Page 9

"Yeah, you told me already."

"Oh, right. I'll just say goodbye to Ivy first before she falls asleep." Julia spun away, darting down the hall.

Zach slumped against the counter in his wrecked kitchen, not too different from his wrecked libido after standing so close to Julia. He glanced around the trashed room full of pizza boxes, dishes in the sink, Ivy's science project on the floor. At least he would have something to do to burn off the restless energy from his flight. Not that he minded the mess in the least. For the first time in too long, his house felt...


He wanted someone who would be there for his kids. And from where he was standing, the scene in front of him fit the bill too damned perfectly. Of course he was far from being the perfect man for Julia Sinclair or her son.

Zach knelt beside the baby. "Hey, little man. Good nap?"

Patrick stretched stiff-backed in his car seat.

"Good. Glad to hear it." The kid deserved the best. Grabbing a sleeper-clad foot, Zach tweaked the baby's toes. "You go easy on your mama tonight, okay, Bruiser? She needs her sleep and there isn't anybody around to help her with those night feedings."

Would there have been even if Lance had lived?

Zach frowned. Where had that thought come from? Still, he couldn't stop wondering if the already rocky Sinclair marriage would have lasted. Did Julia still love the guy?

A moot point anyway.

Zach stared at the tiny foot in his hand and forced himself to be honest. He was trying to justify the possibility he could be finding the man guilty of negligence on the job. If Julia didn't still have feelings for Lance, then she wouldn't resent Zach for what he had to do if the results of Bronco's interview with the board went wrong.

Yeah, right.

Regardless of how Julia felt about her cheating husband, he was still the father of her child. Just as Pam was the mother of Zach's children. And even as pissed as he was at Pam, he wanted his children to have good memories of their mom.

No way in hell would Julia understand him tainting Lance Sinclair's memory.

Time for her to pack up before he found himself sharing more than a spoonful of fudge with her tonight.

Chapter 5

Shelby pushed once, twice, a third time on the screen to her bedroom window. White, ruffled curtains flapped in the breeze. She so hated those curtains. She'd wanted purple, but her mother had said neutral colors matched better in any house wherever they moved.

Screw moving. Shelby thumped the screen again with the heel of her hand. Finally, it slipped loose.


Swinging one leg over the sill, she waved goodbye over her shoulder to her fish and favorite hunk poster. Shelby landed in her backyard with a muffled thud, easy enough since she had the routine down pat. She could shimmy out that window, past Ivy's swing set and into the pine forest behind her house with a stealth that would have impressed her dad's airmen doing maneuvers.

But the last thing she wanted was more attention.

Headlights rounded the corner. Shelby flattened herself to an oak tree. Bark scratched her bare arms, but she held still until... the car... passed.

She exhaled, darting deeper into the stretch of trees to a dirt path. Her running shoes crunched dry leaves. A cool breeze kept her from getting sweaty without freezing her out.

The moon streaked just enough light through the branches for her to run without tripping.

And she couldn't run fast enough away from that house.

Being the Colonel's daughter totally sucks, she thought for the hundredth time. She might as well be in the Air Force too. She didn't have a real life.

They lived in a military house. Bought their groceries at the commissary. Went to the base chapel. Even her doctor wore cammo.

She couldn't breathe crooked without someone reporting it to her dad. When he was even home, which was next to never since he always had a world to save. Countries to feed.

Messes to clean up overseas. Sure would have been nice if he'd ever take time to clean up his mess of a life at home.

Except now he had Julia to take care of that for him.

Shelby tucked around another pine tree onto the base golf course. Almost there. Too bad the escape couldn't be forever.

Geez, even her lame mom had figured out how to get away for good. Shelby's chest tightened, like when the bell for first period rang and she hadn't done her homework. She gulped in night air as she jogged, but the pain wouldn't go away.

Probably just that rigatoni giving her heartburn. Mrs. Middleton had made her eat it the night before.

Shelby slipped on a slick patch of pine straw, grabbed for a tree, steadied before taking off again. She didn't get a say in anything. Even what she ate.

Well, she would get her way tonight.

A flash of orange blinked in the distance—John's favorite sweatshirt.

John. He slouched against a tree, tall and lanky with his dark hair loose to his shoulders just the way she loved.


For her.

The stitch in her side eased.

Ducking and weaving, Shelby sprinted across the golf course straight against John's chest. "Sorry I'm late."

He stumbled backward, but his hold stayed tight around her. "I wasn't sure you were gonna make it tonight."

"Me neither."

He ran his hands up her arms. "Hey, you shoulda brought a jacket."

"I didn't want to wait." Or risk going back into the hall where her father could see her pierced eyebrow. "It's not that cold."

November in Charleston never was, not like the five other places she'd lived. She'd be moving to city number seven next summer, thanks to her dad's job and some to-die-for assignment in Alabama.

No choices.

The stitch came back.

John pulled away, whipping off his sweatshirt. "Here. Wear mine anyway."

He slipped it over her head. All that concern and cotton slid right over her too until the tightness in her chest lessened.

Shelby tucked back into his arms and rubbed her cheek against his T-shirt. She wanted to stand like this forever. No demands. No rigatoni or goodbyes.

She tipped her face up and pulled John's head down to hers and could have sworn she tasted chocolate.

* * *

Julia backed out of Ivy's room, blowing a kiss as she closed the door. Stalling in the hall, she traced the first in a cluster of framed baby pictures of the girls lining the walls, followed by school pictures, all marching time along to the present.  She eyed Shelby's door, fish tank gurgling in the silence, and considered whether or not to knock. Probably best to leave well-enough alone for now. No need to push her luck after the chocolate incident.

Which she would have to tell Zach about along with the newly pierced eyebrow. But not tonight. Let him get a good night's sleep first.

In that big, warm bed of his.

Julia slumped against the wall. Definitely better to wait until tomorrow to discuss it with him.

Talk to him tomorrow?

What had happened to keeping Zach's hot body and aviator wings out of her life? Was she making excuses to see him again? Maybe. But she couldn't face more time with Zach tonight without caving and doing something impulsive.

Not to mention stupid.

Julia pushed away from the wall and walked toward the kitchen. The cool parquet floors against her bare feet helped temper a heat that had begun flaming through her the minute Zach started wolfing down all that fudge.

She stepped into the kitchen—and stopped short.

Zach knelt beside the baby car seat, grinning down at Patrick. A floor of ice wouldn't be cold enough to chill the warm tide of emotions flooding through her. That enticing half smile kicked up one side of Zach's face as he played piggies with baby toes, such an incongruous image.

Erase the car seat and Zach personified the warrior spirit, protector of his country whatever the cost. A five-o'clock shadow peppered the harsh angles of his jaw. Miles of lean muscle telegraphed strength encased in a forest-green flight suit and black leather combat boots. He even had a survival knife tucked in one of those boots.

More than a little fearsome.

Completely awesome.

And playing "This Little Piggy" on a six-week-old's toes with a gentleness totally at odds with all that restrained power. She definitely needed to pack her baby and her bags, and make tracks back to her house. "Zach?'

Zach looked from the baby up to the boy's mother standing silhouetted in the open doorway. Julia's feet shuffled a restless dance. No doubt she was ready to go, and who knew when he and the girls would see her again?

He braced a hand on his knee and stood. "Thank you for coming over when I called yesterday. I know this wasn't easy for you. I wouldn't have asked if there had been any other way."

"I know that. And you're welcome. I owe you—"

"No. Don't ever say you owe me a thing. What I do for you is no strings attached. No obligations." He needed her to leave, but didn't want her running so far this time. A tough balance to strike, but he would do it. "This isn't about you and me or debts. This is about what the kids need and my kids needed you."

Her feet stilled. "I had fun with the girls and Kathleen and the whole laid-back schedule.

Next week, my maternity leave's up. I'll understand soon enough what it's like to balance child care and job demands as a single parent." Clouds shifted through her eyes for a flash until the ready sparkle returned. "Before you thank me, you should check what happened to the back hedges when Ivy gave us an impromptu performance of Swan Lake."

"That bad huh?"

"Let's just say Aggie wasn't interested in joining the cast."

Chuckling, Zach hitched a shoulder on the doorframe. Yeah, he'd moved closer to Julia but no problem now that they were back on familiar ground just as he'd planned. No need to rush her out the door now.

Think again, dumb ass. Still, he couldn't stop himself from enjoying a moment of the friendship he'd missed too much the past six weeks. "Thanks for making it sound like this wasn't a colossal imposition."

"It wasn't."

"Yeah, right. Every woman with a six-week-old baby wants to take on two more kids to watch and pick up after."

"You must be joking about the picking-up part." She swept a curl off her brow. "It looks like I ran through your house with a lawnmower."

"It's not that bad." Well, it was, but that didn't matter. Julia brought laughter for his girls along with all that chaos. "Just looks like y'all had fun."

"You should have seen it before they helped me clean."

Zach snorted. "My kids? Help clean? You forget, I've seen their rooms."

"Really. They did."

"Either you're a great liar or a miracle worker."

"I'm not their parent so it's no fun playing the martyred kid with me."

"Too true."

Her laugh joined his with too much ease. Too much power. Too much. Period.

With adrenaline rising as fast as his resistance fell, he needed to stop playing with fire.

Even if that fire promised to be more exciting than any game of cloud chasing. "Point me toward your bag and I'll load it in the car."

"In your bedroom."

He did not need to hear that. His imagination took a fantasy flight right into sharing that bed with Julia.

She spun away, padding barefoot down his hall while Zach strode behind her. If he helped, she would leave all the sooner. Right? He wasn't actually following her into his bedroom for any reason other than that.

Ah, hell.

He pivoted on his heel and went back for Patrick. Snagging the car-seat handle, Zach hefted along his very own pint-sized chaperone. "No napping now, Bruiser. You hear that? I'm gonna need all the back-up I can get. You'll be my wingman and watch for bogies looking to blast us out of the sky. Got it?"

Patrick gurgled a spit bubble.