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Zach exhaled. "They're...uh...nice."

"All those flowers are wonderful for masking the hospital smell." She inched across the private recovery room, bracing a hand on a rolling tray for support. Leaning to place the card between a vase of yellow roses and a spidering fern, she rambled about who had sent each card and arrangement.

What the hell was he thinking letting his eyes wander right back to those legs the minute she wasn't looking? The woman had just given birth, for crying out loud. She was a widow of less than a year.

He should bash himself over the head.

The lack of sex must be cutting off oxygen to his brain. That and the whole awkward way he'd walked into the room messed with his control. Her glow of maternal beauty, the subtle curve of her breast had stopped him dead, stirring him more than any flagrant exposure.

He forced himself to turn away.

Zach secured the baby against his shoulder and walked to the window. The half-empty parking lot made for safer viewing anyway. "See that clear sky, Patrick? It's a great night for flying." He patted the baby's back, speaking softly in his ear. "Sun's going down, but that's okay. We're just about the only Air Force in the world that flies and trains at night.

We like the protection, the stealth of a dark sky. Day or night, it's all the same in the cockpit thanks to our electronics."

Lance Sinclair had died at night. His instruments had been in prime condition and still he'd hit a mountain.

Zach carefully pushed aside the thought, continuing to mumble about planes and flying, all the things Lance would have told his boy. "When you go to flight school, little fella, they're gonna try to talk you into one of those pretty fighters. But don't you listen. You want to fly the heavies. You want to fly with a crew. With guys to watch your back.

Friends to share their cookies."

The baby stirred against Zach's shoulder, one thin leg kicking free of the blanket. Julia stepped forward as if to grab her son back.

Zach shifted Patrick from his shoulder to the crook of his arm. "It's okay. I have him."

He slid his finger along the tiny palm for the baby to grab hold and tried not to think about how the boy's father should be here.

Instead, the boy would only have a few medals and war stories as mementos of his dad.

Zach owed it to this child to clear Lance's name so those stories were good ones. "Your daddy was a great guy, Patrick. Top-notch flyer. A friend to everyone. He always shared his time and his cookies."

The baby blinked, staring up with that unfocused newborn gaze Zach recognized. Yeah, he remembered those first days with his girls, talking to them, walking the floors, repeatedly counting fingers and toes to check yet again that all was well—

Zach frowned.

He looked at Patrick again, closer. The parental alarm in his head went on red alert. He'd read every baby book on the shelves during both of Pam's pregnancies. Even now he had a book on troubled teens by his bed. He would be prepared for anything, know all the warning signs....

Like the flat facial profile beneath a white hospital cap. The excessive space between the front and second toe of the little foot kicking outside the blanket. The small skin folds around upward-slanted eyes peering back at him.

Already certain what he would find, Zach crooked his finger to open the small fist—and traced a single, deep crease across the center of the baby's palm.

All characteristics of—

"Down syndrome," Julia said softly, standing just beside him. "Patrick has Down syndrome."

Her words thundered in Zach's head as he studied the newborn staring so trustingly back up. His arms tightened protectively around this boy who would never fly planes, but would face battles far tougher than any Zach had seen.

He'd made it his mission to protect, defend, even put his life on the line for others when called upon. Yet now, when it mattered most, he had no idea what he could do.

But by God, he would do something.

He faced Julia. "What do you need?"

"Excuse me?"

"Tell me what you and Patrick need from the base, I'll make it happen. Medical benefits, family services, you name it. What red tape do you need slashed? Who should I lean on?"

Julia shook her head, wavy curls dancing above her solemn eyes. "There's nothing for you to do. I'm keyed in with a local group for EIS, early infant stimulation. We're fine with medical. He's blessedly healthy. Half of babies with Down syndrome are born with a heart defect, but not Patrick. We're very lucky."

She reached for her son.

Zach tucked Patrick closer. "Sounds like you've done your homework. When did you find out?"

Julia paused for a guilty second. "My second trimester."

"That long ago." The squadron patch on the sleeve of his flight suit seemed to burn a tattoo into his arm.

Anything. Anywhere. Anytime.

The stitched motto mocked him. He'd failed the Sinclair family on all three counts if Julia had felt she couldn't turn to him. "So you've had months to prepare."

"The alpha-feto protein test came back low in my fourth month. An amniocentesis confirmed it."

A shot of anger pierced his defenses. "You should have told me."

"So you could do what?" She forked her hand through her rumpled hair. "Rotate my tires? Clean leaves from my gutters at 6:00 a.m. again?"

What was wrong with wanting to help? "I could have placed some of those calls for you.

Paved the way. Made things easier. Been there."

"There's nothing you could have done that I couldn't do for myself. He's my son, and I'm a single parent. I'm on my own with this one. Thank you for caring, but I'm not your obligation." Her hand fluttered toward his arm, then stopped just shy of touching him.

Her hand drifted back to her side. "This is life, Colonel, and I intend to make sure Patrick has the best one any child could wish for."

"I'm sure you will."

"Damn straight." She met his gaze dead-on.

"I believe you."

"But you still want to rotate my tires."

The familiar playful glimmer in her eyes crackled over him with an unfamiliar intensity, like St. Elmo's Fire zipping through the cockpit. Dangerous. Exciting.

He wanted his perspective back. He flat-out didn't have time for hormonal insanity, especially with a woman who needed a helluva lot more than tire rotation.

"Stop it, Julia. I don't feel much like laughing right now. I'm..." Mad. Frustrated. In need of a wall to punch. "You should have told me."

She could insist all day long that he wasn't obligated, and it wouldn't change a thing.

Regardless of why Lance Sinclair's plane had gone down, Zach knew he would never stop feeling responsible. It had nothing to do with guilt and everything to do with duty.


That plane had smacked a mountain on his watch, which made Zach responsible for the family left behind.

Julia gently grasped Patrick's flailing foot. "I understand you don't feel like smiling, but you're going to do it for me anyway. Because I'm asking you, and you know that in spite of everything you've done for me, I've never actually asked you for anything."

His jaw clenched. "Julia—''

"Well, I'm asking now. I want Patrick to see flowers and smiles. I want him to hear laughter and songs, everything a baby deserves for a welcome." The playful glint faded altogether. "Can you do that for me? For Patrick."

He still didn't feel much like smiling, but she was right in thinking he would. Because she'd asked and those glistening green eyes had haunted his dreams.

Zach nodded, letting his face pull up in his one-sided grin.

"Thank you," she whispered, gifting him with a smile in return so damned sweet it twisted the knife in his gut a double rotation.

He wanted to pull her to him, and not because of any hormones, but because he somehow knew that in spite of all of her bravado, she needed to be held.


"Yeah, Julia?"

"I'll take him back now."

He gave her a brusque nod and waited for her to sit on the edge of the bed. He passed the baby with careful hands, reluctant to let the little guy go.

Zach was careful not to touch the little guy's mama.

A solid knock on the door punctured the silence, and he winged a prayer of gratitude for the interruption.

"Come in," Julia called with a voice huskier than it should have been.

The door swooshed open, admitting Doctor Kathleen Bennett, a flight surgeon from the base. Bennett made a sharp officer in her spit-polished combat boots and camouflage BDUs—maternity-sized.

Major Kathleen Bennett, the very pregnant wife of Captain Tanner Bennett, who was stranded in the air with busted nose gear.

Zach's eyes darted to the radio. He couldn't have requested a more effective dousing for the strange impulses that had gripped him since he'd walked in on Julia Sinclair nursing her son. This scenario held too much similarity to the one eight months ago. A pregnant military wife with a husband in the air in a potentially dangerous situation.

Not that he could tell Kathleen Bennett a thing now. No need to worry her when he would make damned sure that plane landed safely.

The radio cackled from beside the rolling bassinet. "Wolf One, Command Post. Over."

Zach snatched up the LMR before it blared info neither of these women needed to hear.

"Wolf One, hold please. Over." He reached for the door. "That's my cue to leave.

Bennett, you're heading home after this, right?" he asked, hoping he wouldn't have to use the information to contact her.

"This is my last stop on rounds, sir."

"Good." He nodded. "Julia, call me if you need anything. I mean it now. Anything."

"My tires are under warranty." Julia held up a hand before he could speak. "But thank you for offering. I'll let you know."

He flashed a thumbs-up and strode out the door. If only he could close the door as easily on the vision burned in his brain of Julia's mile-long legs and tear-filled eyes.

* * *

Julia watched the door hiss shut behind Zach. Sounds from the hall muted—the rattle of a medicine cart, a television blaring laughter.

The fading echo of his boots thudding on tile.

She'd imagined a kazillion times what his reaction would be when he found out about Patrick. Never had she imagined she would want him to hold her. She'd accepted the reality of those test results months ago and faced any grief over the trials her child would face.

So where had the urge to tuck herself against Zach's broad chest come from? It was a reckless urge that would only lead her into accepting more of his help.

Julia turned to Kathleen, her military doctor since flight surgeons treated flyers as well as their families. Kathleen wasn't an ob/gyn, but she had consulted through Julia's pregnancy. Beyond that, Kathleen had lent support, even standing in as a coach during the delivery.

Somehow that support seemed easier to accept when it didn't come packaged in a lanky, too-tempting lieutenant colonel's body. "Thanks for driving over. You really shouldn't have—but I'm glad you did."

"I had rounds anyway and couldn't resist sneaking another peek at this precious baby."

Kathleen skimmed a knuckle along Patrick's cheek, her other hand resting on her belly.

"Makes me impatient to see my own."

"Shouldn't you be home putting your feet up?"

"I can do that here just as easily." Kathleen lowered herself into a chair and swung her boots up onto another chair. "The house is too quiet anyway, and Tanner's not due to land for another few hours."

Julia understood all about quiet houses. The lonely silence grew every day. As a child, she'd longed for peace and privacy amid the chaos of her parents' commune. Now, she found that stillness strangling.