a better look at it. 'You don't want to risk the filthy little beast scratching or biting your
'How can you call it a filthy little beast?' she said softly, her hands on her bare knees as
she bent. 'It's absolutely gorgeous!'
'And probably messing all over the floor in fright,' Francis added, strolling over to the
opposite end of the settee. Kirstie glanced at him and realised, for the first time, that he
was clad in nothing but his briefs. She gulped and her gaze skittered away as he grasped
hold of the furniture and said, 'Get ready.'
He pulled hard at the settee and it screeched woodenly across the bare floor. The racoon
exploded out of its corner right towards her. Heavens, she'd never seen anything waddle
so fast in her life. Kirstie shouted and waved her arms to shoo it out of the front door,
but it didn't get the message.
At the last moment she leapt on to a nearby armchair that teetered dangerously before
crashing on to its side, flinging her to the floor. She managed to land on her hands and
knees, very much surprised but unhurt, and when she looked around she guffawed to see
the bouncing back end of the racoon whisk into the kitchen.
Crying with laughter himself, Francis hurried over to her. 'Are you all right?' he gasped.
'I—I think so. But what about the racoon?' She reached up both hands for his ready
grasp and he helped her to her feet.
'I suspect he'll make it out under his own steam now.'
'How?' Hurrying to the kitchen, she found the racoon already gone, the evidence for both
his visit and his hasty retreat in the window still wide open from when she'd cooked
supper, and the baptism of fish bones scattered all over the counter, stove, floor— even,
she found, in the sink. A small pan lay upside-down on the floor, its matching lid in a
'Oh, dear,' she giggled, pointing to the pan as light dawned. 'The crash I heard '
'—and the rattle,' finished Francis, whose face was still creased with merriment. He
wiped his eyes. 'I'm afraid this is all my fault. I put the scraps in the pan to throw out in
the morning, and I left the window open to finish airing out the smell of cooked fish.'
'"I don't "' she stuttered, holding her aching side. '"I don't want to—
panic you unduly"!'
'Rub it in all you like,' he returned good-naturedly. 'Still, you handled it pretty well.'
'Are you kidding? I was petrified!'
At long last he sobered, the amusement dying slowly out of his expression, and, looking
at him, Kirstie was stricken with the thought that the laughter was what had been
missing from his face. He sent her a sharp green glance, disturbingly intense, and asked
softly, 'Oh, yes? Was that before or after you knew it wasn't me?'
She wasn't prepared for it, and the silken question was like a douche of cold water on
her face. She shivered, for her oversized T-shirt had become too thin. Even her skin was
too thin, for he had slipped right under it, and she wrapped her arms around herself, a
telling, defensive posture.
It was clear from the way he stood, unselfconsciously graceful in only the briefs that
covered his male nakedness, that he was braced for the bitter retaliation he obviously
expected from her, and the scale of the injustice she had done to him was appallingly
evident in the instinctive way he had sought to protect her earlier. Suddenly she knew
that he would have done the same for anybody else in their situation.
She wondered if her misjudgement hurt him, and somehow she couldn't bear the
possibility of it. She licked her lips and said in a dry, painful whisper, 'But, I '
Without a change in his intent, dark expression, he stepped up to her and put his hands
on to her shoulders. The warmth from his heavy palms anchored her to this place, this
unwilling confession. She stared up with huge eyes at his face bent over hers. He
whispered back, 'Say it.'
The indecision in her broke. 'Francis,' she said, unaware of how his name came out of
her like a cry for reassurance, 'I didn't lock my door!'
How grim the line of his mouth was, how taut. 'So you didn't,' he agreed.
She shook her head from side to side, and he raised one hand to run his fingers through
the short hair at the back of her head. The silken strands slipped along the hardened
lengths of sinew and bone she felt like iron bands against her skull. He wrapped his
other hand around her throat, tilting up her chin, trapping the negative movement of her
The very quality of his deliberation was shattering. The room whirled about her so that
the only secure point of reference was the rock-like steadiness of his grip. He said with
stunning gentleness, 'But perhaps you should have.'
Then his head came down like an avalanche, like a comet. Her heart bucked hard in
violent response, but his mouth when he made contact with hers was devastatingly light
and hot, sweetly, inexplicably closed to hers, and it was at once an impassioned, feverish
caress and a locked door of his own. Dear God, she hadn't a clue whether it was meant
to teach her or punish her.
Every one of her senses kicked into hyperdrive. She was vibrantly aware all at once, of
not only the very care with which he held her and the utter lack of invasion, but of his
scent, and taste, and feel, and, deepest of all, her own growing sensual hunger and
disappointment. Not a punishment, but he pushed and pushed her with the long seconds
trickling by, and the refusal to either deepen the kiss or pull away, until she gritted under
his mouth, both angered and horribly frustrated. 'You don't frighten me!'
Even as she said it, and her mouth opened under his, she knew the statement for what it
really was, an invitation.
He froze and, most amazingly of all, the featherlight fingers underneath her chin
trembled. Then with exquisite, torturing control, he drew back and they stared at each
other, brilliant grey and brilliant green.
'That's all right, then,' he said, so mildly that she felt the urge to hit him, but the white
tension had eased from around his mouth. And then, most devastating of all, he released
her and turned to walk away.
Kirstie didn't like it.
Francis was up to something. Every inch of his behaviour shouted it. He was still
relaxed, even indolent. His eyes laughed more, and when his manner did not tease he
was extraordinarily polite. Solicitous. Kirstie finished chewing the nail of her left
forefinger and started on the thumb. Charming as well.
In fact, he had been that way ever since their nocturnal visitor on Monday night, and this
was a bright Wednesday morning.
She still couldn't believe the utter ease with which he had so sensually, so casually
brought her to a silently shrieking peak of physical awareness and then just walked
away. She couldn't believe how she had reacted—with fury, with astonishment, with the
invitation that she had known he was all too aware of— and how he had refused it and
She had run through the entire gamut of emotions. He hadn't wanted to kiss her, really
kiss her, to sink into the warm, open crevices of her waiting mouth and devour what she
had been prepared to give. That was galling.
Then, after a time, left on that stunned, unfulfilled plateau he had brought her to, she
knew differently. She knew, from the unspoken language of his body, with the
instinctive feminine awareness of masculine interest, from the way his gaze would linger
from time to time on the mobile action of her lips as she spoke, and the stem, banked-
down hunger in the depths of those green eyes, that he had wanted to.
She shook herself and jumped out of bed. Yesterday he had awakened her with a smile
and breakfast on a tray. He had leaned over the pink bedspread to set the tray across her
hips and she had slithered back on her pillows at the first whiff of his fresh warm scent,
gaping at the full display of his delectable pectoral muscles only inches away from her
In any other male she would have liked what she had seen and basked in the attention,
but that lazy, patient sexual prowl coming from Francis had her so wound up that if he
so much as said boo to her she would be hanging from the ceiling like a cartoon cat.
She had tried, but it was no good any more doing as Francis had suggested on Tuesday
morning, which was to take everything one day at a time. He made the urge to gravitate
towards him far too easy, and that wasn't possible without concrete answers. Their
relationship, already convoluted, had slipped into a place beyond her understanding. She
couldn't handle it. She had to get away to think. Making her plans, she crept to the
kitchen, heated some water on the stove and measured a teaspoon of instant coffee into a
cup, then frowned at it ferociously.
She knew what Francis was up to. She knew, and she also knew why she felt so craven,
and why she was going to slip away that morning before he woke up. And she had to
make sense of all the riotous confusion that was teeming through her mind, to come to
some sort of conclusion, to exorcise the devil of insidious desire he had awakened in her
on Monday night.
She had to, because he was waiting, and there would come a time when he wouldn't wait
She drank her coffee while she dressed, quietly and quickly, then packed some food in
one of the backpacks stored in a cupboard below the kitchen counters, and eased out of
the cabin's front door before seven o'clock.
Then, feeling driven, she set out on her hike in order to find the peace of mind she so
desperately needed. She took a path that she had long been familiar with, that skirted
around the lake and up to a clear stretch of slope that looked out over a panoramic view.
That isolated place always gave her a feeling of sitting on top of the world. It was silent,
windy, far, far away from the noise and congestion of civilisation, and it had never
before failed to help her clear her head. She needed that serenity so badly that she put
the sight of the dark, gathering clouds out of her mind and continued her climb.
But her concentration was sadly lacking, and as the path skirted along the edge of an
overgrown ravine her foot slipped and then her body slipped with her, and with a sharp,
startled cry she fell over the edge.
She felt a bruising wrench on her shoulder, a whirling, dizzying sensation of space, and
she landed heavily on one hip in a thick, leafy bed of ferns in the bottom of the ravine.
The breath was knocked out of her, so she lay wheezing for a few minutes, waiting to
get her strength back before she tried to move. It had been a stupid slip, but she tended
to be philosophical about such mishaps, and after her heart had slowed down to normal
and she had checked to make sure she hadn't seriously damaged herself she sat up and
looked around for her light canvas pack.
She located it at last as it swung back and forth gently, hanging by one strap on the
branch of a slender birch sapling, and she scowled at it as she rubbed her sore, scratched
shoulder where the pack had rested. Then she squinted at the sky which had shone with
such promise just an hour ago, but now looked so sullen, and she could have cried.
Nothing had really gone right since she had got out of bed that morning.
As there was nothing else to do, she flexed her fingers and grasped hold of the sapling's
smooth, slim trunk to give it a good hard shake. A swallow exploded into flight with a
panicked warble and something hit her on the head. Blowing feathers out of her face,
she looked around in time to see the bird's nest bounce into the ferns.
'Oh, damn!' she exclaimed in remorse. All she had managed to do so far was to
dispossess a bird, and the pack still hung on the branch.
'I'm beginning to think,' said a conversational voice from above, 'that you should be kept
on a leash.'
Her heart jolted with surprise and with a supreme effort of will she managed to avoid her
head jerking up. It was too much to hope that he would go away if she ignored him, but
she was too disconcerted by the way her skin had flushed hot and her limbs begun to
shake at the sound of his voice, so she tried anyway and concentrated on narrowing an
assessing gaze at the twelve-foot slope in front of her. If one could call it a slope. It was
a nearly vertical wall of crumbling soil, rocks and protruding tree-roots, far easier to fall
down than to climb up.
'What,' continued the infuriating fellow, 'no glad amazement, no astonished cry of
At that Kirstie did glance at him. Francis's green eyes smiled down at her from over the
edge, his chin propped in one hand. 'I should have expected you to show up,' she told
him flatly. 'All misfortunes come in threes.'
'I must be quite mad,' he said placidly. 'There are far easier maidens to rescue in this
'Did I say I needed rescuing?' she snapped.
'I see you get my point.'
'What happened to my pack? And how did you know I was down here?' Now that he had