* * *

"Hey, Zack," the whisper was almost inaudible, "What are you gonna do if it starts snowing the day after tomorrow, like the weather forecast said?" Dominic Sandini leaned down from the upper bunk and looked at the man who was stretched out on the cot below, staring at the ceiling. "Zack, did you hear me?" he added in a louder whisper.

Pulling his mind from the endless thoughts of his imminent escape and the risks associated with it, Zack slowly turned his head and looked at the wiry, olive-skinned thirty-year-old who shared his cell in the Amarillo State Penitentiary and was privy to his escape plans because he was part of them. Dominic's uncle was a major part of those same plans—a retired bookie, according to information in the prison library, with supposed connections to the Las Vegas Mafia. Zack had paid Enrico Sandini a fortune to pave the way once he made his escape. He had done it on Dominic's assurance that his uncle was "an honorable man," but he had no actual way of knowing for a few more hours if the money he'd instructed Matt Farrell to transfer into Sandini's Swiss bank account was actually buying him a thing. "I'll handle it," he said flatly.

"Well, when you 'handle it,' don't forget you owe me ten bucks. We had that bet on the Bears game last year and you lost. Remember?"

"I'll pay you when I get out of here." In case anyone was listening, Zack added, "Someday."

With a conspiratorial grin, Sandini leaned back, slid his thumb under the flap of the letter he'd received earlier that day, crossed his feet at the ankles, and lapsed into silence as he read.

Ten lousy dollars … Zack thought grimly, remembering when he used to hand out ten-dollar tips to messengers and bellmen as casually as if it was play money. In this hellhole where he'd spent the last five years, men killed each other for ten dollars. Ten dollars could buy anything that was available here, like a fistful of marijuana cigarettes, a handful of uppers or downers, and magazines that catered to any perversion. Those were just a few of the little "luxuries" that money could buy in this place. Normally he tried never to think of the way he had once lived; it made this twelve by fifteen-foot cell with a sink, a toilet, and two cots even more unbearable, but now that he was resolved to escape or die trying, he wanted to remember it. The memory would reinforce his resolve to make the break, no matter the cost or the risk. He wanted to remember the rage he felt the first day when the cell door clanged shut and the next day, when a gang of thugs surrounded him in the prison yard, taunting, "C'mon, mooovie staaaar, show us how you won all them mooovie fights." It was pure, blind, irrational fury that had sent him plowing into the biggest of the group, fury and an unformed wish to end his life there and then, as quickly as possible, but not until he'd inflicted pain on his tormentor. And he inflicted plenty that day. He'd been in good shape, and all those moves he'd learned for the phoney fights in his "tough guy" roles weren't wasted. By the time the fight was stopped, Zack had three broken ribs and a bruised kidney, but two of his opponents looked a hell of a lot worse.

His triumph landed him in solitary for a week, but no one fooled with him after that. Word spread that he was a maniac, and even the worst of the goons gave him a wide berth. He was, after all, a convicted murderer, not an ordinary petty felon. That also won him a certain amount of respect. It had taken him three years to wise up and realize that the easiest path was to become a trustee, which meant behaving himself and playing the game like a good little soldier. And he had done that, he had even come to like some of the cons, but he had never, in all these years, known peace. Peace could only come with acceptance of his fate, and not once during his long incarceration, not even for a moment, had he been able to do what convicts were advised to do: He could not accept his confinement and simply put in his time here. He'd learned to play the game and pretend that he had "adjusted," but the truth was just the opposite. The truth was that every morning, when his eyes opened, the inner battle began again and it continued to rage until he finally fell asleep. He had to get out of here before it drove him insane. His plan was solid: Every Wednesday, Warden Hadley, who ran the prison like his own personal Stalag 17, attended a community meeting in Amarillo; Zack was his driver, and Sandini, his gofer. Today was Wednesday, and everything Zack needed to make good his escape had been waiting for him in Amarillo, but at the last minute, Hadley, who was the featured speaker this week had told Zack the meeting was rescheduled for Friday. Zack's jaw clenched. If not for that delay, Zack would already be free. Or dead. Now, he had to wait until the day after tomorrow to make his break, and he didn't know how he was going to bear the suspense.

Closing his eyes, he went over the plan again. It was filled with pitfalls, but Dominic Sandini was trustworthy, so he had help on the inside. Everything on the outside was supposedly taken care of by Enrico Sandini—money, transportation, and a new identity. After that, the rest was up to Zack. At this point, what worried him the most were the things he couldn't accurately predict or allow for, like the weather and the location of possible roadblocks. Even with his careful planning, there were a thousand tiny things that could happen and cause a domino effect that could result in the collapse of his entire scheme. The risk was enormous, but it didn't matter. Not really. He only had two choices: to stay in this hellhole and let it destroy what was left of his mind or escape and risk the probability of being shot down when they tried to capture him. As far as he was concerned, being killed was infinitely preferable to rotting in here.

Even if he made good his escape, he knew they'd never stop hunting for him. For the rest of his life—probably his very short life—he'd never be able to relax or stop looking over his shoulder, no matter what part of the world he made it to. It was worth it. Anything was worth it.

"Holy shit!" Sandini's exuberant shout jolted Zack from his preoccupation with his escape plans. "Gina's getting married!" He waved the letter he'd been reading, and when Zack merely turned his head and gave him a blank look, he said it louder. "Zack, did you hear what I said? My sister Gina's getting married in two weeks! She's marrying Guido Dorelli."

"That's a good choice," Zack said dryly, "since he's the one who got her pregnant."

"Yeah, but like I told you, Mama wasn't going to let her marry him."

"Because he's a loan shark," Zack assumed after pausing for a moment to recall what he knew of Guido.

"Hell, no. I mean, a guy's got to make a living, Mama understands that. Guido just lends money to people in need, that's all."

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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