A scream of denial escaped Julie's lips as her father's solemn, dignified face looked out at her, his voice emphatic, trusting, trying to convince the world of her innocence. "If Julie is with Benedict, then she's with him against her will. That truck driver who says differently is either mistaken about who he saw or what he saw happening," he finished with a stern, disapproving look at the reporters who started shouting questions at him. "That is all I have to say."
With shame streaking through her in sick waves, Julie snapped her face from the screen and stared at Zachary Benedict through a blur of hot tears as he walked swiftly toward her. "You bastard!" she choked, backing away as he neared her.
"Julie," Zack said, reaching for her shoulders in a helpless attempt to comfort her.
"Don't touch me!" she cried, trying to fling his hands away, writhing and shoving against his chest while a torrent of sobs erupted from her. "My father is a minister!" she wept. "He's a respected man and you've made his daughter into a public slut! I'm a teacher!" she cried hysterically, "I teach little children! Do you think they'll let me teach children now that I'm a national scandal who wallows in the snow with escaped murderers?"
The realization that she was probably right slashed through Zack like a jagged razor, and he tightened his grip on her arms. "Julie—"
"I've spent the last fifteen years of my life," she sobbed brokenly, struggling harder against his grasp, "trying to be perfect. I've been so perfect!" she wept, and the sound of her pain transmitted itself to Zack even though he didn't fully understand its source. "And it—it was all for nothing!"
As if she'd finally exhausted herself physically, she stopped struggling and her head fell forward, but her shoulders continued to jerk with sobs. "I tried so hard," she choked. "I became a teacher so they'd be proud. I—I go to church and I teach Sunday school. They won't let me teach any more after this—"
Suddenly Zack couldn't bear the weight of her sorrow or his own culpability any more. "Stop it, please," he whispered achingly, wrapping her in his arms, cupping his hand around her head and holding her face pressed to his chest. "I understand and I'm sorry. When this is all over, I'll make them see the truth."
"You understand!" she repeated with bitter scorn, lifting her tear-streaked, accusing face to his. "How can someone like you understand how I feel!"
Someone like him. An animal like him. "Oh, I understand!" he bit out, holding her away, shaking her until she looked up at him. "I understand exactly what it feels like to he despised for something you didn't do!"
Julie choked back her protest at his rough handling as she registered the fury on his face and the agony in his eyes. His fingers bit into her arms, and his voice was raw with emotion. "I didn't kill anyone! Do you hear me? Lie to me and say you believe me! Just say it! I want to hear someone say it!"
Having just experienced herself a tiny part of what he would feel if he was truly innocent, Julie cringed inwardly at the thought of what he could be feeling. If he was truly innocent… She swallowed, her blurry eyes searching his haggard, handsome face, and she spoke her thought aloud:
"I believe you!" she whispered, fresh tears starting to spill over her lashes and down her cheeks. "I do."
Zack heard the sincerity in her tearful voice; in her blue eyes he saw the dawning of true compassion, and deep within him the wall of ice he'd kept around his heart for years began to thaw and crack. Lifting his hand, he laid it against her soft cheek, his thumb helplessly rubbing away her hot tears. "Don't cry for me," he murmured, his voice hoarse.
"I believe you!" she repeated, and the tender fierceness of her reply demolished what was left of his reserve. Zack's throat constricted around an unfamiliar knot of emotion, and for a moment he stood there, immobilized by what he saw and heard and felt. Her tears were streaming down her cheeks, clinging to her sooty lashes, wetting his hand; her eyes looked like damp blue pansies, and she was biting down on her lower lip, trying to stop it from trembling.
"Please, don't cry," he whispered achingly as he lowered his mouth to hers to stop her lips from trembling. "Please, please don't…" At the first touch of his mouth, she went rigidly still, her breath indrawn, though Zack hadn't any idea if it was fear or surprise that paralyzed her. He didn't know and didn't care at that moment. His only desire was to hold her, to savor the sweet feelings swelling inside him—the first sweetness he'd felt in years—to share it all with her.
Telling himself to go slowly, to be content with whatever she was willing to permit, Zack slid his lips back and forth over the contours of hers, tasting the saltiness of her tears. He told himself not to push her, not to force her, and even while he did, he began to do both. "Kiss me back," he urged, and the helpless tenderness he heard in his voice was as alien to him as the other feelings coursing through him. "Kiss me back," he repeated, sliding his tongue over the seam of her lips. "Open your mouth," he coaxed. When she obeyed and leaned into him, crushing her parted lips to his, Zack almost groaned aloud with the pleasure of it. Desire, primitive and potent, poured through his veins, and suddenly he was acting on pure instinct. His arm tightened, angling across her back, holding her hips pressed to his while his lips forced hers to part wider, and his tongue plunged into the wine-flavored softness of her mouth. He backed her against the wall, kissing her with all the persuasive force at his disposal, his mouth slanting over hers, his tongue teasing and provoking, his hands sliding down her spine and then up, under her sweater. Her soft, bare skin felt like liquid satin beneath his hands as he caressed her narrow waist, stroked her back, and spread his fingers over her midriff, and then he finally let himself seek her breasts. She pressed closer to him and moaned into his mouth when he touched her breasts, and the sweet sound was almost his undoing; it made his entire body throb while his fingers explored every inch of breast and nipple, his lips locked to hers, his tongue exploring with rampant hunger.
To Julie, what he was doing to her was like being imprisoned in a cocoon of dangerous, terrifying sensuality where she had no control over anything. Particularly herself. Beneath the exploration of his long fingers her breasts were beginning to ache with need; against her will, her heated body was molding itself to the hardened contours of his; and her parted lips were welcoming the continued invasion of his tongue.