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And she had never felt so alone. There was no one she could talk to of her confusion and

doubts, no friend in front of whom she could lay her problems and have them dealt with

sympathetic objectivity; only Francis Grayson, who could twist every situation to his

own advantage, who played with words and destroyed her peace of mind.

With a sigh, she determined to thrust her doubts about him aside. After all, there had to

be some attractive aspects to the man, to make Louise fall for him thirteen years before.

He must know how to use them to the fullest extent. It was a very, very clever man who

showed her his best in order to get from her what he wanted. What she was seeing was

nothing more than pretty packaging wrapped around a soiled core.

'Fine feathers do not make a tasty bird,' she said aloud to a bluejay that had just perched

outside in the bush. As if in answer, it shook its gaudy head, cawed raucously and flew


Pity, she thought belatedly. That was what had been in Francis's eyes.


FRANCIS was at it again. Chopping wood.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the kind which, out in normality, people shared

with their children and pets. The parks in New York would be full with icecream

vendors and hot-dog stands. On a day like today at home, Kirstie would be washing her

car or helping Louise pack the rest of her things preparatory to moving out of the small

house which had once been their parents' and which they now shared.

Francis showed absolutely no intention of leaving, which she thought was very

unreasonable of him. The rest of Saturday had been hideously uneventful. Since there

was always a large stack of paperbacks kept at the cabin, which was updated whenever

any visiting member of the family thought about replenishing the stock, she had read

throughout the afternoon. And Francis had chopped wood.

In spite of the sinuous flow of muscles that proclaimed him innately athletic, he was

awkward about it. And that evening, when Kirstie had shouted brusquely out of the door

that dinner was ready, he had handled his silverware with evident clumsiness, so he must

be bearing a good many blisters.

Kirstie twisted restlessly on to her stomach on the rather shabby, comfortable settee. Her

thoughts wouldn't let her settle to any one thing, and attempting to read the dog-eared

thriller she clutched in one hand was quite useless.

There were two kinds of men in Kirstie's life. Her grandfather, Whit, her brothers Paul

and Christian— even Neil fitted into the solid, predictable mould. She knew what to

expect from the men in her family, knew them so well she could even rely on their weak

points. They were comforting in their stability, and their loyalty to both family and close

associates was without doubt.

Once she had learned through personal experience about the other kind of men, they too

became predictable. They had an innate falsehood built into their make-up, one so

pervasive it could take months to discover what was really truth and what wasn't, for

they lied even to themselves.

They presented themselves so often in the light of what they would like to be, not how

they really were. They built their own self-image up so assiduously that the fiction

became solidified into memory.

Her first serious relationship was with one such man. She had fallen so deeply in love

with the way he had portrayed himself that the breakdown of her faith and trust in him

was a slow crumbling agony. Each little lie was a betrayal, each promise hollow. He

would agree to something on principle and believe himself to be honest, but when she

would confront him with the full force of her open candour he couldn't cope. He couldn't

meet her face to face, and every time would back away.

Kirstie had come to view men of that calibre with a mixture of exasperation and

compassion, for she had no doubt that what they did stemmed from insecurity, the need

to be respected, the need to be loved.

But now she was faced with a quandary, for Francis did not fit into either category. If

Louise was right, he was capable of a deception that went far beyond mere self-

protection. It was a disturbing possibility, for the detail and consistency of his lies hinted

at a love of mischief for mischief's sake. She feared the man might be totally heartless.

If—just for the sake of argument—her sister was wrong, everything Francis had done

might indicate that he was indeed willing to be honest and open. He certainly seemed to

refuse to paint himself into a romantic self-delusion. He could discuss his faults with a

ruthless objectivity but he was so damned unpredictable, Kirstie never could tell for

certain which way the man would jump.

And the sneaking suspicion, fuelled by the accuracy of his argument from yesterday's

conversation, crept up on her that somewhere along the line he had managed to get

streets ahead of her. She thought she was being manipulated. She hated to think she was

being read like a book. And above all she dreaded finding that she was completely

wrong about him, for it cast all sorts of unsavoury speculation on her sister, whom she

had loved since early childhood.

Every pursuit of thought led to a dead end. There was no way out of the maze, but still

she ran, faster and faster until she felt as if she'd gone into a flat spin.

And, throughout it all, Francis just kept chopping. The sound was a bit like listening to a

leaky tap. Thunk, thunk, thunk. It drove her crazy with its incessantness, its lack of

purpose. There was a mini-mountain of split wood behind the cabin already, and besides,

Francis couldn't be feeling the urge to do any favours, not after yesterday.

Thunk, thunk. . .

Kirstie sat bolt upright. In the sudden silence, lounging supine on the old comfortable

settee seemed a horribly vulnerable position in which to be caught. She was just in time,

for the sturdy screen door was thrown open and Francis strode in.

He didn't spare her a glance, however. Kirstie's untidy head swivelled to follow his

frowning progress down the tiny hall and into the bathroom. The door slammed shut.

She heaved a great sigh, and her eyes travelled back to her book. Something would have

to be settled between them, for this silence was unbearable. There weren't any rules, any

guidelines one could count on, just this frigid stalemate where one couldn't make a move

without the other's consent.

Almost immediately the door to the bathroom swung open again. She looked up as

Francis stalked towards the settee and stopped dead in front of her, still wearing that

preoccupied, serious frown. Instinctively she knew that this was it, decision time.

Evidently he had, by his own route of thinking and priorities, come to the same

conclusions she had.

'Got any tweezers?' Francis asked.

'What?' Thrown off balance by the odd request, she blinked owlishly at him.

'I said, have you got any tweezers? I've got a splinter in the heel of my hand, and it hurts

like the devil.' Impatience flitted across his face. Irrelevantly she noticed that he was

already getting tanned by his two days out in the sun. It suited him, that flush of healthy

brown crowning his strong nose and cheekbones, the bare, straight shoulders, the tight

ripple of muscle that played like an accordion down the front of his torso.

'Oh, for heaven's sake,' she muttered, as much to herself as to him. She pushed off the

settee in one smooth uncoiling move. 'I doubt it, but hold on a minute. Let me check my


She had meant for him to wait in the living-room but, much to the detriment of her

composure, he followed close behind. The knowledge that he was looking over her

shoulder as she entered her small bedroom and searched the dresser drawers made her

clumsy. As a result, when she turned back to face him, she was shorter with him than she

might otherwise have been.

'No luck.' Her gaze collided with his, bounced away. He stood blocking the doorway,

with large arms folded across his bare chest as if he had nowhere else in the world to go.

Kirstie made a tentative movement towards him as if she would have liked to walk right

through him, or butt him out of the way, but he didn't budge. 'Look,' she suggested

tightly, wild to get him away from her bedroom, to break that even, emerald stare, 'why

don't you go soak your hand in water, or something?'

He shook his head, without moving, still watching her. 'Wouldn't work. The splinter's too


'Well, what do you expect me to do about it?' As soon as she had snapped the question

she could see how inappropriate her testiness was, and those sleek black brows of his

rose in delicate reaction. 'I'm sorry, ignore that. Why don't you let me have a look at it?

Since I can use both my hands, I might be able to get at it more easily.'

Silently, like a little boy, he stuck out his hand palm upwards. Kirstie was forced by her

offer of help to step nearer, but all awareness of his half-clad body faded as she focused

on the raw mess that was his hand.

'Oh, God,' she muttered with a wince. Three large blisters had formed at the base of his

long, dextrous fingers. Two had already burst, and the third was an angry, abused red.

Without thinking, she curled her smaller hand around his sturdy wrist. Her fingers could

only come part-way around it. 'Why are you doing this to yourself?'

His skin was warm, but his voice was not. 'It's called,' said Francis succinctly,

'sublimation. Better to take my frustrations out on the chopping block than to throttle the

only helicopter pilot in this neck of the woods.'

Kirstie refused to look up and meet that intent green stare she could feel was boring into

the top of her head. 'You could just leave, you know,' she replied, the audible glaciers in

her voice expressing her displeasure at his presence.

'What, and miss such a charming house-party?' She hated the mockery in that, and her

telltale fingers clenched around his wrist until the bone was a fleshless ivory. His free

hand came up, cupping her chin and tilting it up. 'Besides, I don't fancy a six-day walk,'

he told her closed, tight face. 'I'd far rather hitch a ride.'

Her grey eyes flashed. 'Don't hedge your bets, Francis. We're a long way from that one.'

His expression never wavered. He just absorbed her aggression as he had ever since they

had reached Vermont, and Kirstie felt as if she were throwing herself, body and soul,

against the granite side of a mountain. 'That is something I want to talk to you about.'

'You can talk all you like,' she told him, baring her teeth in a humourless smile. His

touch on her vulnerable facial skin was unbearable, and she jerked her head away. 'It

won't change anything.'

One side of his mouth twisted. 'Don't you think you'd better wait until you hear what I

have to say before you make such sweeping statements? I thought better of you than


thought better of
What new ploy was this? Her own cynicism showed in her

face, pulling the precise features into an older, jaded expression that didn't suit their

delicacy. 'What a marvellous transition from Friday, when you thought me despicable.

And you had sounded so sure of yourself,' she told him. He didn't just look at her. He

smiled. 'Do we try to get that splinter out,' she snapped, 'or not?'

He stepped to one side and bowed her ahead of him. Gritting her teeth, she pushed past.

She couldn't help but notice how her sleeveless shoulder grazed lightly along his chest.

He was warm and smelled of sunshine and sweat.

In the strong kitchen light, she inspected the splinter embedded in Francis's hand. It was

indeed a large one, an alien splice through the whorling pattern of his handprint. The

area around the puncture had already begun to swell. It must be quite painful, and,

unknown to her, Kirstie's forehead wrinkled as she stared at it.

Francis was watching what he could see of her downbent face, and that male gaze grew

sharp with conviction. 'You have such a nerve,' he said.

The unexpectedness of it was like an attack. It shot past all her barriers and hit inside,

and Kirstie's head snapped up as she took a step back from him in shock. Francis

advanced; now he was the aggressor with a new, inexplicable anger, and the recognition

of just how big he was barrelled through her all over again. She retreated until her back

was pressed against an unyielding kitchen counter, her mind pounding with

disconcertment, incomprehension.

'Pain!' Francis drove the word at her, and he thrust his open palm under her nose. 'You

don't like it, in anyone! It's written all over your face! How the hell did you pull last

Friday off?'

She stared at him, with her eyes huge and dark, a reflection of the conflicting emotions

heaving inside.

Quietly she said, 'It wasn't that difficult. You saw what you expected to see.'

'Oh, Kirstie,' he whispered, and the warning in it twisted her own words on her like a

knife. Her mouth tightened with the unhappy pain of it, and she jerked his hand down to

BOOK: i 077f700896a1d224
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