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Authors: Catherine Mann

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

Under Seige (6 page)

BOOK: Under Seige
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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. "Reach one-two-two here, requesting landing weather for 2300 Zulu time at Charleston Air Force Base."

"Roger that, Reach one-two-two." Low static buzzed until the voice returned. "Charleston weather for 2300 Zulu. Ceiling, one hundred feet. Visibility, a quarter mile. Thunderstorms in the area for at least five hours."

Thunderstorms.
The homestretch lengthened. He wouldn't see home today. Or Julia.

His hand itched on the stick, trying to convince him to press on. He'd managed to fly through worse in battle conditions.

Too bad he recognized the itch well. It originated from the deadly disease flyers called get-home-itis. It made pilots do stupid things, like fly through mud-soup thunderstorms just to hug a wife or kid goodnight.

His girls couldn't afford to lose another parent.

"Roger, Travis. I'm gonna need a phone patch to Charleston AFB Command Post." He recited his home phone number to the Charleston controller and waited for the connection to complete. A sampling of his chaotic home life would be broadcast over the airwaves for anyone from the Pacific across the whole United States on the same frequency to hear.

Charleston Command Post responded, "Reach one-two-two, party's on the line. Initiate phone patch."

Zach depressed the button. "Break. Break. Colonel Dawson here."

"Hello, Colonel," his daughters' sitter, Mrs. Middleton, answered. "The girls are fine. Ivy's already planned a special meal for you. We're cooking some of the rigatoni that came in yesterday's mail."

Rigatoni. Italy. Pam. Great.

"There's a problem with weather, and I won't make it in tonight after all."

"Oh, Colonel, I'm sorry, but that just won't work. My daughter-in-law's being induced in the morning. I'm catching the red-eye flight out tonight. You'll have to find other arrangements."

Frustration kicked into overdrive. The finality of her tone left him with no doubts. She would pull out of that driveway even if it meant leaving his children alone.

"I'll come up with something, Mrs. Middleton. Just don't leave until I call you back." He switched buttons. "Command Post, Reach one-two-two terminating phone patch."

Bronco drummed his fingers on the control panel. "Kathleen's TDY to Shaw AFB and won't be driving home from Sumter until tomorrow afternoon or she'd help."

"I know." Zach clicked through his dwindling options, not a lengthy task. He shied away from asking other members of his squadron or their wives as it could sound too much like an order. A coercion of sorts. And he didn't want his daughters facing a stranger at the door.

Without question, the best answer for his kids would be to call Julia.

Except what about Julia's wishes for distance? Didn't she have an overloaded plate of her own?

She would be the first to say his children's safety took priority. He would have to ask her.

Even thinking of hearing her voice jolted through him with too much excitement. An excitement he couldn't afford.

He stunk at long-term relationships. Julia wasn't the fling sort. Even if he could somehow convince himself to try something more substantial, a doubtful prospect, they weren't suited. Her free-spirited personality would wither under his more somber outlook. Together, they would be an emotional crash in the making.

Besides, he couldn't risk subjecting his kids to more turmoil.

"Command Post, initiate a second phone patch. This one to Julia Sinclair." Again, he recited the number from memory, eliciting a pair of raised eyebrows from Bronco.

"Yes, sir," Charleston Command Post answered. Crackle. Crackle. "Party's on the line. Initiate phone patch."

He pressed the button and spoke to Julia with the whole world listening in. "Break. Break. Colonel Dawson here."

"Zach, is something wrong?''

Zach.
His name echoed over the headset with a husky sensuality that could stir a man into a damned lethal case of get-home-itis.

And apparently he wasn't the only one who noticed.

All background chitchat on the headset ceased. Bronco sat up straighter, even went so far as to press his ear piece to secure the seal. Bronco, the one dubbed King Cupid at last year's Valentine's Ball because of his infamous matchmaking. Between him and the other listening ears, gossip would saturate the base by sunrise.

Zach reminded himself his daughters needed Julia. And for the moment, so did he. "Julia, I need your help."

Chapter 4

"Ack! Can somebody help me with this fudge, please?" Gripping the designer pot, Julia huffed a lock off her brow. Her hair flopped right back, limp from all the steam pumping through the kitchen.

Hot fudge avalanched over the side of the pot toward the edges of the pan. Julia rushed to stem the tide with a useless high-tech spatula left behind from Pam's gourmet kitchen. The last thing she needed was to send the stuff splattering onto the stark white cabinets. Of course the mess wouldn't even come close to the chaos of her emotions as she waited for Zach to walk through that door any minute.

Ivy shot to her feet, hopscotching over the scattered pieces of her science project littering the floor. "Pour slower, maybe."

Kathleen started to swing her spit-polished boots from the chair across from her then stopped. Her camouflage uniform stretched across her stomach. She sank back into her seat at the white spindle table and hitched Patrick up on her shoulder. "Can you two handle it? By the time I manage to roll out of this chair, that fudge will have petrified."

Ivy steadied the pan under the stream, her chestnut ponytail swaying as she adjusted. "We've got it.

Right, Julia?"

"You betcha." Julia smiled down at a miniature version of Zach's face. All those angular features that looked so strong on a man made a tough handle for a little girl, but Ivy would grow into a stunning woman.

Julia risked a glance at Kathleen to check her son. "Stay put, Kathleen. You've already done plenty coming straight over after your drive to help out. Just keep holding Patrick while we talk." She continued the steady stream of words in time with the pouring chocolate. "Everything I've learned in Early Infant Stimulation classes says talking to him nonstop is the best thing I can do to help his language stay as close to on track as possible. The week after my folks and Lori left, I talked myself hoarse. So talk. Please!"

"That, I can do."

Soft baby coos in response swirled through the kitchen, and Julia tried not to think of how much she would miss those reassuring sounds when she returned to work.

Kathleen lifted Patrick nose-to-nose. "Too bad we don't have my chatty hubby around for that one, huh?

He could gab your ear off."

Julia's laugh was cut short by Ivy's squawk. "Hey! Watch out!"

"Oops, sorry." Julia slowed the stream of chocolate to a trickle and reminded herself not, under any circumstances, to look through the screen door again at the driveway—at the empty spot Zach's truck would soon fill.

Too bad the window over the sink offered an eyeful of the darkened street. Ivory lace curtains framed her view. Rows of near-identical military brick houses lined the road with porch lights blazing a welcome home. Families waited inside, trusting that their person would walk up those steps just as she had trusted one time too many almost ten months ago.

Hands trembling, Julia set the pot back on the counter to hunt for a larger spatula, desperate for anything to do to stay busy and distracted. Since rushing to Zach's house the night before, there had barely been a free second to breathe. With school and homework all today, it seemed there hadn't been time to think.

Now, with him due home soon, she couldn't do anything but think about his voice reaching to her through the telephone. The most capable man she'd ever met uttering words she'd never expected to hear from him.

/
need your help.

Enticing words. Seductive words.

Dangerous as hell words.

Don't think. Stay busy.

Julia rifled through the drawer, but Pam had left precious little of her favorite cooking utensils behind. All that remained was an abandoned mishmash of gourmet gadgetry—tiny pastry brushes, a grapefruit knife, an egg-poacher. Where was an old fashioned, cheapo spatula for a clueless fudge cook?

Ivy swiped a dribble from the side of the pot and sucked it off her finger. "Umm. Good. Hey, maybe we could crunch some candy canes on top. That would be kinda like Mom's triple-layer mint brownies."

"Maybe I should call Shelby to do this part." Or turn over the whole dang pot to Shelby so she could feed it to the dog. "We should work on your science project anyway. How about we build another level for your nature habitat?''

Man, she would rather tinker with a hammer, some nails and a block of pine, instead of fudge as gritty as sandpaper.

Another fast shake of Ivy's head sent her hair swishing. "We should finish this first. I like cooking with you."

Of course she did, but then any female mother-figure would have fit the bill. Poor kid. "Me too, sweetie.

This was fun."

Julia swirled the grapefruit knife through the unmelted blobs of marshmallow cream. Okay, not too bad, even appetizing with all those unmixed marshmallow swirls marbleizing the effect.

Ivy chewed her lip. "Maybe if we keep it in the refrigerator."

A snort sounded from Shelby in the family room. "More like the freezer."

Julia glanced over her shoulder at Shelby strolling to a stop in the doorway. The teen pitched pretzels into her mouth. Aggie trailed, pitiful puppy eyes tracking every bite.

Shelby plastered an expression of boredom across her face with more masking perfection than an Estee Lauder makeover. Except Estee Lauder ladies didn't usually have a silver stud through an eyebrow.

Stifling a groan, Julia scratched her own brow. As if things weren't already going to be awkward enough when Zach walked through the door.

When he saw what Shelby had done...

Julia's rebellious eyes snuck another peek at the driveway. His truck still wasn't there, but the lean lines of his Harley offered too potent a reminder of the man anyway. She wanted to see him, had been lonely for his towering presence and brooding smile for the past six weeks.

Too much so.

She needed some of that chocolate. Now.

Julia whipped open a drawer and scooped out a handful of spoons. "Let's just eat it as is, kinda like raw cookie dough."

"Cool!" Ivy squealed, bouncing on her toes. "I hardly ever get to lick the bowl since Mom always scrapes it clean like the recipe says."

Julia padded barefoot across the kitchen, passing a spoon to Ivy and pitching one to Shelby. "Well, hon, I've never been one for following the recipe since it usually doesn't work out anyhow. I'm a make-it-up-as-I-go type."

Kathleen placed the sleeping infant in his car seat and extended a hand. "Don't I get one?"

Grinning wickedly, Julia dangled the spoon just out of reach. "You told me not to eat junk food when I was pregnant."

I told you to limit junk food, and believe me, Tanner's limiting my junk food just fine. I swear, I'm going to burn all those pregnancy books he's reading," she said, her grumbling completely negated by a smile.

"You'd think he would know I have the darn things memorized. Now, give me a spoon."

"Yes, ma'am!" Julia passed the spoon over Patrick still snoozing away in his car seat. She brushed a quick kiss across his brow, savoring her last days with him before her maternity leave ended. He might be six weeks old, but she recalled those pregnancy cravings well.

BOOK: Under Seige
12.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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