Page 10

"Yeah, just like that. Keep 'em coming if that'll help you stay awake." Zach cruised to a stop in the doorway.

Julia darted around the room like a firefly, stuffing sweat pants, a brush, shampoo into her bag.

She'd slept in his bed.

His sheets would carry her scent when he slept there later.

Zach secured his grip on the car seat. "Need any help?'

"There's not much, but yes, please carry the Portacrib." She reached across the bed and picked up an oversized T-shirt, revealing—

Panties. An orange thong.

Ah, man, he was so not going to get any sleep tonight.

He tried not to look at Julia, but then he would have to look at that underwear. Better to look at her.

Her cheeks pinkened.

Julia wasn't a particularly bashful woman. A holdover, she'd once claimed, from her days growing up in a commune. No privacy had quickly translated into little modesty.

An image blared in his mind, full blown and fully unwelcome, a memory of going to the base pool to check on his girls and make sure they weren't imposing on Julia while he worked through a Saturday afternoon.

Instead of a worn-out pregnant woman he'd found Julia in a bikini, glowing and magnificent even at seven months pregnant. Hot as hell.

Objectively speaking, of course.

More than a few male heads had turned to admire the sensual earth mother, Amazon goddess strolling to the snack bar.

For the first time, Zach questioned how objective he could have been if he remembered the day so clearly. Apparently, the memory had stored itself away just waiting for a weak moment to flatten his sorry butt.

Zach stuffed the thoughts away as quickly as Julia jammed those panties he'd never get to see up close and personal into her bag.

She tugged on socks and shoved her feet into sandals in record time before crossing to him. "Thanks, Zach."

She dropped the bag at his feet beside the folded Porta-crib. Julia grabbed the car seat from him and dashed down the hall without ever once glancing at him.

He followed, watching the glide of her long legs. Thinking back to that poolside moment.

Unwise. Wrong. Impossible to ignore.

Tucking his radio under his arm on his way out, Zach called over his shoulder, "Ivy, hang tough kiddo, and I'll be back in a few minutes for those chapters. Shel, keep an ear out for Ivy."

The screen door banged shut behind him, leaving Zach in the carport. Alone. With only Julia and a yard full of crickets.

She popped the trunk, and he welcomed the excuse to focus on something else. He tossed the crib and bag inside and slammed it shut. Circling around the car, he perched the radio on the seat of his Harley. "You look good, Julia."

Ah hell, again. Where had that come from?

His mouth had apparently staged a rebellion against his better judgment.

Julia buckled Patrick's car seat in the back without turning. "Thank you."

Actually, she looked incredible, so hot he wanted to take her inside to his bedroom and close the door on the rest of the world. "I mean it. You look great. No one would guess you just had a kid."

She draped and smoothed a blanket over Patrick. For the third time. "Thanks, Colonel."


She ducked out of the car and faced him, sparks from her eyes showering all over him like anti-aircraft fire. "Okay, Zach, what the hell are you trying to do?"

Adrenaline abandoned him in a snap. He leaned against the car. "I don't know, Julia. I just know I've missed you."

All those sparks dispersed from her eyes. She sagged against the car beside him. "I've missed you, too."

He tried not to think about that day at the pool when he'd seen those long legs. Tried not to think about how damn worried he'd been seeing her rounding belly and knowing she would face parenthood alone.

And tried like hell not to be mad now because he hadn't known the half of it that day.

In spite of all their talk of being friends, she hadn't told him the outcome of those tests.

She'd carried around the knowledge that her child had Down syndrome for months and never once told him.

Whatever he'd done to make her hold back, he would fix it. He had to, for the little bruiser in the back seat. For his kids inside. And yeah, maybe even for himself so he could sleep again without dreaming about her and her orange thong. "I want us to be friends again."


"Yeah." God yes, he did. And he didn't.

"Me too."

"So we'll just do it. Backtrack a few months and pick up from there."

"I'm not so sure I can do that."

"Why the hell not?"

"Because you're looking damned fine to me too."

Blown out of the sky and he never even saw the missile coming.

Zach exhaled, long and slow. It was one thing suspecting she felt the attraction too. But hearing it. Well, that was a-whole-nother pack of trouble altogether. "No chance of anyone accusing you of holding things back."

She turned her head and smiled, soft and womanly and close. Only a few inches separated them, a hand span maybe. Even less space separated their mouths. It would be so easy to reach, so easy to grasp her arm and tug her to him. Her body language shouted a very firm go-ahead.

But her smile faded, her eyes blaring an unmistakable wary message, Please, don't hurt me.

Damn Lance Sinclair.

Damn himself too for wanting something so obviously wrong for both of them.

Zach shoved away from the car. "Go home, Julia. We're both tired and too lonely to be having this conversation now."

He opened the driver's door and stood aside. He never knew what to expect next with Julia. Anything from impromptu whittling lessons for Ivy to defiantly baring her pregnant body to a pool full of onlookers.

Zach prepped himself for anything.

Except her touch. There was no way in hell to steel himself against that.

Julia cupped his face in her hand, the numb side, frustrating him all the more with the diluted sensation. His brain knew her soft palm was there, and he felt the slightest pressure. But he wanted it all—the full-out feeling of her hands on him, and he had to settle for a phantom caress.

Her hand fell away. "Good night, Zach."

He held the door wide for her, tucking her inside and out of arm's reach before making tracks for the house. He forced himself not to look back. Eight hours of sleep and a solid morning of work and he'd be back on track. He gripped the doorknob.

Why hadn't she turned on the car?

He glanced over his shoulder and found Julia Sinclair doing the very last thing he expected.


Not wracking, dramatic sobs like Pam had poured all over their arguments, but slow, leaking tears. Her whole body trembled as if from the mammoth effort of holding back.

Those few tears hammered him more than open floodgates.

The past year had been beyond hell for her, but never once had he seen anything more than those restrained tears. Even at her husband's funeral, she'd been pale but composed when Zach, Bronco, Cutter and Tag had walked past carrying the casket out of the church. Zach could still feel the weight of her dead husband in his hands, the weight of her constrained grief on his shoulders.

And none of it came close to the ten-ton thud on his soul as he saw a tear slide off her nose.

Zach charged down the steps. He'd spent the past months hell-bent on making sure Julia had whatever she needed. Damned if he would fail her now.

Julia clenched the steering wheel until her palms slicked with sweat. The muscles in her arms vibrated with tension. She would not cry. She would not cry.

Two tears did not count as crying!

Julia swiped both drops from the end of her nose. Damn Zach for making her vulnerable with all that concern tearing down her defenses.

Count blessings. Her son was happy, the most important blessing of all. Even one of his precious baby smiles cancelled out anything else.

Yet, as much as she wanted to believe raising a happy child was her only goal, she knew Patrick needed so much more from her than smiles, especially during this first year.

Another tear leaked free. Between work and Patrick's packed schedule of doctor appointments, therapy sessions and support meetings, when would she have time just to smile with her baby?

The car door clicked just before it opened.

She didn't even have to look. She could feel him there. Zach. Tall, strong and always there for her no matter how shrewish she was as she sent him on his way because she couldn't handle a few silly hormones.

Zach knelt beside her. He pulled her into his arms and God help her, she didn't have the will to say no. She would steal just a few minutes to relax against his chest, a chest even more wonderful than she'd dreamed it would be. And man, had she ever savored some secret dreams about that chest over the last six weeks. Musk and man swirled through her senses.

Comfort break officially over.

Julia inched away. "I don't cry."

Zach held firm. "I know."

Maybe she could stay another minute. "I won't cry now."

"Of course not."

"Life's all about attitude." Since she'd already tossed control to the wind for the moment, Julia allowed her fingers the pleasure of exploring the rough texture along his hairline, bristly hair trimmed short into a tapered military cut. "Crying doesn't fix anything but smiles can move mountains."

Or this man could, by sheer force of his will.

Zach didn't speak, his silent acceptance of her need to vent wearing down her resistance more than a thousand platitudes.

"I probably just need a good night's sleep."

"Babies have a way of making that tough."

Julia pulled free and tried to ignore the urge to climb back into his arms. "No, Patrick's not any trouble. He's such an easy baby, eats and sleeps most of the time. Sure, he has his moments, like when he doesn't want his feet uncovered. But he's such a blessing."

Zach nodded. "Yes, ma'am, he is."

"It's just..." Her restless hands landed on a poofy bear that had spilled from the diaper bag. Her thumb stroked a silky patch, soft like Patrick's tiny hands. "He demands so little but needs so much from me. I want his life to be normal, except I know I have to face reality too. He has some practical needs beyond what other mothers expect from their babies for the first year."

"Like what?"

She hesitated. Would he try to be there for those too? The man already had stretched his time paper-thin with his own life.


His tone left no room for argument, not that it really mattered. She knew well enough already that if she didn't tell him, he would find out anyway.

"Early intervention is important. Patrick's educational program calls for more than just talking myself hoarse to stimulate language. The appointments are mind-boggling, physical therapy, occupational therapy, along with the pediatric speech therapist. Zach, he probably won't walk until around twenty-four months. And then there's learning to talk, to feed himself, dress himself, so many milestones other parents expect to pass with ease."

Her thumb stroked comfort from the silky toy like a talisman. "This first year is crucial for helping Patrick reach his full potential."

She held up a hand to stop Zach from saying something that would launch her into another teary moment—and right back against that perfect chest.

"I know, Zach. I know. I'm really lucky."

He braced his forearm on the doorframe and leaned his head against it, sealing off the opening with his shoulders. Somehow he sealed off the rest of the world too until all she could see was Zach, his chest and those chocolate eyes that melted over her with warmth, comfort and damn it yes, excitement.

"Lady, from where I'm looking, you've had a helluva year," he drawled. "You've lost your husband. Had a baby alone. And now you have some very real concerns for your kid.