything new must have been purchased by Carlisle, and she would have to make him whole.
She put her suitcase in the extra closet; she'd deal with it another time. The alarm made its beeping signal that a door had been opened and she heard Jared call, “Mom?”
“Up here,” she yelled, then ran toward him. They
met on the stairs. Both kids were hugging her, yammering about school, sports teams and concerts and friends, even though they'd talked at least once every day. They pulled her along to their bedrooms, which were now completely settled.
The phone in April's room was ringing by the time Nikki had toured both rooms. Soon she would probably resent that ringing phone, but right now it symbolized her daughter's budding friendships, her acceptance into her new community, and for that Nikki was enormously grateful.