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Let people talk. She hoped they would, because Zach was a sexy, fascinating man who deserved to have a woman who wanted to marry him for real. For himself. Forever.

Since she couldn't give him that, she would give him this. She wouldn't be sharing any details of their marriage with anyone, not even her closest friends. She would show the world the perfect image of totally enamored, hot-for-each-other newlyweds, starting now.

And afterward?

He would transfer to another base after his commander tour ended. He would start his new assignment at Air War College in Alabama, a career opportunity of a lifetime only offered to five percent of his peers. He could leave the talk behind. Leave her behind.

Reality chilled her. Julia's hands slid from his shoulders, her mouth from his. Their eyes met, held, yearned.

An airplane roared overhead, breaking the silence.

Doubts clawed their way right back over her.

What had she done? With her thoughts slowing and bravado fading, the impact of delayed aftershocks rocked her all the way to her three-inch heels.

Sure, her impulsive nature led her into doing things she regretted later. This, however, wasn't the same as plowing through a whole bag of jellybeans in one sitting or roadtripping down the coast on a whim. She wanted to lose herself in another kiss, in his arms, in him. She'd done that once before with another man and had nearly lost herself in the process.

Then Zach smiled. And winked. Her friend was back, along with all the drab military furnishings and framed airplane prints.

It felt good to have Zach back in focus. She could trust his friendship. He'd said he would honor whatever she chose about sleeping arrangements. If nothing else, she knew she could trust this man to be honest with her.

Completely honest.

/ haven't kissed you, Julia, not yet, but I still know I want you. Just you.

A shiver of desire danced down her spine.

"Congratulations, sir." Bronco charged forward to pump Zach's hand, the chaplain two steps behind as everyone offered over-bright good wishes.

Zach's arm slid around her shoulders, bringing more of those incredible shivers. She wouldn't have a bit of trouble convincing the world she wanted to jump all over Zach Dawson.

Julia gathered her baby into her arms, his sweet weight the best reminder of all of why she had to keep her head and hormones unmuddled. Patrick squirmed against her, his head turning as he rooted along the cream wool jacket for lunch.

Could this wedding get any more un-traditional?

Hitching him on her shoulder, she patted his back, whispering, "Hold on a few more minutes, hon."

She would have to nurse him soon, and hundreds more times over the next year. In Zach's house. At least they would have the older children as a buffer against any more awkward moments.

"Congratulations, Julia." Bronco wrapped her in a burly bear hug until Patrick squawked.

Bronco stepped back. "You make the second-most beautiful bride I've ever seen."

Julia laughed. Finding something dressy to wear that fit had been a challenge and a half.

She'd settled for mixing and matching a short, off-white pleated skirt with a long jacket.

"Yeah right, almost seven weeks after delivery, I'm lucky I'm not wearing a potato sack."

She patted his cheek. "But thanks all the same."

"You're welcome." He slung an arm around his wife. "Kathleen and I want the girls to stay over at our house tonight."

Buffer-loss alert! Julia opened her mouth to protest.

Bronco stopped her. "Uh-uh! Don't argue. We've already worked it out. They brought over everything they need for school in the morning. There's a wedding dinner from us already waiting on your table. It's not a Caribbean honeymoon cruise, but it's the best we could come up with on short notice."

They were all trying so hard, she felt like a fraud.

Zach's hand tightened on her waist. "Thanks, Bronco. That's mighty generous of you both."

Geez, why hadn't she thought to say thanks? Not even five minutes as the commander's wife and already she was blowing protocol. Not to mention simple courtesy. "Thank you."

Patrick wriggled, pumping his feet against Julia, each little huff an insistent reminder that she'd already pushed him a half hour past feeding time. She turned to whisper in Zach's ear. "I'll be right back, okay?"

One look at the baby, and Zach nodded. "Sure. I'll be waiting."

For her.

For just a second she allowed herself to imagine she could take him up on that offer for real. What an incredible rush to know this man who so dominated the room with just his towering presence wanted her. What would it feel like to have all that intensity focused on her?

A hypnotic possibility.

Time to run as fast as her heels would allow, even if only for the twenty minutes necessary to settle Patrick. Cowardly? Not a chance.

Plain smart.

Julia tucked into the hall and found a quiet corner in an empty conference room. She plunked the diaper bag on the lengthy table and sagged into a spinning chair.

She popped open the top buttons on her jacket, loosened the nursing bra. Patrick latched on with greedy appreciation. Julia settled back with a sigh. Much-needed peace flooded over her.

Twenty minutes to regain precious ground.

The door squeaked open, Kathleen pushing through with a determined stride. Uh-oh. This was a conversation she definitely didn't want to have yet.

Put on the good face for Zach. It wasn't anyone's business, no matter how much she desperately needed someone to pour out her fears to.

Kathleen twisted open a bottle of water before passing it to Julia. "I thought maybe you might want this."

Nursing did make her incredibly thirsty, but Julia recognized the drink for what it was. A convenient excuse to check up on her. "Thanks. You're a gem to think of this."

Kathleen lowered herself into a chair, hand pressed to her back, other hand grabbing the arm rest for balance.

"You'll be able to return the favor a hundred times over since you'll be living right across the street."

"Uh-huh." Julia grasped the out offered by Kathleen's pregnancy. "You really don't have to take on the girls for us. You should be home putting your feet up."

"Watching the girls is a lot less trouble than stitching up that pilot's foot this morning.

Man, was he ever a baby about it."

Julia laughed with her stubborn, wonderful friend. "Promise me you won't overdo."

"Not a chance. Tanner has the evening all planned out." Kathleen smoothed a hand over Patrick's whispery white hair. "Sorry we can't keep the little guy overnight too, but he's still breastfeeding."

"You're already doing more than enough." Too much.

"I hope Tanner didn't overstep." She circled her hands along her stomach as the baby rolled visibly. "He can be like a Sherman tank when he locks in on an idea."

Julia couldn't halt the rogue rasp of envy for the serenity that warmed from the other woman. The contentment. The confidence that she was loved.

Pride shooed away any leanings toward confiding. "It's a beautiful, generous offer. Zach and I appreciate your thinking of us."

Kathleen's hands stilled, her eyes searching Julia's. "Just be careful. Be happy."

Julia met her eyes, no dodging. She wasn't fooling her practical buddy for a second. Julia settled for a neutral answer. "We know what we're doing." Yeah, right.

Kathleen nodded and let the subject drop. She arched her swollen body from the chair.

"I'll go see if the girls want to order in or eat out while you finish up."

Julia watched Kathleen leave, her friend's contentment lingering long after she left, taunting Julia with how things could be.

Even as she listened to another airplane roar overhead, she didn't doubt her decision to marry Zach or her resolve to put on a happy-couple face for the world. She did, however, question how the hell she would walk away without a few new bruises on her already battered heart.

Chapter 8

Zach cracked open a fortune cookie from the smorgasbord of Chinese food left by the Bennetts on his dining-room table. Popping both halves into his mouth, he read the slip of paper.

A beautiful woman has a message for you.

Scattered white candles and a dozen pink roses mocked him from the dining-room table with a festivity he should have thought to offer Julia. His fingers curled to crumple the fortune, then paused. He tucked the slip into the sleeve pocket of his flight suit.

Flight suit? He gave himself a mental thunk. Why hadn't he thought to change before the ceremony?

He'd been so damned pressed for time, he'd only just made it to the chapel after sprinting to the store for a ring for Julia. Buying one for himself too had been an impulsive last-minute decision.

The gold band felt alien on his hand. He clenched and unclenched his fist as if that might adjust the fit, as if that might make the whole thing more real.

Not that it could get any more real than having a woman in his bedroom putting her baby down in a crib by the queen-sized bed. Except he wouldn't be sharing a bed or anything else with her tonight.

And he wanted to.

He wasn't often surprised, but that kiss of hers had knocked him back a step. For half a second. Then he'd decided what the hell. Analyzing could come later. The stunned look on Bronco's face had been priceless. No one would question their marriage now.

Certainly the less talk, the easier on his kids.

Zach circled the ring on his finger around and around.

Julia's feet sounded in the hall just before she eased into the dining room. She'd ditched her stockings. Long legs stretched from that flirty white skirt of hers. Bare feet and legs.

Elegant yet natural. Totally Julia and so enticing he wanted to drape her across the table in the middle of all those roses and candlelight and follow up on the promise of their wedding kiss. To hell with the repercussions.

And if the price were only his to pay...

Ivy's hopeful face drifted through his mind. The kid had already been through enough disappointment. He needed to keep things as uncomplicated as possible.

Set the tone now. "What do you want to do about the Christmas holidays for the kids?'

"Whatever the girls are used to is fine with me. I'm not set on a particular way to stuff the turkey or hang the icicles." She opened the red-and-white cartons of food one at a time, uncovering moo goo gai pan and shrimp fried rice.

"The girls won't mind if you want to pull in some traditions from your family."

"Traditions?' She laughed. "I grew up with a real mix of everything around the holidays.

It wasn't a religious commune, so everyone brought something representative from their walk of life. Like any other neighborhood in some ways, just with all the doors open."

She dropped into a chair across from him, tucking one foot under her. "What about you?

What do you and the girls do over the holidays?"

Candlelight cast warm shadows along her creamy skin.


"Huh? Oh, uh, we do all the standard stuff, tree, presents, pageant at church, lots of food."

He flipped a chair around and straddled it. He would eat later. A candlelit dinner made too tempting a scenario for his dwindling restraint.

"What about family?" Her brows pinched together in a frown. "I don't even know about your family."

The less said the better. "My mother died when I was fifteen. My father still lives in Texas, works the oil rigs along with my younger brother. We don't talk much." The holidays had been the one time his dad smiled, as if that made up for eleven other months. "What was it like where you grew up?"

"It was more of a...I guess you could say back-to-basics kind of living, everything natural. Everyone pitching in. I know this may surprise you, but I wasn't on the cooking crew."