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They shared a smile as she spooned shrimp fried rice onto their plates. He hooked his arms along the back of the chair, rested his chin on his hands and allowed himself the pleasure of watching the candlelight play with the color of her hair.

"I never figured out if I'm a rotten cook because I didn't have the chance to learn or if I didn't cook because I was really rotten at it. Regardless, I always ended up on the building committee, Habitat for Humanity in its early form. By the time I left for college, I'd already been in on the construction of ten houses and a food kitchen."

Her parents may have taught her all about helping others, but where were they now when their own daughter needed them? Either they hadn't noticed, or Julia hadn't wanted to ask them. She'd opted to marry him instead. The thought touched something inside him he wasn't sure he wanted to examine too closely.

She'd done so much for his girls during a year when most would have holed-up with their grief. She'd put him first today with that kiss of hers.

And what had he done for her?

He hadn't even changed out of his damned flight suit.

"Sorry there wasn't time to put together more of show for today's ceremony."

"No need to apologize. I had all of that first go-round." Julia twirled her fork through the food on her plate. "Actually, I prefer it this way. The fewer memories of the past the better."

"I can understand that." Yet he could see those memories misting through her eyes anyway and kicked himself for resurrecting them.

"At least with the children, you and I actually have more in common than Lance and I ever did." A grin teased at her lips. "He was my great rebellion."

"Run that one by me again?"

"I'd just finished college and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

Like most people starting out, I was convinced that whatever I chose, it would have to be the complete opposite of my parents." She paused waving a fork at him. "Now don't laugh, but believe it or not, I was ready to leave behind the Julia-Moonglow name from my childhood."

He smiled back, all the while thinking how the name fit.

"And into that coffee shop walked Lance with all his military bearing and conservatism at a time when I planned to be an architect and build the perfect house for myself. Man, were both of us in for a shock a couple years later when we realized what a mess we'd made."

She stared down at her rice until the faraway haze faded from her eyes. With a sigh and smile, she shrugged off the past. "Maybe there's your answer with Shelby. Let your hair grow and join a heavy metal band so she'll do the opposite."

Her slightly wicked laughter skipped across the few inches separating them, enticing him to make this wedding night real. He cleared his throat and wished his thoughts were as easily controlled. "Do you think I'd look good with a mullet?"

"On second thought," she said, reaching to smooth back hair that never grew long enough to fall out of place. "Leave it just like it is. Shelby will eventually come to the same conclusion I did. My parents are people who did the very best they could and maybe I should learn a few things from them after all."

"They brought up a great daughter." Who spent her life making perfect doll houses for other people. Who'd taken on him and his daughters to make a home for them.

And he'd pulled her out of the first real house she'd ever had. But his job mandated he live on base. He didn't have a choice on this one if he wanted to keep paying his bills.

"Your house will still be there for you at the end of the year."

She shook out a napkin. "I put away those home-and-hearth dreams a long time ago."

Gripping her wrist, he stopped her restless motion, wanting her to listen. The napkin draped from her fingers like a white flag of surrender.

"Julia, this was the right thing to do."

"I know." She gently tugged her arm free and nudged his plate toward him. "Quit thinking so hard and eat."

She savored a bite of an egg roll with a contented sigh, taking the typical Julia-Moonglow joy from every experience. A real sensualist.

He stifled an entirely different kind of moan.

It was going to be a long night.

For once, he was grateful for his killer schedule. He did not need time on his hands to think about how natural Julia looked sitting cross-legged in his dining room. And he absolutely did not need more nights alone in the house with Julia, a big bed and an attraction that didn't show any signs of letting up.

Zach shoved aside the persistent voice telling him for once he should have thought twice before launching into this plan of action.

* * *

"Measure twice, cut once, girls." Julia lined up the slim oak planks along the sawhorses under the carport in her makeshift workshop.  If only she could be as cautious in life as she was with her woodworking. The past four weeks of marriage had proven how perfect the solution could be for the children— and how frustrating as hell for the adults.

Julia gave herself a mental shake. She wouldn't let doubts ruin this beautiful afternoon and the rare opportunity to indulge her creative muse. By the end of the week, she would have Zach's Christmas gift complete. A glider for the screened-in porch, the latest in her string of never-ending attempts to teach the man to relax.

Would he understand the significance of her choosing a deck glider? Certainly not some high-tech winged glider for the air, but a lazy ground flight of sorts.

"Ivy, hon, bring your sandpaper over here and feel the edges of this one I've already finished."

"Sure would stink to get splinters in my bum, wouldn't it?" Ivy skipped up beside her.

"Shelby, come help or it isn't a present from all of us."

"Sure." Shelby sat leaning against the house, headphones in place, music filtering free.

"In a minute, Mouse."

How could she hear with those things on? Of course if Zach had asked her to clean her room, Shelby would have been stone deaf to his request.

Shelby rocked to the beat, flipping pages in a magazine. So much for an attempt to draw both girls out with the joint project. At least Ivy appreciated the effort.

"Feel that?' Julia skimmed her hand over the two-inch wide board, her fingers naturally following the grain.

"Uh-huh. Okay, can I sand now? Please!"

Julia reassured herself that enthusiasm mattered more than perfection. "Go ahead."

Ivy scampered back to attack the wood with more frenzy than finesse, stirring a cloud of sawdust. A plane roared overhead in the ever-constant flow of air traffic that reminded Julia they lived within shouting distance of an active runway.

She flipped the strip and started the other side. For once the familiar textures and scents didn't bring the soothing effect she'd hoped for in suggesting this project to Ivy and Shelby.

Her eyes skittered to the backyard.

No doubt she could lay the blame for that disquiet solely on the broad shoulders of the man napping in the hammock. The Pawley's Island hammock had been first on her list of ideas for teaching him to relax, another languid ground flight.

And now she was wound tighter than the webbed weave of that roped sling strung between two trees, all because the simple sight stirred her hormones as well as her heart.

Eyes closed, Zach sprawled, too tall for the length. One leg bent at the knee. The other draped over the side, his booted foot resting on the ground and nudging the hammock into a gentle sway.

Another plane rumbled in the distance. His military radio perched on the ground beside Zach, crackling a steady drone. But she wouldn't think about that radio and the planes.

Not today when she desperately needed some peace.

His hand tapped a steady tattoo against Patrick's back as the baby snoozed away on Zach's chest. Tiny knees tucked up, her son rested securely against the broad chest.

Lucky kid.

If only it could be as simple as separate rooms. She'd forgotten the hundreds of other intimacies of sharing a home with a man, like sharing a bathroom, since Shelby and Ivy had commandeered the other one. Julia's hair mousse now rested beside his shaving gel, her lingerie slung over the shower curtain next to his towel.

Man, he looked great in a towel and nothing else. Just that morning she'd lounged in bed, sleep still lulling her, and watched through the part in the half-closed door while he shaved. Such a simple act and somehow intensely intimate.

His musky scent had clung to steam, permeating the air far beyond the bathroom walls, drifting into the bedroom until he invaded her senses without ever dropping his fine butt into her bed.


"Yeah, hon?" Julia pitched aside the sandpaper and folded a new square for Ivy.

"I told my dance teacher how many tickets we'll need for the Christmas recital."

"Great. Have her let me know how much to make the check out for."

"The paper's inside with the prices." Ivy scrubbed an edge with exaggerated concentration. "Do the math for five tickets."

Five. Julia chose her words carefully. "And who are the extra two for?"

Please, please, please she hoped Ivy would say she wanted to have a holiday sleepover and bring along two friends.

"My mom and Edward." Ivy looked up with soulful brown eyes so like Zach's. "It's Christmas. She's gotta come home for Christmas, right?"

Shelby cranked the volume on her portable CD player until Julia could discern words through the bleed-out.

"I'll write the check." And find a back-up for taking those tickets so Ivy wouldn't have to see empty seats if her mother didn't show.

A full-out smile wreathed Ivy's face, the complete version of Zach's half smile. "Thanks!

You're the best." She dusted off her board. "So what color are we gonna make this?"

Julia stroked the length and envisioned a warm honey stain soaking into the grain.

"Purple." Shelby chewed her gum, never missing a beat in the tune.

"Cool!" Ivy chimed.

Julia struggled not to wince. "We'll make a trip to the hardware store and decide together."

She knelt at eye-level with the board. Pursing her lips, she blew sawdust into the breeze with a long exhale.

A tingle of awareness sprinkled over her, the sense of being watched. Her eyes flew straight to the hammock. Zach stared back with sleepy-lidded heat.

The man gave a whole new meaning to bedroom eyes.

Maybe she should buy him one of those electric razors for Christmas, the kind that worked in the shower so she wouldn't have to watch his broad back bent over the sink anymore.

Thank goodness for Christmas mayhem which left them all with little quiet time alone.

And after the holidays?

She would count on his kids and their hordes of friends to keep the house from ever being empty.

Chapter 9

The empty house echoed for the first time in the two months since she'd tied her life to Zach's. From the rocker in the corner, Julia snuggled Patrick and looked out at her bedroom that still held so many reminders of Zach.

His bed loomed so darn big and empty. If she'd balked at the idea of sleeping in a bed that had belonged to another woman, Shelby had cleared up any misgivings right away by assuring her Zach had donated their elaborate sleigh bed to charity the day after Pam walked out.

The simple wooden bed in its place had only held Zach. And now her.

"Come on, Patrick, sweetie," Julia crooned to her son resting on her knees. Holding his hands, she lifted him until he sat upright, working to strengthen his torso muscles for sitting later as she'd learned in his physical therapy sessions. "Don't you want to stay up and play with Mama?"

He stretched with a spine-arching yawn. Julia sank back into the rocker and gave up. She had to be the only mother on the planet who didn't want her child to go to sleep, but she needed something to occupy her, especially tonight.