In the past such an exchange would have ended in a royal battle, and Ted was completely taken aback by her new serenity, so much so that he realized that she really had changed. "Katherine," he said shortly, "I apologize for attacking you. I mean it. I'm sorry."

She nodded but carefully kept her eyes from his so they wouldn't give her away. "I know. You probably misunderstood the sort of kiss I was asking you for. I only thought of it as a way to seal our truce and make it lasting."

She raised her eyes to his and could have sworn there was amusement and knowledge in his gaze, but to her shock, he complied. Tipping her chin up he murmured, "All right. Kiss me, but make it quick." Which was why Katherine was laughing and his mouth was smiling when their lips touched for the first time in three years. "Stop laughing," he warned in a muffled chuckle.

"Stop smiling," she countered, but their breaths were mingling and it took only that to ignite the passion they'd shared years before. Ted's hands slid to her waist, moving her closer, then tightened suddenly as she flattened herself against his body, sweeping around her back and yanking her tightly to him.

Chapter 54

The directions she'd been given by the man at the rental car office at Ridgemont's small airport, Julie had no trouble finding Zack's boyhood home. Perched high on a hill overlooking the picturesque little valley, the Tudor mansion where Margaret Stanhope still lived was, according to the man at the rental car office, "practically a landmark hereabouts." Watching for the fancy brick pillars that she'd been told would mark the driveway, Julie saw them on her left and turned off the highway. As she wended her way up the long wide drive that climbed through the trees to the top of the hill, she remembered what Zack had told her about the day he'd left this place. "I was permanently disowned as of that moment. I handed over my car keys and walked down the driveway and down the hill to the highway." He'd had a very long walk, she realized with a pang of sad nostalgia, looking around her, trying to imagine what he had felt and seen that day.

At the top of the hill as she made the last turn, the drive widened and swept in a wide arc through manicured lawns and giant trees, barren now in winter. There was a harsh austerity about the sprawling stone house that made her oddly uneasy as she pulled to a stop on the brick-paved entry in front of the steps. She hadn't called in advance because she hadn't wanted to explain the purpose for her visit on a telephone, nor had she wanted to give Zack's grandmother an easy opportunity to refuse to see her. In Julie's experience, delicate personal matters were always better handled in person. Gathering up her purse and gloves, she got out of the car and stopped, looking around at the house and its setting, delaying the moment of reckoning. Zack had grown up here, and it seemed to her this place had left its mark on his personality; it was like him in a way—formidable, proud, solid, impressive.

That made her feel better, braver, as she walked up the steps toward the wide arched door. Firmly suppressing the inexplicable premonition of doom that was trying to steal over her, she reminded herself that she had come on a long-overdue "peace mission" and she lifted the heavy brass door knocker.

An ancient butler with stooped shoulders answered the door wearing a dark suit and bow tie. "I'm Julie Mathison," she told him. "I'd like to see Mrs. Stanhope if she's at home."

His shaggy white brows shot up over widened brown eyes when Julie gave her name, but he recovered his composure and stepped back into a cavernous, gloomy foyer with a green slate floor. "I will see if Mrs. Stanhope will see you. You may wait there," he added, gesturing to a straight-backed, uncomfortable-looking antique chair positioned beside a drum table at the left end of the foyer.

Julie sat down, her purse on her knees, feeling a little like a supplicant in the stifling, unwelcoming formality of the foyer, and she had a hunch that unexpected guests were intended to feel this way. Concentrating on what she needed to say, she gazed at a German landscape hanging in an ornate dark frame on the opposite wall, then she turned nervously when the butler shuffled into the foyer.

"Madam will spare you exactly five minutes," he announced.

Refusing to be daunted by that unpromising beginning, Julie followed him down a wide hall and then passed in front of him as he opened a door and gestured her into a large room with a fire burning in a massive stone fireplace and an Oriental carpet spread across a polished dark wood floor. A pair of high-backed chairs upholstered in a faded tapestry were positioned facing the fireplace, and since no one was sitting on the sofa or any of the other furniture in the room, Julie erroneously assumed she was alone. She wandered over to a table covered with silver-framed photographs, intending to study the faces of what she presumed were Zack's relatives and ancestors, then she saw that the wall on the left was covered with large portraits. With a fascinated smile, she started toward them, realizing that Zack hadn't exaggerated—there was a startling resemblance between himself and many of the Stanhope men. Behind her a sharp voice snapped, "You've just wasted one of your five minutes, Miss Mathison."

Whirling around in surprise, Julie looked for the source of the ominous voice and walked around to the front of the chairs. There she had her second jolt because the woman who was rising to her feet, leaning on a silver-handled ebony cane, was not the diminutive old woman who Julie had rather expected to resemble the butler in stature and demeanor. Instead, she was taller than Julie by several inches, and once she gained her feet, her posture was as rigidly erect as the expression on her unlined face was stony and forbidding. "Miss Mathison!" the woman snapped, "Either sit down or remain standing, but start talking. Why have you come here?"

"I'm very sorry," Julie said hastily, backing quickly into the high-backed chair opposite Zack's grandmother's. She sat down so the woman wouldn't feel obliged to remain on her feet. "Mrs. Stanhope, I'm a friend of—"

"I know who you are, I've seen you on television," the woman interrupted coldly as she sat down. "He took you hostage and then converted you to his media spokesperson."

"Not exactly," Julie said, noting that the woman refrained from even using Zack's name. As always, when Julie was prepared in advance to face a difficult confrontation, she was able to maintain an outward serenity that she didn't always feel, but this situation was even more tense and awkward than she'd expected.

"I asked you why you've come here!"

Instead of letting the older woman rile or intimidate her with her tone, Julie smiled and said quietly, "I'm here, Mrs. Stanhope, because when I was with your grandson in Colorado—"

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance