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The creaking of the chair slowed, but he didn't want to look at her, not until he could be sure the memories wouldn't show in his eyes.

"You're not your father. You would never hurt your children."

"I know that," he said automatically, rather than risk any more discussion on a subject he'd rather shut down.

The day was already ending on a bad enough note with the baby awake, teenager bawling her eyes out and dog in his bed. Of course the day might have had a crummy end, but it sure had been great before he'd parked the Harley under the carport.

He shrugged out of his jacket, draped it on the edge of the bed by her velvet gown and started on the shirt studs. He would salvage what was left of the night. Julia could make him forget. He worked a cufflink free.

"Uh, Zach?"

"Yeah, Jules?" He pulled his shirt off.

She cradled her son closer, chewing her bottom lip with that self-conscious air again. "I know this may sound crazy after what we did tonight, but I'm not sure I'm ready for you to sleep in here."

A cuff link dropped, bounced off his shoe and rolled along the hardwood floor. Slowly, he looked up.

"Why?" he asked and hoped like hell she would roll out some explanation about how the cranky baby might bother him and he would reassure her he didn't give a damn. He wanted to crawl into that bed with her and sleep for twelve hours.

"I just don't think I'm ready to take that step yet. I heard what you said to Shelby, and you were right. Sex without a commitment is wrong. That demeans it, turning it into something less than it should be." The rub of red along her neck from the scratch of his beard mocked him from across the room.

"For God's sake, Julia." He stood, draping his shirt over a hanger, a shirt that still carried the scent of roses and! Julia. "We're married. You can't get much more committed than that."

"Commitment is about more than a piece of paper." Her soft-spoken words didn't dilute the power of the punch, "We both know this isn't a committed marriage beyond the summer when you leave for Alabama."

"Do you want it to be?"

What the hell had he said?

Shock leveled him like a SCUD missile.

Once the shock faded, the idea shifted around in his mind. Why impose a deadline that would end a good thing? A better-than-he'd-ever-imagined thing, judging by the scratches Julia's nails had left on his back tonight.

They'd started this for the kids, and his girls needed a unified front now more than ever.

And damn it, he'd grown attached to the little bruiser. He wanted to be there for those first steps.

Yeah, he'd been a rotten husband for Pam, but he and Julia were going at this from a different angle, as friends. Hadn't they both learned their lesson about romanticized views of marriage? Real life meant getting through a day at a time and that's just what he and Julia should do.

First he had to work past that stunned glaze in her eyes.

"Well? Do you want to give it a shot past the summer?" He took her silence as permission to persuade. "We're not doing too bad here. Why not give it a chance? We have the kids, friendship and incredible sex in common. That's more than a lot of people ever have."

"You aren't in love with me, Zach."

What was he supposed to say to that? "You aren't in love with me either, Jules. What's your point?"

"Without love, this isn't going to last. If we go beyond the summer, eventually one of us is going to break it off. Someone will get hurt, most likely the children, and the longer we're a couple, the worse it will be for them if they grow more attached to us being together."

Zach sifted through her words, searching for the best way around her defenses. Aggie nudged his hand with her nose. He reached behind him to scratch the dog's head while he strategized.

"Zach? I'm serious."

"I hear you." Even if he didn't agree. But he would wait to push it later when she didn't have that stubborn set to her jaw.

"That's it? You're okay with this?"

"I'm not happy about it, but you made your point."

She slumped back in the chair. Was that a hint of disappointment on her face or wishful thinking on his part?

Standing, Julia shifted the sleeping baby to her shoulder and tightened her robe. She stopped in front of Zach, holding her son to her like a shield between them. "Just so you know, I don't regret what we did tonight."

Before he could answer, she pressed her fingers to his lips. "But I will regret it if we weaken again without thinking it through first. We owe it to ourselves and the children to be honest with each other and hold steady to our plan. We let our hormones mess with our minds tonight. We lost our focus and that can't happen anymore."

He knew her too well to miss the ache in her eyes. Her arm cradled Patrick so protectively, but her fingers against Zach's face trembled. She was torn, and he could play on that now.

Except he would lose her trust. He needed to think beyond the moment.

Her hand fell away. He tracked her as she put Patrick in his crib. Time for a temporary retreat to rearm for the next advance.

Julia was dead wrong about losing focus on the kids.

Hell, he was a master at multitasking. He'd made a successful career of juggling fifty agendas at once.

They didn't need some fairy-tale version of love to build a relationship. Pam had vowed to heaven and back that she'd loved him even as she'd walked out the door. No way did he need any more of that in his life.

Julia's "welcome home" image had been a near replica of what he'd planned for himself all those years ago back in his father's one-bedroom trailer. He'd wanted a life and family different from the one he'd grown up with. Now that he finally had it, he wouldn't let it fall apart.

He hadn't risen through the Air Force ranks by admitting defeat at the first sign of opposition. Against what should have been insurmountable odds, he'd convinced Julia to marry him.

Now, he just had to convince her to stay.

* * *

"You don't have to stay, Shel." Julia folded her legs under her on the blue exercise mat.  Shelby sat across from her, holding Patrick's hand while he balanced on his tummy on top of an over large ball. Maternal warmth filled Julia's heart as her son squealed in delight over his favorite of all physical therapy games.

"The weather sucks too bad for me to walk back to the house." Rain pounded the roof, slicking the lone window in the small room in back of the base recreation center. "I'll get soaked."

"I can give you a quick ride home before the break's over." Julia edged out of the way of another child lying over a ball, one who didn't seem quite so taken with the exercise.

"I want to be here when they talk about your blueprints for the new playhouse." Her eyes pleaded for forgiveness. If only she would look at her father that way.

"Okay, then." The kid really was trying, and Julia didn't want to be late for the presentation. "Thanks for realizing how important this is to me." In time for summer, she would finish her model playhouse, complete with modifications for the special needs of the children in their group.

Now they just needed a space large enough to hold it.

Eleven children and their parents filled every inch of floor in the overcrowded room, the only place available for the newly founded group led by Rena Price, a civilian counselor from Family Advocacy at the base clinic.

This meeting differed from the Down syndrome support group she attended bimonthly downtown. Rena had designed it as a catchall meeting for any base family with a special needs child. Along with laughter, tears and support, they shared information to alleviate the specific stresses families constantly on the move faced—plugging in with new doctors and facilities, not to mention the insurance nightmares. All these challenges were often met by one parent alone, given that an active-duty spouse averaged fifty percent of the year TDY.

Of course she wouldn't be a military wife much longer. She'd spent so long resenting the Air Force, the flash of regret surprised her.

Do you want to give it a shot past the summer?

Did she? Even thinking about it brought back the teeth-chattering panic she'd felt in Zach's office after they'd made love. Zach had been doing his determined best to convince her to stay without ever laying a finger on her. He'd made it all too clear he didn't intend to have sex with her again without an invitation into her bed.

And oh man, but he was wearing her down with a full-frontal attack that showed just how well he understood her.

This guy didn't romance her with a dozen roses that died by the week's end. No, sir. He'd surprised her with a rechargeable drill, complete with an extra battery pack.

Just yesterday, she'd dashed home late after picking up Ivy from ballet practice, already irritable as hell from walking the floors with a cranky baby all day. Zach had expanded his cooking repertoire from chili-mac to a bubbling Crock-Pot of beef stew. All done to convince her he meant business about giving their practical marriage of convenience a chance.

What more could she want?

You aren't in love with me, Zach.

You aren't in love with me either, Jules. What's your point?

A beach ball whizzed past, just before another thunked Julia on the back of the head.

Grateful for the distraction, she scooped it up and tossed it to the six-year-old twins behind her, one of whom had cerebral palsy.

"Julia?" Shelby nudged Julia's knee. "Could you talk to my dad for me?"

Dad? Had Shelby actually referred to him as something other than Colonel for the first time in as long as Julia could remember? A promising sign and she intended to push it further. "I'm sorry, but no. I can't be your go-between. Whatever you need to work out with him won't mean anything unless it comes from you."

Shelby held Patrick's tiny hands and rolled him gently along the top of the ball, his giggle spilling free. "I'm sorry about, well, you know, when I was supposed to be watching Patrick."

"I know you are, hon."

"But you still won't let me baby-sit him."

Julia hugged her knees to her chest. "Trust is a strange thing, Shelby. It only takes a minute to break it, but it can take so much longer to rebuild." Had she and Lance ever repaired that trust? Not really.

"Like with my mother."

Dangerous territory there. Commenting at all would make for a no-win situation. Only time and Pam could mend that one. Meanwhile, Shelby needed her father, especially if Julia left.


Thunder reverberated outside, rattling the window, jarring Julia back to the present.

"Think about having a little faith in your dad. Give him a chance. He may not always say what you want to hear, but you can trust he's going to be there for you."

Shelby snorted. "When he's not thirty thousand feet in the air."

The whirring of an electric wheelchair cut off Julia's reply. Fourteen-year-old Nathan zipped past, circling with a devilish twinkle in his killer baby-blues.

"Hey, Shelby," he exhaled the last of her name with the ventilator whoosh. The flexible tracheotomy tube trailed from his throat to the back of his wheelchair into a ventilator the size of a laptop computer.

Such a small machine, but without it Nathan couldn't breathe. Bronchopulmonary dysplasia, BPD, had left him with chronic respiratory problems after he'd inhaled meconium at birth.

The kid also had a razor-sharp mind—and a wicked wit. "What do ya say we blow this place, Shelby? Me and you? Hop on and I'll drive you around the base."

He sounded so much like Zach angling for a Harley ride Julia couldn't suppress a smile.

Shelby winked at Nathan and slapped a hand to her chest. "Ah, Nathan, you'd just dump me when somebody new came along."

"Prob'ly right." He winked back. "There's this hot new babe in my rehab class. Can't keep her eyes off me."