"Benedict's there, isn't he!" Ted said, and the anger he was suppressing came bursting through. "That's why you can't say where you are. Put the bastard on the phone right now, Julie!"

"I can't! Listen to me, everyone, I can't stay on the phone, but I want you to believe me when I tell you that I'm not being mistreated in any way. Ted," she said, trying somehow to communicate with the one person who would understand the law and, hopefully, that judicial mistakes could happen, "he didn't kill anyone, I know he didn't. The jury made a mistake, and so you can't—we can't—blame him for trying to escape."

"A mistake!" Ted exploded. "Julie, don't fall for that crap! He's a convicted murderer and he is a kidnapper!"

"No! He didn't intend to kidnap me. All he wanted was a car, you see, to get him away from Amarillo, and he'd fixed a flat tire on the Blazer, so naturally I offered him a ride. He would have let me go, but he couldn't because I saw his map—"

"What map did you see, Julie? A map of what? Of where?"

"I have to go now," she said miserably.

"Julie!" Reverend Mathison's voice interrupted, "when are you coming back?"

"As soon as he'll let me, no—as soon as I can. I—I have to go. Promise me you won't tell anyone about this call."

"We promise, and we love you, Julie," Reverend Mathison said with touching, unconditional trust. "The whole town is praying for your safety."

"Dad," she said, because she couldn't stop herself, "could you ask them to pray for his safety, too?"

"Have you lost your mind!" Ted burst out. "The man's a convicted—" Julie didn't hear the rest of what he said. She was already putting the receiver back in its cradle and blinking back tears of sorrow. By asking them to pray for her captor, she had inadvertently forced her family to assume that she was either Zachary Benedict's dupe or his accomplice. Either one was a betrayal of everything they stood for and believed in, a betrayal of everything they'd believed of her, too. Shaking off the depression settling over her, Julie reminded herself that Zachary Benedict was innocent and that was what really mattered right now. Helping an innocent man to stay out of prison was not immoral or illegal, and it was not a betrayal of her family's trust.

Getting up, she added wood to both fireplaces, put the phone back in the closet, then went into the kitchen and spent the next hour cleaning it up and then making homemade stew to warm her patient when he awoke. She was cutting up potatoes when she realized that if he knew she'd made a phone call, she'd have a difficult, if not impossible, time convincing him that her family and her former sister-in-law were trustworthy and wouldn't tell the authorities she'd called. Since he already had enough to worry about, she decided not to tell him.

Finished, she wandered into the living room and sat down on the sofa, the radio still on in the kitchen so that she could hear if there was more news that would interest Zack.

It was funny, in an awful ironic sort of way, she thought with a rueful smile as she stretched out on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling, all the years she'd spent behaving like Mary Poppins and never, ever straying from the straight and narrow path, only to come to this.

In high school, she'd had lots of friends who were boys, but she never let them become more than friends, and they'd seemed willing to accept that. They picked her up for football games, offered her rides to school, and included her in their raucous, laughing groups. In her senior year, Rob Kiefer, the school's undisputed "hunk," had thrown her into a quandary of longing and frustration by asking her to the prom. Julie'd had a secret crush on Rob for years, but she refused his coveted invitation anyway, because everyone said that Rob Kiefer could get a girl's underwear off quicker than Mary Kostler could undress the mannequins in the window at Kostler's Dress Shop.

Julie didn't believe Rob would try anything with her because they were friends. She was also Reverend Mathison's daughter, which gave her a certain "immunity" from unwanted passes, but she couldn't go to the prom with Rob. Even though she was dying to say yes and even though he promised solemnly that he'd behave on prom night, she knew the whole school, and eventually the whole town, would assume that Reverend Mathison's daughter had become another on the long list of Rob's sexual conquests. Instead, Julie went to the prom with nice Bill Swensen, whose father was the school's bandleader, and Rob escorted Denise Potter, one of the cheerleaders. That night, she'd watched in sublime misery as Rob, who was crowned king of the prom, leaned over and kissed his queen, Denise Potter.

Denise got pregnant that night. When the couple got married three months later and rented a dingy one-room apartment instead of going off to college as they'd planned, the entire town of Keaton knew why. Some of Keaton's citizens pitied Denise, but most of them acted as if she'd invited it on herself by going near Rob Kiefer.

Julie felt irrationally responsible for the entire nightmare. The experience also caused her to reinforce her resolve to avoid trouble and scandal at all costs. In college, she steadfastly refused dates with Steve Baxter, even though she had a crush on him, because the handsome football player was a notorious flirt with a reputation for scoring in the bedroom even more often than he did on the football field. Steve, for reasons she never understood, spent almost two years pursuing her, appearing alone at social functions if he knew she was going to be there, staying at her side, and doing his sincere and charming best to convince her that she really was special to him. They laughed together, they talked for hours, but only in groups, because Julie adamantly refused to start dating him.

Now, as Julie compared her staid past to her chaotic present and uncertain future, she didn't know whether to laugh or cry: In all these years, she hadn't stepped out of line once because she didn't want her family and the people in Keaton to think badly of her. Now that she was about to stray from the "straight and narrow path," however, she wasn't going to settle for some minor infraction of moral and social rules that would stir up a little gossip in Keaton. No indeed, not her, Julie thought wryly. What she was going to do was violate not only moral precepts, but probably the laws of the United States of America, and while she was doing that, the entire news media would be providing gossip about it for the entire world—just as they were already doing!

The moment of humor vanished and Julie looked somberly at her hands. From the time she went to live with the Mathisons, she'd chosen to make certain "sacrifices," up to and including her decision to become a teacher, rather than pursuing another career that would have paid much more. And yet, each sacrifice invariably brought her such rich rewards that she always felt as if she received much more than she gave.


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
Source: www.StudyNovels.com