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neutral. 'I'll go start you a hot shower. If you stand on under it for a good long time, you

won't even be left feeling stiff.'

By the time she remembered to thank him, he was already out of the room.

Forty minutes later, Francis walked out of the bathroom and to his bedroom, a bath-

towel slung around his waist, his manner preoccupied. Kirstie's eyes gobbled up the

sight of the man, for he was magnificent. She swung out of the living-room chair she

had been sitting in and walked into the bathroom.

It was full of steam and Francis's fresh body scent. She could develop quite a reaction to

his scent. His sodden clothes were in a pile at one end of the bathtub while hers were

still in the sink. The lacy white strap of her bra hung over the side of it. She stuffed it

under the shirt while her face burned.

Who would have thought it? Francis Grayson, Wall Street's seventh wonder, kissing

skinny little Kirstie Philips from New Jersey. Put like that, the incident in the ravine

sounded at best inexplicable. At its very worst it could have been manipulative, coercive.

But she knew better than that. The sensual awareness had been all too apparent in his

eyes. Her own face had been naked with it.

She piled the heavy clothes into the laundry basket and threw it outside the door, in a

turmoil of disorganised thought. Complications—everything about the man was a

complication. Kirstie had no problem with the fact that Francis was supposed to be a

very attractive man. She just wasn't supposed to be affected by it.

Today was early afternoon on Wednesday. That meant three more nights alone with him.

It was a totally unacceptable computation. She scrapped it and counted up the hours.

That, too, sounded astronomically high. What if he tried to kiss her again? What if he

tried to seduce her? She'd be putty in his hands, and the worst part was that the fate

sounded thoroughly enjoyable.

What if
she
tried to kiss
him?

With the edge of her sleeve, she polished the bathroom mirror in obsessive circles.

Kirstie's imagination on the subject was a bit too vivid. Her body flamed over.

Maybe there was something wrong with her. She stuck out her tongue and looked at it.

'Are you all right?' Francis leaned against the doorpost, eyeing her sceptically.

'Probably not,' she sighed and flinched away from the sight of his hair sprinkled, healthy

chest. The least he could do was have the decency to cover himself. She forced herself to

stare at him, hard. 'Louise did say one thing that could be taken in your favour. She said

you always kept your word. If you were to promise me something, would you stand by

it?'

A wary look crept into his eyes. 'If I make a promise, I keep it,' he replied, stressing the

first word.

'Can you promise me to keep away from Louise until after the wedding? I mean, not

even so much as to give her a phone call?'

'By this I take it you want to go back early and your decision hangs on what I reply to

that,' he said, with dry acuteness. A shutter came down over his face. Not by his stance

or by so much as a twitch of an eyebrow could she tell what he was thinking. 'No. I

won't promise it.'

Did he still want Louise after all? Kirstie had to turn away as a headache began to throb

at her temples. She busied herself with straightening the handtowel on its rack. There

was utter silence in the doorway until, finally, she turned around to give him a tight, pale

smile. 'Get your things ready. We can leave in a half an hour.'

His brows snapped together. She noticed that she had managed to give him a bit of a

surprise with that one. After a moment, he said carefully, 'I don't get it.'

'No, I don't suppose you do. Excuse me.' Kirstie brushed past him and went to her

bedroom to tidy it and collect the few personal belongings she had brought. He

followed.

'Tell me this. Just one thing,' Francis asked sarcastically. 'Does anyone ever understand a

single thing you do?'

'Quite frequently,' she muttered.

'Well then, how the hell do they do it?' he snapped.

'How should I know?'

'You're the one who thinks the way you do!'

'Why are you yelling at me? You've got what you wanted all along! You should be over

the moon!'

'If I had wanted to just go back, you stupid woman, I would have done so on Sunday!' he

roared.

Total silence. They glared at each other. Kirstie was amazed at how Francis looked as if

he could throttle her without regret. Instead he pivoted on one heel and stalked away.

Her vision blurred. Damn the headache. Damn the man.

She waited deliberately until the dust had settled after his latest bomb. Thinking did no

good at all. She was too tired and confused to figure this one out on her own. After a

while she went into the living-room and found him sitting in front of the fire, his bare

chest gleaming. He stretched his long legs out in front of him and sighed, letting his

head fall to the back of the chair, basking in the glow of the fire like a cat.

He looked—peaceful. That black silk fall of hair. She wondered what it would feel like

to let the dry strands flow between her fingers. He rolled his head towards her at the

sound of her entrance.

'I don't understand you,' she said very quietly.

Just as quietly he replied, 'I know. I'm not so sure I understand it myself.'

She walked to the settee, sat on a very damp patch left earlier by her own wet bottom

and with a grimace slid on to the floor. 'What is it you want from me?'

His eyes flashed to her. They looked very light. Twin flames flickered across the

lustrous, clear colour. 'It's very simple, idealistic and probably impossible,' he said. 'I

want you to accept me for what I am—not what another person told you I am, but what

you see right now in front of you.'

The honesty of that was irrefutable, and it hurt like a knife. Her forehead crinkled with

the distress it caused, and she whispered, 'Why? Why me, after all I've done to you?'

'Don't you think I've asked myself that?' His lips curved into a little smile, self-mocking,

and she saw that he was as pitiless with himself as she was with herself. 'You've

kidnapped me, drugged me, threatened me with a gun and disrupted my schedule in one

of the most ridiculous, hare-brained schemes I've witnessed in a very long time. I should

still be angry with you. I wish I were.'

She closed her eyes. He was giving her too much. I'm sorry, she wanted to say. I'm sorry.

But she couldn't.

'The thing is, Kirstie,' Francis was telling her, 'that I can clearly see your concern and

desperation in doing what you did. You thought people's lives were being ruined. What

you did took courage. You broke the rules of society, but, more importantly, you stayed

to face the consequences of what you did, when you didn't have to. And you've

continually faced up to your own code of standards even when it meant hurting yourself.

I don't agree with what you did, but I can respect it.'

He leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees. 'Look at me. What do you see?'

'I can't,' she whispered, but she looked at him anyway.

He held her gaze with gentle relentlessness, and then, with the most brutal of all

honesties, said, 'You did in the ravine.'

She flinched, and saw how her reaction went right inside him, and even then she couldn't

turn away. And then she forced herself to be as brutal as he, as she licked her lips and

whispered, 'We both know what happened. When I looked at you in the ravine, I—

wanted you. You, Francis. And it was so scary. I— couldn't even blame you, and I

wanted to do that too. There's too much between us. I—can't '

'I know you can't,' he said quietly, shadows flickering across his face. 'And for what it's

worth, I blame myself for what happened in the ravine. In itself, it wasn't wrong, but it

was at the wrong time, and in the wrong place. And I've never hidden from you who I

am or what I've felt, even if it meant shouting at you or making a fool of myself when

you've made me angry. Do you see in me the man Louise described to you?'

How honest could she be? How much could this hurt? She breathed hard and broke out

in a sweat, but funnily enough it was the disappointment overcoming his own face that

hurt most of all. That look loosened her tongue.

'No, I don't,' she said tiredly, and the tension in his whole body eased. 'But I can't decide

which is the real man. Even you admitted there is a ruthless side to you. It's too much to

ask of me. I love her, Francis.'

He closed his eyes, sighed and reached for her fist that lay cold and clenched on one

knee. With gentle fingers he stroked hers open and warmed them in his grip. She bent

her head and stared, melting into boneless vulnerability at the generosity of it. 'I know

that too. But truth is only what we see of it. Take the ugliest woman in the world. If she

is loved, she feels beautiful inside, no matter what her mirror tells her. And the most

beautiful woman in the world can feel ugly if she fears she is unloved.'

'What are you trying to say to me?' she asked with difficulty. With each stroke on the

inside of her wrist, it felt as if he were peeling away a layer of cynicism and disbelief. 'If

Louise lied—if—why would she do such a thing?'

'I don't know,' he said, and she saw another thing. He too was hurt by what Louise had

done. It loosened another layer. 'I only know that judgement without mercy is cold,

Kirstie.'

Up close his face revealed the imprint of lines, lines of laughter fanning from those

downturned eyes, lines beside that sensual, firm mouth. There were lines, too, marking

his forehead between the straight black brows that deepened with anger or

determination. It was a hard face, capable of great softening or ferocious reaction, but it

was not a cruel one.

It was the face she had always seen, from the first, in the ravine, now. She had recoiled

in the ravine, not from this face, but from the face of the monster painted inside her

head.

She reached out on impulse and curled her small fingers under his chin. He obeyed the

light direction she applied, looking up swiftly with the openness of surprise. 'If it were

up to me,' she said, 'if it were only me, I would accept without question the person I see.'

His black pupils contracted, his lips parted. He said simply, 'Then we've done all we can

here.'

'I want to go home,' she whispered achingly.

He tightened his grip on her hands and nodded. 'So do I, now.'

They tidied the cabin in silence. The rain had slackened off, but it hadn't yet stopped

when Francis donned a battered, fishy-smelling anorak and went out to tinker with the

helicopter.

Kirstie watched him with a troubled gaze from the shelter of the porch. He had twisted

her thinking to a standstill. It was appalling to think of how he had done it with apparent

ease, but everything he had said was exactly right according to her way of thinking. Was

that because he too operated on a similar wavelength, or was it all a diabolically clever

assessment of her personality and weaknesses?

Loyalty to Louise dictated an adherence to the second possibility. Everything she had

seen of him supported Francis's honesty. Otherwise his avoidance of returning to New

York on Sunday made no sense. And everything he had said was right. Her shoulders

sagged. The truth was, she didn't know what to believe, or in whom.

The harsh truth was, she wasn't sure if she wanted to believe in Francis because of what

had happened between them while they'd stayed on the mountain. Was she being unfair

to Louise's integrity because she found her attraction to Francis impossible to control or

deny? Louise
had
lied to Neil, but it was exactly the kind of lie Kirstie would have told

to protect someone she loved. And everyone lied at some time or another. Was she too

ready to have the seed of doubt sown that Louise had lied to her too? She wouldn't be

able to forgive herself if that were the case. But if Louise had, oh, why?

Her dilemma crystallised into simple clarity, the issues settling on two sides of a coin.

One of them was lying. The other wasn't. And she was too involved now; she would be

hurt no matter which of them it was. Either way, something of her faith in her people

would be ruined, for Francis had managed the very rare. He had climbed inside the

circle.

This was the price of the immovable object. Two sides of a coin, flipping in the air, and

now it had begun its downward arc. Heads or tails, she lost. And she knew that she didn't

want the coin to land, to see what would be staring her in the face.

Francis was in front of her before she realised it, and she recoiled instinctively before

she could stop herself. Since she refused to meet his eyes, she failed utterly to see how

his facial muscles tightened, how his eyes grew bleak.

'The helicopter is ready,' he told her briefly.

'Fine,' she said, her gaze flicking upwards, then away. He had sounded rather odd. 'Oh,

I'd better make sure that the fire in the hearth is cold before we leave. I'll only be five

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