He covered her laughing lips with his. "A first-class pain in the ass."

Julie went down in defeat. Sliding her hands up his shoulders, she yielded to the demanding persuasion of his kiss, putting her heart and soul into it, feeling that no matter how much she gave, he gave back more.

When he finally let her go, she expected him to suggest they go to bed. Instead he said, "Since I can't outwit you, I suppose I owe you an answer about why I left home. After that, I'd like to drop the subject of my background entirely, assuming your curiosity is satisfied?"

Julie didn't think she could ever learn enough about him to be satisfied, but she understood his feelings about this particular subject. When she nodded, he explained: "My grandfather died during my first year at college, leaving my grandmother in absolute control of his estate. She summoned Alex, who was sixteen then, Elizabeth, who was seventeen, and myself home during summer vacation and had a little gathering for the four of us on the terrace. To put it simply, she told Alex and Elizabeth that she was pulling them out of their private schools, sending them to local schools, and putting them on a strict allowance for living expenses. And she said if they so much as broke one rule of hers about drugs, drinking, promiscuity, and so forth, that she would throw them out of the house and cut them off without a cent. To fully appreciate the impact of that, you have to realize that we were accustomed to having an endless supply of money at our disposal. We all drove sports cars, bought any clothes we wanted—the works." He shook his head smiling a little. "I'll never forget the look on Alex's and Elizabeth's faces that day."

"They agreed to her decree then?"

"Of course they did. What earthly choice did they have? Besides being very fond of having and spending money, they weren't fit to do anything to earn a cent on their own and they knew it."

"But you wouldn't accept her deal, so you left home," Julie guessed, smiling a little.

His face took on that masklike look—carefully blank, deliberately expressionless, and it made her extremely uneasy whenever he did that. "That wasn't the deal she offered me." After a prolonged moment of silence, he added, "She told me to get out of the house and never come back. She told my brother and sister that if they ever attempted to contact me or if they let me contact them, they were out, too. I was permanently disowned as of that moment. So I handed over my car keys—at her demand—and walked down the driveway and down the hill to the highway. I had around fifty dollars in my checking account in Connecticut and the clothes I was wearing that day. A few hours later, I hitched a ride with a truck that happened to be loaded with props bound for Empire Studios and I ended up in Los Angeles. The driver was a nice guy and he put in a good word for me at Empire. They offered me a job on their loading dock, where I worked until some idiot director belatedly realized he needed some extras for a scene he was shooting on the back lot. I made my film debut that day, went back to college at USC and got my degree, and continued making pictures. End of story."

"But why did your grandmother do that to you and not your brother or sister?" Julie said, trying not to look as stricken as she felt.

"I'm sure she thought she had her reasons," he said with a shrug. "As I said, I reminded her of my grandfather and everything he'd done to her."

"And you never—you never heard from your brother and sister after that? You never tried to contact them in secret or they you?"

She had the feeling that of everything he'd said, the subject of his brother and sister was the one he found most painful. "I sent them each a letter with my return address when my first film was going to be released. I thought they might…"

Be proud, Julie thought when he fell silent. Be happy for you. Write back to you.

She knew from the cold, blank look on his face that none of that had happened, but she had to know for sure. She was understanding more about him with every passing moment. "Did they answer?"

"No. And I never tried to contact them again."

"But what if your grandmother intercepted their mail and they never got your letters?"

"They got them. They were both sharing an apartment and going to a local college by then."

"Oh, but, Zack, they were so young and, you said yourself, they were weak. You were older and wiser by far than they. Couldn't you have waited until they'd grown up a little and given them a second chance?"

That suggestion somehow put her instantly beyond all limits of his tolerance, and his voice took on a chilling, deadly finality. "Nobody," he said, "gets a second chance from me, Julie. Ever."


"They are dead to me."

"That's ridiculous! You're losing as much as they are. You can't go through life burning bridges instead of mending them. It's self-defeating and, in this case, completely unfair."

"It is also the end of this discussion!"

His voice had a dangerous edge, but Julie refused to back down. "I think you're much more like your grandmother than you know."

"You're pushing your luck, lady."

She actually flinched at the bite in his voice. Wordlessly, she got up and gathered their empty glasses and took them into the kitchen, alarmed by this new side of him, the streak of ruthless finality that enabled him to cut people out of his life without a backward glance. It wasn't so much what he'd said, it was the way he'd said it and the look on his face! When he'd first taken her hostage, all his actions and words had been motivated by necessity and desperation, never unwarranted harshness, and she'd understood that. But until these last few minutes—when she'd heard the menace in his voice and seen it on his face—she'd never been able to understand how anyone could possibly think Zachary Benedict was cold-blooded enough to commit murder, but if other people had seen him this way, she could well imagine. More clearly than ever before, Julie realized that although they were intimate in bed, they were still virtual strangers. She walked into her room to get something to sleep in, turned on the overhead light, and changed in her bathroom. She was so preoccupied that instead of immediately going to his room, she sat down on her bed, lost in thought.

Several minutes later, she jumped and jerked her head around as he issued a warning: "This is a very unwise decision on your part, Julie. I suggest you reconsider it carefully."

He was standing in the doorway, his shoulder propped against the frame, arms crossed over his chest, his face impassive. Julie had no idea what decision he was referring to, and although he still looked distant, he did not look or sound like the sinister specter he'd seemed in the dimly lit living room. She almost wondered if much of what had alarmed her had been a combined trick of imagination and firelight.

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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