KISS MY BOOTS by Harper Sloan blog tour

About the book:

KISS MY BOOTS by Harper Sloan

Book 2 in The Coming Home Series

Pocket Books – $7.99 – 9781501155215

July 18, 2017

 

Praise for Kiss My Boots, Book 2:

“[A] steamy book for your summer reading list…Modern Cliterature…Enjoy [this] lusty [passage] adapted from summer’s raciest reads…”

Cosmopolitan, July 2017

 “Ms. Sloan reeled me in with sassy dialogue, tempting characters and heartwarming moments. Kiss My Boots will walk all over your heart and leave you with a smile.”

Hopeless Romantic

“Jesus Jones!!! Harper, I loved this book so much! Quinn and Tate melted my heart. I am actually at a loss of words on this one. The characters made me laugh like crazy. Their constant banter and sassy comebacks were on point. Harper did an amazing job!… Harper this book is beautiful! I loved it so much! I cant wait for the next one. These characters have won my heart over! Get ready for some tension and hotness folks!”

—The Smutbrarians

“Wow! This was so awesome. Harper Sloan has fast become a one click author for me and I’m yet to read one of her stories that I don’t get fully invested in and devour. After finishing book one in the Coming Home series, Lost Rider, and falling in love with Quinn, I could not wait to get my hands on Kiss My Boots and read Quinn’s story. I loved every minute as I knew I would…I think it’s pretty safe to say I would highly recommend this story to anyone who loves second chance love stories involving an absolutely badass heroine and a sweet lovable hero who will stop at nothing to win back the love of his life. This story is just pure awesomeness. Check it out, you know you want to.”

Steamy Reads

“A light-hearted sweet love story…The story flows at a steady pace with little drama…Kiss My Boots was a sweet, sexy, second-chance love story with a high dose of hilarious banters and swoony romance. Light, easy summer read.”

—AC Book Blog

“Great characters, quirky sayings (I laughed so hard at a few, I nearly fell off the couch!) and steamy, sexy scenes. I  cannot wait for the next in the series…no way am I missing it!!”

—Reecaspieces

“The songs Harper Sloan adds in the beginning to each chapter make a great playlist matching the chapters and the book. I highly enjoyed this book and rate it a full 5 ★”

SnoopyDoo’s Book Reviews

 “I loved, loved, loved the first book in this series, Lost RiderKiss My Boots features a sister as the main character. Very excited for this one.”

Smexy Books

  

Praise for Lost Rider, Book 1:

“Sloan hits it out of the park with her first Coming Home contemporary western romance…Maverick is a perfect hero: multilayered, complicated, deeply damaged, yet blooming with the new promise of love. Leighton is appealing and real, as are a strong supporting cast of characters whom readers will be glad to follow into sequels. Sloan enhances the gripping story with country songs that open each chapter. This absolutely spectacular effort catapults Sloan to the top of her genre.”

—Publishers Weekly (STARRED REVIEW)

“The first book in Sloan’s Coming Home series is a supersexy second-chance read with a handsome ex-rodeo cowboy hero and the girl he left behind. The characters are well written and the bedroom scenes are hot…Sloan does a wonderful job with portraying the secondary characters, and it looks like Quinn’s story, which is next up, is going to be a good one.”

RT VIP Salon

“Sloan brings plenty of heat to this otherwise very thoughtful, building love story, the first in her Coming Home series…Maverick’s pursuit of Leighton and her slow acceptance ignites the vivid ranch and small-town settings. Contemporary western romances are challenging to write, and Sloan makes it fun to read about realistic ways cowboys can fit into modern society. Readers will look forward to learning how the uncovered family secrets affect siblings Clay and Quinn in future books.”

—Booklist

 “Sloan begins a new Western series with engaging characters and an appealing small-town setting; her second-chance-at-love romance resonates emotionally…Sloan knows her way around sexual tension and emotional intensity.”

—Kirkus

 

About the book:

Hang on to your Stetsons this summer, because you’re in for one wild ride! Get lost in the second installment of New York Times bestselling author Harper Sloan’s Coming Home series, KISS MY BOOTS. In the second installment, the wildest Davis of them all is looking for love…maybe.

Quinn Davis prefers to live her life quietly. She’s the stereotypical tomboy with two overprotective big brothers who have always looked out for her. Of course, it doesn’t help that her heart has already been hardened when it comes to devilishly handsome cowboys with silver tongues. That is, until Tate Montgomery comes riding back into town. Their first meeting, however, is far from something out of a fairy tale and only further convinces Quinn that men aren’t worth her time.

Growing up, the one time Tate ever truly felt at home was during the long, sweltering summer months he spent at his gram and paw’s farm in Pine Oak, Texas. Now, Tate has returned to his childhood sanctuary seeking a fresh start—but if he’s being entirely honest, he’s not just back for the Wranglers and Stetsons. During those summers, Quinn was a friend turned young love who Tate lost when life threw him a curveball and he cut all ties to his past, but all it takes is one glance at the raven-haired beauty, who he did his best to forget, for him to realize just how much he’s been missing…

Can two people who have stopped believing in love take a chance to find it in each other again? Or will the pain of the past prove too great a hurdle to conquer?

KISS MY BOOTS is the second go-round in this Texas-set series filled with sizzle, heart, and plenty of cowboys!

 

Giveaway:

We are giving away one copy of Book 1, Lost Rider! Just comment to win. Giveaway ends August 1st. Please note, you can only win once and must have a U.S. address.

Kiss My Boots blog tour:

July 18

The Librarian Talks

Bookaholics Romance Book Club

Collector of Book Boyfriends

Dirty Girl Romance

Four Chicks Flipping Pages

Always Reviewing

Reviews by Crystal

Bookbitch

Abigail Books Addiction

A Midlife Wife

July 19

Margie’s Must Reads

Lovely Reads

Romancing Rakes for the Love of Romance

Swoonworthy

Positively Book Crazy

Book Lovers for Life

Romance Junkies

Dirty & Thirty

KT Book Reviews

FMR BookGrind

July 20

Passionate Encounters

Reading Frenzy

Book Bitches

Reads By Rose

Nose Stuck in a Book

The Reading Cafe

Dew on the Kudzu

An Asian Chick and Her Cat Walk into a Book Blog

Good Family Reads

 

July 21

Once Upon a Twilight

Booktalk with Eileen

SOS Aloha

Mrs. Leif’s Two Fangs About It

Tigris Eden

Literati Literature Lovers

Celticlady’s Reviews

Little Black Book Reviews

July 22

From the TBR Pile

July 24

The Lovely Books

Simply Angela

Toot’s Book Reviews

Crossroad Reviews

July 25

Two Book Pushers

Ever After Book Blog

Guilty Pleasures Book Reviews

Jathan & Heather

Coffee, Books & My Kindle

July 26

Babbling About Books, and More

Everyday Gyaan

July 28

The Reading Addict

Reading Between the Wines

July 29

Lori’s Reading Corner

July 31

JoJo the Bookaholic

August 1

Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers

Sexy Book Reviews

 

About the author:

Harper Sloan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Corps Security and Hope Town series. She started writing as a way to unwind when the house went to sleep at night. Harper lives in Georgia with her family. Visit her at AuthorHarperSloan.com or Facebook.com/HarperSloanBooks.

Excerpt from Until You by Judith McNaught

51w26bohycl…Chapter 1

 

Propped upon a mountain of satin pillows amid rumpled bed linens, Helene Devernay surveyed his bronzed, muscular torso with an appreciative smile as Stephen David Elliott Westmoreland, Earl of Langford, Baron of Ellingwood, Fifth Viscount Hargrove, Viscount Ashbourne, shrugged into the frilled shirt he’d tossed over the foot of the bed last night. “Are we still attending the theatre next week?” she asked.

Stephen glanced at her in surprise as he picked up his neck cloth. “Of course.” Turning to the mirror above the fireplace, he met her gaze in it while he deftly wrapped the fine white silk into intricate folds around his neck. “Why did you need to ask?”

“Because the Season begins next week, and Monica Fitzwaring is coming to town. I heard it from my dressmaker, who is also hers.”

“And?” he said, looking steadily at her in the mirror, his expression betraying not even a flicker of reaction.

With a sigh, Helene rolled onto her side and leaned on an elbow, her tone regretful but frank. “And gossip has it that you’re finally going to make her the offer she and her father have been waiting for these three years past.”

“Is that what the gossips are saying?” he asked casually, but he lifted his brows slightly, in a gesture that silently, and very effectively, managed to convey his displeasure with Helene for introducing a topic that he clearly felt was none of her concern.

Helene noted the unspoken reprimand and the warning it carried, but she took advantage of what had been a remarkably open—and highly pleasurable—affair for both of them for several years. “In the past, there have been dozens of rumors that you were on the verge of offering for one aspiring female or another,” she pointed out quietly, “and, until now, I have never asked you to verify or deny any of them.”

Without answering, Stephen turned from the mirror and picked up his evening jacket from the flowered chaise longue. He shoved his arms into the sleeves, then he walked over to the side of the bed and finally directed all his attention to the woman in it. Standing there, looking down at her, he felt his annoyance diminish considerably. Propped up on her elbow, with her golden hair spilling over her naked back and breasts, Helene Devernay was a delectable sight. She was also intelligent, direct, and sophisticated, all of which made her a thoroughly delightful mistress both in and out of bed. He knew she was too practical to nurture any secret hopes of a marriage offer from him, which was absolutely out of the question for a woman in her circumstances, and she was too independent to have any real desire to tie herself to someone for life—traits that further solidified their relationship. Or so he had thought. “But now you are asking me to confirm or deny that I intend to offer for Monica Fitzwaring?” he asked quietly.

Helene gave him a warm, seductive smile that normally made his body respond. “I am.”

Brushing back the sides of his jacket, Stephen put his hands on his hips and regarded her coolly. “And if I said yes?”

“Then, my lord, I would say that you are making a great mistake. You have a fondness for her, but not a great love nor even a great passion. All she has to offer you is her beauty, her bloodlines, and the prospect of an heir. She hasn’t your strength of will, nor your intelligence, and although she may care for you, she will never understand you. She will bore you in bed and out of it, and you will intimidate, hurt, and anger her.”

“Thank you, Helene. I must count myself fortunate that you take such an interest in my personal life and that you are so willing to share your expertise on how I ought to live it.”

The stinging set down caused her smile to fade a little but not disappear. “There, you see?” she asked softly. “I am duly chastened and forewarned by that tone of yours, but Monica Fitzwaring would be either completely crushed or mortally offended.”

She watched his expression harden at the same time his voice became extremely polite, chillingly so. “My apologies, madame,” he said, inclining his head in a mockery of a bow, “if I have ever addressed you in a tone that is less than civil.”

Reaching up, Helene tugged on his jacket in an attempt to make him sit down on the bed beside her. When this failed, she dropped her hand, but not the issue, and widened her smile to soothe his temper. “You never speak to anyone in an uncivil tone, Stephen. In fact, the more annoyed you are, the more ‘civil’ you become—until you are so very civil, so very precise and correct, that the effect is actually quite alarming. One might even say . . . terrifying!”

She shivered to illustrate, and Stephen grinned in spite of himself.

“That is what I meant,” she said, smiling back at him. “When you grow cold and angry, I know how—” Her breath caught as his large hand slipped down beneath the sheet and covered her breast, his fingers tantalizing her.

“I merely wish to warm you,” he said, as she reached her arms around his neck and drew him down on the bed.

“And distract me.”

“I think a fur would do a far better job of that.”

“Of warming me?”

“Of distracting you,” he said as his mouth covered hers, and then he went about the pleasurable business of warming, and distracting, both of them.

It was nearly five o’clock in the morning when he was dressed again.

“Stephen?” she whispered sleepily as he bent and pressed a farewell kiss upon her smooth brow.

“Mmmm?”

“I have a confession.”

“No confessions,” he reminded her. “We agreed on that from the beginning. No confessions, no recriminations, no promises. That was the way we both wanted it.”

Helene didn’t deny it, but this morning she couldn’t make herself comply. “My confession is that I find myself rather annoyingly jealous of Monica Fitzwaring.”

Stephen straightened with an impatient sigh, and waited, knowing she was determined to have her say, but he did not help her do it. He simply regarded her with raised brows.

“I realize you need an heir,” she began, her full lips curving into an embarrassed smile, “but could you not wed a female whose looks pale a little in comparison with mine? Someone shrewish too. A shrew with a slightly crooked nose or small eyes would suit me very well.”

Stephen chuckled at her humor, but he wanted the subject closed permanently, and so he said, “Monica Fitzwaring is no threat to you, Helene. I’ve no doubt she knows of our relationship and she would not try to interfere, even if she thought she could.”

“What makes you so certain?”

“She volunteered the information,” he said flatly, and when Helene still looked unconvinced, he added, “In the interest of putting an end to your concern and to this entire topic, I’ll add that I already have a perfectly acceptable heir in my brother’s son. Furthermore, I have no intention of adhering to custom, now or in future, by shackling myself to a wife for the sole purpose of begetting a legal heir of my own body.”

As Stephen came to the end of that blunt speech, he watched her expression change from surprise to amused bafflement. Her next remark clarified the reason for her obvious quandary: “If not to beget an heir, what other possible reason could there be for a man such as you to wed at all?”

Stephen’s disinterested shrug and brief smile dismissed all the other usual reasons for marriage as trivial, absurd, or imaginary. “For a man such as I,” he replied with a mild amusement that failed to disguise his genuine contempt for the twin farces of wedded bliss and the sanctity of marriage—two illusions that flourished even in the brittle, sophisticated social world he inhabited, “there does not seem to be a single compelling reason to commit matrimony.”

Helene studied him intently, her face alight with curiosity, caution, and the dawning of understanding. “I always wondered why you didn’t marry Emily Lathrop. In addition to her acclaimed face and figure, she is also one of the few women in England who actually possesses the requirements of birth and breeding in enough abundance to make her worthy of marrying into the Westmoreland family and of producing your heir. Everyone knows you fought a duel with her husband because of her, yet you didn’t kill him, nor did you marry her a year later, after old Lord Lathrop finally keeled over and cocked up his toes.”

His brows rose in amusement at her use of irreverent slang for Lathrop’s death, but his attitude toward the duel was as casual and matter-of-fact as her own. “Lathrop got some maggot into his head about defending Emily’s honor and putting a stop to all the rumors about her, by challenging one of her alleged lovers to a duel. I will never understand why the poor old man chose me from amongst a legion of viable candidates.”

“Whatever method he used, it’s obvious age had addled his mind.”

Stephen eyed her curiously. “Why do you say that?”

“Because your skill with pistols, and your skill on the dueling field, are both rather legendary.”

“Any child of ten could have won a duel with Lathrop,” Stephen said, ignoring her praise of his abilities. “He was so old and frail he couldn’t steady his own pistol or hold it level. He had to use both hands.”

“And so you let him leave Rockham Green unscathed?”

Stephen nodded. “I felt it would be impolite of me to kill him, under the circumstances.”

“Considering that he forced the duel on you in the first place, by calling you out in front of witnesses, it was very kind of you to pretend to miss your shot, in order to spare his pride.”

“I did not pretend to miss my shot, Helene,” he informed her, and then he pointedly added, “I deloped.”

To delope constituted an apology and therefore implied an admission of guilt. Thinking he might have some other explanation for standing twenty paces from his opponent and deliberately firing high into the air instead of at Lord Lathrop, she said slowly, “Are you saying you really were Emily Lathrop’s lover? You were actually guilty?”

“As sin,” Stephen averred flatly.

“May I ask you one more question, my lord?”

“You can ask it,” he specified, struggling to hide his mounting impatience with her unprecedented and unwelcome preoccupation with his private life.

In a rare show of feminine uncertainty, she glanced away as if to gather her courage, then she looked up at him with an embarrassed, seductive smile that he might have found irresistible had it not been immediately followed by a line of questioning so outrageous that it violated even his own lax standards of acceptable decorum between the sexes. “What was it about Emily Lathrop that drew you to her bed?”

His instant aversion to that question was completely eclipsed by his negative reaction to her next. “I mean, was there anything she did with you—or for you—or to you, that I do not do when we’re in bed together?”

“As a matter of fact,” he replied in a lazy drawl, “there was one thing Emily did that I particularly liked.”

In her eagerness to discover another woman’s secret, Helene overlooked the sarcasm edging his voice. “What did she do that you particularly liked?”

His gaze dropped suggestively to her mouth. “Shall I show you?” he asked, and when she nodded, he bent over her, bracing his hands on either side of her pillow so that his waist and hips were only inches above her head. “You’re absolutely certain you wish to take part in a demonstration?” he asked in a deliberately seductive whisper.

Her emphatic nod was playful and inviting enough to take the edge off his annoyance, leaving him caught somewhere between amusement and exasperation. “Show me what she did that you particularly liked,” she whispered, sliding her hands up his forearms.

Stephen showed her by putting his right hand firmly over her mouth, startling her with a “demonstration” that matched his smiling explanation: “She refrained from asking me questions like yours about you or anyone else, and that is what I particularly liked.”

She gazed back at him, her blue eyes wide with frustrated chagrin, but this time she did not fail to notice the implacable warning in his deceptively mild voice.

“Do we have an understanding, my inquisitive beauty?”

She nodded, then boldly attempted to tip the balance of power into her favor by delicately running her tongue across his palm.

Stephen chuckled at her ploy and moved his hand, but he was no longer in the mood for sexual play or for conversation, and so he pressed a brief kiss on her forehead and left.

Outside, a wet gray fog blanketed the night, broken only by the faint eerie glow of lamplights along the street. Stephen took the reins from the relieved footman and spoke soothingly to the young pair of matched chestnuts who were stamping their hooves and tossing their manes. It was the first time they had been driven in the city, and as Stephen loosened the reins to let them move into a trot, he noted that the curb horse was extremely skittish in the fog. Everything unnerved the animal, from the sound of his own hooves clattering on the cobbled streets to the shadows beneath the streetlamps. When a door slammed off to the left, he shied, then tried to break into a run. Stephen automatically tightened the reins, and turned the carriage down Middleberry Street. The horses were moving at a fast trot and seemed to be settling down a bit. Suddenly an alley cat screamed and bolted off a fruit cart, sending an avalanche of apples rumbling into the street. At the same time the door of a pub was flung open, splashing light into the street. Pandemonium broke loose: dogs howled, the horses slipped and bolted frantically, and a dark figure staggered out of the pub, disappeared between two carriages drawn up at the curb . . . and then materialized directly in front of Stephen’s carriage.

Stephen’s warning shout came too late.

Excerpt from Perfect by Judith McNaught

61w-fk5a9xl-_sy346_Snow clung to Zack’s hair and swirled around his feet as he bent his head into the wind. Several trucks roared past him, the drivers ignoring his upraised thumb, and he fought down a panicky premonition of impending doom. Traffic was heavy on the highway, but everybody was evidently in a hurry to reach their destination before the storm struck, and they weren’t stopping for anything. Up ahead at the intersection was an old-fashioned gas station/cafe with two cars in the large parking lot—a blue Blazer and a brown station wagon. Carrying his duffel bags, he walked up the driveway and when he passed the cafe, he glanced carefully through the large front window at the occupants. There was a lone woman in one booth and a mother with two young children in the other. He swore under his breath because both cars belonged to women, and they weren’t likely to pick up hitchhikers. Without slowing his pace, Zack continued toward the end of the building, where their two cars were parked, wondering if the keys were in the ignitions. Even if they were, he knew it was insanity to steal one of those cars because he’d have to drive it right past the front window of the cafe in order to get out of the parking lot. If he did that, whoever owned the car would have the cops on the phone, describing him and his vehicle, before he got out of the damned parking lot. What’s more, from up here, they could see which way he went on the interstate. Maybe he could try to bribe one of the women in the cafe to give him a ride when she came out.

If money didn’t persuade her to agree, he had a gun that could convince her. Christ! There had to be a better way to get out of here than that.

In front of him and below, trucks roared down the interstate making mini blizzards with their wheels. He glanced at his watch. Nearly an hour had passed since Hadley had gone into his meeting. He didn’t dare try hitchhiking on that interstate any more. He’d be visible down there from the overpass for a mile. If Sandini had followed instructions, Hadley would be sounding an alert to the local cops in about five minutes. As if his thought had caused it to happen, a local sheriff’s car suddenly appeared on the overpass, slowed down, then turned into the cafe’s parking lot fifty yards away from Zack’s hiding spot, coming toward him.

Instinctively, Zack crouched down, pretending that he was inspecting the tire on the Blazer, and then inspiration struck—too late perhaps, but maybe not. Yanking the switchblade out of the duffel bag, he rammed it into the side of the Blazer’s tire, ducking to one side to avoid the explosion of air. From the corner of his eye, he watched the patrol car glide to a stop behind him. Instead of demanding to know what Zack was doing loitering around the cafe with duffel bags, the local sheriff rolled down his car window and drew the obvious conclusion. “Looks like you got a flat there—”

“Sure as hell,” Zack agreed, slapping the side of the tire, careful not to look over his shoulder. “My wife tried to warn me this tire had a leak—” The rest of his words were drowned out by the sudden frantic squawking of the police radio, and without another word, the cop wheeled the patrol car into a screeching turn, accelerated sharply, and roared out of the parking lot with its siren wailing. A moment later, Zack heard more sirens coming from every direction, and then he saw the patrol cars racing across the overpass, their warning lights revolving.

The authorities, Zack knew, were now aware that an escaped convict was on the loose. The hunt had begun.

Inside the cafe, Julie finished her coffee and groped in her purse for money to pay the check. Her visit with Mr. Vernon had gotten her more than she’d expected, including an invitation to spend more time with his wife and him that she hadn’t been able to refuse. She had a five-hour drive in front of her, longer with all this snow, but she had a fat check in her purse and enough excitement about that to make the miles fly past. She glanced at her watch, picked up the thermos she’d brought in from the car to be filled with coffee, smiled at the children eating with their mother in the adjoining booth, and walked up to the cash register to pay her bill.

As she emerged from the building, she stopped in surprise as a squad car suddenly made a frantic U-turn in front of her, turned on its siren, then shot out of the parking lot onto the highway, its rear end fishtailing in the thin blanket of snow. Distracted by that, she didn’t notice the dark-haired man squatting beside the rear wheel of her car on the driver’s side until she almost stumbled over him. He stood up abruptly, towering over her from a height of about 6’2”, and she took a startled, cautious step backward, her voice shaky with alarm and suspicion. “What are you doing there?” she demanded, frowning at her own image as it was reflected back at her from the silvery lenses of his aviator sunglasses.

Zack actually managed a semblance of a smile because his mind had finally started working, and he now knew exactly how he was going to get her to offer him a ride. Imagination and the ability to improvise had been two of his biggest assets as a director. Nodding toward her rear tire, which was very obviously flat, he said, “I’m planning to change your tire for you if you have a jack.”

Julie’s breath came out in a rush of chagrin. “I’m sorry for being so rude, but you startled me. I was watching that squad car tearing out of here.”

“That was Joe Loomis, a local constable,” Zack improvised smoothly, deliberately making it sound as if the cop was a friend of his. “Joe got another call and had to leave, or he’d have given me a hand with your tire.”

Julie’s fears were completely allayed, and she smiled at him. “This is very kind of you,” she said, opening the tailgate of the Blazer and looking for a jack. “This is my brother’s car. The jack is somewhere in here, but I’m not sure where.”

“There,” Zack said, quickly locating the jack and taking it out. “This will only take a few minutes,” he added. He was in a hurry, but no longer fighting down panic. The woman already thought he was friendly with the local sheriff, so she’d naturally think he was trustworthy, and after he changed her tire, she’d owe him a ride. Once they were on the road, the police wouldn’t give them a second glance because they’d be looking for a man who was traveling alone. For now, if anyone noticed him, he would appear to be an ordinary husband changing a tire while his wife looked on. “Where are you headed?” he asked her, using the jack.

“East toward Dallas for a long way and then south,” Julie said, admiring his easy skill with the heavy vehicle. He had an unusually nice voice, uncommonly deep and smooth, and a strong, square jawline. His hair was dark brown and very thick, but poorly cut, and she wondered idly what he looked like without the concealing barrier of those reflective sunglasses. Very handsome, she decided, but it wasn’t his good looks that kept drawing her eyes back to his profile, it was something else, something illusive that she couldn’t pinpoint. Julie shrugged the feeling off, and cradling the thermos in her arm, she embarked on polite conversation. “Do you work around here?”

“Not any more. I was supposed to start a new job tomorrow, but I have to be there by seven in the morning or they’ll give it to someone else.” He finished jacking the car up and began loosening the lug bolts on the tire, then he nodded toward the nylon duffel bags that Julie hadn’t seen before because they had somehow gotten shoved under her car. “A friend of mine was supposed to pick me up here two hours ago and give me a ride part of the way,” he added, “but I guess something happened and he isn’t going to make it.”

“You’ve been waiting out here for two hours?” Julie exclaimed. “You must be frozen.”

He kept his face averted, apparently concentrating on his task, and Julie restrained the peculiar urge to try to bend down and get a longer, closer look at him. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“I’d love one.”

Rather than use up what was in the thermos, Julie headed back into the cafe. “I’ll get it for you. How do you drink it?”

“Black,” Zack said, fighting to keep his frustration in check. She was heading southeast from Amarillo, whereas his destination was four hundred miles to the northwest. He stole a glance at his watch and began working even faster. Nearly an hour and a half had passed since he walked away from the warden’s car, and his risk of capture was increasing every moment he stayed around Amarillo. Regardless of which way the woman was going, he had to go with her. Putting some miles between himself and Amarillo was all that mattered now. He could ride with her for an hour and double back via a different route later.

The waitress needed to brew another pot of coffee, and by the time Julie returned to her car with the steaming paper cup, her rescuer had nearly finished changing the tire. Snow was already two inches deep on the ground and the biting wind was gathering force, whipping the sides of her coat open and making her eyes water. She saw him rub his bare hands together and thought of the new job that was waiting for him tomorrow—if he could get there. She knew jobs in Texas, especially blue-collar jobs, were scarce, and based on his lack of a car, he was probably badly in need of money. His jeans were new, she realized, noticing for the first time the telltale vertical crease down the front of the legs when he stood up. He had probably bought them in order to make a good impression on his future employer, she decided, and the thought of him doing that sent sympathy pouring through her.

Julie had never before offered a hitchhiker a ride; the risks were far too high, but she decided to do it this time, not only because he’d changed her tire or because he seemed nice, but also because of a simple pair of jeans—new jeans. New jeans, stiff and spotless, obviously purchased by a jobless man who was pinning all his hopes on a brighter future that wasn’t going to materialize unless someone gave him a ride at least partway to his destination so he could start to work.

“It looks like you’re finished,” Julie said, walking up to him. She held the cup of coffee out to him and he took it in hands that were red from the cold. There was an aloofness about him that made her hesitate to offer him money, but on the chance he’d prefer that to a ride, she offered anyway. “I’d like to pay you for changing the tire,” she began, and when he curtly shook his head, she added, “In that case, can I give you a ride? I’m going to take the interstate east.”

“I’d appreciate the ride,” Zack said, accepting her offer with a brief smile as he quickly reached down and pulled the nylon duffel bags out from under the car. “I’m heading east, too.”

When they got into the car, he told her his name was Alan Aldrich. Julie introduced herself as Julie Mathison, but to make certain he realized she was offering him a ride and nothing more, she carefully addressed him the next time she spoke as Mr. Aldrich. He picked up her cue and thereafter called her Miss Mathison.

Julie relaxed completely after that. The formality of Miss Mathison was completely reassuring, and so was his immediate acceptance of their situation. But when he remained absolutely silent and distant thereafter, she began to wish she hadn’t insisted on formality. She knew she wasn’t good at hiding her thoughts, therefore he’d probably realized at once that she was putting him in his place—a needless insult, considering that he’d shown her only gallant kindness by changing her tire.

THEY’D KEN ON THE ROAD for fully ten minutes before Zack felt the strangling tension in his chest begin to dissolve, and he drew a long, full breath—his first easy breath in hours. No, months. Years. Futility and helplessness had raged in him for so long that he felt almost lightheaded without them. A red car roared past them, cut across their lane to exit the interstate, lost traction, and spun around, missing the Blazer by inches—and then only because the young woman beside him handled the four-wheel-drive vehicle with surprising skill. Unfortunately, she also drove too damned fast, with the daredevil aggressiveness and fearless disregard of danger that was uniquely and typically Texan in his experience.

He was wishing there was some way he could suggest she let him drive, when she said in a quietly amused voice, “You can relax now. I’ve slowed down. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I wasn’t afraid,” he said with unintentional curtness.

She glanced sideways at him and smiled, a slow, knowing smile. “You’re holding onto the dashboard with both hands. That’s usually a dead giveaway.”

Two things struck Zack at once: He’d been in prison so long that lighthearted banter between adult members of the opposite sex had become completely awkward and alien to him and Julie Mathison had a breathtaking smile. Her smile glowed in her eyes and lit up her entire face, transforming what was merely a pretty face into one that was captivating. Since wondering about her was infinitely preferable to worrying about things he couldn’t yet control, Zack concentrated on her. She wore no makeup except for a little lipstick, and there was a freshness about her, a simplicity in the way she wore her thick, shiny brown hair, all of which had made him think she was in her late teens or very early twenties. On the other hand, she seemed too confident and self-assured for a twenty-year-old. “How old are you?” he asked bluntly, then winced at the brusque tactlessness of the question. Obviously if they didn’t catch him and send him back to prison, he was going to have to relearn some things he’d thought were bred into him—like rudimentary courtesy and conversational etiquette with women.

Instead of being irritated by the question, she flashed him another one of those mesmerizing smiles of hers and said in a voice laced with amusement, “I’m twenty-six.”

“My God!” Zack heard himself blurt, then he closed his eyes in disgusted disbelief at his gaucheness. “I mean,” he explained, “you don’t look that old.”

She seemed to sense his discomfiture, because she laughed softly and said, “Probably because I’ve only been twenty-six for a few weeks.”

Afraid to trust himself to say anything spontaneous, he watched the windshield wipers carve a steady half-moon in the snow on the windshield while he reviewed his next question for any trace of the tastelessness that had marred his previous words. Feeling this one was safe, he said, “What do you do?”

“I’m a schoolteacher.”

“You don’t look like one.”

Inexplicably, the laughter rekindled in her eyes and he saw her bite back a smile. Feeling completely disoriented and confused by her unpredictable reactions, he said a little curtly, “Did I just say something funny?”

Julie shook her head and said, “Not at all. That’s what most older people say.”

Zack wasn’t certain whether she’d referred to him as being “older” because he actually looked like an antique to her or if it was a joking retaliation for his ill-advised remarks about her age and appearance. He was puzzling over that when she asked what he did for a living, and he answered with the first occupation that seemed to suit what he’d already told her about himself.

“I’m in construction.”

“Really? My brother’s in construction work, too—a general contractor. What sort of construction work do you do?”

Zack barely knew which end of a hammer to use on a nail, and he sorely wished he’d picked a more obscure job or, better yet, had remained completely silent. “Walls,” he replied vaguely. “I do walls.”

She took her eyes from the road, which alarmed him, and regarded him intently, which alarmed him even more. “Walls?” she repeated sounding puzzled. Then she explained, “I meant, do you have a specialty?”

“Yes. Walls,” Zack said shortly, angry with himself for having begun such a conversation. “That’s my specialty. I put up walls.”

Julie realized she must have misunderstood him the first time. “Drywall!” she exclaimed ruefully. “Of course. You’re a drywall taper?”

“Right.”

“In that case, I’m surprised you have any trouble finding work. Good tapers are usually in great demand.”

“I’m not a good one,” Zack stated flatly, making it clear he wasn’t interested in continuing that conversation.

Julie choked back a startled laugh at his answer and his tone and concentrated on the road. He was a very unusual man. She couldn’t decide whether she liked him and was glad of his company . . . or not. And she couldn’t get over the uneasy feeling that he reminded her of someone. She wished she could see his face without those sunglasses so she could figure out who it was. The city vanished in the rearview mirror and the sky turned the heavy, ominous gray of an early dusk. Silence hung in the car and fat snow smacked her windshield, slowly gaining an edge on the car’s windshield wipers. They’d been on the road for about a half hour when Zack glanced in the outside rearview mirror on his side—and his blood froze. A half mile behind them, and closing fast, was a police car with its red and blue lights rotating furiously.

A second later, he heard the siren begin to wail.

The woman beside him heard it, too; she glanced in the rearview mirror and took her foot off of the gas pedal, slowing the Blazer and angling it onto the shoulder. Zack reached into his jacket pocket, his hand closing on the butt of the automatic, although he had no precise idea at that moment exactly what he meant to do if the cop tried to pull them over. The squad car was so close now, he could see there were not one, but two cops in the front seat. They pulled around the Blazer . . .

And kept going.

“There must be an accident up there,” she said as they crested the hill and came to a stop behind what looked like a five-mile traffic jam on the snowy interstate. A moment later two ambulances came tearing around them.

Zack’s rush of adrenalin subsided, leaving him shaken and limp. He felt as if he’d suddenly exceeded his capacity to react with violent emotion to anything whatsoever, which was probably due to his having been trying to execute for two days a carefully thought-out escape plan that should have been a guaranteed success by virtue of its sheer simplicity. And would have been if Hadley hadn’t postponed his trip to Amarillo. Everything else that had gone wrong was a result of that. He wasn’t sure even now if his contact was still in his Detroit hotel, waiting for Zack’s call before he rented a car to drive to Windsor. And until Zack was further away from Amarillo, he didn’t dare stop to find a telephone. Moreover, although Colorado was only 130 miles from Amarillo, with a tiny piece of Oklahoma’s Panhandle in between, he needed to be traveling northwest to get there. Instead, he was now heading southeast. Thinking his Colorado map might also contain a small piece of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, he decided to occupy his time productively by looking for a new route from here to there. Twisting around in his seat, he said, “I think I’ll have a look at a map.”

Julie naturally assumed he was checking his route to whatever Texas town his new job was located in. “Where are you heading?” she asked.

“Ellerton,” he replied, sending her a brief smile as he reached past the folded down back seat for his duffel bag near the tailgate. “I interviewed for the job in Amarillo, but I’ve never been out to the site,” he added so she wouldn’t ask questions about the place.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Ellerton.” Several minutes later, when he neatly refolded the map with its typewritten sheet on the top, Julie said, “Did you find Ellerton?”

“No.” To dissuade her from asking any further questions about the location of a nonexistent town, he flashed the typewritten sheet at her as he bent over the seat to put it back into his duffel. “I have detailed instructions right here, so I’ll find it.”

She nodded, but her gaze was on the exit up ahead. “I think I’ll get off the interstate here and take a side road to get past the accident.”

“Good idea.” The exit turned out to be a rural road that ran roughly parallel with the interstate then began angling off to the right. “This might not have been a good idea after all,” she said several minutes later when the narrow blacktop road began to wind steadily further away from the main highway.

Zack didn’t immediately reply. At the intersection up ahead, there was a deserted gas station and at the edge of the empty lot near the road was an open phone booth. “I’d like to make a phone call if you wouldn’t mind stopping. It won’t take more than a couple of minutes.”

“I don’t mind at all.” Julie pulled the Blazer to a stop underneath the street lamp near the phone booth and watched him walk across the headlight’s beams. Dusk had descended even earlier than usual, and the storm seemed to be outrunning them, dumping snow with surprising force, even for the blustery Texas Panhandle. Deciding to exchange her bulky coat for a cardigan sweater that would be more comfortable while she drove, she turned on the radio, hoping for a weather forecast, then she got out of the car, walked around to the tailgate, and opened it.

With the tailgate down she could hear the Amarillo announcer extolling the wisdom of buying a new car at Wilson Ford:

“Bob Wilson will meet any price, anywhere, anytime . . .” he enthused.

Listening for a mention of the weather, she took off her coat, pulled her tan mohair sweater out of her suitcase, and glanced at the map that was sticking out of his duffel bag. Since she didn’t have a map with her and wasn’t entirely sure what route would intersect with the interstate or if she was taking her passenger so far out of his way that he’d prefer to try to hitchhike with someone else, she decided to look at his map. She glanced at him in the phone booth, intending to hold up the map and ask his permission, but his shoulder was turned to her and he seemed to be speaking into the phone. Deciding he couldn’t possibly object, Julie folded the typewritten instructions back and opened the map he’d been studying. Spreading it across the tailgate, she held the ends down while the wind tried to whip them out of her hands. It took a full moment before she realized it wasn’t a map of Texas, but of Colorado. Puzzled, she glanced at the neatly typed instructions attached to the map: “Exactly 26.4 miles after you’ve passed the town of Stanton,” it said, “you’ll come to an unmarked crossroads. After that, begin looking for a narrow dirt road that branches off from the right and disappears into the trees about fifteen yards off the highway. The house is at the end of that road, about five miles from your turnoff, and is not visible from the highway or any side of the mountain.”

Julie’s lips parted in surprise. He was heading not for a job in some unknown Texas town, but for a house in Colorado?

On the radio, the announcer finished his commercial and said, “We’ll have an update on the storm coming our way, but first, here’s some late breaking news from the sheriffs department . . .”

Julie scarcely heard him, she was staring at the tall man using the phone, and she felt again that strange, slithering unease . . . of shadowy familiarity. He’d kept his shoulder turned to her, but he’d removed his sunglasses and was holding them in his hand now. As if he sensed she was staring at him, he twisted his head toward her. His eyes narrowed on the open map in her hands at the same instant Julie had her first clear, brightly lit view of his face without the concealing sunglasses.

“At approximately four o’clock this afternoon,” said the voice on the radio, “Prison officials discovered that convicted murderer Zachary Benedict escaped while in Amarillo—”

Momentarily paralyzed, Julie stared at that rugged, harsh face of his.

And she recognized it.

“No!” she cried as he dropped the phone and started running toward her. She bolted around her side of the car, yanking her door open and diving across the front seat, slapping at the lock on the passenger door a split second after he yanked the door open and grabbed for her wrist. With a strength born of pure terror, she managed to wrench her arm free and throw herself sideways through her open door. She hit the ground on her hip, scrambled to her feet, and started running, her feet sliding on the slippery snow, screaming for someone to help, knowing there was no one around to hear her. He caught her before she’d run five yards and yanked her around and back, trapping her against the side of the Blazer. “Hold still and shut up!”

“Take the car!” Julie cried. “Take it and leave me here.”

Ignoring her, he looked over his shoulder at the map of Colorado that had blown against a rusty trash container fifteen feet away when she dropped it. As if in slow motion, Julie watched him remove a shiny black object from his pocket and point it at her, while he backed toward the map and picked it up. A gun. God in heaven, he had a gun!

Her entire body began to tremble uncontrollably while she listened in a kind of hysterical disbelief to the newscaster’s voice belatedly confirming that fact as the news bulletin came to an end: “Benedict is believed to be armed and he is dangerous. If seen, his whereabouts should be reported immediately to the Amarillo police. Citizens should not attempt to approach him. A second escaped convict, Dominic Sandini, has been apprehended and taken into custody . . .”

Her knees threatened to buckle as she watched him coming toward her with a gun in one hand and the map and directions blowing from his other hand. Headlights crested the hill a quarter of a mile away, and he slid the gun back into his pocket to keep it out of sight, but he kept his hand there with it. “Get into the car,” he ordered.

Julie flashed a look over her left shoulder at the approaching pickup truck, frantically calculating the impossible odds of outrunning a bullet or even being able to attract the notice of the vehicle’s driver before Zachary Benedict shot her down. “Don’t try it,” he warned in a deadly voice.

Her heart thundering against her ribs, she watched the pickup turn left at the crossroads, but she didn’t disobey his order. Not here, not yet. Instinct warned her that this deserted stretch of road was too isolated to succeed in anything but getting killed.

“Get moving!” He took her arm and headed her to the open door on the driver’s side. Cloaked in the deepening dusk of a snowy winter evening, Julie Mathison walked unsteadily beside a convicted murderer who was holding a gun on her. She had the chilling sensation they were both living a scene from one of his own movies—the one where the hostage got killed.

HER HANDS SHOOK SO VIOLENTLY she had to grope for the keys in the ignition, and when she tried to start the car she nearly flooded the engine because even her legs were jerking with fright. He watched her unemotionally from the passenger seat. “Drive,” he snapped when the engine was started. Julie managed to turn the car around and guide it to the end of the parking lot, but she stopped at the main road, her mind so paralyzed with terror that she couldn’t think of the words to ask the obvious question.

“I said drive!”

“Which way?” she cried, hating the timid, pleading sound of her voice and loathing the animal beside her for making her experience this uncontrollable terror.

“Back the way we came.”

“B-back?”

“You heard me.”

Rush hour traffic on the snowbound interstate near the city limits was moving at a crawl. Inside the car, the tension and silence were suffocating. Trying desperately to calm her rampaging nerves while she watched for some chance to escape, Julie lifted her shaking hand to change the radio station, fully expecting him to order her not to do it. When he said nothing, she turned the dial and heard a disk jockey’s voice exuberantly introducing the next country/ western song. A moment later the car was filled with the cheerful sounds of “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”

While George Strait sang, Julie looked around at the occupants of the other cars, homeward bound after a long day. The man in the Explorer beside her was listening to the same radio station, his fingers tapping on the steering wheel, keeping time with the melody. He glanced her way, saw her looking at him, and nodded sociably, then he returned his gaze to the front. She knew he hadn’t seen anything abnormal. Everything looked perfectly normal to him, and if he were sitting where she was in the Blazer, it would have seemed perfectly normal. George Strait was singing, just like normal, and the expressway was crowded with motorists who were eager to get home, just like normal, and the snow was beautiful, just like normal. Everything was normal.

Except for one thing.

An escaped murderer was sitting in the seat beside her, holding a gun on her. It was the cozy normalcy of appearances juxtaposed against the demented reality of her situation that suddenly shoved Julie from paralysis to action. Traffic began to move, and her desperation gave birth to inspiration: They’d already passed several cars in ditches on both sides of the road. If she could fake a skid toward the ditch on the right and if she could throw the steering wheel to the left just as they went into the ditch, her door should remain usable while his might very well be trapped. It would work in her own car, but she wasn’t sure how the Blazer’s four-wheel drive would respond.

Beside her, Zack saw her gaze flick repeatedly to the side of the road. He sensed her mounting panic and knew that fear was going to drive her to try something desperate at any moment. “Relax!” he ordered.

Julie’s capacity for fear suddenly reached its limits and her emotions veered crazily from terror to fury. “Relax!” she exploded in a shaking voice, whipping her head around and glaring at him. “How in God’s name do you expect me to relax when you’re sitting there with a gun aimed at me? You tell me that!”

She had a point, Zack thought, and before she attempted something else that might actually get him captured, he decided that helping her to relax was in both of their best interests. “Just stay calm,” he instructed.

Julie stared straight ahead. Traffic was thinning out slightly, picking up some speed, and she began to calculate the feasibility of ramming the Blazer into the cars around her in an attempt to cause a major pileup. Such an action would cause the police to be summoned. That would be very good.

But she and the other innocent motorists involved in the collision would likely end up being shot by Zachary Benedict.

That would be very bad.

She was wondering if his gun had a full clip of nine shells in it and whether he would actually massacre helpless people, when he said in a calm, condescending voice that adults use on hysterical children, “Nothing is going to happen to you, Julie. If you do as you’re told, you’ll be fine. I need transportation to the state line, and you have a car, it’s as simple as that. Unless this car is so important to you that you want to risk your life to get me out of it, all you have to do is drive and not attract anyone’s attention. If a cop spots us, there’s going to be shooting, and you’ll be in the middle of it. So just be a good girl and relax.”

“If you want me to relax,” she retorted, goaded past all endurance by his patronizing tone and her strained nerves, “then you let me hold that gun, and I’ll show you relaxed!” She saw his brows snap together, but when he didn’t make a retaliatory move, she almost believed that he truly didn’t intend to harm her—so long as she didn’t jeopardize his escape. That possibility had the perverse effect of subduing her fears and simultaneously unleashing her frustrated fury at the torment he’d already put her through. “Furthermore,” she continued wrathfully, “don’t speak to me like I’m a child and don’t call me Julie! I was Ms. Mathison to you when I thought you were a nice, decent man who needed a job and who’d bought those d-damned jeans to impress your em-employer. If it hadn’t been for those damned j-jeans, I wouldn’t be in this mess—” To Julie’s horror, she felt the sudden sting of tears, so she shot him what she hoped was a disdainful look and then glared fixedly out the windshield.

Zack lifted his brows and regarded her in impassive silence, but inwardly he was stunned and reluctantly impressed by her unexpected show of courage. Turning his head, he looked at the traffic opening up ahead of them and at the thick, falling snow that had seemed like a curse a few hours ago but had actually diverted the attention of the police who had to deal with stranded motorists before they could begin to search for him. Last, he considered the stroke of luck that had put him not in the small rented car that had been towed away while he watched, but in a heavy four-wheel-drive vehicle that could easily navigate in the snow without getting bogged down on the less traveled route he intended to take up into the Colorado mountains. All of the delays and complications that had infuriated him for the last two days had turned out to be bonuses, he realized. He was going to make it to Colorado—thanks to Julie Mathison. Ms. Mathison, he corrected himself with an inner grin as he relaxed back in his seat. His flash of amusement vanished as quickly as it had come, because there was something about that newscast he’d heard earlier that was belatedly beginning to worry him: Dominic Sandini had been referred to as “another escaped convict” who “was apprehended and taken into custody.” If Sandini had stuck to the plan, then Warden Hadley should have been crowing to the press about the loyalty of one of his trustees rather than referring to Sandini as an apprehended convict.

Zack told himself that the information on the newscast had simply been jumbled, which accounted for the mistake about Sandini, and he forced himself to concentrate on the irate young teacher beside him instead. Although he desperately needed her and her car right now, she was also a serious complication to his plans. She probably knew he was heading for Colorado; moreover, she might have seen enough of that map and the directions with it to be able to tell the police the vicinity of Zack’s hideaway. If he left her at the Texas-Oklahoma border or a little further north at the Oklahoma-Colorado border, she’d be able to tell the authorities where he was going and exactly what kind of car he was driving as well. By now, his face was already plastered all over every television screen in the country, so he couldn’t possibly hope to rent or buy another car without being recognized. Furthermore, he wanted the police to believe he’d managed to fly to Detroit and cross into Canada.

Julie Mathison seemed to be both a godsend and a disastrous kink in his plans. Rather than curse fate for saddling him with her and the deadly threat to his freedom that she represented, he decided to give fate an opportunity to work out this problem and to try to help them both relax. Reaching behind him for the thermos of coffee, he thought back to her last remarks and came up with what seemed like a good conversational opening. In a carefully offhand, nonthreatening tone, he inquired sociably, “What’s wrong with my jeans?”

She gaped at him in blank confusion. “What?”

“You said something about my ‘damned jeans’ being the only reason you offered me a ride,” he explained, filling the top of the thermos with coffee. “What’s wrong with my jeans?”

Julie swallowed an hysterical surge of angry laughter. She was concerned about her life, and he was concerned about making a fashion statement!

“What,” he repeated determinedly, “did you mean?”

She was on the verge of an angry retort when two things occurred to her at once—that it was insane to deliberately antagonize an armed man and that if she could make him relax his guard by indulging in small talk with him, her chances to either escape or get out of this alive would be vastly improved. Trying to inject a polite, neutral tone into her voice, she drew a long breath and said without taking her eyes from the road, “I noticed your jeans were new.”

“What did that have to do with your deciding to offer me a ride?”

Bitterness at her own gullibility filled Julie’s voice. “Since you didn’t have a car and you implied you didn’t have a job, I assumed you must be having a hard time financially. Then you said you were hoping to get a new job, and I noticed the crease in your jeans . . .” Her voice trailed off when she realized with a disgusted jolt that instead of the nearly destitute man she’d thought him to be he was actually a mega millionaire movie star.

“Go on,” he prodded, his voice tinged with puzzlement.

“I leapt to the obvious conclusion, for heaven’s sake! I figured you’d bought new jeans so you could make a good impression on your employer, and I imagined how important that must have been to you while you were buying them in the store and how much hope you must have been feeling when you bought them, and I-I couldn’t bear the thought that your hope was going to be trashed if I didn’t offer you a ride. So even though I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker in my life, I couldn’t stand to see you miss having your chance.”

Zack was not only stunned, he was unwillingly touched. Kindness like hers, a kindness that also required some kind of personal risk or sacrifice, had been absent from his existence for all the years he’d spent in prison. And even before that, he realized. Shoving the unsettling thought aside, he said, “You envisioned all that from a crease in a pair of jeans? You’ve got one hell of an imagination,” he added with a sardonic shake of his head.

“I’m obviously a bad judge of character, too,” Julie said bitterly. From the corner of her eye, she saw his left arm swing toward her and she jumped, muffling a scream before she realized he was only holding out a cup of coffee from the thermos. In a quiet tone that almost seemed to carry an apology for adding to her fright, he said, “I thought this might help.”

“I’m not in the slightest danger of falling asleep at the wheel, thanks to you.”

“Drink some anyway,” Zack ordered, determined to ease her terror even while he knew his presence was the source of it. “It will—” he hesitated, feeling at a loss for words, and added, “It will make things seem more normal.”

Julie turned her head and gaped at him, her expression making it eloquently clear she found his “concern” for her not only completely revolting, but insane. She was on the verge of telling him that, but she remembered the gun in his pocket, so she took the coffee in a shaking hand and turned away from him, sipping it and staring at the road ahead.

Beside her, Zack watched the telltale trembling of the coffee cup as she raised it to her lips, and he felt a ridiculous urge to apologize for terrifying her like this. She had a lovely profile he thought, studying her face in the light of the dashboard, with a small nose and stubborn chin and high cheekbones. She also had magnificent eyes, he decided, thinking of the way they’d shot sparks at him a few minutes ago. Spectacular eyes. He felt a sharp stab of guilty shame for using and frightening this innocent girl who’d been trying to be a good Samaritan—and because he had every intention of continuing to use her, he felt like the animal everybody believed he was. To silence his conscience, he resolved to make things as easy on her as he possibly could, which led him to decide to engage her in further conversation.

He’d noticed she wore no wedding ring, which meant she wasn’t married. He tried to remember what people—civilized people on the “outside”—talked about for idle conversation, and he finally said, “Do you like teaching?”

She turned again, her incredible eyes wide with suppressed antagonism. “Do you expect me,” she uttered in disbelief, “to engage in polite small talk with you?”

“Yes!” he snapped, irrationally angry at her reluctance to let him make amends. “I do. Start talking!”

“I love teaching,” Julie shot back shakily, hating how easily he could intimidate her. “How far do you intend for me to drive you?” she demanded as they passed a sign that said the Oklahoma border was twenty miles away.

“Oklahoma,” Zack said, half-truthfully.

WE’RE IN OKLAHOMA,” JULIE POINTED out the instant they drove past the sign announcing they were there.

He shot her a look of grim amusement. “I see that.”

“Well? Where do you want to get out?”

“Keep driving.”

“Keep driving?” she cried in nervous fury. “Now look, you miserable—I’m not driving you all the way to Colorado!”

Zack had his answer, she knew where he was going.

“I won’t do it!” Julie warned shakily, unaware that she had just sealed her fate. “I can’t.”

With an inner sigh at the battle she was bound to wage, he said, “Yes, Ms. Mathison, you can. And you will.”

His unflappable calm was the last straw. “Go to hell!” Julie cried, swinging the steering wheel hard to the right before he could stop her and sending the vehicle careening onto the shoulder as she slammed on the brakes and brought it to a lurching stop. “Take the car!” she pleaded. “Take it and leave me here. I won’t tell anyone I’ve seen you or where you’re going. I swear I won’t tell anyone.”

Zack reined in his temper and tried to soothe her with an attempt at levity. “In the movies, people always promise that same thing,” he remarked conversationally, glancing over his shoulder at the cars flying past. “I’ve always thought it sounded asinine.”

“This isn’t the movies!”

“But you do agree that it is an absurd promise,” he argued with a slight smile. “You know it is. Admit it, Julie.”

Shocked that he was apparently trying to tease her as if they were friends, Julie stared at him in furious silence, knowing he was right about the promise being ridiculous, but refusing to admit it.

“You can’t really expect me to believe,” he continued, his voice softening a little, “that you’d let me get away with kidnapping you and stealing your car and then be so grateful to me for doing both that you’d keep a promise to me you made under extreme duress? Doesn’t that sound a little insane to you?”

“Do you expect me to debate psychology with you when my whole life is at stake!” she burst out.

“I realize you’re afraid, but your life isn’t at stake unless you put it there. You aren’t in any danger unless you create it.”

Perhaps it was exhaustion or the low timbre of his voice or the steadiness of his gaze, but as Julie looked at his solemn features, she found herself almost believing him.

“I don’t want you to get hurt,” he continued, “and you won’t, as long as you don’t do anything that attracts attention to me and alerts the law—”

“In which case,” Julie interrupted bitterly, snapping out of her trance, “you will blow my brains out with your gun. That’s very comforting, Mr. Benedict. Thank you.”

Zack held his temper in check and explained, “If the cops catch up with me, they’ll have to kill me, because I’m not going to surrender. Given the vigilante mentality of most cops, there’s a good chance you’ll be hurt or killed in the fray. I don’t want that to happen. Can you understand that?”

Furious with herself for being subdued by empty gentle words from a ruthless murderer, Julie jerked her gaze from his and stared out the front window. “Do you actually think you can convince me you’re Sir Galahad and not a depraved monster?”

“Evidently not,” he said irritably.

When she refused to look at him again, Zack gave an impatient sign and said curtly, “Stop sulking and start driving. I need to find a roadside telephone at one of these exits.”

The moment his voice chilled, Julie realized how foolish she’d been to ignore his “friendly” overture and antagonize him. What she probably ought to be doing, she belatedly decided as she pulled back out onto the highway, was fooling him into believing she was resigned to going along with him. As the snowflakes danced in front of her headlights, her mind began to calm and she thought carefully about possible ways out of her predicament, because it now seemed horribly likely that he was going to force her to drive him through Colorado as well as Oklahoma. Finding a means to foil his plan and get away became not only a necessity, but a downright challenge. To do that, she knew she had to be objective and to keep all traces of fright and fury from clouding her thoughts. She should be able to do that, Julie reminded herself bracingly. After all, she was no sheltered, unworldly, pampered hothouse flower. She’d spent the first eleven years of her life on the streets of Chicago and done just fine! Chewing on her lower lip, she decided to try to think of her ordeal as if it were merely a plot in one of the mystery novels she loved to read. She’d always felt some of the heroines in those novels behaved with sublime stupidity, which was what she’d been doing by antagonizing her captor, she decided. A clever heroine would do the opposite, she’d be devious and find ways to make Benedict relax his guard completely. If he did that, her chances to escape—and get him returned to prison where he belonged—would be dramatically increased. To accomplish that goal, she could try to pretend she was coming to think of this nightmare as an adventure, maybe she could even pretend to be on the side of her captor, which would require a stellar performance, but she was willing to try.

Despite her grave misgivings about her ability to succeed, Julie suddenly felt a welcome calm and determination sweep through her, banishing her fear and leaving her head clearer. She waited several moments before speaking, so that her capitulation wouldn’t seem too sudden and suspicious to him, then she drew a steadying breath and tried to inject a rueful note into her voice: “Mr. Benedict,” she said, actually managing to cast him a slight, sideways smile, “I appreciate what you said about not intending to hurt me. I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. I was afraid, that’s all.”

“And now you aren’t afraid?” he countered, his voice laced with skepticism.

“Well, yes,” Julie hastened to assure him. “But not nearly so much. That’s what I meant.”

“May I inquire what brought about this sudden transformation? What were you thinking about while you were so quiet?”

“A book,” she said because it seemed safe. “A mystery.”

“One you’ve read? Or one you’re thinking about writing?”

Her mouth opened, but no words came out, and then she realized he’d inadvertently handed her the perfect means to his own defeat. “I’ve always wanted to write a mystery someday,” she improvised madly, “and it occurred to me that this could be, well, first-hand research.”

“I see.”

She darted another glance at him and was startled by the warmth of his smile. This devil could charm a snake, she realized, recalling that same smile from the days when it had flashed across movie screens and raised the temperature of the entire female audience.

“You are a remarkably brave young woman, Julie.”

She choked her irate demand to be called Ms. Mathison. “Actually, I’m the world’s greatest coward, Mr.—”

“My name is Zack,” he interrupted, and in his impassive tone she sensed a return of his suspicion.

“Zack,” she hastily agreed. “You’re quite right. We ought to use first names, since we’re apparently going to be together for—?”

“A while,” he provided, and Julie made a Herculean effort to conceal her frustrated fury at his oblique reply.

“A while,” she agreed, careful to keep her tone neutral. “Well, that’s probably long enough for you to help me with some preliminary research,” she hesitated, thinking of what to ask him. “Would you, well, consider giving me some insight into what prison is really like. That would be helpful for my story.”

“Would it?”

He was scaring the hell out of her with the subtle, ever-changing nuances in his voice. Never before had she known a man or woman who could convey so much with imperceptible changes in his voice, nor had she heard a voice like his in her life. It had a rich baritone timbre that could switch instantly and unaccountably from polite to amused to icy and ominous. In answer to his question, Julie nodded vigorously, trying to counteract his skeptical tone by injecting energy and conviction in her own. “Absolutely.” In a flash of inspiration, she realized that if he thought she might be on his side, he’d be even more likely to lower his guard. “I’ve heard that a lot of innocent people get sent to prison. Were you innocent?”

“Every convict claims he’s innocent.”

“Yes, but are you?” she persisted, dying for him to say he was so she could pretend to believe him.

“The jury said I was guilty.”

“Juries have been wrong before.”

“Twelve honest, upstanding citizens,” he replied in a voice suddenly iced with loathing, “decided I was.”

“I’m sure they tried to be objective.”

“Bullshit!” he said so furiously that Julie’s hands tightened on the steering wheel under a fresh onslaught of fear and dread. “They convicted me of being rich and famous!” he snapped. “I watched their faces during the trial, and the more the district attorney raved about my privileged life and the amoral standards of Hollywood, the more that jury wanted my blood! The whole damned, sanctimonious, God-fearing bunch of them knew there was a ‘reasonable doubt’ I didn’t commit that murder and that’s why they didn’t recommend the death penalty. They’d all watched too much Perry Mason—they figured if I didn’t do it, I should be able to prove who did.”

Julie felt the perspiration break out on her palms at the rage in his voice. Now, more than ever before, she realized how imperative it was to make him believe she sympathized with him. “But you weren’t guilty, were you? You just couldn’t prove who really murdered your wife, is that it?” she persevered in a trembling voice.

“What difference does it make?” he snapped.

“It m-makes a difference to me.”

For a moment he studied her in frozen silence and then his voice made one of its abrupt, compellingly soft turns. “If it truly makes a difference to you, then no, I didn’t kill her.”

He was lying, of course. He had to be. “I believe you.” Trying to heap more reassurances on him, she added, “And if you are innocent, then you have every right to try to escape from prison.”

His answer was an uncomfortably long silence during which she felt his piercing gaze examining every feature on her face, then he said abruptly, “The sign said there’s a phone up ahead. Pull over when you see it.”

“All right.”

The telephone was beside the road and Julie pulled off into the drive. She was watching the outside rearview mirror in hopes of seeing a trucker or some other driver she could flag down but there was little traffic on the snowy road. His voice made her snap her head around just as he pulled her car keys from the ignition. “I hope,” he said in a sardonic voice, “you won’t think I doubt your word about believing I’m innocent and wanting to see me escape. I’m simply taking the car keys because I happen to be a very cautious man.”

Julie amazed herself by managing to shake her head and say convincingly, “I don’t blame you.” With a brief smile, he got out of the car, but he kept his hand in his pocket with the gun as a deliberate menacing reminder to her, and he left the passenger door open, undoubtedly so he could see what she was doing while he made his call. Short of trying to outrun him and a possible bullet, Julie had no hope of escaping right now, but she could start preparing for the future. As he stepped into the snow, she said with all the meekness she could muster, “Would you mind if I get a pen and paper out of my purse so that I can make some notes while you’re on the phone—you know, jot down feelings and things so that I can use them in my book?” Before he could refuse, which he looked about to do, she reached cautiously for her purse on the back seat while pointing out reasons he shouldn’t deny her request. “Writing always calms my nerves,” she said, “and you can search my purse, if you like. You’ll see I don’t have another set of keys or any weapons.” To prove it she opened the purse and handed it to him. He gave her an impatient, preoccupied look that made her feel as if he didn’t believe her story about writing a novel for a moment and was simply going along with it to keep her docile.

“Go ahead,” he said, handing the purse to her. As he turned away, Julie pulled out a small note pad and her pen. Keeping an eye on his back, she watched him pick up the telephone and put coins in it, then she quickly wrote the same message on three different slips of paper: CALL POLICE. I’VE BEEN KIDNAPPED. From the comer of her eye, she saw him watching her and she waited until he turned away to talk to whoever he was calling, then she tore off the first three sheets, folded them in half and tucked them into the outside pocket of her purse where she could easily reach them. She opened the notebook again and stared at it, her mind frantically searching for ways to pass the notes to people who could aid her. Struck with a plausible idea, she stole a glance at him to be sure he wasn’t looking, then she quickly took one of the notes from her purse and folded it into a ten-dollar bill from her wallet.

She had a plan, she was executing it, and the knowledge that she was now taking some control of her future banished much of her lingering fear and panic. The rest of her newfound calm owed itself to something besides having a plan in mind. The feeling came from an instinctive but unshakable conviction that one thing Zachary Benedict had said was true: He did not want to harm her. Therefore, he wasn’t going to shoot her in cold blood. In fact, if she tried to escape now, she was certain he would chase her, but he wouldn’t shoot her unless it looked as if she were going to flag down a passing car. Since there were no cars coming, Julie saw no point in flinging open her door and making a break for it right now—not when he could outrun her, and all she would gain was to put him permanently on his guard. Better by far to appear to cooperate and lull him into relaxing as much as possible. Zachary Benedict might be an ex-con, but she wasn’t the gullible, easily intimidated coward she’d been acting like until now. Once, she’d had to live by her wits, she reminded herself bracingly. While he was a pampered teenage movie idol, Julie was lying and stealing and surviving on the streets! If she concentrated on that now, she’d be able to hold her own with him, she was absolutely positive! Well, almost positive. So long as she kept her head, she had an excellent chance of winning this contest of wits. Taking her notebook out, she began jotting down saccharine comments about her kidnapper in case he asked to see what she’d written. Finished, she reread her absurd commentary:

Zachary Benedict is fleeing from unjust imprisonment caused by a biased jury. He seems to be an intelligent, kind, warm man—a victim of circumstances. I believe in him.

The commentary was, she decided with an inner grimace, the worst piece of pure fiction ever written. So engrossed was she that she experienced only a momentary jolt of dread when she realized he’d finished his call and was climbing into the car. Quickly closing the notebook and shoving it into her purse, she asked politely, “Did you talk to whoever it is you’re trying to call?”

His eyes narrowed sharply on her smile and she had an uneasy feeling she was overdoing her “comradely” performance. “No. He’s still there, but he isn’t in his room. I’ll try again in a half hour or so.” Julie was digesting that tidbit of useless information when he reached for her purse and took out her notebook. “Just a precaution,” he said in a sardonic voice as he flipped open the notebook. “You understand, I’m sure?”

“I understand,” Julie averred, caught between nervous hilarity and chagrin as she watched his jaw slacken when he read what she’d written.

“Well?” she said, widening her eyes with sham innocence. “What do you think?”

He closed the notebook and slid it back into her purse. “I think you’re too gullible to be turned loose in the world if you actually believe all that.”

“I’m very gullible,” she eagerly assured him, turning on the ignition and pulling out onto the highway. If he thought her stupid and naive, that was great, terrific.

FOR THE NEXT HALF HOUR, they drove in silence with only an occasional desultory comment about the bad weather and worsening driving conditions, but Julie was watching the side of the road for a billboard that would enable her to put her plan into action. Any billboard that advertised a fast food restaurant at an approaching exit would do. When she finally saw one, her heart doubled its beat. “I know you probably don’t want to stop and go into a restaurant, but I’m starving,” she said carefully, pleasantly. “That sign says there’s a McDonald’s up ahead. We could get some food at the drive-through window.”

He glanced at the clock and started to shake his head, so she hastily added, “I have to eat something every couple of hours because I have . . .” she hesitated a split second, thinking frantically for the right medical term for a problem she didn’t have “ . . . hypoglycemia! I’m sorry, but if I don’t eat something, I get very ill and faint and . . .”

“Fine, we’ll stop there.”

Julie almost shouted with nervous triumph when she pulled off on the exit ramp and the McDonald’s golden arches came into view. The restaurant was between two open lots with a kiddy playground on the side of it. “We’re stopping just in time,” she added, “because I’m feeling so dizzy that I won’t be able to drive much longer.”

Ignoring his narrowed look, Julie flipped on the turn indicator and pulled into the McDonald’s entrance. Despite the storm, there were several cars in the parking lot, though not nearly so many as Julie wished there were, and she could see a few families seated at the tables inside the restaurant. Following the directions on the sign, she drove around behind the restaurant to the drive-through window and stopped at the speaker. “What would you like?” she asked.

Before his imprisonment, Zack wouldn’t have stopped at a fast-food restaurant like this if he had to go all day without eating. Now he discovered his mouth was watering at the thought of a simple hamburger and french fries. Freedom did that, he decided after telling Julie what he wanted to eat. Freedom made the air smell fresher and food sound better. It also made a man more tense and suspicious, because there was something about his captive’s over bright smile that was making him extremely wary. She looked so fresh and ingenuous with those big blue eyes and soft smile, but she’d switched much too quickly from terrified captive to furious hostage to her current attitude of friendly ally.

Julie repeated their order into the microphone—two cheeseburgers, two french fries, two Cokes.

“That’ll be $5.09,” the voice said over the microphone. “Please drive around to the first window.”

As she pulled up alongside the first window, she saw him dig into his pocket for money, but she shook her head adamantly, already reaching into her purse. “I’ll buy,” she said, managing to look straight into his eyes. “It’s my treat. I insist.”

After a moment’s hesitation, he took his hand out of his pocket, but his dark brows drew together into a baffled frown. “That’s very sporting of you.”

“That’s me. I’m a good sport. Everyone always says so,” she babbled mindlessly, removing the folded ten-dollar bill with her handwritten note saying that she was being kidnapped folded inside of it. Unable to meet his unnerving gaze any longer, Julie hastily looked away and focused all her attention on the teenage girl in the drive-through window, who was regarding her with bored impatience. The girl’s name tag said her name was Tiffany.

“That’ll be $5.09,” Tiffany said.

Julie held out the ten-dollar bill and stared hard at the girl, her face beseeching. Her life depended on this bored-looking teenager with a frizzy ponytail. As if in slow motion, Julie saw her unfold the ten-dollar bill . . . The small notepaper floated to the ground . . . Tiffany bent and picked it up, popping her gum . . . She straightened . . . She glanced at Julie . . . “This yours?” she asked, holding it up, peering into the car without reading what it said.

“I don’t know,” Julie said, trying to force the girl to read the words. “It might be. What does it say—” she began, then stifled a scream as Zachary Benedict’s hand clamped on her arm and the barrel of the pistol dug into her side. “Never mind, Tiffany,” he said smoothly, leaning around Julie and holding out his hand. “That’s my note. It’s part of a joke.” The cashier glanced at the note, but it was impossible to tell if she’d actually read it in the instant before she held it in her outstretched hand toward the car. “Here you are, sir,” she said, leaning forward past Julie and handing it to him. Julie ground her teeth as Zachary Benedict gave the girl a phoney, appreciative smile that made Tiffany blush with pleasure as she counted out the change due them from Julie’s ten-dollar bill. “Here’s your order,” she said. Julie automatically reached for the white bags of food and Cokes, her frightened face silently pleading with the girl to call the police or the manager or someone! She passed the bags to Benedict without daring to meet his gaze, her hands trembling so violently she nearly dropped the Cokes. As she drove away from the window, she expected some sort of repercussions from him, but since her plan had failed miserably, Julie was not prepared for the eruption of raw rage she heard: “You stupid little bitch, are you trying to get yourself killed? Pull over in the parking lot, right there where she can see us, she’s watching.”

Julie obeyed automatically, her chest rising and falling in sharp, shallow little breaths. “Eat this,” he commanded, shoving the cheeseburger in her face. “And smile with every bite, or so help me God . . .”

Again, Julie obeyed. She chewed without tasting, every fiber of her being concentrated on calming her shattered nerves so that she could think again. The tension in the car grew into a taut, living thing that added to her strained nerves. She spoke simply to break the silence. “C-could I have m-my Coke,” she said, reaching for the white sack of drinks on the floor near his feet. His hand clamped on her wrist in a vice that threatened to break the fragile bones. “You’re hurting me!” Julie cried, assailed by a fresh onslaught of panic. His hand tightened more painfully before he flung her wrist away. She reared back in her seat, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes, swallowing and rubbing her throbbing arm. Until a few moments ago, he hadn’t actually tried to inflict pain on her, and she’d lulled herself with the misconception that he wasn’t a depraved indiscriminate killer but rather a man who’d taken revenge on his unfaithful wife in an act of jealous insanity. Why, she wondered desperately, had she allowed herself to think that he wouldn’t be just as likely to murder a woman whom he’d taken captive or a teenager who could sound an alarm and get him captured. The answer was that she’d been fooled and deluded by her memories—memories of all those glamorous stories about him in magazines, memories of countless hours spent in theaters with her brothers and, later, with her dates admiring him and even fantasizing about him. At eleven years old, she hadn’t understood why her brothers and all their friends thought Zack Benedict was so special, but within a few years, she’d understood it perfectly. Ruggedly handsome, unattainable, sexy and cynical, witty and tough. And since Julie had been away on a summer scholarship in Europe during his famous trial, she had no knowledge of any of the sordid details, nothing concrete to offset all those lovely on-screen images that had seemed so real to her in theaters. The shameful truth was that when he’d told her he was innocent, she’d believed it might be possible he was telling the truth because it then made sense for him to try to escape so he could prove it. For some incomprehensible reason, a tiny part of her still clung to that possibility, probably because it helped her control her fear, but it didn’t lessen her desperation to get away from him. Even if he was innocent of the crime for which he was sent to prison, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t kill to prevent being sent back there, and that was if he was innocent—a very big, highly unlikely if.

Her whole body jerked in alarm when the bag on the floor crackled. “Here,” he snapped, shoving a Coke toward her.

Refusing to look at him, Julie stretched her hand out and took it, her gaze fastened on the view through the front windshield. She now realized her only hope of escaping without getting anyone hurt or killed was to make it easier for him to take off in her car and leave her behind than it was to stick around and try to shoot his way out of his predicament. Which meant she had to be out of the car and in full view of onlookers. She’d blown her first attempt to escape; he knew now she was desperate enough to try again. He’d be waiting. Watching. When she tried again, everything would have to be exactly right. She knew instinctively she wasn’t likely to live to have a third chance. At least there was no further need to carry on any nauseating charade that she was on his side.

“Let’s get going,” he snapped.

Wordlessly, Julie turned on the ignition and pulled out of the parking lot.

A quarter of an hour later, he ordered her to pull over at a roadside phone again, and he made another phone call. He had not spoken a word except to tell her to pull over, and Julie suspected he knew that silence wreaked more havoc on her nerves than anything else he could do to intimidate her. This time when he made his phone call, he never took his eyes off her. When he got back into the car, Julie looked at his impassive features and couldn’t endure the silence another moment. Giving him a haughty stare, she nodded at the phone booth and said, “Bad news, I hope?”

Zack bit back a grin at her rigid, unremitting rebellion. Her pretty face belied a stubborn courage and acid wit that continually caught him off guard. Instead of replying that the news was very good, he shrugged. Silence ate at her, he’d noticed. “Drive,” he said, leaning back in his seat and stretching out his legs, idly watching her graceful fingers on the steering wheel.

In a few short hours, a man who looked very much like Zack would drive from Detroit through the Windsor Tunnel into Canada. At the border, he would make enough of a nervous spectacle of himself to cause the customs officials there to remember him. When Zack remained at large for a day or two, those customs officials should remember him and notify U.S. authorities that their escaped convict had probably crossed into Canada. Within a week, the hunt for Zack Benedict should be mostly centered in Canada, leaving Zack much more free to continue with the rest of his plan. For now, for the next week, it rather looked as if he had nothing whatsoever to do except relax and revel in his freedom. It seemed like a delightful notion and it would have put him rather in charity with the world if it weren’t for his troublesome hostage. She was the only kink in his relaxation. A very big kink, since she apparently wasn’t half so easily subdued as he’d thought she would be. At the moment, she was driving unnecessarily slow and casting angry looks at him. “What’s the problem?” he clipped.

“The problem is that I need to use a bathroom.”

“Later!”

“But—” He looked at her then and Julie realized it was useless to argue.

An hour later, they crossed the Colorado state line and he spoke for the first time. “There’s a truck stop up ahead. Get off at the exit and if it looks all right, we’ll stop there.”

That truck stop turned out to be too busy to suit him, and it was another half hour before he found a service station that was relatively empty and laid out to please him with an attendant positioned in the island between the pumps so he could pay for gas without going inside and with rest rooms on the outside of the building. “Let’s go,” he said. “Take it slow,” he warned as she got out of the car and started toward the rest room door. He grasped her elbow as if to help her walk through the snow, his feet crunching the crusty powder in perfect rhythm with hers as he matched her stride for stride. When they reached the rest room. instead of letting go of her arm, he reached out and opened the door, and Julie’s temper exploded. “Do you intend to come in here with me and watch?” she burst out in furious disbelief.

Ignoring her, he looked around the tiny tiled room, checking for windows, she supposed, and finding none, he let go of her arm. “Make it quick. And, Julie, don’t do anything stupid.”

“Like what?” she demanded. “Hang myself with toilet paper? Go away, damn you.” Yanking her arm free, she marched inside, and it was as she was closing the door, that the obvious solution of locking the door and staying inside hit her. With an inner cry of triumph, she turned the lock with her fingertips and slammed the door at the same time, throwing her shoulder against it. The door slammed into the jamb with a satisfying metallic thud, but the lock didn’t seem to catch, and she had a sickening feeling he was holding the doorknob on the other side to prevent it from happening.

From the other side of the door, he twisted the knob and it turned in her hand at the same time his tone of amused resignation told her she was right. “You have a minute and a half before I open this door, Julie.”

Great. He was undoubtedly a pervert too, she thought as she hastily finished what she’d gone in there to do. She was washing her hands in freezing water in the sink when he opened the door and said, “Time’s up.”

Instead of getting into the Blazer, he hung back, his hand in his pocket with the gun. “Put gas in the car,” he instructed, lounging against the side of the car and watching her while she obeyed. “Pay for it,” he ordered when she was done, keeping his face turned away from the man in the booth.

Julie’s outraged sense of thrift momentarily overrode her frustration and fear, and she started to object when she realized he was holding two twenty-dollar bills in his outstretched hand. Her resentment was compounded a dozen times by the realization that he was biting back a half-smile. “I think you’re starting to enjoy this!” she snapped bitterly, yanking the money out of his hand.

Zack watched her rigid shoulders as she turned away and reminded himself that it would be far wiser and far more beneficial if he could neutralize some of her hostility as he’d intended to do earlier. If he could put her in a decent humor, that would be even better. And so he said with a low chuckle, “You’re absolutely right. I think I am beginning to enjoy this.”

“Bastard,” she replied.

*  *  *

Dawn was edging the gray sky with pink when Julie decided he might have fallen asleep. He’d made her stick to the back roads, avoiding the interstates, which made traveling in the deep snow so treacherous that she’d only averaged thirty miles per hour for long stretches. Three times they’d been held up for hours because of accidents on the highway, and still he made her go on. All night long, the radio had been filled with news bulletins about his escape, but the further into Colorado they traveled, the less was being made of his disappearance, no doubt because no one expected him to be traveling north, away from major airports, trains, and buses. The sign she’d passed a mile back said there was a picnic-rest area five miles ahead, and Julie was praying that this one, like the last one they’d passed, would have at least a few trucks pulled off into it, their drivers asleep in the cab. The most feasible idea she’d been able to come up with during the endless, exhausting drive was the only one that fulfilled the dual criteria of forcing him to take the car while leaving her behind. It seemed as foolproof as anything under the circumstances: She was going to pull into the rest area and when she was alongside the parked trucks, she would slam on the Blazer’s brakes and jump out of the car, screaming for help in a voice loud enough to wake up the trucks’ occupants. Then, if her entire fantasy came true, several burly truck drivers—preferably gigantic men holding guns and wearing brass knuckles—would lurch awake and jump out of the trucks, racing to her rescue. They would wrestle Zachary Benedict to the ground, with Julie pitching in to help, then they’d disarm him and call the police on their CB radios.

That was the best possible scenario, Julie knew, but even if only a fraction of that happened—if only one driver woke up and got out to investigate the cause of her screams—she was still relatively certain she’d be free of Zachary Benedict. Because from the moment she raised an alarm and attracted notice, his only sensible choice would be to take off in the Blazer. He’d have nothing to gain by hanging around to shoot her and then walking from truck to truck to shoot the drivers, not when the first gunshot would only alert all the other drivers. Any attempt on his part to reenact the final scene from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral would be just plain stupid, and stupid was one thing Benedict was not.

Julie was so certain of that, that she was going to bet her life on it.

She slanted another searching look at him to make certain he was sleeping; His arms were crossed over his chest, his long legs were stretched out in front of him, his head rested against the side window. His breathing was steady and relaxed.

He was asleep.

Elated, Julie gently eased her foot off the accelerator slowly, imperceptibly, watching the speedometer drop from forty-five miles per hour to forty-two, then very slowly to forty. In order to pull into the rest area without a sudden change in speed that would alert her passenger, she needed to be traveling at no more than thirty miles an hour when she reached the exit. She held the speed at forty for a full minute, then she eased up on the accelerator again, her leg trembling with the effort to make each change undetectable. The car slowed to thirty-five miles an hour, and Julie reached out and turned the radio a little louder to compensate for what seemed like a quieter atmosphere inside the car.

The rest area was still a quarter mile away, shielded from view of the highway by a stand of pine trees, when Julie reduced her speed to thirty and turned the steering wheel a fraction of an inch at a time to begin angling off the highway. Uttering a disjointed prayer that she’d find trucks there, she held her breath as she drove around the trees, then expelled it in a silent rush of gratitude and relief. Up ahead, three trucks were parked across from the small building that housed the rest rooms, and although there was no one moving about in the early dawn, she thought she could hear one of the diesel engines running. Her heart racing like a trip hammer, she ignored the temptation to make her move now. To maximize her chances, she needed to be directly beside the trucks, so that she could reach the door of one before Benedict could catch her.

Fifteen yards behind the first truck, Julie was absolutely certain she heard the engine, and her toe angled stealthily toward the brake, all her other senses so focused on the cab of the truck that she yelped in shock when Zachary Benedict suddenly sat up. “Where the hell—” he began, but Julie didn’t give him a chance to finish. Slamming on the brake, she grabbed the door handle and flung open the door, throwing herself out of the moving car, landing on her side in the snowy ruts. In a blur of pain and terror she saw the Blazer’s rear tire roll past, missing her hand by inches before the car lurched to a jarring stop. “HELP ME!” she screamed, scrambling to her knees, her feet sliding as they fought for traction in the slush and snow. “HELP ME!”

She was on her feet, running toward the cab of the closest truck when Zachary Benedict exploded from the Blazer, cutting around the rear of it and running straight toward her, blocking her path to help. Julie changed direction to avoid him, “PLEASE SOMEONE,” she screamed, cutting across the snow in an effort to make it into the rest room and lock the door. Off to her left, she saw a truck door being flung open and a driver stepping down, frowning at the commotion; close behind her she heard Benedict’s feet pounding into the snow. “HELP ME!” she yelled at the driver, and she glanced over her shoulder just in time to see Zachary Benedict scoop up a handful of snow.

A snowball hit her hard in the shoulder and she screamed as she ran, “ ‘STOP HIM! He’s—”

Zachary Benedict’s laughing shout a few feet behind her drowned out her words: “CUT IT OUT, Julie,” he yelled at the same time he launched himself at her in a running tackle. “YOU’RE WAKING EVERYONE UP!”

Trying to drag in enough air to scream again, Julie twisted, landing underneath his sprawled body in the snow, the breath knocked out of her, her terrified blue eyes only inches from his enraged ones, his teeth clenched into a fake smile designed to fool the truck driver. Panting, Julie jerked her head aside to scream, just as he smashed a handful of wet snow onto her face. Choking and blinded, she heard his savage whisper as he caught her wrists and yanked them above her head. “I’ll kill him if he comes any closer,” he bit out, tightening his grip on her hands. “Damn you, is that what you want! Does someone have to die for you?”

Julie whimpered, unable to speak, and shook her head, her eyes clenched shut, unable to bear the sight of her captor, unable to endure knowing she’d come within a few feet of freedom, and all for nothing, for this—to end up on her back in the snow with his body crushing her, her hip throbbing from her deliberate fall from the Blazer. She heard his swift intake of breath, the furious urgency. “He’s walking over here. Kiss me and make it look good, or he’s dead!”

Before she could react, his mouth crushed down on hers. Julie’s eyes flew open, her gaze riveting on the truck driver who was cautiously walking toward them, frowning as he tried to peer at their faces. “Goddammit, put your arms around me!”

His mouth was imprisoning hers, the gun in his pocket was jabbing into her stomach, but her wrists were free now. She could struggle, and very possibly, the truck driver with the jovial face beneath a black cap that said PETE on it would see that something was very wrong and come to her rescue.

And he would die.

Benedict had ordered her to put her arms around him and “make it look good.” Like a puppet, Julie moved her leaden wrists from the snow and let them drop limply onto his shoulders, but she could not make herself do more than that.

*  *  *

Zack tasted her stiff lips beneath his; he felt her body, rigid as stone beneath his weight, and he assumed that she was trying to gather her strength for the next moment when she, with the help of three truck drivers, would put an end to his brief freedom and his life. From the corner of his eye, he saw the driver slow down, but he was still coming toward them, and his expression was growing increasingly cautious and skeptical. All this and more raced through Zack’s mind in the space of the three seconds they lay there, pretending —unconvincingly—to kiss.

In a last helpless effort to stop the inevitable from happening to him, Zack dragged his mouth to her ear and whispered a single word he hadn’t let himself use in years: “Please!” Tightening his arms around the rigid woman, he said it again with a groaning urgency he couldn’t suppress. “Please, Julie . . .”

Feeling as if the world had suddenly gone insane, Julie heard the plea wrench from her captor as if it were torn from his chest a moment before his lips seized hers and he said in a tormented whisper, “I didn’t kill anyone, I swear it.” The pleading and desperation she’d heard in his voice were eloquently alive in this kiss, and it accomplished what his threats and anger could not: It made Julie hesitate and waver; it made her believe that what she heard in his voice was truth.

Dazed by the confusing messages racing through her brain, she sacrificed her immediate future for the safety of a truck driver. Driven by the need to spare the man’s life and by something less sensible and completely inexplicable, Julie blinked back tears of futility, slid her hands tentatively over Zachary Benedict’s shoulders, and yielded to his kiss. The moment she did, he sensed her capitulation; a shudder ran through him and his lips gentled. Unaware of the footsteps crunching to a stop in the snow, Julie let him part her lips and of their own volition, her fingers curved around his neck, sliding into the soft, thick hair at his nape. She felt his swift, indrawn breath when she tentatively returned the kiss, and suddenly everything began to change. He was kissing her in earnest now, his hands shifting, sliding over her shoulders, and then burying in her wet hair, lifting her face closer to his hungry, searching mouth.

Somewhere far above her, a man’s bewildered Texas drawl called out, “Lady, you need help or not?”

Julie heard him, and she tried to shake her head, but the mouth that was slanting fiercely over hers now had robbed her of the ability to speak. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew this was only a performance for the driver’s benefit; she knew it as clearly as she knew she had no choice but to participate in the performance. But if that was true, then why couldn’t she at least shake her head or open her eyes.

“I guess you don’t,” the Texas drawl said on a lewd chuckle. “How ’bout you, mister? You need any help with what you’re doin’? I could spell you for a bit down there . . .”

Zack’s head lifted just enough to break contact with her mouth, his words husky and soft. “Find your own woman,” he joked with the driver. “This one is mine.” The last word was breathed against Julie’s lips before his mouth touched hers, his arms sweeping around her, his tongue sliding tentatively across her lips, urging them to part, his hips hard and demanding against hers. With a silent moan of surrender, Julie gave herself up to what became the hottest, sexiest, most insistent kiss she’d ever tasted.

Fifty yards away, a truck door opened and a new male voice called, “Hey, Pete, what’s goin’ on over yonder in the snow?”

“Hell, man, what does it look like? A couple of grown-ups is playin’ at bein’ kids, having snowball fights and neckin’ in the snow.”

“Looks to me like they’re goin’ to be makin’ a kid if they don’t slow down.”

Perhaps it was the new male voice or the sudden realization that her captor was becoming physically aroused that snapped Julie into reality or perhaps it was the slamming of the truck door followed by the roar of an engine as the big semi began to pull away from the rest area. Whatever the cause, she put her hands against his shoulders and exerted pressure, but it took an unnatural effort for her to move, and her shove was puny at best. Panicked by her inexplicable lethargy, Julie shoved harder. “Stop it!” she cried softly. “Stop it. He’s gone!”

Stunned by the sound of tears in her voice, Zack lifted his head, staring at her dewy skin and soft mouth with a hunger that he was finding difficult to control. The exquisite sweetness of her surrender, the way she felt in his arms, and the gentleness of her touch almost made the notion of making love in the snow at dawn seem plausible. Slowly, he looked around at where they were and reluctantly levered himself up off her. He didn’t completely understand why she’d decided not to warn the truck driver, but whatever her reasons, he owed her more than an attempted rape in the snow as repayment. Silently, he held his hand out to her, suppressing a smile when the same woman who’d melted in his arms a moment ago rallied her defenses, pointedly ignored his gesture, and shoved herself up and out of the snow. “I’m soaking wet,” she complained, scrupulously avoiding his gaze and swatting at her hair, “and covered with snow.”

Automatically, Zack reached out to brush the snow off her, but she jumped out of his reach, avoiding his touch as she brushed off her arms and the back of her jeans.

“Don’t think you can touch me just because of what happened just now!” she warned him, but Zack was preoccupied with admiration for the results of their kiss: Her huge, dark-lashed eyes were lustrous, her porcelain skin tinted with roses at the high cheekbones. When flustered and a little aroused, as she was now, Julie Mathison was absolutely breathtaking. She was also courageous and very kind, for although he’d not been able to subdue her with threats or cruelty, she’d somehow responded to the desperation in his plea.

“The only reason I let you kiss me was because I realized you were right—there’s no need for anyone to get killed just because I’m scared. Now, let’s get going and get this ordeal over with.”

Zack sighed. “I gather from that sour tone of yours that we’re adversaries again, Ms. Mathison?”

“Of course we are,” she replied. “I’ll take you wherever you’re going without any more tricks, but let’s get one thing straight: As soon as I get you there, I’ll be free to leave, right?”

“Right,” Zack lied.

Excerpt from Paradise by Judith McNaught

cover-paradise…CHAPTER 8

“The crowd in the lounge at Glenmoor Country Club was thinning out when a woman near Meredith burst out, “My God!  Who is that?  He’s absolutely gorgeous!”

That remark, made in a louder tone than she’d intended, caused a ripple of interest, not only among the entire group Meredith was with, but with several other people who’d overheard her exclamation and were turning around.

“Who are you talking about?” Leigh Ackerman asked, peering about the room. Meredith, who was facing the entrance, glanced up and knew instantly exactly who had caused that awed, avaricious expression on Shelly’s face! Standing in the doorway, with his right hand thrust into his pants pocket, was a man who was at least six feet two, with hair almost as dark as the tuxedo that clung to his wide shoulders and long legs. His face was sun-bronzed, his eyes light, and as he stood there, idly studying the elegantly dressed members of Glenmoor, Meredith wondered how Shelly could ever have described him as “gorgeous.” His features looked as if they had been chiseled out of granite by some sculptor who had been intent on portraying brute strength and raw virility—not male beauty. His chin was square, his nose straight, his jaw hard with iron determination. All in all, Meredith thought he looked arrogant, proud, and tough. But then, she’d never been very attracted to dark, overly macho men.

“Look at those shoulders,” Shelly rhapsodized, “look at that face. Now, that, Douglas,” she teased, turning to Doug Chalfont, “is pure, undiluted sex appeal!”

Doug considered the man and shrugged, grinning. “He doesn’t do a thing for me.” Turning to one of the other men in their party whom Meredith had met for the first time tonight, he asked, “How about you, Rick? Does he turn you on?”

“I won’t know until I see his legs,” Rick joked. “I’m a leg man, which is why Meredith turns me on.”

At that moment, Jonathan appeared in the doorway, looking a little unsteady on his feet, and looped his arm around the newcomer’s shoulders while glancing about the room. Meredith saw the triumphant little smile he fired at his friends when he spotted all of them at the end of the bar, and she realized instantly that he appeared to be semi-drunk, but she was completely baffled by the groaning laugh that issued from both Leigh and Shelly. “Oh, no!” Leigh said, looking from Shelly to Meredith with comic dismay. “Please don’t tell me that magnificent male specimen is the laborer who Jonathan hired to work on one of their oil rigs!”

Doug Chalfont’s burst of laughter had drowned out most of Leigh’s words, and Meredith leaned closer to Leigh. “I’m sorry—what did you say?”

Speaking quickly so that she could finish before the two men reached them, Leigh explained, “The man with Jonathan is actually a steelworker from Indiana! Jon’s father made him hire the guy to work on their oil rig in Venezuela.”

Puzzled not only by the laughing looks being exchanged among Jonathan’s other friends, but Leigh’s explanation as well, Meredith said, “Why is he bringing him here?”

“It’s a joke, Meredith! Jon’s angry with his father for forcing him to hire the guy, and then holding him up to Jon as the latest example of what he ought to be. Jon brought the guy here to spite his father—you know, to force his father to meet him socially. And you know what’s really funny about all this,” she whispered just as the two men arrived. “Jon’s aunt just told us that his father and mother decided at the last minute to spend the weekend at their summer place instead of coming here—”

Jonathan’s overloud, slurred greeting made everyone within hearing turn and stare, including his aunt and uncle and Meredith’s father. “Hi, everyone,” he boomed, waving an expansive arm to include all of them. “Hi, Aunt Harriet and Uncle Russell!” He waited until he had everyone’s attention. “I’d like all of you to meet my buddy, Matt Terrell—no, F-Farrell,” he hiccuped. “Aunt Harriet, Uncle Russell,” he continued, grinning widely, “say hello to Matt, here. He’s my father’s latest example of what I ought to be when I grow up!”

“How do you do?” Jonathan’s aunt said civilly. Tearing her icy glance from her drunken nephew, she made a halfhearted effort to be courteous to the man he’d brought with him. “Where are you from, Mr. Farrell?”

“Indiana,” he replied in a calm matter-of-fact voice.

“Indianapolis?” Jonathan’s aunt said, frowning. “I don’t believe we know any Farrells from Indianapolis.”

“I’m not from Indianapolis. And I’m certain you don’t know my family.”

“Exactly where are you from?” Meredith’s father snapped, ready to interrogate and intimidate any male who went near Meredith.

Matt Farrell turned and Meredith watched in secret admiration as he met her father’s withering glance unflinchingly. “Edmunton—south of Gary.”

“What do you do?” he demanded rudely.

“I work in a steel mill,” he retorted, managing to look and sound just as hard and cold as her father had.

Stunned silence followed his revelation. Several middle-aged couples who’d been hanging back, waiting for Jonathan’s aunt and uncle, looked uneasily at each other and moved away. Mrs. Sommers obviously decided to make an equally hasty exit. “Have a pleasant evening, Mr. Farrell,” she said stiffly, and headed off to the dining rooms beside her husband.

Suddenly everyone was in motion. “Well!” Leigh Ackerman said brightly, looking around at all the people in their group except Matt Farrell, who was standing back and slightly to the side. “Let’s go eat!” She tucked her hand in Jon’s arm and turned him toward the door as she pointedly added, “I reserved a table for nine people.”

Meredith did a fast count; there were nine people in their group—excluding Matt Farrell. Paralyzed with disgust for Jonathan and all his friends, she remained where she was for the moment. Her father saw her standing in the general proximity of Farrell and stopped on his way to the dining room with his own friends, his hand clamping her elbow. “Get rid of him!” he spat out loudly enough for Farrell to hear, and then he stalked off. In a state of angry, defiant rebellion, Meredith watched him leave, then she glanced at Matt Farrell, not certain what to do next. He’d turned toward the French doors and was gazing out at the people on the terrace with the aloof indifference of someone who knows he is an unwanted outsider, and who therefore intends to look as if he prefers it that way.

Even if he hadn’t said he was a steelworker from Indiana, Meredith would have known within moments of meeting him that he didn’t belong. For one thing, his tuxedo didn’t fit his broad shoulders as if it had been custom made for him, which meant it was probably rented, nor did he speak with the ingrained assurance of a socialite who fully expects to be welcomed and liked wherever he is. Moreover, there was an indefinable lack of polish to his mannerisms—a subtle harshness and roughness that intrigued and repelled her at one and the same time.

Given all of that, it was astonishing that he should suddenly remind Meredith of herself. But he did. She looked at him standing completely alone, as if he didn’t care about being ostracized—and she saw herself when she was at St. Stephen’s school, spending every recess with a book in her lap trying to pretend she didn’t care either. “Mr. Farrell,” she asked as casually as she could, “would you like something to drink?”

He turned in surprise, hesitated a moment, and then nodded. “Scotch and water.”

Meredith signaled a waiter who hurried to her side. “Jimmy, Mr. Farrell would like a Scotch and water.”

When she turned back, she found Matt Farrell studying her with a slight frown, his gaze drifting over her face, her breasts and waist, then lifting again to her eyes, as if he were suspicious of her overture and trying to figure out why she’d bothered making it. “Who was the man who told you to get rid of me?” he asked abruptly.

She hated to alarm him with the truth. “My father.”

“You have my deepest and most sincere sympathy,” he mocked gravely, and Meredith burst out laughing because no one had ever dared criticize her father, even indirectly, and because she suddenly sensed that Matt Farrell was a “rebel,” just as she’d decided to be. That made him a kindred spirit, and instead of pitying him or being repelled by him, she suddenly thought of him as a brave mongrel who’d been unfairly thrust into a group of haughty pedigrees. She decided to rescue him. “Would you like to dance?” she asked, smiling at him as if he were an old friend.

He gave her an amused look. “What makes you think a steelworker from Edmunton, Indiana, knows how to dance, princess?”

“Do you?”

“I think I can manage.”

That was a rather unfair assessment of his ability, Meredith decided a few minutes later as they danced outside on the terrace to the slow tune the little band was playing. He was actually quite competent, but he wasn’t very relaxed and his style was conservative.

“How am I doing?”

Blissfully unaware of the double meaning htat could be read into her lighthearted evaluation, she said, “So far, all I’ve been able to tell is that you have good rhythm and you move well. That’s all that really matters anyway.” Smiling into his eyes to take away any taint of criticism he might mistakenly read into her next words, she confided, “All you actually need is some practice.”

“How much practice do you recommend?”

“Not much. One night would be enough to learn some new moves.”

“I didn’t know there are any ‘new’ moves.”

“There are,” Meredith said, “but you have to learn to relax first.”

“First?” he repeated. “All this time, I’ve been under the impression that you were supposed to relax afterward.”

It hit her suddenly, what he was thinking and saying. Giving him a level look, she said, “Are we talking about dancing, Mr. Farrell?”

There was an unmistakable reprimand in her voice, and it registered on him. For a moment he studied her with heightened interest, reassessing, reevaluating. His eyes weren’t light blue as she’d originally thought, but a striking metallic gray, and his hair was dark brown, not black. When he spoke, his quiet voice had an apology in it. “We are now.” Belatedly explaining the reason for the constraint she’d sensed in his movements, he said, “I tore a ligament in my right leg a few weeks ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Meredith said, apologizing for asking him to come out here. “Does it hurt?”

A startling white smile swept across his tanned face. “Only when I dance.”

Meredith laughed at the joke and felt her own worries begin to fade into the background. They stayed outside for another dance, talking about nothing more meaningful than the bad music and the good weather. When they returned to the lounge, Jimmy brought their drinks. Goaded by mischief and resentment for Jonathan, Meredith said, “Please charge these drinks to Jonathan Sommers, Jimmy.” She glanced at Matt and saw the surprise on his face.

“Aren’t you a member here?”

“Yes,” Meredith said with a rueful smile. “That was petty revenge on my part.”

“For what?”

“For—” Belatedly realizing that anything she said now would sound like pity or embarrass him, she shrugged. “I don’t like Jonathan Sommers very much.”

He looked at her oddly, picked up his drink, and tossed down part of it. “You must be hungry. I’ll let you go and join your friends.”

It was a polite gesture intended to excuse her, but Meredith had no desire to join Jon’s group now, and as she looked around the room, it was obvious that if she did leave Matt Farrell there, no one else was going to make the slightest effort to befriend him. In fact, every one in the lounge was giving both of them a wide berth. “Actually,” she said, “the food here isn’t all that wonderful.”

He glanced at the occupants of the lounge and put his glass down with a finality that told her he intended to leave. “Neither are the people.”

“They aren’t staying away out of meanness or arrogance,” she assured him. “Not really.”

Slanting her a dubious, disinterested look, he said, “Why do you think they’re doing it?”

Meredith saw several middle-aged couples who were friends of her father’s—nice people, all of them. “Well, for one thing, they’re embarrassed about the way Jonathan acted. And because of what they know about you—where you live and what you do for a living, I mean—most of them simply concluded that they don’t have anything in common with you.”

He obviously thought she was patronizing him because he smiled politely and said, “It’s time for me to go.”

Suddenly the idea of having him leave with nothing but humiliation to remember the evening didn’t seem fair at all. In fact, it seemed unnecessary and . . . and unthinkable! “You can’t leave yet,” she announced with a determined smile. “Come with me, and bring your drink.”

His eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Because,” Meredith declared with stubborn mischief, “it helps to have a drink in your hand to do this.”

“Do what?” he persisted.

“Mingle,” she declared. “We are going to mingle!”

“Absolutely not!” Matt caught her wrist to draw her back, but it was too late. Meredith was suddenly bent on ramming him down everyone’s throat and making them like it.

“Please humor me,” she said softly, her gaze beseeching.

A reluctant grin tugged at his lips. “You have the most amazing eyes—”

“Actually, I’m terribly nearsighted,” she teased with her most melting smile. “I’ve been known to walk into walls. It’s a pitiful thing to watch. Why don’t you give me your arm and guide me out into the hall so I don’t stumble?”

He wasn’t proof against her humor or that smile. “You are also very single-minded,” he replied, but he chuckled and reluctantly offered her his arm, prepared to humor her.

A few steps down the hall Meredith saw an elderly couple she knew. “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Foster.” She greeted them cheerfully as they started to stroll past without seeing her.

They stopped at once. “Why, hello, Meredith,” Mrs. Foster said, then she and her husband smiled at Matt with polite inquiry.

“I’d like you to meet a friend of my father’s,” Meredith announced, swallowing her laughter at Matt’s incredulous glance. “This is Matt Farrell. Matt is from Indiana, and he’s in the steel business.”

“A pleasure,” Mr. Foster said genially, shaking Matt’s hand. “I know Meredith and her father don’t play golf, but I hope they told you we have two championship courses here at Glenmoor. Are you going to be here long enough to play a few rounds?”

“I’m not certain I’m going to be here long enough to finish this drink,” Matt said, obviously expecting to be forcibly evicted when Meredith’s father discovered she was introducing Matt as his friend.

Mr. Foster nodded in complete misunderstanding. “Business always seems to get in the way of pleasure. But at least you’ll see the fireworks tonight—we have the best show in town.”

“You’re going to tonight,” Matt predicted, his narrowed gaze focused warningly on Meredith’s guileless expression.

Mr. Foster returned to his favorite subject of golf, while Meredith struggled unsuccessfully to keep her face straight. “What’s your handicap?” he inquired of Matt.

“I think I’m Matt’s handicap tonight,” Meredith interceded, slanting Matt a provocative, laughing look.

“What?” Mr. Foster blinked.

But Matt didn’t answer and Meredith couldn’t, because his gaze had fixed on her smiling lips, and when his gray eyes lifted to hers, there was something different in their depths.

“Come along, dear,” Mrs. Foster said, observing the distracted expressions on Matt and Meredith’s faces. “These young people don’t want to spend their evening discussing golf.” Belatedly recovering her composure, Meredith told herself sternly she’d had too much champagne, then she tucked her hand through the crook of Matt’s arm. “Come with me,” she said, already walking down the staircase to the banquet room where the orchestra was playing.

For nearly an hour she guided him from one group to another, her eyes twinkling at Matt with shared laughter while she smoothly told outrageous half-truths about who he was and what he did for a living. And Matt stood beside her, not actively helping her, but observing her ingenuity with frank amusement.

“There, you see,” she announced gaily as they finally left the noise and music behind and walked out the front doors, strolling across the lawn. “It isn’t what you say that counts, it’s what you don’t say.”

“That’s an interesting theory,” he teased. “Do you have any more of them?”

Meredith shook her head, distracted by something she’d subconsciously noted all evening. “You don’t talk at all like a man who works in a steel mill.”

“How many of them do you know?”

“Just one,” she admitted.

His tone abruptly shifted to a serious one. “Do you come here often?”

They’d spent the first part of the evening playing a kind of silly game, but she sensed that he didn’t want any more games. Neither did she, and that moment marked a distinct change in the atmosphere between them. As they wandered past rose beds and flower gardens, he started asking her about herself. Meredith told him she’d been away at school and that she’d just graduated. When his next question was about her career plans, she realized that he’d erroneously assumed she meant she’d graduated from college. Rather than correcting him and risking some sort of appalled reaction when he discovered she was eighteen, not twenty-two, she sidestepped the problem by quickly asking him about himself.

He told her he was leaving in six weeks for Venezuela and what he was going to be doing while he was gone. From there, their conversation shifted with astonishing ease from one subject to another, until they finally stopped walking so that they could concentrate better on whatever was being said. Standing beneath an ancient elm on the lawn, oblivious to the rough bark against her bare back, Meredith listened to him, completely entranced. Matt was twenty-six, she’d discovered, and besides being witty and extremely well-spoken, he had a way of listening intently to what she said as if nothing else in the world mattered. It was disconcerting, and it was very flattering. It also created a false mood of complete intimacy and solitude. She’d just finished laughing at a joke he’d told her, when a fat bug dived past her face and buzzed around her ear. She jumped, grimacing and trying to see where it had gone. “Is it in my hair?” she asked uneasily, tipping her head down.

He put his hands on her shoulders and inspected her hair. “No,” he promised. “It was just a little June bug.”

“June bugs are disgusting, and that one was the size of a large hummingbird!” When he chuckled, she gave him a deliberately smug smile. “You won’t be laughing six weeks from now, when you can’t walk outside without tripping over snakes.”

“Is that right?” he murmured, but his attention had shifted to her mouth, and his hands were sliding up the sides of her neck to tenderly cradle her face.

“What are you doing?” Meredith whispered inanely as he began slowly rubbing his thumb over her lower lip.

“I’m trying to decide if I should let myself enjoy the fireworks.”

“The fireworks won’t start for another half hour,” she said shakily, knowing perfectly well she was going to be kissed.

“I have a feeling,” he whispered, slowly lowering his head, “they’re going to start right now.”

And they did. His mouth covered hers in an electrifyingly seductive kiss that sent sparks exploding through Meredith’s entire body. At first the kiss was light, coaxing; his mouth shaped itself to hers, delicately exploring the contours of her lips. Meredith had been kissed before, but always by relatively inexperienced, overeager boys; no one had ever kissed her with Matthew Farrell’s unhurried thoroughness. His hands shifted, one of them drifting down her spine to draw her closer, while the other slid behind her nape, and his mouth slowly opened on hers. Lost in the kiss, she moved her hands inside his tuxedo jacket, up his chest, over his broad shoulders, and then she wrapped her arms around his neck.

The minute she molded herself against him, his mouth opened farther, his tongue tracing hotly across her lips, urging them to part, and then demanding it. The moment that they did, his tongue plunged into her mouth, and the kiss exploded. His hand covered her breast, caressing it through her bodice, then restlessly swept behind her, cupping her bottom and pulling her tightly against him, making her vibrantly aware of his aroused body. Meredith stiffened slightly at the forced intimacy, and then for no explainable reason on earth, she laced her fingers through his hair and crushed her parted lips to his.

It seemed like hours later when he finally dragged his mouth from hers. Her heart racing like a trip-hammer, she stood in the circle of his arms, her forehead resting on his chest, while she tried to cope with the turbulent sensations she’d felt. Somewhere in her drugged mind it began to occur to her that he was going to think she was behaving very oddly about what had, in reality, been only a simple kiss. That embarrassing possibility finally made her force her head up. Fully expecting to see him watching her with puzzled amusement, she raised her gaze to his chiseled features, but what she saw there wasn’t derision. His gray eyes were smoldering, his face was harsh and dark with passion, and his arms tightened automatically, as if unwilling to let her go. Belatedly, she realized his body was still rigidly aroused, and she felt a peculiar sense of pleasure and pride that he had been, and was still, as affected by the kiss as she was. Without thinking what she was doing, her gaze dropped to his mouth. There was bold sensuality in the mold of those firm lips, and yet some of his kisses had been so exquisitely gentle. Tormentingly gentle . . . Longing to feel that mouth on hers again, Meredith lifted her gaze to his, an unconscious request in her eyes.

Matt understood the request, and a sound that was half groan, half laugh tore from his chest, his arms already tightening. “Yes,” he answered hoarsely, and seized her lips in a ravenous, devouring kiss that stole her breath, and drove her mad with pleasure.

Some time later, laughter rang out, and Meredith jerked awkwardly out of his arms, whirling around in alarm. Dozens of couples were strolling out of the club to watch the fireworks—and well ahead of them was her father who was stalking toward her with rage in every long, ground-covering stride. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “Matt, you have to leave. Turn around and walk away! Now.”

“No.”

“Please!” she almost cried. “I’ll be fine, he won’t say anything to me here, he’ll wait until we’re alone, but I don’t know what he’ll do to you.” A moment later Meredith knew the answer to that.

“There are two men on their way out here to escort you off the grounds, Farrell,” her father hissed, his face contorted with fury. He turned on Meredith and caught her arm in a viselike grip. “You’re coming with me.” Two of the club’s waiters were already walking across the driveway. As her father gave her arm a jerk, Meredith appealed once more to Matt over her shoulder. “Please, please go—don’t make a scene.”

Her father pulled her two steps forward, and Meredith, who had no choice but to walk or be dragged, was relieved almost to tears when both waiters who had been coming toward Matt slowed and then stopped. Matt had apparently started walking toward the road, Meredith realized with relief. Her father evidently reached the same conclusion, for when the waiters looked uncertainly to him for further instructions, he said, “Let the bastard go, but call the gate and make sure he doesn’t come back.”

As they approached the front doors, he turned to Meredith, his expression livid. “Your mother made herself the talk of this club, and I’ll be damned if you’re going to do it too. Do you hear me!” He flung her arm down as if her skin were contaminated by Matt’s touch, but he kept his voice low. Because a Bancroft, no matter how great the provocation, never aired family grievances in public. “Go home and stay there. It will take you twenty minutes to get to the house; in twenty-five minutes I’m going to call you, and God help you if you aren’t there!”

With that he turned on his heel and stalked into the clubhouse. In a state of sick humiliation, Meredith watched him go, then she went inside and got her purse. On the way to the parking lot, she saw three couples standing out in the shadows of the trees, all of them kissing.

Her vision blurred by tears of futile rage, Meredith had already driven past the solitary figure who was walking with a tuxedo jacket hooked over his right shoulder before she realized it was Matt. She braked to a stop, so consumed with guilt for the humiliation she’d caused him that she couldn’t immediately look at him.

He walked up to her side of the car and bent slightly, looking at her through the open window. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” With a halfhearted attempt at flippancy, she glanced at him. “My father is a Bancroft, and the Bancrofts never quarrel in public.”

He saw the unshed tears shimmering in her eyes. Reaching through the open window, he laid his callused fingertips against her smooth cheek. “And they don’t cry in front of other people either, do they?”

“Nope,” Meredith admitted, trying to absorb some of his wonderful indifference to her father. “I—I’m going home now. Can I drop you somewhere on the way?”

His gaze shifted from her face to the death grip she had on the steering wheel. “Yes, but only if you’ll let me drive this thing.” He spoke as if he merely wanted a chance to drive her car, but his next words made it obvious he was concerned about her ability to drive in her state of mind. “Why don’t I drive you home, and I’ll call a cab from there.”

“Be my guest,” Meredith said brightly, determined to salvage what little pride she had left. She got out and walked around to the passenger side.

Matt had no trouble mastering the gearshift, and a minute later the car glided smoothly out of the country club drive and shot out onto the main road. Headlights flew past in the dark and the breeze blew through the windows as they drove in silence. Far off to the left some other fireworks display came to a grand finale in a spectacular cascade of red, white, and blue. Meredith watched the brilliant sparks glitter and then slowly fade as they drifted downward. Belatedly recalling her manners, she said, “I want to apologize for what happened tonight—for my father, I mean.”

Matt shot her an amused sideways look. “He’s the one who should apologize. It hurt my pride when he sent those two flabby, middle-aged waiters to throw me out. At least he could have sent four of them—just to spare my ego.”

Meredith gaped at him, amazed because he obviously wasn’t the least bit intimidated by her father’s wrath, and then she smiled, because it felt wonderful to be with someone who wasn’t. With a jaunty look at his powerful shoulders, she said, “If he really wanted to get you out of there against your will, he’d have been wiser to send six.”

“My ego and I both thank you,” he said with a lazy grin, and Meredith, who would have sworn a few minutes ago that she’d never smile again, burst out laughing.

“You have a wonderful laugh,” he said quietly.

“Thank you,” she said, startled and pleased beyond proportion to the compliment. In the pale light from the dashboard she studied his shadowy profile, watching the wind ruffle his hair, wondering what it was about him that could make a few simple, quiet words seem like a physical caress. Shelly Fillmore’s words floated through her mind, providing the probable answer . . . “pure, undiluted sex appeal.” A few hours earlier she hadn’t thought Matt was extraordinarily, attractive. She did now. In fact, she was certain women drooled over him. No doubt they were also the reason he knew how to kiss as well as he did. He had sex appeal, all right—and a whole lot of experience kissing. “Turn in here,” she said a quarter of an hour later when they approached a pair of huge wrought-iron gates. Reaching forward, she pressed a button on the dashboard and the gates swung open into her driveway.

 

CHAPTER 9

“This is home,” Meredith said as he pulled to a stop in front of the house.

He looked up at the imposing stone structure with its leaded glass windows while Meredith unlocked the front door. “It looks like a museum.”

“At least you didn’t say mausoleum,” she said, smiling over her shoulder.

“No, but I thought it.”

Meredith was still smiling at his blunt quip as she showed him into the darkened library at the back of the house and turned on a lamp, but when he went directly to the phone on the desk and picked it up, her heart sank. She wanted him to stay, she wanted to talk, she wanted to do anything to fend off the despair that she knew would overwhelm her again when she was alone. “There’s no reason for you to leave so soon. My father will play cards until the club closes at two A.M.”

He turned at the note of desperation in her voice. “Meredith, I’m not a bit worried about your father for my own sake, but you have to live with him. If he comes home and finds me here—”

“He won’t,” Meredith promised. “My father wouldn’t let death interrupt his card games; he’s an obsessive card player.”

“He’s damned obsessive about you too,” Matt said flatly, and Meredith held her breath while he hesitated before finally hanging up the phone. This was probably going to be the last pleasant evening she would have for months, and she was determined to make it last. “Would you like a brandy? I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything to eat because the servants are already in bed.”

“Brandy will be fine.”

Meredith went over to the liquor cabinet and took out the brandy decanter. Behind her, he said, “Do the servants lock the refrigerator at night?” She paused, a brandy snifter in her hand. “Something like that,” she evaded.

But Matt wasn’t fooled—she realized it the moment she brought his glass over to the sofa and saw the amusement gleaming in his eyes. “You can’t cook, can you, princess?”

“I’m sure I could,” she joked, “if someone showed me where the kitchen is, and then pointed out the stove and refrigerator.”

The corners of his mouth deepened into an answering smile, but he leaned forward and purposefully put his glass on the table. She knew exactly what he intended to do even before he caught her wrists and firmly pulled her toward him. “I know you can cook,” he said, tipping her chin up.

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because,” he whispered, “less than an hour ago you set me on fire.”

His mouth was a fraction of an inch from hers when the shrill ring of the telephone made her lurch out of his arms. When she answered it, her father’s voice was like an arctic blast. “I’m glad to see that you had sense enough to do as I told you. And Meredith,” he added, “I was on the verge of permitting you to go to Northwestern, but you can forget about that now. Your behavior tonight is living proof that you can’t be trusted.” He hung up on her.

With shaking fingers, Meredith replaced the receiver. Her arms began to tremble and then her knees, until her whole body was quaking with futility and rage, and she braced her palms on the desk to steady herself.

Matt came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Meredith?” he said, his voice deep with concern. “Who was that? Is anything wrong?”

Even her voice shook. “That was my father checking to make certain that I came home as ordered.”

He was silent for a moment, and then he said quietly, “What have you done to make him distrust you like this?”

Matt’s thinly veiled accusation tore at her heart, hacking away at her rapidly disintegrating control. “What have I done?” she repeated, her voice rising with hysteria. “What have I done?”

“You must have given him some reason to think he has to guard you like this.”

Savage resentment boiled up inside of Meredith, erupting into a mass of churning rage. Her eyes bright with tears and some half-formed purpose, she swung around on him and slid her hands up his hard chest. “My mother was promiscuous. She couldn’t keep her hands off other men. My father guards me because he knows I’m like her.”

Matt’s eyes narrowed as she wrapped her arms fiercely around his neck. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“You know what I’m doing,” she whispered, and before he could answer, she pressed herself against his full length and kissed him long and lingeringly.

He wanted her—Meredith knew it the moment his arms encircled her, pulling her tightly against his hardening body. He wanted her. His mouth seized hers in a hungry, consuming kiss, and she tried to do her best to make certain he didn’t change his mind—and that she couldn’t change hers. Her fingers clumsy and urgent, she tugged the studs loose from his shirtfront and opened his shirt, sliding her hands up his chest, spreading the white cloth wide apart, baring what looked to be an acre of bronzed muscle with springy dark hairs, then she closed her eyes tightly, reached behind her back and started tugging on the zipper of her dress. She wanted this, she’d earned it, she told herself fiercely.

“Meredith?”

His quiet voice made her head jerk up, but she didn’t have the courage to lift her gaze above his chest.

“I’m flattered as hell, but I’ve never actually seen a woman rip off her clothes in the throes of passion, particularly after only one kiss.”

Defeated before she’d begun, Meredith leaned her forehead against his chest. His hand slid over her shoulder, long fingers curving around her nape, his thumb stroking, while his other hand slid around her waist and moved her closer. Then his fingers moved down her bare back to the zipper of her dress. The bodice of a very expensive chiffon gown came loose.

Swallowing audibly, she started to lift her arms to shield herself from view, and hesitated. “I’m . . . not very good at this,” she said, raising her eyes to his.

His lids drifted down, his gaze shifting to the tops of her breasts. “Aren’t you?” he whispered huskily as he bent his head.

Meredith wanted to find nirvana; she sought it in that next kiss. And she found it. Her fingers flexing against the corded muscles in his back, she kissed him with blind need, and when his parted lips moved insistently against hers, she welcomed the suggestive invasion of his tongue. She returned it, and made him gasp and clench her tighter. And then, suddenly, she wasn’t in control anymore; she wasn’t aware of anything except sensations. His mouth seized hers in stormy desire, her clothes came loose and a cold draft hit her. Her hair tumbled down over her shoulders, freed by his hands, and the room tilted as she was brought down onto the sofa beside a hard, demanding, naked male body.

And then it stopped, and Meredith surfaced a little from a dark, sweet world where she felt only his mouth and the stirring stroking of his hands over her flesh. She opened her eyes and saw him leaning up on his forearm, studying her face in the mellow glow of the desk lamp. “What are you doing?” she whispered, but the thin, wispy voice didn’t sound like hers.

“Looking at you.” As he said it, his gaze moved down along the sides of her breasts past her waist, then down her thighs and legs. Embarrassed, Meredith stopped him from what he was doing by touching her lips to his chest. His muscles flinched reflexively as she brushed her lips over his skin, and his hand sank slowly into the hair at her nape, lifting her forward. This time when she raised her gaze to his, he bent his head. His mouth captured hers almost roughly, his tongue parting her lips and driving into her mouth in a fiercely erotic kiss that sent flames shooting through her entire body. Leaning over her, he kissed her until she heard herself moaning softly, and then his mouth was at her breasts, making them ache while his fingers explored and tormented and made her back arch against his hand. He moved, his body shifting on top of her, his hips insistent, his lips rough and tender against the curve of her neck and cheek. His mouth returned to hers again, parting her lips; his legs wedged between hers, parting her thighs, and all the while his tongue was tangling with hers, withdrawing and plunging deep. And then he stopped.

Cradling her face between his palms, he ordered hoarsely, “Look at me.” Somehow Meredith managed to surface from her sensual daze; she forced her lids open and looked into his scorching gray eyes. The moment she did, Matt drove into her with a force that tore a low cry from her throat and made her body arch like a bow. In that split second he recognized he’d just taken her virginity, and his reaction was more violent than hers. He froze, his eyes clenched shut. His shoulders and arms taut, he stayed there inside her, unmoving. “Why?” he demanded in a raw whisper.

She shivered at the accusation she thought she heard and misunderstood his question. “Because I haven’t done it before.”

That answer made his eyes open and what she saw wasn’t disappointment or accusation, it was tenderness and regret. “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have made this much easier for you.”

Spreading her fingers over his cheek, Meredith said with a soft, reassuring smile, “You did make it easy. And perfect.”

That accomplished what nothing else had. It made him groan. He covered her lips with his and, with infinite gentleness, began to move inside her, withdrawing almost all the way and slowly plunging deep, steadily increasing the tempo of his driving strokes, giving and giving and giving until Meredith was wild beneath him. Her fingernails bit into his back and hips, clutching him to her, while the passion raging inside her built into a holocaust, and still it went on and on, until it finally exploded in long soul-destroying bursts of extravagant pleasure. Gathering her into his arms, Matt shoved his fingers into her hair, kissing her with fiery urgency, and drove into her one more time. The deep raw hunger of his kiss, the sudden surge of liquid from his body into hers, made Meredith clasp him tighter and moan with the exquisite sensation.

Her heart beating frantically, she moved onto her side with him, her face pressed against his chest, his arms tight around her. “Do you have any idea,” he whispered in a shaken, hoarse voice, his lips brushing her cheek, “how exciting you are, and how responsive?”

Meredith didn’t answer, because the reality of what he’d done was beginning to seep through her, and she didn’t want to let it. Not now, not yet. She didn’t want anything to spoil this. She closed her eyes and listened to the lovely things he continued to say to her while he laid his hand against her cheek, idly brushing his thumb over her skin.

And then he asked something that did need a response and the magic faded, receding beyond her reach. “Why?” he asked her quietly. “Why did you do this tonight? With me?”

She tensed at the difficult, probing question, sighed with a feeling of loss, and pulled out of his arms, wrapping herself in the afghan lying over the end of the sofa. She’d known about the physical intimacy of sex, but no one had warned her about this strange, uneasy aftermath. She felt stripped bare emotionally; exposed, defenseless, awkward. “I think we’d both better get dressed,” she said nervously, “and then I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. I’ll be right back.”

In her room, Meredith put on a navy and white robe, tied the belt around her waist, and went back downstairs, still barefoot. As she passed the clock in the hall, she glanced at it. Her father would be home in an hour.

Matt was on the phone in the study, fully dressed with the exception of his tie, which he’d shoved into his pocket. “What’s the address here?” he asked. She told him and he relayed it to the cab company he had called. “I told them to be here in a half hour,” he said. Walking over to the coffee table in front of the sofa, he picked up his abandoned brandy glass.

“Can I get you anything else?” Meredith asked, because that question seemed like something a good hostess normally asked a guest when the evening neared its end. Or was that what a waitress asked, she wondered a little hysterically.

“I’d like an answer to my question,” he said. “What made you decide to do this tonight?”

She thought she heard a tautness in his voice, but his face was completely expressionless. She sighed and looked away, self-consciously tracing an inlaid square on the desk. “For years my father has treated me like a . . . a closet nymphomaniac, and I’ve never done anything to deserve it. Tonight when you insisted he must have some reason for ‘guarding me,’ something just snapped inside of me. I think I decided that if I was going to be treated like a tramp, I might as well have the experience of sleeping with a man. And at the same time, I had some insane idea of punishing you—and him. I wanted to show you that you were wrong.”

After several moments of ominous silence, Matt said curtly, “You could have convinced me I was wrong by simply telling me that your father is a tyrannical, suspicious bastard. I would have believed you.”

In her heart, Meredith knew that was true, and she glanced uneasily at him, wondering if anger had been her only reason for instigating what had just happened, or if she’d simply used anger as an excuse to experience intimately that sexual magnetism she’d felt from him all night. Used. That was the operative word. In a strange sort of way she felt guilty for using a man she had liked enormously to retaliate against her father.

In the lengthening silence, he seemed to evaluate what she’d said, and what she hadn’t said, and to guess what she was thinking. Whatever conclusions he drew from all that obviously didn’t please him very much, because he abruptly put down his glass and glanced at his watch. “I’ll walk down to the end of the drive.”

“I’ll show you out.” Polite sentences spoken between two strangers who’d been doing the most intimate possible things together less than one hour ago. That incongruity registered on her as she straightened from the desk. At the same moment his gaze riveted on her bare feet, shot back to her face, and then ricocheted to her hair tumbling loose about her shoulders. Barefoot, hair down, and in a long robe, Meredith did not look quite the way she did in a strapless evening dress with her hair in a sophisticated chignon. She knew before he asked the question what it was going to be.

“How old are you?”

“Not . . . quite as old as you think.”

“How old?” he persisted.

“Eighteen.”

She expected some sort of reaction to that. Instead, he looked at her for a long, hard moment, and then he did something that made no sense to her. Turning, he went over to the desk and wrote something on a slip of paper. “This is my phone number in Edmunton,” he said calmly, handing it to her. “You can reach me there for the next six weeks. After that, Sommers will know how to get in touch with me somehow.”

When he left, she walked upstairs, frowning at the scrap of paper in her hand. If this was Matt’s way of suggesting she give him a call sometime, it was arrogant, rude, and completely obnoxious. And a little humiliating.

For most of the following week, Meredith jumped every time the phone rang, afraid that it was going to be Matt. Just the recollection of the things they’d done made her face burn with embarrassment, and she wanted to forget it and him.

By the following week she didn’t want to forget it at all. Once the guilt and fear of discovery had receded, she found herself thinking about him constantly, reliving the same moments she’d wanted to forget. Lying in bed at night, with her face pressed into the pillow, she felt his lips on her cheek and neck, and she recalled each sexy, tender word he’d whispered to her with a tiny thrill. She thought about other things too, like the pleasure of being with him while they talked on the lawn at Glenmoor, and the way he’d laughed at the things she said. She wondered if he was thinking about her, and if he was, why didn’t he call . . .

When he didn’t phone the week after that, Meredith realized she was obviously very forgettable and that he hadn’t thought her “exciting” or “responsive” at all. She went over and over the things she’d said to Matt just before he left, wondering if something she’d said was the reason for his silence now. She considered the possibility that she might have hurt his pride when she told him the truth about why she’d decided to sleep with him, but she found that very hard to believe. Matthew Farrell wasn’t the least bit insecure about his sexual attraction—he’d carried on that sexual banter with her within minutes of meeting her, when they first danced. It was more likely he hadn’t called because he’d decided she was too young to bother with.

By the end of the following week, Meredith no longer wanted to hear from him. Her period was two weeks overdue, and she wished to God she’d never met Matthew Farrell at all. As one day drifted into the next, she couldn’t think about anything except the terrifying possibility that she’d gotten pregnant. Lisa was in Europe, so there was no one to turn to or help make the time go faster. She waited and she prayed and she promised fervently that if she wasn’t pregnant, she’d never have intercourse again until she was married.

But either God wasn’t listening to her prayers or He was immune to bribery.

Whitney, My Love excerpt

cover-whitneymyloveChapter 1

As their elegant travelling chaise rocked and swayed along the rutted country road, Lady Anne Gilbert leaned her cheek against her husband’s shoulder and heaved a long, impatient sigh. “Another whole hour until we arrive, and already the suspense is positively gnawing at me. I keep wondering what Whitney will be like now that she’s grown up.”

She lapsed into silence and gazed absently out the coach window at the lush, rolling English countryside covered with wild pink Foxglove and yellow Buttercups, trying to envision the niece she hadn’t seen in almost eleven years.

“She’ll be pretty, just as her mother was. And she’ll have her mother’s smile, her gentleness, her sweet disposition . . .”

Lord Edward Gilbert cast a skeptical glance at his wife. “Sweet disposition?” he echoed in amused disbelief. “That isn’t what her father said in his letter.”

As a diplomat attached to the British Consulate in Paris, Lord Gilbert was a master of hints, evasions, innuendoes, and intrigues. But in his personal life, he preferred the refreshing alternative of blunt truth. “Allow me to refresh your memory,” he said, groping in his pockets and retrieving the letter from Whitney’s father. He perched his spectacles upon his nose, and ignoring his wife’s grimace, he began to read:

“ ‘Whitney’s manners are an outrage, her conduct is reprehensible. She is a willful hoyden who is the despair of everyone she knows and an embarrassment to me. I implore you to take her back to Paris with you, in the hope that you may have more success with the stubborn chit than I have had.’ ”

Edward chuckled. “Show me where it says she’s ‘sweet-tempered.’ ”

His wife shot him a peevish glance. “Martin Stone is a cold, unfeeling man who wouldn’t recognize gentleness and goodness if Whitney were made of nothing else! Only think of the way he shouted at her and sent her to her room right after my sister’s funeral.”

Edward recognized the mutinous set of his wife’s chin and put his arm around her shoulders in a gesture of conciliation. “I’m no fonder of the man than you are, but you must admit that, just having lost his young wife to an early grave, to have his daughter accuse him, in front of fifty people, of locking her mama in a box so she couldn’t escape had to be rather disconcerting.”

“But Whitney was scarcely five years old!” Anne protested heatedly.

“Agreed. But Martin was grieving. Besides, as I recall, it was not for that offense she was banished to her room. It was later, when everyone had gathered in the drawing room—when she stamped her foot and threatened to report us all to God if we didn’t release her mama at once.”

Anne smiled. “What spirit she had, Edward. I thought for a moment her little freckles were going to pop right off her nose. Admit it—she was marvelous, and you thought so too!”

“Well, yes,” Edward agreed sheepishly. “I rather thought she was.”

*  *  *

As the Gilbert chaise bore inexorably down on the Stone estate, a small knot of young people were waiting on the south lawn, impatiently looking toward the stable one hundred yards away. A petite blonde smoothed her pink ruffled skirts and sighed in a way that displayed a very fetching dimple. “Whatever do you suppose Whitney is planning to do?” she inquired of the handsome light-haired man beside her.

Glancing down into Elizabeth Ashton’s wide blue eyes, Paul Sevarin smiled a smile that Whitney would have forfeited both her feet to see focused on herself. “Try to be patient, Elizabeth,” he said.

“I’m sure none of us have the faintest idea what she is up to, Elizabeth,” Margaret Merryton said tartly. “But you can be perfectly certain it will be something foolish and outrageous.”

“Margaret, we’re all Whitney’s guests today,” Paul chided.

“I don’t know why you should defend her, Paul,” Margaret argued spitefully. “Whitney is creating a horrid scandal chasing after you, and you know it!”

“Margaret!” Paul snapped. “I said that was enough.” Drawing a long, irritated breath, Paul Sevarin frowned darkly at his gleaming boots. Whitney had been making a spectacle of herself chasing after him, and damned near everyone for fifteen miles was talking about it.

At first he had been mildly amused to find himself the object of a fifteen-year-old’s languishing looks and adoring smiles, but lately Whitney had begun pursuing him with the determination and tactical brilliance of a female Napoleon Bonaparte.

If he rode off the grounds of his estate, he could almost depend on meeting her en route to his destination. It was as if she had some lookout point from which she watched his every move, and Paul no longer found her childish infatuation with him either harmless or amusing.

Three weeks ago, she had followed him to a local inn. While he was pleasantly contemplating accepting the innkeeper’s daughter’s whispered invitation to meet her later in the hayloft, he’d glanced up and seen a familiar pair of bright green eyes peeping at him through the window. Slamming his tankard of ale on the table, he’d marched outside, grabbed Whitney by the elbow, and unceremoniously deposited her on her horse, tersely reminding her that her father would be searching for her if she wasn’t home by nightfall.

He’d stalked back inside and ordered another tankard, but when the innkeeper’s daughter brushed her breasts suggestively against his arm while refilling his ale and Paul had a sudden vision of himself lying entangled with her voluptuous naked body, a pair of green eyes peered in through yet another window. He’d tossed enough coins on the planked wooden table to mollify the startled girl’s wounded sensibilities and left—only to encounter Miss Stone again on his way home.

He was beginning to feel like a hunted man whose every move was under surveillance, and his temper was strained to the breaking point. And yet, Paul thought irritably, here he was standing in the April sun, trying for some obscure reason to protect Whitney from the criticism she richly deserved.

A pretty girl, several years younger than the others in the group, glanced at Paul. “I think I’ll go and see what’s keeping Whitney,” said Emily Williams. She hurried across the lawn and along the whitewashed fence adjoining the stable. Shoving open the big double doors, Emily looked down the wide gloomy corridor lined with stalls on both sides. “Where is Miss Whitney?” she asked the stableboy who was currying a sorrel gelding.

“In there, Miss.” Even in the muted light, Emily saw his face suffuse with color as he nodded toward a door adjacent to the tack room.

With a puzzled glance at the flushing stableboy, Emily tapped lightly on the designated door and stepped inside, then froze at the sight that greeted her: Whitney Allison Stone’s long legs were encased in coarse brown britches that clung startlingly to her slender hips and were held in place at her narrow waist with a length of rope. Above the riding britches she wore a thin chemise.

“You surely aren’t going out there dressed like that?” Emily gasped.

Whitney fired an amused glance over her shoulder at her scandalized friend. “Of course not. I’m going to wear a shirt, too.”

“B-but why?” Emily persisted desperately.

“Because I don’t think it would be very proper to appear in my chemise, silly,” Whitney cheerfully replied, snatching the stableboy’s clean shirt off a peg and plunging her arms into the sleeves.

“P-proper? Proper?” Emily sputtered. “It’s completely improper for you to be wearing men’s britches, and you know it!”

“True. But I can’t very well ride that horse without a saddle and risk having my skirts blow up around my neck, now can I?” Whitney breezily argued while she twisted her long unruly hair into a knot and pinned it at her nape.

“Ride without a saddle? You can’t mean you’re going to ride astride—your father will disown you if you do that again.”

“I am not going to ride astride. Although,” Whitney giggled, “I can’t understand why men are allowed to straddle a horse, while we—who are supposed to be the weaker sex—must hang off the side, praying for our lives.”

Emily refused to be diverted. “Then what are you going to do?”

“I never realized what an inquisitive young lady you are, Miss Williams,” Whitney teased. “But to answer your question, I am going to ride standing on the horse’s back. I saw it done at the fair, and I’ve been practicing ever since. Then, when Paul sees how well I do, he’ll—”

“He’ll think you have lost your mind, Whitney Stone! He’ll think that you haven’t a grain of sense or propriety, and that you’re only trying something else to gain his attention.” Seeing the stubborn set of her friend’s chin, Emily switched her tactics. “Whitney, please—think of your father. What will he say if he finds out?”

Whitney hesitated, feeling the force of her father’s unwaveringly cold stare as if it were this minute focused upon her. She drew a long breath, then expelled it slowly as she glanced out the small window at the group waiting on the lawn. Wearily, she said, “Father will say that, as usual, I have disappointed him, that I am a disgrace to him and to my mother’s memory, that he is happy she didn’t live to see what I have become. Then he will spend half an hour telling me what a perfect lady Elizabeth Ashton is, and that I ought to be like her.”

“Well, if you really wanted to impress Paul, you could try . . .”

Whitney clenched her hands in frustration. “I have tried to be like Elizabeth. I wear those disgusting ruffled dresses that make me feel like a pastel mountain, I’ve practiced going for hours without saying a word, and I’ve fluttered my eyelashes until my eyelids go limp.”

Emily bit her lip to hide her smile at Whitney’s unflattering description of Elizabeth Ashton’s demure mannerisms, then she sighed. “I’ll go and tell the others that you’ll be right out.”

Gasps of outrage and derisive sniggers greeted Whitney’s appearance on the lawn when she led the horse toward the spectators. “She’ll fall off,” one of the girls predicted, “if God doesn’t strike her dead first for wearing those britches.”

Ignoring the impulse to snap out a biting retort, Whitney raised her head in a gesture of haughty disdain, then stole a look at Paul. His handsome face was taut with disapproval as his gaze moved from her bare feet, up her trousered legs, to her face. Inwardly, Whitney faltered at his obvious displeasure, but she swung resolutely onto the back of the waiting horse.

The gelding moved into its practiced canter, and Whitney worked herself upward, first crouching with arms outstretched for balance, then slowly easing herself into a standing position. Around and around they went and, although Whitney was in constant terror of falling off and looking like a fool, she managed to appear competent and graceful.

As she completed the fourth circle, she let her eyes slant to the faces passing on her left, registering their looks of shock and derision, while she searched for the only face that mattered. Paul was partially in the tree’s shadow, and Elizabeth Ashton was clinging to his arm, but as Whitney passed, she saw the slow, reluctant smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and triumph unfurled like a banner in her heart. By the time she came around again, Paul was grinning broadly at her. Whitney’s spirits soared, and suddenly all the weeks of practice, the sore muscles and bruises, seemed worthwhile.

*  *  *

At the window of the second floor drawing room overlooking the south lawn, Martin Stone stared down at his performing daughter. Behind him, the butler announced that Lord and Lady Gilbert had arrived. Too enraged at his daughter to speak, Martin greeted his sister-in-law and her husband with a clenched jaw and curt nod.

“How—how nice to see you again after so many years, Martin,” Lady Anne lied graciously. When he remained icily silent, she said, “Where is Whitney? We’re so anxious to see her.”

Martin finally recovered his voice. “See her?” he snapped savagely. “Madam, you have only to look out this window.”

Bewildered, Anne did as he said. Below on the lawn there stood a group of young people watching a slender boy balancing beautifully on a cantering horse. “What a clever young man,” she said, smiling.

Her simple remark seemed to drive Martin Stone from frozen rage to frenzied action as he swung on his heel and marched toward the door. “If you wish to meet your niece, come with me. Or, I can spare you the humiliation, and bring her here to you.”

With an exasperated look at Martin’s back, Anne tucked her hand in her husband’s arm and together they followed Martin downstairs and outside.

As they approached the group of young people, Anne heard murmurings and laughter, and she was vaguely aware that there was something malicious in the tone, but she was too busy scanning the young ladies’ faces, looking for Whitney, to pay much heed to the fleeting impression. She mentally discarded two blondes and a redhead, quizzically studied a petite, blue-eyed brunette, then glanced helplessly at the young man beside her. “Pardon me, I am Lady Gilbert, Whitney’s aunt. Could you tell me where she is?”

Paul Sevarin grinned at her, half in sympathy and half in amusement. “Your niece is on the horse, Lady Gilbert,” he said.

“On the—” Lord Gilbert choked.

From her delicate perch atop the horse, Whitney’s eyes followed her father’s progress as he bore down on her with long, rapid strides. “Please don’t make a scene, Father,” she implored when he was within earshot.

I make a scene?” he roared furiously. Snatching the halter, he brought the cantering horse around so sharply that he jerked it from beneath her. Whitney hit the ground on her feet, lost her balance, and ended up half-sprawling. As she scampered up, her father caught her arm in a ruthless grip and hauled her over toward the spectators. “This—this thing,” he said, thrusting her forward toward her aunt and uncle, “I am mortified to tell you is your niece.”

Whitney heard the smattering of giggles as the group quickly disbanded, and she felt her face grow hot with shame. “How do you do, Aunt Gilbert? Uncle Gilbert?” With one eye on Paul’s broad-shouldered, retreating form, Whitney reached mechanically for her nonexistent skirt, realized it was missing, and executed a comical curtsy without it. She saw the frown on her aunt’s face and put her chin up defensively. “You may be sure that for the week you are here, I shall endeavor not to make a freak of myself again, Aunt.”

“For the week that we are here?” her aunt gasped, but Whitney was preoccupied watching Paul help Elizabeth into his curricle and didn’t notice the surprise in her aunt’s voice.

“Good-bye, Paul,” she called, waving madly. He turned and raised his arm in silent farewell.

Laughter drifted back as the curricles bowled down the drive, carrying their occupants off to a picnic or some other gay and wonderful activity, to which Whitney was never invited because she was too young.

Following Whitney toward the house, Anne was a mass of conflicting emotions. She was embarrassed for Whitney, furious with Martin Stone for humiliating the girl in front of the other young people, somewhat dazed by the sight of her own niece cavorting on the back of a horse, wearing men’s britches . . . and utterly astonished to discover that Whitney, whose mother had been only passably pretty, showed promise of becoming a genuine beauty.

She was too thin right now, but even in disgrace Whitney’s shoulders were straight, her walk naturally graceful and faintly provocative. Anne smiled to herself at the gently rounded hips displayed to almost immoral advantage by the coarse brown trousers, the slender waist that would require no subterfuge to make it appear smaller, eyes that seemed to change from sea-green to deep jade beneath their fringe of long, sooty lashes. And that hair—piles and piles of rich mahogany brown! All it needed was a good trimming and brushing until it shone; Anne’s fingers positively itched to go to work on it. Mentally she was already styling it in ways to highlight Whitney’s striking eyes and high cheekbones. Off her face, Anne decided, piled at the crown with tendrils at the ears, or pulled straight back off the forehead to fall in gentle waves down her back.

As soon as they entered the house, Whitney mumbled an excuse and fled to her room where she flopped dejectedly into a chair and morosely contemplated the humiliating scene Paul had just witnessed, with her father jerking her ignominiously off her horse and then shouting at her. No doubt her aunt and uncle were as horrified and revolted by her behavior as her father had been, and her cheeks burned with shame just thinking of how they must despise her already.

“Whitney?” Emily whispered, creeping into the bedroom and cautiously closing the door behind her. “I came up the back way. Is your father angry?”

“Cross as crabs,” Whitney confirmed, staring down at her trousered legs. “I suppose I ruined everything today, didn’t I? Everyone was laughing at me, and Paul heard them. Now that Elizabeth is seventeen, he’s bound to offer for her before he ever has a chance to realize that he loves me.

“You?” Emily repeated dazedly. “Whitney Stone, Paul avoids you like the plague, and well you know it! And who could blame him, after the mishaps you’ve treated him to in the last year?”

“There haven’t been so many as all that,” Whitney protested, but she squirmed in her chair.

“No? What about that trick you played on him on All Soul’s—darting out in front of his carriage, shrieking like a banshee, and pretending to be a ghost, terrifying his horses.”

Whitney flushed. “He wasn’t so very angry. And it isn’t as if the carriage was destroyed. It only broke a shaft when it overturned.”

“And Paul’s leg,” Emily pointed out.

“But that mended perfectly,” Whitney persisted, her mind already leaping from past debacles to future possibilities. She surged to her feet and began to pace slowly back and forth. “There has to be a way—but short of abducting him, I—” A mischievous smile lit up her dust-streaked face as she swung around so quickly that Emily pressed back into her chair. “Emily, one thing is infinitely clear: Paul does not yet know that he cares for me. Correct?”

“He doesn’t care a snap for you is more like it,” Emily replied warily.

“Therefore, it would be safe to say that he is unlikely to offer for me without some sort of added incentive. Correct?”

“You couldn’t make him offer for you at the point of a gun, and you know it. Besides, you aren’t old enough to be betrothed, even if—”

“Under what circumstances,” Whitney interrupted triumphantly, “is a gentleman obliged to offer for a lady?”

“I can’t think of any. Except of course, if he has compromised her—absolutely not! Whitney, whatever you’re planning now, I won’t help.”

Sighing, Whitney flopped back into her chair, stretching her legs out in front of her. An irreverent giggle escaped her as she considered the sheer audacity of her last idea. “If only I could have pulled it off . . . you know, loosened the wheel on Paul’s carriage so that it would fall off later, and then asked him to drive me somewhere. Then, by the time we walked back, or help arrived, it would be late at night, and he would have to offer for me.” Oblivious to Emily’s scandalized expression, Whitney continued, “Just think what a wonderful turnabout that would have been on a tired old theme: Young Lady abducts Gentleman and ruins hisreputation so that she is forced to marry him to set things aright! What a novel that could have made,” she added, rather impressed with her own ingenuity.

“I’m leaving,” Emily said. She marched to the door, then she hesitated and turned back to Whitney. “Your aunt and uncle saw everything. What are you going to say to them about those trousers and the horse?”

Whitney’s face clouded. “I’m not going to say anything, it wouldn’t help—but for the rest of the time they are here, I’m going to be the most demure, refined, delicate female you’ve ever seen.” She saw Emily’s dubious look and added, “Also I intend to stay out of sight except at mealtimes. I think I’ll be able to act like Elizabeth for three hours a day.”

*  *  *

Whitney kept her promise. At dinner that night, after her uncle’s hair-raising tale of their life in Beirut where he was attached to the British Consulate, she murmured only, “How very informative, Uncle,” even though she was positively burning to ply him with questions. At the end of her aunt’s description of Paris and the thrill of its gay social life, Whitney murmured, “How very informative, Aunt.” The moment the meal was finished, she excused herself and vanished.

After three days, Whitney’s efforts to be either demure or absent had, in fact, been so successful that Anne was beginning to wonder whether she had only imagined the spark of fire she’d glimpsed the day of their arrival, or if the girl had some aversion to Edward and herself.

On the fourth day, when Whitney breakfasted before the rest of the household was up, and then vanished, Anne set out to discover the truth. She searched the house, but Whitney was not indoors. She was not in the garden, nor had she taken a horse from the stable, Anne was informed by a groom. Squinting into the sunlight, Anne looked around her, trying to imagine where a fifteen-year-old would go to spend all day.

Off on the crest of a hill overlooking the estate, she spied a patch of bright yellow. “There you are!” she breathed, opening her parasol and striking out across the lawn.

Whitney didn’t see her aunt coming until it was too late to escape. Wishing she had found a better place to hide, she tried to think of some innocuous subject on which she could converse without appearing ignorant. Clothes? Personally, she knew nothing of fashions and cared even less; she looked hopeless no matter what she wore. After all, what could clothes do to improve the looks of a female who had cat’s eyes, mud-colored hair, and freckles on the bridge of her nose? Besides that, she was too tall, too thin, and if the good Lord intended for her ever to have a bosom, it was very late in making its appearance.

Weak-kneed, her chest heaving with each labored breath, Anne topped the steep rise and collapsed unceremoniously onto the blanket beside Whitney. “I-I thought I’d take . . . a nice stroll,” Anne lied. When she caught her breath, she noticed the leather-bound book lying face down on the blanket and, seizing on books as a topic of conversation, she said, “Is that a romantic novel?”

“No, Aunt,” Whitney demurely uttered, carefully placing her hand over the title of the book to conceal it from her aunt’s eyes.

“I’m told most young ladies adore romantic novels,” Anne tried again.

“Yes, Aunt,” Whitney agreed politely.

“I read one once but I didn’t like it,” Anne remarked, her mind groping for some other topic that might draw Whitney into conversation. “I cannot abide a heroine who is too perfect, nor one who is forever swooning.”

Whitney was so astonished to discover that she wasn’t the only female in all of England who didn’t devour the insipid things, that she instantly forgot her resolution to speak only in monosyllables. “And when the heroines aren’t swooning,” she added, her entire face lighting up with laughter, “they are lying about with hartshorn bottles up their nostrils, moping and pining away for some faint-hearted gentleman who hasn’t the gumption to offer for them, or else has already offered for some other, unworthy female. I could never just lie there doing nothing, knowing the man I loved was falling in love with a horrid person.” Whitney darted a glance at her aunt to see if she was shocked, but her aunt was regarding her with an unexplainable smile lurking at the corners of her eyes. “Aunt Anne, could you actually care for a man who dropped to his knees and said, ‘Oh, Clarabel, your lips are the petals of a red rose and your eyes are two stars from the heavens’?” With a derisive snort, Whitney finished, “That is where I would have leapt for the hartshorn!”

“And so would I,” Anne said, laughing. “What do you read then, if not atrocious romantic novels?” She pried the book from beneath Whitney’s flattened hand and stared at the gold-embossed title. “The Iliad?” she asked in astonished disbelief. The breeze ruffled the pages, and Anne’s amazed gaze ricocheted from the print to Whitney’s tense face. “But this is in Greek! Surely you don’t read Greek?”

Whitney nodded, her face flushed with mortification. Now her aunt would think her a bluestocking—another black mark against her. “Also Latin, Italian, French, and even some German,” she confessed.

“Good God,” Anne breathed. “How did you ever learn all that?”

“Despite what Father thinks, Aunt Anne, I am only foolish, not stupid, and I plagued him to death until he allowed me tutors in languages and history.” Whitney fell silent, remembering how she’d once believed that if

she applied herself to her studies, if she could become more like a son, her father might love her.

“You sound ashamed of your accomplishments, when you should be proud.”

Whitney gazed out at her home, nestled in the valley below. “I’m sure you know everyone thinks it’s a waste of time to educate a female in these things. And anyway, I haven’t a feminine accomplishment to my name. I can’t sew a stitch that doesn’t look as if it were done blindfolded, and when I sing, the dogs down at the stable begin to howl. Mr. Twittsworthy, our local music instructor, told my father that my playing of the pianoforte gives him hives. I can’t do a thing that girls ought to do, and what’s more, I particularly detest doing them.”

Whitney knew her aunt would now take her in complete dislike, just as everyone else always did, but it was better this way because at least she could stop dreading the inevitable. She looked at Lady Anne, her green eyes wide and vulnerable. “I’m certain Papa has told you all about me. I’m a terrible disappointment to him. He wants me to be dainty and demure and quiet, like Elizabeth Ashton. I try to be, but I can’t seem to do it.”

Anne’s heart melted for the lovely, spirited, bewildered child her sister had borne. Laying her hand against Whitney’s cheek, she said tenderly, “Your father wants a daughter who is like a cameo—delicate, pale, and easily shaped. Instead, he has a daughter who is a diamond, full of sparkle and life, and he doesn’t know what to do with her. Instead of appreciating the value and rarity of his jewel—instead of polishing her a bit and then letting her shine—he persists in trying to shape her into a common cameo.”

Whitney was more inclined to think of herself as a chunk of coal, but rather than disillusion her aunt, she kept silent. After her aunt left, Whitney picked up her book, but soon her mind wandered from the printed page to dreamy thoughts of Paul.

That night when she came down to the dining room, the atmosphere in the room was strangely charged, and no one noticed her sauntering toward the table. “When do you plan to tell her she’s coming back to France with us, Martin?” her uncle demanded angrily. “Or is it your intention to wait until the day we leave and then just toss the child into the coach with us?”

The world tilted crazily, and for one horrible moment, Whitney thought she was going to be sick. She stopped, trying to steady her shaking limbs, and swallowed back the aching lump in her throat. “Am I going somewhere, Father?” she asked, trying to sound calm and indifferent.

They all turned and stared, and her father’s face tightened into lines of impatience and annoyance. “To France,” he replied abruptly. “To live with your aunt and uncle, who are going to try to make a lady out of you.”

Carefully avoiding meeting anyone’s eyes, lest she break down then and there, Whitney slid into her chair at the table. “Have you informed my aunt and uncle of the risk they are taking?” she asked, concentrating all her strength on preventing her father from seeing what he had just done to her heart. She looked coldly at her aunt and uncle’s guilty, embarrassed faces. “Father may have neglected to mention you’re risking disgrace by welcoming me into your home. As he will tell you, I’ve a hideous disposition, I’m rag-mannered, and I haven’t a trace of polite conversation.”

Her aunt was watching her with naked pity, but her father’s expression was stony. “Oh Papa,” she whispered brokenly, “do you really despise me this much? Do you hate me so much that you have to send me out of your sight?” Her eyes swimming with unshed tears, Whitney stood up. “If you . . . will excuse me . . . I’m not very hungry this evening.”

“How could you!” Anne cried when she left, rising from her own chair and glaring furiously at Martin Stone. “You are the most heartless, unfeeling—it will be a pleasure to remove that child from your clutches. How she has survived this long is a testimony to her strength. I’m sure I could never have done so well.”

“You refine too much upon her words, Madam,” Martin said icily. “I assure you that what has her looking so distraught is not the prospect of being parted from me. I have merely put a premature end to her plans to continue making a fool of herself over Paul Sevarin.”