Belatedly, the sheer unlikelihood of his musings hit him, and he marveled at his own folly. Where in the hell would he have ever met someone like Julie Mathison? Until he was eighteen, he'd been surrounded by servants and relatives, whose very presence were daily reminders of his social superiority. Back then, the daughter of a small-town minister, such as Julie, would never have entered his sphere.

No, he wouldn't have met her then, and he damned sure wouldn't have met someone like her in Hollywood. But what if he had, by some quirk of fate, met Julie there? Zack wondered, frowning with concentration. If she'd somehow survived unscathed in that sea of social depravity, unbridled self-indulgence, and raging ambition that was Hollywood, would he have really noticed her, or would she have been completely eclipsed in his eyes by more glamorous, showy, worldly women? If she'd walked into his office on Beverly Drive and asked him for a screen test, would he have noticed that lovely fine-boned face of hers, those incredible eyes, that lithesome figure? Or would he have overlooked all that because she wasn't spectacularly beautiful and built like an overfilled hourglass? If she spent an hour in his office talking to him there as she had done tonight, would he have truly appreciated her wit, her intelligence, her unaffected candor? Or would he have hustled her out because she wasn't talking about "the business" nor giving any indication that she'd like to go to bed with him, which would have been his two primary interests.

Zack rolled his glass between his hands as he contemplated his answers to those rhetorical questions, trying to be brutally honest with himself. After several moments, he decided that he would have noticed Julie Mathison's delicate features, glowing skin, and striking eyes. After all, he was an expert judge of beauty, conventional or otherwise, so he would not have overlooked hers. And, yes, he would have appreciated her straightforward candor, and he would have been as touched by her compassion and gentleness, her sheer sweetness as he had been tonight. He would not, however, have given her a screen test.

Nor would he have recommended she put herself in the hands of a good photographer who, Zack was absolutely certain right now, could capture that all-American girl freshness of hers and turn it into a million-dollar magazine cover, even though she was well past the age for starting out as a model.

Instead of that, Zack honestly believed he would have ushered her straight out of his office and told her to go home and marry her almost-fiancé, have his children, and live a life with meaning. Because, even at his most calloused, most jaded moments, Zack would never have wanted to see anything that was as fine and unspoiled as Julie Mathison become handled and used and corrupted, not by Hollywood or by him.

But what if she had insisted on staying in Hollywood anyway, despite his advice, would he have then taken her to bed later, if and when she seemed to be willing?

No.

Would he have wanted to?

No!

Would he have even wanted to keep her around, perhaps see her for lunch, evenings, or invite her to parties?

Christ, no!

Why not?

Zack already knew exactly why not, but he glanced over at her anyway as if to confirm what he felt: She was sitting with her feet curled beneath her on the sofa, the firelight gleaming on her shiny hair as she looked up at a beautiful landscape portrait hanging above the fireplace—her entire profile was as serene and as innocent as a choirgirl's at Christmas Mass. And that was why he would never have wanted to be around her before he went to prison and why he didn't really want to be around her now.

Although he was only nine years older than she in actual years, he was centuries older than she in experience, and most of that experience had not been the sort she would admire or even approve of—and that was true even before he went to prison. Beside her youthful idealism, Zack felt terribly old and jaded.

The fact that he found her incredibly sexy and desirable right now, even engulfed in that shapeless, bulky sweater, and the fact that he had an erection at this very moment only made him feel like a dirty, old, disgusting letch.

On the other hand, she'd also made him laugh tonight, and he appreciated that, he decided as he tossed down a swallow of brandy. Leaning forward, he propped his arms on his knees, smiling absently at the empty glass as he rolled it in his hands. He wondered if he'd ever listen to another football game without remembering her laughing protest at the idea of having a fullback, a halfback, a quarterback, but not a "three-quarters" back. And would he ever hear a football player referred to as a "tight end" without smiling because Julie Mathison had felt, very seriously, that simple common sense required a "loose end" as well.

It suddenly occurred to him that she had not asked him a single question about his old life in the film business. He couldn't remember meeting a single woman, or a man, who hadn't gushingly—if dishonestly—proclaimed that Zack was their favorite movie star and then plied him with personal questions about himself and the other stars they particularly admired. Even some of the toughest, most bloodthirsty cons in prison had been absurdly dazzled by his past and anxious to tell him which of his movies they liked most. Normally, all that fawning inquisitiveness had annoyed and disgusted him. Now he was just a little irked that Julie Mathison seemed not to have ever heard of him. Maybe they didn't have a theater in that obscure little town she lived in, he decided. Maybe she'd never seen a movie in her entire, sheltered little life in Mayberry RFD.

Maybe … God, maybe … she only went to pristine movies rated G! His own movies had been either PG or R—for profanity, violence, or sexual content or all three. To his extreme annoyance, Zack suddenly felt vaguely ashamed of that, which was another good reason that he'd never have willingly chosen to he around a woman like her.

He was so lost in his thoughts that he jumped when she said with a hesitant smile, "You don't look like you're enjoying your evening very much."

"I was thinking about watching the news," he said vaguely.

Julie, who'd been uneasily aware of his frowning silence, leapt at the opportunity to occupy herself with something other than wondering if he was truly innocent of murder … and if he was going to try to kiss her again before the evening was over. "That's a good idea," she said, getting up and reaching for her dish on the table. "Why don't you find the channel on the television set and I'll clear off the dishes?"

"And have you accuse me of welching on our deal? No way. I'll clear the dishes."

Julie watched him gather up plates and flatware and head for the kitchen.

For the last hour, when she wasn't answering his questions, doubts about his guilt had continued to plague her. She remembered the furious way he'd spoken of the jury that sent him to prison. She remembered the terrible despair in his voice when he'd pleaded with her in the snow to kiss him in order to mislead the truck driver "Please! I didn't kill anyone, I swear it!"


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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