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Julia waited and wondered if Zach would pull it together. She willed him to be the father she knew he could be.

Slowly, he closed the distance between himself and his daughter, absently circling his wedding band round and round. "Your mother and I started seeing each other when we weren't much older than you two."

"Oh, great." Sarcasm dripped from Shelby's words like water condensing on the ice bucket. Flopping on the edge of the bed, she swept up a pillow and clutched it to her stomach. "Thanks for the big, fat endorsement, Colonel."

"Remember what Julia said, Shel. Everyone gets a turn. So hush up and listen to mine for a minute." Zach pulled the pillow from her and tossed it aside. "You think you're the only teenager to pull a tough road? Your mother had to deal with bringing up four younger brothers and sisters while her mom supported them."

His jaw tensed, and Julia could almost see him working to draw the words from inside himself.

"By the time I was fifteen, I'd moved twice as much as you have now. We followed my father from rig to rig because that's how he put food on the table. Then my mother died."

He scrubbed a hand over his face, but couldn't swipe away the exhaustion from his eyes.

"After that, life was...not good. We weren't exactly living the American Dream, kiddo."

Julia's joy seeped from her.

His spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child father.

Zach always understated his own disappointments and pain. For him to share this much, his teenage years must have been beyond bad. She didn't need tender yearnings to be the one to soothe his hurts. Not now when there was still so much unresolved between them.

They were even farther than ever from establishing a true partnership.

"Just like you, Shel," Zach continued, pacing a relentless path in the threadbare carpet. "I planned to take control of my own world. For me, your mother and the military were my ticket out for making a real life. I won't ever regret marrying her because I have you and Ivy. But what we see for our lives at sixteen or even eighteen may only be about fifty percent on target, if you're lucky. Keep that in mind when you're making decisions."

Silently, Shelby jabbed her toe through a quarter-sized hole in the carpet.

"This is who I am, Shel." Zach thumped his chest right over his military nametag. He dropped onto the edge of the bed beside her. "I wish I could promise you things will be different at home. All I can say is I'll try."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Somebody's gotta pay the bills."

Zach tucked a knuckle under her chin, tipping her face up. "If it was just about paying the bills, I'd be flying for the airlines. But it isn't. I've had a fair glimpse of what it's like to lose control of your life. And there are people out there in the world who are feeling that a helluva lot worse than you or I ever will. I can't just say it's not my problem and turn away."

The words may have been meant for Shelby, but Julia heard the deeper implications for her relationship with Zach. She knew first-hand how he took on the troubles of others, and she couldn't help but admire and love him for turning his life around even as she wished for more from him.

He slung an arm around his daughter's shoulders. "Shel, if you want me to respect where you're coming from, you're going to have to do the same for me."

While Shelby didn't return the embrace, she didn't pull away either. Her head fell to rest on his chest, nothing overt like some Ivy hug, but Julia saw the tears Shelby wouldn't show her father.

They'd made a start in reconnecting as father and daughter, transcending into a new stage of the parent-child relationship as Shelby left behind Ivy-days of unquestioning acceptance. Julia blinked back her own tears, touched.

Then it hit her. They didn't need her anymore. She sat on the outskirts, much as John slumped against the wall, both of them unnecessary now.

Pam had returned and from all appearances planned to stay. Both girls had bonded with their father. Patrick was thriving, and Julia had a solid support system in place now to maintain that progress.

And she was a stronger woman than she'd been a year ago, or even five months ago when Zach had sauntered into her hospital room. She'd learned from him how to strengthen her dreams with a solid focus.

They'd accomplished their goals in marrying in half the time they'd thought they needed, which should be cause for rejoicing. Except now, there wasn't anything holding them together. No more crises to solve or major single-parenting hardships to wade through.

Now, there wasn't anything to stop her from leaving.

* * *

"You're leaving, aren't you?" Zach said quietly over his shoulder to Julia without taking his eyes off Patrick asleep in the crib. Exhaustion pumped through him after his longest day on record since he'd walked into Julia's hospital room.  Her light tread sounded along the hardwood floors, then muffled on the rug as she eased closer. Stopping beside him, she didn't answer, just stared down at the sleeping baby with him.

While he wanted to hope she would disagree, he knew better. He might have salvaged something with Shelby, thanks to Julia's intervention, but he'd blown it with Julia by losing his temper in the hotel room. By the whole damned way he'd handled the flight. If only he could have kept control, thought through his words to fix the fact that he should have been straight with her about Lance's crash. But damn it, Julia stirred emotions that weren't calm or even rational.

Her scent swirled around him, strawberry shampoo and fresh air. "We've accomplished what we set out to do with the children. They're back on track."

He noticed she didn't flat-out state she planned to leave. He pushed that advantage to the wall. "Why tear that apart now?"

He'd reclaimed his daughter, but would he lose a wife again? And this time, he would lose a child too if his marriage ended. Patrick might not be his biological son, but the boy couldn't be any more his if he'd fathered him.

"If I stay any longer, it will only be worse when I leave. Shelby expects me to go now.

Ivy's excited about having her mother home so this won't hit her as hard."

"You're deluding yourself on that one, Jules."

She didn't answer, just patted her son's back. Zach tucked the blanket around Patrick's feet, using the familiar ritual to steady himself while he thought through ways to convince her, something he could do to make her stay. "What about Patrick?"

"I'll miss being with him all day, but I'm stronger now, more confident in myself and the support system I have in place."

"That's not what I meant." Stirrings of residual anger edged past his exhaustion. "Don't you think Patrick will miss me? Or that I'll miss him?"

Her grip on the edge of the crib whitened. "It will be harder for him the longer he has to grow attached to you."

Zach grasped her shoulders and turned her toward him, finding her face as pale as that tight-knuckled grip. "If you're so much stronger now, then give us a chance."

Patrick stirred, snuffled, then stilled with a sigh.

Julia's eyes slid back to Zach. "Do you think this is easy for me?" she whispered, her words laced with frustration. "I want to do what's best for the children."


"What? I can't believe you said that to me."

She tried to inch back but he held firm.

"Hell, Jules, I'll say it again if it will make you listen." He could see she was three seconds away from packing her high tops and swiping all those bottles of polish right off his dresser, into her bag and out of his world. "You won't stay because you're too scared to try. Fantasies are easy. Real life is hard. At least be honest."

"You want honest? Yes, I'm scared." She met him toe-to-toe, pain and pride stamped on her pale face. "So reassure me with a reason to stick around that has nothing to do with the children."

His hands fell away. A trick question? Regardless, he knew if he answered wrong, those polish bottles would be clanking their way into her suitcase within minutes. "I've given you solid reasons to stay."

"Not the one I want."

Okay, so she needed a reason to stay. The bottles received clemency for a few minutes longer. If he just knew what it was she wanted him to say. "Help me out here, Jules. I want to get this right, but I'm stumbling around in the dark."

"If I have to tell you, it doesn't count."

Ah, hell. He was screwed. Zach jammed the heels of his hands to his forehead.


The baby stirred. Zach grasped Julia's elbow to drag her across the hall into the study.

Shutting the door behind them, he spun her to face him. "Julia, I'm just a man, as clueless as the rest of them when it comes to understanding how a woman's mind works."

Exhaustion be damned, he would keep at this all night if that's what it took to make her understand.

She darted a pointed stare at his hand on her elbow. "Let go of me, please. I can't think straight when you touch me."

An endorsement for putting his hands all over her if ever he'd heard one, but he respected Julia too much to play that game, even if every fiber in him shouted to use any weapon to keep her.

He raised his hands, palms up.

"You want direction for this conversation? Fine then. Here it is, Colonel."

Sparks showered from her eyes. Zach prepped for anything.

"I love you."

Anything except that.

Just when he thought she'd thrown her last surprise at him, Julia flipped his world again, this time in a good way. Relief chugged through him. She loved him. He wanted to pump a fist through the air, shout...until he saw the defeated slump of her shoulders.

Zach reached to gather her close. "Ah, Jules—''

She batted his arms away. "Do not touch me! I may love you, but that doesn't change anything. It doesn't change the fact that, hell yes, I'm scared this won't work. I'm scared of being hurt again." Her voice cracked on the last word.

"Jules, you know I would never cheat on you."

"That's not what I'm talking about." She backed, her hand between them. "Yes, Lance cheated on me. Not just once. Over and over again he lied about where he was, who he was with. But he didn't just cheat with his body. He cheated with his heart. He loved someone else. He loved her, the kind of woman he should have married. Sure, we patched it up, but I'm not so certain anymore that it would have lasted. I want it all this time. I want to be everything to a man, to be his first thought in the morning, the reason he smiles in the middle of some important meeting."

Julia looked at him waiting, but he didn't know what the hell to say to reassure her.

"Zach, you asked me to help you with the answer, so here it is. I wasn't first in Lance's heart. Ever. I can't live that way again. I need you to love me as much as I love you."

She stared at him with such wary hope he wondered why couldn't he just make himself say the words. Time was running out and he knew they were seconds from smacking the mountain that would end it all. "I've shown you in a hundred different ways how much I want you to stay, and that's what counts. What we do. Not what we say. Lance's actions proved that."

She winced, but he wouldn't stop now. He had a point, damn it, even if it hurt. He needed to make her understand how much she meant to him. "Explain to me, Julia, how a bunch of insubstantial words makes a commitment."

Frustration knotted his gut. Forget playing fair.

He pulled her close, chest to chest, legs tucking between each other by instinct, and let the inevitable heat, sparks and need sear them together. "Pam spouted to heaven and back how much she loved me as she walked out that door. My father pounded us one minute and said he loved us the next."