At that moment, he'd planted a treacherous seed of doubt in her mind about his guilt; now, seventeen hours later, that seed was taking root deep within her, nourished by her horror at the possibility that an innocent man had spent five long years in a penitentiary. Other things that were equally beyond her control were combining to make her feel helplessly drawn to him, things like the memory of his hungry kiss, the shudder that had run through his body when she'd finally yielded, the restraint he'd shown when she did yield. In fact, he had treated her with restraint and even courtesy during most of the time they'd been together.

For the dozenth time in the last hour, she decided a true murderer surely wouldn't bother to be gentle when he kissed a woman nor would he treat her with the kindness and humor that Zack had generally shown her.

Her mind argued that she was being a fool to decide a jury was wrong; but tonight, whenever she looked at him, every instinct she possessed shouted that he was innocent. And if he was, then she could hardly bear the thought of what he had been put through.

He walked back into the living room, turned on the television set, and sat down across from her, stretching his long legs out and crossing them at the ankles. "We'll watch whatever you'd like after the news," he said, his attention already on the television's giant-size screen.

"Fine," Julie said, studying him surreptitiously across the width of the coffee table. There was indomitable pride chiseled into his handsome face, determination in the jut of his chin, arrogance in his jaw, intelligence and hard-bitten strength etched into every feature of his face. Long ago, she'd read dozens of articles about him written by gushing reporters as well as reputable movie critics. Often, they tried to define him in terms of other megastars who'd preceded him. One critic Julie particularly remembered watching on television had tried to turn him into a human conglomerate by saying that Zachary Benedict had the animal magnetism of a young Sean Connery, the talent of a Newman, the charisma of Costner, the raw machismo of a young Eastwood, the smooth sophistication of Warren Beatty, the versatility of Michael Douglas, and the rugged appeal of Harrison Ford.

Now, after spending almost two days with the man himself in very close quarters, Julie decided that none of the articles she'd read had actually described him nor had any movie camera ever really done him justice, and she vaguely understood why: In real life, there was an aloof strength, a powerful charisma about him that had nothing whatsoever to do with his tall, broad-shouldered physique or that famous mocking smile of his. There was something else … a feeling Julie got whenever she looked at him that, discounting his imprisonment, Zachary Benedict had already done and seen everything there was to do and see and that all those experiences were permanently locked away behind an unbreachable wall of polite urbanity, lazy charm, and piercing golden eyes. Beyond any woman's reach.

And therein lay his real appeal, Julie realized: the challenge. Despite everything he'd done to her in the last two days, Zachary Benedict made her—and probably every other woman who'd known him or seen his movies—want to get past that barricade. To discover what was underneath, to soften it, to find the boy he must have been, to make the man he had become shout with laughter and grow tender with love.

Julie gave herself a stern mental shake. None of that mattered! All that mattered was whether he was guilty of murder or innocent. She stole another look at his profile and felt her heart turn over.

He was innocent. She knew it. She could feel it. And the thought of all that male beauty and intelligence being caged up for five long years made her throat constrict. A vision of a prison cellblock flashed through her mind … the sound of cell doors clanging shut, of prison guards shouting, of men working in laundries and prison yards, deprived of all their freedom and privacy. All their dignity.

The newscaster's voice snapped her wandering attention to the television set: "We'll have news on the state and local scene, including information on the blizzard heading our way, tonight, after we switch to the network and Tom Brokaw for news of special import." Julie stood up, suddenly too nervous to sit there doing nothing. "I'm going to get a glass of water," she said, already heading for the kitchen, but Tom Brokaw's voice stopped her in her tracks:

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Two days ago, Zachary Benedict, who was once regarded as one of Hollywood's greatest leading men and a gifted director, escaped from the State Penitentiary at Amarillo, where he was serving a forty-five-year prison term for the Machiavellian slaying of his wife, actress Rachel Evans, in 1988."

Julie swung around in time to see a picture of Zack wearing a prison uniform with numbers across his chest filling up the screen, and she walked into the living room as if mesmerized by the ugliness of what she saw and heard and felt while Brokaw continued, "Benedict is believed to be traveling with this woman…"

A gasp escaped Julie as her own picture, which was taken last year with her third-grade class, flashed on the screen. She'd been wearing a shirtwaist dress with a demure bow at the collar.

"Authorities in Texas report that the woman, Julie Mathison, twenty-six, was last seen in Amarillo two days ago where a man fitting Benedict's description was observed getting into a blue Chevrolet Blazer with her. At first, authorities believed that Ms. Mathison had been taken as a hostage against her will…"

"At first?" Julie burst out, looking at Zack who was slowly standing up. "What does he mean at first?"

The answer to that was immediate and horrifying as Brokaw said, "The hostage theory was exploded late this afternoon when Pete Golash, a truck driver, reported that he saw a couple matching Benedict's and Mathison's descriptions at a Colorado rest stop near dawn this morning…"

Pete Golash's cheerful face filled the screen next, only it was on videotape and what he was saying made Julie feel sick with fury and shame: "The pair of them were havin' a snowball fight like a couple of kids. Then the woman—Julie Mathison—I'm sure as hell, I mean heck, the woman was her! Anyway, she tripped and fell, and Benedict landed on top of her and the next thing I knew they was neckin'. Kissin'. If she's a hostage, she sure wasn't actin' like one."

"Oh my God!" Julie said, wrapping her arms around her stomach, swallowing the bile rising in her throat. In a few moments, ugly reality had invaded the falsely cozy atmosphere of the mountain cabin, and she rounded on the man who had taken her there, seeing him as he'd been on television and what he truly was: a convict wearing a prison uniform with numbers across his chest. Before she could recover, another more tormenting scene lit up the screen and Brokaw said, "Our reporter Phil Morrow is in Keaton, Texas, where Mathison has been living and teaching third grade in the local elementary school. He was able to get a brief interview with her parents, Reverend and Mrs. James Mathison—"


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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