Julie's relief came out in an explosion of musical mirth and Zack dragged her into his arms. Groping in the dark for her face, he cradled it between his hands, laughing while he kissed her, and then slowly, the laughter faded as she held him to her and kissed him back. "I love you," he whispered. "You make me so damned happy. You made hiding out in Colorado seem like fun. You make this suite from hell feel like a bridal bower. Even in prison, when I hated you, I'd dream of the way you dragged me home, half-frozen, and the way you danced with me and made love to me, and I'd wake up wanting you."
She brushed her fingertips over his lips and rubbed her cheek against his chest. "Someday soon, would you take me to South America, so we can stay on your boat? I dreamed of being there with you."
"It wasn't much of a boat. I used to have a large yacht. I'll buy another one for you and we'll take a cruise on it."
She shook her head. "I'd like to stay with you on the boat in South America, just the way we planned, even if it's only for a week."
"We'll do both."
Reluctantly, he let her go and steered her out the open door. "It's two hours earlier in California, and I have some phone calls and arrangements to make. When can I see you again?"
"Naturally," he said dryly. "How early?"
"As early as you'd like. It's a county holiday. There's a big parade, a carnival, picnic, the works, for the bicentennial celebration. It will go on all week."
"That sounds like fun," he said and was surprised because he rather meant it. "Pick me up at nine, and I'll buy you breakfast."
"I know just the place—best food in town."
"McDonald's," she teased, laughing at his appalled look, then she pressed a kiss to his cheek and left.
Still grinning, Zack closed the door and turned on the lights, then he walked over to the bed and reluctantly put his briefcase on it. Taking out his cellular phone, he made his first call to the Farrells, who he knew would be anxious to discover the outcome of his trip. He held on while Joe O'Hara went outside to get Matt and Meredith from among the party guests.
"Well?" Matt Farrell's voice was filled with expectation, "Meredith is here, and you're on the speaker phone. How's Julie?"
"Are you married yet?"
"No," Zack said, thinking irritably of the agreement Julie's father foisted on him, "we're going steady."
"You're what?" Meredith sputtered. "I mean, we thought you'd be in Tahoe by now."
"I'm still in Keaton."
"At the Rest Your Bones Motel."
He heard Meredith's muffled laughter.
"In the bridal suite."
She laughed harder.
"It has a kitchenette."
She shrieked with mirth.
"Your pilot must be stuck here, too, poor devil. I should invite him over for poker."
"Watch out if you do," Matt warned dryly. "He'll walk away with most of your money."
"He won't even be able to see his cards in here. He'll be blinded by the red velvet heart-shaped bed and purple lounge chairs. How's the party?"
"I made a polite announcement that you were called away on urgent business. Meredith stepped in to oversee the staff and play hostess. Everything's fine."
Zack hesitated, thinking of the engagement ring he needed and of the superb jewels Bancroft & Company was famous for carrying in their exclusive stores. "Meredith, could I ask a favor?"
"Anything," she said with quiet sincerity.
"I need an engagement ring right away—tomorrow morning if possible. I know what I want, but I won't find it here, and if I show my face in Dallas, I'll be recognized. I don't want the press following me and descending on this town until the last possible minute."
She understood at once. "Tell me what you have in mind. Tomorrow morning, when our Dallas store opens, I'll phone the head of the Fine Jewelry Department and have her select several rings. Steve can pick them up by ten-fifteen and bring them to you."
"You're an angel. Here's what I want—"
The celebration of a bicentennial in a small Texas town, Zack realized the next day, was an elaborate affair, with a kickoff speech from the mayor and a week-long schedule of events that included parades down the main street, sports events, livestock shows, and a variety of entertainments.
"That's Mayor Addelson," Julie told him as they arrived at the park in the middle of town and stopped at the edge where they'd be seen by the fewest people. She nodded toward the tall man in his late forties who was walking briskly onto the pavilion, which was appropriately decked out in red, white, and blue bunting. "And that's his wife, Marian, in the yellow linen dress," she added, indicating a pretty woman in a chic dress and hat who was sitting among the honored guests on a specially erected grandstand at the side of the pavilion, watching her husband prepare to begin. "Mayor Addelson was widowed a long time ago," Julie provided informatively. "Marian was an interior designer in Dallas when he met her there two years ago. He brought her back here, and Daddy married them. They have a wonderful ranch outside of town and they're building a new house up on the hill. They're very nice."
Zack slid his arm around her from behind, pulling her trim buttocks against him, and smiled into her hair. "You feel very nice."
She leaned lightly against him, and he felt his body surge and harden.
"So do you."
Swallowing, Zack diverted himself by concentrating on Mayor Addelson. Addelson's thick hair was the strange grayish yellow blond that seemed more common in Texas than anywhere Zack had ever been, but the mayor obviously shared every politician's love of pomp and speech making, because he talked for almost a half hour about the grand battle once fought on Keaton's soil and about the history of the town, beginning with its founders. Zack was mentally comparing the individual merits, or lack thereof, of the movie scripts he'd read last week, when he realized the mayor's speech was over and he was talking about Zack:
"Before we sound the cannon and open up the celebration, I'd like to spend just a minute talking about the special visitor we have in town. It's no secret from any of you that Zack Benedict is here right now or that he's visiting Julie Mathison. It's also no secret that the great state of Texas hasn't been very friendly or lucky for him in the past. I know how much y'all are hopin' to meet him and how eager we all are to change his impression of Texans, but folks, the best way to do that is to give him some space and let him get to know us in his own way. You all know what he's been through, and you've all seen the way people mob movie stars and pester them for autographs. Zack probably has nowhere in the world where he can relax and be treated like ordinary folks like to be treated. Except here. Let's show him what it's like to have a hometown like Julie's, where people care about each other and look after each other!"