i 077f700896a1d224 (17 page)

BOOK: i 077f700896a1d224
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couldn't avoid falling into Kirstie, who was knocked out of Francis's arms.

"Scuse me!' burbled the tipsy blonde as she hung on to Kirstie. For a moment it was

impossible to tell who supported whom, then, with a strained smile, she straightened

away from the other woman, who lurched back to her companion.

A brief interruption, but more than enough. She had time for realisation, for a brief sense

of furious regret, and finally a return to sanity. She had time for a desperate clutch at her

composure until Francis laid his hands on her shoulders and turned her around to face

him. Then, as his gaze rested on her face for a long moment and his expression changed,

she had time to ask the first thing that popped into her head.

'When did Louise get in touch with you?'

He went still and hesitated, a direct contrast to the dancing people and loud music. A

succession of thoughts ran at the back of his gaze, too fast to interpret. 'A couple of

weeks ago,' he said. 'The first time. Then on Tuesday this week.'

Kirstie was too tired suddenly to hide her cynicism. 'And when did you see her?'

'I haven't.' Anger, then, from him.

Her grey eyes flashed—with derision, disbelief? She didn't know. 'Not even now that

she's free?'

His grip on her tightened, and his gaze snapped into sharp query. 'What do you mean,

now that she's free?'

'Didn't she tell you? Oh, I am surprised,' she murmured, faltering at his evident


His jaw jutted out with furious, bitten-back aggression. 'My secretary took both calls,' he

enunciated, practically shaking her with every word. 'I didn't talk to Louise! What did

you think of me, that I would see her behind her new husband's back?'

'I didn't mean that!' she cried, feeling as if her collarbones were being crushed. 'I would

have thought she'd have told you: she didn't marry Neil! She called the wedding off,


That went in past the suddenly blank face. His eyes flickered, but his hold on her never

eased. She wondered if he even knew what he was doing. 'That's why she's still living

with you?'


'Well, well,' he said with sudden vivid interest. 'This is a pretty kettle of fish.'

Kirstie couldn't look at him. She had to get away, and she twisted from underneath his

hands with a force that hurt. 'I'm going to the ladies' room. Excuse me.'

Francis let her go. He didn't try to stop her.

Kirstie threaded her way through the crowd on the floor, her head whirling with the

aftermath of shock and confusion. She stepped carefully around a couple and into

someone. As she turned to apologise to the man, she caught a strong whiff of alcohol

and her nostrils pinched in involuntary distaste. 'Excuse me,' she said, her voice distant.

'Hey, honey,' said the stranger, his eyes running down her figure, 'this must be my lucky

night. You're not leaving the dance-floor so soon? The evening's just started!'

He caught hold of her wrists and leaned forward. He was thicker in build than Francis or

either of her brothers, with blunt features and great ham-like hands. His suggestive touch

made her skin crawl. She avoided his eyes and tried to pull away, replying lightly, 'I

hope you enjoy it.'

'I intend to,' he leered.

'But not with me,' she said, and yanked her hands down as hard as she could.

'Wait!' he reached for her again, but his reactions were slowed by drink. Kirstie skipped

through a gap, took the stairs off the dance-floor two at a time and fled to the ladies'


Surprisingly, the room was empty. Kirstie splashed cold water on her face and leaned for

a long moment over the sink, her head in her hands.

The whole thing was starting again, and it was so typical. The arguments, the

misunderstandings. The carnival ride. He hadn't known Louise was still single. That was

why he'd wanted to talk to her. He had seduced her into thinking they really could enjoy

themselves on the most simplistic level, without undercurrents, and he had held her with

such insidious sensuality when he hadn't known Louise was still single.

She had trapped herself so easily. It was so effortless to sink into his presence, to bury

herself in mindless sensation, to forget about consequences and concentrate on nothing

but the moment. To pull away from it was like suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

She felt cold, starving. She remembered wanting his heat. Kirstie fought herself with

single-minded intensity, forcing down the ache, then turned and violently yanked a paper

towel from the metal holder. She wiped her face and scrubbed her neck until the skin

was dry, then reluctantly went to face whatever was waiting for her in the outside world.

The short hall leading back to the main area of the nightclub as crowded. Kirstie

negotiated it with her head down, deep in thought. A large figure moved to block her

way, but she didn't notice until she bumped into the man. He grabbed her arms.

Up snapped her head. This was like a bad recurring dream. She narrowed eyes gone

suddenly hard at the drunken man from the dance-floor. 'I don't think you know what

you're getting into.'

'Hey, sugar.' The man grinned and bent over her, either not hearing or ignoring her frosty

reception. 'You ran away too fast the last time. Lemme buy you a drink.'

'No, thank you.' She tried to prise his sausage fingers off her, but they tightened.

'Oh, baby, don't be that way. It's Friday night. Time to party! Maybe you and me can go

some place quieter. Would you like that?'

His heavy body bore her backwards, into the wall. Disgust snapped Kirstie's patience.

She hissed into the man's face, Take your hands off me. While you're at it, take your

offensive breath and your boorish manners some place else. For the last time, I'm not


The man opened his bloodshot eyes wide. 'Whoa, look out, it's a haughty bitch! What's

the matter, princess, a working man not good enough for you?'

'You have no social skills whatsoever,' Kirstie informed the man. With a violent shove,

she managed to break his hold. He staggered back, clipped a phone booth with one

shoulder and sat down on the floor hard. Sighing with relief, she entered the main

section and began the long walk back to the bar. As soon as she found Francis, she was

going to tell him she wanted to go home. She'd had just about all she could take.

But her relief was short-lived. The drunk seized her wrist and jerked her around to face

him. 'Nobody does that to me, you hear that, princess? Nobody!'

His grip was bruising. The last thing she needed tonight was a meat-tank with a tiny

mind in an ugly mood. Irritably Kirstie tried to tug away. 'For God's sake, fellow! Back

down, you're way out of line!'

A nearby man who had been watching this exchange suggested, 'The lady doesn't appear

to like your attentions. Why don't you take a hike?'

Her drunk didn't take too kindly to the interruption and snarled an unprintable

suggestion. The two men bristled at each other like a pair of bulldogs. The people

surrounding the trio began to move away. Kirstie noticed and sighed.

'Look, there's no need ' she began.

'Butt out,' said the drunk. A good forty pounds lighter, her would-be rescuer flicked an

uncertain glance around, obviously having second thoughts about his role in the scene.

Furious, she jabbed a stiff finger into the drunk's chest. 'You started this. You're pushing

it. You got a bee in your bonnet, so take it outside, bucko! People here are trying to have

a good time. They don't need this.'

'I said butt out.' He seemed to barely touch her shoulder, but the push knocked her flat.

Kirstie bumped into a table as she went down, sending drinks flying. The surrounding

crowd bubbled and hissed like a pressure cooker.

Francis appeared out of nowhere. She didn't even see him move. One moment she was

sitting on the floor, the next he stood straddling her legs in direct confrontation with the

beefy agitator.

Kirstie wanted to lean her head against the back of his knee. Francis would handle the

situation. Everything would be all right. She couldn't see the glitter of his green,

polished glass eyes. The drunk flexed his right hand and smiled.

'Are you OK?' Francis asked quietly over his shoulder.

'Yes, thanks.'

'That's all right, then,' he said, and hit the drunk square on the jaw. The man pivoted in

one complete circle and sat down hard on another table, knocking a bucket of melting

ice on to the lap of a woman who jumped to her feet with a shriek. Her escort surged

upright also, took hold of the drunk and pushed him on to the floor.

Kirstie scrambled to her feet behind Francis and shouted, 'Why'd you do that? Are you

crazy? You're crazy!'

The drunk fought to his feet and said happily, 'You asked for it, you son of a bitch.'

He swung. Francis ducked. Kirstie didn't. The punch was meant for the jaw of a taller

man and would have broken hers had it connected. Instead, the great clenched fist

skimmed the top of her head and knocked her off balance. Kirstie fell once more and

decided that the floor was the best place for her.

The drunk teetered from the force of his thrown punch. Francis straightened and clapped

both hands on the back of his shoulders. The man immediately began to box at empty

air. 'Kirstie?' Francis said, still sounding as calm as ever.

'Yes?' she said from underneath the table.

'Get out the front door and wait for me.' He swung his body around at the hips and

tossed the drunk over the nearby railing, on to the dance-floor. The noisy crowd surged

back and forth. Men rushed into the fray, and women ran away from it. The last glimpse

Kirstie had of Francis was of him stepping neatly back from another pair of fighting men

while a chair sailed through the air.

Kirstie ducked her head and crawled. She went as quickly as she could to the nearest

wall, stood up and inched towards the exit. The whole nightclub had gone mad, and

fighting was breaking out in every corner. A man went down in front of her, and she

jumped over him as he struggled to his knees. Another fell into her, and she was

slammed into the wall so hard it knocked the breath out of her. Coughing painfully, she

wriggled out from behind him and weaved her way on. Just when she thought she would

never get to the front doors, she was swept up in a massive surge of people and could do

nothing but fight to keep her footing.

The crowd carried her to a side exit that opened into an alleyway, some of them still

fighting. Panic welled up inside as she wondered if she would ever get out of the fray.

When would the police arrive? Would Francis make it outside? What if he didn't? As a

rather small female she went relatively unnoticed, but he was large, male and fair game

for anyone wanting to pick a quarrel.

He could be hurt seriously. People could die in this sort of fracas.

There was a lot more open space in the street, and she was nearly there. The distant wail

of sirens provided fresh fuel to the writhing mass. Someone crashed into her back and

she tumbled out of the alley with more haste than she intended to, caught herself up and

turned anxiously towards the front entrance.

Miracle of miracles, she recognised the back of the only man fighting to get back inside

the nightclub, and she stopped at the edge of the crowd and shouted over the

pandemonium, 'Francis!'

His head lifted, the black hair ruffled now and falling over the brow of a very grim

expression. His eyes flashed dangerously as they skimmed over the people. She shouted

again, saw him catch sight of her, and intense relief flooded his face. He abandoned the

door, pushed out of the crowd and raced to her.

The sirens were much louder and closer now. Francis took her face in both hands and

urgently examined it. 'You're hurt?'

'No?' Puzzlement made her answer sound like a question as she stared up at him.

He closed his eyes briefly, then said, 'Come on.'

He led her at a run down the street and around the corner. They didn't stop until they had

reached the car which was parked two blocks away. Normally a dash of that distance

wouldn't have winded her, but her chest was still sore from when she'd had the wind

knocked out of her. Kirstie bent over and propped her hands on her knees, panting, while

Francis dug out his keys and quickly unlocked the passenger door.

'Climb in,' he said tersely, waiting until her door was locked. He raced around the other

side, let himself in, and locked his as well. He swung around in his seat to look at her

with a frown. 'Are you sure you're all right?'

She gasped, 'I had the wind knocked out of me! It still hurts. I'm OK, though.'

'Come here, let me look at your face.' He turned on the interior light and gently tilted her

face up towards it. Long gentle fingers probed one cheekbone. As she winced, he asked,

'That tender?'

'Yes. I must have hit it when I fell into the wall.' Her eyes focused on him. His black hair

gleamed like jet, and harsh lines scored marks beside his mouth. His green eyes were

BOOK: i 077f700896a1d224
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