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Nobody's going to think less of you if you want to scream down the whole neighborhood.

Definitely a helluva year."

A watery snort tripped free. "I've had better." She scrubbed her nose and wished for a pair of form-fitting jeans and a nose that didn't resemble a clown's. "I try to focus on the blessings, and there really are so many. Money's not an object. Even though the life insurance was eaten up with old debts, I still have a great job I enjoy. I can afford the best child care. And believe me, child care for a special-needs baby costs major bucks."

Julia hugged the bear to her stomach. "The thing is, I want to take care of it all myself. Is that so wrong? I want to be with him every step of the way this year, see and rejoice over every one of those milestones and somehow find time between all those appointments and work just to hold him."

A fresh spurt of frustration stabbed through her at Lance for leaving her behind, at the military for taking him when their baby needed him most. "Is it so wrong for me to want a few months more to hold my baby?"

Warm chocolate eyes darkened, deepening with a determination she'd come to recognize.

The commander had a plan of action. What should have been an impossible situation would work out because this man willed it so.

A part of her niggled, reminding her of hard-won independence, her resolve to be strong and fix her own problems. But time was running out. With her son's welfare in the balance, could she really afford to say no to whatever Zach suggested?

He ducked to eye level with Julia, clasping her hand in his as he pinned her to the seat with nothing more than the magnetism of his gaze and the power of his determination.

"Marry me."

Chapter 6

What the hell?

He'd planned to offer her a job as his girls' nanny so she could have more time with Patrick. Instead, a marriage proposal had fallen out of his mouth.

Now those words floated between them, and he found himself actually considering it. He couldn't pay enough for to maintain her house, and if she moved in as a full-nanny there would be talk. The base community was tight. Gossip would flow. The whole base had known he and Pam had split before she made it to the security gate.

How ironic people well-versed in keeping top-secret military intel couldn't hold onto a piece of gossip for more than thirty seconds.

No, he and Julia couldn't share a house without a ring and an official piece of paper. She would have those months with Patrick, and he could finish out his tour as commander without the roof caving.

"Marry me," Zach repeated, course set. His job never allowed him the luxury of time wasted wavering. Decision made. Move forward.

He waited for her reaction. Readied for battle by prep-ping his rebuttals. Thought through a dozen possible scenarios from Julia.

Except laughter.

She slapped a hand over her mouth.

Then smacked his arm. "You always do know how to cheer me up. Thanks for making me smile."

Zach swiped a hand over his face. "Damn, Julia, good thing I have a mighty healthy ego or that could have set me back a step."

Her laughs trickled to a stop. Green eyes widened. "You're not joking?"

He shook his head slowly until her hand gravitated to her mouth again. No laughs this time. "Marry you?"

Time for those persuasive arguments before she poked a finger through the bear's stuffing. "A temporary marriage. Until the end of the summer when I transfer to Air War College in Alabama. You'll have your months with Patrick and I'll be able to finish out my tour as commander without my family falling apart."

"But isn't marriage going a little overboard? We could just help each other more."

He planted a boot on the running board, elbow on his knee as he leaned toward her. "That won't fix the fundamental problems. You want to be a hundred percent available for Patrick these next few months and I need someone I can count on to be there for the girls twenty-four/seven. My job has insane hours, TDYs like the Guam deployment, midnight calls from the flight line. God, can you imagine what it was like arranging day care for my kids from the middle of the Pacific Ocean via phone patch?"

The more he thought about it, the more the proposal made sense. "My kids deserve better.

My squadron deserves better."

And he couldn't afford to give his second in command a toehold for pulling more stunts like he had with Bronco's nose gear six weeks ago. More than his peace of mind rested on this decision. The safety of his kids and an entire squadron hung on one simple word from Julia.


He willed her to say it, and when she didn't, he charged ahead full-throttle. "We're already friends. The girls are used to you. You know their routine. Patrick will have even more support with all the extra hands and smiles around here. You can rent out your house. Beach property always fills, and your place will be there waiting for you afterward. Think about it, Julia."

He could see the wheels churning, and his instincts told him he was making headway.

The promise of victory surged through him.

Her eyes narrowed. "What about sex?'

Victory leapt backward.

Leave it to Julia to spell it out, but then he'd always liked that about her. No games. No artifice. Just Julia. Too bad he didn't know the right answer to her question.

Honestly, he wanted her. Not a chance could he see himself turning down an offer to have those long legs and her husky laugh wrapping around him. But if her acceptance hinged on a no-sex agreement, he would lock up those thoughts so tight she would never know.

"What about sex?"

"I'm afraid I misled you with what I said earlier, about finding you attractive. I do. Find you attractive, I mean." A smile whispered over her mouth. "Really attractive. But." The smile vanished. "I'm not ready to have a man, any man, in my bed again."

"Julia, I understand you just had a baby. I realize your body needs time to heal."

"That's not what I meant. It's been the requisite six weeks. My body may have healed, but my heart..."

Straight up and honest, she met his gaze. "It's a long way from ready, and right now, I can't imagine a time when I'll ever be ready to open myself up to any kind of relationship again."

Disappointment chugged through him, but he wouldn't let that rock his determination.

"All right, then. We'll make it a platonic thing. I'll put a daybed for myself in the computer room. You take the master bedroom since it's large enough for the crib too."

"For nearly a year?" She laughed again, a short snort of disbelief. "Get real, Zach. I don't expect you to stay celibate that long because I have some hang-ups." She clutched the bear to her stomach like a lifeline. "Call me crazy, but if we did marry, even a no-sex kinda thing, couldn't take it if you slept with someone else."

Bronco's words earlier about Lance's affair burned into Zach's brain. Damn Lance Sinclair and his ability to reach beyond the grave to hurt Julia.

Zach chose his words with care, strategy never more mission-essential than now. What he said became important beyond convincing her to marry him. He needed to heal those fears for her and reassure her that some men could be trusted. He could be trusted. "Julia, I've already gone without sex for over a year and it hasn't killed me yet."

Although there were times—like now—when he suspected it might.

"You have?"

"You know my schedule. When has there been time! Every spare second, and there haven't been many, I've spent with my kids."

Her gaze skittered around the car, anywhere but toward him. "I figured that maybe during TDYs..."

She'd thought about his sex life before now? A promising, exciting as hell, admission.

Except the woman was busy listing all the reasons she couldn't sleep with him.

Wings level. Stay the course. "Keeping crewdogs out of trouble on TDY is a full-time job. There isn't time for anything else."

Her gaze landed flat-out on him. "Give me a break."

There came that directness of hers again, which meant she would respect honesty in return. "Julia, I'm a regular guy with a healthy sex drive." A hundred percent healthy at the moment, not that she needed that much honesty. "But I've had years to practice controlling myself. You know how much time cargo fliers spend away from home. Not once did I ever cheat on Pam."

Julia's thumbs stroked over the bear's ears. "I'm not Pam."

Thank God, for him and for his girls. "I know." He tugged the toy from her and took her hand. He brushed her wrist with his thumb as she'd stroked the stuffed animal. "But married is married, regardless of the conditions when those vows are taken, no matter what the time frame. I'm a man who keeps his word and as long as we're married, I won't touch another woman. You can trust me."

He pushed aside the thought that he wasn't being completely honest with her about Lance's accident. The commander voice inside told him it didn't matter. That was classified business so it didn't concern the here and now with Julia.

She stared at their clasped hands. "You'll actually consider that long without sex, when you've already gone over a year without?"

His libido offered a shout of protest.

Which Zach ignored. No time to waver now, because even if he backed down he couldn't envision any other woman he wanted in his bed.

Besides, there was nothing to say he couldn't try to persuade her later. "You're an incredible woman, Julia, and I won't lie to you. I want you. If you change your mind about sleeping together, I certainly won't turn you down, but the call's yours to make."

Her brows pulled together. "How can you be so sure that if I change my mind, you will still want me in your bed for as long as we stay married? We've never even kissed."

Zach knew an invitation when he heard one, and there was no mistaking her gentle sway forward. All the restless adrenaline from his flight stirred to life. "Instinct. It's everything to fliers. We learn early on to trust what it tells us, and my instincts tell me we will be good together. Very good."

He lifted her hand and pressed his mouth to her wrist without ever looking away from her face. Her pulse leap approval under his lips. Zach tucked her hand against his chest and slid his fingers along the back of her neck, up into her hair and coaxed her head forward.

He might be willing to marry again for his kids, make any sacrifice for their well-being, but this moment was for him.

And Julia.


One last time he checked for hesitation. He found a flash of wariness, but longing overrode it by a mile. Her bottom lip fell open just a hint, all the confirmation he needed, Right or wrong, she wanted this too.

No more waiting.

He skimmed the corner of her mouth once, twice, drawing her bottom lip between his teeth until she whimpered. Her lashes drifting closed, she turned her face toward him, bringing their mouths closer. "Please."

"Not yet." Zach shifted his attention to her jaw, up to her ear. With so much riding on a single kiss, he planned to take his time and make that kiss so persuasive she wouldn't be able to walk away. So persuasive she would be too weak-kneed to walk. Period.

He outlined the delicate shell before pausing to whisper, "I haven't kissed you, Julia, not yet, but I still know I want you. Just you."

Her head fell back, exposing a stretch of neck he couldn't resist, didn't have to resist for once. His mouth found the pulse he'd traced earlier with his thumbs, but still he didn't kiss her. He continued his determined assault on her senses, trying to ignore the undeniable effect she had on his own in the process.

He traced his way back up until his mouth rested against her temple while he held her.

"We still haven't kissed, Julia." He breathed against her skin. "But you know too."