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Mandy Jenkins and Renzo Ruffini were fated to be combatants: to tease, taunt and infuriate each other, to jeer and bang their heads against the wall in mutual exasperation. And then to laugh and forget everything. Until the next time.
The truth was there the night they met, if either of them had been able to see it: the instant attraction hiding behind antagonism, the meeting of minds that took them both by surprise.
The only thing missing was the tragedy. That came later.
It was an evening in late February when Mandy arrived in Chamonix, on the French-Italian border, and booked into one of the city's best hotels. It was slightly more than she could afford, but she was about to spend the next week living tough in the mountains and she reckoned she was entitled to spoil herself.
Everything was perfect, starting with the view from her bedroom window, of the mountains rearing up, shimmering white in the darkness, right down to the delicate French cuisine in the restaurant.
She took her time over the meal, occasionally glancing around at the other diners. One couple in particular claimed her attention. The woman was roughly in her late thirties, done up to the nines, evidently with the intention of attracting a conquest.
Laying it all out, Mandy mused.
If so, the woman was successful. The man with her was entirely focused on her ripe beauty, holding her hand, fixing his eyes on her as though the rest of the world didn't exist. He too seemed to be in his thirties, with a face that was attractive rather than handsome. But the attraction was intense. His features were lean and sharp, the eyes brilliant with intelligence anddevilment.
He smiled, and it was beaming, dazzling, all enveloping.
Hmm! Mandy thought.
Many women would have been seduced by that smile, even at this distance. But not her. She'd seen something that didn't ring true. Despite his fervour, the passionate intensity in his gaze, this man wasn't in love. He was simply doing what was expected of him in the situation, heading down a well-worn road to a predetermined end. And there were no prizes for guessing what the end would be.
Her impression was confirmed a few minutes later when the couple rose and headed for the lift, his arm around her waist, her head on his shoulder, their gazes locked in mutual adoration.
After drinking her coffee, Mandy retired to her own room to prepare for the next day when she would join an expedition up the mountains, led by professional climber, Pierre Foule. She was looking forward to it, knowing herself to be physically well equipped with a strong, young body, slim and lithe. Her black hair was cut short in a neat crop.
Efficient, she thought. Just what's needed.
What she didn't take into account was her deep green eyes. To her they were just eyes, useful for their perfect vision, but not special, so she entirely missed their beauty and the effect they could have on other people.
The shower felt unbelievably good, and when she'd finished and put on a towel robe, she felt invigorated and ready for the climb she would start tomorrow.
The thought filled her with the desire for one last look at the mountains, and she slipped out onto the wrought iron balcony to stand enraptured. She was about to go back inside when a commotion reached her from two windows along. A man was cursing in French, a woman was screaming.
The window was at an angle and she had a clear view as the curtains parted and a man rushed out onto the balcony.
It somehow came as no surprise to discover that he was the same man she'd been studying downstairs. Before her startled gaze, he climbed onto the wrought iron railings, took a deep breath and launched himself towards the balcony of the next window, landing easily.
But there his luck ran out. There was only darkness inside and his tapping on the window produced no response. The noise from the place he'd just left was growing louder and Mandy saw him eye her own balcony with intent.
He was mad, she thought. The leap he'd just made was across a corner angle and relatively easy, if you were into that kind of thing. But the balcony where he stood now was straight across from hers, a good six-foot jump and a forty-foot drop if he missed it.
'You're out of your mind,' she called.
'Can we talk about that later?'
Aghast, she retreated into her room, just peering out far enough to see the moment when he launched himself into space, clearing the gap with ease and only just having to cling on to the railings as he landed, muttering, 'Grazie dio!'just loud enough for her to hear. Italian, then.
But she'd called to him in English and she had to admire the aplomb with which he switched back to her language.
'Let's go,' he said hastily, hustling her inside and closing the window firmly.
'Hush,' he said urgently. 'Don't make a sound.'
'Who are you giving orders to?' she demanded, drawing the edges of her robe together. 'Just who are you?'
'A man who's throwing himself on your mercy,' he said quickly. 'Don't be alarmed; I'm not going to hurt you. I just need a place to hide until he gives up the hunt.'
'He? Who's he?'
'The husband, of course,' he said, in a tone that implied inevitable consequences. 'I didn't know there was one. She swore she was divorced, and how's a man to know?'
'She being the woman you had dinner with downstairs, I suppose?'
'Oh, you saw her? Can you blame me for losing my head?'
'You didn't lose your head,' she said, standing back and regarding him cynically. 'You knew exactly what you were doing at every moment. All that passionate gazing—' She made a gormless face to indicate what she was saying and he flinched.
'That's a wicked slander! I never look like that.'
'Look? Present tense? Meaning not with her or any of the others?'
'How do you know there are others?'
'Guess! You looked like a lovesick duck!'
A duck? May you be forgiven!'
'But there was nothing lovesick about you. You were in control all the time.'
'It seems like it, doesn't it? A man who was in control would hardly be on the run. She just made my head spin.'
'And that's your excuse for acting like the hero of a bad Hollywood movie? Who do you think you are? Douglas Fairbanks?'
'He was always doing that athletic stuff in his films and— Why am I telling you this? How dare you just barge in here like some second-rate Lothario?'
'I thought I was Douglas Fairbanks,' he said with an expression of innocence that didn't fool her for a minute.
'Get out! Get—'
The last word was silenced by his hand over her mouth.
'Hush, for pity's sake,' he begged. 'Ow!'
'Now will you let go of me?'
'You bit my hand.'
'I'll bite you somewhere a lot more painful if you don't leave my room. Go back to your lady friend.'
'I can't, her husband will kill me.'
'Good for him! I'll help him dispose of the body.'
'You're not very kind,' he protested plaintively.
She stared at him, bereft of speech long enough to hear a knock at her door.
'Mademoiselle, I am police. Please to open at once. This is for your own protection.'
She darted to the door, but at first she didn't open it. Afterwards she could never quite understand what had stopped her, but she merely called back, 'What is the matter?'
A criminal, mademoiselle. He has been detected in a room along here but managed to escape. Please to open.'
'Open it,' her companion murmured in her ear.
'If you don't, they'll just get more suspicious. Your best bet is an air of calm and lofty innocence.'
'How dare you? I am innocent!'
'Then you can open it.'
'And let them see you, so that the husband can identify you?'
'He can't. He never saw me. I got away while he was still in the outer room.'
'And how do I explain your presence?'
'This is a liberated age. You're entitled to have a man in your room.'
Are you daring to suggest that I pretend that you and I—'
'Unless you can think of something more convincing. I suppose I could be trying to sell you insurance—'
'Whatever you say. I'm at your mercy.'
'Mademoiselle!' That was the policeman again.
Then another man's voice said, 'He's obviously in there. Beat the door down.'
There was a thump on the door. Furious with all of them, Mandy wrenched it open so fast that the attacker was caught in mid-blow, lunging forwards against her and landing hard enough to knock her back. Only the swift movement of her mysterious companion prevented her hitting the wall.
'Murderer!' he cried. 'My darling, has he hurt you?'
'I'm not sure,' she said faintly. 'Help me up.'
He did so, lifting her in his arms and carrying her towards the bed, laying her down, then sitting beside her, still holding her.
'Get out, the pair of you,' he said to the two other men who were just behind him. 'Look what you've done.'
Through half closed eyes Mandy surveyed the two men, one of whom was in a police uniform. Madness seized her and she pointed to the other intruder, a squashy-looking individual with a mean face.
'Why did he attack me?' she asked in a quavering voice.
'I didn't, I didn't,' he squeaked. 'I was seeking the man who was with my wife. I thought he was here—'
'Ooh!' she moaned, covering her face and turning so that the stranger's arms enfolded her.
'Get out before I have the law on you,' he threatened.
The policeman began a stumbling apology but fell silent when he saw a look in the stranger's eyes. A jerk of the head sent him retreating through the door, half dragging the outraged husband with him.
'It's all right, they've gone.'
Lifting her head, she saw him regarding her with a mischievous devil in his eyes. Then her appalled glance fell on herself, and the towel robe which had drifted open, revealing her nakedness. Sanity descended on her like a cold shower and she snatched the edges together.
'Thank you for everything you did,' he said in a placating voice. 'You were wonderful.'
But he backed away as he spoke, reading murder in her eyes.
'If,' she said, breathing hard, 'you don't get out of this room this instant, I shall scream the place down, call back the policeman and tell everyone the truth about you.'
'Not that,' he begged. 'Anything but the truth.'
'Oh, but this truth is very interesting. You are an unspeakable scoundrel—'
'No doubt about it.'
A ham actor—'
'That's going too far.'
A fraud, a man without scruple—'
He'd reached the door now, opened it, paused in the gap.
'I just want to say that you were brilliant,' he said quickly.
'And thank you.'
'If you don't get out of here—'
He paused just long enough to blow her a kiss. Then he was gone.
Mandy stood, torn between exasperation and laughter. He was everything she'd called him and worse, but she felt mysteriously invigorated as never before in her life.
Swiftly she put out the lights, tossed aside the robe and jumped into bed, mulling him over.
Where did he come from? She'd heard him mutter to himself in Italian, and he spoke in a Continental accent.
What had possessed him to make those crazy jumps? Fear of an enraged husband? No way. He was a lithe and powerful athlete who could have handled any number of husbands. Yet he'd chosen to run for it, risking his life in the process.
A man without fear, then, but also a man with some very kooky values. The way he'd said, 'She swore she was divorced, and how's a man to know?' implied many other similar incidents.
And it didn't bother him. It was just how he lived, from one woman to the next. He loved, he escaped, he went on. And he laughed. He'd been laughing all the time she'd berated him, not outwardly but inside. It had been there in his whole attitude, but mostly in his gleaming eyes.
Curse him for seeing her robe fall open. Just let him dare get ideas about her. She didn't have a husband, but she did have a very useful left hook.
The thought made her feel better, and she fell asleep.
Next morning Mandy set out to walk the short distance through the snow-lined streets of Chamonix that led to the office where she was to join the expedition. Up ahead loomed the dazzling white mountains, inviting her to forget everything earthbound.
As she reached the office of Pierre Foule, expedition organiser, she could see a group of young people outside, looking around and up, impatient for the pleasure to begin.
'When I told them at work that I was going to be climbing the Alps,' a man was saying, 'they were really impressed. Especially the girls.'
And aren't you just going to make the most of it when you get back!' another man ribbed him.
From behind Mandy a young female voice joined in the banter. 'You want to be careful. These days we climb them ourselves, and we get to the top before you.'
There was a good-natured laugh. Mandy turned to see a woman of about her own age, with a cheerful face and a robust appearance.
'Hi, I'm Joan Hunter,' she said. 'I'm going on the Mont Blanc trip.'
'Me too. I'm Mandy Jenkins.'
They looked each other over approvingly.
'I've just been in there to register,' Joan said. 'But it's a madhouse. Pierre Foule, who was supposed to be leading us, is off sick, so someone else is standing in, and the girls are crowding round him, sighing. Not that he's fending them off.'
'Oh, heavens!' Mandy said cynically. 'One of them.'
All easy charm and full of himself.'
As soon as they went inside she saw what Joan had meant. A female crowd was converging around a man she couldn't see clearly. Then he turned and her blood froze.
'It can't be,' she whispered.
But there was no mistaking that smile, that air of being on top of life and ready for anything. She breathed hard.
'Hello, everyone,' he said. 'I'm Renzo Ruffini. I'm taking charge of this trip, but I'm still missing someone.' His voice faded as Mandy appeared before him.
She had the pleasure of seeing him disconcerted, which she guessed didn't happen very often.
'You,' he whispered.
'Yes, me. I'm glad you remember me among the crowd.'
'But of course I do. You saved my life.'
'I think the least said about that the better, don't you?'
'Definitely.' He pulled himself together. 'How do you come to be here?'
'I'm Mandy Jenkins.'
'You?'he queried. 'Are you sure?'
'Well, I've been Mandy Jenkins for twenty-seven years. If there was a mistake, I'm sure I'd have noticed by now.'
'I only meant—you're not quite what I expected.' He surveyed her five foot two inches. 'It's a very demanding climb. I wonder if you're strong enough.'
'I've filled in the forms, answered all the health questions. I meet your requirements, otherwise I wouldn't have been accepted by Pierre Foule.'
'That's true, but if Pierre had realized you were quite so delicate—'
Posted December 22, 2010
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Posted January 18, 2010
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Posted June 24, 2011
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