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In full-dress uniform, Lance smiled out of the crystal frame.

Her stomach gnawed on itself like the grinding tug of a saw chewing at a piece of hardwood. She was truly alone. Alone to bring up a precious child totally dependent on her for so much more than most children.

The awesome responsibility washed over her—along with a surprise surge of anger at her husband.

If only Lance hadn't convinced her to forgive him for doing the unforgivable, then died before she could finish reconciling her feelings. She had managed to accept that he'd had an affair. She hadn't, however, been granted time to find a way to forgive him for loving the other woman. The kind of woman he should have married.

Knowing her feelings were unreasonable didn't stop her from shifting some of that pent-up anger at Zach. How could he tempt her with thoughts of what it would be like to share responsibilities with someone again? To trust someone again—even if only with friendship?

She didn't dare think about the desire to touch him in a way that had nothing to do with friendship.

"Zach," she said his name, trying to ignore the thrill of it tripping off her tongue. "Please don't take this the wrong way, because I do think of you as a friend. One who's become too important. You have to go. We'll work something out later for the girls to see the baby like I promised, but you have to stop coming here."

"Damn it, Julia," he sighed with uncharacteristic impatience. "You can't do everything alone."

"I'm not." Already, his stoic face tugged at her. "My parents are coming for a couple of weeks. My friend Lori's flying in for another."

She scrambled for a persuasive reason to give him for why she would accept help from others, but not him. Her eyes landed on Lance's picture, providing her with an excuse not far from the truth. "It hurts too much having you around. Even without the flight suit or rank, there's no mistaking who you are. You're the Colonel. You carry yourself with the bearing of an Air Force officer. You walk with the confidence—hell the cockiness—of a jet jock, and I can't take the reminders right now."

Waiting for him to speak, she wondered if he might scavenge an argument that could sway her. Did she want him to? "It's not you. It's what you represent that I can't be around."

He took a barely discernable step back. But from a man who shared little of his feelings the gesture relayed bucketsful of how she'd rattled him. Forcing him out of her life hurt more than she expected.

Zach began shaking his head, and Julia braced herself for an argument from a man who could convince troops to follow him into hell.

His cell phone chirped in his back pocket.

As if in response, the military radio blared from the porch through the open door.

For once, Zach didn't bolt to answer.

"Shouldn't you—"

"That's why they make caller ID," he assured her, maybe trying to assure himself as well.

He cricked his neck to the side until his shoulders lowered. "All right. I have to respect your decision, but you have to respect where I'm coming from too. You've been there for my girls, and I want to be there for this little guy. There's no shame in a new mother asking for help."

Zach smoothed a hand along Patrick's back. His hand continued up to palm her cheek.

"Just know you can call me. Anytime. Anywhere. For anything."

She squeezed her eyes shut. Why did he have to pick now to use those words?

With her eyes closed, her senses heightened, betraying her resolve. Zach's callused skin against her cheek reminded her of unsanded oak, rough, natural. Strong.

Just as she weakened, ready to tip her face into the sheltering heat, into the power and strength of his touch, his hand fell away.

The heat lingered.

Her eyes drifted open. He reached for his phone as he turned to the door, military bearing ingrained in his stride.

Once the door clicked behind him, she allowed herself to move. To breathe.

Swaying from side to side to soothe her baby and perhaps steal a little of that comfort for herself, Julia listened to Zach's truck growl out of her driveway. A part of her grieved over ordering him to leave. Another part of her realized that grief and separation would be short-lived.

"Well, Patrick," she whispered in his tiny shell ear. "I may not have known he climbed oil rigs as a kid. But I've learned more than a little about Zach Dawson during the past eight months."

As good as the man was at giving orders, he could be really rotten at following them.

* * *

"That's an order, Lieutenant," Zach barked over the headset to the copilot, his hand steady as he flew the C-17, in spite of his irritation.  Not anger, he reassured himself. Just irritation. Six weeks worth of pent-up irritation building since he'd left Julia's house.

Miles of ocean and sky stretched in front of his windscreen as he piloted the plane back from a two-week training deployment to Guam. He needed to get home to his kids before the sitter lost her mind—and to check on Julia before his head exploded from frustration over her self-imposed exile. "Do you copy, Renshaw? Over."

"Roger, Colonel," answered First Lieutenant Darcy "Wren" Renshaw, the newest addition to his squadron, currently sitting beside him in the cockpit. "But I can pull another hour in the co's seat, no problem."

"I'm sure you can, Renshaw, but you don't have to. An eighteen-hour mission makes for plenty of flight time to go around." His hand tightened around the stick. No yoke steering for the C-17 Globemaster III. The mammoth cargo aircraft possessed the same stick and grace as the A-10 he used to fly. "Head on back to the bunk and sleep. Bronco will relieve you."

Captain Tanner "Bronco" Bennett piped onto the headset from the seat behind Renshaw.

"Hey, Wren, quit grousing and take your turn in the rack so I can have mine next. I'm an old expectant father and I need my beauty sleep."

Renshaw snorted. "I don't think this mission's long enough to help you on that one, Bronco."

"Ouch! Mortal blow to the ego!"

"Yeah, yeah, my heart bleeds for you." She unbuckled and stood. "All yours, Bronco."

Zach waited until Renshaw disappeared through the bulkhead and Bronco strapped his linebacker-sized body into the copilot's seat before pushing the private interphone button.

"How's Wren doing?"

"Good, Colonel. Real good. Makes my job as aircraft commander a cakewalk. She's a damn fine copilot, fits right in with the rest of the crewdogs. If anything, she tries too hard. Probably feels the need to live up to that impressive Air Force pedigree of hers."

"Could be."

Renshaw's father had called to check on his "little girl" just last week, tossing those general's stars around to make sure his baby was being careful in Guam. Zach cared more about his people than stars. Renshaw didn't need cosseting. She deserved the chance to prove herself and advance her career.

Julia's voice echoed in his mind with her insistence she didn't need his help.

Zach shrugged off the thought. Different matter altogether. "Glad to hear she's working out."

Settling into the comfort of routine and silence broken only by the occasional radio call buzzing over the headset, Zach flew. Just flew. Nothing like it—him, his plane and miles of sky.

Flying across the Pacific provided an extra thrill of isolation. With Atlantic flights, a landing site could always be found within two hours. Other planes crowded the Atlantic airways. Not so over the broader Pacific. The wide expanse of ocean offered complete freedom from the rest of the world.

Zach inched the stick left, nipping the plane closer to the clouds flicking past. Tighter, he slipped alongside a cloud.

Hugging a cloud allowed him to gauge visually how fast he flew, optimizing the awesome effect of hurtling through the sky. One of his favorite flying games.

God, he loved his plane. Not many people had a hundred-and-twenty-five-million-dollar toy to take for a spin, complete with all the latest bells and whistles. He'd come a long way from his teenage years scavenging rides off anything with wings to log flight hours.

Gliders. Crop dusters. Even hiring out to make runs for the local coroner.

Anything to touch the clouds.

Closer. Closer. Closer he inched until his wingtip disappeared into the nimbus.

"Colonel." Bronco's voice slid through the headset and Zach's concentration. "Could we switch back to private interphone?"

Commander instincts overriding, Zach nodded, tapping the button on his stick. "Done.

Speak to me, Bronco."

"I received a call this week from an accident review board."

Zach forced his grip to stay loose on the stick. "And?"

"When did they re-open the investigation into Lance's crash?"

"About six weeks ago." Six weeks and three days ago, to be exact. Patrick Sinclair's birthday. "What did they want to know?"

"His state of mind at the time of the crash. His performance during the months leading up to the crash. All sorts of questions I sure as hell never wanted tossed my way. We scheduled a time to talk when I get back." Bronco shifted in his seat, his restlessness impossible to miss in the confined cockpit. "Sir, what am I supposed to say?"

Zach kept his eyes trained forward. "The truth."

"That he was one of the best pilots I've ever flown with, but yeah, his concentration was shaky? That his marriage was on the rocks, so maybe he wasn't up to speed?"

Zach's fingers clenched around the stick. At least the plane didn't bobble. All the same, he had to rein himself in. He'd never been one for emotional displays. A waste of time.

Relaxing's never a waste of time, Colonel.

Julia's voice drifted through his mind like one of those whispery clouds keeping pace alongside.

Tucking the plane's nose, Zach dipped below the clouds and abandoned games. He would leave emotional displays and front-porch relaxing to free spirits like Julia. He understood what he needed to do to keep his life in order. "If that's the way it happened with Lance, then that's what you tell them."

"Even at half speed, Lance could fly circles around most of the squadron. Except I know how those boards work and they won't hear that part."

Hell, Julia wouldn't want him hearing the part about her shaky marriage. But it was his job and as Pam would have bitterly reminded him, he always did his job. "What part will they want to hear?'

"That his wife was considering walking because he'd been seeing someone else. No way in hell do I condone the mess Lance made out of his personal life, but in the air...I know in my gut that crash wasn't his fault."

Zach's gut agreed with Bronco's.

At least he thought it did. Doubts didn't come often to Zach, but he couldn't help questioning his objectivity on this one because of his attraction to a sexy pair of legs, sparkling toenails—and winsome green eyes.

"Well, Colonel? What should I say?"

The pilot in him wanted to advise Bronco to blow off the board. The commander in him knew he couldn't.

And what about the man within him? He wanted to hang Lance Sinclair out to dry for hurting Julia. For giving her all the more reason to shut out reminders of the Air Force.

As always, the commander finished in first place. "Answer their questions. You don't have to hand them Lance on a silver platter, but give them what they ask for."

Bronco's exhale echoed. "Yes, sir."

The ping of a TACAN navigational aid locking in dragged Zach's focus back to work, where he intended to keep it until he landed. Only two hundred miles to the California coast.

In the homestretch, he would see Charleston again within six hours. Zach changed radio frequencies until he had California's Travis Air Force Base Command Post on the line.