It was time, she decided with a nervous tremor, for a foray into that locked garage.

Her gloved hands clumsy from suspense and cold, Julie tried unsuccessfully to fit the first key she'd found into the bottom of the heavy padlock. Holding her breath, she slid the second key into it, and the lock separated into two parts in her hand. Glancing over her shoulder at the back door of the house, she made certain he hadn't suddenly decided to come outdoors, then she stepped over the snowdrift blocking her way and went into the garage, closing the door behind her.

Inside, it was dark as pitch, but after stumbling over a shovel and bumping into an unknown object with enormous tires, she finally found a light switch on the wall and flipped it on. A bank of large overhead spotlights exploded with light. Momentarily blinded, Julie blinked and then glanced around the crowded area, her heart beginning to hammer with anticipation and foreboding. Skis. There were several pairs of skis and ski poles secured in racks on the far wall. On her left was an enormous tractor equipped with a huge contraption for blowing snow. Julie tried to envision herself sitting in the cab of the tractor, plowing her way along the treacherous road that wound down the mountain, then she discarded the possibility. Even if she were foolhardy enough to try to push the Blazer out of the way and drive the tractor down the mountain, the machine would make enough noise to alert the man in the house. Moreover, it would move so slowly that he'd be able drag her out of it without breaking into a run.

The other half of the two-car garage was filled with tractor equipment, snow tires, boxes, and some other equipment that was covered with a large black tarpaulin.

Skis. She was going to have to try to ski her way down the mountain; if she didn't die of exposure, she'd probably die of a broken neck. Equally as depressing, she'd have to wait until tomorrow or the day after to try it, because the wind was picking up outside and the snow was beginning to fall as if it were a real blizzard. More out of curiosity than hope, Julie lifted the corner of the tarpaulin and peered underneath it, then she threw it aside with a cry of joyous disbelief.

Beneath the tarp were two shiny, dark blue snowmobiles with helmets perched on the seats.

Fingers trembling, she tried the second key in the nearest snowmobile's ignition. It slid in and turned. It fit! It worked! Elation and anticipation soared through her as she raced out of the garage and carefully closed the side door behind her. The weather that had seemed so forbidding a few minutes ago was now only a minor annoyance. In a half hour or less—as soon as she could change into that snowmobile suit in her closet and sneak out of the house—she'd be on her way to freedom. She'd never used a snowmobile before, but there was no doubt in her mind that she could manage somehow, and much better than she could have handled those skis and poles. Intent on keeping up the ploy that was working so well for her, Julie paused long enough to grab some more pine branches, then she dashed to the site of the snowman and dumped the branches there, as if she'd been gathering them all this time. Zachary Benedict was still standing at the windows, watching her, and Julie forced herself to pause and look about her as if searching the yard for more "props" to use for her snowman, while she gave a last few seconds' thought to the details of her forthcoming bolt for freedom. All she truly had to do was change clothes and put on dry gloves and take the key to the other snowmobile so he couldn't follow her when he realized how she'd escaped.

She was ready to go. Neither snow nor wind nor an escaped convict with a gun could foil her now. She was as good as on her way.

From within the house, Zack watched her clamp her hat down over her ears and trudge off out of sight to look for whatever it was she needed to create whatever unidentifiable "scene" she was making out there. The anger he'd felt earlier was gone now, greatly alleviated by the news that Sandini's condition hadn't worsened and, to a lesser extent, by the unwilling amusement he felt as he watched Julie wrestle with that enormous ball of snow, pushing and shoving at it, even though she could scarcely bend over in those tight jeans she was wearing. His lips quirked in a half-smile as he recalled watching her solve the problem:

When the snowball was large enough, she'd stopped pushing it with her hands and arms, and instead, she'd turned around, braced her back against the snowy boulder, and shoved it using her feet and legs. Zack had been sorely tempted to go outside and help her, an offer that he knew she'd angrily reject and would have simultaneously deprived him of the pleasure of watching her from his vantage point. Until that moment, he had never imagined there could be such pleasure in simply watching a woman build a snowman. On the other hand, he'd never known a grown woman who would consider doing such a mundane, innocently wholesome thing as play in the snow.

She was a complete enigma, he thought as he waited for her to reappear at the window. Intelligent and ingenuous, compassionate and fiery, passionate and skittish—she was a mass of contrasts, and they were all vastly appealing. But if there was one thing about Julie Mathison that intrigued him the most, it was her unaffected wholesomeness. At first, he'd been half-convinced he was imagining that aura of prim innocence, but last night he'd discovered that she barely knew how to kiss! It made him wonder what sort of wimpy males lived in Keaton, Texas. And what sort of inconsiderate jerk was her almost-fiancé that he hadn't introduced her to foreplay? She'd jumped like a startled rabbit when Zack touched her breasts. If he didn't know it were impossible in this day and age, he'd almost think she was still a virgin.

He realized where his thoughts had ventured and he uttered a silent curse, then he turned in surprise at the sound of Julie coming in the back door.

"I—I need some clothes to put on the snowman," she said with a brilliant smile.

"Why don't you wait until tomorrow to finish," he said, and her smile died.

"But I—I'm having fun!" she protested, sounding desperate. "What pleasure can you possibly get in denying me something to do to occupy my time!"

"I'm not an ogre!" Zack snapped, hating the fear and mistrust in her eyes.

"Then let me finish my—my project!"

"All right," he said with an annoyed sigh. "Fine."

Another of her smiles appeared, lighting up her entire face. "Thank you."

Zack melted beneath the radiant heat of that smile. "You're welcome," he said and was exasperated by the gentleness he heard in his voice. On the radio in the kitchen, the announcer said they had another development in the Benedict-Sandini escape that would follow the next commercial break. Trying to hide his reaction to her behind a curt nod of dismissal, he watched her race into the bedroom, then he walked into the kitchen and turned up the volume on the radio.

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance