Page 17

"Zach, you make me crazy sometimes."

"The feeling's a hundred-percent mutual."

"Good." She rose up on her knees, pressing her body flush against him.

His arm locked around her waist to keep her from pitching off the glider.

"Kiss me because I want you to," she whispered the caramel-tinged invitation against his mouth. "You told me all I had to do was let you know, and you wouldn't turn me away."

She slipped a finger into the waistband of his jeans, inching his T-shirt up and out.

He gripped her hand, his stomach going taut against the soft temptation of her fingers. If he could keep her talking, maybe he could stop himself from making a Texas-sized mistake. "I'm not turning you down, Jules. Just wondering about the big turnaround."

"No turnaround at all. I've always wanted you. I wasn't ready then and now I am. We could go inside and I'll prove it to you." She shook her hand free and tunneled under his shirt, fingernails scoring lightly against his stomach. "Or I can show you over there in the playhouse."

Her words blasted away the last of his restraints. Forget questioning what had changed her mind. He would dodge those land mines later. For now, he would take her to bed and do his determined best to show her how un-freakin'-believable he knew it could be between them.

Zach scooped Julia up and headed for the door.

Julia locked her arms around Zach's neck and eyed the door. Only three more steps to the total forgetfulness she knew Zach would give her.

She didn't doubt for a minute that he could deliver. The intensity of his gaze told her flat-out. She would be the lucky recipient of Zach Dawson's meticulous, determined, totally intense attention. He toed the door open, tucking sideways before kicking it shut.

Julia secured her hold on his shoulders. "I should tell you to put me down before you hurt yourself."

"You're kidding, right?" he answered, never breaking stride. "You don't weigh half as much as Bronco."

"Bronco? Thanks, I think." She laughed and loved the sound. She needed this, fun and Zach. "You carried Bronco?'

Zach charged down the hall, stopping outside the computer room. She wasn't about to question the locale. The daybed might be small, but there wasn't a baby in there.

He bent to grab the doorknob. "Fireman's carry during an emergency exercise. Fire drill from a plane."

Fire drill? Her heart thumped a nauseating pace. Don't think. She stuffed thoughts of fire drills and crash preparations deep into the mental trash where they belonged. Julia drew Zach's head back down to her as he strode into the room, kissing him, drinking the heady mixture of Zach and the lingering taste of his beer.

He stopped at the foot of the narrow daybed. "Are you sure this is what you want?"

She traced his ear with the tip of her tongue. "I haven't made love with you, Zach, not yet," she whispered an altered echo of his words to her from two months ago. "But I still know I want you."

He growled his appreciation against her mouth, reaching down to swipe aside a pile of pillows.

One knee on the edge of the bed, he lowered her. She inched up the fluffy comforter, urgency pulsing through her as she extended her arms for him to join her. Zach's solid weight pressed her into the downy softness.

Three mind-numbing kisses later, he seared a path down her neck with gentle nips that sent her arching up, frenzied for more. He worked his way down with the methodical attention to detail she'd known he would shower over her. Her shoulder, the hollow of her neck, already her br**sts tingled in anticipation, strained, yearned. His mouth closed over her, leaving a damp circle on her T-shirt before he lingered along her stomach.

He gently snapped the waist of her pajama pants with his teeth. "You ready for more?"

"Yes," she gasped, tearing at his shirt. Damn it, she wasn't thinking warm and gentle, not tonight. She burned with a do-me-baby desperation born of a need to forget the hurt.

Zach tugged her pajama pants down and off, flinging them away, leaving her in nothing more than her white T-shirt and tangerine panties. He devoured her with his eyes, melting every inch of her with heat, desire and a crooked smile. "That scrap of orange has haunted my dreams for months."

"The real thing's always better than dreams," she whispered, all the while longing to shout for him to hurry. She raised up on her elbows, lifted her foot to trail her toes down his chest.

He caught her foot before her path dipped lower and pressed a kiss to her ankle. "Do you know how crazy you've been making me for months? How much I've wanted to do this."

Strong hands with callused fingers rasped a path from her calf, up further, dipping behind her knee, then along her thigh to travel further still. "No one should be allowed to have legs this long."

His husky growl slid over her with a heat equal only to that of his body stretching on top of her. The power of Zach, the words, his warmth pulled her into the moment as she'd hoped. She tugged at him, draped her legs over his and locked him to her, showing him just what those legs could do for them both.

He edged to the side, cool air wafting over her, too cool after the heat and musk of his body blanketing her.

"Don't stop." She clutched his shoulders. "Even for a minute." Make me forget.

"Just bringing some birth control into the equation."

"In a minute. We haven't even finished undressing." Something she planned to change.

He clasped her hands to stop their restless motion and pinned them over her head.

Linking her wrists overhead with one hand, he slid his fingers under the edge of her shirt.

"Slow down. We have all night."

"So glad you came home early."

"Me, too."

"But you're here. And you're warm. Really warm." On fire like the coil of need unfurling in her belly and spreading through her.

Her hands trekked a frantic path into his jeans. "You scared me at first, though."

His fingers paused just shy of her breast. "What?"

She tightened her legs around him, needing to bring him closer so she would stop babbling things that brought questions. Geez, what was she trying to do, sabotage this before they even started? "Let's back up. Forget I said anything and keep doing exactly what you were doing two seconds ago."

He released her hands. "When did I scare you?"

Zach wasn't going to let it go. One slip threatened to ruin everything, something that promised to be so very perfect, something they both deserved so much.

Her head fell to the side. "I asked you not to stop."

"When, Julia," he insisted, "when did I scare you?"

"It's nothing now. Okay? I wasn't thinking clearly a few seconds ago. It was kind of tough to form rational thoughts when you had your hand shoved up my shirt."

He hooked a finger under her chin. "If it's nothing, then why won't you tell me?"

She threaded her fingers through his tousled hair, desperate to return to the promise of forgetfulness, already knowing the ever-honorable Zach would pull away when he heard, damn him. "Just a stupid minute earlier when you pulled into the driveway. You weren't due home yet and I didn't know who was out there. I thought it might be... I thought something had gone wrong on the flight." She stared at his throat. "Like before, with Lance a year ago."

Julia's words sluiced over Zach like ice water. Actually, ice water would have shocked less.

How could he have missed the date? He'd seen it stamped all over accident files a hundred times during the past year.

Because he hadn't wanted to remember. Not now.

And now he couldn't forget.

Zach rolled off her and sat on the edge of the bed. Not that turning away kept his mind from seeing the imprint of her br**sts straining against the T-shirt. Straining toward his mouth.

Julia scrambled to her knees behind him. She looped her arms around him, her cheek against his ear, her br**sts too perfect against his back. "I was scared, okay? Scared something had happened to you. So sue me. Or better yet, get back here and finish this.

Prove to me you're totally all right."

Her warm breath caressed him with a promise hotter than her words just before she nuzzled his neck.

He shoved to his feet. "I don't think so."


Being honorable blew, but he wasn't crawling back in that bed with Julia and a ghost.

"This isn't right for you."

She leapt to her feet, eyes blazing. "Who made you the god of deciding what I can and can't do with my life? Last time I checked, I was a consenting adult and I want us back on that bed."

"Not tonight. You're not ready for this."

"Oh, now you're a mind reader too? The great commander can take care of everything before we even think it." Julia closed the last inches between them. She linked her hands behind his neck, her body grazing his in a sinuous stretch that brought her mouth a whisper from his. "So tell me, Colonel, what am I thinking right now?"

He couldn't stop his body's reaction, and she wouldn't miss it. But he could control what he did about it.

"You want to forget that one year ago today I stood on your front porch to tell you your husband was dead." The words fell from him harsher than he'd intended, but then he wasn't feeling particularly pleasant.

She froze against him.

He loosened her hands from his shoulders and put much-needed distance between himself and the powder keg of pain radiating from Julia, ready to detonate. He wanted to pound a wall and maybe Lance Sinclair as well.

Zach gentled his hold on her wrist, trying to gentle his tone as well. "I won't be a stand-in for another man."

"I never said you were a substitute for anyone." Even pain-filled, her eyes didn't waver from him.

He almost believed her. Except when it came to relationships, he'd blown it too big in the past to trust his instincts now when the fall-out could be so bad for her. "No, Julia. Not now. You need time to think."

Her eyes flared again. "Why do you get to tell—"

"I need time to think," he said because he knew it would sway her, and because damned if it wasn't half true. "We need distance from this day before we make any decisions. Time apart would probably help too. I was going to tell you tomorrow, but I'll be leaving Monday to go TDY for a few weeks."

As if accepting the inevitable, she shoved the strap to her tank top back up her shoulder, only to have it slide defiantly down again. "Where are you going?"

He didn't answer, couldn't answer because of security, a reality of his job that had shredded his first marriage.

She dropped to the edge of the bed. "Please, don't say it's one of those 'can't tell ya, babe'

kind of TDYs. Not tonight."

His silence said it all anyway. His job had been hard enough on Pam. Why hadn't he realized how much tougher moments like this would be for Julia? Sure, she didn't love him, but marriage and friendship had drawn her into his world, a world that had already dealt her the worst blow.

Julia traced a toe along the seam in the wood floor. "Can you tell me when you'll be back?"

That much he could share. "I should be home in a month, a few days before the squadron Valentine's Day party."

She nodded, her toe making inroads along the wood grain. "Okay, then."

Zach scratched his unshaven face and searched for a way to fix the mess he'd landed them in. He could feed her a few details of the mission without breaking security, enough to reassure her.

He sat beside her, his eyes fixed on his hands between his knees. Zach circled the wedding band round and round his finger. "I'm taking a couple of crews to assist the Secretary of State on some diplomacy visits for the next few weeks." By necessity he omitted the location. "We're hauling supplies for the Secret Service detachment. Their surveillance equipment, SUVs. That kind of thing."