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Authors: Catherine Mann

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #cookie429, #Extratorrents, #Kat, #Single Parents, #Family & Relationships, #Parenting, #Single Parent

Under Seige (2 page)

BOOK: Under Seige
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He cleared his throat, but didn't move. The normally confident man hesitated. "Sorry. Didn't mean to interrupt the baby's, uh, eating."

A tingle of realization prickled at her scalp.

Uh-oh.
Worse than barefoot, she'd forgotten she was also too darn close to being bare-breasted.

Heat crawled all the way from her toes straight up over her half-covered chest to her nose. Thank goodness Patrick's snoozing face covered as much as any bathing suit. "He's just sleeping, not eating, I mean not yet anyway."

The commander's gaze darted everywhere around the room—everywhere she wasn't. "I can come back later."

Julia stifled the urge to shout a resounding acceptance of his offer to hightail it to the nearest elevator.

Women breastfed in public every day, after all. "Don't go. Just give me a second to..." Get dressed? Put away her breasts? "Just give me a second."

"Sure, no problem." He turned, his profile backlit by the fluorescent glow from the hall.

The hard angles of his face shadowed forbiddingly, another difference from Lance. Her husband had been light-hearted, easygoing—and so blasted good-looking some had labeled him downright pretty.

No one would ever dare call Zach Dawson pretty.

Rugged. Magnetic. Starkly attractive like the no-nonsense Texas desert he hailed from. But never pretty.

Julia jerked her gaze away. The poor guy would fall asleep standing in her doorway if she didn't stop daydreaming. She secured the last button and cradled Patrick in her arms. "All set. Sorry about that."

He pivoted on his boot heel toward her again. "No need to apologize or be embarrassed." A half smile tipped his craggy face as he circled around a discarded IV pole. "It hasn't been so long since Shelby and Ivy were that size nursing round the clock."

Great. Even Zach Dawson knew more about breastfeeding than she did.

Julia gave herself a mental shake. She refused to surrender to self-pity in front of him. Maybe the best way to ward off those weepy hormones might be to resort to the teasing that had become the hallmark of their relationship over the last few months. "Thanks. You're a doll to make me feel better."

"A doll?" One brow arched up into his coal-dark hairline.

This man was far from being anyone's kewpie doll, but it was fun wringing a smile from him. And she could use some fun today. "Absolutely. Hasn't anyone ever called you that before?''

He leaned back, one boot braced against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. "I'm sure they've called me plenty of names around the squadron, but I feel downright confident Colonel Doll wasn't one of them."

"That's too bad. It's catchy, far more cuddly and approachable than Wolf One, don't you think?"

"Demoted from Colonel Doll to Colonel Cuddly?" A low chuckle rumbled free along with his mock wince. "Now that has a ring to it I'm sure the crewdogs will appreciate. But I think we can save those cute and cuddly labels for the little fella you're holding."

She relaxed into her pillows, grateful the awkwardness of her "flasher" moment had dissolved and the ease of their friendship had returned—a friendship no doubt born of obligation on his part.

He'd been so hell-bent on helping her lately. She felt like an ingrate for resenting him when he mowed her lawn. Changed a tire. Removed a squirrel from her chimney.

She'd done everything in her power to become strong and independent for her baby. She was proud of taking her woodworking to a new, professional level with her playhouse-manufacturing division in the company. It galled her to accept help that could well be a threat to her newfound independence.

And here Zach Dawson was again, fulfilling his obligation by visiting her. God, she hated being anyone's obligation.

Julia rubbed her wrist over the Band-Aid covering a tender IV puncture wound. "Colonel, please don't think I'm not grateful for your visit, but don't you have anything better to do on a Friday night than hang out with a lactating new mother?"

"Can't think of a single thing." His thumb sawed absently back and forth against the radio clutched in his hand.

"Surely you'd rather be back on base at the club with the guys." Her eyes narrowed as she realized he might well have very different plans. He was an attractive bachelor after all, probably not more than thirty-seven or thirty-eight. Of course she was only thirty-one, but felt closer to ninety-one some days.

"Or out on a hot date."

All hints of a smile faded as he held up his radio. "Not unless she's willing to meet me on the flight line in an hour when the next plane lands."

Flight line. Planes. Fearless pilots.

Without warning, that blue cloud threatened a proverbial thunderstorm. She needed Zach Dawson to take his flight suit, military radio and all other reminders of the Air Force out of her room before she totally lost it.

The guy already carried that sense of obligation to the extreme. She didn't need to make it worse with a crying jag that would have him changing her oil by sunrise. "I appreciate your stopping by, but it's late and you probably want to finish up at the flight line in time to say good-night to your girls."

"I do need to head out soon. But before I forget, I have something for you from Ivy." He swung his boot up onto the chair and unzipped the thigh pocket. Zach tugged free a folded piece of paper. "Doc Bennett's call about your delivery came just before the kids left for school. Ivy drew this for you."

Julia tucked Patrick to her chest as she leaned to take the homemade card. Neon marker colors sketched out a rainbow over a playhouse with a little boy on the steps, a playhouse just like the one Julia had designed at work the month before. How like quiet Ivy to remember from a brief stop at Julia's office on their way to the mall.

Shopping trips with the Dawson girls had been a welcome distraction lately. And she'd soon discovered the only way Zach would let her pay him back for all his help was through his daughters.

"Thank you," she said, tracing a finger over the arch. That rainbow tugged at her. Peacemaker Ivy always plastered rainbows over everything, an endless task given the year those girls had weathered after their mother walked out. "You've got a great kid there, Colonel."

"Blind luck on my part, but yeah, she sure is." He smiled again. Lieutenant Colonel Dawson didn't smile often, but mention of his children reliably earned his lopsided grin.

"Tell Ivy the card will go in Patrick's baby book at home." Julia inched up in the bed, wincing at aches in more places than she could have predicted. "For now, I'm going to give it a center-stage spot with the other cards and flowers."

"No need to get up. You should take it easy while you can." He reached for the card. "Tell me where you want—"

Their fingers brushed.

Just the tips, not much of a touch, but it zipped a spark through her she'd never expected to feel again.

She certainly hadn't expected to feel it thirteen hours after giving birth.

Surely the reaction was only a byproduct of an emotional day and the crazy intimacy of that moment when he'd opened the door. After eight lonely months, her body craved the comfort of human touch.

Except the spark searing her fingertips had very little to do with comfort.

She might want that comfort, even the spark too in about six weeks, but she didn't want all the baggage that came with it. She'd fought a draining battle to salvage something with Lance because she'd made a commitment to the marriage, only to lose him anyway.

Never again would she risk offering her bruised heart to any man but her son. Patrick needed a steady environment and a strong mother to thrive.

Julia snatched her hand away. The paper crackled in her tight grip. "I can do it. The doctor said it's good for me to walk."

She sneaked a look at the silent man in front of her and wondered if he'd noticed her momentary insanity.

If so, that inscrutable expression of his probably covered horrified shock. Like he would actually go into testosterone meltdown over a puffy, post-partum woman in purple pajama shorts.

"Okay, then." He set his LMR on the bedside table and held out his hands, palms up. "At least let me take the little guy in case you're shaky."

Thoughts of sparks and comfort cooled. Her arms tightened instinctively around the bundled baby.

Zach waited, hands unwavering. "I haven't dropped one yet. Promise."

Julia pulled a small smile, but couldn't make herself let go. She wasn't ready. She didn't want to share Patrick.

Or face the inevitable questions.

For just a moment longer, she wanted this day to be as normal as possible. She'd endured enough consolations and platitudes the past eight months to fill the Atlantic. She couldn't stomach any more.

In spite of what others might think, she refused to see Patrick's birth as anything other than a blessing.

How could anyone use a harsh word like
defect
in regards to her child? To her, he was perfect.

Which meant she needed to set an open, positive tone up front. She would show Patrick a world full of possibility, not limitations. Her son wouldn't be sheltered. Protected definitely, but never hidden away.

"Thanks, Colonel. Just be extra careful with his head." With hands a little shakier than she would have liked, Julia passed over the sleeping infant into Lieutenant Colonel Dawson's callused hands.

She made damn sure she didn't touch him in the process.

Swinging her legs from under the blanket, Julia kept her eyes trained on her toes and waited for the commander's reaction. Should she have simply told him? Maybe it wasn't fair to expect unconditional acceptance when he hadn't been prepared.

Why wouldn't he say something? Anything? Even question her?

She respected, trusted this man's integrity so much. If he didn't react with grace and composure, what could she expect from the rest of the world?

Her heart filled with a fierce protectiveness for her baby. Damn it, she would down a mountain lion for her kid.

Even take on one daunting "wolf' if need be.

Chin tipped defensively for battle, she looked up to find Zach's steady hands cradling her son against his shoulder.

Those hands palmed Patrick's back and head like a seasoned veteran.

Maybe she would find the reassurance in his face as well as his hands. Letting her gaze travel farther, she sought Zach Dawson's brown eyes and found them...

Not staring at Patrick, but at Julia's bare legs.

Chapter 2

Zach couldn't drag his eyes off Julia Sinclair's legs propped atop the sterile white hospital blankets.

The allure of those legs blindsided him like a bogey from his six o'clock. Granted, they were mighty incredible. Likely the best he'd ever seen—long, slim, with just the right mix of toned muscle and soft curves.

Awesome legs he had no business checking out.

His gaze snapped up to her face—her very surprised face. And she didn't know the half of it. One hint of all the images churning through his head, and she would bash him over the head with a flower arrangement.

One hint that he was mired in an investigation of her husband, and she would do more than bash him over the head.

Zach looked away, studying the It's a Boy balloon bobbing beside a plastic pitcher as if it held a full flight plan inscribed on its blue surface. He didn't speak. Apologizing for his unguarded stare could only make the situation more awkward.

Julia eased to her feet, standing almost eye-level with him, a novelty for Zach as he usually developed a crick in his neck from leaning when he talked to a woman.

Or kissed a woman.

The bogey was damned persistent today.

Julia spiked her fingers through her short blond waves. A flicker of confusion shifted through her dewy green eyes before she turned from him. "Ivy's card will look just right tucked between the roses from the Clarks and the plant from the squadron."

Zach exhaled. "They're...uh...nice."

"All those flowers are wonderful for masking the hospital smell." She inched across the private recovery room, bracing a hand on a rolling tray for support. Leaning to place the card between a vase of yellow roses and a spidering fern, she rambled about who had sent each card and arrangement.

What the hell was he thinking letting his eyes wander right back to those legs the minute she wasn't looking? The woman had just given birth, for crying out loud. She was a widow of less than a year.

He should bash himself over the head.

The lack of sex must be cutting off oxygen to his brain. That and the whole awkward way he'd walked into the room messed with his control. Her glow of maternal beauty, the subtle curve of her breast had stopped him dead, stirring him more than any flagrant exposure.

He forced himself to turn away.

Zach secured the baby against his shoulder and walked to the window. The half-empty parking lot made for safer viewing anyway. "See that clear sky, Patrick? It's a great night for flying." He patted the baby's back, speaking softly in his ear. "Sun's going down, but that's okay. We're just about the only Air Force in the world that flies and trains at night. We like the protection, the stealth of a dark sky. Day or night, it's all the same in the cockpit thanks to our electronics."

Lance Sinclair had died at night. His instruments had been in prime condition and still he'd hit a mountain.

Zach carefully pushed aside the thought, continuing to mumble about planes and flying, all the things Lance would have told his boy. "When you go to flight school, little fella, they're gonna try to talk you into one of those pretty fighters. But don't you listen. You want to fly the heavies. You want to fly with a crew. With guys to watch your back. Friends to share their cookies."

The baby stirred against Zach's shoulder, one thin leg kicking free of the blanket. Julia stepped forward as if to grab her son back.

Zach shifted Patrick from his shoulder to the crook of his arm. "It's okay. I have him."

He slid his finger along the tiny palm for the baby to grab hold and tried not to think about how the boy's father should be here.

BOOK: Under Seige
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