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Zach cruised the Harley to a stop under the carport, Julia's arms loosely looped around his waist. They both needed a few solid hours of sleep, but then he had plans for her.

Already his body stirred through the exhaustion.

Being with Julia had been like one of his Harley rides, the closest thing to flying on the ground. Better. He couldn't imagine how he would ever get enough, but he intended to spend the next few months trying.

They had their life back on track. He'd been right about sharing their children and friendship. Now they also shared a jet-engine-hot attraction beyond even what he'd imagined.

And his imagination had been mighty damned active lately.

Zach parked and covered his motorcycle while Julia unlocked the door without speaking.

Her silence boded well, in his estimation. No need to hash through all the implications of what they'd done back in his office.

Definitely a good sign.

He and Julia weren't going to put each other through the emotional wringer they'd both gone through in their first marriages. This was about being practical, not about feelings.

Zach ignored the persistent voice that told him he'd been feeling anything but practical when he'd plastered Julia against his office door.

He followed her up the steps and into the dark house. The television still echoed from the family room, but all was quiet otherwise. Helping her slip out of the leather jacket, he skimmed his fingers along her arm. "I need to pick up a few things from the spare room first," he whispered low so as not to risk waking Shelby or Patrick.

Julia ducked free of the coat, backing toward the dining room. "I should turn off the television."

She disappeared around the corner, into the den. A gasp sounded, just before a thump.

Frowning, Zach slung the jacket on the coat tree. Shelby must have left some kind of mess.

The realities of life with kids. He strode through the dining room, stopping behind Julia and looking over her shoulder. Disbelief quickly shifted gears into anger.

Reality sprawled glaringly across the sofa in the form of Shelby, her boyfriend and a tangled mess of half-clad arms and legs.

Chapter 13

Zach stared at the teens on the sofa through a red haze of fury. Shelby and John gaped back with wide, deer-in-the-headlights eyes.

Chaplain Murdoch's delinquent, about-to-be-dead son bolted to his feet, open shirttails flapping. John raked back his long hair into a band. "Sorry, sir. We fell asleep."

Damn it, why did it have to make him feel a hundred years old to think no kid with hair down to his shoulders could have good intentions toward his daughter?

Zach fought his way through the anger and brushed past Julia. "Damned well doesn't look like you're sleeping to me."

Shelby closed the last button on her purple silk shirt, rhinestones blaring Princess across a pocket. "Cool your jets, Colonel. We weren't doing anything."

Zach pinned her with a glare.

"Anything much." Shelby flung her black hair over her shoulder with a surly twitch. He knew too well how much could be accomplished on a sofa in a couple of hours, and his daughter better not have been doing even half of it.

Julia swept past him. "Where's Patrick?"

Shelby winced, looking guilty for the first time. "He's asleep." She snatched the monitor from the coffee table and held it up in defense. "I kept this on the whole time I wouldn't let anything happen to him."

Julia took the monitor from Shelby, lips tight as if holding back the very accusations Zach longed to hurl at his daughter. A shuddering sigh later, Julia hurried past and down the hall.

John ambled forward, baggy clothes rippling with each step. "Sir, this is my fault. I shouldn't have been here."

"That's right. You shouldn't." Zach kept his voice level a near-impossible task, reminding himself John was just a kid.

A kid who'd had his hands all over Shelby a few short minutes ago.

The red haze threatened to blaze over him again. "It's time for you to leave. No detours, I'll call your house to make sure someone's up waiting."

"I'm not going until I'm sure Shelby's okay."

Restraint edged further away. "Want to run that by me again, boy?"

"I'm not leaving yet."

He might have admired the kid's courage, if it weren't so damned stupid given the circumstances. "Keep this up and I can guarantee your father will be volunteering for an assignment in Nairobi." Zach stepped toe-to-toe with the kid and allowed the quiet heat of his anger to seep into his words. He wanted this boy scared and running. "Good luck finding a girl to sweet-talk into falling asleep with you there when everyone's speaking Swahili."

Shelby slid between them. "Stop, Colonel. Okay? This is so lame." She turned to John.

"Go home, really, it'll be better if you leave. He's not gonna hurt me. He'll just ground me again, but I'll see you at school Monday anyway."

John hesitated, then nodded. Shelby followed him to the screened porch while Zach waited, piecing together control and what the hell he would say to his daughter.

He pressed a thumb between his eyes, right above the throbbing headache with Shelby's name tattooed all over it. Honest to God, he was going to have a stroke before the girl graduated high school.

What would Julia say? He steadied himself with thoughts of her calm voice.

The door snapped closed and Zach opened his eyes to confront his daughter. "Well, Shelby Lynn, what do you have to say for yourself?'

"Nothing. Not one thing." She spun on her heel, flouncing out of the room.

"Think again."

Shelby sighed a lengthy beleaguered teenage exhale that had long ago lost any impact due to overuse. She pivoted back around and stared at some point over his head with pretended boredom. He wished he could just lose his temper and have it out with her as he had done with John. Except, control became more elusive with this daughter of his who meant so much more to him.

Zach clenched and unclenched his fists and knew he would never use them on his children the way his father had. But he also knew angry words thrown like punches could leave other bruises. He tried to think as a reasonable parent or even a logical commander, not just an enraged father who'd found his kid a second away from screwing on the sofa while she should have been watching her little brother.


Zach pinched the bridge of his nose. "Shelby, we trusted you to watch Patrick tonight."

"I was watching him," she insisted, swiping a strand of her rumpled dark hair out of her eyes. "I could hear him on the monitor. I checked him every twenty minutes."

"You knew there wasn't a chance I would agree to John being here alone with you."

"I needed to be with him tonight."

Shelby blinked back tears, which would have moved him if it hadn't been for that damned hickey on her neck. Zach wanted to pound a wall. "Sex without commitment is wrong."

She rolled her eyes. "Like you're really committed to Julia. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out you two just married because of your kids. And it's no great lean either to guess that you didn't spend all this time on your motorcycle."

True, but none of her business. His daughter needed to remember who was the adult.

"Shelby, don't push me."

She hooked her hands on the h*ps of her low-slung jeans, attitude and anger radiating from her. "You can ground me now and ground me again, even pitch my phone in the trash, but you can't control what I'm thinking. Another year and half and I'll be old enough to leave if I want."

Her words stopped him cold. Of course he knew her age, but somehow he couldn't erase the image of her at nine years old climbing a tree to save a nest of baby birds.

But she was sixteen, almost seventeen. He and Pam hadn't been more than eighteen months older when they'd started "just sleeping" together. The past sure had a way of biting a man on the ass when he least expected it. He needed Julia's help keeping track of Shelby now more than ever.

Zach scrubbed a hand over his unshaven face, up to his bleary eyes, suddenly so damned tired beyond what the flight, party and unbelievable hours with Julia should have drained from him.

Bottom line, he couldn't post round the clock guards on his daughter, although the idea had merit. "At least promise me you'll protect yourself. Don't count on the guy to—"

"Why won't you ever stop being such a nimrod and listen to me?" Stomping forward, she shouted in his face, big fat frustrated tears in her eyes. "I told you already. We weren't doing anything. But if I'm going to be accused of the crime, I might as well go ahead and enjoy myself, don't cha think?"

She spun away and ran down the hall to her room. The slam rattled windows three rooms over.

A baby squawk sounded, echoed and built as Patrick cried. Aggie barked, scratching at Shelby's door, woofs turning to whines when she ignored her.

Zach reached down to scratch the dog's head on his way past. "Well, that went well, didn't it?"

Patrick's wails picked up speed and velocity. Man, the little fella was breaking a few sound barriers. Zach strode into the bedroom, Aggie dashing past to leap on the bed. The golden retriever burrowed her head under quilted pillows, Julia's additions to his room.

Julia lifted Patrick from the crib, her white terrycloth robe twirling around her bare legs.

"It's okay, sweetie, everything's okay."

"Want me to take him?"

Patrick wailed, his face tomato-red.

She shook her head. "Now that he's awake, he knows he's hungry."

"Of course." Zach leaned against the dresser, nudging the rainbow assortment of nail polish scattered along the wooden surface. When Patrick's cries didn't stop, Zach glanced up.

Julia was still standing by the rocker.

Her gaze skittered away from his and he could have sworn she seemed... Embarrassed?

He'd seen her feed Patrick hundreds of times the past months. They'd long ago moved past any awkwardness, and tonight should have cemented that. Why the sudden attack of nerves now?

He must be misreading her. Who could think anyway with the baby screaming? Patrick paused for a breath, then shifted the wails into high gear.

Surrendering to the inevitable, Julia sank into the oak rocker, slipping down one side of the robe to nurse him. The baby squirmed and kicked, hiccupping sobs between gulps.

Zach set aside a bottle of Passion Flower Pink polish and crouched beside her, stroking a hand over the baby's soft white hair. A surge of protectiveness rushed through him "Is he okay?"

She nodded. "I think so. The noise probably just startled him, and babies sense tension."

Plenty of that to go around. "I'm sorry Shel let you down."

Julia didn't answer, just rocked and cradled her son.

Zach dropped to the floor, leaning against the foot of the bed. His head fell back. "God, Jules, I don't know what to say to her anymore."

"From in here, it sounded like you told her all the right things. She's right about one thing though. We can't control her thoughts. We just have to hope she listened, and if she didn't, pray she'll be careful."

Not the reassurance he was looking for. "Sometimes it's all I can do not to lose it with her. She knows how to push my buttons until I want to shout it all out there."

"Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing."

"Now there's a new chapter for all those parenting books on my shelves."

"Put the books away for a minute. Maybe yelling at each other would be better than not talking at all."

He stared at his hands, shaking his head. "Not a chance, I lived that way growing up. My dad opted for the 'spare the rod, spoil the child' school of parenting. I swore I wouldn't go that route with my kids."