"And if they can't pay him back, he breaks their legs."

Zack watched Sandini's face fall and instantly regretted his sarcasm. Despite Sandini's having stolen twenty-six automobiles and having been arrested sixteen times before he was twenty-eight, there was something endearingly childlike about the skinny little Italian. Like Zack, he was a trustee, but his sentence was up in four more weeks. Sandini was cocky as hell, always ready for a fight, and he was intensely loyal to Zack, whose movies he'd loved. He had a huge, colorful family who visited him regularly in the prison yard on visitors' days. When they discovered Zack was his cellmate, they were awed, but when they found out no one ever came to see him, they forgot about who he was and adopted him as if he were a close relative. Zack had thought he wanted to be left alone, and he made it clear to them by making himself scarce and pointedly ignoring their overturn when he absolutely couldn't get away from them. It was a futile effort. The harder he tried to shut them out, the more persistently they surrounded him in their laughing, loving group. Before he realized how it happened, he was being hugged and kissed by rotund Mama Sandini and Dominic's sisters and cousins. Dark-haired toddlers with lollipops and sticky hands and heart-rending smiles were plunked on his lap while their olive-skinned mothers chattered about the affairs of Dominic's enormous family, and Zack tried helplessly to keep track of all their names and simultaneously keep an alert eye on the lollipops that inevitably ended up getting stuck in his hair anyway. Sitting on a bench in a crowded prison yard, he had watched a chubby Sandini baby take its first uncertain steps and stretch its arms out to Zack, not to any of the Sandinis, but to him for help.

They enfolded him in their warmth and when they left, they sent him Italian cookies and smelly salami wrapped in grease-stained brown paper twice a month, like clockwork, just like they sent to Dominic. Even though it gave him indigestion, Zack always ate some of his salami and all of the cookies, and when Sandini's female cousins started sending him notes and asking for autographs, Zack dutifully responded. Sandini's Mama sent Zack birthday cards and admonishments about being too thin. And on those rare occasions when Zack actually felt like laughing, Sandini was invariably the cause. In a bizarre sort of way, he was closer to Sandini and his family than he'd ever been to his own.

Trying to negate his last damning remark about Sandini's future brother-in-law, Zack said with admirable solemnity, "Now that I think about it, banks aren't much better. They throw widows and orphans out on the street when they can't pay."

"Exactly!" Sandini said, nodding emphatically, his good humor restored.

Realizing that it was a relief to set aside his agonizing worry about eventualities in his escape plans that he couldn't control, Zack concentrated on Sandini's news and said, "If your mother didn't object to Guido's profession or his jail record, why wouldn't she let Gina marry him?"

"I told you, Zack," Sandini said gravely, "Guido was married before—in the church—and he's divorced now, so he's excommunicated."

Straight-faced, Zack said, "Right. I forgot about that."

Sandini returned to his letter. "Gina sends you her love. So does Mama. Mama says you don't write to her enough and you don't eat enough."

Zack looked at the plastic watch he was allowed to wear and rolled to his feet. "Haul ass, Sandini. It's time for another prisoner count."

Chapter 13

Julie's elderly next-door neighbors, the Eldridge twins, were seated upon the swing on their front porch, a favorite vantage point that enabled them to observe most of their neighbors' activities along a four-block stretch of Elm Street. At the moment, the two spinsters were watching Julie toss her overnight bag into the back seat of the Blazer.

"Good morning, Julie," Flossie Eldridge called out, and Julie jerked around, startled to find that the two white-haired ladies were already up and outside at 6 A.M.

"Good morning, Miss Flossie," she called softly, dutifully turning toward them and walking across the damp grass to pay her respects. "Good morning, Miss Ada." Although they were in their middle seventies, the two ladies still looked remarkably alike, a resemblance that was reinforced by their lifelong habit of wearing identical dresses. However, there the similarities between them ended, for Flossie Eldridge was plump, sweet, docile, and cheerful, whereas her sister was thin, sour, domineering, and nosy. Gossip had it that when Miss Flossie was young, she'd been in love with Herman Henkleman, but that Miss Ada had put a spike in the couple's marital plans by convincing her submissive sister that Herman, who was several years younger than Flossie, was interested only in Flossie's share of their modest inheritance and that he'd squander it all on liquor and make Flossie into the town laughingstock to boot.

"It's a beautiful morning," Miss Flossie added, tugging her shawl around her against the crisp January air. "These mild days that happen now and again certainly make winter seem shorter and easier, don't they, Julie?"

Before Julie could answer, Ada Eldridge got directly to her primary interest: "Are you going away again, Julie? You just got back a few weeks ago."

"I'll only be gone for two days."

"Another business trip or is it pleasure this time?" Ada persisted.

"Business, sort of." Ada lifted her brows, silently demanding additional information and Julie yielded rather than being rude. "I'm going up to Amarillo to talk to a man about donating some money to a school program."

Ada nodded, digesting this information. "I hear your brother is having trouble finishing Mayor Addelson's house. He should know better than to hire Herman Henkleman. That man is a complete ne'er-do-well."

Suppressing the urge to glance at Miss Flossie to see how she reacted to this condemnation of her alleged former sweetheart, Julie said to Ada, "Carl is the best builder this side of Dallas, which is why Mayor Addelson's architect selected him. Everything in that house has to be custom-made. It takes time and patience." Ada opened her mouth to continue her inquisition, but Julie forestalled her by glancing at her watch and saying quickly, "I'd better get on the road. It's a long drive to Amarillo. Bye, Miss Flossie, Miss Ada."

"Be careful," Miss Flossie admonished. "I heard a cold front's coming through here tomorrow or the day after, from up near Amarillo. They get an awful lot of snow up there in the Panhandle. You wouldn't want to get caught in a blizzard now."

Julie smiled affectionately at the plump twin. "Don't worry. I have Carl's Blazer. Besides, the weather forecast says there's only a twenty percent chance of snow up there."

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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