Paul expected those verbal bombs to get a reaction, but except for a muscle that began to twitch in Benedict's jaw at the mention of his relative, there was none, and he continued doggedly. "Julie returned from Ridgemont, and that night, she learned that the cast and crew of Destiny were receiving threatening calls, allegedly from you, and she still did not turn you in to us. Not until the night before she was supposed to leave, when Tony Austin wound up dead, did she finally notify us of your intention to meet her in Mexico City." He waited again and when Benedict continued to sit there, staring at him with contempt, Paul lost his temper. "Did you hear me, damn you? It was not a trap from the beginning! Is that clear to you?"

Benedict's face tightened, but his voice was ominously soft. "Use that tone of voice just one more time, and I will personally throw you out on your ass, regardless of my promise to hear you out." Sarcastically he added, "Is that clear to you?"

Forcibly reminding himself of the need to succeed here for Julie's sake, Paul said tersely, "Let's knock off the adolescent sparring. We don't like each other, so let's drop it. The point is, I did not come here to antagonize you, I came here to give you proof that Julie did not originally set a trap for you in Mexico City. The truth is that what she saw happen to you there combined with your refusal to let her explain or answer her letters have hurt her more than you can possibly know or imagine. Her family is worried about her, and so am I."

"You are?" he repeated with insolent amusement. "And why is that, I wonder?"

"Because unlike you, I feel a responsibility for the part I played in Mexico City and the damage it did to her." Reaching into his briefcase, Paul withdrew a large envelope, then he closed his case and stood up. Tossing the envelope distastefully onto his adversary's desk, he said, "And because I'm in love with her."

Benedict didn't reach for it or glance at it. "Now why is it," he mocked, "that announcement doesn't surprise me?"

"Maybe you're clairvoyant," Paul snapped. "Either way, the evidence is in there—two videotapes and a letter. Don't take my word for anything, Benedict, see for yourself. And then if you have even a trace of decency left, do something to alleviate her suffering."

"How much do you think it will take," he asked with scathing sarcasm, "to 'alleviate her suffering'? One million dollars? Two million? Twice as much, because you plan to share the bounty with her?"

Planting his hands flat on Benedict's desk, Paul leaned forward and said savagely, "I should have let the Federales beat the shit out of you all the way to the Texas border!"

"Really? Why didn't you?"

Straightening, Paul raked him with a scornful look. "Because Julie made me promise before she turned you in that I wouldn't let anyone hurt you. The only thing she lied to you about was being pregnant. She did it so that you'd let her join you. She must have been insane to think she was in love with you, you heartless, arrogant bastard."

At that, Benedict got out of his chair and started around his desk. "Try it," Paul invited holding his arms out to his sides. "Please try it, movie star. Just throw the first punch, so I can finish it for you."

"Enough!" Matt Farrell thundered, grabbing Zack's arm. "Richardson, you've had your five minutes. O'Hara!" he shouted. "Show Mr. Richardson to the door."

Joe O'Hara instantly materialized in the room from the doorway where he'd been eavesdropping. "Nuts, it was just starting to get good," he said. Eyeing Paul Richardson with a modicum of respect, he gestured grandly to the door and said, "I've never met a lawman before who wears a suit and is willin' to step out from behind his badge and put up his fists. Allow me to show you to your car."

His humor did nothing to diffuse the tension that stretched taut in the room when he left.

"I think we should go," Matt said.

"And I think," Meredith argued, drawing a startled look from both men, "we should wait while Zack looks at the evidence inside that envelope." She turned to him. "I also think it's time I tell you that I believe beyond all doubt that Julie loved you very much. I also believe that everything Richardson said is true."

"If that's what you think," Zack retorted with biting sarcasm, "then I suggest you take the 'evidence' with you and look at it yourself, Meredith. Then you can burn it."

Matt's face went white with fury, "I'll give you five seconds to apologize to my wife."

"I'll only need two," Zack said curtly, and Meredith smiled before Matt did because she was listening to his words, not his tone. Reaching his hand out for hers, Zack smiled grimly. "I apologize for my tone. I was inexcusably rude."

"Not inexcusably," she said, studying his eyes as if searching for something. "I'll take you up on your offer, though, and take that envelope with me, if you don't mind."

"Since your husband is still debating about whether or not to throw a punch at me, and since I've already earned it," Zack said dryly, "I don't think I ought to press my luck by turning you down now."

"I think that's very wise of you," she said, transferring her laughing gaze to her husband. Picking up the envelope from the desk, she tucked her hand into Matt's arm. "There was a time when the mere mention of my name could drive you to similar fury," she reminded him gently, making a clear effort to diffuse the remaining tension between the two men.

His scowl softened to a reluctant smile. "Was I really as big a jackass as Zack is?"

She laughed. "Now there's a question guaranteed to get me into a fight with one of you."

Matt affectionately rumpled her hair and drew her tightly to his side.

"We'll see you at the party after we've changed," she called over her shoulder as they walked out.

"Fine," Zack said, watching them go, marveling at the closeness they shared, at the way it had changed Matt. Once, not long ago, Zack had imagined that Julie and he— Furious that she'd even entered his mind, he walked over to the windows and opened the drapes. He wasn't certain what he despised more—her treachery or his gullibility. At thirty-five she'd reduced him to pouring out his heart in sappy love letters and gazing at her picture for hours, not to mention risking his neck to buy her just the right wedding ring at one of the most exclusive jewelers in South America. The shame and self-disgust he felt about things like that almost outweighed his humiliation at being beaten on his knees in front of half the world. She was responsible for that, too. And everyone with a television set knew it—they knew he'd been so blindly, insanely besotted with a small-town schoolteacher that he'd risked his life to get to her.

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance