Page 5

A Mickey Mouse diaper bag perched beside her where once a portfolio full of architectural designs for her playhouses would have rested.

The bag looked good there.

Cars whipped past on the bridge out to her barrier island bungalow. The hospital had demanded she sign a waiver before releasing her without someone to drive her home.

Somehow it had been important to do this herself.

Of course Kathleen would be blazing mad when she received the message that Julia had left alone. Any number of people would have driven her.

Like a certain tall, dark and studly Lieutenant Colonel Dawson.

Julia shoved an image of his broad shoulders right out of her mind and turned down the narrow street into her beach subdivision. Clapboard houses on stilts lined both sides of the streets. Older homes of Charleston natives claimed the waterfront property. Newer homes made to look like the old sprawled into the rest of the housing development where Julia lived.

Rounding a corner, she tapped the brakes, freshly painted toenails sparkling from her sandals. Seeing her toes again proved a real treat. Her glitter-specked rosy pedicure shone with a touch of femininity she needed after months of bloated pregnancy. She'd packed polish in her hospital bag with just that in mind. Except the simple pampering ritual had brought a greater resurgence of femininity than she'd expected.

Surely not because of Zach's hungry stare at her legs.

Her toes glistened a mocking contradiction she didn't want. There'd been a certain comfort in the numbness that had followed her initial grief. Perhaps she wasn't ready to wake up.

Too bad a six-foot-four testosterone-oozing alarm clock sat waiting on her porch.

Julia inched down the street. She shouldn't be surprised to see Zach Dawson there. No doubt he had called the hospital to check on her and they'd caved to his request for information in spite of regulations.

The man was persistent. Countless times over the past eight months she'd come home to find Zach in her yard tackling some fix-it project. The guy couldn't seem to get it through his head that she knew how to wield a hammer with the best of them. And, of course, there was the first time she'd come home to find him on her porch eight months ago—

Julia sliced off that depressing thought.

She slid her car into the driveway beside his red truck. Zach stood, slowly unfolding himself until he towered beneath her shaded porch. Yeah, his jeans and T-shirt rather than a flight suit made it easy to forget that other visit.

Dangerously easy.

"Hi, Colonel," she said as she stepped from her car, using his title as a reminder for distance.

He balanced his radio on the banister. Another reminder of his job. Did the man ever go anywhere without that thing?

Julia spun away, her achy legs protesting the fast move. More careful of her tender body, she unbuckled the car seat with her now-sleeping son inside. She couldn't resist pressing a kiss to the tiny sock-clad foot.

"Welcome home, sweetie." Lifting out the seat, Julia called over her shoulder, "Where are the girls?"

"Ballet and band. I figured you didn't need them climbing all over you just yet. We'll save their visit for when you're settled." He stopped beside her, taking the infant seat.

No choice but to face him, she straightened. "I guess I would be wasting my breath telling you this isn't necessary."

"Smart woman. Unlock the front door and I'll unload the flower shop in your back seat."

She smiled her thanks and followed his commander-like order since it would be childish to argue anyway.

Fitting the key in the front door, her hands began to tremble. She shoved the door wide, but her feet stayed planted on the porch. She wasn't ready to step inside her empty house.

Not yet.

"Uh, Colonel, everything can go in the hall." For once grateful he wouldn't even consider letting her help, she sagged into a wooden porch rocker. "Patrick and I will sit here and enjoy the breeze."

"Perfect." Zach placed the car seat beside her before loping down the steps to the car.

"How did Ivy's ballet auditions go?"

"Graduated a level." He hefted out her suitcase.

"She made it up on pointe?"

"You mean all that torturing her toes stuff?" His cowboy boots thudded up the steps.


"Good for her!" Julia cheered, taking refuge in their safe territory of familiar discussions about his girls. She did not need to think about all that lanky appeal encased in soft, faded denim. Her hand draped over the armrest to rock Patrick's car seat while Zach carried load after load of roses, carnations and daisies. "How's Shelby?"

"Don't ask." He battled a bouquet of balloons from her passenger seat.

"That good, huh?"

"You got it." A salty breeze gusted off the ocean, dragging the balloons behind him as he took the steps in two strides. He looped the dangling ribbons around a post into a slip knot and tucked his hands in his back pockets.

Nothing left in her trunk, no safe territory remaining to explore, Julia's gaze skittered from the gaping door of her empty house, back to the too-intriguing man on her porch.

"Uh, do you want to sit for a minute? Patrick should sleep for at least another hour."

"You need to rest."

"I can rest in the rocker."

He checked his watch. "Sure. I have another few minutes before I have to pick up Ivy."

Zach hitched up onto the porch rail across from her. Palmetto trees rustled in the silence, a barge horn blaring in the distance.

He jerked a thumb toward the casserole dish on the top step. "I brought chili. Light on the spices since you're— uh—nursing."

"Oh. Thanks." Heat tingled up her face, an answering tingle settling in her br**sts as she even thought of nursing. Of Zach seeing her. Let-down reflex, of course. Nothing more, she reassured herself. "You didn't have to, but we'll be gracious receivers. Patrick and I can't very well live off my one claim to culinary fame. Slice-'n'-bake cookies."

"Last I heard," Zach said, his drawl twining around her like the warm fall breeze,

"gourmet cooking skills weren't on St. Peter's list of mandatory requirements for passing through the pearly gates."

"Good thing."

Twenty-four hours ago, they would have shared a laugh and now she couldn't even meet his eyes. She missed the comfort of their unlikely friendship. Needing the precious reassurance of her baby in her arms more than ever, Julia bent to unbuckle Patrick.

Baby nestled on her shoulder, she kicked off her sandals, her head lolling back to rest.

She propped her feet on the bottom brace of her porch rail and rocked, arching and flexing her bare feet.

Zach's gaze fell to her legs, then her feet, lingering on her painted toenails.


Before she could blink, he reached, grabbed the porch eave and hefted himself up.

Swinging a leg onto the roof, he disappeared overhead. Heavy footsteps thudded from above.


Had she imagined his momentary glance due to leftover wishful musings from her midnight pedicure? Julia stood as quickly as her aching body would allow and padded barefoot down the four steps into her yard so she could look up at him. "What are you doing?"

"Last week's storm tore up your trees."

Shading her eyes, she watched him stomp across the roof punting branches to the ground.

"Please be careful. I don't have the energy to cart you to the ER."

"Not a chance. Walking around up here's nothing. I was scaling oil rigs while other kids were climbing monkey bars. Kinda like flyin' without the plane if you swing out just right."

She couldn't miss the edge of excitement in his voice as it rambled out over her yard, or how at home he looked that much closer to the sky even now.

He scooped a handful of leaves out of her gutters and sent them fluttering to the ground.

"I'll head back over later and clear out the rest of these."

"Do you ever sit still for more than two minutes, Colonel?"

"Nope. Waste of time. Call me Zach."

"Relaxing's never a waste of time, Colo— What did you say?"

"Call me Zach."

Standing on her roof, feet braced, sun at his back he'd never looked less like a Zach and more like a commander. He towered, inky-black hair as dark as the shadow he cast across her slate roof. His frown equally as dark. The whole image so fascinating she would call him the Easter Bunny if he asked.

Julia snuggled her son closer as a reminder for safer thoughts. As much as she might be tempted to toss caution off like a pair of sandals, she wouldn't let herself fantasize about gazing out on the world from the roof with Zach.


She shivered at the intimacy implied by the name. An intimacy she had no intention of exploring.

Zach stared down from the roof at Julia below him and thanked heaven for his sure-footed instincts gained from years of climbing oil rigs.

She looked so damned beautiful. Sun glistened off her wheat-colored curls. Her flowing dress—made out of that scrunchy fabric—swirled around her, twisted and molded to her mile-long legs.

Except she wouldn't be exchanging pleasantries with him if she knew what topped his schedule Monday morning when he began an extensive review of her husband's flight history.

Julia shifted under his scrutiny, her bare feet tracing a restless dance in the grass. God, he would far rather stare at her than think about what he had to do. Those surprisingly sexy painted toes had sent him vaulting off the porch before he fell into a repeat gape of the night before.

What color polish did she wear? He hadn't allowed himself the indulgence of finding out.

Now he couldn't tell for certain from such a distance and for some reason he had to know.

Zach scaled to the ground, landing beside her. Overgrown lawn masked her toes. Damn.

"You said back at the hospital you aren't my obligation. Fine. So forget I was your husband's boss. I'm your friend helping out which means you can stop calling me Colonel and start calling me Zach."


He waited. Where had the whole name request come from in the first place? Strange, but he hadn't thought much about the fact that not many people used his given name anymore. As he had climbed the ranks, his circle of familiars narrowed. And then with the divorce...

He wanted to hear his name. From Julia.

She shuffled, scratching her toes over the top of her other foot. Pink. The polish was pink.

Soft, pretty pink—with those damned alluring sparkles. A lot like her.

"Well, Julia?"

"Thank you for the chili and the welcome-home smile... Zach."

His name whispered from her mouth and right through him.

Ah, damn.

What the hell had he done? Drawn a dumb-ass line in the sand that she'd stepped right over. And now there was no going back.

Julia stared at Zach, his name still warm on her tongue and swirling in her mind. Patrick stirred against her shoulder, reminding Julia of her priorities. Flirting factored way down on the list.

Determined to climb those steps, Julia secured her hold on her baby and herself. If only she could jump straight from the porch into Patrick's farm-theme nursery, the only room in the house that didn't carry memories of living there with Lance.

Zach's steady bootsteps followed. His shadow lengthened over her as she crossed into her living room.

For about ninety seconds, she thought everything would be fine. The familiarity of her home embraced her. Two overstuffed sofas in slate-blues and buttercup-yellows bracketed the fireplace. Frothy sheers allowed light to filter through and caress the honey-warm tones of oak furniture, some things her own work, such as a miniature playhouse under the window. Other pieces lovingly chosen flea-market finds, like the pie safe.

With her wedding picture on top.