"I have never made a dirty movie in my life," Zack replied, tacitly admitting to the other charges.

Jim Mathison almost smiled. "At least you aren't a liar. Are you aware that Paul Richardson is in love with her? He wants to marry her. He's asked for my blessing. He's a fine, decent man with principles. He wants a wife for life, not just until the next buxom blond movie star comes along and turns his head. He wants children. He's willing to make sacrifices for her—even to the extent of going to California to see you. He comes from a close, loving family like Julie does. They could have a wonderful life together. Well, what do you say to that?"

In the midst of a blaze of jealousy, Zack suddenly realized that Jim Mathison was merely using Richardson as a means to force Zack to face his shortcomings as Julie's potential husband, and he was also skillfully and deliberately maneuvering Zack into a position where he could either declare himself and lay his cards on the table or back off and go away. Despite the personal discomfort Mathison had deliberately subjected him to, Zack's admiration for the man doubled and he leaned back in his chair. "What I have to say is this," he began, responding to the list of Richardson's qualities in the order Mathison had given them: "Richardson may be a plaster saint, and he may be in love with her; but so am I. Furthermore, Julie loves me. I am not interested in buxom blondes or redheads or any woman except Julie. Forever. I, too, want children, just as soon as Julie is willing. I will make whatever sacrifices for her are necessary. I cannot change the way I lived my life before now, I can only change the way I live it from this point on. I cannot help the fact that my family was not close, I can only let her teach me how a family is supposed to be. If I can't have your blessing, I'd at least like your reluctant acceptance."

Mathison crossed his arms over his chest, his gaze direct. "I haven't heard the word marriage from you."

Zack smiled. "I thought it was a foregone conclusion."

"In whose mind? Has Julie actually agreed to marry you, I mean since you've come back?"

"There hasn't been time to ask her."

His brows shot up. "Not even during the hour that her phone was off the hook tonight? Or were you too busy trying to convince her to start that family you say you want?"

Zack had the appalling feeling that he was going to blush like a schoolboy.

"It seems to me," Mathison continued curtly, "that you have a distorted view of what is proper and decent. In your world, couples have sex, then babies, and then when they get around to it, they get married. That is not an acceptable order of things in Julie's world or God's world or mine!"

Restraining the urge to squirm in his chair, Zack said shortly, "I intended to ask her to marry me tonight. In fact I thought we could stop in Lake Tahoe on the way to California tomorrow and get married there."

Mathison lurched forward in his chair. "You what! You two have known each other for seven days, you've already slept together, and now you intend for her to drop everything and go away with you and then get married in some sleazy civil ceremony. She has a job, a family, and other people to consider. What do you think she is, some brainless pet you can snap a leash on and lead off to Disneyland? Where's your sense of justice and priorities! I expected better of you after the speech you made me a few minutes ago."

Zack walked straight into the trap. "I don't think I understand. What is it you expect me to do?"

Mathison sprung it. "I expect you to behave like a gentleman, to make a few sacrifices. In short, I would expect Julie's future husband to spend time here getting to know her, to treat her with reverence and respect, as God intended for us to treat our women, and then to ask her to marry him. Assuming she agrees, you will be engaged for a suitable time, and then you will be married. The honeymoon," he finished implacably, "takes place after the wedding. If you are willing to make all of these sacrifices, then, and only then, would I be willing to give my blessing or perform the ceremony, which, by the way, I feel certain is the only way Julie would feel truly and happily married. Am I making myself clear?"

Zack frowned. "Very."

Jim Mathison saw the frown and pounced. "If those few sacrifices of personal convenience and your physical satisfaction are already too much for you to make, then—"

"I didn't say they were too much," Zack interrupted, his thoughts hopelessly tangled up in the heretofore unconsidered realization that Julie would naturally want her father to perform the wedding ceremony.

"Fine, Zack," he said, using Zack's name for the first time. With a smile that was suddenly warm and even paternal, he said, "Then everything's settled."

Surfacing from his private thoughts, Zack caught the other man's pleased smile, realized he had been coerced into almost agreeing to something that was absolutely out of the question, and said shortly, "Not everything. I'm willing to stay in town as much as I can, but there is no reason for Julie and I to 'get to know each other' before I ask her to marry me, nor am I willing to wait for months for the wedding. I'll ask her to marry me right away. Once she agrees, as far as I'm concerned, we're engaged."

"You're engaged when you slide a ring on her finger. Formality and tradition exist for a reason, young man. Like celibacy before the wedding, they give a special and lasting meaning to the event itself."

"Fine," Zack said a little testily.

Mathison smiled, "When do you want to be married?"

"As soon as possible. A couple weeks from now at the most. I'll talk to Julie."

* * *

"You sure you don't want any help, Mom?" Julie called, watching her mother put out a tray of cookies on the dining room table.

"No dear. You children stay in the living room and have a nice talk. It's so good to see all three of you so happy."

Julie was almost more nervous than she was happy. Glancing at the closed door of her father's study, she looked at Ted and Katherine who were seated together on the sofa, teasing her warmly about Zack's speech in the gymnasium. "What on earth is going on in there?" she asked.

Ted grinned and glanced at his watch. "You know what's going on. Dad's giving one of his famous premarital lectures to the prospective groom."

"Zack hasn't actually asked me to marry him again."

Katherine looked at her in disbelief. "After the beautiful things he said to you in front of half the town tonight, do you have any doubt he wants to?"

"No, not really. But Dad's taking too long in there for one of his normal lectures."


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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