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Authors: Catherine Mann

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

Under Seige (4 page)

BOOK: Under Seige
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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?"

"Nope."

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.

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. "Yeah."

"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 breasts 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.

BOOK: Under Seige
2.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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