"Tell me you believe I'm innocent," he'd ordered her last night, and at that moment, Julie knew beyond all doubt that the man who wanted to die because he'd caused her own "death" had to be exactly that—innocent.
Unaware that she was crying or that she'd started running, Julie plunged silently down the slope to where he sat. When she was close enough to see his face, remorse and tenderness almost sent her to her knees. With his head thrown back and his eyes shut, his handsome face was a mask of ravaged regret.
The cold forgotten, she scooped up his jacket and held it out to him. Swallowing past the awful lump of contrition in her throat, she said in an aching whisper, "You win. Let's go home now."
When he didn't respond, Julie dropped to her knees and started trying to force his limp arm into the jacket.
"Zack, wake up!" she cried. Her shoulders shaking with suppressed sobs, she pulled him into her arms, cradling his head against her chest, trying to infuse some of her warmth into him, rocking him back and forth. "Please!" she babbled, on the edge of hysteria. "Please get up. I can't lift you. You have to help me. Zack, please. Remember when you said you wanted someone to believe you're innocent? I didn't completely believe you then, but I do now. I swear it. I know you didn't kill anyone. I believe everything you've said. Get up! Please, please get up!"
His weight seemed to be getting heavier, as if he was completely losing consciousness, and Julie panicked. "Zack, don't go to sleep," she said in a near scream. Grabbing his wrist, she began shoving his limp arm into his jacket while resorting to mindless bribery in an effort to jar him into alertness. "Well go home. We'll go to bed together. I wanted to last night, but I was afraid. Help me get you home, Zack," she pleaded as she forced his other arm into the jacket and struggled with the zipper. "We'll make love in front of the fire. You'd like that wouldn't you!"
When she'd gotten his jacket on him, she stood up, grabbed his wrists, and pulled with all her might, but instead of moving him, her feet lost traction and she slid down beside him. Scrambling to her feet again, Julie raced to his snowmobile and brought it over to where he was lying. Bending over him, she shook him and when she couldn't wake him, she closed her eyes for courage, then she swung her arm in a wide arc and slapped him hard across the face. His eyes opened, then closed. Ignoring the scream of pain that shot up her arm from her frozen fingers, she grabbed his wrists and tugged, trying to tell him something different that might make him try to get up. "I can't find the way home without you," she lied, yanking on his wrists. "If you won't help me get home, I'll die out here with you. Is that what you want? Zack, please help me," she cried. "Don't let me die!"
It was a second before she realized that he wasn't completely the dead weight he'd been and that he was reacting to something she'd said and using what feeble strength he had left to try to stand. "That's right!" Julie panted, "Stand up. Help me get home so I'll be warm."
His movements were terrifyingly sluggish and when his eyes opened, his gaze was unfocused, but he was instinctively trying to help her now. It took several attempts, but Julie managed to get him to his feet, loop his arm over her shoulders, and get him onto the snowmobile, where he slumped over the handle bars.
"Try to help me balance," she said, steadying him with her arms and quickly getting on behind him. She glanced up at the path he'd taken down here, realized it would be impossible to make the steep climb back there now, and decided to follow the creek around the bend in hopes there would be a way to get up to the bridge and onto the road from there. Her former fear of the unfamiliar machine's power forgotten, Julie crouched low over him to shield him from the wind with her body and sent the machine flying over the snow. "Zack" she said near his ear, scanning the path and talking to him in a desperate effort to keep him conscious and hold her own terror at bay, "you're still shivering a little. Shivering is good. It means your body temperature hasn't dropped to the bottom danger point. I read that somewhere." They rounded the bend, and Julie aimed the snowmobile at the only path she thought they might be able to climb.
He collapsed twice in the hall before Julie got him to her bedroom where she knew for certain the fireplace was filled with wood and ready to be lit. Breathless from exertion, she staggered to the bed and let his weight carry him onto it. His outer clothes were stiff and crusted with ice, as she started pulling them off of him. It was while she was yanking off his pants that he spoke the only words he'd said since she'd run to his rescue. "Shower," he mumbled feebly. "Hot shower."
"No," she retorted, trying to sound businesslike and impersonal as she began to yank off his icy underwear. "Not yet. People suffering from hypothermia need to be warmed slowly but not with direct heat, I learned that in a first aid class in college. And don't give a thought to me undressing you. I'm a teacher and you're just another little boy to me," she lied. "A teacher's almost like a nurse, did you know that?" she added. "Stay awake! Listen to my voice!" She eased the shorts down his muscled legs, glanced down to see how she was doing, and felt a fiery blush heat her cheeks. The magnificent male body that was sprawled out before her eyes looked like a Playgirl centerfold she'd seen in college. Except that this real-life body was blue with cold and vibrating with deep shivering chills.
Grabbing the blankets, she tucked them around him, chafing them on his skin as she worked, then she went to the closet and got out four more blankets and spread them over him. Satisfied with his covering, she hurried over to the fireplace in the corner and lit the kindling. Not until the logs were blazing on the hearth did Julie stop long enough to take off her own outdoor clothes. Afraid to leave him, she stood at the foot of his bed, watching his slow, shallow breaths as she stripped off her snowmobile suit. "Zack, can you hear me?" she asked, and although he didn't answer, Julie began talking to him in a mindless string of disjointed comments intended to both encourage him to recover and boost her flagging confidence that he would. "You're very strong, Zack. I noticed that when I watched you changing my tire and when you crawled out of the creek. And you're brave, too. There's a little boy in my class—his name is Johnny Everett—he wants to be strong more than anything in the world. He's crippled, so he has to stay in a wheelchair, and it breaks my heart to watch him, but he never gives up. Remember, I told you about him last night?" Unaware of the tenderness in her voice, she added, "He's very brave, just like you are. My brothers used to have pictures of you in their room. Did I ever tell you that? There's so much I'd like to tell you, Zack," she said brokenly. "And I will, if you'll just stay alive and give me a chance. I'll tell you anything you'd like to know."