They took it.
The back door of the limo was flung open and a young boy wearing a dark suit and tie sprinted out, followed more slowly by his mother and his uncle who walked up the sidewalk. He bolted up the steps of the porch and stopped in, front of Zack, his head tipped back, studying the man's face. "Are you really my Uncle Zack?" he demanded.
Zack looked down at the dark-haired child and smiled reluctantly at the realization that the Stanhope features had bred true once again; the little boy looked so much like Zack at that age that it was almost uncanny. "Yes," he said, answering the boy's question. "Who are you?"
The little boy grinned. "I'm Jamison Zachary Arthur Stanhope. You can call me Jamie, everybody does. My mommy named me Zachary after you. It made Grandmother very angry," he confided.
Zack bent down and scooped the child into his arms. "I'll bet it did," he said dryly.
In the doorway, Julie watched the tableau unfold. She heard Zack quietly say, "Hello, Elizabeth," and she watched with a teary smile as his sister ran up the steps and flung her arms around him. Zack's brother held out his hand, his face uncertain, "I won't blame you if you don't want to shake my hand, Zack," he said. "If positions were reversed, I wouldn't."
Zack transferred his nephew and his weeping sister to his left arm and extended his right hand to his brother. Alex looked at it, took it in his, and then enfolded his brother in a bear hug, clapping Zack on the shoulder.
Jamie looked at his mother, his great-grandmother, and then at Julie. "Why are they all cryin'?" he demanded of Zack.
"Allergies," Zack lied with a reassuring smile. "How old are you?"
* * *
Seated on the steps of Julie's front porch later that night, they watched the stars twinkling in the black velvet sky while they listened to the chorus of crickets serenading them. "I'm going to miss this place," Julie said quietly, leaning back against his chest.
"I know you are," Zack replied. "So am I." During the last two weeks, he'd made two business trips to California, and both times he'd looked forward to returning to Keaton and to Julie with an almost boyish eagerness. Tomorrow, he had to fly to Austin for a morning meeting with the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, who were considering appropriate disciplinary action against Wayne Hadley. The day after that, he was getting married.
"I wish you didn't have to go to Austin tomorrow."
He kissed the top of her head and slid his arm around her waist, "So do I."
"Don't forget to come back as early as you can tomorrow."
"Why?" he teased. "Are you planning to spring any more estranged relatives on me?" She tipped her face up. "Do you have any more?"
"No!" he said forcefully. He saw her try to smile and tipped her chin up. "Now, what's wrong?"
"I don't like you going near anything that has to do with prisons."
Zack smiled reassuringly, but his tone was implacable. "It's something I have to do, but there's nothing to worry about." Jokingly, he added, "If they try to lock me up, I know I can count on you to bust me out in time for the wedding."
"You're right!" she said, and so ferociously that Zack laughed.
"I'll be at your school at seven o'clock tomorrow night," he promised.
The nostalgic smell of finger paints and paste assailed Zack's nostrils as he walked slowly down the empty hallway to the only classroom with lights on at the end of the corridor. He could hear women's laughter as he neared the doorway, and he paused just inside the classroom, unnoticed for the moment, looking around at the downsized desks occupied by seven women at the front of the room.
Julie was leaning against her desk, surrounded by chalkboards with children's drawings hanging above them and the letters of the alphabet displayed around the room in giant size. She was already dressed for the dinner that would follow the wedding rehearsal tonight, her hair caught up in a soft chignon that made her look startlingly sophisticated. He was admiring the way she looked in her clingy peach summer dress when she looked up and saw him standing there. "You're right on time," she said to him, straightening from her position and smiling at him. "We've finished our lesson for the night and we've been reminiscing and having a private little going-away party." As she said that, she tipped her head to the small cake and paper cups on her desk and held out her hand to him. Drawing him forward and linking her fingers through his, she explained to the women, "Zack came here tonight because he was very anxious to meet you before we leave tomorrow night." Seven faces studied him with every reaction from outright unease to total awe. "Pauline," Julie began, "I'd like you to meet my fiancé. Zack, this is Pauline Perkins—"
By the second introduction, Zack realized that Julie was carefully making it seem as if the honor of the introduction was his, not theirs. She did that simply by telling him something special about each, and Zack watched their tension dissipate and smiles begin to burst out.
Impressed by her tact, he straightened after shaking the last woman's hand and stood beside Julie at her desk. The moment of awkward silence was broken suddenly by a young woman in her midtwenties with a small baby in a carrier on the desk beside her, who Julie had introduced as Rosalie Silmet. "Would you … like some cake," she burst out awkwardly but with determination.
"I never turn down cake," Zack lied with a smile to put her at ease, then he turned to the desk and sliced himself a piece.
"I made it myself," she volunteered hesitantly.
He was turning back with a piece of chocolate cake in his hand when he saw Julie silently mouth one word to her. "How?"
"I—" her thin shoulders straightened. "I read the recipe!" she declared with such pride that Zack felt a funny clutch in his chest. "And Peggy drove us here," she added, tipping her head to the woman named Peggy Listrom. "Peggy read all the street signs we passed on the way out loud."
"He doesn't care about that!" Peggy Listrom said, blushing furiously. "Anybody can read street signs."
"Not anybody," Zack heard himself say, because at that moment as he looked at the women with their eager–hopeful expressions, he would have done anything to make certain they left that classroom feeling special. "Julie told me she couldn't read for a long time."
"She told you that?" one of them said, dumbfounded that Julie would have confessed it.