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Who was the immovable object at this point?

More questions were being asked than answered. She wasn't sure what was going on.

She wasn't sure of a lot of things any more, certainly not why Francis had found it so

important to make a point of fulfilling a trust. She wasn't even sure whether he had been

trying to prove something to her, or to himself.

And just the remembrance of one irrelevant thing sent her over the wobbling edge into

hot, wretched tears. It wouldn't have mattered seven, three, even two days ago. But

tonight it sheared, the way everything seemed to on this razor-backed rock of a

mountain, right through to the bone, and all because this afternoon, in the midst of her

dustmote-dancing daydreams, when she had thought back to her very first love, she

hadn't even been sure what he had looked like.


BY THE end of Monday Kirstie felt as if she had been on the mountain forever, stuck in

some kind of weird limbo with Francis where their different pasts were as unreal as a

fable and the future had no significance. They were simply co-existing; at best it was a

shared purgatory without the cornerstone of a relationship. How he expected them to

work out their differences was beyond her—they couldn't even agree on what was black

and what was white.

Since time weighed heavily on her hands, she spent most of the day doing odd jobs

around the cabin like checking electrical fixtures and crawling through the musty attic

rafters to study the condition of the roof. Even though there was always some member of

the family popping up for the odd week, without someone in permanent residence it was

not unusual to find that something or other had fallen into a state of disrepair.

Francis disappeared to God only knew where in the morning, and took it upon himself in

the afternoon to catch their evening supper, which, considering their ample stock of

provisions, was only an excuse. Kirstie studied his broad back from the concealment of

the nearby trees.

He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself. It awoke a sense of outrage in her. Half

clad, as usual, he was stretched out fully along the water's edge, his hold on the fishing-

rod negligent to say the least, while has face was turned serenely towards the sun. His

closed eyes, the whole power structure of his body, the elegant composition of one hand

lying across the flat accordion-ripple of his slim stomach, lips, legs—everything about

him was gracefully lax until his fishing-line quivered and grew taut. Then Francis surged

into action before Kirstie had even fully realised that he had a bite.

So he was amazingly quick. So he had patience, and the capacity to enjoy everything

Kirstie loved about the mountain. So there was beauty and harmony in the fluid

performance of his body, and his obvious peace of mind that was such a direct contrast

to her own desperate search for it. So what?

Never mind that it was her fault he was here to begin with. Never mind even that the

issues that lay between them were far more serious. Kirstie was still flooded by a really

righteous pique, because, after all, that was
fishing-spot he was trespassing on.

With a sudden upward flex of his arms that sent every muscle down his back undulating,

Francis heaved out of the water a sleek silver arc that flapped wildly in a brilliant

cascade of sunlit droplets, and he laughed aloud with delight.

'Poacher,' muttered Kirstie, grinding her heel into the spirit of generosity. She turned her

back on the enchanting scene and stomped disgustedly away.

Dinner was little more than a glorified mess. Francis insisted on trying to clean and gut

the trout himself, and in the process of emulating her efficient technique from the day

before he managed to make a thoroughly botched job of it.

Kirstie was standing over him, her arms crossed and eyebrows expressively raised, when

he finally sat back on his heels.

'Ah,' said Francis wisely, as with black head bent he contemplated the mangled fillets

spread out before him like a sacrificial offering. 'It looked somewhat easier when you

did it.'

'It helps if you learn how early in your childhood,' she told him drily. 'I do have about

fifteen years' experience on you.'

He turned an eye up to her. 'Not much good, are they?'

Surprisingly, the diffidence of that made her unbend enough to reply with a crooked

smile, 'I'm sure you've had better in New York restaurants, but they'll cook up all right

and, if we're careful about the bones, we should be able to eat them.'

So Kirstie found herself cooking supper as the sun went down, and she opened a kitchen

window wide to dissipate the smell of fish while they sat down together to pick apart

their meal. Faced again with the glorious vitality of Francis's uncomplicated demeanour,

she retreated into her shell like a startled hermit crab and made a bid to flee soon

afterwards. She'd cooked the supper, hadn't she? Well, he could just get off his backside

and do the dishes.

She nearly made it without any comment from him. But, as she reached the doorway, his

mild voice came from behind and curled gentle shackles around her ankles.

'Running away?'

Kirstie's blonde head came up, then she turned to face him as he looked at her over the

steepled fingers. His kindly emerald regard was a challenge she'd die before she refused,

and her lips tightened briefly before she replied, 'I have no business with you. All I have

to do is stick this out until after the wedding, if necessary. You can stay or go as you like.

That hasn't changed.'

'But, Kirstie, if I was so hell-bent on Louise, why would her marriage stop me any more

than her engagement did? It still comes down to you and me, right now, and what might

happen when we get back—that is the real issue,' he told her softly, his gaze almost


'Damn you,' she whispered, shaken, and when she did reach the sanctuary of her own

bedroom it was a hollow escape.

Cloistered there, she read until midnight and then pulled on one of her brother's old T-

shirts that came down to her thighs, and went to brush her teeth and wash her face. The

rest of the cabin was in darkness. Even Francis's room was silent, the door pushed to but

not latched, revealing a crack of space that was pitch-black. Ridiculously, she gave it a

wide berth on her route back to her own bed where she tried to go to sleep herself, but

only ended up tossing and turning under the weight of her troubled thoughts.

Would Louise's marriage stop Francis? Kirstie burrowed her forehead into her pillow in

frustration. Had he meant it as a threat, or merely to point out the flaw in her thinking?

But then it would be Neil's duty to protect Louise, and Louise's responsibility to protect

him. But didn't that mean it was Neil's duty even now, as Francis said, to fight for their

relationship, in spite of how Louise sought to keep him unaffected?

But—but—but—sputtered in her head like a faulty engine. At this rate she would never

be able to sleep.

Certainly she was wide awake enough to hear the first stealthy brush of sound from the

other side of the door, but at first she automatically discounted it by assuming that

Francis was making a nocturnal trip to the bathroom. But when there was no closing of a

door, no evidence of other normal noise, not even the customary distant gush of the

water tap, she perked up and listened curiously.

Swish, swish. That was a strange noise. What could he possibly be doing? There was a

loud crash and a rattle that seemed to come just outside her door, then a queer

scrabbling, and a slow chill swept down her entire body. Whatever it was, something

was horribly wrong.

Nightmarish flashbacks detonated in her head.

He could be capable of anything. . .

She began to tremble violently. After being so very reasonable in his own wretched

fashion, oh, why would he do anything now in the middle of the night? Didn't he know it

out there?

Going to try the reasoning tack? What do we get after that, threats?

He wouldn't. He couldn't, not even he would go that far, she wouldn't believe it of him—

God, what was that?

Kirstie bolted upright in bed at the same instant the grey shadow of her door opened

silently and, in a culmination of her worst imaginings, Francis glided in. One part of her

deep-fried wits managed to take in his supreme caution and how he very carefully

latched the door behind him, even as she battled against pure terror to haul in a great

lungful of air for an ear-shattering, completely useless scream.

But, when he was quick, he was very, very quick. She didn't have a chance. In one fluid

rush he was at her side, and he clamped a hand over her open mouth. It was so large that

it covered half her face.

Her whole body jerked with the terrifying shock, but before she had time to give in

totally to her unreasoning panic he put his lips to her ear and breathed, 'Be very quiet


His unaffected calm got through to her. She held herself as frozen as a frightened rabbit,

and in the stillness of that inaction they both heard the strange, blundering noise again.

Now it appeared to be coming from the living-room.

Flooded with a crazy, reeling relief, Kirstie sagged against the warmth of Francis's bare

chest and he loosened his grip on her mouth to hold her close. It was a soothing sort of

gesture, made absent-mindedly, as all his attention was focused on what was happening

on the other side of the door.

'What is it?' she hissed.

'Sh,' he replied, winding his arm around again to touch cautioningly the side of her

cheek. 'I don't know. I thought it was you.'

'I thought it was you!' To her amazement she found that she was clinging monkey-like to

the solid strength of his waist. She cursed her stupid limbs as they started to shake again

with reaction, and he pressed her head down to his shoulder, which smelled deliciously


Then he put his hands to her shoulders to gently ease her away. 'Stay here, all right?'

At the cold touch of metal through the thin T-shirt, she reached out one hand to touch a

smooth hard barrel and exclaimed, 'You've got the gun!'

His head bent to hers. 'I don't want to panic you unduly, but what's out there could well

be human and unfriendly.'

The sense of their isolation hit her in the gut. 'But there aren't any bullets!'

'They won't know that.' He rose to leave, until she grabbed the hard muscle of his arm.

'You can't go out there! You could be hurt or killed!'

Amazingly, his reaction was to press his lips against her forehead. 'It'll be all right,' he

said. 'Just stay put.'

She hadn't had any conscious desire to do otherwise, but when he eased her door open

with torturing care, she found herself huddled up behind him and peering anxiously

around the broad expanse of his powerful back. He jerked half around and gave her an

ungentle push, gritting, 'Get back, you fool!'

And stay here on her own? There wasn't a hope's chance in hell. She swallowed and

retorted stoutly, 'I'm not letting you go out there by yourself!'

'Then for God's sake stay behind me!'

He made sure she did by clamping hard fingers around her wrist, one arm twisted, so

that for every long, silent step he took she had to scuttle on after. Then he stopped and

her nose connected with the spot between his shoulder-blades with a bump. They were at

the end of the short hallway, and whatever was bumbling in the dark was still there.

Francis silently pressured her down until she was in a crouch at the corner of the

hallway. Then, with a quick squeeze of his fingers, he let go. For a horrible moment she

was left alone in the dark, then with a tiny snick light flooded the living-room and at the

same time Francis dived sideways across the hall opening in front of her, the gun up and

held ready.

He checked immediately and stood straight, looking very odd. At that curiosity

overcame her fear, and she put one hand on the floor to lean forward and peer around the


And she looked, eye to eye and on the same level, into an astonished black mask.

The sight was enough to weaken her bent legs so that they slid out from underneath her

and she sat with a bump on the cold floor. In reply the fat, whiskered racoon leapt

straight into the air, then began to scrabble backwards as fast as it could move.

'Dearie me, our intruder is discombobulated,' Francis commented, with mild hilarity. He

leaned back against the wall as his shoulders shook.

'Oh, God!' she gasped. 'How did he get in?'

'I almost hate to mention it. The real question is, how do we get him out?'

'Oh, look at the poor thing! Quick—open all the doors and windows!' The creature

cowered between the settee and the wall, its startlingly human paws clapped over its

eyes. She hadn't known racoons could get so huge. She scrambled to her feet and darted

to the front door to throw it wide, while Francis laid down the gun and began to unlatch

the window.

'Be careful,' he warned, looking over his shoulder as she crept around the furniture to get

BOOK: i 077f700896a1d224
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