The owner of the dry cleaners handed Zack an armful of table linens that he'd cleaned. "No charge," he said. "We're all doing our part for the wedding, and we're happy to do it. You're marrying into a great family, Mr. Benedict."

"The best," Zack said and he felt that way.

Now, he hid a concerned frown when he saw the worry that Mary Mathison was trying to conceal as she smoothed her apron and looked at him. "What favor did you want?" he prodded. Teasingly, he added, "If it's peeling more onions like yesterday, it'll cost you an extra batch of cookies."

She perched on the edge of a chair. "It's nothing like that. I need some advice—well, reassurance actually."

"About what?" Zack asked, prepared to reassure her about anything at all.

"About something Julie did and that I encouraged her to do. I need to ask you a hypothetical question—as a man."

Zack leaned back in the chair, giving her his undivided attention. "Go ahead."

"Let's say that a man—my husband, for example," she said guiltily, and Zack instantly assumed the male under discussion was definitely Jim Mathison, "let's say that he had an elderly relative who he'd quarreled with a very long time ago, and I knew for a fact that this elderly relative very much wanted to make up with him before it was too late. If we—Julie and I—also knew that Julie's wedding might be the last—and best—opportunity for that, would we be wrong or right to invite that relative here without telling him?"

Zack suppressed the uncharitable and amusing thought that this was his opportunity to repay his father-in-law for his insufferable bargain. He did not, however, think Julie and Mrs. Mathison's scheme was a good one, and he was about to say that, when she added meekly, "The problem is, we've already done it."

"I see," Zack said, smiling a little. "In that case, there's nothing to do but hope for the best."

She nodded and stood up, retying her apron. "That's what we thought. The important thing to remember," she added in a meaningful voice as she started to leave, "is that it's wrong to carry grudges. The Bible warns us to forgive those who trespass against us. The Lord made that very, very clear."

Zack looked suitably grave as he replied, "Yes, ma'am, that's what I've heard."

"Call me Mom," she corrected him, then she walked forward and put her arm around his shoulder for a hug of maternal approval that made him feel very young. And very special. "You're a fine man, Zack. A very fine man. Jim and I are proud to have you join our family."

An hour later, he looked up again as Julie returned from her classes and peered over his shoulder. "What's that?" she asked kissing his cheek, her hands on his shoulders.

"The script for a film I think I'd like to do. It's called Last Interlude, but it has some major problems that need a lot of work."

He told her a little about the story and the problems and she listened attentively. When they'd exhausted the subject, she said hesitantly. "I'd like to ask you for an important favor. Tomorrow isn't just my last day of teaching regular classes, it's also my last night with the women I've been teaching to read. It would mean a great deal if they thought you made a special effort just to meet them. I'd especially like you to meet Debby Sue Cassidy. She's so smart, and she's so down on herself because she thinks the fact she can't read like a college grad after a few months proves she's hopeless. She's very well read—from books on tape," Julie clarified when he looked blank, "and she has a wonderful way of saying things very simply and yet making you feel what she's saying. She wants to write a book someday."

"Doesn't everyone?" he teased.

She gave him an odd, guilty look, then she nodded. "Probably. But don't discount her. With a little encouragement from someone she particularly admires—"

"Like me?"

Julie laughed and kissed his forehead. "How'd you guess?"

"What time do you want me to appear tomorrow?"

"Around seven. That will still give us plenty of time to be at the rehearsal."

"It's a date. By the way, one of the twin ladies stopped me when I was in town and made me come into her shop to see their needlework. I'm no expert, but it looked really good."

"You city fellers are all alike," she teased. "You think talent only flourishes in big cities. Our local florist gets selected by the Florists Association to head up a team that decorates the White House for the Inaugural Ball! Just wait until you see how your wedding reception turns out. All the women who are working on it are also going to be guests, too, so they're doubly eager to make it wonderful for us."

"As long as you're there and we're married, it will be wonderful," Zack said, cautiously refraining from venturing an opinion on the competence of the ladies working on the reception.

Without warning, she turned somber and a little anxious. "I'll be there. Right now, the important thing is that you love me enough to forgive me if I were to do something that might seem foolish or even very wrong to you."

"This doesn't involve another man does it?"

"Of course not!"

"In that case," Zack said magnanimously, "you'll find me the most forgiving of men. Where you and other men are concerned, however, I seem to have a streak of possessive jealousy a foot wide," he added, thinking of Richardson. "Now, what have you done that's either foolish or wrong?"

"Oh, I didn't say I'd actually done anything like that," she evaded. "It was just a rhetorical question. I have to help Mother with dinner," she added, beating a sudden retreat.

"Are you certain nothing's wrong?"

"There's nothing wrong yet," she said unanswerably and vanished.

* * *

Despite Julie's assurance, Zack had the feeling all through dinner that something was definitely bothering Julie and her parents. As soon as the dishes were cleared away, Reverend and Mrs. Mathison announced their intention to visit friends and took themselves off with an abrupt haste that added to Zack's growing sense that something was odd, then Julie declined his offer to help in the kitchen, which was also unusual, so he returned to the study, pondering their strange behavior. He was looking over some legal documents his lawyer had sent him when she reappeared in the doorway a half hour later.

"Zack," she said, her smile a little too bright, "there's someone here to see you."

Zack got up, walked into the living room, and stopped dead, his gaze riveting on the elderly woman who was standing in the center of the room, a cane in her hand. Her voice sounded exactly as he remembered it—forceful, cool, and arrogant. With a regal nod of her head, she said, "It's been a long time, Zachary."

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance