Page 4

Kathleen grasped Julia's wrist to check her pulse. The doctor frowned. "A bit fast. What did Colonel Dawson do?"

Julia tucked her hand under her hip to hide the racing pulse that betrayed her. "Excuse me?"

"What did he do when you finally told him? I assume that's why your pulse is elevated."

"Oh, uh, he insisted I should have said something sooner. You were right. He didn't like being left out of the loop. He was..."


"Not exactly. He doesn't get mad. Ever. But man, was his jaw tight. He doesn't seem to understand he's not responsible for Patrick and me." She forced herself to say, "It's not like I'm a military wife anymore."

"Stop right there." Kathleen straightened, her eyes sparking with her legendary redhead's temper. "Regulations state you're an Air Force dependant until you remarry. Even after that, you're still one of us for life."

Their husbands had been more than just part of the same squadron. They had often crewed together until a couple of months before Lance's plane had crashed. While Julia grieved over the other crew members who had died as well, she thanked God none of them had had wives and children. Especially not a pregnant wife.

"It's just.... Sometimes I feel as though if I see another flight suit, I'm going to scream."

Julia pulled her hand from under her hip and held it up to stop Kathleen from interrupting. "I know! Cutting off the Air Force isn't going to help me get over losing Lance, but I need a break from it all."

The temper doused from Kathleen's eyes. "Do you want me to leave?"

"No! No." Julia waved for her to stay seated. "I must sound like an ungrateful brat."

"Not at all. Just a woman who's been through a hell of a year." Kathleen rubbed a hand over her stomach absently, all five months of pregnancy very apparent on her petite frame. "How do you feel? Honestly."

"Like my br**sts are going to explode if this kid doesn't eat soon. And if he doesn't feed within a couple of hours, they're going to give him another tube feeding."

She'd read all the literature on breastfeeding a baby with Down syndrome, how his larger tongue in relation to mouth size, weaker sucking reflex and muscle tone could make breastfeeding a challenge. But somehow, she'd hoped that wouldn't apply to her.

Kathleen pushed to her feet. "That, I can take care of. I'll hustle up some help at the nurses' station, and I won't leave until we have this fella settled."

An inelegant snort of laughter tripped free, and Julia hugged her stubborn little non-nurser closer. "How late did you say Tanner would be out?'

"He's not scheduled to land until one, but don't worry. I bet I beat him home." Kathleen tugged open the door. "I'll be right back with the cavalry."

"Thanks," Julia called to the closing door.

She relaxed into her pillows. How many nights had she waited up for Lance? How many nights had she spent worrying? Somalia. Afghanistan. And then Sentavo. She'd rejoiced when his short leave time from the conflict had lengthened into a surprise rotation out of combat. How ironic. All those months with the war, she'd waited and feared, only to lose him in a routine peacetime mission.

Anything. Anywhere. Anytime. Like the motto of his C-17 squadron, her husband had promised he would always be there for her.

Julia thought of Zach Dawson's demand that she call him if she needed anything. A tempting offer from an intriguing man, no doubt.

But she'd learned the hard way it was safer not to depend on anyone for anything ever again.

* * *

Zach pulled into the driveway of his brick base house. Two in the morning. The longest Friday had slipped into Saturday.

The day Julia would bring home her son.

Shoving aside thoughts of her, Zach turned off the engine. She'd made it clear she didn't want his help.

He might not have given her what she needed, but at least he'd made it through the day with everyone alive. The in-flight call to the manufacturer had netted results. Landing gear restored, Moose two-zero had skimmed to the ground flawlessly.

Radio in hand, Zach shut his truck door quietly so as not to disturb his sleeping neighbors. A muggy fall breeze whispered through the pines, the only sound on the deserted road. He glanced across the street at the ranch-style base house where the Bennetts lived. Bronco's car was already parked in the driveway behind his wife's.

Zach nudged a scooter aside with his boot. Heaven help him when the quick-tempered flight surgeon discovered he'd held back information about her husband's in-flight emergency. She would demand a pound of flesh at Zach's next physical.

Not that he would have handled it any differently.

Walking through the carport, Zach wove around his motorcycle. His hand trailed along the seat of his vintage Harley Electra Glide. "Been a long time, huh, girl? I haven't forgotten about you though."

If he timed his day right, he could give the bike a tune-up while Ivy was at ballet, Shelby at her band retreat. Time alone was a rarity for any single parent.

As Julia Sinclair would soon discover.

What kind of day would she face when she brought her son home to an empty house?

It's not your problem. Hadn't the lady said as much? Let it go and enjoy the weekend.

Zach traced the lettering on the bike's gas tank.

Wildcatter. A holdover from the days when he'd followed his dad around the oil rigs to earn money for college.

The name had stuck once he'd entered Texas A & M, later becoming his original Air Force call sign back in simpler times when he could fly his plane and come home to his family at a reasonable hour. Before he'd been given the new name with his new job.

Not that he would change. His job was... not just a job. It was a calling he couldn't ignore if he tried. Even to save his marriage.

Zach patted the leather seat a final time before pivoting away. He unlocked the side door

—and almost stumbled back outside. The house reeked of burnt cheese.

"What the hell?" Zach sprinted into the cramped kitchen to find the inside of the microwave looked like a nuclear slime experiment. Tension easing somewhat from his shoulders, he placed the radio on the counter and grabbed a rag.

"Hey, Colonel," Shelby shouted from the family room. "You busted curfew. I'm gonna have to take away your phone privileges for a week. And then there's your language..."

"I'll be glad to get rid of the phones anytime, Shel. Just say the word." He slammed the microwave shut.

Scrubbing a hand across his left cheek, he worked to waken the groggy muscles that had never completely rejuvenated since the battering his face had taken in Iraq. He carried a crooked smile as a reminder of the benefits of controlling his emotions. As if he could forget.

Zach crossed to the family room and leaned against the doorframe. His sixteen-year-old daughter sprawled on the sectional sofa watching MTV with her golden retriever, Aggie.

As usual, Shelby wore a cropped shirt and low-slung jeans to showcase her belly-button ring.

If ever Zach had wanted to lose his temper, it had been over that piercing. Julia had told him to be grateful Shelby hadn't dyed her black hair purple. Or pierced her eyebrow, her lip or heaven forbid, her tongue. "Thanks for watching Ivy. Everything go okay?"

"Germany called."

Germany. So Pam was in Germany now. Shelby never referred to her mother by name, just by her latest port of call. "Any message?"


Pam and her chef husband had signed on for a Tour-Europe cooking course eight months ago. To her daughter, Pam changed names like a Rand McNally road-trip. Sometimes she took the time to call her kids and let them know where she'd relocated. Other times a food product landed on their doorstep with a foreign shipping label.

Over the months, his daughters' mother had become depersonalized to nothing more than a country. And of course, food.

France. Brie.

Switzerland. Chocolates.

Zach watched Shelby hack away with a paring knife at the latest priority postage offering.

Germany. Sausage.

Shelby pitched a chunk to Aggie.

Zach glanced over at the TV. The multi-pierced performers confirmed Julia's observations of worse scenarios. His gaze fell to the videotape poking half out of the VCR in the entertainment center. "Sorry about missing the movie."

"Like I care. It was just some lame kiddie ballet thing for Ivy. I didn't expect you to actually show."

"Shel, not tonight."

She flipped another piece of sausage to the dog, not even bothering to look at her father.

"Our little optimist thought you'd make it home right up to the minute you called. Of course, she still thinks Germany will come home for her birthday."

Aggie caught the next bite before it hit the rug.

Thanks to Pam, Aggie was the best-fed dog in all of South Carolina. Aggie grew fat while Shelby grew bitter.

"Shel, I know this is a tough—''

The teen rolled off the sofa and to her feet. "As much as I'm enjoying our delayed family hour, I think I'll go to bed. Don't worry about carting me to band camp tomorrow. John's gonna pick me up."

"Okay," Zach agreed since it wouldn't do any good to say he'd actually looked forward to the time with her.

"Sorry the kitchen's a mess. Ivy exploded the cheese in the microwave," Shelby said over her shoulder, leading her dog by the collar as she walked toward her room. "No big loss though. Brie really sucks on nachos."

It wasn't that hot on grilled cheese either, but he'd choked down one of those sandwiches because Ivy had wanted him to. His youngest daughter seemed to think if they ate all that food, her mother would somehow be with them. God help him when Pam got to Greece because he hated olives.

He hated what was happening to his kids even more.

'"Night, Shel."

She shut her door without answering. Not even a slightly surly '"Night, Colonel." Just the sound of her fish tank gurgling. The guinea pig churning its wheel.

Zach walked toward Ivy's half-open door, his footsteps echoing along the hardwood floors. Eight-year-old Ivy slept curled on her daybed. Pink ballet shoes dangled from the iron bedpost. Such little shoes.

An image of other small feet kicking free from a baby blanket tugged him. His kids had problems, sure, but they were healthy. He needed to remember that at times like these.

Stopping outside his own bedroom, Zach hooked a hand overhead on the doorframe. His empty bed swallowed the room.

Those first weeks he and Pam had brought their babies home from the hospital had been hectic—and the best part of his marriage. He and Pam would lie side by side, baby between them. For hours, they would stare at the miracle they'd made together.

Suddenly the image of Julia Sinclair dropped itself smack into his unmade bed, those long legs tangled in his rumpled plaid comforter. Julia, gifting Patrick with all those smiles.

Sharing a few with Zach.

Damn. Definitely deadly testosterone build-up messing with his mind.

Zach turned his back on the image, opting for his trashed kitchen instead. He pitched the sausage in the garbage and pulled a block of frozen hamburger out of the freezer.

Domino's pizza and chili had become his best line of defense against Pam's postal packages.

At least Friday was over. He would toss together a Crock-Pot of chili for the weekend.

Spend some time with his kids, then his bike. Julia didn't want his help, and he sure as hell didn't have the extra time.

That didn't mean he could stop himself from giving it now any more than he'd been able to the past eight months.

Zach stared through the kitchen window at his Harley and knew it wouldn't be getting the tune-up after all. No way could he let Julia bring her son home to an empty house.

Chapter 3

Julia glanced in her car visor mirror for the fiftieth time to check Patrick in back. Not that she could actually see him in his rear-facing infant seat. But every now and again, a spindly arm or leg flailed reassurance.