Eight years ago
“Niki? Can you get the door?” Mrs. Jacobs asked her.
Niki laid the pencil on the dark wood table next to her calculus homework. She hurried to the front door and flung it open, unaware of how her life was about to change irrevocably.
“Miss Nicole Turner?”
Her stomach churned at the sight of two uniformed men in dress blues. Living on an Air Force base, good news rarely arrived with a captain and a sergeant in blues. Her eyes burned as she blinked rapidly, expecting the worst.
“May we come in?” The sergeant asked, with soft, searching eyes.
Numbly, Niki stepped aside, stomach knotting into a tight ball. She could not handle the loss of another loved one.
Three years earlier, she had moved to the Air Force base with her older brother, Jack, after he became her legal guardian. A drunk driver had killed her parents. In an instant, Niki became an orphan.
Jack had just finished basic training and settled on the base in Ramstein, Germany, only a few months before. He took the first flight to Arizona as soon as Niki called. She had stayed with a neighbor, a friend of her mother’s, until Jack arrived. Then he took care of everything—the funeral, the estate, the house. Thankfully, Mom and Dad had updated their will a few months earlier to make Jack her guardian. Who knows where she would have ended up if they hadn’t?
Now, the captain with dark brown eyes, almost black, led her to a plush leather sofa, suggesting she sit down. The sergeant spoke in quiet tones with Mrs. Jacobs, her best friend’s mom, who had agreed to let Niki live with them after the Air Force had deployed Jack to Afghanistan.
Mrs. Jacobs eased onto the sofa, the leather squeaking beneath her weight as she clasped Niki’s hand. She knew what the military men were going to say before they uttered a word. Jack wasn’t coming back. Tears leaked from the corners of Niki’s eyes, trailing down her cheeks as sorrow swallowed her heart with a giant gulp.
Jack’s last video chat came back to her—on her eighteenth birthday just two weeks ago. He had teased her about being legal, an actual adult now. Then he ended by saying he had found something he had always been looking for and he found it in Afghanistan. He promised to tell her more later. She remembered being so happy for the chance to see his face. He looked good—different somehow.
Ever since he had become her guardian, they had grown very close. Jack had navigated the new role of brother and parent, albeit clumsily. He taught her how to drive. He scared off the boys who might have asked to date her—not that any had. Jack suggested they use some of the life insurance money to pay for her college education. He recommended enrolling in an Arizona school since he had kept their parents’ home there.
“Niki?” Mrs. Jacob’s voice pulled her focus back to the uniformed men staring at her with solemn faces.
“Miss, we’re very sorry to inform you that your brother Jack died in action.”
A soul-curdling wail tore from her lips. Sobs wracked her body. Mrs. Jacobs hugged her to her side before shifting to a comforting embrace. Niki’s heart bled as the captain explained in more detail. She couldn’t absorb the words. Only a few penetrated the fog that settled over her.
“He and his unit had been…”
Bile rose in the back of her throat as they handed her the dented dog tags on a shiny new chain. She jumped to her feet and ran down the hall to the bathroom, losing everything in her stomach.
Jack, her last living relative, was dead. She was completely alone in this world.
A horn honked, jarring Niki from the dark memories. Eight years had done little to ease her grief. Why she thought about her lost loved ones that morning, she did not know. She looked around to see if she had offended another driver. Seeing nothing, she scanned the highway signs for her exit. Only two more to go.
With a shaky hand, she pushed her hair back from her face, noticing the light moisture on her cheek. She fumbled in the console between the two front seats for a napkin and dabbed her face dry. What floodgate had opened in her heart? And why today?
Niki exited the freeway and drove the few blocks to Elite Software’s headquarters. Finding a parking space, she shut off her electric car. Before getting out, she looked at herself in the vanity mirror. Thankful for waterproof mascara, she gathered her things and entered the office.
“Morning, Niki,” Brian, her boss, greeted as she walked past his office.
She mumbled something in response, eager to find an empty desk to claim for the week. Niki despised the time between clients—“the bench.” With her current state of mind, she doubted if she would last the day, much less the week with next to nothing to work on. She never understood why Brian required them to put in a full day at the office when they were between assignments.
Quirky Brian, owner of Elite Software, insisted on doing things his way. Besides being the CEO, he doubled as a salesman. His staff at Elite Software included four project managers, four business analysts, twenty-five software engineers, and three quality analysts. Oh, and an administrative assistant who doubled as HR. Not too bad for an independently owned consulting firm.
Brian had started the place fifteen years ago. He survived a few economic downturns, mostly because his major clients were Department of Defense suppliers and contractors. His years of working intelligence in the military left him with many contacts in the DoD. He maintained his top secret clearance and hand-selected staff who also qualified for top secret clearance. Over the years, the firm branched out beyond DoD clients, but they still provided nearly two-thirds of the revenue for Elite.
Niki mused over how her entire career could be summarized in one word: coding. It irked her. What she did was so much more complicated than just coding or programming. Half the time, she helped the client define what they wanted. She learned their industry, made recommendations, helped outline the features of the software—all before writing one line of code. Then, when it came time to start the coding, her fingers blazed across the keyboard as her mind created the perfect solution to incorporate the client’s needs and some features they didn’t even know they wanted.
Niki had just finished a custom warehouse management system for one of Elite’s commercial clients. It was her first project as the technical lead. Doug, her best friend at work, was one of several software engineers on the project.
“Hey, Nik,” Doug said, tossing his stuff into the cube next to hers. “How was your date?”
“Stop calling me that.” She stood to see over the cube wall. “How was your date?”
Doug’s lips spread from ear to ear. He sat down and unpacked his laptop. “Fantastic. We went out two nights in a row. And I’m seeing her again on Wednesday.”
“Slow down there, ace,” Niki said in her best cowboy movie voice. “You don’t want to scare her off.”
“Naw, it’s not like that. She’s great. And I think she likes me.”
“I’d say so, especially if you’re meeting her again mid-week.”
Doug keyed in his password and waited for his laptop to connect. With a few impatient clicks of his mouse, he blurted out, “The wireless here stinks.”
Brian’s voice filtered down from his office. “I heard that.”
“Did you have to pick a cube so close to you-know-who?” Doug whispered to her, with narrowed eyes.
“Sure. It makes him feel good when he can keep an eye on us.”
Doug rolled his eyes.
“Besides, I’m still mad at you for Friday.” Niki forced her lower lip forward in a pout as she crossed her arms.
“Come on. Be fair. You can’t keep calling your friends to bail you out of every date your roommate sends you on. Either you tell her to stop, or you try making it through a date on your own.”
Niki frowned. What she meant as a joke ended with her receiving another lecture in the its-time-you-grow-up-and-settle-down vein. Annoyed, she dropped to her chair away from his line of sight.
An hour later, her head bobbed, jerking her attention back to her screen. Studying for certification tests, one of the typical duties on the bench, was as exciting as watching mold grow. She despised it. She checked the clock on her computer. It read nine-thirty. She had only been here for two and a half hours! This was going to be a long week.
Standing, she walked down the hall to the water fountain just for the change of scenery. Taking a big swig, she nearly choked as Jake, another engineer, flew into the office, knocking the door against the wall.
“Afternoon,” Brian called from his office. “Glad to see you could join us, Jake.”
Jake glared, drawing a chuckle from Brian.
Niki held her tongue. She had worked with Jake long enough to know that he did his best work later in the day. Much later. She rarely spoke to him until after eleven, still an hour and a half away. But it was Brian’s office and his rules.
By noon, she was ready to poke her own eye out slowly with whatever blunt instrument she could find. Desperately needing a break, she cajoled Doug and Jake into grabbing some lunch. They chatted about the project they had just finished and dreamed of what company Brian might assign them to next.
Niki knew what she wanted her next client to be. Helitronics. Okay, it was a stupid name. But they were only the largest DoD contractor for helicopter aviation electronics. Out of all of Elite’s clients, they were the most coveted. And she wanted it. She had paid her dues for the last four years. She wowed her other DoD clients—all with Helitronics in mind.
Last week, she heard through the office rumor mill—instant messaging—that they contacted Brian about a new six-month gig requiring a team of four or five engineers besides the four already on site. Ever since that juicy little tidbit, she waited for the right time to bring it up to her boss.
For two hours after lunch, she tried to pay attention to the certification exam questions, but her mind wandered. She stood and stretched, got another cup of coffee, and a high octane energy drink. Nothing worked. She was ready to fall asleep from boredom.
Enough! She was done with sitting there. She was going to go talk to Brian about Helitronics.
Niki knocked softly on Brian’s open office door. He looked up and motioned her in while he finished a phone call.
“Niki, good. I was just going to find you,” Brian started. “First, great job at Hamilton. They had high praise for your work. You did excellent on your first project as the technical lead. Quite impressive, with only four years’ experience.”
She took the seat across from him, smiling as if she did not mind him ambushing her planned conversation.
“Do you think you can handle a bigger project?”
“Of course. What did you have in mind?”
“It’s one of DoD’s. Pretty important project. It means you are theirs for the next six months if you want it.”
Niki’s heart raced. He couldn’t be considering her as the technical lead for Helitronics. Could he?
“You would be the technical lead, but Russell would also be involved. It would be an opportunity for you to learn from the master.”
Russell was at Helitronics. Her palms grew sweaty. She practically vibrated in her chair as she waited for him to confirm her suspicion.
She grinned—a huge, silly, eager grin. “Do you think I’m ready for it?”
“I know so. Your work on the last project proved my gut instinct is right. You’re a natural leader, Niki. You handled our most demanding client with grace. I’m confident you can handle Helitronics.”
This was even better than she had been hoping for. Brian was giving her a chance.
If she messed it up…
Her smile faded.
“Ah, reality check,” Brian said, correctly interpreting her mood change. “If you think this is going to be tough, it will be. If you think the end product, if delivered poorly, could cause someone to lose their life, you’re right. This is a high stakes project—not one I would offer unless I knew you could pull it off.”
Niki swallowed. It would be an enormous challenge. Her gut told her to go for it, but a little voice of reason told her to take a day and think about it. “Can I let you know tomorrow?”
“That is exactly why I’m offering you this opportunity—sound judgment. I’ll tell you what, why don’t you head home early today? Call me tomorrow with your answer.”
Niki nodded and started to rise.
“The next few months are gonna be long.”
She smiled as she walked back to her desk. She hadn’t even said yes, and Brian was already making plans.
Read more about The Heart I Rescue.
Available at these retailers: