He sounded so strange, so … off balance … that Julie felt a wayward smile touch her lips. She doubted very much if any other woman, no matter how beautiful, could have put him in exactly this state. She didn't know how it had happened, but she felt rather proud. "I think," she said, "I like that."

He wasn't amused. "Unfortunately, I don't."

"Oh."

"In fact, I think we'd better reach some sort of clear understanding about what is going on between us and what we want to go on between us." In the back of his mind, Zack knew he was being completely irrational, but five years of imprisonment along with the harrowing emotional and physical events of the day and the roller-coaster ride she'd had him on for the last twenty-four hours were all combining to play havoc with his temper, his emotions, and his judgment. "Well, do you agree?"

"I—guess so."

"Fine, do you want to go first, or shall I?"

She swallowed, torn between dread and amusement. "You go first."

"Half the time I have the craziest feeling that you're not real … that you're too naive to be twenty-six years old … that you're a thirteen-year-old girl pretending to be a woman."

She smiled with relief that he hadn't said anything worse. "And the other half of the time?"

"You make me feel like I'm thirteen." He could tell she liked that from the quick amused sparkle in her eyes, and suddenly Zack felt perversely compelled to shatter whatever remaining illusions she might conceivably have about him personally as well as his intentions for the evening. "Despite how you perceive what happened at the stream today, I am not a knight in shining armor. I am not a movie star, and I am a long way from being a naive, idealistic teenager. Whatever innocence and idealism I was born with, I lost long before I lost my virginity. I'm not a child and neither are you. We're adults. We both know what's happening between us right now, and we know exactly what all of this is leading up to." The laughter left her eyes replaced by something that was not quite fear and not quite anger either. "Do you want me to spell it out, so there's no mistaking my motives?" he persisted, watching a heated blush stain her smooth cheeks. Stung because the knowledge that he wanted to go to bed with her had doused her smile, he deliberately pushed his point. "My motives aren't noble; they're adult and they're natural. We aren't thirteen years old, this isn't a school dance, and my mind isn't on whether or not I'll be able to kiss you good night. It's already a foregone conclusion that I'm going to kiss you good night. The fact is that I want you, and I think you want me almost as much. Before this night is over, I intend to make sure you do, and when I've done that, I intend to take you to bed and undress you and make love to you as thoroughly and leisurely as I can. For now, I want to dance with you, so that I can feel your body against mine. While we're dancing, I'll be thinking of all the things I'm going to do to you—and with you—when we're in bed together. Now, have I made everything clear? If none of that suits you, then you tell me what you want to do, and we'll do that. Well?" he snapped impatiently when she remained silent with her head bent. "What do you want to do?"

Julie bit her trembling lip and raised eyes glowing with laughter and desire to his. "How would you like to help me rearrange the hall closet?"

"Do you have a second choice?" he demanded, so irritated that he didn't realize she was joking.

"Actually," she said, furrowing her brow and lowering her gaze to the vee at the throat of his open shirt collar. "That was my second choice."

"Well then, what the hell is your first choice? And don't pretend I'm making you so nervous you want to clean out closets, because I couldn't make you nervous at gunpoint!"

Julie added irascibility and obtuseness to the things she loved about him and drew a shaky breath, ready to call an end to the game, but she couldn't quite meet his gaze as she said softly, "You're right, you couldn't possibly make me nervous at gunpoint after today, because I know you wouldn't hurt me for the world. In fact, the only way you could make me nervous is by doing exactly what you've been doing since I woke up tonight and saw you standing by the fireplace."

"Which is?" he clipped.

"Which is making me wonder if you're ever going to kiss me the way you did last night… Which is acting like you very much want to do it one minute, and then, like you don't the next min—"

Zack caught her face between his hands, turned it up, and abruptly captured the rest of her words in his mouth, shoving his fingers through the sides of her hair as he kissed her. And when she proved she meant it, when she slid her hands up his chest and around his neck, holding him close and kissing him back, he felt a burgeoning pleasure and astonished joy that was almost past bearing.

Trying to atone for his earlier roughness, he dragged his lips from hers and brushed a kiss along her jaw and cheek and temple, then he sought her mouth again, rubbing his lips over their soft contours. He traced the trembling line between her lips with his tongue, urging them to part, insisting, and when they did, he drove fully into her mouth—a starving man helplessly trying to satisfy a hunger by teaching her to intensify it. And the woman in his arms was a willing and gifted student. Melting against him, she crushed her mouth to his, welcoming his tongue and giving him hers with only the merest hint from him that he wanted it.

Long minutes later, Zack finally forced himself to lift his head, and he gazed down into her eyes, unconsciously memorizing the way she looked, all flushed and fresh and alluring. Trying to smile, he slid his hand around her nape and slowly nabbed his thumb over her soft bottom lip, but the deep indigo pools of her eyes were pulling him inexorably into their depths again. His thumb stopped moving, he pressed it down to force her lips apart and hungrily captured her mouth. Trembling in his arms, she leaned up on her toes and the slight increase in pressure against his rigid erection made his heart thunder and his fingers clench convulsively against her back. He crushed her pliant body into his, his hands rushing over the sides of her breasts and back, then angling across her buttocks, holding her tightly against his straining body. He was losing control, and he knew it.

Zack told himself to slow down, ordered himself to stop before he forced her to the floor and followed her down, before he behaved like the sex-starved convict he was instead of the leisurely lover he'd promised to be in his angry tirade. It was the distant, nagging memory of his promise that finally made him try to prolong the prelude, to heed the warning of his pounding arousal that the culmination was going to happen much too quickly for her, once it began.


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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