"Finance and film."

"Dual major?"

Zack nodded, his eyes on Julie, still unwilling to make a second public attempt to soothe her unjust anger at him.

At the far end of the bar, Ed Sandell hooked his scuffed boot over the rung of his stool and wiped the back of his sunburned neck with his handkerchief, then he looked at the other two ranch hands with him. "My sister, Holly, met Benedict at church on Sunday," he said, nodding toward Zack, who was standing at the juke box. "She said he's nice."

"He's a pansy," Jake Barton said, shoving his hat back on his head. "All those Hollywood types are."

"No way," Martin Laughlin disagreed. "I mean, the guy spent five years in the pen doing hard time."

"Big deal. He's still a pansy. Look at those jeans he's wearin'. Right off some de-sign-er rack."

"C'mon, Jake," Laughlin argued. "He not only spent five years in prison, but he had enough guts to escape."

"He got caught, too. He's a pansy," Jake said flatly.

Ed Sandell signaled to the waitress and said idly, "He umpired the game with Perseville tonight. Julie Mathison hassled him over a call he made, and he threw her out of the game."

Jake Barton looked up. "No shit?"

"Nope."

His expression filled with a dawning respect, Jake looked round at Zack Benedict, then he glanced at the waitress with a grin. "Tracy," he said, "bring Mr. Benedict a drink, and put it on my tab."

Across the room, Julie stole a glance at Zack. He caught her, his gaze leveling on hers, his expression impassive. Waiting. The last remnants of her anger died. She loved him so much, and they'd been through so much. She'd been wrong tonight, and she knew it. She wished she'd let him make amends earlier when they first got here, so that she didn't have to swallow her pride and go to him now, when everyone was sure to be watching. On the other hand, she decided, excusing herself to the people standing and talking to her, it was insane to waste another minute of their lives in this ridiculous standoff. When she reached Zack, she nodded to the mayor, her brothers, and John Grayson, then she shoved her hands into the pockets of her shorts, hesitating.

"Well?" Zack said mildly, trying not to notice the way her T-shirt stretched delightfully across her breasts.

"I'd like to order something to eat," she said.

Disappointed that she wasn't going to give him the courtesy of an apology, Zack looked up and nodded to the waitress, who hurried to their side.

"What's it gonna be, folks?" Tracy asked, hiding her unease over their widely known quarrel on the baseball field by staring at the pad and pencil in her hand.

"I can't decide," Julie said. Shifting her gaze from the waitress to her fiancé, she solemnly asked, "Should I order crow, Zack? Or humble pie?"

Zack's lips twitched with laughter. "What do you think?"

Julie looked at the waitress, who was trying unsuccessfully to keep her face straight. "An order of each, please, Tracy."

"With extra cheese and pepperoni," Zack added, switching their order to a pizza and grinning as he looped his arm around Julie's shoulders, pulling her tightly against his side.

Waiting until Tracy stepped away, Julie called out, "Oh, and bifocals for the umpire, too, Tracy."

A silent sigh of relief swept around the restaurant, and the laughter and noise escalated dramatically.

They walked home in the balmy spring night, holding hands. "I like it here," Zack told her as they turned up her sidewalk. "I didn't realize how badly I needed some normalcy. I hadn't stopped to relax since the day I walked out of prison."

When she opened the front door and started to go inside, he shook his head and stayed on the porch. "Don't tempt me again," he teased, pulling her close for what he intended to be a brief kiss. His lips brushed hers, and he started to let her go, but she tightened her arms around his neck, kissing him back with all the love and apology in her heart. Zack lost the battle, and his mouth opened hungrily on hers, his hands shifting restlessly over the sides of her breasts, then cupping her buttocks and holding her tightly against his aroused body while he kissed her until they were both on fire.

When he finally pulled his mouth from hers, she kept her arms around his neck and rubbed her cheek against his chest, a kitten with the claws she'd shown him earlier sheathed now. Her body was still pressed tightly to his and Zack was debating about the wisdom of torturing himself with another kiss when she tipped her head back, smiling invitingly into his eyes. He felt his entire body tighten and surge in response to that provocative look, and he reluctantly shook his head. "No more, my beautiful little jock. I'm already so turned on that I can hardly stand here. And besides," he belatedly added, trying to look stern, "I still haven't forgiven you for not telling me your father inflicts his miserable bargain on every male who asks him to perform the wedding ceremony."

In the moonlight, he watched her eyes light with an embarrassed smile. "I was afraid it would make you more uncomfortable if you knew everyone else knew what you were going through."

"Julie," he said, pulling her hips tighter against his arousal to illustrate his next words, "I could not possibly be more uncomfortable than I am now."

"Me either!" she said so forcefully that he burst out laughing and kissed her again, then he gently moved her away. "You make me very happy," he said with a tender grin. "I've had more fun with you than I've had in my entire life."

Chapter 84

Seated at Mr. Mathison's desk two days before the wedding, Zack looked up from the script he was reading and smiled absently at Mary Mathison. "Zack, dear," she said, looking a little distressed as she put a plate of freshly baked cookies on the desk, "could I ask you for a special favor?"

"Absolutely," he said, reaching toward the plate.

"Don't spoil your appetite with too many cookies," she warned.

"I won't," he promised with a boyish grin. In the nearly two weeks he'd stayed in their home, Zack had developed a deep, genuine affection for his future in-laws. They were like the parents he'd never had, and their home was filled with all the laughter and love that his had lacked. Jim Mathison was intelligent and kind. He stayed up late, getting to know Zack, beating him at chess, and telling him wonderful stories about Julie and Ted's childhood. He treated Zack as if he were his adopted son, warned him about saving money and being thrifty, and sternly advised him not to make any R-rated movies. Mary Mathison mothered Zack, scolded him about working too hard, and then sent him to town to do errands for her as if he were her own son. To Zack who had never been sent to a butcher shop or a dry cleaners in his adult life, it had been both touching and disconcerting to be handed a list of errands and sent on his way. It had also been strangely pleasant to have shop owners smile at him and ask after his new family. "How's Mary holding up with all the wedding plans under way?" the butcher asked, handing Zack a package of chicken wrapped in white paper. "She's looking after her blood pressure, isn't she?"


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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