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Everything went still inside him.

What the hell had he just said? Apparently Julia had heard every word. Tears streaked down her face, just like the ones she'd shed in his office over his POW days.

No way did he want her staying out of pity.

Her hand drifted up. He clasped her wrist before she could touch his face. Emotions revved within him like an engine drone, faster, harder, without any hope that a simple flip of a switch would shut it all down.

He could feel every ounce of Julia's compassion pulsing through her. She was weakening.

He could take advantage of that weakness, press, convince her to stay a little longer as he'd done for years with Pam.

But damn it, Julia wasn't settling? Well, neither was he. He'd thought she was the one person he didn't need to jump through hoops for, the one person who didn't need him to put on a commander show.

He tightened his grip on her wrist. "If you want to prove all that love you say you have for me, then have the guts to stay."

Zach dropped her hand.

He pivoted away and out the door, needing to put as much distance as he could between himself and her soft touch tempting him to throw away defenses a lifetime in the making.

Chapter 17

Stunned by Zach's harsh words, so full of hurt, still hanging in the air, Julia stared at the half-open door. His wounds and lack of trust ran so much deeper than even she'd known.

The front door opened and closed. Softly. Zach wasn't a door slammer, no surprise, but the solid thud echoed with finality.

Oh God, she couldn't let him leave. Not like this.

Julia sprinted into the hall just as his motorcycle growled to life. She slumped against the wall, the sense of failure turning her legs to sawdust.

He'd needed her, just as he'd needed Pam, but Julia hadn't been able to pull it together and be there for him. She'd spouted all about love and being stronger, but hadn't come through for him when it counted.

Across the hall, Shelby's door opened and she slouched against the frame. An overlong T-shirt grazed her knees, one of Julia's pilfered from the laundry. The shirt declared board-like letters Woodworkers Kick Ash. Julia knew she certainly hadn't lived up to the motto tonight.

Shelby scratched her ankle with her toes. "Men can be such nimrods."

Julia welcomed the laugh, even a watery one. Comfort come from the most unexpected corner. "They sure can."

Shelby shoved away from the door. "Since it looks like neither one of us is going to get lucky any time soon, wanna go find some chocolate?'

"Yeah, hon, I sure do." She hooked an arm around Shelby 's shoulders as they walked down the hall. "I think we'd both benefit from eating our weight in M&M's."

"I hear ya." Shelby shuffled to the cabinet, pulled open door and reached behind the coffee mugs. She tossed two bags of M&M's on the counter, crispy and plain.

Julia's secret stash. She sat at the kitchen table. "How did you know where those were?"

Shelby angled an adults-can-be-so-lame look over her shoulder. "That's a rookie candy-hiding move. You'll have to do better than that when Patrick's older." She opened freezer.

"Let's see what Ivy has squirreled away."

She rifled through the frozen goods, pitching bags of peas, corn and waffles in the sink before sighing. "Ahhh, pay dirt." Shelby spun around, a freezer bag full of Christmas candy dangling from two fingers. "Ivy's learned to hide things a little better than you, but then she's had a lot of practice lately."

Shelby sifted through the bag, nudging aside candy canes, foil-wrapped kisses, a chocolate Santa with his head bitten off. She cocked her head, then resealed the bag. "No need to teach her how to bury them better yet. Let the kid keep her illusions a while longer. She'll learn to hide things as well as I do soon enough."

Julia straightened. Suddenly, their midnight feeding frenzy became about more than food.

Like her father, Shelby hid her deeper feelings and thoughts well behind understatements.

Shelby hitched a knee up onto the counter, hefting her self up until she stood in front of the cabinet. Arching up onto her toes, she peered into the top shelf. She shuffled aside a dusty food processor to reveal a gold box.

The kid was good, no doubt. Julia wouldn't have touched that food processor for another fifty years.

Shelby leapt to the floor, Godivas clutched to her chest, and plopped down to sit at the table. She tugged the red bow and lifted the lid. "Silly to waste Mom's bribes on Aggie anymore, I guess."

Blinking fast without looking up, Shelby dug into the box, picked a white truffle and ate the first bite of her mother's presents in over a year. She chewed slowly, swallowed even slower, a new level of acceptance and maturity marking her face. "Not bad." She scooched the box forward. "Here. Try some."

Guilt hammered Julia in relenting blows. Zach was right that a break-up now would devastate all three of the children.

Julia covered Shelby's hand with her own. "Hon, I'm so sorry you had to hear all of that.

Your dad and I really have been trying to do the right thing for you kids."

Shelby didn't look up and Julia suspected she was covering more of those tears she'd hidden from Zach while she let herself soak up the comfort. Julia wanted to hug her and tuck her into bed and reassure her everything would be fine, but she couldn't lie.

Finally, Shelby slid her hand free. "My dad always hides his candy the best of all. He used to keep it in his truck, but I haven't been able to figure out where he hides it since Mom left."

There it was. Shelby's message hidden under all those understatements, but no less powerful for its subtlety.

Julia stacked the empty brown candy papers and thought of Zach's joking offer of Little Debbie cakes from his desk drawer. The man definitely hid his snacks and secrets better than the girls. He filed everything away in his office, submerging himself in work, tackling the world's troubles as a line of defense against acknowledging his own.

Zach took the needs of so many on those broad shoulders without anyone to take care of his. She wanted to build a real home for him, one where fathers didn't hurt their sons and wives didn't walk out.

He deserved all that and more. He deserved to have someone fight for him. And she wanted to be that someone.

Zach had insisted his actions counted more than words, and if so, then that man loved her. Even if the stubborn guy didn't know how to put the label on his feelings. Yet.

Julia crumpled the candy wrappers. She'd insisted she was stronger and that she loved him. Time for her to prove it by doing exactly what Zach had said. Show him. She would love him enough to put aside her pride and stay.

Shelby scooped up two more chocolates and stood. "Guess I'll try to catch some sleep."

Julia touched Shelby's arm lightly as she passed and counted yet another blessing in the form of this woman-child dispenser of chocolate, hairstyles and wisdom. '"Night, hon."


Julia watched her stepdaughter cross the kitchen and realized more than one Dawson needed reassurance. "Shelby?"


"Could you watch Patrick for me for a couple of hours once your dad gets back?"

Shelby blinked fast before shrugging as if it was no big deal when they both knew otherwise. "Sure. No problem."

"Thanks, hon." Julia smiled, knowing full well she couldn't say goodbye to these children any more than she could their father.

Shelby snapped her fingers and Aggie came trotting from under the table to follow her.

The Woodworkers Kick Ash shirt blared a reminder Julia desperately needed.

What had she been thinking, demanding some silly words? She'd felt more love in one day with Zach than Lance had given her in six years of marriage.

She didn't intend to throw that away.

Whatever wounds Zach still harbored that kept him from voicing those words, she would heal with time. Starting tonight. She would sit on their front porch until her toes froze off if need be waiting for him. Never again would Zach come home to an empty house.

The seasoned commander might have fought a few battles in his time, but he hadn't seen anything like the siege she planned to wage to win his heart.

* * *

Zach roared around the corner. Only two blocks left until, home. And he wasn't any closer to easing the frustration churning inside him than when he'd lost control and stormed out. His bike hadn't offered its usual escape—release, relief from the mess he'd made of his life.  At least the time away had given him one answer. He wasn't giving up. Sure, he'd hoped for something more from Julia, but that didn't mean he would roll over and quit. First thing Monday morning, he would park himself in the Wing Commander's office and request a year's deferment of his Air War College slot.

Yeah, it pinched to risk losing out on a career opportunity he'd worked his ass off for, but the regret didn't come close to what he would feel if he lost Julia. He would stomp around on her roof for the next twelve months cleaning leaves out of her gutters until she caved, if that's what it would take to persuade her.

Zach slowed the motorcycle around the last corner, heading home. And tried like hell not to think of how damned empty that house would be without her and Patrick.

He turned into the driveway, the single beam of his bike sweeping across the yard.

Revealing Julia. Moonbeams and the porch light glinted off her blond curls.

Zach braced himself. He'd been ready for a confrontation in the morning. He wasn't sure he wanted to finish this conversation tonight, not when they were both still so raw from the flight line, their time in his office, and his damned careless words about his father.

Then Zach looked at her. Really looked.

Julia wore his leather flight jacket, a motorcycle helmet perched on her knee, her invitation for a ride clear.

Zach exhaled a long gust of relief. As far as signs went, hers carried a cargo hold full of hope.

He'd told himself it didn't matter if he had to fight for her a while longer. He would wait.

But having her make the first move mattered a helluva lot more than he'd expected.

Zach hit the accelerator and drove across the grass, stopping in front of Julia. She stood, her mile-long legs unfolding. Those incredible legs in stretch pants and red boots made him almost as crazy as the incredible woman inside them.

Julia sauntered forward, winding around a row of empty flowerpots. She didn't hurry or run, but then Julia never rushed through life. She made him find time to take a wild night ride, stop for a nap in a hammock or watch his children play from a purple glider. Julia had given him and his children so much. More than anything, he wanted to be the man she needed. The man she deserved.

She strapped on her helmet. "Let's go for a ride."

"Where do you want to go?"

Julia slid onto the bike behind him. Her arms locked around his waist without hesitation.

"Surprise me."

He lifted one of her hands to his mouth. He pressed a lingering kiss to her wrist before replacing her hand on his stomach. "I'll do my best."

Zach cruised out of the yard, easing down the curb to the street. Outside the front gate, he opened up the engine and threw away the boundaries. Highway lights whipped past, sky above, air swirling below under the bridge. The road hummed beneath him with all the ground flight release he'd always enjoyed in the past. And more. The allure of the ride was back, and he knew it wasn't so much the bike as the woman with him.

Now to figure out how to make the most out of whatever miracle had prompted her to give him a second chance. He needed the perfect way to romance this unconventional lady he'd married. The house had too much potential for interruption, and he wanted somewhere more neutral than his office. Then the perfect answer came to him, the ideal offering for a woman who valued a Crock-Pot family dinner more than diamonds.