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a better look at it. 'You don't want to risk the filthy little beast scratching or biting your

legs.'

'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

far-off corner.

'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

head.

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

her.

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

mouth.

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

any longer.

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

welcome?'

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

world.'

'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

BOOK: i 077f700896a1d224
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