Page 12

A moan vibrated through her throat.

His forehead fell to rest against hers. "Julia?"

Her lashes fluttered open. "What?'

Zach stared into her sleepy eyes, needing to hear her say she wanted him too, praying she would admit it soon because he wasn't sure how much longer he could hold back. "Trust those instincts, Julia. You know too, don't you?"

"Yes, Zach, I know. Now kiss me, and please make it as awesome as I think it's going to be. Make me forget everything else for just a while."

He'd never been one to turn down a challenge.

Zach took her mouth, fully. His tongue swept inside, deeper, chocolate, Julia and heat flooding his senses. Her fingers glided up to his face, cupped, caressed until he could almost swear she revived nerves long dead. He tried to hold back and shower her with gentle enticement.

But she was having none of that.

He should have known better.

Julia threw herself into the kiss with all the exuberance he'd come to recognize she devoted to every second of life. Her arms locked around his neck, her lips parting, inviting. Demanding. And he planned to accept the invitation as well as the challenge.

She moaned into his mouth, her hands running down his back and drawing him closer.

Soft br**sts to solid chest, she strained to get as close as they could without him pulling her out of that car or laying her down inside. Need pulsed through him—hot, thick and urgent. No half measures, he wanted all of her now.

That commander voice of reason within him insisted he was losing control. Somehow, his calculated persuasion had backfired, because kissing Julia, taking that kiss beyond and finishing became too important. That was unacceptable. He forced his hands to ease their hold around her.

Rustling sounded from the back seat, followed by a squawk.


Reality splashed over Zach like the ice-cold shower he would be taking in a few short minutes. He pulled back. What the hell had he been thinking? He hadn't been thinking at all. One kiss from Julia, and he'd forgotten about the sleeping baby in the back and the other two children inside the house liable to burst out at any moment. Not to mention an entire neighborhood full of people.

No ma'am, he hadn't been thinking of anything except Julia.

Zach rested his forehead against hers. Their ragged breaths battered the air between them.

He'd made thousands of snap decisions in the air as well as on the ground and never once doubted his judgment.

Until tonight.

She'd been dead-on correct that he should have kissed her before proposing, because now he knew a marriage between them could never work. If one kiss from Julia could so shake his focus, months of her in his bed—should he be so lucky as to lure her there—

would blast away any hope of control over himself, his feelings and his life.

There had to be another option. And he would find one as soon as he could breathe right again.

He pumped air into his lungs until lights sparked in front of his eyes. Lights? Zach frowned, turned, finding...

Car lights swept across him as the base security police idled into his driveway. Not just any cop, but the chief raster sergeant in charge of security sat behind the wheel.

Not good.

Zach glanced at the silent radio perched on his motorcycle and wondered what could have gone wrong if he hadn't been called. No matter what the chief had to say, it wouldn't be positive for him to have driven over.

Then he saw the huddled figure in the back seat and his mind exploded with the worst possible scenario, one he never would have expected.

He stared through the windshield at his daughter.

Disbelief stunned him for half a second before anger ripped him, which he allowed for a satisfying three seconds then shoved it aside and stood. He wouldn't be like his father.

He'd worked too long to offer his girls a childhood different from his own. No raging scenes. No alcoholic outbursts. His girls would have as much stability as he could give them.

And still he stood in his driveway with the cops bringing his kid home.

Again that persistent anger clawed at him, anger at Pam for leaving, anger at himself for not being able to make her stay. Damned useless since that wouldn't have solved the problem in front of him. He shoved aside his own needs. His first instinct to marry Julia had been right and he needed to stick to his course.

Control never more important, he shut down his emotions, prepping himself for whatever Shelby had to dish out this time.

Oh, God. Julia sank into the bucket seat. She'd forgotten to tell Zach about Shelby's pierced eyebrow.

Julia stifled the hysterical urge to laugh.

A pierced eyebrow was the least of her worries, but she wouldn't wrap her mind around rational thoughts just yet thanks to a kiss that fired so hot it threatened to melt her toenail polish.

Marry me.

She pressed trembling fingers to her lips. She might want to jump the man's bones, but no way did she ever want to remarry. So she'd better dump all those feelings and focus on the mess at hand.

Stepping from the car, Julia gasped in night air, stalling by studying the nightmare-in-the-making unfolding in the Dawson driveway. The corded muscles along Zach's neck broadcast restrained anger. Shelby angled out of the back seat to stand beside a cop wearing BDUs and a blue beret.

As if that wasn't enough, a door opened across the street. Tanner Bennett trotted out of his house carrying a garbage bag. Shorn blond hair shining under his porch light, stumbled to a stop for a telling three seconds before hustling to dump the trash pronto.

The pulse in Zach's temple double-timed.

The situation threatened to explode into an argument that could permanently damage an already faltering father daughter relationship. No time to think about her own screwed-up life, she had to do something. As Zach had said, the children came first.

Julia started toward the car. "Shelby, hon, what's going on?"

Zach's arm shot in front of Julia. "Evening, Chief." nodded to the uniformed security cop, never looking at his daughter. "Shel, go inside."

Hurt flashed beneath that pierced brow, quickly replaced by attitude. "What do you care what I do, anyway? It's just one less kid to worry about."

"Shelby Lynn," he said, his voice low and tight. "Inside. Now."

"I mean, geez, you can't even keep up with both of us. I'll bet you don't know Ivy wanted to try out for the lead in the Nutcracker but you wouldn't be able to drive her the extra rehearsals." Shelby strolled to a stop in front of her father until he had no choice but to look at her.

Julia saw the very minute Zach noticed Shelby's latest jewelry addition. Not that he said a word. His eyes narrowed, a tiny tic twitching. Julia couldn't help but wonder if that look of hundred-percent commander might be covering a flash of hurt very similar to the one she'd seen in Shelby.

Finally, the teen broke eye contact and spun away. She flounced toward the door in a theatrical huff, mumbling, "It's so not fair that you two are the only ones allowed to make out in public places. I mean, geez, I saw you all over each other the minute we rounded the corner." The door slammed behind her.

Zach pivoted on his boot heel to the security cop. "Evening, Chief. What do you have for me?'

"Well, Colonel..." The chief hooked his thumbs in his in belt looking like he'd rather battle a pack of renegade rebels than deal with one curfew-busting teen of a senior officer. "The sergeant patrolling the golf course found your daughter and a young fella she says is her boyfriend tucked way in a patch of pine trees. The sergeant called to check with me, given who the young lady is and all."

Zach shifted his attention to the night sky, scrubbing a land along his jaw. Julia stepped up to give him time to absorb what he'd heard.

"And John Murdoch?" Julia asked, then held her breath, praying it had been John with Shelby because heaven help them if Shelby had any more surprises for her father tonight.

'The sergeant escorted young Murdoch home. There wasn't alcohol or illegal substances involved, so there's no reason why we can't keep this a friendly visit. No need for official report."

Zach nodded. "Thank you, Chief. I appreciate your making the special trip out."

"No problem, sir. Since we're all finished here, I'll call it a night." Saluting, the uniformed cop snapped attention

Zach returned the salute. "Have a good evening, Chief."

"Good night, Colonel." He nodded to Julia. "Ma'am." He stepped back into his patrol car.

Julia stayed quiet until he pulled out of the driveway, matter how much she wanted to run hard and fast from the turmoil brought on by one incredible kiss, she couldn't walk away from Zach now. Not with those broad shoulders so tense.

At the very least, she should see him through the next few minutes. "Do you want me to go inside with you while you talk to her?"

He shook his head, jaw so tight he could have flattened nails. Did the guy ever lose control? He strode to his motorcycle and swiped the radio off the seat.

Julia stuffed her hands into her pockets to keep from stroking the trenches from his brow.

"I don't mind if you think it would help."

"No. Thank you." He paced through the carport, boots pounding an angry tattoo against the cement. "One conversation isn't going to fix this and if the past is anything to go by, she won't talk for another day at least."

He nudged aside a stray bicycle helmet with his boot. "I'll ground her. Take away phone privileges."

His boot tapped a bucket of sidewalk chalk into a corner, his words picking up speed, his every step heavier. "She'll roll her eyes, slam her door then pierce another damned body part the minute she's not grounded anymore."

He kicked the wall. Julia winced.

His shoulders rose and fell with each erratic breath, finally slowing. He turned to face her, his face impassive except for that small tic. He stalked toward her, carefully stepping over a scooter. "So, what's your answer? Will you marry me?"

"I don't think now—"

"I know we're not much of a prize," he plowed ahead. "A messed-up teen and an eight-year-old Betty Crocker wannabe who breaks my heart she's so damned wary. And then there's me." He thumped his chest with a splayed hand. "I know I make a sorry excuse for a husband, but I like to think my friendship is rock-solid. If you take us on, I'll do my best by you and Patrick."

In spite of a thousand logical reasons crowding her brain and telling her this was a bad, bad idea, she weakened. Even Patrick chipped away at her already crumbling resolve with a gurgle from the car.

Zach edged forward as if sensing his advantage and pressed ahead. "The kids need us and what we can give them together, now more than ever." She knew he was right, although she resented his using the all-out impact of that charismatic will to convince her. How could she turn away from those two girls who'd already worked their way into her heart with their vulnerable eyes? How could she say no to the sweet baby cooing such trust from the back seat?

Yet a part of her wanted something more from this proposal, some indication that he needed her and not just the role she filled for his children.

A dangerous wish since she wouldn't know what to do with such a statement even if he made it. Julia threw out the first line of defense that came to mind. "We never settled the issue of sex. I mean it when I say I'm not ready and you almost had me convinced you were okay with that. Zach, the kiss changes everything."

"Only if we let it, and we won't."

Zach advanced another step. She retreated until her back smacked flush against her car.

"Stop. Please."

"Okay. I hear you." He held a hand up. "If us ha**ng s*x is a stumbling block to doing what's right for the kids, then we'll do without. We'll go back to the way things were last year other than sharing a house. I'll buy that day-bed for the computer room first thing tomorrow."