At the age of eighteen, Zachary Benedict was shut out of his life of wealth and privilege by his grandmother, who wanted to teach him a lesson. With nothing but the clothes on his back and barely a penny to his name, Zack hitched a ride all the way to Hollywood, where he took a job working on the docks at a major movie studio. Soon he was discovered by a producer and embarked on an acting career that turned him into a household name. Eventually he turned his talents to directing, but he was never entirely happy with his life. His marriage hit the skids, and as he was about to wrap production on his latest film in which his wife was starring, he found her in flagrante delicto with one of their co-stars. The next day, she was shot dead on the movie set. Seemingly the only person with a motive to kill her, Zack was charged with and later convicted of her murder. After unjustly spending five years in prison, he feels like one more day behind bars will drive him insane, so he hatches a daring escape plan. Everything is going perfectly until his getaway car is towed, and Zack finds himself in desperate need of wheels. Wanting to get as far away as fast as he can, Zack tricks a young woman into giving him a ride, but when she figures out what's going on, he ends up taking her hostage instead.
Julie Mathison was abandoned as a baby and grew up in a string of foster homes and on the streets, until a kind, loving family finally adopted her when she was eleven. Their faith in her never wavered, something she'd never experienced in her life, so she, in turn, promised to be a "perfect" person they could be proud of. She's made a life for herself as a well-respected school teacher, runs an adult literacy program, and volunteers for many community activities. As she's returning from a brief trip to solicit funds for her adult reading class, she chances to meet a man whom she thinks is a kind stranger. He turns out to be a wanted fugitive. At first fearing for her life, Julie complies with his wishes, but she also bravely does everything she can think of to try to get away from Zack. When she finally has the perfect opportunity to escape, a moment of unexpected vulnerability on Zack's part makes her hesitate. Soon she finds herself ensconced with the handsome actor in a luxury mountaintop cabin in the middle of a snowstorm. As Julie spends time in Zack's company and gets to know him, she slowly comes to believe that he is indeed innocent of the charges against him.
To Zack, Julie is a breath of fresh air. She's kind, sweet, and genuine with the heart of a lion, nothing at all like his former wife or the other starlets he used to date. Romance and passion blossom between the pair, but Zack knows he must soon leave Julie behind in order to flee the country. Even though he's grown to love her in a way he never thought possible, it wouldn't be fair to her to take her with him, when he has nothing to offer but a dangerous life on the run. Instead, Zack sends Julie back to the safety of her hometown, with a good cover story that he hopes will save her reputation, intending to never see her again. But the love between them is stronger than he realized. Being without Julie is torturous, and when he believes she might be pregnant with his child, he risks everything to be with her again, only to be led to believe she betrayed him in the cruelest possible way. If Zack's innocence can ever be proven, will he be able to find it in his heart to forgive Julie, or will they be doomed to live separate lives, feeling like half of their souls are missing?
Judith McNaught's Perfect is the second book in her Second Opportunities series and the second book by her that I've read. The first book of the series, Paradise, was an amazing read for me that now has a place among my all-time favorite romances. I'd heard equally good things about Perfect, and while it was a great read, it ever so slightly missed the bar that Paradise had set. Much like with Paradise, the hero and heroine of Perfect are given extensive backstories that begin when they're both pretty young, but unlike Paradise, their romance doesn't get started until over 100 pages into the story when the hero kidnaps the heroine, taking her hostage after escaping from prison. Not only did it take significantly longer for the romance to get started, but having it start the way it did, put a bit of a damper on the initial emotional connection for me. Even though I never once believed that Zack actually murdered his wife, his actions at first aren't exactly honorable. The more time they spend holed up in their mountain hideaway, the better things get, but eventually, they still must part ways. After that, there were a few parts that moved a bit slowly for me, because I was beyond eager for the real killer to be found and for them to reunite. Also, Julie is extremely trusting of Zack, but when things go badly and her trust is truly put to the test, she comes to believe he really is guilty. At this point, she starts dating an FBI agent who was working on the case. Even though it was clear that she still loved Zack through all of the turmoil, I once again, couldn't help feeling like there was a bit of a damper on that all-important emotional connection. Admittedly the author did bring things full-circle with a touching reunion, and while the subsequent scenes of Zack and Julie's two week courtship were kind of sweet, I couldn't help feeling like things maybe could have been wrapped up a little sooner. Overall, though, despite my few nitpicks, Perfect was an enjoyable read.
When the story opens, Julie is an eleven-year-old street urchin, who was abandoned as a baby. She was shuttled around from one foster home to the next her whole life, and she can't even read. In spite of her circumstances, she's obviously a brilliant, sweet, empathetic girl, who I liked immediately. She just needed responsible adults in her life who were willing to help her reach her potential. She found that in her psychologist who recognized that potential and helped get her adopted by a loving family who then helped her reach it. Now, as an adult, she is a teacher, not only of kids, but also of a group of illiterate adult women. Julie's family gave her their absolute trust, so she in return decided to be 'perfect' to be worthy of that trust. I think in large part because of the love and trust her family showed her, Julie is very trusting of others, which is why she fell for Zack's story and gave him a ride after he'd escaped from prison. Even after she found out who he really was and he'd officially taken her hostage, she handled herself very well. She used her intelligence and ingenuity to try to escape, but when all her attempts failed, she still lashed him with her sharp tongue. Eventually, after being holed up with him in a luxury mountain-top cabin for a few days, she comes to believe he couldn't possibly be guilty of his wife's murder. That's when things start to heat up between them. After Zack sends her home so that he can flee the country, she stands by him, maintaining his innocence to the press and never painting him as the monster they seem to think he is. She's his staunchest supporter and loved him to the point that she was willing to run away with him until some unexpected information comes to light. Then her faith in his innocence falters. While I understood her reasons and very well might have felt the same way, I couldn't help feeling that it somehow marred her love for him just a bit. Even after that, though, it's obvious that she still cares for him and it killed her to do some of the things she did. Once the real killer came to light, Julie was more than willing to make amends, but by then, Zack didn't want anything to do with her.
When we first see Zack, he's eighteen and being thrown out of his privileged life and luxurious home by a seemingly cold-hearted grandmother. After that, he hitches a ride to Hollywood, where he gets discovered and builds a new life for himself as an Academy award winning film actor and director. Unfortunately his cheating wife is shot to death on the set of his latest movie, and everyone believes Zack did it. He's convicted and sent to prison for 45 years, but after serving only five, he's about to go insane and decides to make a daring escape. Things don't quite go as planned, which is how he ends up kidnapping Julie. From those opening pages, Zack is a pretty sympathetic character, who I never believed killed anybody. He does make some threats against Julie and hold her at gunpoint, but he also shows some surprising moments of vulnerability, which convinced her (and me) of his innocence and decency. Julie is a breath of fresh air to Zack, partly because she isn't particularly impressed by his super-stardom, and partly because she's nothing like the starlets and other Hollywood types who were only interested in him for what he could do for their career. She's pure and innocent, far from the jaded, cynical person he's become. Her zest for life is infectious. Being around her makes him feel like a different person - someone normal. Except for one sex scene that was rather rough and not really my cup of tea and which I mostly understood his reasons for and for which he later made up, Zack is a tender and considerate lover. He also behaves selflessly in sending Julie back to her family, refusing to take her with him out of the country. Zack has some hard, stubborn alpha male moments, but also plenty of kind, loving moments that help to make up for them and balance him out.
Before reading, Perfect, I had no idea what the connections were between it and Paradise. Even though they didn't share the same last name, I thought maybe Julie was Matt's sister from Paradise. That definitely wasn't the case. I guess Ms. McNaught just really likes the name, which is fine by me since that's my name too.:-) Anyway, the actual connection is that Matt and Meredith, the hero and heroine of Paradise, appear several times as secondary characters. Matt is Zack's best and really his only true friend, and he and Meredith are the only ones who never lose faith in Zack's innocence. In fact, Matt moves heaven and earth to prove it. We also get to see more of Matt's amusing bodyguard/chauffeur, Joe O'Hara, who apparently appears in another of Ms. McNaught's books, Someone to Watch Over Me. We also meet FBI agent, Paul Richardson, who seems like a good guy but who kind of gets left out in the cold when Julie and Zack reunite. He shows up again in book three of the series, Night Whispers.
Even though there were a few small things that kept Perfect from being 'perfect,' it was still a very good read. While the book as a whole might not have been quite flawless for me, it did contain one of the most perfect love scenes I've ever read in a romance novel. Once Zack and Julie finally start talking and getting to know one another on a more personal level, it builds a strong sense of intimacy and connection that makes their first love scene utterly beautiful. It's filled with the tenderness, love and passion I crave in a romance. Zack's love letter to Julie is also pretty darn perfect. Those things alone made it worth all the ups and downs they have to suffer through to get their HEA. With two keepers in a row under her belt, Judith McNaught has earned a spot on my favorite authors list, and I look forward to checking out the rest of the Second Opportunities series and more of her backlist titles soon.
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