"Zack?"

The simple sound of her voice saying his name had a magical effect on him; his name sounded special, different, "Hmm?"

"Do you realize I don't know very much about you, even though we're … er, we've been…" Julie stopped, not certain if it was assuming too much to use the word lovers.

Zack heard the embarrassed uncertainty in her voice and smiled because he assumed she was probably searching for some prim and proper—ergo, wholly inappropriate—word to use to describe the unbridled passion they'd shared or else a word to use for what they were to each other, now that they'd shared it.

He smiled into her hair and said, "Which would you prefer, one word or a phrase?"

"Don't be so smug. I happen to be qualified to teach sex education all the way up to the junior high school level."

"Then what's the problem?" Zack chuckled.

Her answer banished his laughter, stopped his breath, and melted him completely. "Somehow," she said, studiously studying her hands in her lap, "the clinical term sexual intercourse seems all wrong to describe something that is so … so sweet when we do it. And so deep. And so profound."

Zack leaned his head against the back of the sofa and closed his eyes, steadying himself, wondering why she had this insane effect on him. A moment later, he managed to say in a seminormal voice, "How does the term lovers sound?"

"Lovers," she agreed, nodding her head several times. "What I was trying to explain is that even though we've been lovers, I don't really know anything about you."

"What would you like to know?"

"Well, for a start, is Zachary Benedict your real name, or did you change it when you started making movies?"

"My first name was Zachary. Benedict was my middle name, not my last, until I had it legally changed when I was eighteen."

"Really?" She turned her head, her soft cheek rubbing against his arm as she looked up at him. Even with his eyes closed, he could feel her watching him, see her curious smile, and while he waited for the inevitable question he knew was coming next, he remembered other things…

"I would never have turned you down, Zack."

"How dare you suggest I would even consider telling anyone you raped me!"

"'Sexual intercourse' seems all wrong to describe something that is so … so sweet when we do it. And so deep. And so profound."

Her voice intruded on the memories: "What was your last name before you changed it to Benedict?"

It was exactly the question he'd expected, the one he'd never answered for anyone. "Stanhope."

"What a beautiful name! Why did you change it?" Julie saw the tension in his jaw, and when he opened his eyes, she was stunned by the harsh expression in them.

"It's a long story," he said shortly.

"Oh," she said, and decided that it was an unpleasant enough story that it was best left completely alone for the time being. Instead, she said the first thing that came to mind to distract him: "I already know a lot of things about your youth, because my older brothers were avid fans of yours back then."

Zack looked down at her, well aware that she'd set aside her natural curiosity about his "long story," and it warmed the chill that had come over him when he'd said the name Stanhope. "They were, were they?" he teased.

Julie nodded, pleased and relieved that her change of topic had worked so quickly. "Because they were, I already know you grew up on your own, traveling around with rodeos and roping steers, living on ranches and breaking horses—did I just say something funny?"

"At the risk of ruining all your illusions, princess," Zack said, chuckling, "those stories were all products of the studio publicity department's overactive imagination. The truth is that I would rather spend two days on a Greyhound bus than two hours on the back of a horse. And if there is anything in this world that I dislike more than horses, it's cows. Steers, I mean."

"Cows!" she sputtered, and her infectious laughter rang out like music, lightening his heart as she shifted on the sofa to face him, pulling her knees up against her chest. Wrapping her arms around them, she studied him in fascinated absorption.

"What about you?" he teased, reaching for his brandy glass on the table, trying to distract her from asking the next inevitable question. "Is Mathison the name you were born with or did you change it?"

"I wasn't born with a name."

Zack stopped in the act of swallowing his drink. "What?"

"I was actually found in a cardboard box on top of a trash can in an alley, wrapped in a towel. The janitor who found me took me inside to his wife until I was warm enough to be taken outdoors again to the hospital. He felt I should be named after his wife who'd looked after me that day, and so they called me Julie."

"My God," Zack said, trying not to look as horrified as he felt.

"I was lucky! It could have been much, much worse."

Zack was so appalled, he missed the laughter in her entrancing eyes. "How?"

"His wife's name could have been Mathilda. Or Gertrude. Or Wilhimena. I used to have nightmares about being named Wilhimena."

He felt it happening again, that peculiar sharp tug on his heart, the funny ache in his chest when she smiled like that. "The story has a happy ending at any rate," he said, trying to reassure himself, which seemed ridiculous at this late date, even to him. "You were adopted by the Mathisons, right?" When she nodded, he concluded, "And they got themselves a beautiful baby girl to love."

"Not quite."

"What?" he said again, feeling stupid and dazed.

"What the Mathisons actually got was an eleven-year-old girl who'd already tried to embark on a life of crime on the Chicago streets—aided and abetted by some boys a little older than me who showed me certain … ah … tricks. Actually," she added gaily, "I probably would have had quite an illustrious career." She held up her hand and wiggled her long fingers at him, explaining, "I had very quick fingers. Sticky ones."

"You stole?"

"Yes, and I got busted when I was eleven."

"For stealing?" Zack uttered in disbelief.

"Certainly not," she said, looking stung. "I was much too quick to get caught. I got hauled in on a bum rap."

Zack gaped at her. Just hearing her use the street cant made him feel like shaking his head to clear it. And yet, the finely honed imagination that had made him a successful director was already at work, visualizing her as she'd probably been as a little girl: small and thin, he decided, from poor nourishment … a gamin face dominated by those huge Dondi eyes of hers … small, stubborn chin … dark hair, short and shaggy from inattention … feisty.


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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