"She misses you."
His voice deepened with tenderness. "How's Marissa's mommy?"
Meredith smiled. "She misses you even more."
"Mr. Benedict, could we have a picture with you and Miss Copeland?" The Los Angeles Daily News reporter shouted, raising her voice to be heard above the music and raucous clamor of the five hundred guests attending a lavish weekend party at Zack's home. When he didn't hear her, she turned to the other reporters with a laughing shrug. "What a bash!" she said, motioning to one of the fifty tuxedo-clad waiters moving around the crowd offering trays of hors d'oeuvres and drinks to those guests who didn't want to bother wandering over to the huge white canopy where the caterers were providing lobster, caviar, and a host of delectable food. Behind them, the enormous swimming pool with its Roman columns was filled with more guests, some of them fully dressed, drinking and shouting. "He's only been out for six weeks and look at this!" she continued happily, helping herself to a glass of Dom Perignon champagne from the waiter's tray. "He's back on top of the world, hotter than ever. The kingpins of the industry are all here at his beck and call, overjoyed with the honor to be included in his 'homecoming party.'" She took a sip of champagne and, for the sake of conversation, confided something most of them already knew. "His agent said that Paramount, Universal, and Fox have all offered him any script he wants, and the bidding for his next film is up to $20 million. He's holding out for twenty-five and a bigger piece of the gross."
"Not bad for a guy who's been away from the business for five years," the CBS reporter said with a chuckle, and like the Daily News reporter, he scrupulously avoided the use of the word prison, not because he was particularly tactful, but for a more practical reason: Zack's publicist had made it clear to all the reporters who were lucky enough to be admitted to this party that there were three subjects that, if brought up, would get them ejected and also permanently eliminate their chances for any future interviews with him. Those permanently banned subjects were his imprisonment, his dead wife, and Julie Mathison.
The NBC reporter looked at his watch, then he looked around for his cameraman and saw him standing by the swimming pool, trying to flirt with a starlet clad in a micromini spandex dress with a plunging neckline. "His publicist said he'd give us all a two-minute interview and pose for some pictures if we stayed out of his hair during the party. If he doesn't do it soon, I'm not going to be able to get this tape on the ten o'clock news."
As if finally realizing their dilemma, Sally Morrison, who'd handled all of Zack's dealings with the media for years, motioned to them to gather into a group, then she wended her way through the crowd to where Zack was listening to three producers who were vying for his attention while Diana Copeland kept her hand through his right arm. As they watched, Sally spoke to him, he nodded, looked over at the reporters, and excused himself from the group surrounding him, walking toward them with Diana at his side.
"What a fun evening this has been," Katherine said enthusiastically as she slid into the restaurant booth occupied by her husband, Julie, and Paul Richardson. Going to the movies on Saturday night, then stopping at Mandillos afterward for dinner had become a ritual during the six weeks since Julie had decided to throw herself into life with a vengeance that had them all more alarmed than reassured. "Isn't this fun?" she said, looking around at their bright, smiling faces.
"Terrific," Ted said.
"Great," Paul averred.
He put his arm around Julie's shoulders. "What do you think?" he teased. "Would you say the four of us getting together every weekend is fun, terrific, or great?"
"It's wonderful," Julie decreed instantly. "And did you notice how balmy it is tonight? May has always been my favorite month." In the six weeks since Zack had been released from prison, more than just the weather had changed. Last month, Ted and Katherine had quietly remarried in the living room of the Cahills' home with Reverend Mathison officiating.
Paul Richardson had come to Keaton from Dallas for the wedding, and their weekends had become a ritual. Julie's father, however, was now hinting that he'd be pleased to perform another wedding whenever Paul and she were ready. Paul was ready. Julie was not. Despite her outward gaiety and animation, she had achieved a state of blissful emotional anesthesia toward any sort of deep feeling, and it was a state of being that she enjoyed. She clung to it and nurtured it with fastidious care. She could laugh and smile and work and play and feel … very nice. No better than that. And definitely no worse. So strong was her carefully acquired emotional balance, that she had not shed a single sentimental tear during Ted and Katherine's wedding, although she had been very, very happy. She had cried all of her tears over Zack, and now she had found a peaceful insulation that could not be broken or pierced by anyone or anything.
The waitress wended her way through the tables filled with Keaton residents and pulled out her pad. "The usual, you guys?" she asked. "Four New York strip steaks, medium rare, and baked potatoes?"
"Sounds great, Millie," Ted said.
Julie added a question about her husband. "How's Phil doing with his new job at Oakdale's Garage?"
"Great, Julie. Thanks for putting in a good word for him there. Phil says you practically cinched the job for him."
"He's a terrific mechanic," Julie replied. "He's kept my car running all these years. I did Oakdale's the favor, not Phil."
Mandillos had a juke box with a small dance floor in one corner, tables for diners across the center of the room, and, at the opposite end, a lounge with a bar and big-screen television set, which was especially popular during the football season. "I have some quarters," Paul said, digging into his pocket. "How about helping me pick out songs on the juke box?"
Julie nodded and smiled, sliding out of the booth beside him. In a restaurant filled with people she knew, it took ten minutes to get past the tables, where she stopped repeatedly to talk to friends, and only two minutes to pick out the songs.
"The juke box is turned off because the television set is on," Paul said, as they slid back into their U-shaped booth. "I'll ask Millie to turn the television off," he said, looking around for their waitress.
"Wait about two minutes," Ted said. "The news is on and I'd like to know how the game ended."
As he spoke, all four people glanced up at the television set, idly watching the news.