"I forgot about the damned party," he said, glowering out the window at his own guests. "Stand in for me, will you? Tell them something urgent came up. Can I borrow your pilot?" he added, absently putting his suitcase down and tying his tie.

"Just my pilot?" Matt said, glancing up at Meredith, who'd perched on the arm of the sofa and laid her hand on his shoulder. "Not my plane?"

Zack turned aside as his housekeeper rushed in to give him two briefcases she'd packed at his instructions. "Your plane and your pilot," he said impatiently.

"That depends on where you plan to go."

Satisfied that he had everything he needed for the next few days, Zack finally turned his full attention on his friend. "Where the hell do you think I'm going?"

"How should I know. If it's Keaton, Texas, don't you think you should call Julie first?"

"No, I don't know how she'll react. I don't want her taking off somewhere to avoid me. If I fly commercial, it will take me hours longer to get there."

"What's the rush? You've let her wait for six weeks already while Richardson's been there holding her hand, no doubt, giving her his broad shoulder to cry on. Furthermore, private planes are expensive toys—"

"I don't have time for this b—" Zack cut off the curse word on Meredith's behalf, started forward to kiss her good-bye, then he stopped as Joe O'Hara said from the doorway behind him. "I've got the car out in front, ready to go, Matt. And I talked to Steve on the car phone. He says the plane's fueled and ready to fly. Zack, when are you going to be ready to leave?"

"I think," Matt joked dryly, "he's ready now."

Giving Matt a disgusted look, Zack pulled Meredith into his arms. "Thank you," he said with quiet sincerity.

"You're welcome," she replied, beaming at him. "Give Julie my love."

"Give her my sincerest apology," Matt said, standing up and sobering as he held out his hand to shake Zack's. "Good luck."

They watched him stride swiftly out the door, then Meredith looked up at Matt and her smile wobbled as she said, "That man loves her so much that he doesn't care that many people will think he's a fool for wanting her after what she did to him in Mexico City. All that matters to him is that she loves him."

"I know," Matt replied somberly, gazing into her misty eyes. "I recognize the feeling."

Chapter 76

"Hey, Herman, can you pick up some guy who's landin' at the airstrip in twenty minutes?" The squawk of the walkie-talkie was scarcely noticed in the noisy high school gymnasium where 175 Keaton citizens were gathered for the dress rehearsal of the bicentennial celebration pageant that was to take place tomorrow after the parade. Shoving the saber that hung from the waist of his general's uniform aside, Herman Henkleman groped for the walkie-talkie beneath it and held it to his mouth. "Sure thing, Billy. Julie Mathison just said I've already got my part down great."

Feeling very grand in his uniform, Herman looked around for Julie, who was in charge of the entire pageant, and spotted her standing off to the sidelines beside her brother and sister-in-law, watching the rehearsal taking place on stage. "Howdy, Ted—Katherine," he said as he wended his way through the crowd to her side. "'Scuse me, Julie," he added, and when she looked up and smiled at him, he explained, "Billy Bradson has started lettin' me drive the taxi on weekends to earn some extra money. I gotta go make a pickup for him at the airstrip. Some guy's landin' in a plane out there in a few minutes."

"Go right ahead," Julie said, oblivious to the swift, questioning look that Katherine gave Ted. "We're almost finished here, and besides, you don't need any more rehearsal."

"I know," he said proudly. "I got that part about 'Charge, here come's the enemy' down great.'"

She laughed. "Yes, you certainly do!"

He hesitated, glancing across the room at Flossie Eldridge, then he leaned lower. "If Flossie asks where I am, you could probably tell her I had something real important to do."

Julie had deliberately given him a part in the pageant that required him to be close to the elderly twin, who still blushed like a schoolgirl whenever he spoke to her. "Why don't you tell her yourself," she whispered. "She's looking right at you."

Herman gathered up his courage, and as he headed for the auditorium doors, he stopped in front of Flossie and Ada Eldridge, who were dressed in matching ball gowns, their hair styled into identical masses of ringlets. "I gotta make a run to the airstrip for Billy Bradson," he told Flossie. "I'm helpin' him out on weekends, now, besides doing my electrical work."

"Be careful, Herman," she said shyly.

"Don't blow up his car," Ada said scornfully.

Herman felt his collar turn hot. He stepped away, then stepped back, glowering. "Ada," he said, confronting the woman for the first time in decades. "You are a mean-hearted, spiteful, bloodless woman, and you always have been! I told you that years ago, and it's still true."

"And you," she retorted, turning red, "are a useless good-for-nothing."

He slapped his general's hat on his head and put his hands on his hips, his expression ominous. "That's not what you used to think when you were a girl, chasin' after me, tryin' to turn my head from Flossie!" He walked out, leaving Flossie gaping at her angry twin with a look of hurt and dawning understanding.

Katherine waited until Julie walked up onto the stage to round up the children for their own rehearsal, then she squeezed Ted's hand tightly, her face a mask of hope and tension. "Ted, do you think it's Benedict landing at the airstrip?"

He shook his head. "Not a chance. They said on the news last night that he's giving a weekend party at his house, remember?"

Her face fell and he patted her hand. "It's probably Larraby coming in from Dallas to make his monthly inspection of that factory he's building over in Lynchville."

* * *

"Buckle up, hold on, and say your prayers," the pilot joked over the intercom as the Lear began its swift descent through the encroaching dusk, diving toward the concrete ribbon below. "If this airstrip was six inches shorter, we couldn't set her down here, and if it was any darker, we'd have to land at DFW. Evidently, they don't light this sidewalk up at night. By the way, your taxi's waiting down there."

Without taking his gaze from the videotapes of Julie he'd brought with him to watch on the plane, Zack buckled his seat belt. A few minutes later, however, he looked up with a startled frown as the pilot slammed on the brakes at the moment of touchdown and the sleek plane bucked down the runway, brakes screaming, finally coming to a teeth-jarring stop only a few feet from the end of it.

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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