The results were spectacular. Rachel received an Academy Award nomination for her role in Winner Take All. Zack won an Oscar for Best Actor and another for Best Director for his work in it. The latter award merely confirmed what Hollywood moguls had already noted: Zack had a genius for directing. He knew instinctively how to turn a suspenseful shot into a hair-raising scene that gave the audience chills, he could coax a belly laugh with what had been written as a mildly amusing remark, and he could steam up the movie screens with a love scene. Moreover, he could do it within the film's budget.

His two Oscars brought Zack tremendous satisfaction but no deep contentment. Zack didn't notice. He no longer expected or sought contentment, and he deliberately kept himself too busy to notice the lack of it. In his quest to stay challenged, he directed and starred in two more films during the next two years—an erotic action/thriller costarring with Glenn Close and an action/adventure movie in which he teamed up with Kim Basinger.

He was fresh out of challenges and looking for a new one when he flew to Carmel to finalize a joint business venture that Matt Farrell was putting together. Late that night, he went looking for something to read and picked up a novel left there by an unknown houseguest. Long before he finished it at dawn, Zack knew Destiny was going to be his next picture.

The following day, he walked into the president's office at Empire Studios and handed the book to him. "Here's my next picture, Irwin."

Irwin Levine read the blurb on the book jacket, leaned back in his tall suede chair, and sighed. "This looks like heavy drama, Zack. I'd like to see you do something lighthearted for a change." Abruptly, he swung his chair around, picked up a script from the glass table behind his glass desk, and handed it to Zack with an eager smile. "Somebody passed me this script under the table. It's already got a buyer, but if you say you'll do it, we could try to negotiate for it. It's a romance. Good stuff. Fun. Nobody's made a film like this in decades, and I think the public's hungry for it. You're perfect for the lead and you could play the part in your sleep, it's so easy. Making it will be cheap and quick, but I've got a hunch the picture's going to be a runaway hit."

The script, which Zack agreed to read that night, turned out to be a fluffy, predictable romance where true love changes the life of a cynical tycoon who then lives happily ever after with his beautiful new wife. Zack hated it, partly because the lead role would require no effort from him at all, but mostly because it reminded him of the foolish fantasies about love and marriage he'd quietly cherished as a youth and acted on as an adult. The next morning, he tossed the script for Pretty Woman on Levine's desk and said disdainfully, "I'm not a good enough actor or a good enough director to make this tripe seem believable."

"You've become a cynic," Levine said, shaking his head and looking aggrieved. "I've known you since you were a kid, and I love you like my own son. I'm disappointed to see it happening to you. Very disappointed."

Zack responded to that sentimental crap by lifting his brows and saying absolutely nothing; Levine loved him like his own bank account, and he was disappointed because Zack wouldn't agree to do Pretty Woman. Levine didn't try to force the issue, however. The last time he'd done that, Zack had walked out of his office and made a movie for Paramount and another one for Universal.

"You were never a starry-eyed teenager," he said instead. "You were tough and realistic, but you weren't a total skeptic either. Ever since you married Rachel, you've been changing." He saw the flare of annoyance in Zack's face and hastily said, "Okay, enough sentimentality. Let's talk business. When do you want to start shooting Destiny, and who do you have in mind for the main roles?"

"I'll play the husband, and I'd like Diana Copeland for the wife if she's available. Rachel would be excellent for the mistress. Emily McDaniels for the daughter."

Levine's brows shot up. "Rachel's going to have one of her raging tantrums over getting the lesser female role."

"I'll deal with Rachel," Zack said. Rachel and Levine detested each other, although neither of them ever gave a reason. Zack suspected they'd had an affair years ago that ended badly.

"If you haven't already made up your mind about the part of the drifter," Levine continued after a hesitant pause, "I have a favor to ask. Would you consider Tony Austin for it?"

"Not a chance," Zack said flatly. Austin's addictions to booze and drugs were as legendary as his other vices, and he was totally unreliable. His last accidental overdose at the beginning of a picture he was making for Empire had landed him in a rehab center for six months, and another actor had to fill his role.

"Tony wants to go to work and prove himself," Levine continued patiently. "His doctors assure me he's kicked his habits and he's a new man. I'm inclined to believe them this time."

Zack shrugged. "What's different about this time?"

"Because this time when they rushed him into Cedars-Sinai, he was DOA. They brought him back, but the experience has finally scared the shit out of him and he's ready to grow up and get to work. I'd like to give him that chance, a new start." Levine's voice took on a pious note. "It's the only decent thing to do, Zack. We're all on this earth together. We have to take care of each other, look out for each other. We have to help Tony get work because he's broke and because—"

"And because he owes you a chunk of money for that picture he never finished," Zack speculated flatly.

"Well, yes, he is into us for a sizable amount of money for that picture," Levine reluctantly admitted. "He came to us though and asked to work off his debt so that he could prove himself. Since you seem to be invulnerable to an emotional appeal, consider the practical reasons to use him: Despite all his bad publicity, the public still adores him. He's their bad, misguided, beautiful boy, the man every woman wants to comfort."

Zack hesitated. If Austin was really a reformed man, he was perfect for the role. At thirty-three, his youthful, blond good looks had been marred by dissipation, which somehow only made him more appealing to women from twelve to ninety. Austin's name on a marquee was a guarantee of fabulous box office sales. So was Zack's; as a combination, they stood a chance of breaking some records. Since Zack intended to have a sizable piece of the profits as part of his price for making Destiny, that had a strong bearing on his decision. So did the fact that even when Austin was drunk he was a better actor than most, and he was perfect for the part. On the other hand, using Austin in this film would be a favor to Empire, and Zack intended to exact concessions from Empire in return. For that reason, he hid his enthusiasm for the idea and said only, "I'll let him read for the part, but I'm not crazy about being a baby-sitter for a junkie, reformed or otherwise. I'll have Dan Moyes call you in the morning," he added, referring to his agent as he arose to leave, "and the two of you can start working out the contractual details."

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance