Julie received a formal apology in front of her classmates from her teacher and a more grudging private one from the dour-faced Mr. Duncan.

That afternoon, Julie got off the school bus in front of the church and spent fifteen minutes inside it, then she ran the rest of the way home to share her news. Bursting into the house, red-faced from the icy weather, desperately eager to offer the hard proof that would completely exonerate her from theft, she raced into the kitchen where Mary Mathison was preparing dinner. "I can prove I didn't take the lunch money!" she panted, looking expectantly from her mother to her brothers.

Mary Mathison glanced at her with a puzzled smile, then continued peeling carrots at the sink; Carl scarcely looked up from the floor plan of a house he was drawing for his Future Architects of America project at school; and Ted gave her an absentminded grin and continued reading the movie magazine with Zack Benedict on the cover of it. "We know you didn't take their money, honey," Mrs. Mathison finally replied. "You said you didn't."

"That's right. You told us you didn't," Ted reminded her, turning the page of his magazine.

"Yes, but—but I can make you really believe it. I mean I can prove it!" she cried, looking from one bland face to another.

Mrs. Mathison laid the carrots aside and began to unfasten Julie's jacket. With a gentle smile, she said, "You already did prove it—you gave us your word, remember?"

"Yes, but my word isn't like real proof. It isn't good enough."

Mrs. Mathison looked straight into Julie's eyes. "Yes, Julie," she said with gentle firmness, "it is. Absolutely." Unfastening the first button on Julie's quilted jacket, she added, "If you're always as honest with everyone as you are with us, your word will soon be proof enough for the entire world."

"Billy Nesbitt swiped the money to buy beer for his friends," Julie said in obstinate protest to this anticlimax. And then, because she couldn't stop herself, she said, "How do you know I'll always tell you the truth and not swipe stuff anymore either?"

"We know that because we know you," her foster mother said emphatically. "We know you and we trust you and we love you."

"Yes, brat, we do," Ted put in with a grin.

"Yep, we do," Carl echoed, looking up from his project and nodding.

To her horror, Julie felt tears sting her eyes, and she hastily turned aside, but that day marked an irrevocable turning point in her life. The Mathisons had offered their home and trust and love to her, not to some other lucky child. This wondrous, warm family was hers forever, not just awhile. They knew all about her, and they still loved her.

Julie basked in that newfound knowledge; she blossomed in its warmth like a tender bloom opening its petals to the sunlight. She threw herself into her schoolwork with even more determination and surprised herself with how easily she was able to learn. When summer came, she asked to go to summer school so she could make up more missed classwork.

The following winter, Julie was summoned into the living room where she opened her very first gift-wrapped birthday presents while her beaming family looked on. When the last package had been opened and the last piece of torn gift wrap picked up, James and Mary Mathison and Ted and Carl gave her the most exquisite gift of all. It came in a large, inauspicious-looking brown envelope. Inside was a long sheet of paper with elaborate black printing on the top that read, PETITION FOR ADOPTION.

Julie looked at them through eyes swimming with tears, the paper clutched against her chest. "Me?" she breathed. Ted and Carl misinterpreted the reason for her tears and started talking at the same time, their voices filled with anxiety. "We, all of us, just wanted to make it official, Julie, that's all, so your name could be Mathison like ours," Carl said, and Ted added, "I mean, like, if you aren't sure it's a good idea, you don't have to go along with it—" He stopped as Julie hurtled herself into his arms, nearly knocking him over.

"I'm sure," she squealed in delight. "I'm sure, I'm sure, I'm sure!"

Nothing could dim her pleasure. That night, when her brothers invited her to go to the movies with a group of their friends to see their hero, Zack Benedict, she agreed instantly, even though she couldn't see why her brothers thought he was so neat. Wrapped in joy, she sat in the third row at the Bijou Theater with her brothers on either side of her, their shoulders dwarfing hers, absently watching a movie featuring a tall, dark-haired guy who didn't do much of anything except race motorcycles, get into fistfights, and look bored and kind of … cold.

"What did you think of the movie? Isn't Zack Benedict cool?" Ted asked her as they left the theater with a crowd of teenagers who were generally saying the same thing Ted had just said.

Julie's dedication to total honesty won by a very narrow margin over her desire to agree with her wonderful brothers about everything. "He's … well … he seems sort of old," she said, looking for support to the three teenage girls who'd gone to the movies with them.

Ted looked thunderstruck. "Old! He's only twenty-one, but he's really lived! I mean, I read in a movie magazine that he's been on his own since he was six years old, living out West, working on ranches to earn his keep. You know—breaking horses. Later he rode in rodeos. For a while, he belonged to a motorcycle gang … riding around the country. Zack Benedict," Ted finished on a wistful note, "is a man's man."

"Yes, but he looks … cold," Julie argued. "Cold and sort of mean, too."

The girls laughed out loud at what had seemed a reasonable criticism to Julie. "Julie," Laurie Paulson said, giggling. "Zachary Benedict is absolutely gorgeous and totally sexy. Everyone thinks so."

Julie, who knew that Carl had a secret crush on Laurie, instantly and loyally said, "Well, I don't think so. I don't like his eyes. They're brown and mean-looking."

"His eyes aren't brown, they're golden. He has incredible sexy eyes, ask anybody!"

"Julie isn't a good judge of stuff like that," Carl intervened, turning away from his secret love and walking beside Ted as they headed home. "She's too young."

"I'm not too young to know," Julie argued smugly as she tucked her small hands in the crooks of both their elbows, "that Zack Benedict isn't nearly as handsome as you two!"

At that piece of flattery, Carl flashed a superior grin over his shoulder at Laurie and amended, "Julie is very mature for her age, though."

Ted was still absorbed in the wondrous life of his movie hero. "Imagine being on your own as a kid, working on a ranch, riding horses, roping steers…"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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