The little catch in her voice and the soft look in her eyes were almost Zack's undoing. Mesmerized by the feelings unfolding inside him, he pulled his hands out of his pockets and silently held his left palm out to her, his gaze locked to hers. She laid her hand in his, and he slid his arm around her narrow waist, drawing her close against him, while Streisand's incredible voice slid effortlessly into the first bars of "People."

A jolt shook him when he felt her legs and thighs coming into intimate contact with his own as she matched his steps with effortless grace, and when she laid her cheek lightly against his chest, his heart began to beat much too fast. He hadn't even kissed her yet, and desire was already pounding through every nerve ending in his body. To distract himself, he tried to think of an appropriate topic of conversation that would further his ultimate goal without immediately stimulating him more than he already was. Recalling that it had felt good to joke about the tire he'd slashed, he decided that it would benefit both of them if they could laugh about other events that hadn't been one bit funny at the time. Linking his fingers through hers, he brought her hand against his chest and said lightly against her hair, "By the way, Miss Mathison, about your unscheduled flight on that snowmobile today—"

She caught his wry tone immediately, tipped her head back, and affected an expression of such exaggerated, wide-eyed innocence that Zack had to fight not to laugh. "Yes?" she said.

"Where the hell did you go when you shot over the edge of the mountain like a rocket and vanished?"

Her shoulders shook with laughter. "I landed in the embrace of a large pine tree."

"That was very clever planning," he teased. "You stayed nice and dry and tricked me into acting like a demented salmon in that freezing stream."

"That part wasn't funny. What you did today was the bravest thing I've ever seen anyone do."

It wasn't the words she said that melted him, it was the way she was looking at him—the admiration in her eyes, the awed wonder in her voice. After the humiliation of his trial and the dehumanizing effects of prison, it was heady merely to be looked at like a man, not an animal. But to have her look at him as if he were brave and fine and decent was a gift more precious to him than anything he'd ever been given. He wanted to crush her in his arms, to lose himself in her sweetness, to wrap her around him like a blanket and bury himself in her, he wanted to be the best lover she'd ever had and to make this night as memorable for her as it was going to be for him.

Julie watched his gaze drop to her lips, and in a state of anticipation that had mounted to dizzying heights in the last hour, she waited for him to kiss her. When it became obvious he wasn't going to do it, she covered her disappointment with her best, brightest smile and tried to be amusing, "If you ever come to Keaton and meet Tim Martin, please don't tell him I danced with you tonight."

"Why not?"

"Because he picked a fight with the last person I danced with."

Despite the absurdity of it, Zack felt the first sharp twinge of jealousy in his adult life. "Is Martin a boyfriend?"

She chuckled at his dark scowl. "No, he's one of my students. He's the jealous type—"

"Witch!" he chided her, pulling her tightly against his length while John Denver began to sing "Annie's Song" on the stereo. "I know exactly how the poor kid must have felt."

She rolled her eyes. "You don't really expect me to believe that you were jealous just now, do you?"

Zack's eyes fixed greedily on her lips. "Five minutes ago," he murmured, "I would have said I was incapable of such a lowering emotion."

"Oh. Right," she said with amused derision, and then she added with laughing severity, "You are overacting, Mr. Movie Star."

Zack went cold all over. If he had to make a choice between having Julie Mathison imagine him as an escaped convict when he took her to bed tonight or as a movie star, he'd have chosen the former without hesitation. At least the former was real, not illusionary, sickening, and phoney. He'd spent more than a decade of his life living with an image that made him into a sexual trophy. Like football players and hockey stars, he'd had his privacy and his life invaded by female groupies who wanted to sleep with Zachary Benedict. Not the man. The image. In fact, this evening had been the first time he'd ever been absolutely certain a woman wanted him simply for himself, and it made him angry to think he'd been wrong.

"Why," she said cautiously, "are you looking at me like that?"

"Suppose you tell me why," he countered, "you brought up the expression 'movie star' at this particular moment."

"You aren't going to like the answer."

"Try me," he clipped.

Her eyes narrowed at his tone. "All right. I said it because I have an aversion to insincerity."

Zack's brows snapped together. "Do you think you could possibly be a little more specific?"

"Certainly," Julie replied, repaying his sarcasm with uncharacteristic bluntness: "I said it because you pretended that you were jealous, and then you made it worse by pretending you hadn't ever, in your entire life, felt that way before. I thought it was not only corny but insincere, particularly because I know, and you know, that I have to be the least attractive woman you've bothered to flirt with in your entire adult life! Furthermore, since I'm not treating you like an escaped murderer any more, I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't start treating me like … like some witless fan of yours who you can charm into fainting at your feet with a few words of empty flattery."

Belatedly registering the thunderous expression on his face, Julie jerked her gaze from his and stared at his shoulder, embarrassed and ashamed for letting her hurt feelings drive her to such an outburst. She braced herself for a verbal blasting, but after a moment of ominous silence she said in a small, contrite voice, "I suppose I probably didn't need to be that specific. I'm sorry. Now it's your turn."

"To do what?" he retorted.

"I imagine to tell me that I was rude and obnoxious just now."

"Fine. You were."

He'd stopped dancing, and Julie drew a long fortifying breath before she raised her gaze to his impassive face. "You're angry, aren't you?"

"I'm not certain."

"What do you mean, you aren't certain?"

"I mean that, where you're concerned, I haven't been certain of anything since about noon today, and the uncertainty is getting worse by the moment."

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance