That invocation was greeted with a loud burst of applause, a drum roll from the bandstand, and friendly grins and waves from hundreds of people aimed at Zack, which he politely returned.

To Zack's surprised pleasure, the townspeople adhered to the mayor's suggestion, and Zack had the best and most relaxing day in a public place that he could ever remember having in fifteen years. Nor was he immune to the mood of celebration and the uniquely Americana flavor of what was going on around him. As day drifted into evening, he had an amazingly enjoyable time doing foolishly simple things like visiting booths where homemade items from cakes to crocheted linens were on sale, devouring hot dogs slathered with mustard, and joking with Ted and Katherine about whether or not all the games in the booths were fixed or just the ones they'd tried to win. But then, he was with Julie, and as he'd already discovered in Colorado, she had a gift for making even the mundane seem like an adventure.

She was also a great favorite of the townspeople, and their affection for her seemed to tentatively include him, too—now that his words at the gymnasium last night gave them every reason to expect he'd come here "to do right by her." Zack was dying to prove it to them and to the world by sliding the engagement ring he'd chosen that morning onto her finger, but he was waiting for the right moment. After the calamity of their last attempt to exchange rings, he was adamantly determined that this attempt would make up for the grimness of the other, that it would be joyous, memorable, and lighthearted.

Now, as he walked with her through the noisy, brightly lit carnival grounds at sunset, he was well aware of the ten-carat radiant-cut diamond in his pocket as well as the smiling, curious glances of the hundreds of Keaton citizens who were enjoying the carnival rides and booths and all of whom were undoubtedly wondering if and when he was actually going to declare himself. Occasionally, he noticed people taking pictures of them, but they were discreet about it.

"Want to ride the Ferris wheel?" Zack asked her, when Julie paused to look up at it.

"Only if you promise you won't make the seat rock," she said, pulling off a piece of her pink cotton candy and feeding it to him.

"I wouldn't dream of it," Zack lied, chewing it. "Julie, that stuff tastes terrible. How can you eat it? Give me another bite."

She laughed and pulled off another sticky pink glob and they both smiled at the couples who passed them with a friendly nod. "I meant what I said about rocking the seat," she warned when he dug in his pocket for money. "I'm … well … a little edgy about Ferris wheels."

"You?" he said in disbelief. "The woman who nearly got us killed a few minutes ago in that flying rocket capsule thing when you made it spin."

"That was different. We were enclosed in a cage. Ferris wheels," she said as she tipped her head back looking at the very high Ferris wheel, "are open and a little scary."

Zack was about to walk up to the ticket booth when a barker called out behind him, "Step right up and win a gen-u-ine gold-filled ring set with simulated jewels! Shoot five ducks and win your girl a ring, shoot ten, and win a giant teddy bear for her to cuddle."

Zack turned, glanced at the mechanical ducks moving in an endless row, at the fake shotguns propped in the booth, and the tray of rings with huge glittering fake "jewels" in every color from egg-yolk yellow to ruby red. And inspiration struck.

"I thought you wanted to ride the Ferris wheel," Julie said, as he took her arm and turned her firmly around.

"First," he announced, "I want to win you a gen-u-ine gold-failed ring with a simulated jewel."

"How many chances do you … want?" the man in the booth said, his voice trailing off as he stared at Zack's face. "You sure look familiar, buddy." He took Zack's money and handed him the gun without taking his eyes off his face, then he turned to Julie. "Your boyfriend looks just like—you know—whathisname—the actor. You know—" he prompted her when Zack ignored him and raised the gun, testing the sight. "You know who I mean, don't you?"

Julie met Zack's sideways smile with a provocative one from beneath her lashes. "The good-looking guy?" she clarified, talking to the barker. "Rugged? Handsome? Dark hair?"

"Yeah, him!"

"Steven Seagal!" she joked, and Zack missed his shot.

Lowering the gun, he gave her an indignant look and raised it again.

"Nah, not him," said the man. "This guy's taller, a little older, better looking." Zack gave her a smug smile.

"Warren Beatty!" Julie cried, and he missed his second shot.

"Julie," he warned out of the side of his mouth, his shoulders shaking with laughter, "do you want a ring or not?"

"Not," she said smugly. "I want a teddy bear."

"Then stop drooling over my competition and let me shoot these damned ducks before we draw a bigger crowd." She glanced around and saw that despite their obvious desire to adhere to the mayor's suggestion and leave Zack alone, a large group of townspeople had stopped to watch, drawn to the amazing spectacle of the real-life Zack Benedict reenacting a shoot-out scene, like something from one of his movies, except the targets were metal ducks, not Mafia hit men, spies, or bad guys.

Zack hit eight out of eight ducks and someone clapped, then hastily stopped. "Turn around, honey," Zack said. "You're making me nervous."

When she complied, Zack reached into his pocket, winked at the man behind the booth and quickly put the diamond engagement ring in the tray with the glass ones, then he fired twice more and deliberately missed. "Okay," he told Julie, picking up the tray, "turn around and pick out a ring."

Julie turned around. "What? No teddy bear?" she asked, oblivious to the gaping carnival barker who was staring open-mouthed at the ring tray.

"Sorry, I missed the last two shots. Which ring do you like?"

Julie glanced down at the rainbow of large yellow, pink, red, and dark blue stones glittering atop cheap gold settings. And she saw the diamond. Larger by far than all the glass stones, it sparkled and glowed, reflecting the revolving lights on the Ferris wheel. She recognized the cut because it matched the diamonds in her wedding band, and when she looked up at Zack, she recognized the somber, tender look in his eyes. "Do you like it?" he asked.

The people who had watched him shoot sensed that something was happening, or perhaps it was the gaping stare of the man in the booth that drew them forward to get a closer look.


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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