To continue our celebration of McNaught-E November, below are excerpts from two of the fourteen Judith McNaught titles newly available in E-Book format. Each E-Book will contain original, new content (a letter) from Judith McNaught.
To celebrate McNaught-E November and the release of new material from Judith McNaught, here is an excerpt for Miracles ($1.99).
The roar of music and voices began to recede as Julianna Skeffington fled down the terraced steps of a brightly lit country house in which 600 members of Polite Society were attending a masquerade ball. Ahead of her, the formal gardens were aglow with flaring torches and swarming with costumed guests and liveried servants. Beyond the gardens, a large hedge maze loomed in the shadows, offering far better places to hide, and it was there that Julianna headed.
Pressing the hooped skirts of her Marie Antoinette costume closer to her sides, she plunged into the crowd, wending her way as swiftly as possible past knights in armor, court jesters, highwaymen, and an assortment of kings, queens, and Shakespearean characters, as well as a profusion of domestic and jungle creatures.
She saw a path open through the crowd and headed for it, then had to step aside to avoid colliding with a large leafy “tree” with red silk apples dangling from its branches. The tree bowed politely to Julianna as it paraded past her, one of its branches curved around the waist of a lady decked out as a milkmaid complete with bucket.
She did not have to slow her pace again until she neared the center of the garden, where a group of musicians was stationed between a pair of Roman fountains, providing music for dancing couples. Excusing herself, she stepped around a tall man disguised as a black tomcat who was whispering in the pink ear of a petite gray mouse. He stopped long enough to cast an appreciative eye over the low bodice of Julianna’s white ruffled gown, then he smiled boldly into her eyes and winked before returning his attention to the adorable little mouse with the absurdly long whiskers.
Staggered by the abandoned behavior she was witnessing tonight, particularly out here in the gardens, Julianna stole a quick glance over her shoulder and saw that her mother had emerged from the ballroom. She stood on the terraced steps, holding an unknown male by the arm, and slowly scanned the gardens. She was looking for Julianna. With the instincts of a bloodhound, her mother turned and looked straight in Julianna’s direction.
That familiar sight was enough to make Julianna break into a near run, until she came to the last obstacle in her route to the maze: a large group of particularly boisterous men who were standing beneath a canopy of trees, laughing uproariously at a mock jester who was trying unsuccessfully to juggle apples. Rather than walk in front of their line of vision, thus putting herself in plain view of her mother, she decided it was wiser to go around behind them.
“If you please, sirs,” she said, trying to sidle between the trees and a row of masculine backs. “I must pass.” Instead of moving quickly out of her way, which common courtesy dictated they should, two of them glanced over their shoulders at her, then they turned fully around without giving her any extra space.
“Well, well, well, what have we here?” said one of them in a very young and very inebriated voice as he braced his hand on the tree near her shoulder. He shifted his gaze to a servant, who was handing him a glass brimming with some sort of liquor, then he took it and thrust it toward her. “Some ’freshment for you, ma’am?”
At the moment Julianna was more worried about escaping her mother’s notice than being accosted by a drunken young lord who could barely stand up and whose companions would surely prevent him from behaving more abominably than he was now. She accepted the glass rather than make a scene, then she ducked under his arm, walked quickly past the others, and hurried toward her destination, the drink forgotten in her hand.
“Forget about her, Dickie,” she heard his companion say. “Half the opera dancers and the demimonde are here tonight. You can have most any female who takes your eye. That one didn’t want to play.”
Julianna remembered hearing that some of the Ton’s high sticklers disapproved of masquerades—particularly for gently bred young ladies—and after what she’d seen and heard tonight she certainly understood why. With their identities safely concealed behind costumes and masks, members of Polite Society behaved like . . . like common rabble!
INSIDE THE MAZE, JULIANNA TOOK the path to the right, darted around the first corner, which happened to turn right, then she pressed her back into the shrubbery’s prickly branches. With her free hand, she tried to flatten the layers of white lace flounces that adorned the hem of her skirts and the low bodice of her gown, but they stood out like quivering beacons in the breezy night.
Her heart racing from emotion, not exertion, she stood perfectly still and listened, separated from the garden by a single tall hedge but out of sight of the entrance. She stared blindly at the glass in her hand and felt angry futility at her inability to prevent her mother from disgracing herself or ruining Julianna’s life.
Trying to divert herself, Julianna lifted the glass to her nose and sniffed, then she shuddered a little at the strong aroma. It smelled like the stuff her papa drank. Not the Madeira he enjoyed from morning until supper, but the golden liquid he drank after supper—for medicinal purposes, to calm his nerves, he said.
Julianna’s nerves were raw. A moment later she heard her mother’s voice come from the opposite side of the leafy barrier, making her heart hammer with foreboding.
“Julianna, are you out here, dear?” her mother called.
“Lord Makepeace is with me, and he is most eager for an introduction . . .”
Julianna had the mortifying vision of a reluctant Lord Makepeace—whoever he was—being dragged mercilessly by the arm through every twist and turn, every corner and cranny, of the twisting maze and torch lit gardens by her determined mother. Unable to endure the awkwardness and embarrassment of one more introduction to some unfortunate, and undoubtedly unwilling, potential suitor whom her mother had commandeered, Julianna backed so far into the scratchy branches that they poked into the pale blond curls of the elaborate coiffure that had taken a maid hours to create.
Overhead, the moon obligingly glided behind a thick bank of clouds, plunging the maze into inky darkness, while her mother continued her shamelessly dishonest monologue—a few feet away on the other side of the hedge.
“Julianna is such a delightfully adventurous girl,” Lady Skeffington exclaimed, sounding frustrated, not proud. “It is just like her to wander into the gardens to do a bit of exploring.”
Julianna mentally translated her mother’s falsehoods into reality: Julianna is an annoying recluse who has to be dragged from her books and her scribbling. It is just like her to hide in the bushes at a time like this.
“She was so very popular this Season, I cannot think how you haven’t encountered her at some tonnish function or another. In fact, I actually had to insist she restrict her social engagements to no more than ten each week so that she could have enough rest!”
Julianna hasn’t received ten invitations to social events in the past year, let alone in a single week, but I need an excuse for why you haven’t met her before. With a little luck, you’ll believe that rapper.
Lord Makepeace wasn’t that gullible. “Really?” he murmured, in the noncommittal voice of one who is struggling between courtesy, annoyance, and disbelief. “She sounds an odd—er . . . unusual female if she doesn’t enjoy social engagements.”
“I never meant to imply such a thing!” Lady Skeffington hastened to say. “Julianna enjoys balls and soirees above all things!”
Julianna would rather have a tooth extracted.
“I truly believe the two of you would deal famously together.”
I intend to get her off our hands and well wed, my good man, and you have the prerequisites for a husband: You are male, of respectable birth, and adequate fortune.
“She is not at all the sort of pushing female one encounters too often these days.”
She won’t do a thing to show herself off to advantage.
“On the other hand, she has definite attributes that no male could miss.”
To make certain of it tonight, I insisted she wear a costume so revealing that it is better suited to a married flirt than to a girl of eighteen.
“But she is not at all fast.”
Despite the low décolletage on her gown, you must not even try to touch her without asking for her hand first.
Lord Makepeace’s desire for freedom finally overcame the dictates of civility. “I really must return to the ballroom, Lady Skeffington. I—I believe I have the next dance with Miss Topham.”
The realization that her prey was about to escape—and into the clutches of the Season’s most popular debutante—drove Julianna’s mama to retaliate by telling the greatest lie of her matchmaking life. Shamelessly inventing a nonexistent relationship between Julianna and the most eligible bachelor in England, she announced, “It’s just as well we return to the ball! I believe Nicholas DuVille himself has claimed Julianna’s next waltz!”
Lady Skeffington must have hurried after the retreating lord because their voices became more distant. “Mr. DuVille has repeatedly singled our dear Julianna out for particular attention. In fact, I have reason to believe his sole reason for coming here this evening was so that he could spend a few moments with her! No, really, sir, it is the truth, though I shouldn’t like for anyone but you to know it. . . .”
* * *
Further down the maze, the Baron of Penwarren’s ravishing young widow stood with her arms wrapped around Nicholas DuVille’s neck, her eyes laughing into his as she whispered, “Please don’t tell me Lady Skeffington actually coerced you into dancing with her daughter, Nicki. Not you, of all people. If she has, and you do it, you won’t be able to walk into a drawing room in England without sending everyone into whoops. If you hadn’t been in Italy all summer, you’d know it’s become a game of wits among the bachelors to thwart that odious creature. I’m perfectly serious,” Valerie warned as his only reaction was one of mild amusement, “that woman would resort to anything to get a rich husband for her daughter and secure her own position in Society! Absolutely anything!”
“Thank you for the warning, chérie,” Nicki said dryly. As it happens, I had a brief introduction to Lady Skeffington’s husband shortly before I left for Italy. I have not, however, set eyes on the mother or the daughter, let alone promised to dance with either of them.”
She sighed with relief. “I couldn’t imagine how you could have been that foolish. Julianna is a remarkably pretty thing, actually, but she’s not at all in your usual style. She’s very young, very virginal, and I understand she has an odd habit of hiding behind draperies —or some such.”
“She sounds delightful,” Nicki lied with a chuckle.
“She is nothing like her mama, in any case.” She paused for an eloquent little shudder to illustrate what she was about to say next. “Lady Skeffington is so eager to be a part of Society that she positively grovels. If she weren’t so encroaching and ambitious, she’d be completely pathetic.”
“At the risk of appearing hopelessly obtuse,” Nicki said, losing patience with the entire discussion, “why in hell did you invite them to your masquerade?”
“Because, darling,” Valerie said with a sigh, smoothing her fingers over his jaw with the familiarity of shared intimacies, “this past summer, little Julianna somehow became acquainted with the new Countess of Langford, as well as her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Claymore. At the beginning of the Season, the countess and the duchess made it known they desire little Julianna to be welcome amongst the Ton, then they both left for Devon with their husbands. Since no one wants to offend the Westmore lands, and since Lady Skeffington offends all of us, we all waited until the very last week of the Season to do our duty and invite them to something. Unluckily, of the dozens of invitations Lady Skeffington received for tonight, mine was the one she accepted—probably because she heard you were going to be here.”
She stopped suddenly, as if struck by a delightful possibility. “Everyone has been longing to discover how Julianna and her obnoxious mama happened to become acquainted with the countess and the duchess, and I would wager you know the answer, don’t you! Gossip has it that you were extremely well acquainted with both ladies before they were married.”
To Valerie’s astonishment, his entire expression became distant, shuttered, and his words conveyed a chilly warning. “Define what you mean by ‘extremely well acquainted,’ Valerie.”
Belatedly realizing that she had somehow blundered into dangerous territory, Valerie made a hasty strategic retreat to safer ground. “I meant only that you are known to be a close friend of both ladies.”
Nicki accepted her peace offering with a slight nod and allowed her to retreat in dignity, but he did not let the matter drop completely. “Their husbands are also close friends of mine,” he said pointedly, though that was rather an exaggeration. He was on friendly terms with Stephen and Clayton Westmoreland, but neither man was particularly ecstatic about their wife’s friendship with Nicki—a situation that both ladies had laughingly confided would undoubtedly continue “until you are safely wed, Nicki, and as besotted with your own wife as Clayton and Stephen are with us.”
“Since you aren’t yet betrothed to Miss Skeffington,” Valerie teased softly, pulling his attention back to her as she slid her fingers around his nape, “there is nothing to prevent us from leaving by the side of this maze and going to your bedchamber.”
From the moment she’d greeted him in the house, Nicki had known that suggestion was going to come, and he considered it now in noncommittal silence. There was nothing stopping him from doing that. Nothing whatsoever, except an inexplicable lack of interest in what he knew from past trysts with Valerie would be almost exactly one hour and thirty minutes of uninhibited sexual intercourse with a highly skilled and eager partner. That exercise would be preceded by a glass and a half of excellent champagne, and followed by half a glass of even better brandy. Afterward, he would pretend to be disappointed when she felt obliged to return to her own bed “to keep the servants from gossiping.” Very civilized, very considerate, very predictable.
Lately, the sheer predictability of his life—and everyone in it, including himself—was beginning to grate on him. Whether he was in bed with a woman or gambling with friends, he automatically did and said all the proper—and improper—things at the appropriate time. He associated with men and women of his own class who were all as bland and socially adept as he was.
He was beginning to feel as if he were a damned marionette, performing on a stage with other marionettes, all of whom danced to the same tune, written by the same composer.
Even when it came to illicit liaisons such as the one Valerie was suggesting, there was a prescribed ritual to be followed that varied only according to whether the lady was wed or not, and whether he was playing the role of seducer or seduced. Since Valerie was widowed and had assumed the role of seducer tonight, he knew exactly how she would react if he declined her suggestion. First she would pout—but very prettily; then she would cajole; and then she would offer enticements. He, being the “seduced,” would hesitate, then evade, and then postpone until she gave up, but he would never actually refuse. To do so would be unforgivably rude—a clumsy misstep in the intricate social dance they all performed to perfection.
Despite all that, Nicki waited before answering, half expecting his body to respond favorably to her suggestion, even though his mind was not. When that didn’t happen, he shook his head and took the first step in the dance: hesitation. “I should probably sleep first, chérie. I had a trying week, and I’ve been up for the last two days.”
“Surely you aren’t refusing me, are you, darling?” she asked. Pouting prettily.
Nicki switched smoothly to evasion. “What about your party?”
“I’d rather be with you. I haven’t seen you in months, and besides, the party will go on without me. My servants are trained to perfection.”
“Your guests are not,” Nicki pointed out, still evading since she was still cajoling.
“They’ll never know we’ve left.”
“The bedchamber you gave me is next to your mother’s.”
“She won’t hear us even if you break the bed as you did the last time we used that chamber. She’s deaf as a stone.” Nicki was about to proceed to the postponement stage, but Valerie surprised him by accelerating the procedure and going straight to enticements before he could utter his lines in this trite little play that had become his real life. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed him thoroughly, her hands sliding up and down his chest, her parted lips inviting his tongue.
Nicki automatically put his arm around her waist and complied, but it was an empty gesture born of courtesy, not reciprocity. When her hands slid lower, toward the waistband of his trousers, he dropped his arm and stepped back, suddenly revolted as well as bored with the entire damned charade. “Not tonight,” he said firmly.
Her eyes silently accused him of an unforgivable breach of the rules. Softening his voice, he took her by the shoulders, turned her around, and gave her an affectionate pat on the backside to send her on her way. “Go back to your quests, chérie.” Already reaching into his pocket for a thin cheroot, he added with polite finality, “I’ll follow you after a discreet time.”
UNAWARE THAT SHE WAS NOT alone in the cavernous maze, Julianna waited in tense silence to be absolutely certain her mother wasn’t going to return. After a moment she gave a ragged sigh and dislodged herself from her hiding place.
Since the maze seemed like the best place to hide for the next few hours, she turned left and wandered down a path that opened into a square grassy area with an ornate stone bench in the center.
Morosely, she contemplated her situation, looking for a way out of the humiliating and untenable trap she was in, but she knew there was no escape from her mother’s blind obsession with seeing Julianna wed to someone of “real consequence”—now, while the opportunity existed. Thus far all that had prevented her mother from accomplishing this goal was the fact that no “eligible” suitor “of real consequence” had declared himself during the few weeks Julianna had been in London.
Unfortunately, just before they’d left London to come here, her mother had succeeded in wringing an offer of marriage from Sir Francis Bellhaven, a repulsive, elderly, pompous knight with pallid skin, protruding hazel eyes that seemed to delve down Julianna’s bodice, and thick pale lips that never failed to remind her of a dead goldfish. The thought of being bound for an entire evening, let alone the rest of her life, to Sir Francis was unendurable. Obscene. Terrifying.
Not that she was going to have any choice in the matter. If she wanted a real choice, then hiding in here from other potential suitors her mother commandeered was the last thing she ought to be doing. She knew it, but she couldn’t make herself go back to that ball. She didn’t even want a husband. She was already eighteen years old, and she had other plans, other dreams, for her life, but they didn’t coincide with her mother’s and so they weren’t going to matter. Ever. What made it all so much more frustrating was that her mother actually believed she was acting in Julianna’s best interests and that she knew what was ultimately best for her.
The moon slid out from behind the clouds, and Julianna stared at the pale liquid in her glass. Her father said a bit of brandy never hurt anyone, that it eased all manner of ailments, improved digestion, and cured low spirits. Julianna hesitated, and then in a burst of rebellion and desperation, she decided to test the latter theory. Lifting the glass, she pinched her nostrils closed, tipped her head back, and took three large swallows. She lowered the glass, shuddering and gasping. And waited. For an explosion of bliss. Seconds passed, then one minute. Nothing. All she felt was a slight weakness in her knees and a weakening of her defenses against the tears of futility brimming in her eyes.
In deference to her shaky limbs, Julianna stepped over to the stone bench and sat down. The bench had obviously been occupied earlier that evening, because there was a half-empty glass of spirits on the end of it and several empty glasses beneath it. After a moment she took another sip of brandy and gazed into the glass, swirling the golden liquid so that it gleamed in the moonlight as she considered her plight.
How she wished her grandmother were still alive! Grandmama would have put a stop to Julianna’s mother’s mad obsession with arranging a “splendid marriage.” She’d have understood Julianna’s aversion to being forced into marriage with anyone. In all the world, her father’s dignified mother was the only person who had ever seemed to understand Julianna. Her grandmother had been her friend, her teacher, her mentor.
At her knee Julianna had learned about the world, about people; there and there alone she was encouraged to think for herself and to say whatever she thought, no matter how absurd or outrageous it might seem. In return, her grandmother had always treated her as an equal, sharing her own unique philosophies about anything and everything, from God’s purpose for creating the earth to myths about men and women.
Grandmother Skeffington did not believe marriage was the answer to a woman’s dreams, or even that males were more noble or more intelligent than females! “Consider for a moment my own husband as an example,” she said with a gruff smile one wintry afternoon just before the Christmas when Julianna was fifteen. “You did not know your grandfather, God rest his soul, but if he had a brain with which to think, I never saw the evidence of it. Like all his forebears, he couldn’t tally two figures in his head or write an intelligent sentence, and he had less sense than a suckling babe.”
“Really?” Julianna said, amazed and a little appalled by this disrespectful assessment of a deceased man who had been her grandmother’s husband and Julianna’s grandsire.
Her grandmother nodded emphatically. “The Skeffington men have all been like that—unimaginative, slothful clods, the entire lot of them.”
“But surely you aren’t saying Papa is like that,” Julianna argued out of loyalty. “He’s your only living child.”
“I would never describe your papa as a clod,” she said without hesitation. “I would describe him as a muttonhead!”
Julianna bit back a horrified giggle at such heresy, but before she could summon an appropriate defense, her grandmother continued: “The Skeffington women, on the other hand, have often displayed streaks of rare intelligence and resourcefulness. Look closely and you will discover that it is generally females who survive on their wits and determination, not males. Men are not superior to women except in brute strength.”
When Julianna looked uncertain, her grandmother added smugly, “If you will read that book I gave you last week, you will soon discover that women were not always subservient to men. Why, in ancient times, we had the power and the reverence. We were goddesses and soothsayers and healers, with the secrets of the universe in our minds and the gift of life in our bodies. We chose our mates, not the other way around. Men sought our counsel and worshiped at our feet and envied our powers. Why, we were superior to them in every way. We knew it, and so did they.”
“If we were truly the more clever and the more gifted,” Julianna said when her grandmother lifted her brows, looking for a reaction to that staggering information, “then how did we lose all that power and respect and let ourselves become subservient to men?”
“They convinced us we needed their brute strength for our protection,” she said with a mixture of resentment and disdain. “Then they ‘protected’ us right out of all our privileges and rights. They tricked us.”
Julianna found an error in that logic, and her brow furrowed in thought. “If that is so,” she said after a moment, “then they couldn’t have been quite so dull-witted as you think. They had to be very clever, did they not?”
For a split second her grandmother glowered at her, then she cackled with approving laughter. “A good point, my dear, and one that bears considering. I suggest you write that thought down so that you may examine it further. Perhaps you will write a book of your own on how males have perpetrated that fiendish deception upon females over the centuries. I only hope you will not decide to waste your mind and your talents on some ignorant fellow who wants you for that face of yours and tries to convince you that your only value is in breeding his children and looking after his wants. You could make a difference, Julianna. I know you could.”
She hesitated, as if deciding something, then said, “That brings us to another matter I have been wishing to discuss with you. This seems like as good a time as will come along.”
Grandmother Skeffington got up and walked over to the fireplace on the opposite wall of the cozy little room, her movements slowed by advancing age, her silver hair twisted into a severe coil at her neck. Bracing one hand on the evergreen boughs she’d arranged on the mantel, she bent to stir the coals. “As you know, I have already outlived a husband and one son. I have lived long, and I am fully prepared to end my days on this earth whenever my time arrives. Although I shall not always be here for you, I hope to compensate for that by leaving something behind for you . . . an inheritance that is for you to spend. It isn’t much.”
The subject of her grandmother’s death had never come up before, and the mere thought of losing her made Julianna’s chest tighten with dread.
“As I said, it isn’t much, but if you are extremely thrifty, it could allow you to live very modestly in London for quite a few years while you experience more of life and hone your writing skills.”
In her heart Julianna argued frantically that life without her grandmother was unthinkable, that she had no wish to live in London, and that their shared dream that she might actually become a noteworthy writer was only an impossible fantasy. Afraid that such an emotional outburst would offend the woman, Julianna remained seated upon the footstool in front of her grandmother’s favorite overstuffed chair, inwardly a mass of raw emotions, outwardly controlled, calmly perusing a book. “Have you nothing to say to my plans for you, child? I rather expected to see you leap with joy. Some small display of enthusiasm would be appropriate here in return for the economies I’ve practiced in order to leave you this tiny legacy.”
She was prodding, Julianna knew, trying to provoke her into either a witty rejoinder or an unemotional discussion. Julianna was very good at both after years of practice, but she was as incapable of discussing her grandmother’s death with humor as she was with impersonal calm. Moreover, she was vaguely wounded that her grandmother could talk of leaving her forever without any indication of regret.
“I must say you don’t seem very grateful.”
Julianna’s head snapped up, her violet eyes sparkling with angry tears. “I am not at all grateful, Grandmama, nor do I wish to discuss this now. It is nearly Christmas, a time for joyous—”
“Death is a fact of life,” her grandmother stated flatly. “It is pointless to cower from it.”
“But you are my whole life,” Julianna burst out because she couldn’t stop herself. “And—and I don’t like it in the least that you—you can speak to me of money as if it’s a recompense for your death.”
“You think me cold and callous?”
“Yes, I do!”
It was their first harsh argument, and Julianna hated it.
Her grandmother regarded her in serene silence before asking, “Do you know what I shall miss when I leave this earth?”
“I shall miss one thing and one thing alone.” When Julianna didn’t ask for an explanation, her grandmother provided it: “I shall miss you.”
The answer was in such opposition to her unemotional voice and bland features that Julianna stared dubiously at her.
“I shall miss your humor and your confidences and your amazing gift for seeing the logic behind both sides of any issue. I shall particularly miss reading what you’ve written each day. You have been the only bright spot in my existence.”
As she finished, she walked forward and laid her cool hand on Julianna’s cheek, brushing away the tears trickling from the corner of her eye. “We are kindred spirits, you and I. If you had been born much sooner, we would have been bosom friends.”
“We are friends,” Julianna whispered fiercely as she placed her own hand over her grandmother’s and rubbed her cheek against it. “We will be friends forever and always! When you are . . . gone, I shall still confide in you and write for you—shall write letters to you as if you had merely moved away!”
“What a diverting idea,” her grandmother teased. “And will you also post them to me?”
“Of course not, but you’ll know what I have written nonetheless.”
“What makes you think that?” she asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Because I heard you tell the vicar very bluntly that it is illogical to assume that the Almighty intends to let us lie around dozing until Judgment Day. You said that, having repeatedly warned us that we shall reap what we sow, God is more likely to insist we observe what we have sown from a much wider viewpoint.”
“I do not think it wise, my dear, for you to put more credence in my theological notions than in those of the good vicar. I shouldn’t like for you to waste your talent writing to me after I’m gone, instead of writing something for the living to read.”
“I shan’t be wasting my time,” Julianna said with a confident smile, one of their familiar debates over nonsense lifting her spirits. “If I write you letters, I have every faith you will contrive a way to read them wherever you may be.”
“Because you credit me with mystical powers?”
“No,” Julianna teased, “because you cannot resist correcting my spelling!”
“Impertinent baggage,” her grandmother huffed, but she smiled widely and her fingers spread, linking with Julianna’s for a tight, affectionate squeeze.
The following year, on the eve of Christmas, her grandmother died, holding Julianna’s hand one last time. “I’ll write to you, Grandmama.” Julianna wept as her grandmother’s eyes closed forever. “Don’t forget to watch for my letters. Don’t forget.”
Miracles (in A Holiday of Love)
Now available for the first time ever as an e-novella, New York Times bestselling author Judith McNaught’s short historical romance Miracles—which ties up ends left open in the Westmoreland Dynasty Saga—is available for the first time ever as a standalone e-novella. In Regency London, world-weary lord Nicki du Ville receives an outrageous proposal from Julianna Skeffington, who is Sheridan Bromleigh’s charge fromUntil You.
Here is an excerpt for Perfect ($7.99).
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?”
“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.”
“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?” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.
A rootless foster child, Julie Mathison has blossomed under the love showered upon her by her adoptive family. Now a lovely and vivacious young woman, she is a respected teacher in her small Texas town and is determined to give back all the kindness she has received, believing that nothing can ever shatter the perfect life she has fashioned. Zachary Benedict is an actor whose Academy Award-winning career was shattered when he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. After the tall, ruggedly handsome Zack escapes from a Texas prison, he abducts Julie and forces her to drive him to his Colorado mountain hideout. She’s outraged, cautious, and unable to ignore the instincts that whispers of his innocence. He’s cynical, wary, and increasingly attracted to her. Desire is about to capture them both in its fierce embrace but the journey to trust, true commitment, and proving Zack’s innocence is just beginning. “A mixture of virtue and passion that is almost—ahem—perfect” (Kirkus Reviews) this is a captivating tale that fans will adore.
Judith McNaught Historical Romances:
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