It was horrifying to realize the true scope of the hunt that had evidently been under way for both of them, and Julie thoroughly resented her official escort—until she pulled into Keaton and neared her parents' house. Although it was two o'clock in the morning, reporters were swarming all over the yard and street, and camera lights blazed at her as she got out of the car. It took three Texas troopers and both her brothers to get her through the throngs of reporters shouting questions at her and onto the front porch.

Two FBI agents were waiting inside the house, but her parents rushed past them, enfolding her in the protective warmth of their arms and love. "Julie," her mother kept saying, hugging her and crying and smiling, "My Julie, my little Julie."

Her father wrapped her in a bear hug and said, "Thank God, thank God," over and over, and Julie felt tears blur her eyes because she'd never truly realized how much they loved her. Ted and Carl hugged her and tried to joke about her "adventure," but they both looked positively haggard, and the tears she'd fought for over twenty-four hours slid down her cheeks. In the last ten years, she hadn't shed more than a few tears—and those were over sad movies—but in the last week she felt like she'd cried an ocean. That, she decided fiercely, had to stop immediately and permanently. The family reunion was interrupted by the blond-haired FBI agent who stepped forward and said in a calm, authoritative voice, "I'm sorry to intrude, Miss Mathison, but time is of the essence right now, and we have questions that need answers. I'm David Ingram, we spoke on the phone." He gestured toward the tall, dark-haired agent beside him and said, "This is Agent Paul Richardson, who's in charge of the Benedict case."

Mrs. Mathison spoke up. "Let's go into the dining room—there's space for all of us at the table." She tossed in her old cure-all for any of Julie's childhood woes: "I'll get some milk and cookies and some coffee, too," she added.

"No, I'm sorry, Mrs. Mathison," Paul Richardson said firmly. "I think this interview is best conducted in private. Your daughter can bring you up to date in the morning."

Julie had started into the dining room between Ted and Carl, but she stopped and turned at that. Reminding herself that these men were not really enemies and were only trying to do their job, she said with quiet firmness, "Mr. Richardson, I realize how anxious you are to ask your questions, but my family is just as eager to hear my answers, and they have even more right to do that than you do. I'd like them to be present tonight if you don't mind."

"And if I do mind?" His height and coloring reminded her poignantly of Zack, and after the grueling drive, all her defenses were down. As a result, the weary smile she gave him was unintentionally personal. "Please try not to mind. I'm exhausted and I truly don't want to argue with you."

"I suppose your family can be present," he relented, then he shot his frowning associate a peculiar, quelling look. Julie missed the exchange completely, but Ted saw it and so did Carl.

"Very well, Miss Mathison," Agent Ingram said abruptly, taking over as soon as they were seated. "Let's begin at the beginning." Julie felt a tiny tremor of fear when Richardson reached into his pocket, removed a tape recorder, and put it on the table in front of her, but she reminded herself of what Zack had told her to expect.

"Where do you want me to start?" she asked, smiling gratefully at her mother when she handed Julie a glass of milk.

"We already know you supposedly went to Amarillo to meet with the grandfather of one of your students," Richardson began.

Julie's head snapped around. "What do you mean supposedly?"

"There's no need to feel defensive," Ingram quickly interposed in a soothing voice. "You tell us what happened. Let's start with when you first encountered Zachary Benedict."

Julie crossed her arms on the table and tried not to feel any emotion at all. "I'd stopped for coffee in a restaurant on the interstate. I don't remember the name of the place, but I'd recognize it if I saw it. When I came outside, it was snowing, and a tall, dark-haired man was crouched near my tire. It was flat. He volunteered to fix it…"

"Did you notice if he was armed at that point?"

"If I'd noticed he had a gun, I certainly wouldn't have offered him a ride."

"What was he wearing?" The questions came at her in rapid-fire succession after that, on and on, hour after hour…

"Miss Mathison, you must be able to remember something more about the location of the house he used for a hideout!" That was Paul Richardson who'd been watching her as if she was an insect under his microscope and using an authoritative tone of voice on her that reminded her a little of Zack when he was annoyed. In her exhausted state, she found that more endearing than annoying.

"I told you, I was blindfolded. And please, call me Julie—it's shorter and takes less time than Miss Mathison."

"At any time during your stay with Benedict, were you able to discover his destination?"

Julie shook her head. They'd already been over all this once already. "He told me that the less I knew the safer he would be."

"Did you ever try to discover his destination?"

She shook her head. That was a new question.

"Please answer aloud for the tape recorder."

"All right!" she said, abruptly deciding he wasn't like Zack at all—he was younger and smoother and actually better looking, but he didn't have Zack's warmth. "I did not ask him where he was going because he'd already told me that the less I knew the safer he'd be."

"And you want him to be safe, don't you?" he said, pouncing on her answer. "You don't want to see him apprehended, do you?"

The moment of reckoning was here. Richardson waited, tapping the end of his ballpoint pen on the table, and Julie glanced out the dining room window at the reporters swarming in the yard and lining the Street while weariness crashed over her in waves. "I've already told you, he tried to save my life."

"I fail to see why that should negate the fact that he is a convicted murderer and he'd taken you hostage"

Leaning back in her chair, she gazed at him with a mixture of disdain and frustration. "I don't believe for one minute that he killed anyone. Now, let me ask you something, Mr. Richardson." Ignoring Ted's warning squeeze on her knee at her combative tone, she said, "Put yourself in my place and assume for the sake of rhetoric that I took you as a hostage and you managed to escape from me. You hide from me, but I think you've fallen into a deep, icy creek. From your hiding place, you watch me run down to the creek and dive into that frigid water. I dive again and again, calling your name, and when I can't find you, you watch me stagger out of the creek and collapse in the snow. But I don't get back on my snowmobile and go home. Instead of that, I give up. I open my soaking shirt so the cold will kill me faster, and I lean my head back and close my eyes and stay there, letting the falling snow cover my head and face…"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance