Is love better, sweeter, lovelier the second time?

Carol Zombolas and Peter Cruikshank say "oh yes." A resounding, thunderous yes. A hundred times yes.

There was a time when F. Scott Fitzgerald could talk about the ab sence of second acts in American lives. Love at first sight, followed by marriage and living hap pily ever after defined a seamless, monogamous Camelot. But nowadays a second marriage is Mid dle America's idyll, and some American lives seem to consist of second acts.

Out of 2.5 million marriages contracted in 1982, a whopping 44 percent are remarriages of the bride or the groom, or both. If first marriages grow out of a chance confluence of impulses, second marriages are carefully programmed against the odds that, cynics and statisticians insist, favor failure. If the first marriage bloomed and wilted as a bouquet of fairy-tale hopes, the second marriage is a reprogrammed passion, a reasoned romance.

But, Carol and Peter declare, their love story has had its share of magic.

"It's been just like the movies," Peter said.

"As scripted by Peter," Carol added.

Peter is an unabashed, impenitent romantic. His hands encircle Carol, who seems tiny snuggled up to his large frame stretched out among the cushions of the massive, super-soft couch. His bare feet rest on the thick shag carpet. Their Gaithersburg condominium, where they have been living since last July, is designed for comfort.

They met--their own phrase is "stumbled upon each other"--after both of them had had enough of the singles' scene with its partying and living-together arrangements. They had both given up hope of finding a stable partner. Neither of them had wanted to go to a three-day boating party last year. "I don't want a date," they remember saying separately to their host, a mutual friend. "Please, PLEASE, don't set me up."

They were being set up.

But even after they spent a rainy weekend together, talked for hours and hours and played long games of backgammon--Carol won most of the time--he wasn't sure he should follow up with a phone call asking for a date, and she wasn't sure how she might respond.

"The whole thing could have fallen through a hundred times," Carol said. "Yet it didn't."

When they announced their engagement, one month after they first saw each other, none of their relatives and friends was surprised.

"I could see that it was a match from the beginning," said Carol's mother, Marion Zombolas. "A match made in heaven. It's going to be a lasting happiness."

"It was as if a beam of light had finally shined down on Pete," said his mother, Edna Cruikshank.

Both mothers say emphatically that they did not feel the same way with their children's first marriages. Then, all the parents objected, arguing that Carol at 19 and Peter at 18 and their partners of roughly the same age were much too young. But eventually the parents went along.

"The second time you marry, you know what you are looking for," said Elizabeth Aitkin Pierce, Peter's first wife who herself remarried a year ago. She is a general's daughter, and when she comes to her conclusion she sounds like an attach,e case snapped shut: "You learn from your mistakes."

"Pete has found his Shangri-La," whispered his sister Joey, a divorc,ee, and her eyes welled up with tears. "I didn't care for Pete's first wife. But he always looked for the right woman to marry. For forever."

The Cruikshanks and the Zombolases are Roman Catholics, with Irish forebears on both family trees, plus some Greek, Polish and German strains on Carol's side. Peter's first marriage, an elopement, was performed by a justice of the peace, but a Roman Catholic priest later blessed the union. Carol's first marriage took place in St. Peter's, a Roman Catholic church in Olney, Md. Neither couple has sought a Catholic annulment; both Carol and Peter feel an annulment would mean a denial of their first marriages.

"You can't take seven years out of my life and say they never happened," Peter said, his voice suddenly as stiff and harsh as a soldier defying a direct order. "The church has its laws, but we who believe in God don't have to believe in what the church says. We are still Roman Catholics."

"My first marriage wasn't perfect," Carol said, "but it had its good points. It was part of my life. The church cannot make me think it never happened."

Carol and Peter go to church at least once a month, usually when Peter's children from his first marriage, Beth and Billy, visit. They take communion, and they dismiss the priestly argument that they ought not to, because they are "living in sin."

Carol and Peter got married on May 21, a muggy Saturday afternoon, in the snug split-level Olney home of the bride's parents, Marion and James Zombolas.

It was the same place where the reception was held for Carol's first marriage.

Some 50 guests--mostly family--crowded into the kitchen and the dining room. They stood in little circles, speaking in hushed tones. Members of the immediate family were in the living room. Then, only six minutes after the scheduled hour of 4 o'clock, a tape recorder began playing Nadia's Theme, a melody as creamy and sweet as a Hostess Twinkie. Carol and Peter fell in love with the melody separately, when they first heard it years ago, accompanying gymnast Nadia Comaneci's path to Olympic glory.

Bride and groom walked into the living room through an arched trellis festooned with flowers of lavender and blue, the wedding's color scheme.

They stood on the brown area rug and faced the bay window decorated with two plastic ferns suspended from the ceiling with macram,e ropes made by Marion Zombolas. Carol looked relaxed in her long, loose, shimmering chiffon gown of ivory; Peter was tense, encased in a pin-stripe, three-piece suit of dark, dark blue.

Next to Peter stood his children, Beth, 11, and Billy, 10, each holding a candle. The matron of honor was Janet Kilpatrick, Carol's sister, and the best man was Janet's husband, Ed. The ceremonial circle was completed by Peter's mother and Carol's parents. Only Peter's father, Ralph Cruikshank Sr., was missing.

"We have traveled many miles, many lives to be here today," began the Rev. Kenneth Torquil MacLean, a Unitarian minister. "Love is the secret. Love is the discipline. Love is the foundation."

The text was by Peter, as was the ceremony. By the time the rings were exchanged, all the guests had tears in their eyes.

A wedding ends conflicts and starts new ones; people assume roles larger than themselves. On the following pages you will meet the cast of characters who brought importance to the day of Carol and Peter's marriage.