Zack felt her fingers sliding into the soft hairs at his nape, and he dragged his mouth across her cheek to her ear.

"God, you are sweet!" he whispered while he took her nipples between his fingers, forcing them to harden into tight, hard buds, wanting to lavish her with pleasure. "Little one," he murmured hoarsely, "you are so damned beautiful…"

It might have been the endearment he'd used—one she was sure she remembered hearing him use in a movie—or perhaps it was his ridiculous use of the word beautiful that finally broke the sensual spell she was under, but Julie slowly realized that she'd watched him play this same kind of scene dozens of times with dozens of truly beautiful actresses in the movies. Only this time, it was her bare flesh that his hands were exploring with such practiced certainty. "Stop it!" she warned sharply, pulling free of his arms, shoving him away and yanking down her sweater. For a moment, Zack simply stood there, breathing deeply, arms at his sides, feeling completely disoriented. Her face was flushed with desire, and her glorious eyes were still glazed with it, but she looked as if she wanted to bolt for the door. Softly, as if speaking to a skittish colt, he said, "What's wrong, little—?"

"Just stop it right now!" she burst out. I am not your 'little one'—that was another woman in some other scene like this with you. I do not want to hear you call me that. I don't want to hear that I am beautiful either."

Zack gave his head a shake to clear it. Belatedly realizing that she was breathing in quick, shallow pants, watching him as if she half-expected him to pounce on her, tear off her clothes, and rape her, he said very quietly and very carefully, "Are you afraid of me, Julie?"

"Of course not," Julie said shortly, but she realized as soon as she said it that it was a lie. When the kiss had begun, she'd understood instinctively that, somehow, kissing her had represented a kind of cleansing for him, and she'd wanted to give him that. But now that her heart had taken that kiss as an urgent demand to give him much, much more, she was terrified. Because she wanted to do exactly that. She wanted to feel his hands rushing over her naked skin and his body driving into hers. In the moments she'd been silent, he'd evidently replaced passion with anger, because his voice was no longer gentle or kind, it was cool, clipped, and hard. "If you aren't afraid, then what's bothering you? Or is it that you can give an escaped convict a little empty sympathy, but you don't want him too close. Is that it?"

Julie nearly stamped her foot in frustration at his narrow logic and her own stupidity for letting things go this far. "It's nothing like revulsion if that's what you mean."

His voice became a bored drawl. "Then what is it, or shouldn't I ask?"

"You shouldn't need to ask!" she said, raking her hair off her forehead as she looked around a little wildly for something to do, some way to restore order to a world that had suddenly become alarmingly out of her control. "I'm not an animal," she began. Her eyes fell on a picture on the wall beside her that was a fraction of an inch crooked and she turned around to fix it.

"And you think I am? An animal? Is that it?"

Trapped by his questions and his nearness, she glanced over her shoulder and spied a cushion on the floor. "I think," she told him flatly as she walked over to the cushion, "that you're a man who has been locked away from women for five long years."

"That's right, I am. So what?"

She placed the cushion at a vertical angle against the arm of the sofa and began to feel more in control, now that there was distance between them. "So," she explained and actually managed an impersonal little smile at him across the width of the sofa, "I can understand that, to you, any woman would be like a…"

His dark brows snapped together over ominous eyes, and she trailed off uneasily, then she hastily bent and began rearranging the other throw pillows into a more artistic display, but she persevered with her explanation. "To you, after being in prison for so long, any woman would be like a—a banquet to a starving man. Any woman," she emphasized. "I mean, I didn't mind letting you kiss me if that made you feel, well, better."

Zack was humiliated and furious at the discovery she regarded him as some animal to whom she'd been tossing a crumb of human feeling, a sex-starved beggar to whom she was reluctantly willing to give a little kiss. "How noble you are, Miss Mathison," he jeered, ignoring the way the color drained out of her cheeks as he continued with deliberate brutality. "You've sacrificed your precious self twice to me. But contrary to your opinion, even an animal like myself is capable of some sort of restraint and discrimination. In short, Julie, you may think you're a 'banquet,' but you're completely resistible to this particular man, sex-starved though I may be."

His volatile anger was tangible, terrifying, and completely incomprehensible to Julie in her agitated state. She stepped back, wrapping her arms around herself as if to fend off the hurt he was deliberately inflicting on her raw emotions.

Zack read her every reaction in her expressive eyes, and satisfied that he'd done the utmost possible damage, he turned on his heel and walked over to the cabinet beside the television, where he began looking over the various titles of the videotaped movies on the shelves.

Julie knew she'd just been discarded like a used piece of tissue and summarily dismissed, but her ravaged pride rebelled at the thought of creeping into her bedroom like a wounded rabbit. Adamantly refusing to shed even one tear or show any fluster, she walked over to the table and began straightening the magazines on it. His frigid command made her lurch upright. "Go to bed! What are you anyway, some sort of compulsive housewife?"

The magazines slid out of her hand and she glared at him, but she did as he told her.

From the corner of his eye, Zack watched her retreat, noticing the haughty lift of her chin and the proud grace of her walk, and with the skill he'd perfected when he was eighteen, he turned away and coldly dismissed Julie Mathison completely from his mind. He concentrated, instead, on the Tom Brokaw newscast that Julie had interrupted with her angry outburst. He could have sworn that while he was trying to comfort her, Brokaw had said something about Dominic Sandini. Sitting down on the sofa, he frowned at the television set. He wished to God he could have heard exactly what it was. In two hours or so, there should be a late-night news update or at least a recap before the station went off the air. Propping his feet on the coffee table, Zack leaned back, prepared to wait for that. Sandini's face with its daredevil grin took shape in his mind, and a faint smile touched his lips as he thought of the wiry, irrepressible Italian. In all these years, there were only two men who he had come to regard as true friends: One of them was Matt Farrell and the other was Dominic Sandini. Zack's smile deepened as he considered the total dissimilarities between the two men he regarded as a "friend." Matt Farrell was a world-class tycoon; Zack and he had forged their friendship out of dozens of common interests and a deep mutual respect.

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance