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There may never be enough time to make you understand. We have to look for Shelby.

And I do mean we, Colonel. Now get moving. We have to find your daughter before she proves she's as thickheaded as her father."

* * *

Zach shifted gears on his motorcycle and shot up the asphalt shoulder to avoid the jam-up of rush hour. Julia had insisted the bike would be faster and easier to navigate through traffic, well worth the slight delay it had taken to stop by the house for her to change and for him to fire up the Harley.  If—when—they found Shelby, he would decide how to get her home. For now, speed was essential. Time equated miles of distance between him and his child.

Julia's arms locked around him, Zach whipped down another exit ramp, tearing through the parking lot of a cheap hotel, the twentieth in forty-two minutes. He cruised past the small square pool with a tarp stretched over it for winter. A lone umbrella table listed to the side.

No sign of John's car.

Zach sped back onto the access road to the next hotel. Orange letters blared Vacancy with the y blinking as a light struggled to burn out. A string of rooms lined the lot, sagging eaves shading the walkway to an ice machine. The lot gaped empty except for...

A solitary car parked at the far corner, the blue compact car the same make and model as John's, with a military ID decal on the windshield. Julia's arms tightened around Zach's waist.

Anger churned as he drove closer.

The collection of bumper stickers proclaimed school pride and a local rock station, all stickers identical to the ones on John's car. Straight ahead, lights shone through the curtains of one room.

Zach cut the engine.

Julia leaned into him. "Take a few deep breaths first, Colonel."

Screw deep breaths.

He jammed down the kickstand and flung himself off the bike. The slit in the curtain parted before fluttering closed again.

"Zach, wait," Julia called after him.

Like hell. He pounded the door, each thud slamming through him, hammering home frustration and a determination to regain control of his world. "Damn it, Shelby. Open up or I'm calling the police."

The door swung wide, John Murdoch defiantly blocking the entrance. "Hello, Colonel."

"I'm taking Shelby home." Zach advanced a step.

John didn't budge.

"You'd better step aside." Zach towered over the teen, and still he didn't move.

Man, the kid had more guts than brains.

Julia's hand fell to rest on his shoulder. He shrugged it off.

"Shelby, come outside. Now." He looked over the boy's shoulder. Shelby stood hovering between a television and a bed with rumpled covers.

Her brown eyes red and puffy from crying.

Overlong jersey rippling above her bare legs.

All the bottled frustrations of the day, hell, the past two years, detonated. Rage a lifetime in the making roared within him—at Lance Sinclair for hurting Julia, at Pam for hurting their children, at Julia for shutting him out.

And most of all at himself.

The restraints on his anger snapped a half second before his hand shot up to catch John by the shirt collar. Zach slammed the teen up against the door. "What the hell did you do to my daughter?"

Chapter 16

Shelby's scream bounced off paper-thin walls.

"Zach. Wait." Julia struggled to keep her voice steady and low, hoping some of that calm might leech into the wild-eyed trio before blood started spouting.

Shelby lurched forward. "Stop it!" she shrieked. "Put him down." She pummeled her father's shoulders.

Like a fly battering a bull.

Zach didn't budge. His stare bored into the teen he'd flattened against the door.

Julia sidled between Zach and Shelby. With firm hands, she edged Shelby away. "Take a deep breath." Or ten. "And I'll handle this. You'll only make it worse."

Could it get any worse? Zach never lost control.

She called upon every seasoned diplomatic skill honed from living in the commune for years. She knew well how to defuse tensions of people from all walks of life confined in small spaces.

Julia rested a light hand on his arm. "Put John down and let's talk."

"Back up, Julia." Muscles flexed under her touch.

"You know I can't do that." Time to set aside her own needs and deal with the mess at hand before Zach irreparably damaged his relationship with his daughter. "You may want to hurt John now—''

"Damn straight," he barked, his chest pumping with primitive rage. His flight suit strained against his back with each labored breath.

"It won't solve anything." What a turnaround. Now she would be the one to halt a scene guaranteed to bring the police. She didn't always manage her own temper, but she knew countless techniques for coping with other people's. Time to put every one of those techniques to work. "The desk clerk will call the cops if you keep this up. Stop. Think."

Traffic growled past in waves while she waited. Tension hummed through the room, more palpable than the gusting from the ancient heater. The air filled with Shelby's sniffles, echoed with ragged breathing, from her, Zach, John.

John's eyes flickered with ill-disguised fear. His baggy clothes hung from his body like multiple sweatshirts and jeans on a hanger. A pulse throbbed in Zach's neck.

She didn't recognize this man, but suspected those who'd followed him into war would.

"Fighting won't solve anything here, Zach. Let's hear what they have to say. You can even shout all you want." Desperation clawed at emotions already raw. "This isn't like you. Please, just put him down."

Zach's fingers flexed, then relaxed as he lowered John. Julia allowed a sigh of relief to shudder through her for one self-indulgent second before she stiffened her shoulders and resolve.

"Okay, everybody listen up. We need ground rules here. No one talks without permission." She pointed to Shelby before shifting her gaze to John. "Everyone gets a chance to be heard." She saved the last for Zach. "And no one gets physical.


A car swooshed by in the disgruntled silence.

"Good." Julia nodded. "I'll take that as a yes."

The teen backed, flicking a strand of hair from his face. "Sir, I know it looks bad, but nothing happened."

Zach loomed forward a step. "Can't you come up with something better than that?"

"Zach," she warned, her arm shooting between them. It sounded like a stretch to her too, but no need to toss gasoline on the fire. "They do have some clothes on. We probably arrived just in time."

What would have happened if she hadn't insisted on searching with him? Horror nipped at her. She saw one last chance to help Zach and his daughters, a way to heal the rifts in their family. "Shelby? What's going on, hon?"

"John's telling the truth. We didn't do anything." The silver stud in her brow winked above a defiant glare. "But I wanted to. He's the one who stopped."

Zach's brows slammed down into an even darker scowl.

Whoosh. Direct hit of kerosene on those embers.

"Okay, Shelby, you win." Julia charged past Zach into the hotel room, forcing the teens to back deeper inside.

Putting distance between them and Zach.

Confusion momentarily replaced defiance on Shelby's pale face. "What?"

"You win." Julia pinned her with a give-no-quarter stare. "You hurt your dad. Isn't that what this is all about? Hurting him?"

Shelby tugged the hem of her overlong jersey, her brown eyes gleaming with a battlefield fervor she'd no doubt inherited from her father. "You're all ganging up on me." She swung an accusing finger toward John. "First him telling me I'm not ready for sex. Now you telling me what I'm thinking too. I'm so tired of everybody deciding my life for me."

Zach stepped further into the room, his eyes hardening as they scanned the rumpled bedspread, then shifted back to Shelby. "Nothing happened?"

John skimmed a finger inside the neck of his sweatshirt. "No, sir."

A sigh heaved through Zach. "Okay, then. Shelby, put on some..." He waved toward her crumpled jeans on the floor. "Put something on and let's go."

The commander had spoken.

No wonder Shelby was pulling her hair out to get her father's attention. Just leave? Julia wanted to scream. How like a man to think this was only about sex, Zach and John both, when nothing had been solved. She knew too well sex only complicated life all the more.

Shelby yanked on her jeans, muttering as if already planning her next great escape. She grabbed a brush off the bathroom counter and yanked it through her tangled hair with brutal swipes.

No way were they leaving until Zach and Shelby battled this out once and for all. Julia shut the door and plunked down in a chair.

He frowned. "Julia?"

She ignored his question and plowed ahead. "Shelby, what's really going on here?"

Shelby hurled her brush into the sink. "John and I were running away to get married."

"Like hell." Zach moved in front of the door, boots braced apart, the officer standing sentinel.

Why couldn't they see past what the other said to the real meaning? "You had to know we'd find you before then."

Shelby charged across the room and pitched a half-eaten pizza in the trash. "At least I'd get a few hours away. Then maybe he—" she paused in the midst of shoving the leftover six-pack of sodas into her suitcase to shoot a glare at her father, "—would understand that John and I are in love."

Zach's low snort sparked defiance in Shelby's eyes. She shot an exasperated eye-roll Julia's way. "See what I have to put up with?" She flung a handful of T-shirts on top of the sodas. "John's the only one who understands."

Julia leaned forward, hoping to defuse the tension by enticing them all to relax their toe-to-toe battle stances. "Understands what, Shelby?"

"What it's like living in a gypsy caravan on high speed. Pulling into some Podunk town just long enough to make friends you'll miss forever when you have to haul ass to another hole in the wall for your father's I-Must-Save-the-Planet freaking job."

Shelby stopped in front of her father, fists jammed on her hips. "Most of all, I hate living with everybody always watching me."

Julia nudged Zach's boot with her foot. Twice.

Finally, he uncrossed his arms, working the back of his neck with his hand. "That's what parents are supposed to do. Watch their kids."

Shelby's shoulders raised and lowered with a beleaguered sigh, which carried some weight for once when coupled with her trembling jaw.

Her frenzied ranting tempered to restless pacing. "I don't mean all that parent garbage."

She flicked the trailing edge of the spread up onto the bed. "I mean everybody. I can't go anywhere without people knowing who I am, watching everything I do and telling you about it. Being a military brat is like living in some kind of fishbowl." She waved a hand to encompass her father's flight suit. "Except everybody wears green."

Zach stepped closer, head dipping as he listened. "Go on."

Knee bumping the bed, Shelby picked at the polyester spread, flicking aside one fuzzy pill at a time, an endless task on the cheap coverlet. "I don't get a say in anything. Ever.

Nothing stays the same. You're already making plans to haul us all to another state this summer. Just when I get to liking it somewhere, we move. You change jobs. You change wives."

Julia kept her eyes fixed on Shelby. The weight of Zach's insistence that they give the marriage a try whittled away at her already shaky and weary resistance.

Shelby tugged at the hem of her jersey. "It's like I don't count. John understands." She angled a wobbly smile his way. "I mean, geez, it's even worse for him. He's a military brat and a preacher's kid."