"But why can't you write to me?" she burst out and instantly regretted it when his face became stiff and aloof.

"No letters, Julie! It's over when you leave here today. We're over." The words lashed her like whips even though there was no unkindness in his tone. "Tomorrow morning, you are to pick up your old life where you left it. Pretend none of this ever happened, and you'll forget it within weeks."

"Maybe you'll be able to do that, but I won't," she said, hating the sound of pleading and tears in her voice. She shook her head as if to negate her words and turned toward the car, angrily brushing her shoulder against her wet eye. "I'm leaving before I make an even bigger fool of myself," she choked.

"Don't," he whispered harshly, catching her arm and stopping her from leaving. "Not like this." She looked up into his fathomless eyes, and for the first time, Julie wasn't so certain he was handling this morning's leave-taking as easily as she thought, Putting his hand against the side of her face, he smoothed her hair back and said solemnly, "The only foolish thing you've done in the last week is caring too much about me. Everything else you said and did was … right. It was perfect."

Closing her eyes, fighting back tears, Julie turned her face into his hand and kissed his palm as he'd kissed hers once before and she whispered against it, "I love you so much."

He jerked his hand away, and his voice turned condescendingly amused. "You don't love me, Julie. You're naive and inexperienced, and you don't know the difference between good sex and real love. Now be a good girl, go home where you belong, and forget about me. That's exactly what I want you to do."

She felt as if he'd slapped her, but her wounded pride forced her chin up. "You're right," she said with quiet dignity, getting into the car. "It's time to return to reality."

Zack watched her car disappear around the first curve and vanish from view between the towering snowdrifts. He remained there long after she was gone, until the freezing wind finally forced him to remember that he was standing outside in a light jacket. He'd hurt her because he had to do it, he reminded himself again as he turned to the house. He couldn't let her waste one extra moment of her precious life loving him or missing him or waiting for him. He'd done the right thing, the noble thing, by ridiculing her love.

He went into the kitchen, listlessly picked up the coffee pot, and reached for a mug from the cabinet, then he saw the mug Julie had used that morning, sitting on the counter top. He reached out slowly and picked it up, then he pressed the rim to his cheek.

Chapter 44

Two hours after she left the mountain house, Julie pulled the car off onto the shoulder of a deserted stretch of highway and reached for the thermos on the seat beside her. Her throat and eyes hurt from the tears she adamantly refused to shed, and her mind was dazed from her futile effort to block out the painful memory of his parting words:

"You don't love me, Julie. You're naive and inexperienced, and you don't know the difference between good sex and real love. Now be a good girl, go home where you belong, and forget about me. That's exactly what I want you to do."

Her hand shook with misery as she poured coffee into the top of the thermos. How pointlessly cruel of him to ridicule her that way, particularly when he knew she had to face the police and the press as soon as she got back. Why couldn't he have either ignored her words or lied and said he loved her, too, just so she'd have something to cling to during the ordeal ahead. It would have been so much easier for her to face that if he'd only said he loved her.

"You don't love me, Julie… Now be a good girl, go home where you belong, and forget about me…"

Julie tried to swallow the coffee, but it stuck in her constricted throat as another painful realization hit her, leaving her more desolate and bewildered than before:

Despite his having mocked her feelings, Zack had to have known damned well she really did love him. In fact, he was so sure of it, that he'd assumed he could treat her that way, and she'd still go home and not betray him to the authorities. She knew he was right, too. As hurt as she was by his callousness, she could never attempt to strike back at him. She loved him too much to want to hurt him, and her belief in his innocence and her desire to protect him were, strangely enough, every bit as strong now as they'd been yesterday.

A pickup truck shot by her, spewing slush against the side of the car, and she remembered his warning to get as far away as possible without attracting notice. Wearily, she sat up and put the car into gear, looking over her shoulder to make certain it was safe to pull out, but she set the Blazer's cruise control at sixty-five miles an hour. Because he'd told her not to speed. And because getting stopped for a speeding violation fell under the category of "attracting attention."

* * *

Julie made it to the Colorado-Oklahoma border in much less time than it had taken her to drive the same distance in blizzard conditions. Following Zack's instructions, she pulled over at the first rest stop on the Oklahoma side and made her phone call.

Her father answered on the first ring. "Dad," she said, "it's Julie, I'm free. I'm on my way home."

"Thank God!" he exploded. "Oh, thank God!"

In all these years, she'd never known her father to sound so upset, and she felt sick with remorse for what she'd put him through. Before either of them could speak again, however, an unfamiliar voice broke in, "This is Agent Ingram of the FBI, Miss Mathison, where are you?"

"I'm in Oklahoma at a rest stop. I'm free. He—left me in the car, with the keys, blindfolded. But he's gone. I'm sure he's gone. I don't know where."

"Listen carefully," the voice said. "Get back into your car and lock the doors and leave there at once. Do not stay in the vicinity where you last saw him. Drive to the nearest populated area and call us back from there. We'll notify the local authorities and they'll come to you. Now get out of there, Miss Mathison!"

"I want to come home!" Julie warned with genuine desperation. "I want to see my family. I don't want to stay in Oklahoma and wait. I can't! I just wanted someone to know I'm on my way." She hung up the phone and headed for her car, and she did not call from the next populated area at all.

Two hours later, a helicopter that had obviously been searching for the distraught hostage who was on her way home somehow spotted her on the dark Texas interstate and hovered overhead. Minutes after she noticed it, patrol cars with revolving red and blue lights began racing onto the interstate from the entrance ramps, positioning themselves in front and behind her, forming a motorcade to escort her home. Or more likely, Julie thought nervously, to prevent Zack Benedict's alleged accomplice from changing her mind and trying to escape before she was questioned.

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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