She had classes to teach and football and softball teams to coach. She'd have to get busy and stay busy. She must not fall apart.

"Paul," she said with only a slight tremor when he finally took her call, "I have to see him, I have to explain—"

His voice was sympathetic, kind, and final. "That won't be possible right away. He can't have visitors at Amarillo for awhile."

"Amarillo? You promised me he'd go to a mental hospital for evaluation and treatment!"

"I said I'd try to accomplish that, and I will, but these things take time, and—"

"Don't talk to me about 'needing' time," she warned, but she held onto her composure. "That warden's a monster. He's sadistic, you could see he was in Mexico. He'll have Zack beaten until—"

"Hadley isn't going to lay a hand on him," Paul interrupted gently, "that much I can promise you."

"How can you be sure? I have to be sure!"

"I'm sure because I told him we were going to want to question Benedict in connection with kidnapping charges and that we'd expect him to be in perfect condition when we do. Hadley knows I don't like him and he knows I mean business. He won't screw around with me or the FBI, especially not when he's already under investigation by the prison authorities as a result of that prison uprising last month. His job and his skin are both too precious to him."

"I will not," Julie reminded him forcefully, "be a party to charging Zack with kidnapping."

"I know that," Paul said soothingly. "It was just a means to keep Hadley under control, not that I think it's really necessary. As I said, he knows the prison authorities are investigating his conduct and watching him closely."

Julie's breath came out in a rush of relief, and he said, "You sound a little better today. Get some rest. I'm going to come see you this weekend."

"I don't think that's a good—"

"Whether you want to see me or not," he interrupted firmly. "You can worry about Benedict, but it's you I'm worried about. He's a killer and you did what you had to do, for his sake and everyone else's. Don't ever let yourself think anything else."

Julie nodded, telling herself firmly that he was right. "I'll be fine," she said. "Really I will."

When she hung up, she looked at Katherine and Ted. "I will," she promised them both. "You'll see. It's nice to know," she said with a tremulous smile, "that something good came from this nightmare—the two of you."

She ate the breakfast they forced on her, then she got up to make a second phone call.

With the firm intention of urging Matt Farrell to use his considerable influence to get Zack into a hospital, Julie dialed his private number in Chicago. His secretary put her call through, but when Matt Farrell picked up the phone, his reaction to her call was beyond Julie's worst imaginings:

"You vicious, scheming bitch," he said, his voice hissing with rage. "You should have been an actress! I can't believe I was stupid enough to swallow that act you put on and let you use me to trap Zack!" He hung up on her. Julie stared at the dead phone in her hand while the realization slowly hit her that Zack's friend obviously hadn't thought Tony Austin's death was Zack's doing: The need to accomplish her goal and also exonerate herself became a compulsion. She called Chicago, got the telephone number for Bancroft & Company's main department store, and asked to speak to Meredith Bancroft. When Meredith's secretary insisted on knowing Julie's name before she'd put the call through, Julie fully expected Meredith to refuse her call.

A few minutes later, however, Meredith's voice came across the distance—cool and reserved, but at least she was willing to talk. "What can you possibly want to discuss with me, Julie?" she said.

Unable to keep the pleading from her voice, Julie said, "Please just listen to me. I called your husband a few minutes ago to ask if he has any influence to get Zack transferred to a mental hospital, and he hung up on me before I could ask him."

"I'm not surprised. He hates you thoroughly."

"And you?" Julie said, swallowing to steady herself. "Do you believe what he does—that the night you were here I concocted a scheme to trap Zack and turn him in and that I used both of you to do it."

"Didn't you?" Meredith asked, but Julie sensed a hesitancy in her voice, and she grabbed at it.

Her words spilling out in a desperate jumble, she said, "You can't believe that. Please, please don't. I went to see his grandmother after you were here and she told me the truth about how Zack's brother died. Meredith, Zack shot him! Three people who made him angry are dead! I couldn't let him hurt more people, you have to understand that and believe me…"

Hundreds of miles away, Meredith leaned back in her chair and rubbed her temples, remembering the laughter and love in Julie's dining room. "I—I do believe you," she said finally. "The night Matt and I were at your house, that just couldn't have been an act. You loved him very much, and trapping him was the furthest thing from your mind."

"Thank you," she whispered simply. "Good-bye."

"Are you going to be all right?" Meredith asked.

"I don't remember how 'all right' feels," Julie said with a broken laugh, then she shook off her self-pity and said politely, "I'll be fine. I'll cope."

Chapter 64

In the weeks that followed, Julie coped in the only way she knew how: Shunning the television set and radio completely, she immersed herself in work and a dozen civic and church activities, and she kept herself going until she dropped into bed at night, exhausted. She took on tutoring assignments, volunteered to head the church fund drive, and accepted the chairmanship of Keaton's Bicentennial Celebration, which was scheduled to take place during the last week of May with festivities that ranged from fireworks and a dance in the park to a carnival. No one in Keaton had any doubt about the cause of Julie's endless round of feverish activities, but as day faded into day, their surreptitious, pitying glances came less often, and they were never foolish enough, or heartless enough, to congratulate her on her bravery for turning in the man she had obviously loved.

Days merged into weeks that passed in a blur of frantic activity, but slowly, very slowly, Julie began to find her balance again. There were days when she actually went for four or five hours without thinking of Zack, nights when she didn't reread his only letter before she fell asleep, and dawns when she didn't lie awake staring dry-eyed at the ceiling, remembering things like their silly snowball fight or his wonderful snow monster or the husky sound of his whispered endearments when he made love to her.

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance