"You can't do this to us!" Alex exploded. "Grandfather would never have let you!"

"You have no right to tell us how to live our lives," Elizabeth wailed.

"If you don't like my offer," Margaret informed her in a steely voice, "then I suggest you get yourself a job as a waitress or find yourself a pimp, because those are the only two careers for which you're fit right now."

She watched their faces pale and nodded with satisfaction, then Alexander said sullenly, "What about Zack? He gets great grades at Yale. You aren't going to make him live here, too, are you?"

The moment she'd been waiting for had arrived. "No," she said, "I'm not."

Turning fully toward Zachary so she could watch his face, she snapped, "Get out! Get out of this house and don't ever come back. I never want to see your face or hear your name again."

Had it not been for the sudden clenching of his jaw, she would have thought her words had no effect. He didn't ask for an explanation because he didn't need one. In fact, he'd undoubtedly been expecting this from the moment she began to give her ultimatum to his sister. Wordlessly, he straightened from the balustrade and stretched his hand toward the car keys he'd tossed on the table, but when his fingers touched them, Margaret's voice lashed out and stilled his hand. "Leave them! You're to take nothing but the clothes on your back." He took his hand away and looked at his sister and brother, as if half-expecting them to say something, but they were either too immersed in their own misery to speak or too afraid of sharing his fate if they alienated her.

Margaret detested the younger two for their cowardice and disloyalty at the same time she endeavored to make absolutely certain neither of them might later show a flare of latent courage. "If either of you ever contacts him or permits him to contact you," she warned them as Zachary turned and headed toward the steps leading from the veranda, "if you so much as attend the same party at someone's house with him, you'll suffer the same fate he has, is that clear?" To her departing grandson, she issued a different warning: "Zachary, if you're thinking of throwing yourself on the mercy of any of your friends, don't bother. Stanhope Industries is the primary source of employment in Ridgemont, and I now own every scrap of it. No one here will want to help you at the risk of incurring my displeasure—and the loss of their jobs."

Her warning made him turn on the bottom step and look up at her with such cold contempt that she belatedly realized he would never have considered taking charity from friends. But what interested her the most about his expression was the emotion she glimpsed in his eyes before he turned his head. Was it anguish she'd seen there? Or was it fury? Or fear? She hoped, very devoutly, that it was all those things.

* * *

The moving van slowed to a lumbering stop in front of the solitary male walking along the shoulder of the highway with a sport jacket slung over his shoulder and his head bent as if he were bucking a high wind. "Hey," Charlie Murdock called out, "you need a ride?"

A pair of dazed amber eyes lifted to Charlie's, and for a moment the young man looked completely disoriented, as if he'd been sleepwalking down the highway, then he jerked his head in a nod. As he climbed into the cab, Charlie noted the expensive tan slacks his passenger was wearing, the shiny loafers, matching socks, and stylish haircut and assumed he'd picked up a preppie college student who was, for some reason, hitching a ride. Confident of his intuition and powers of observation, Charlie said conversationally, "What college do you go to?"

The boy swallowed as if his throat were constricted and turned his face toward the side window, but when he spoke his voice was cold and final. "I don't go to college."

"Did your car break down somewhere out here?"

"No."

"You got family that lives around here?"

"I don't have a family."

Despite his passenger's brusque tone, Charlie, who had three grown sons of his own back in New York, had the distinct feeling the boy was exerting every ounce of his control to keep his emotions in check. He waited a few minutes before asking, "You got a name?"

"Zack…" he replied, and after a hesitant pause, he added, "…Benedict."

"Where you headed?"

"Wherever you're going."

"I'm going all the way to the West Coast. Los Angeles."

"Fine," he said in a tone that discouraged further conversation. "It doesn't matter."

It was hours later when the young man spoke voluntarily for the first time. "Do you need any help unloading this rig when you get to Los Angeles?"

Charlie looked sideways at him, quickly revising his initial conclusions about Zack Benedict. He dressed like a rich kid and he had the diction of a rich kid, but this particular rich kid was evidently out of money, out of his element, and down on his luck. He was also perfectly willing to swallow his pride and do ordinary manual labor, which Charlie thought showed a certain amount of grit, all things considered. "You look like you could handle the heavy lifting easy enough," he said, casting a quick, appraising eye over Benedict's tall, well-muscled body. "You been working out with weights or something?"

"I used to box at— I used to box," he amended shortly. At college, Charlie finished mentally, and maybe it was because Benedict somehow reminded him of his own boys when they were his age and trying to tough things out or maybe it was because he sensed that Zack Benedict's problems were pretty desperate, but he decided to give him some work. Having reached that decision, Charlie held out his hand. "My name's Murdock, Charlie Murdock. I can't pay you much, but at least you'll get a chance to see an honest-to-God movie lot when we get to L.A. This truck's loaded with props that belong to Empire Studios. I got a contract to do some of their hauling, and that's where we're going."

Benedict's grim indifference to that information somehow added to Charlie's conviction that his passenger was not only broke but probably had no idea of how to rectify the problem in the near future. "If you do a good job for me, maybe I could put in a word for you at Empire's hiring office—that is, if you don't mind pushing a broom or using your back?"

His passenger turned his face to the side window, staring out into the darkness again. Just when Charlie had reversed his earlier opinion and decided that Benedict actually thought he was too good to do menial labor, the young man spoke in a voice that was hoarse with relief and embarrassed gratitude. "Thanks. I'd appreciate that."


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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