Page 16

Shelby was at a band retreat.

Ivy at a sleepover.

Zach not due home for hours, since his plane wouldn't even land until eleven.

Zach. Flying.

Don't think about it. Nothing's going to go wrong.

Julia tapped the rocker into motion, the creak of the chair and Patrick's huffing baby sighs the only sounds in the empty house. She glanced at the clock. Five 'til nine. Only two more hours until he would be safely on the ground.

A routine mission. Nothing to worry about, she reminded herself. He'd flown often enough during the past couple of months.

Every time, she had thrown herself into the kids' routine to keep from thinking. Tonight was different for more reasons than the empty house.

It was the anniversary of Lance's death.

Julia cradled Patrick closer and looked heavenward. "I'm trying, Lance, trying really hard not to be mad at you tonight."

Mad at him for dying, for lying.

Except she knew she would forgive him anything because he'd given her Patrick. Julia cradled her son up to her face and kissed his brow. "Okay, sweetie, I guess it's time for you to sleep."

She stood, cuddling Patrick to her chest as she turned to the crib nestled under the window. After covering him with a black-and-white cow blanket, Julia clicked on the monitor, closed the door and headed for the kitchen. Consolation food was a must tonight.

Why did Zach have to fly today of all days?

Julia dug deep into the cabinet for a bag of caramels. Ripping the bag open, she unwrapped two and popped them both in her mouth.

She'd tried to stay busy helping Bronco decorate his house with pink balloons and ribbons for Kathleen and baby Tara's homecoming. She was happy for them, truly, but the whole happy-family, new-baby celebration stabbed her at the worst time. Which made her feel even crummier for envying them.

Julia stuffed another caramel into her mouth and chewed, already tearing the wrapper off the next one. Lights swept across the window, an engine growling in the driveway.

Her eyes flew to the clock. Nine-oh-three.

Julia chewed slowly while looking back to the kitchen door. She couldn't see through the window with her sedan blocking the spot. Probably just a car turning around. Not that she could make herself look away from the window.

The car shut off. The bag dropped from her hand, thudded and spilled on the counter.

She wouldn't answer the door. She didn't care that it was probably just Kathleen on the other side. Or maybe Ivy coming home early. No way would she go anywhere near that damn door.

The hell of finding the ominous trio of chaplain, doctor and commander waiting on her porch a year ago washed over her again. Julia inched two steps to the side, just three inches until she could see...a red truck. Zach's truck.

Relief turned her knees to mulch.

For five unrestrained seconds, she devoured the sight of him so big and alive. Thick, dark hair gleamed in the porch light. Broad shoulders ducked out of the truck, his brown leather flight jacket zipped up a chest she desperately wanted to climb all over so she could listen to the steady reassurance of his heartbeat.

Julia squeezed her eyes closed and slumped against the counter. Slowly, she slid down.

Okay, so he would find her sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor. Better that than having him find her knocked out on that same floor if she pitched over.

Frenzy and fear whipped within her. What if that hadn't been Zach pulling into the driveway? What if another routine mission went bad tomorrow or the next day? Stupid, torturous thoughts hammered her, images that didn't accomplish anything more than to start her shaking all over again.

She needed something to make the fear stop. Tomorrow, she would be strong for the children. Right now, she needed momentary relief from the pain of the past thirty seconds and from whatever insanity had grabbed hold of her the past months.

She needed to lose herself in a raging hot night of sex with her husband.

* * *

He had a raging headache.  Not surprising, since he no doubt suffered from a lethal case of deadly testosterone build-up months in the making.

Zach dropped his flight bag on his motorcycle seat and considered heading out for a long ride. Only around forty degrees and cloudless, it would make the perfect night for speeding under the stars. He could if he wanted, without worrying about the squadron since the last plane had landed.

He backed from the bike. Forget the ride, he would just lose himself in the kids as he'd done a hundred times the past two months to avoid looking at Julia. Talk about holiday mania.

The kids had enjoyed a blow-out Christmas.

He had a mind-blowing headache.

Zach eyed the kitchen door. With any luck, Shelby would have pierced her nose, or something equally as aggravating to keep his mind off Julia.

Marrying her was the smartest—and the most dumbass thing he'd ever done. Sure, the children were happy, but he was slowly losing his freaking mind.

Images bombarded him, so many accidental glimpses of Julia that turned him inside out.

Julia in his bed. Julia leaning over the bathroom sink wearing nothing but a sheer slip so short it displayed miles of legs.

Other images no less torturous kicked over him. Julia singing to Patrick. Sawdust glinting in her blond curls as she taught Ivy to hammer nails. Julia wrangling a smile out of Shelby at Christmas by doing nothing more than starting kitchen wars with cans of whipped cream.

Home-life intimacy was killing him and there wasn't a thing he could do about it. If only he hadn't just flown. At least they would have their very own rugrat chaperones in residence.

Zach yanked the kitchen door open. He flung his helmet bag on the counter and turned toward the refrigerator.

Julia sat on the floor. Knees drawn to her chest, her back against the wall. Her pale face glowed in the darkened kitchen. What the hell was wrong? Something with the kids?

"Julia? Is everything okay?"

"Hi," her husky voice whispered, strangely hollow in the silence. "You're home early."

He flipped on the lights. "The winds were too strong once we returned to base, so we cancelled the touch-and-go landings."


Confused and more than a little worried, he crouched in front of her. Was this some kind of delayed post-partum depression thing? "Tough day with the kids?"

"Not at all. Shelby's at band camp, remember? Ivy's at a sleepover, and Patrick's down for the night." She reached to touch his jacket, tracing his nametag. "I was just... thinking."

Beneath her fingers, his muscles twitched. He cleared his throat. "Anything you want to talk about?"

Talk was good. Something to take his mind off those elegant fingers gliding along his nametag.

"Not really." She tugged the jacket zipper down, link by link, the rasp taunting him almost as much as her shower-fresh scent and low-riding pajama bottoms.

Zach shot to his feet. "All right, then. I'll just go change. Is there any supper left?'

Damn, but he was hungry.

"I'll warm something up before you get back."

If things got any hotter, the kitchen would combust.

Zach shucked his jacket and slung it over the coat tree on his way back down the hall. In the computer room, he yanked on a black T-shirt and jeans. Tying gym shoes, he tried not to think about how he did not want to spend another night in that single bed. His feet hung off the edge and it was cold.

His bed was right across the hall and belonged to a gorgeous woman— his wife—who spent her nights tangled in his sheets.

His wife. Who was upset about something. Time to shut down his libido—yeah, right—

and take care of Julia.

He approached the kitchen as he would a loaded minefield. Fifteen years of marriage with Pam had taught him he had the unerring knack for stepping right on those land mines. Give him a plane to fly, a nation to feed and he was fine. Circumventing the female psyche in a snit, however, stumped him.

Standing at the kitchen counter, Julia spooned barbecue onto a bun, her drawstring pajama pants dipping to reveal an ivory patch of stomach. Her tank T-shirt outlined perfect breasts, small and high.

And unrestrained by a bra.

A land mine might make a welcome distraction.

She returned the plastic container of barbecue to the fridge, bumping the door closed with her hip. The door closed, the thump echoing in the silent house.

Silent house?

Hey, wait. He'd been so focused on Julia's pale face earlier he hadn't really listened to her words. The kids were all gone or asleep.

He was alone. In the house. With Julia.

Hell and damnation.

Head pounding, Zach stalked into the kitchen. He jerked open the refrigerator and pulled out a beer bottle. He needed one. Or four.

He twisted the top. "So the house is empty until tomorrow."

"Pretty much." She passed him his sandwich like Eve handing over the forbidden fruit.

One bite and he would be toast. "On second thought, I think I'll save that for later. I'm going to unwind on the back porch."

He grabbed his leather jacket from the coat tree and bolted through the door to the screened-in porch. Dropping onto the glider, he tipped his beer back and gazed at the night sky through the long neck. Like that could help him escape her. Julia filled his whole damned life.

She'd even made the glider for him for Christmas with the girls' help. Why Shelby had opted for purple paint, he would never know. But of course Julia, being Julia, cared more about making his girls smile than clashing colors.

He knocked back another swallow, the yeasty glide down his throat doing little to mellow his need to get the hell out. The gold band weighed heavy on his finger. He needed space.


Julia bumped the door open with her bottom, two more beers in her hands. "Hope you don't mind if I join you."

"Nope." Liar.

The gentle sway of her h*ps nudged those pajama pants perilously low. The thin T-shirt provided pathetic little barrier against the night chill.

It was cold and her body knew it.

Zach knocked back the last swig of his beer and studied...a tree. Yeah, that tree needed trimming. He would take care of it this weekend, along with a hundred other things he would add to his to-do list until he worked himself into a dead sleep.

Julia passed him another beer and sat beside him. Not that she ever actually sat like other people. She wouldn't think twice about dropping to the floor. Or perching cross-legged in a chair. Or in this case sitting sideways, hugging her knees.

She wriggled her toes in the wooly socks. "My feet are cold. Do you mind?"

Mind what? "Sure. Whatever."

"Thanks." Julia slid her feet forward.

Tucking them under his thigh.

Those toes weren't cold at all. Heat seared straight from the back of his leg to a throbbing ache higher up. Didn't the woman have a clue how she was torturing him?

He studied her through narrowed eyes. "Julia?"

She smiled. "Much better. Thanks."

"Here." He shrugged out of his jacket, shuffling the bottle from hand to hand. "Put this on."

The cooling breeze helped him. Some. Not nearly enough.

Slowly, Julia slid one arm at a time into his coat. She tucked the collar tight under her chin with two hands and burrowed into the leather with a sensuous sigh. "Ahhh. It's still warm from you."

Where the hell had she put his second beer?

Oh, yeah. In his hand.

He picked hers up from the porch and passed it to her. "Here. You'll sleep better."

"Are you having trouble sleeping, Zach?"

Hell, yes. "No."

"Well, I am." She wasn't smiling anymore. The Eve look slid away and left Julia. Open.

Honest. And straightforward as always. "Kiss me."

The woman was giving him whiplash. "What?"

"Kiss me. Because it's a beautiful night and we're all alone on our porch."

If it sounded too good to be true, it was, and this sounded beyond too good. "Julia, there's no need to put on a show. Sure somebody might stroll by, but this little domestic scene will say enough to satisfy the gossip hounds."