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reflected in Francis's eyes. So neither of them had the control they would have wished

for. Unable to think of anything to say to him, she just turned and started to walk away.

One of his heavy hands curled around her shoulder to detain her, and Kirstie shrank

from his touch in an instinctive flinch as he made her face him again.

Francis's eyes widened at her unmistakable fear and his hand fell away. He averted his

face and sighed. 'Don't you think it's past time we talked?'

Two lines that had not existed a week ago ran from her nostrils to the sides of her mouth.

'Going to try the reasoning tack?' she asked, ignoring her own earlier resolve to stay

unresponsive and uninvolved. 'What do we get after that, threats? When all else fails, try

a shout or two. But we must give you credit for one thing, mustn't we? Obviously you

have an awesome amount of faith in your own powers of persuasion.'

'God, you have a viper's tongue,' he said. If a bystander had observed that his demeanour

was bleak, Francis would have denied it. 'Have I ever given you cause to think that I

would do you physical harm?'

Her gaze wavered and fell. He had managed by that one question to cut out from

underneath her the basic understanding she was operating on. No, he hadn't given her

cause, even though she had lain awake until the small hours of the morning listening and

waiting for it. 'You gave a good impression of it in New York,' she muttered, but even

she knew the retaliation was weak.

'I think I had good cause, don't you?' he said tightly. 'I'm calling a truce, damn you.'

Kirstie threw back her head in surprise. The look in Francis's eyes baffled her. She said,

'I didn't ask for it.'

'No, but I'm offering it, which is more than you deserve,' he told her, the tone of his

voice harsh and flat. 'Isn't it about time we thrashed out the reasons for your lunatic

actions? Did Louise put you up to it?'

'Louise ' she made an abrupt gesture, then sat on the ground suddenly as though her legs

had collapsed '—Louise doesn't know about this.'

He seemed impossibly tall from her position. The sun cast his face into deep shadow and

blinded her when she looked up at him. 'I don't think that quite answers my question,' he

said at last.

'No?' She spread her fingers into the grass, thin, delicate sculptures of bone and sinew,

child-sized, and then she began to search for a four-leaf clover.

Silence for several minutes. The warmth of the day was inevitably mollifying, and by

some inner radar she knew that the tension had gone out from Francis's body. She began

to forget that he studied her closely, watched her every movement.

Then he said, 'Kirstie.'

Every nerve inside her leaped with the shock of hearing his voice shape her name. It was

electric, intimate; it felt as though he had pulled her heart out of her body. Her heated

face jerked upwards towards him and she felt again that inexplicable fear.

'That's your name. Isn't it?' He sat beside her, cross-legged, his denim-covered knee a

good two feet from her own. She had no doubt that the distance had been carefully

calculated.

Her fingers smoothed the grass where she had parted it, over and over. 'Yes.'

'Louise used to talk about you from time to time when we were in college. Last time I

heard, you had skinned knees and braids and were the terror of the family.'

'That was thirteen years ago,' she reminded him drily.

'At least you've lost the braids,' he shot back without a second's hesitation. Her laugh,

clear and bubbling, surprised them both. She concentrated on pulling out clumps of

grass and made a pile in front of her. Francis kept his eyes on her fingers as she sifted

through it. He said quietly, 'You have no right to do what you're doing.'

Her face hardened and those grey eyes blazed. She turned the full extent of her outrage

on to him. 'Don't you talk to me about rights! You change your own despicable

behaviour and then maybe you'll have something to say about rights!'

He faced her attack and absorbed it. No anger answered her. Confused and upset, she

subsided and stared at his oddly still face.

'Apparently you have made your character assessment of me second-hand,' he said in a

fiat, dispassionate staccato that had more, power than any emotional outburst to reach

through all her bristly defences. 'But I can only speak from first-hand experience. Isn't

what you're doing the same as what you condemn me for? You accuse me of trying to

coerce Louise, but you had the temerity to force my actions yesterday afternoon.

Even now everything I do stems from it. Yet you are acting with justification, whereas I

am a monster.'

He couldn't have hurt her more, for he struck at the very heart of her own doubts and

worries. Her grey gaze turned inwards, reflecting all too clearly her own bitter upheaval.

With a curiously blind gesture, she said, just as quietly, 'You know I never denied that

what I did was wrong. There may not be much of a difference between what we both

have done, but there is a difference. What you were doing caused ripples that touched a

lot of people as they grew greater. I've simply tried to restrain you, so that the ripples

affect only you and me and the damage is contained.'

He didn't reply to that. Instead, he asked the last question that she would have expected

him to ask. 'Is her fiancé a good man?'

'Neil is a kind, decent, honourable person,' she replied. 'He doesn't deserve what's

happened, nor does either his family or mine.'

She sensed rather than saw the words drop into his mind, and without his telling her she

could see that they wounded him deeply, all the more because she too spoke without

anger now, without attack.

He gave a cynical and tired nod, as if in confirmation, but of what, she couldn't tell. 'Do

you honestly think he would thank you for what you did?' asked Francis. 'Most men I

know would want to fight for the woman they love. Yet you didn't even give him a

chance.'

She flinched visibly. 'You talk about it as though there were honour in that kind of fight.'

That green gaze held hers. 'Isn't there?'

'Then why didn't you fight with honour?' she cried. 'What you did was underhand, and

domineering, and bears absolutely no resemblance to a chivalrous battle for the lady's

affections! Don't you see that if you had approached this with any kind of integrity I

wouldn't have come near the situation? Why, Francis? Was it an ego trip, or a trip down

memory lane?'

Francis turned his face away and ran his fingers through his raven hair. Then he leaned

his head into his hand, propped his elbow on one raised knee and just stayed there for

long seconds. 'I don't know,' he said reluctantly. 'I just don't know any more. University

was fun. Even the bitter winters. Something crazy was always on and stupid pranks were

being pulled. Louise and I went to as many movies as my budget could afford. I've been

thinking about a lot of things recently, and one of those things was Louise, so I looked

her up. I wondered how she was getting on, and whether she was happy or not.'

Kirstie stared at him, working hard to piece together the images he gave her. There was

no reason to doubt his explanation for getting in contact with Louise; it didn't conflict

with anything her sister had told her, and it made sense, but what troubled her was that

his motive stemmed from a sense of comradeship and shared experience, and a caring

that was totally at odds with his hard-bitten, relentless pursuit of Louise.

'If that was the case,' she asked slowly, watching his every flicker of expression, 'why

couldn't you just leave it at that?'

He looked at her, clear-eyed. 'As far as I was concerned, I had.'

'Louise said you were so ruthless that when she tried to tell you about her forthcoming

marriage you wouldn't even listen. I listened,' Kirstie said painfully. 'She cried about it,

and I listened all night long.'

'I can be ruthless,' he replied at last, and he did not sound proud of the fact. 'I can push,

and cut and scheme, and have done on more than one occasion. I wouldn't be where I am

if I couldn't, where for every success there's a criticism, and where; for every strength,

my rivals are looking for a weakness. But I never thought to turn that ruthlessness on

her. I didn't want to. I never tried.

'Louise didn't tell me,' Francis said, lifting his head to meet her gaze. 'There was never a

mention of a fiancé. There was no talk of a wedding. The second time we met, she had

called me. We ate dinner that night at a restaurant she recommended.'

Kirstie started to shake her head. It was horrible. In her naiveté she had thought him

capable of physical violence, but the reality was worse. Looking into his candid gaze

and hearing what he said was much, much worse.

'You don't understand,' she said, fighting back tears, she didn't know, fighting back

something. He stopped and looked at her. 'This isn't doing any good. Why wouldn't

Louise tell me the truth?'

Like a cloud passing over the sun, an incredible pain darkened his face. 'Why, indeed?'

said Francis.

His brief expression of hurt was the final straw. Like salt in a wound, it stung her into

crying out, 'Either you or Louise is lying. And
you
have to be lying. Don't you see? You

have to be lying.'

She thrust herself off the ground. He just stared at her, head thrown back, an odd glint in

his eyes. She didn't want to know what it was she saw there, shining green.

'Kirstie,' he said, and it was spoken with gentleness.

'Don't talk to me.' Her mouth trembled around the words. What more could he say? How

much more damage could he try to do? She put both hands in front of her as if to ward

him off, then ran back to the cabin and locked herself in her room.

She had forgotten to make, the bed. She leaned against the door as she stared at the

rumpled blankets and sheets, her ears straining to pick up some hint of pursuit, but there

was nothing.

Left alone, Kirstie dug the heels of her hands into both eyes with such fierceness that she

saw blood-red stars. Outside her window a bird burst into a piercing warble seconds

before launching into flight, frightened no doubt by the scrabblings of some small

animal in the underbrush.

She recalled everything she could about Francis's true nature, repeating the litany

religiously as if she could somehow shore up the shaken foundations of her faith.

Francis Grayson was unconcerned for the feelings of fellow human beings. Supremely

selfish, he was ruthless by his own admission, domineering and unscrupulous,

everything she despised in a man. He rode roughshod over anyone who dared to get in

his way. All this she had come to believe of him.

But unfeigned pain was in his voice when he talked of Louise. And patience was what

he had needed to overcome his anger and her defences, to attempt a conversation to

begin with. Granted, he had defended his position, but she would have done the same.

He had used reason, logic, the assumption of common decency, but he had never once,

not even in the height of his outrage, attempted to overtly force her into returning him to

New York. She had indeed seen no sign of the monster that weekend, just a baffled and

infuriated man trying to cope as best he could with a problem he didn't choose.

Where did that fit in with all the rest?

It didn't. It couldn't; the images were too incompatible. Francis had been right when he

had talked of two realities yesterday.

The memory of Louise rose in Kirstie's mind, those lovely blue eyes swollen and red

from crying, the desperation in her clutching hands, the misery in her face. It had been

such a simple lie.

Only Louise could have thought she could get away with it. She had said she was going

out with her fiancé, Neil, that evening, But Kirstie was the one who had answered the

phone much later. And it was Kirstie who, out of kindness and concern, had lied to Neil

when he'd asked if he could speak to Louise. When she had faced her sister with the

subterfuge, Louise had fallen to pieces.

'Francis won't leave me alone,' her sister had sobbed. 'I know him—I know what he's

like. He never has tolerated opposition. What he wants, he takes, and now he's decided

after all these years that he wants me. Promise me you won't say anything! Can you

imagine what it would do to Neil if he found out? It would destroy him! But I had to see

Francis again, to try to reason with him! What will I do, Kirstie? What will I do?'

The question echoed in her mind and wouldn't stop, along with her own reassuring reply.

'Don't worry about it any more, Louise,' she had said gently. 'You just concentrate on

enjoying your wedding on Saturday and the honeymoon afterwards. Nobody will find

out about Francis Grayson. I will see to that.'

Now Kirstie held up a mental mirror and saw in that statement a reflection of her own

unthinking arrogance. Now she was dealing with confusion too. The Vermont cabin had

always been a refuge from the world, but she had brought in the enemy and sacrificed

the serenity of the place to a private war.

BOOK: i 077f700896a1d224
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