She stood up and started slowly toward him, uncertain, searching his face. "Is that supposed to be your idea of an apology?"

"I wasn't aware I have anything to apologize for."

The arrogance of that was so typical of him that she almost laughed. "Try out the word rude and see if that touches a nerve."

"Was I rude? I didn't mean to be. I warned you that the discussion was going to be extremely unpleasant for me, but you wanted to have it anyway."

He looked as if he honestly felt that he was being unjustly vilified, but she persevered anyway. "I see," she said, stopping in front of him. "Then this is actually all my fault?"

"It must be. Whatever 'this' is referring to."

"You don't know, is that it? You are completely unaware of the fact that your tone of voice to me in there was…" she searched for the right words and settled for something that didn't quite fit, "…cold and callous and needlessly harsh."

He shrugged with an indifference that Julie suspected was partially feigned: "You aren't the first woman to accuse me of being all those things and a lot more. I'll defer to your judgment. I am cold, callous, and—"

"Harsh," Julie provided, bending her head, trying not to laugh at how ridiculous the whole debate sounded now. Zack had risked his life to save her and he had wanted to die when he thought he'd failed. He was anything but cold and callous. Those other women had been wrong. Her laughter faded abruptly, and she felt an aching remorse for what she had said and what they had all said.

Zack could not decide whether she'd actually intended to retaliate against him for some imagined slight by sleeping in here alone, which was what had originally angered him, or if she were innocent of that nauseating female ploy. "Harsh," he agreed bluntly and belatedly, wishing she'd look up so he could get a good look at her face.

"Zack?" she said to his chin. "The next time a woman tells you you're any of those things, tell her to look much closer." She raised her eyes to his and said softly, "If she does, I think she'll see a rare kind of nobility and an extraordinary gentleness."

Zack slowly uncrossed his arms, completely taken aback, feeling his heart turn over exactly the way it always did when she looked at him that way.

"I don't mean to imply that you aren't also autocratic, dictatorial, and arrogant, you understand—" she added with a choked laugh.

"But you like me anyway," he teased, brushing his knuckles over her cheek, disarmed, defused, and absurdly relieved. "Despite all that."

"Add vain to my list," she quipped, and he pulled her tightly into his arms. "Julie," he whispered, bending his head to kiss her, "shut up."

"And peremptory, too!" she stated against his lips.

Zack started to laugh. She was the only woman who'd ever made him feel like laughing while he was kissing her. "Remind me never again," he said, deciding to kiss her ear instead because it couldn't move out from under his lips, "to go near another woman with a vocabulary like yours!" He traced the curve of her ear with his tongue and she shivered, holding him close as she whispered another breathless summation of his character:

"And incredibly sensual … and very, very sexy…"

"On the other hand," he smilingly amended, kissing her nape, "there is just no substitute for an intelligent and discerning woman."

Chapter 36

Carrying a bowl of popcorn, Julie headed into the living room, where they'd been watching a videotaped movie. They'd spent the morning and afternoon talking about everything except the one thing Julie was desperately interested in: his plans to find out who murdered his wife and clear himself. The first time she brought the subject up, he repeated what he'd said yesterday about not wanting to spoil their present with worries about the future. When she explained she wanted to help him however she could, he'd teased her about being a frustrated Nancy Drew. Rather than ruining their day by pressing the issue, she'd let the subject drop for the time being and agreed with his suggestion that they watch one of the movies in the large cabinet of videotapes. Zack had insisted she pick the movie out, and Julie had her first moment of unease when she realized there were several of his movies on the cabinet shelves. Unable to bear the thought of watching him making love to some other woman in one of those steamy love scenes for which he was justifiably famous, she'd chosen a movie she was almost certain he'd like and which he hadn't seen.

He seemed perfectly satisfied with her choice before the movie began, but as she discovered moments afterward, the seemingly simple pastime of movie watching was something quite different to Zachary Benedict, former actor-director. To her complete discomfiture, Zack seemed to regard a movie as some sort of art form to be minutely scrutinized, analyzed, dissected, and evaluated. In fact, he'd been so critical of it, that she'd finally invented the excuse of making popcorn just to escape his derogatory comments.

She glanced at the television set's giant-sized screen as she placed the popcorn bowl on the table and heaved a silent sigh of relief that the climactic ending was nearly over. Zack evidently didn't think it was very climactic because he looked up at her in the middle of it and said with a grin, "I love popcorn. Did you put salt on it?"

"Yep," Julie said.

"Butter, too, I hope?"

One look at his boyish grin and Julie forgot how exasperated she'd been with him a moment before. "It's swimming in it," she joked. "I'll be right back with turkish towels and something to drink."

Chuckling at her quip, Zack watched her going toward the kitchen, admiring the easy, natural grace of her walk and the subtle élan with which she wore clothes. At his insistence, she'd chosen another outfit from the closet that afternoon—a simple white silk shirt with wide, blousy sleeves and a pair of black wool crepe slacks with a pleated cummerbund waistband. When he'd first seen the clothes lying on the bed, he'd been rather disappointed that she hadn't chosen something more special for herself. When he saw her in the outfit, however, with a narrow, hammered gold belt around her slender waist, a borrowed gold bracelet at her wrist, and the collar on her shirt turned up, he'd instantly changed his mind. With her luxuriant mane of shiny hair tumbling in waves and curls about her shoulders, Julie dressed with a casual chic that suited her perfectly. He was trying to decide what sort of evening gown would most compliment that artless sophistication of hers when he realized that he'd never have an occasion to take her to the sort of social functions that required evening gowns. His days of attending Hollywood premieres, charity balls, Broadway openings, and Academy Award dinners were long past, and he couldn't imagine how he'd forgotten that. He wasn't going to be able to take Julie to any of those affairs. He wasn't going to be able to take her anywhere, ever.

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance