Page 13

"Won't it seem strange to the children?" What was she trying to do? Convince him to say no to the marriage or no to sleeping in another bed?

"I do not have to explain my sex life to my teenager." The eye tic flicked again. The tender comforter who had lured Julia into considering his proposal slipped away.

"It's not that simple."

"Sure it is." Military bearing starched right up his spine. "If anyone else asks, I'm working late hours and don't want to disturb the baby. Or the baby is waking up at night and I sleep in there to keep from breaking crew rest. Whatever. It's no one's business where you and I sleep."

Yeah, right. Like anything could stay secret in the fish-bowl community of base housing.

What a rumor-mill nightmare, as if there wouldn't already be enough gossip with the commander's daughter and the base chaplain's son caught together on the golf course. Not a chance would any of their personal lives or sleeping arrangements stay secret.

She'd swallowed nearly a lifetime supply of pride over Lance's affair. She wasn't sure she could sacrifice what little she had left even to frivolous gossip. But what other choice did she have?

Her legs folded and she sank back into her car.


She jolted back to the present. "What?"

"First thing tomorrow morning, I'll talk to the base chaplain. Double duty since I have to speak with him about his son and Shelby. With any luck, he can marry us before the weekend."

Julia bristled at his assumption. She wasn't one of his men to be ordered around. "Now wait just—"

"We should be able to get the license right after I meet with Chaplain Murdoch." He pressed a thumb to his forehead. "No wait. I have a meeting after that. Count on one o'clock unless you hear otherwise from me."

He reached for the door, and she slid her legs inside without thinking. The door closed with a snap. When had she lost control?

With a curt nod, he thumped the roof of her car in a farewell salute and spun away on his boot heel.

Julia steamed. Damn his presumptuous orders and that fine butt sauntering up the steps.

She flung open the car door to tell him exactly where he could go tomorrow at one o'clock and what he could do with his proposal when he got there.

Zach stopped.

He paused on the top stoop, his back to her. Shoulders as broad as the doorway dropped, his head falling forward. His hand fisted at his side, raising, halting then thudding against the doorframe. A shudder ripped through him and all those damning curses within Julia dried right up.

"Julia," he said, the single word whispering a need that had sent her running straight to his house barely twenty-four hours ago.

Her mouth closed. She waited. Wanted.

What she wanted, she didn't exactly know, but she stood on the edge of something scary.

Life would change for her based on what she decided in the next few seconds. "What, Zach?"

"I guess I needed you more than I realized."

His soft-spoken words rumbled with more of that need, tipping her right over the edge.

Come one o'clock, Julia knew she would stand beside him in hell itself if he asked.

Chapter 7

Zach leaned to tug open the bottom desk drawer without taking his eyes off the flight data in front of him. Fishing by feel, he sifted through. M&M's. Licorice. Some kind of snack bar, probably granola. All pitched aside. He settled on a pack of Pop-Tarts.

He flipped the pack in his hand. Blueberry frosted pilfered from Ivy's secret stash.

Not much of a lunch, but it would have to do. He had zero time in his schedule for picking up anything during his lunch break except a marriage license.

Married again.

He ripped open the wrapper, not quite ready to go there in his thoughts yet. If he started thinking about Julia, he wouldn't be able to review the files about Lance Sinclair with any objectivity. His role as commander precluded him from being a part of the investigation.

But that didn't stop him from hoping to find evidence to exonerate Lance anyway.

Sounds wafted from the hall. Ringing phones. Jumbled conversations. Muffled boot thuds on carpet. Minor distractions he could work around without shutting the door.

His open-door policy of commanding might chip away minutes from his day, but he believed it saved him far more time in the long run. Maintaining strong communication with his people made for a smoother-run squadron.

Why couldn't an open-door policy at home be as simple?

He bit off a quarter of the pastry. His empty stomach was snacking on itself. Of course, it had been five hours since his 6:00 a.m. breakfast with John's father. A widower, Chaplain Murdoch seemed as overwhelmed by the whole single parent deal as Zach.


Two Air Force officers, one in charge of national security and the other salvation, couldn't come up with much more than nailing their kids' bedroom windows shut.

Tipping back his chair with a slow creak, Zach studied the flag in the corner by his desk.

The Stars and Stripes twined with the second flag, a squadron guidon made to resemble an old cavalry-days banner leading the charge. Guiding. Inspiring.

And not offering a single answer today.

Chewing his way though the second Pop-Tart, Zach drowned it with a cup of coffee. His fifth. He should have arranged for Julia to ride with him to apply for the license. At least they would have had time to talk in the car. He could use her input on his fruitless meeting with John's dad, and he didn't have a second to spare in his crammed schedule.

Echoes of past fights with Pam taunted him. Why not cancel a meeting? There were plenty of choices and the Air Force always came first.

Zach wadded the foil snack wrapper. Easy enough for her to say from Italy or whatever country she'd cooked her way through this week.

He finished the rest of his Pop-Tart and shoved aside doubts. In twenty-four hours, he would have the problem settled. Just one other problem to tackle before meeting Julia.

Putting the military first again?

He slammed the file shut. Gut instinct told him Julia's presence in his house would have a calming effect on everyone and would make it that much tougher for Shelby to run rogue on him.

Damn it, marrying Julia was the right thing to do.

A cleared throat sounded just before a tap. Zach looked up to find Tanner Bennett in the hall.

"Got a minute, sir?"

Zach brought his chair upright and pitched personal thoughts aside as quickly as the wrapper. Bronco's meeting with the crash investigation team must have ended. "Come on in and shut the door so we can talk."

Zach closed the door so rarely, nothing short of a war would prompt anyone to interrupt.

Bronco stepped over the threshold and waited. Zach tucked Lance Sinclair's file into a stack and stepped from behind the mammoth wooden desk. He opted for the chair by the vinyl sofa, sitting so the junior officer could follow suit.

Curiosity flickered in Bronco's eyes before he masked it with military regimen. He must be wondering about the driveway scene, not that he would actually ask. Protocol and rank erected some boundaries no open door would override.

But Bronco would have a good idea from the phone patch, and Zach hadn't helped matters by making out in the driveway, for God's sake. Knowing that the coming interview concerned Julia's husband, would Bronco hold back?

The subject of Julia needed to be addressed before the interview began. Accident investigations could stretch into months, years even and he didn't need that kind of tension in his unit.

"Before we start this discussion, there's something you should know. The whole squadron will hear soon enough. But given it has some bearing on this meeting about Lance Sinclair, I want to clear it up now."

Bronco's face stayed diplomatically blank. "Sir?"

"Julia and I are getting married. This week."

Bronco's jaw went slack for three telling seconds before he snapped it shut.

"Congratulations, sir."

"Thank you." Time to put the spin on it, one that would mesh with whatever Julia chose to say. Zach relaxed back in his chair, hooked his boot on his knee. "It probably surprised us more than it did you. We've been trying to help each other through a helluva year.

And, well..." He shrugged.

"I'm happy for both of you." The big guy looked like he meant it, even if he didn't understand. "Kathleen will enjoy having Julia across the street, especially while she's on maternity leave."

Zach straightened, planting his boot back on the floor as he leaned forward. "Folks will all know by tomorrow, but I'm telling you now before we talk about the crash investigation interview so you have all the facts. And that's all that comes into play here.

Facts. Nothing's changed as far as my role in this investigation. I was Lance Sinclair's commander, which already precluded me from offering anything more than data in his records. That said, what happened?"

Bronco's shoulders lifted and dropped with a hefty sigh. "Sir, unless we can come up with something new from those facts of yours to offer the investigation team, they're going to pin it on him."

Zach bit off a curse. He couldn't let that happen. He owed Lance Sinclair's memory better than that, owed Julia.

Owed a little boy who wouldn't have anything more than a picture and a few medals to remember his father by.

Zach's gaze slid to the flag and guidon, his focus steadying. He would just have to dig until he found whatever facts hadn't come to light. Because tomorrow, come hell or high water, Julia would be his bride and damned if he would be the one to put any more tears in her eyes.

* * *

"You may kiss the bride."  Standing in the chaplain's office, Julia stared into Zach's eyes, staunchly ignoring the drab government-issue furniture littering the cramped room.

She saw only Zach, her husband.

Commitment. Marriage. Something she'd never expected to do again, even on a temporary basis.

But it was real and official. Tanner and Kathleen Bennett bore witness. Beside them, Shelby held Patrick, the teen's disdainful slouch a real mood buster for an already tense day. Not that Ivy's crinkle-nosed smile weighed any lighter on Julia's conscience. What would they tell her when they split? Why hadn't she thought this through instead of impulsively jumping in with both size-ten feet?

Julia thrust doubts aside. They'd both done the best they could with the here and now.

The "now" included getting through the next couple of seconds kissing Zach without completely losing control as she had in his driveway.

He cupped her face, thumbs brushing her cheekbones. Julia steeled her defenses and mind and every single nerve against a repeat of the sensory barrage from two days ago.

His head angled, but didn't move forward.

God, when had life gone into slow motion? Couldn't he move just a little faster? She rested her hands in the crooks of his elbows. Her fingers dug into the coarse fabric of his flight suit. She stared at his beard-stubbled chin and waited.

And waited.

Someone coughed. Heat stung her cheeks, from embarrassment, from his hands...and maybe from anticipation.

Julia looked from his chin up to his eyes. Intense brown eyes stared into her, waiting as well.

She hadn't thought of what the day would mean for him. His divorce had been messy.

Julia wasn't one for gossip, but common-knowledge facts swirled even for those who didn't want to listen. Today had to be difficult for him, too.

His waiting let her know he would accept whatever she decided about the kiss, taking any hits to his own image for her. For once, he deserved to have someone put him first.

She smiled at Zach. And kissed him. Not some quick brush of the lips. No way. Julia flung her arms around his neck and laid a really full-out big one on him.

He didn't seem to mind in the least.

His hand slid to cradle the back of her head. An oh-so-quiet growl meant for her ears only rumbled through his chest against hers, vibrated beneath her hands flat against his shoulders.