Page 26

Kathleen shrugged.

"In a plane?"

Kathleen straightened, a blush creeping up her redhead's complexion. "Well, it was parked in a deserted hangar."

Julia slapped a hand over her eyes. "There's not a chance I'm going to be able to look at either of them with a straight face if they come by here to meet up with you after they land."

She welcomed the laughs and the relief they brought from worries that dogged her with increasing persistence. Friendship brewed, comforting her like the gentle swirl of the breeze through the evergreens. Ivy flung the playhouse shutters wide and crawled through, Magda tumbling after her as both girls giggled in a tangled heap on the ground.

Julia tucked a leg under her, until that moment not realizing how tense she'd been about Zach's flight after all "Thanks for making me laugh. I needed to smile today."

Lori reached across the table to pat her hand. "That's what friends are for."

Julia wrapped her arms around herself, more to ward off the memories than the wind. She checked her son, still snoozing away in the gently swaying swing. She'd wanted to fill his first year with joy, but all that joy was tearing her heart out. "I never used to worry about the flights before, not beyond some vague sort of concern. Lance didn't share much about his work, so I had no idea how many times he'd flown in harm's way. Now, sometimes my imagination runs crazy with awful scenarios." She held up a hand to stop any sympathetic outpourings that would drag her down deeper. "But I'm doing better."

Kathleen's nod offered a blend of compassionate doctor and steely military will. "You deserve to be happy."

Julia wanted to fall further into the comfort of friendship and ask for their advice. Could she turn Zach's friendship into something deeper? She didn't know which would be worse: staying only to find out she couldn't win his love, or walking away now, knowing she would always think of him, worry about him and wonder if he'd found someone else to entice that beautiful half smile of his.

The mere thought of another woman in his life turned her green from the inside out. She wanted to be the one who brought all his defenses crashing down.

The phone reverberated from inside, jarring her before she made a weak mistake in spilling all. "I'll be right back."

She swung her leg over the bench seat. Just as she reached the screen door, Shelby sprinted from the house, cordless phone in hand. "It's Command Post, asking for the Colonel."

"Thanks, Shel." Julia took the phone from her.

"Ma'am, this is Airman Vance from Command Post. I'm looking for Colonel Dawson."

"He's TDY." Julia tucked the phone under her chin and scooped Patrick from the swing.

"But he'll be home tonight. Can I take a message?"

"No message, ma'am. We're just initiating a pyramid recall exercise. Only a practice. I should have checked the board first." The squeak of a spinning chair eased over the airwaves. "Now I see he's on his way back from South America. Sorry for bothering you.

I'll just go to the next on the list. Have a nice evening, ma'am."

The dial tone buzzed in her ear.

South America?

Surprise mingled with dread. He'd said he would be in Florida. Either he'd lied or he'd fudged the truth by calling a stopover in Florida their final destination because the mention of a South American mission would bring memories of Lance's crash.

She wanted to let it go at that, but so many things tickled her sixth sense. Lori and Kathleen both showing up uninvited to keep her company while the guys flew.

Wonderful, but why today?

Lori's stiff-shouldered stance took on a whole new complexion that had nothing to do with simple back strain from pregnancy. Why was Gray flying with them on a TDY

mission when he'd come to South Carolina on vacation?

"South America."

Both women sat up straighter. Not even a hint of surprise flickered across their faces. Just concern.

"Kathleen, why are they in South America?" Julie tucked Patrick closer, stealing comfort in his solid baby weight against her hip. "Lori?"

Neither answered.

Insidious panic nibbled at her insides. Kathleen would be privy to military secrets, but if Lori knew too then Zach had withheld information he could have shared.

Julia strode across the yard, kicking a ball aside. "Tell or I'm going right up to that flight line and causing a scene like nobody's ever seen. Believe me. I'll do it."

The two women exchanged glances before Kathleen forged ahead. "They flew down to South America to clear up some unanswered questions about Lance's crash."

Julia's stomach lurched. "Unanswered questions?"

"The accident review board never found a conclusive reason for the crash. Sometimes that happens and we never know, so they just blame it on pilot error. The Colonel isn't satisfied with that answer."

How like Zach to carry his responsibility to his men all the way to the grave. She had to admire him for it even while she longed to slug him for closing her out. "Why all the secrecy?"

"Maybe he didn't want to dredge everything up for you until he closes the case conclusively. Who knows how men's minds work?"

Too many memories paraded through her head of another husband who'd evaded the truth, using extended TDYs and the "can't tell you where I am, babe" excuse to cover affair. She couldn't handle that game-playing again. Even while she had to believe Zach wouldn't actually cheat on her, she still hated the sick feeling all the lies brought roilling through her.

"Why the secrecy about today's flight?" Julia didn't intend to quit without an answer.

Lori avoided her by jumping up to check on her daughter behind the playhouse.

Unease shifted to something darker, something all the more frightening because of the unknown. "Kathleen? You'd better tell me, because it can't be any worse than what I'm imagining."

Kathleen stared back as two cars rumbled past before resolution settled over her face. "It's a common practice to retrace a route when there's been a crash to try and identify what went wrong."

Realization trickled over Julia one icy drop at a time, Zach was in the air, now, reflying the exact route that had killed Lance. Nausea nailed her. She swallowed it back one breath at a time.

Lori stopped beside Julia, carefully prying Patrick from her trembling arms. "He was trying to protect you." Kathleen managed a half smile. "Men can be pretty pigheaded about the whole over-protection thing. But you don't have anything to worry about. Yes, they're retracing the route, but during the day. Not at night as Lance flew it. They're being careful."

Anger slowly dulled the edge of her fear, or maybe only masked it. She didn't care or intend to waste time analyzing.

She'd thought at least in their friendship they'd been partners, but this news made even that partnership a lie. She might call him Zach, but he was still the Colonel. He might as well still be rotating her tires and cleaning leaves from her gutters, taking care of the poor widow woman. Damn him again for bringing all that fear slamming into her double force.

Lori and Kathleen could tell her all day long it was a safe, daytime mission and it wouldn't stop her from fearing the worst. She couldn't sit around watching for him to come striding through the door. Or not. Waiting on the runway would shave away a few of those excruciating minutes.

"Lori, I need you to watch Patrick. The girls' mother is picking them up in about an hour." Julia's fingers made fast work of her sweater buttons in spite of the shaking, The runway would be chilly and her wait could well be long. "Patrick eats at five. There's expressed milk in the freezer. Bottles in the cabinet."

"Hang on." Kathleen grabbed her arm. "The SPs will arrest you if you blast onto the runway like this."


"Then you won't be there when the Colonel lands."

Julia's hands fisted at her sides. "Just let them try to stop me."

"Whoa. Wait five minutes and I'll take you. I need to run home for my flight-line badge first." All order efficiency, Kathleen pivoted on her heel, military bearing starching through her. "We'll still be there long before they land. Renshaw's slated with Supervisor of Flying duties tonight. You can wait in the truck on the runway with her. Lori, can you watch the kids until I get back?"

"Uh, Julia?" Shelby called, still on the bottom porch step. "I'll baby-sit."

While Shelby's offer seemed the easiest route, Julia hesitated. Zach had finally convinced the teen to meet with her mother today. They couldn't lose critical ground now just because Julia's life was splintering. "No need, hon. Go ahead to Pam's. I don't know how late I'll be."

Given the scene she already knew was inevitable, the security police might well arrest her anyway. Not that she cared. What more could she lose? She would never be uppermost in his mind. For a man like Zach, the job would always come first and this secretive stunt proved her needs would always take a back seat to the needs of his troops.

Even if Zach skimmed to that runway unscathed, she'd already lost another husband.

* * *

"Shit! Climb!" Zach yanked back the stick, pushed up the throttle. Adrenaline pulsed.

Blood pounded through his veins as the plane shot through the haze.

All the while, his spider-tingle instinct screamed they were off course.

Which meant he didn't know where the hell they were.

Or where those mountains peaked.

Clouds whipped past his windscreen. The visible reality of rattling full-power speed had nothing to do with flying games and everything to do with staying alive. Of making sure Julia didn't face the hell of another front-porch visit.

Climb, damn it. He urged the plane as if his force of will could shoulder it higher, faster.

A part of Zach shouted for him to savor images of Julia if they were going to be his last.

But he couldn't afford the distraction.

Focus. Fly. Get the plane above MSA, minimum safe altitude, only used in an emergency when the plotted flight plan went all to hell.

That spider tingle told him this qualified.

Seconds later, he nosed out of the haze.

A mountaintop crested through the clouds.

Realization gripped him in an arctic fist. The spider tingle had been dead-on. Sure death loomed, shrouded in the haze below if they hadn't pulled up.

Zach continued to climb, banking away from the mountain range below. Adrenaline blasted through his veins. More visions of Julia spun through his mind. Sure he'd known there would be risks involved in this flight, but he'd never expected to cut it so close.

"Colonel," Bronco barked over the interphone, "confirm we're on three-two-zero radial."

Zach checked the dial. "Confirmed. Cutter?"

"Three-two-zero checks on mine as well." The copilot swiped an arm over his sweaty brow.

"Bronco, pull up the MFD." The multifunction display screens would provide additional navigational information for instances when normal radio-based air navigational systems failed. Which was next to never. Ground stations were supposed to be internationally standardized, damn it. "The plot out our course the old-fashioned way."

Other than the mix of steady, overly controlled breaths, silence hummed over the airwaves. Later, he would let the reality of what could have happened roll over him.

Later, after he'd held Julia, after he'd lost himself in her smile, in her softness, in her body.

Bronco's soft whistle of surprise cut the silence. "Well I'll be damned. We don't appear to be plotting on our planned track line."

The answer to why hovered in Zach's mind, just within reach. Answers for Julia. He kept his hand steady on the stick, mind on the job. "Are we diverging at a regular rate?"