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A totally different scream built within her, a shout of exultation as everything else fell away and she plunged into the sensations of hurtling into that void with Zach. Julia closed her eyes, pressing herself to his back, certain she could feel his heart thudding through his uniform and leather. If only life could be this simple—feel and fly forever.

Eventually the wind-tunneling roar faded, slowed, stopped.

Julia blinked, momentarily disoriented until she realized they were back on base outside Zach's squadron. Residual excitement still buzzed through her as she leapt from the motorcycle.

She whipped off the helmet and shook her curls loose. "Wow! I have absolutely got to get myself one of these."

Zach swung a leg over the seat. Grinning, he unsnapped his helmet. "I thought that might appeal to you."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

As far as a Valentine's memory, it definitely beat some moonlit carriage ride. Zach's choice showed how well he knew her and that touched her most of all.

And it was the only Valentine's season they would celebrate together, the ride likely to be the only excitement they could share.

The night air chilled.

Back to the reality of Pam's return and what it would mean for the fragile peace they'd built. "Why are we stopping here?"

"I need something before we go home." Palm flat against her back, he ushered her toward the door.

Couldn't the man put work on hold for even a few hours?

Her heels clicked double-time along asphalt. "Slow down, will you? These heels are tough to run in for a girl used to sandals and gym shoes."

How could he be in such a hurry to reach his office when all she could think about was the great sex they could have been having?

"Sorry." He punched in a code and stepped into the squadron, flipping on a hall light.

She hugged the coat tighter around her in the nippy corridor and followed him into his office. Fluorescent lights flickered.

The lock clicked.

Before Julia could think, much less protest, Zach twirled her by the arm. He flattened her back against the door. He kissed her, hard, fast and full. Reasonable thoughts fell away as fast as the leather jacket he tugged from her arms and flung to the floor.

"I swear, Jules," he mumbled against her mouth, her cheek, her neck. "That was the longest damned party of my life."

Hers too. Heat poured from his lips over her skin, pulsing through her veins into a pool of longing, low and needy. Saying no was tougher than she'd expected. Why hadn't she pressed him to talk more in the car so they could move past Pam's return?

"Zach, wait." Gripping the lapels of his uniform, she scrambled for control. "I thought you needed to get something before we go home."

"No. I said I needed something. You. Now. Where no one will interrupt us."

His mouth returned to hers with a mind-drugging draw that threatened to steal her focus.

Much more and she wouldn't stand a chance of stopping him. Or herself. "Zach. Zach!

Please. I need to say something."

His forehead thunked to the door. "You've changed your mind."

"No! Yes. Not really." She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. Her eyes swept the room as she grounded herself with visions of concrete objects, a looming wooden desk, flags tucked in the corner, framed certificates and photos of planes filling the walls. "I know what I said earlier on the phone, but—''

Zach pushed away from the door, away from Julia, and walked to his desk. Keeping his back to her, he straightened a stack of files. "Indecision is the same as a no, Jules."

"I'm not saying no for me. I'm saying it for you."

"For me?" He shot an incredulous look over his shoulder, then turned to sit on the edge of his desk. "Want to explain that one? Because I'm certain I want us both already naked."

His words hummed through her, not unlike the hydroplaning sensation of the bridge ride.

Gathering her thoughts proved tougher than she expected with Zach's piercing gaze probing her as she walked.

She paused by the flags, fingering the coarse canvas. Tucked away in a closet, she'd saved a folded flag just like this one for Patrick, the flag that had draped his father's coffin before being presented to her. Still, she could hear the roar of the planes flying a missing man formation overhead, the reverberation of a twenty-one-gun salute.

For the first time in over a year, she allowed those funeral memories to march through her mind and found she could face them now without falling apart. Thanks to Zach. "A month ago, you told me you wouldn't share your bed with a ghost. Well, I'm telling you the same thing. You need to sort through your feelings for Pam first."

Never again would she share her husband with another woman.

"Pam?" His arms folded over his chest. "In case it escaped your attention, neither of us died. She and I are divorced."

She and Lance had nearly divorced. Her life had been thrown into such turmoil over his affair, she'd wondered if she would ever recover from the betrayal and learn to trust again. "A divorce doesn't necessarily erase all the feelings."

"In this case it sure as hell did." Hard and steady, his eyes met hers. "I do not harbor any lingering feelings for Pam. Our marriage was over long before she left. We stayed together for the kids."

Hope teased her, too much so. It shouldn't be so important that he convince her. But it was. "Then why did seeing her upset you? Don't even try to tell me otherwise."

He pushed away from the desk. "Geez, Jules, I'm scared as hell she's gonna rip my kids'

hearts out again."


"Yeah, oh."

Julia sank to the sofa.

He dropped down beside her. "We got married so young, while I was still at Texas A & M. She didn't have a clue what kind of life we would have in the military. We went through four trial separations, even gave marriage counseling a shot before she walked for good."

An unwanted flash of sympathy stirred for Pam. Not that it excused how the woman had treated her children, but her difficulty handling military stresses somehow made Pam more human, and Julia didn't want the confusion that brought.

Hands between his knees, Zach twisted his wedding band around and around. "She couldn't take the Air Force way of life, the TDYs, the moving. The combat. During Desert Storm, Pam received one of those front-porch visits from the commander letting her know I was MIA."

Julia forced herself not to wince at the stab of pain his words inflicted. She'd wanted Zach to talk and she wouldn't let her own agenda interfere with what he needed.

"Her next visit from the commander wasn't too much better. They'd located me. I was a guest of the Iraqi people."

Horror prickled over her in icy shards. "You were a POW?"

"For two weeks until the war ended."

"How did I never hear about this?" Why hadn't he told her? "Do the girls know?"

"No, and I'd rather they don't know until they're older. I flew the A-10 back then, took some anti-aircraft fire and ejected over Iraq." He scrubbed a hand along his jaw. "Once they brought me in, my face was such a mess no way would they put me on television to use for propaganda purposes. I wouldn't have made much of a convincing poster boy for their cause if it looked like they'd forced me to talk."

A dark chuckle rumbled from him, but Julia didn't find anything in the least amusing. She blinked fast, searching his face. She traced one finger along his mouth, up into the one-sided curve of his smile, then to the other side.

His quirky half smile. Ohmigod. "Zach?"

"There's some residual nerve damage on the left side," he recited, his voice as calm as if relaying facts from one of those files on his desk. "Nothing extensive, just a half-asleep feeling."

Her throat clogged, her mind swirling with images of what he must have endured, all the details he'd left out of his sparse retelling. Her jaw worked, but she simply couldn't find words for this one. She caressed his cheek as if that might somehow heal the loss.

He gripped her wrist, turned his face to kiss her palm, then drew her hand away. "It's over, and only a two-week sampling of what guys in 'Nam survived for years."

"One day is too much."

He didn't answer, just stared at their linked hands. "When I came home, Pam had already left. Packed up Shelby and gone to her mother's. It took us over a month to put things back together."

All sympathy for Pam incinerated. Zach deserved better than that, and Julia couldn't escape the fear that she might not be any better for him if put to the test.

Zach hooked an elbow along the back of the vinyl sofa and angled toward her. "I'm only telling you so you'll understand how far back my marriage started falling apart. Every conflict after that, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, made it worse. When trouble started brewing in Sentavo, I knew it was over and we filed for divorce. She stayed with the girls until I finished my rotation overseas, but that was it for her. Believe me, when Pam and I signed those divorce papers, we didn't feel anything other than relief."

Heaven help her, she believed him.

She couldn't do anything about how Pam had failed him all those years ago, and she couldn't promise she wouldn't disappoint him in the end. But right now, she could be there for him the way he deserved. She could soothe a wound he seemed unwilling to acknowledge, but one that needed healing all the same.

She would give Zach the hero's welcome home he deserved.

Chapter 12

Julia stayed silent so long Zach looked up and found tears in her eyes. Ah, damn. What the hell had he been thinking? He'd only meant to convince her that he and Pam were over. He hadn't meant to spill so much.

She glided up to her knees on the brown vinyl sofa. She leaned across and pressed a kiss to the left comer of his mouth, then rested her cheek against the numbed side of his face.

Ah, damn again. He definitely should have kept his yap shut and just seduced her. He could have done it so easily. Instead he'd launched into a morbid story guaranteed to send an Air Force widow running.

He palmed her back, her skin warm and soft under his hand, her tears hot on his face.

"Hey, Jules, it's all right. It was a long time ago. I shouldn't have told you."

She swiped away tears with the back of her wrist. "Of course you should tell me. You lived it. The least I can do is listen. When does somebody get to do something for you?

Yeah, hearing what happened to you hurts me. It should hurt, but it hurts so much more knowing you were by yourself." Determination fired through her tears. "Now close your eyes."

"What?" Following Julia's train of thought rivaled the challenge of flying without radar.

Her hand trailed from his brow over his eyes. "Shut them."

Darkness enveloped him, like flying through an inky night sky by instincts. All other senses heightened, the feel of her velvet dress warm against his hand. The lingering rosy scent clung to her, drifting up to permeate the still office air.


And sounds. The way she said his name twisted him into knots as tight as the first time she'd whispered it nearly five months ago. "Yeah, Jules?"

"I want you to imagine you're on the plane again coming home from Iraq."

Huh? Where the hell was she going with this? Not that he intended to stop her since she'd quit crying.

Because it seemed important to her, Zach traveled back, through his memories to that day on the plane—the longest ride of his life. He hadn't expected Pam to be the supportive wife of the year, but he'd been pretty damned sure she would be on the runway waiting for him.

She wasn't.

Julia's soft voice slid over the memory. "This time when you land, I'm there waiting for you. We're all there—me, Shelby, Ivy and Patrick. Okay, I know technically the younger two weren't born yet, but I'm the one building this fantasy and I want them there."