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A mental visual of the chart played out in his head, complete with a widening divergence from the route due to what he now suspected had to be a ground radio navigation system error.

Zach's grip on the stick tightened, any thrill over solving the cause of the crash killed by a primal anger. Lives had been lost, not by accident, but because of a screw-up

"Gentleman, anyone recall the sixty-to-one rule?"

"Of course." Bronco thumped his head. "Sixty-to-one. Every one degree of error on the navigation aid heading translates into three miles off course from this distance."

Radio navigation required daily re-calibration to stay true to heading. Even one missed day could make that subtle one-degree difference.

Cutter slumped back in his seat with a lengthy sigh

"Enough error for a controlled flight smack into a mountain, especially during a night flight. How the hell did the investigation team miss it? They flew this same route ,twice."

"After the crash, someone at the tower likely fixed the error." Zach tossed out his gut guess. "Now that time's passed, they probably slacked off again." And if Zach and his crew hadn't caught the error, another crew would have likely rolled into a turn, crashing into the same mountain range.

They could have smacked a mountain.

Silence reigned supreme over the interphone. Zach knew too well all those steady gazes held images of what each man could have lost. More than ever, the need to fix things with Julia burned within him.

Damn it, they were on their way to building something solid together and he wasn't going to let her throw it away.

She'd been hard as hell to resist before their night together, but now he could barely look at her without remembering the way her legs felt wrapped around his waist.

Keep it focused. He would be home soon, Julia waiting for him on that purple glider with her soft smile and incredible legs.

Six hours later, Zach skimmed the plane to the Charleston runway, centered neatly between the parallel lights illuminating the darkened stretch of asphalt. He turned onto the hammerhead. "Reach three-two-four-five, clear of the active runway."

"Roger, clear of the runway."

Gut-twisting relief still pulsed through the cockpit, restrained but palpable. Ten more minutes to park the plane and then they could let emotions steamroll free.

He guided the plane behind the truck with the big Follow Me sign on back. The crew would report for an in-depth debrief in the morning to document their data and file their findings with the accident investigation board.

Waiting in the parking area, the blue SUV for the Supervisor of Flying chugged exhaust into the chilly night air, Lieutenant Renshaw stepped from the truck, no surprise to find the eager-to-achieve lieutenant pulling SOF yet again. The young pilot was hell-bent on proving she received no favors for being General Renshaw's daughter.

Zach tracked the two glowing orange flashlights in an airman's hands as he guided the plane. The orange light circled, then the airman gestured one across his throat.

Run 'em up. Shut 'em down.

Silence hummed with a final goodbye to Lance Sinclair as the last page closed on the mission.

Zach nodded. "Well done, crew."

Bronco fist-punched the air. "Hell, yeah!"

Laughter rumbled through the interphone. Order and honor restored to the unit. The crew whipped off headsets and unstrapped.

Amid the echoes of cheers and self-congratulatory back slaps, Zach loped down the narrow stairwell, through the hatch into the biting wind. A haze of fluorescent lights illuminated his path down the metal stairs.

Twenty yards away, the passenger door on the SUV flung open and Zach found he would be fixing things with Julia sooner than he'd anticipated. Her long legs slid out of the vehicle. He didn't have to see the rest to recognize her. He would know those mile-long legs and pink high tops anywhere.

For a flash of time, Julia's homecoming fantasy hit him, full force and full of the promise for a hundred more like it throughout the years. Then her head cleared the truck and he saw her stony expression.

She knew. He didn't question how she'd found out, but somehow she already knew about the day's mission to trace her dead husband's final flight and she didn't plan to thank him for it.

Julia stormed across the tarmac. Gusting wind plastered jean skirt to her legs, stirring her curls into a tangled frenzy around her face.

Footsteps behind him on the stairs slowed. Bronco, Cutter and Tag fanned around him, stopping still and wary as they looked from Zach to Julia and back again. Renshaw didn't budge from her perch beside the truck, her arms braced on the door as she watched.

Zach stood and waited while Julia closed the last few feet between them.

Her hand shot out. Palm flat, she swacked his shoulder. "Damn you."

He planted his feet and prepared to wait out the storm. Unlike Pam's no-show on the flight line, at least Julia cared enough about him to shout her concerns to his face.

She thumped him again. "Damn you. Damn you. Damn you!" The wind flung her shouts across the flight line. "I trusted you, damn it. You made me trust you."

She shoved again and again with surprising strength from a woman already unquestionably strong in so many ways, which made her meltdown all the worse for Zach. He reached to pull her to him. "Julia, I know you're upset."

She knocked his arm away. "You don't know a damned thing about me if you didn't realize how betrayed I would feel hearing you'd kept this flight secret." A security cop advanced. Zach held up a hand to stop him without taking his eyes off Julia. "This isn't the place."

"I don't care." Her arms flailed the air, wind filling and puffing her sweater.

"Well, I do."

Bronco stepped forward. "Julia, let's all just take a deep br—"

"You back off!" Fearless in her fury, she jabbed a finger at him, before returning the full power of her anger to Zach. "You had to know I would find out eventually." Tears filled her eyes, hovered, spilled free to be carried away in the tearing wind. She swiped her arm across he face, her chest heaving. She stared at him, waiting for hin to answer, but he only stared back. There wasn't a thing he could say to make this easier for her.

"Why the hell did I even bother?" She backed away one stumbling step at a time. "I've seen for myself that you didn't hit a mountain today and that's all I came for anyway."

Julia spun on her heel.

Three strides and he caught her by the arm. "Julia—"

"Let me go." She jerked in his grip.

"No." He held firm. The woman was so out of control no telling what could happen to her.

He didn't let himself think of his own emotions, boiling and threatening to break free after a beyond-tense day, the culmination of months of frustrating uncertainty.

She pulled harder, kicked at his shin. "Damn it, let me go."

Zach caught her other flailing arm and yanked her close, chest to chest, their hearts hammering against each other. Heat and spark, anger and need pulsed between them.

"We will talk. Just not here."

She stiffened against him, and he backed her toward the truck. The tension trembling through her broadcast she was five seconds from exploding and those itchy SPs standing twenty feet away wouldn't hesitate to haul her off.

"Julia," he said through clenched teeth. "Flight line security is nothing to play around with. There are military cops with guns standing all around you. I don't want to sling you over my shoulder and carry you out of here, but I'll have to in about three seconds if you don't come with me quietly."

The fight in her eyes cooled to a simmer. Warily, he relaxed his hold. Julia drew back her shoulders. She was the only woman he'd ever known who could make pink high tops and denim look regal.

Regal yes, but also looking so mad she could spit nails as she slid inside the truck again.

Stopping beside Renshaw, Zach extended his hand. "Keys please, Lieutenant."

"Sure, Colonel." Renshaw dropped them in his palm with a clink and edged backward.

"I'll just—uh—snag a ride back in the crew bus so you two can—uh—talk."

Zach gave Renshaw a tight nod and settled behind the wheel. Julia slammed her arms over her chest and stared forward. Her eyes glinted with anger and tears, and somehow he'd put it all there.

The past had bitten him on the ass in more ways than one in a few short days. He'd screwed up another marriage, and still he couldn't see his way through to a way he would have handled things differently.

One look at her clenched fists told him hearing that wouldn't put a dent in her fury.

The impending showdown in his office promised to have a different, helluva lot less satisfying outcome than the last time he'd locked them both behind those doors.

Chapter 15

The lock click echoed in Zach's office.

Julia stood in the middle of the carpeted floor, fury and fear still battling for dominance inside her. If she had her way, fury would win hands down. She'd made the mistake of holding back with Lance, and by God, she wasn't repeating that mistake again.

But the battle would take place with her on her feet.

She certainly wasn't sitting on the sofa with all those memories of tangled bodies, sweat-slicked skin and an out-of-control need she wouldn't let have its way with her this time.

Zach turned to face her. "I'm sorry."

That threw her. For half a second. Then the disillusionment came swelling back up to clog her throat. "For what? For lying to me? Or just that I found out you lied?"

He hooked his hands on his hips, one boot forward as if formulating the most effective tactical approach. Damn it, she wasn't some strategic campaign. "How do you think it made me feel finding out you'd lied? That's the one thing I can't take, having a husband lie to me again."

Zach reached.

She backed.

He held up his hands, flight suit stretching across his broad chest. "I'm sorry Lance hurt you then, and I'm sorry you're hurting today. But you know there are things I can't talk about in my job and it's damned unfair to call that lying."

How dare he turn this all around on her? "Life isn't that clear-cut-and-dried. You could have told me something instead of making some commander-like unilateral decision for me. I hoped from those calls during your TDY that maybe we'd begun to work as partners somewhere other than with the children and in bed."

Or on the office sofa.

Julia kept her eyes firmly fixed on his face, no wandering to tempting brown vinyl. "You couldn't tell me anything to prepare me? Can you even imagine how scared I was having this drop out of nowhere?'

"You'd just had a baby." Scratching his jaw, he paced in front of her like a stalking wolf.

"How the hell was I supposed to tell you then? You already had enough on you without hearing the Inspector General had reopened the investigation into Lance's crash."

The betrayal went deeper than she'd thought. "You've known since Patrick was born?"

He stopped. His eyes narrowed, hardened. "How does it feel to be kept on the outside, Julia?"

Confusion put a temporary hold on her anger. "What?"

"You didn't tell me about Patrick having Down syndrome until after he was born. Hell, you didn't even tell me then. You left me to figure it out on my own."

Guilt seeped through her. She couldn't dodge her own culpability. She'd hurt him with that omission and he'd been carrying that around for months, perhaps an unacknowledged pain like the one Pam had dealt him, but lingering all the same. "You're right. I should have told you when the test results came back."

"Were you hoping I would say or do something wrong that day in your hospital room?"

He sauntered toward her, muscles rippling beneath his flight suit with each muffled thud of his boots. "Then you would have all the more reason to push me away. You could say,