With a brief smile that didn't reach his eyes, Zack obliged, but when the brunette handed him her napkin to sign, he saw a room number written on the corner of it, and he felt the unmistakable impression of a key being pressed into his palm beneath it. He scribbled his name on the napkin and handed it back to her.

From the corner of his eyes, Matt watched the familiar tableau occur just as it had hundreds of times in their past. "I take it," he said dryly as they followed the manager out of the lobby toward the cottages that surrounded the hotel, "that I'm on my own for dinner tonight?"

In answer, Zack glanced at the key in his palm, flipped it into the shrubbery, and looked at his watch. "It's four o'clock. Give me two hours to make some phone calls, then we'll continue celebrating my release."

Two hours later when Matt walked into Zack's cottage, Zack was changing into a new shirt and pair of slacks that his old tailor had hastily delivered to him only moments before. The tailor had departed with tears in his faded eyes and Zack's order in his pocket for two dozen new suits, shirts, slacks, and sport coats. The local Rolls Royce dealer had been similarly overjoyed at Zack's return and had promised to deliver three automobiles for his inspection to the hotel in the morning. "I don't suppose," Matt said at seven o'clock, when Zack finally hung up from a long phone call during which he convinced his tenants to accept a large payment in return for vacating his Pacific Palisades home, "I have a prayer in hell of convincing you to check into a hospital for a few days for a complete physical? My wife is adamant that you should do that."

"You're right," Zack said drily as he headed over to the bar to fix them both a drink, "you don't have a prayer of convincing me to do that." Glancing toward the array of bottles on the bar, he grinned and added, "Champagne or something stronger?"

"Something stronger."

Nodding agreement, Zack dropped ice into two crystal glasses and added Scotch with a splash of water, then he handed one of the glasses to Matt. For the first time since he'd been released from prison, Zack let himself begin to relax. He studied his friend in silence, luxuriating in the reality of his freedom and the inexpressible gratitude he felt toward Matt. "Tell me something," he said solemnly.

"What do you want to know?"

Hiding his poignant sentimentality behind a joke, Zack said, "Since there's no way I can possibly repay you for your loyalty and friendship, what can I give you for a belated wedding present?"

The two men looked at each other, both of them aware of how profoundly meaningful the moment was, but they were men and too much sentimentality was unthinkable. Matt took a swallow of his drink and quirked a thoughtful brow, as if giving the matter his full attention. "Considering the extent of the trouble you put me through, I think a nice island in the Aegean would be a suitable token of your gratitude."

"You already own an island in the Aegean," Zack reminded him.

"You're right. In that case, let me talk it over with Meredith when I get back home."

Zack watched his eyes soften when he mentioned his wife's name and the subtle trace of pleasure that threaded his voice when he said home. As if Matt knew what he was thinking, he looked into his glass and took another swallow of his drink. "She's anxious to meet you."

"I'm anxious as hell to meet her, too." Humor threaded his voice as he continued, "When I was in prison I kept up with all the … er … dramatic publicity surrounding your renewed courtship of your own wife." Sobering a little, Zack added, "I was surprised that you'd never even told me that you'd been married to her fifteen years ago."

"I'll tell you the real story behind that—the part the newspapers weren't able to dredge up—some other time. When you're settled in, I'll bring Meredith and Marissa out here, and we'll spend some time together."

"How about in six weeks? That will give me plenty of time to get everything rolling and back to normal. I'll give a party, in fact." He thought for a minute. "On May twenty-second, if that works with your schedule."

"Six weeks? What can you possibly accomplish in six short weeks?"

Zack tipped his head toward the table beside the telephone and said dryly, "Those are all 'urgent' messages that the switchboard operators felt I should know about even though they told the callers I wasn't registered here. Take a look at them."

Picking up the messages, Matt leafed through them. Among the messages in the stack were ones from the heads of the four major studios, several independent producers, and two from Zack's former agent. Tossing them aside, Matt said with an amused grin, "They all say the same thing—'Welcome home, we knew you were innocent, and now we have an offer you won't be able to resist.'"

"Fickle bastards, aren't they?" Zack said, his voice devoid of rancor. "Funny, they never sent me love notes like that in prison. Now they're calling every hotel in town where they think I might be staying, leaving messages."

Matt chuckled, then he sobered, bringing up a worry that had been plaguing him since Zack's release. "What do you intend to do about Julie Mathison? If she charges you with—"

Zack's smile vanished, his eyes turning into shards of ice. "Don't ever mention her name to me again," he bit out. "Ever."

Matt's brows pulled together at his tone, but he let it pass. Later that night, in his own cottage, he called Meredith to tell her he was flying home in the morning and to bring her up to date on Zack's activities. "He's got blanket film offers coming in by telephone from every studio in Hollywood already. And he wants to give a party in six weeks, on the twenty-second, if we can be there."

In Chicago, Meredith twisted the phone cord around her finger and cautiously brought up the name of someone who Matt completely despised. "What about Julie Mathison?"

"She's not invited," Matt said sarcastically. Softening his voice, he said, "If you think I'm irrational about her, you can't believe Zack's reaction to the mere mention of her name."

Stubbornly, Meredith said, "Has anybody stopped to consider how she must be feeling right now, knowing that he's innocent of those murders?"

"She undoubtedly feels disappointed that her public image as a heroine just went to hell."

"Matt, despite what you think, she loved him! I know she did. I could tell."

"We've had this debate already, darling, and it's a moot subject in any case. Zack hates her, and it's not a temporary state of affairs. I'll be home in the morning. How's Marissa?"


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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