It was the only time Matt saw her falter, and sympathy swelled in his heart as he watched her struggle to keep her smile in place, and her expression noncommittal, but her eyes betrayed her—those huge long-lashed sapphire eyes turned dark and solemn with an emotion that distinctly resembled tenderness. And just when Matt's sympathy for her plight was at its peak, just when he realized the reporters had finally trapped her, she changed tactics and walked willingly into their trap in a way that made him draw in a sharp breath at her courage:

"At one time or another," she said, "most of the female population of this country has probably imagined themselves in love with Zachary Benedict. Now that I've known him," she added with a tiny break in her voice, "I think they showed excellent judgment. He—" she hesitated, visibly searching for the right words, and then she said simply, "he is a very easy man for any woman to love."

Without another word she turned away from the bank of microphones and was quickly surrounded by two men Matt presumed were probably FBI agents and several uniformed deputy sheriffs who ushered her safely off the stage.

He pressed the off button on the remote controller as the CNN reporter began to recap the interview, then he looked at his wife. "What do you think of that?"

"I think," Meredith said quietly, "that she was incredible."

"But did she change your opinion of Zack at all? I'm biased in his favor, but you never knew him, so you'd probably react to her interview pretty much like everyone else did."

"I doubt that I'm as unbiased as you think. You're a very tough judge of character, darling, and you've made it clear that you believe he's innocent. If you believe that, then I'm inclined to believe it, too."

"Thank you for the tribute to my judgment," he said tenderly, pressing a kiss on her forehead.

"Now, I have a question for you," she added, and Matt sensed instinctively what she was going to ask. "Julie Mathison said she was taken to an isolated house somewhere in the Colorado mountains. Was it our house?"

"I don't know," he said truthfully, grinning when she gave him a skeptical look. "But I imagine it was," he added for the sake of honesty. "Zack has been there before, although he always flew in, and over the years, I've repeatedly offered him the use of the place. He would naturally feel free to use it now, so long as he didn't directly involve me—"

"But you are involved!" Meredith burst out a little desperately. "You—"

"I am not involved with Zack in any way that could jeopardize you or me." When she still looked unconvinced, he reiterated calmly, "When he went to prison, Zack gave me his power of attorney so that I could manage his investments and handle his finances, which I continue to do. That is not illegal nor is it a secret from the legal authorities. Until he escaped from prison, he was in regular communication with me."

"But what about now that he's escaped, Matt?" she asked, her eyes searching his face. "What if he tries to communicate with you now?"

"In that case," he said with a casual shrug that worried her more, not less, "I will do what any law-abiding citizen must do and what Zack would expect me to do: I'll notify the authorities."

"How quickly?"

He laughed at her perceptiveness and put his arm around her shoulders as he steered her toward the bedroom. "Quickly enough to stop the authorities from charging me with collusion," he promised. And not one bit quicker than that, he added silently.

"What about his having used our house? Will you tell the authorities what you suspect?"

"I think," he decided after a moment's consideration, "that's an excellent idea! They'll see that as further proof of my innocence and a gesture of extreme good faith on my part."

"A gesture," his wife provided wryly, "that can't possibly harm your friend because, according to Julie Mathison, he left Colorado several days ago."

"Very clever of you, darling," he agreed with a grin. "Now, why don't you climb into bed for our little 'nap' and wait for me while I telephone the local office of the FBI."

She nodded but put her hand on his sleeve. "If I asked you not to have anything more to do with anything that concerns Zachary Benedict—" she began, but he shook his head to silence her.

"I'd do anything in the world for you, and you know it," he said in a voice that was gruff with emotion. "But please don't ask this of me, Meredith. I have to live with myself, and I'd find it very difficult to do if I did that to Zack."

Meredith hesitated, astonished again by the loyalty Matt felt for that one man. Generally regarded as a brilliant, but tough businessman, Matt had hundreds of acquaintances, but he neither trusted them nor gave them his friendship. In fact, to the best of her knowledge, Zachary Benedict was the only one he'd ever truly regarded as a close, trusted friend. "He must be a remarkable man for you to be this loyal to him."

"You'd like him," he promised, chucking her under the chin.

"What makes you so certain?" she teased, trying to match his lighthearted attitude.

"I'm certain," he said with a deliberately smug look, "because you happen to be crazy about me."

"You can't mean the two of you are alike?"

"A lot of people probably thought so and not necessarily in a flattering way. However," he added, sobering, "the fact is that I'm all Zack has. I'm the only one he trusts. When he was arrested, the sycophants and competitors who'd fawned all over him for years dropped him like he had the bubonic plague and reveled in his downfall. There were other people who stayed loyal to him even after he went to prison, but he cut them off and refused even to answer their letters."

"He was probably ashamed."

"I'm sure he was."

"You're wrong about one thing," she said softly. "He has one other ally besides you."

"Who?"

"Julie Mathison. She's in love with him. Do you think he saw her or heard what she said tonight?"

Matt shook his head. "I doubt it. Wherever he is, it's somewhere very remote and it's not in this country. He'd be a fool to stay in the U.S., and Zack is no fool."

"I wish he could have heard her," Meredith said, her heart going out to him despite her fear for her husband's safety. "Maybe he got lucky and he knows what she's trying to do."

"Zack has never been lucky in his personal life."


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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