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focus on it with desperate intensity.

'Grit your teeth,' she muttered, and she pinched the flesh surrounding the splinter with

the nails of her thumb and forefinger. He emitted a small grunt but otherwise made no

protest, and held absolutely still. The splinter wouldn't budge, however, and she had to

swab the area with antiseptic and use the gleaming razor-sharp point of the kitchen's

paring knife at the point of the puncture with careful precision. When she was finally

able to pull the small wooden spear out with her fingernails, she smeared antiseptic over

his blisters and wrapped a strip of gauze around the raw areas of both hands.

'Thank you,' he said.

She shrugged, an impatient answer, and stored the first-aid things back in the cupboard

where they belonged. In quite a different tone of voice, in a tired tone, Francis said, 'You

really hate it when you have to be civil to me, don't you?'

She stopped in the middle of shutting the cupboard door. Sometimes it was so hard to

remember that she disliked him; forgetfulness crept in between the pleases and thank-

yous, and passing the salt at the dinner table. Somehow in the midst of them he became

just a pleasant, personable man.

Again a stab of that unhappy pain. Her lips betrayed her with a tremble as she turned and

replied grudgingly, 'Yes. I suppose I do.'

His expression was unreadable in the pause that followed. Then he made a gesture

towards her. What he meant to convey by it she wasn't to know, for she cut it dead by

her own instinctive recoil. They stared at each, other, wondering, troubled, until her own

precarious uncertainty became too much for her. She turned abruptly and walked out of

the kitchen.

She spent the remainder of the afternoon in a huddle by the lake, her mind a deliberate

blank, desperate to soak up the quietness and serenity of the scene until finally her tense

muscles unravelled and all human clashing seemed bearable.

At last that afternoon Kirstie managed to catch two lake trout. Francis appeared from

wherever he had gone while she was in the midst of cleaning and gutting the fish. She

was all too aware of his fascinated attention as she worked with swift competence, her

nostrils pinched in distaste for the messy job, which turned to surprise at his quiet


She paused and looked at him 'What?'

He was still laughing. 'You have a very expressive face.'

Standing there. His white grin open. His demeanour uncomplicated. Kirstie realised that

Francis did not have to work to create this impression of well-being. His capacity to be

at ease with his surroundings and himself was a wholeness of personality she had not

expected of him, and was another piece of the jigsaw about him that did not fit.

She scowled her incomprehension and he, perhaps deliberately, misread it. 'Never mind,

you're nearly done with it. Er—is one of them for my supper as well, or must I try to

catch my own?'

She looked down at the fish. She hadn't had to catch two. She didn't have to share, and

he certainly did not expect it of her. They weren't even socially obliged to sit down

together at mealtimes. Her scowl deepened.

'Well, I can't eat them both,' she grumbled, 'and it's too late to throw one of them back


Francis smiled. 'While you're busy at that, I'll go see what else we've got for supper.

Would you like a salad?'

She was as crazy as he was, to be going along with these courtesies. She sighed and said,

'Might as well.'

The bizarre homeliness lasted through the short meal. Afterwards Francis cleared away

the plates and made two cups of instant coffee, adding to hers a dollop of milk without

having to ask. He brought it to her as she stared broodingly at the salt- and pepper-

shakers, chin propped on hands.

He curled his long body neatly into the chair opposite hers. Then he asked, 'Is your

objection confined to me, or does it actually spread to all the employees at Amalgamated


That brought her out of her trance. 'Don't be silly,' she exclaimed involuntarily. 'Why

would I have anything against them?'

'But you understand that, as executive director, I am responsible for not only them but

the thousands of independent investors in Amalgamated.' Francis didn't look at her. His

head was bent as he lounged back in the kitchen chair. He had removed the gauze strips

and seemed to be studying the spot in his hand where the splinter had been.

Kirstie could sense a logistical trap coming and grew correspondingly wary. 'Go on.'

His eyes flashed to her. 'There will be chaos and panic tomorrow, if I don't show up at

the office. If the news of my disappearance leaks to the Press, the damage will be

incalculable. Stock prices will plummet, several vital international deals will be

disrupted. A lot of other people's money would be lost. Need I go on?'

Kirstie had whitened as Francis spoke. She shook her head, her mouth tight.

He sighed. It rocked her heart. Again, where was the monster? This was simply a

careworn man, troubled by his responsibilities. 'How had you expected to avert all this,

then?' he asked her quietly. 'How does this fit into your system of values?'

Kirstie was silent for a long moment, her mind whirling. This was what she had failed to

plan for. This was where the whole lunatic idea, born of an emotionally charged

midnight and planned in haste, fell apart. This was where he caught and held her by

logic and common decency. This was where he demanded that she take him back, and

she would be unable to refuse him.

Kirstie looked Francis in the eye and unflinchingly turned the blade of her honesty on to

herself. 'It doesn't fit,' she said.

He didn't smile in triumph; he didn't home in for the kill. Instead, Francis looked away.

'So you agree that our argument is entirely private?'

That threw her. What was he trying to get at now? She wanted to shout her confusion at

him: I get the point, you don't have to use a sledgehammer! But instead she heard herself

say, 'Yes.'

'Then,' he said delicately, staring at his hand again, 'I think you should let me use that

helicopter radio, so that I can leave a message at the office. As long as they know to

cover for me, the associate directors can act in my place until I get back.'

'Let you use the radio?' she exclaimed incredulously.

That brought his head up with a snap. He said in a hard voice, his eyes completely

shuttered, 'Yes. You'll have to take my word for it that I won't broadcast the kidnapping.

You'll have to trust me that far. After what you did to me on Friday, you owe me that at

least. Then you and I will work this out on our own.'

What was he doing? She stared at him as if he were crazy, which, according to all the

evidence, he was. He could have made her take him back, but he hadn't. Instead he had

demanded the only other alternative, and, until he fixed whatever it was that he had done

to the helicopter, she hadn't any choice.

'Right,' she said, still staring at him. 'Fine. I'll go get the radio.'

Francis nodded, leaned his head back and closed his eyes. 'I knew you'd see it my way.'

Kirstie dragged the plastic-covered radio out from under the bush where she had stowed

it, absent-mindedly brushed the insects away and carried it back to the cabin. There she

sat and listened as Francis, by a series of relayed calls, managed to get a message to one

of his associate directors.

Kirstie curled her legs underneath her as she sat in the corner kitchen chair, watching

Francis as he leaned back in his own seat, his closed eyes tilted to the ceiling. He held

the mike to his mouth while rubbing the back of his neck with the other hand. There was

no way she could have guessed his relaxed, tired posture from his crisp voice, or the

quick relevance of his replies.

As she watched she realised, rather belatedly, that what she witnessed in Francis was a

character trait of long standing, one developed no doubt over years of hard work,

pressure, and being pushed to the limits of his endurance. He knew what to conserve and

when, and he knew just how to expend the energy with spare economy. Just enough, no

less and no more.

The explanation he gave over the radio was sketchy at best. It hinted at transportation

failure on a long-distance weekend trip and that he would be back by the end of the

week. When he had finished he adroitly put an end to the conversation in such a way

that he could not be asked any awkward questions, then he put the headphones down on

the kitchen table and looked up to meet her eyes.

'Surprised that I can actually keep my word about something?' he asked sarcastically.

For some reason he looked angry.

Kirstie sighed. The effort to understand what was going on was wearing her out.

'Francis,' she stated with ragged feeling, 'I should know better by now than to be

surprised at anything you do.'

With that she gathered up the radio and went outside to install it in the helicopter once

again. There wasn't any point in doing anything else. At least that was one rule that had

been established today.

The sun was sinking as evidence that they had somehow managed to argue away several

hours. Long shadows thrown by the pine trees crept across the grass, and already the

night-time symphony of grasshoppers and crickets had begun. Kirstie sprawled across

the pilot's seat and struggled to get the bolts at the back of the radio tightened while

trying to keep it pinned into its niche with one knee.

She felt it then without any reason. There was no sound, no overt warning, nothing

perhaps except for a displacement of air that could have been the wind, but it raised the

tiny hairs on the back of her neck so that she lifted her head and looked up at Francis.

She smelled coffee at the same time. His silhouette, black against the last blinding rays,

was motionless only a moment as she twisted where she half lay, half sprawled to stare

up at him. She winced away from the rose-gold solar knives when he set the cup down

on the rubber-matted floor and leaned over her.

'Here, let me hold that,' he said, taking the weight of the radio in one outspread hand so

that she could stretch her cramped leg. 'You should have told me you meant to do this

now; I would have come out to help.'

He had to lean in from the front passenger seat, and his taut-muscled arm, bare and

smelling of fresh-cut wood and sunshine, was a hair's breadth away from wispy blonde

hair at the side of her head. Her hand on the tool tightening the bolt slipped, and she

banged the knuckles painfully against the metal.

Exclaiming with frustration and pain, she brought the throbbing hand to her mouth to

suck on it too briefly before crying out, 'If I'd wanted any help, I would have asked for


'Well, what would you like me to do now?' asked Francis mildly. 'Let go of the thing?'

Kirstie hauled herself sideways, up and away to sit with her back to him, her legs

dangling out the side. 'How can you be so reasonable when only ten minutes ago in there

you were spoiling for a fight?' she demanded, feeling ridiculously close to tears. She'd

lost her tight grip on her confusion and it was threatening to swamp her.

Francis shifted as well. He had a harder time than she in manoeuvring in the confined

space, but he did his best to turn to look at her hunched back. 'Yes, well,' he said, 'I had a

chance to cool down. I didn't mean to '

She recoiled as if he had struck her, and his breath caught in his throat. 'Don't ' she

whispered '—don't bring me coffee, apologise, be nice. It only makes it worse.'

After a moment his voice came from behind her, as carefully as if he trod on cut glass.

'Do you want me to be something that I'm not?'

Through deadened lips she whispered, 'But who are you?'

'You know something, that is the first time you've asked me,' replied Francis. 'I could

probably tell you. But then you wouldn't believe me anyway.'

Her heavy head sank down into her hands. She heard him move carefully, then there was

a slight rhythmic creaking of metal. In no time at all he had the radio bolted securely

into position, and then he swung himself lightly out of the helicopter without another


She lifted her head and looked around when he left, watching until he had gone inside

and the cabin door had banged shut. Unexpectedly her eyes filled with tears that she

would have given anything to avoid. Not for him. Not these. She didn't want to cry over

or because of him.

She didn't pretend to understand it. Oh, no. The only thing she could lay honest claim to

was this bewilderment that rose so strongly inside her that the feeling was painful.

She pressed the fleshless backs of her fingers into her cheeks furiously in an effort to

clear her mind. Somehow Francis had manipulated the situation today from a stalemate

to some sort of partnership. Sure, it was not necessarily a benevolent one, but still it was

a partnership of sorts, if only because they had agreed to disagree and were prepared to

thrash it out. The clever, subtle bastard!

BOOK: i 077f700896a1d224
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