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Camilla Greenley Hutton stood in the middle of the muddy road deep in the game reserve with a .357 magnum pistol gripped in her outstretched hands. The cool rain of a Louisiana spring fell in silver streaks around her. Drops the size of quarters dimpled the surface of puddles caught in the wheel ruts. They clattered in the branches of trees that overhung the road, beaded the wax finish of Cammie's Cadillac Seville on the road's shoulder, and made the green sand-washed silk of the blouse she wore with her jeans cling like a second skin. Wind whipped long, damp strands of golden-brown hair from the green silk tie that held the curling mane at her nape. She narrowed her hazel eyes against the blown rain and flying hair and the fading light of late evening. She waited.
Cammie heard the roar of the Land Rover long before it came into view. Keith was hurtling toward her at reckless speed. He was so intent on staying on her tail in the treacherous maze of game-reserve back roads that he didn't care who or what he ran over in the process. It was typical. Cammie had been depending on it.
Her husband wasn't chasing her because he loved her madly, or even because he wanted her. It was a matter of pride. He couldn't stand the thought that she might be able to outrun him, and hated the idea that she would even try. The thing that drove him most of all, however, was the knowledge that she had managed to survive without any problem since the filing of their petition for divorce. He took it as a personal insult.
The oddest part about the situation was that dissolving their marriage had been Keith's idea. For the first few months after the legalities were in place, heseemed to revel in his freedom, living openly with the girlfriend, nineteen and pregnant, that he'd been keeping in a trailer just outside town. Cammie had expected any day to hear of plans for his wedding. Then, three weeks ago, Keith knocked on her door, his suitcase in his hand, a cocksure grin on his face. He'd changed his mind about the divorce, he said. He wanted to be her husband again.
Cammie had laughed; she couldn't help it. Beneath the amusement, however, there was the painful irony that the man who had shared her life for six long years could fail so completely to understand her. She needed to love and trust the man in her life. Keith had killed those things for her. Without them, there was nothing.
That was when his harassment began.
Cammie had had enough of it. She was tired of hearing her phone ring at all hours of the night, tired of demands that she explain her every movement and appointment. She was sick to death of refusing the delivery of unwanted flowers, and could not bear another visit from her former mother-in-law, pleading her son's case. Most of all, she was disgusted with being spied upon and followed everywhere she went.
She had tried again and again to make Keith realize she wanted no part of being his wife, now or ever, that she was looking forward to the legal end of their marriage in just five weeks. She had told him plainly she didn't like the tactics he was using to try to win her back, but he didn't seem to believe she meant it. There was only one way she could think of to make him see.
Cammie's father had given her the high-powered pistol when she went off to college, and had taught her how to handle it. She was finally going to put that training to use.
The Land Rover rounded the curve in front of her. She waited until she was sure Keith saw her, until there could be no doubt in his mind who she was and what she was doing. Taking a steadying breath, aiming carefully, she squeezed the trigger of the magnum.
It bucked in recoil, jarring her arms and shoulders, flinging up her hands. The concussion blasted her ears.
Glass flew from the Land Rover's right headlight. She saw Keith's wide eyes and the pale blur of his face, his mouth working as he cursed. She steadied her aim again. Firing quickly, she took out the left headlight.
Brakes screamed. The Land Rover fishtailed wildly on the muddy road, spraying mud and gravel as it plowed sideways. The right front tire caught in a rut, spinning the vehicle in a half circle. Motor whining, it plunged into the ditch. There was the hollow thud of metal crunching as it struck a tree, then stillness.
Cammie brought the pistol down, backing toward her car on the side of the road. She stopped abruptly as she saw Keith inside the Land Rover, slumped over the wheel.
He was faking, she knew it. He had to be. Yet it looked as if there was a splatter of red on his shirt.
She couldn't just leave him there. It was impossible, in spite of all the callous things he had said and done, in spite of everything she knew about his weak, manipulating ways.
"Idiot," she said under her breath. She meant herself. Still, she clenched her teeth and walked toward the Land Rover.
She opened the door on the driver's side with care. Keith was breathing; she could see the rise and fall of his chest. There was a trickle of blood running from his nose. Still holding the magnum, she reached out left-handed to touch his shoulder, giving him a slight nudge.
Keith came upright with a jerk. Twisting in the seat, he grabbed her wrist. His slickly handsome features were set in a malicious grin, and satisfaction shone in his yellow-brown eyes. "Fooled you again," he said on a short laugh as he climbed out of the vehicle. "You always were a sucker for anything hurt."
The name she called him was not a compliment.
"Oh, yeah?" Fishing a handkerchief from his back pocket, he wiped at the blood under his nose. "Well, I'm also your husband, and I think it's time you had a reminder. This looks like a good, quiet place for it to me. That should put paid to this dumb divorce petition, plus help make up for the damage to the Rover."
There was a sick feeling inside Cammie, and her heart hammered against her ribs. The falling rain suddenly felt like ice water pouring over her. She made no attempt to release herself, however, but left her wrist flaccid in his grasp. Moistening her lips with her tongue, tasting the rain on them, she said, "If your Rover's damaged it's your own fault."
"Is that so?" A sneer crossed his face, though there was the glitter of a perverse excitement in the depths of his eyes. "I could say the same thing, you know. If you weren't so stubborn, we could have had our reconciliation in a nice, soft bed. As it is--"
He spread his legs and shoved his hips forward, as if inviting her to notice the bulge in front of his pants. At the same time, he exerted pressure on her arm, pulling her toward him.
"Let me go," she said. Raising the handgun in her fist, she pressed the muzzle against his chest.
He snorted. "You think that thing scares me? You're too softhearted to shoot a rattlesnake, much less a man."
"Don't be too sure," she said quietly.
A faint uneasiness flitted across his face before he laughed and reached for the magnum.
In that instant, Cammie brought her knee up toward the juncture of his spread legs. He saw it coming and tried to turn. Still, she caught him a glancing blow. Keith grunted, releasing her as he bent double and clutched at himself.
Cammie danced backward out of his reach. Whirling, she ran toward the Cadillac.
Keith shouted after her. She heard footsteps, hobbling at first, then growing stronger. They splashed and thudded behind her. She redoubled her efforts. Her breath rasped in her throat. He was coming nearer. He would be on her before she could snatch open the car door. There was only one thing left to do.
Cammie swerved and leaped the roadside ditch. At the edge of the trees she spun back and raised the handgun. It spat bullets like a live thing, the reports jolting her until her teeth hurt. Mud and water spouted around Keith's feet.
He yelled, throwing himself backward, landing full-length in the muddy roadway. She didn't look to see if he was hurt. Swinging around again, she put her head down and ran.
The woods of the game reserve closed around her, wet, shadowed, and protective. The dripping branches that she pushed past snapped back into place behind her like gates. She heard Keith shouting at her to come back, but she didn't stop. He was never going to touch her again, not in warped passion, not in revenge, especially not in anger. Never.
She heard the crash and thud of his footsteps. Or maybe it was her own gasping breaths and the pounding of her heart in her ears. She ran harder.
Her marriage was over. The gladness inside her was like a rising shout. Maybe this time Keith had heard it, too.
Trees. They pressed around her. Towering pines with a skirt of slippery needles around their ankles. Whispering cedars so green they were nearly black. Massive sweet gums leafed out in aromatic green. Shivering maples with red veins under their leaves and gray lichen like a tracery of silver on their bark. Gnarled old black oaks. Great, spreading white and red oaks. Hickory trees with leaves like spear points, and decorated with the tiny green blooms.
The connecting branches overhead blocked the last of the watery twilight, turning everything to green-tinted dimness. Seedlings, sprouting thickly around the trees, green along with wildflowers, weeds, saw vines, and briers, the underbrush making it impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. Also impossible to be seen.
Cammie loved trees; had since she was a child. That love ran in the distaff side of her family. Plants of all sorts, but especially trees, had always been an interest of the Greenley women.
It was her grandmother who had first taken Cammie into the woods, into the game reserve that came to the edge of their property. The elderly woman had introduced her young granddaughter to each variety of tree as if presenting an old and valued friend.
As Cammie grew, she passed through a tomboy stage where she rode limber sassafras saplings like wild ponies, and climbed into the cool upper regions of tall pines to find the privacy and quiet to read. Sometimes, when no one was looking, she would press her palm to the bark of some bay or ash, oak or pine, and think she could feel the life flowing through it.
She had never been lost in the woods before.
When she finally stopped to catch her breath, she realized she could no longer hear Keith behind her, and hadn't for some time. The woods around her stretched quiet and still, and endlessly the same.
A chill wind soughed through the treetops. Cammie shivered, rubbing the wet silk on her shoulders and arms as she gazed around. Apprehension touched her as she realized she had no idea how to find her way back to the road, no inkling of which direction to take to reach her car again.
It seemed a betrayal, as if the woods she loved had turned as false as the man she had married.
That was ridiculous, of course. The dense woods of the game reserve covered more than thirty thousand acres, and she had never ventured far beyond the few acres that came up to the back door of her house. There was no reason she should know every inch of it.
The reserve spread over a large portion of the parish. It circled behind the paper mill, and crowded the town of Greenley. This section she was in might be several miles from her home by road, but could be no more than two or three, maybe even less, straight through the woods. If she just knew how to go, she could find her way to her own back door. There were several roads crisscrossing, winding through the reserve, and even a few houses. If she walked southeast she was bound to hit one of the roads. Someone was sure to come along, someone who could drive her home.
But the gray shadows under the trees were turning black, and there was no way to tell which direction she was pointed. It would be so easy to walk in circles until she dropped. It might be better to stay where she was, wait for morning in the hope that she could see some landmark. However, spending the night in the woods held no appeal.
She moved on again. Her shirt slapped around her, snagging on bushes and briers. Her jeans grew clammy and so soaked that water dripped into her shoes. Rain trickled in a steady stream from her tied hair, dribbling down her back.
Cold and tired, she slipped in the wet, tripping over tree roots and the vines that clutched at her ankles. Once, she sprawled full-length. The .357 magnum went flying. She searched the thick growth of saplings and briers that were matted together with dried grass and pine straw, but couldn't find it in the dim light. She left it.
She could hardly see any longer, but still would not quit. The temperature was dropping as darkness fell. She could feel the wet chill creeping through her, cooling the warmth of her exertion. She had to go on, had to get home. No one knew where she was, no one knew which way to start looking for her.
One minute she was plodding doggedly along, the next she stopped as if she'd reached an invisible barrier. There was something, or someone, in the woods with her; she knew it with an instinct more certain than anything she had ever felt in her life.
Cammie turned slowly, searching the darkness with her eyes. There was nothing there, no movement, no slightest whisper of sound. And yet, she knew she was not wrong.
She felt the brush of dread, as if there was a wild animal or some devil in human form out there, following her, creeping closer. She wasn't fanciful under ordinary circumstances, but there was nothing ordinary about this.
A tree branch shook with a rustle of leaves.
Suddenly she broke into headlong flight, twisting through the underbrush, ducking under limbs, leaping over fallen logs and massed briers. She sprinted between the dark, towering sentinels of tree while her lungs burned and her gasping breaths scraped through her throat. Thorns tore at her blouse and raked her skin, but she hardly felt them. She scraped past tree trunks in a shower of bark, ricocheting off them to blunder onward.
He came from nowhere. One instant she was alone, the next, the dark shape of a man moved from behind a tree directly in her path.
She crashed into a chest like a rock wall. Hard arms reached to enclose her, holding her even as the man rocked back on his heels. She shoved away from him, used that momentum to spin out of his grasping hands. Two racing steps, three. She was caught from behind. She tripped, staggered off balance. Her legs tangled with the taut, muscular thighs of her attacker. A soft oath feathered in a warm exhalation over her wet hair, then they were both pitching forward into wet darkness.
He dragged her against him and twisted his body even as he fell. She landed in a rigid embrace, her cheek cushioned on a well-padded shoulder. For a stunned instant she lay unmoving, while the knowledge percolated through the fire in her brain that this man was not, could never be, her husband.
She drew a breath so hard it rasped with a harsh ache in her throat. In the same moment, she wrenched against the strong arms that held her.
"Be still," came the quiet and deep command at a level with the top of her head, "or I just may let you stay lost."
The timbre of his voice sent a ripple of alarm through her. She knew it, could hear it echoing, vibrating in her mind down long, aching years. How many was it? Nearly fifteen.
She had known this man was home again, everyone in Greenley knew it. He had been at his father's funeral, of course, but she had not attended. Of course.
"Reid Sayers," she said, the words no more than a whisper.
He was silent so long she thought he had not heard. Then he spoke in dry tones. "I'm flattered, or maybe stunned is a better word. I wasn't sure you would recognize me at the best of times."
"The last time we met was all too similar," she said, her voice tight. "Will you let me up?"
His answer registered in her mind as unequivocal, and with a slicing edge that had not been there the last time she had exchanged words with him. "You always did enjoy being mysterious," she said. "Unfortunately, I'm in no mood for it. Are you going to show me the way home, or are we going to spend the night here?"
He shifted, and the folds of a voluminous rain poncho settled across her. She shivered as she was enveloped by the heat of his body trapped under the waterproof material. His grasp tightened in reflex as he said, "Suppose I told you I intended to take up where we left off?"
"It's too late."
Did he hear the faint quiver of doubt in her voice? How could he, when she was not certain herself of that flash of reaction? She wasn't afraid of him. She had felt many things, from scorn to hate and embarrassing flares of sheer yearning, but never fear.
"Maybe," he said in pensive consideration, "and maybe not. A woman who has just tried to kill her husband could be capable of a lot of things."
"How did you know--" she began, then stopped as she saw how it could have been, must have been.
"I heard the first shot and came at a run in time to see the others. Yes, I did follow you. And you're right--I could have stopped you long before this."
His voice was a deep, disturbing murmur under her ear. She did her best to ignore the sound while she concentrated on the meaning of his words. She said, "But you didn't. You waited until you thought I was desperate, though what you hoped to gain is more than I can see."
"Is it now?" he asked, settling her closer against him. "Actually, I thought I might not need to intrude on what looked to be a successful escape. However, letting you wander around all night soaking wet seemed to be carrying noninterference a bit too far."
"Besides which, the opportunity to crow over me was too good to miss."
"The thought," he said deliberately, "had not occurred to me, but now you point it out, I don't mind if I do."
The tone of his voice sent alarm jangling along her nerves. She pushed against him, trying to lever herself out of his hold.
It was a mistake. In an effortless flexing of muscles, he rolled with her, turning her onto her back within the confining poncho. He allowed his weight to settle upon her, pinning her in place. One of her arms was caught under him. He captured the other at the wrist in a painless but unbreakable hold.
She shuddered as she felt his male heat drive the chill from her body. In the space of a moment the wetness of her clothing seemed to steam against her skin. Her breasts were pressed against his chest, his thighs held hers apart, and the ridged hardness under the zipper of his jeans nudged the softness at the apex of her legs.
She strained upward, digging in her heels as she tried to throw him off. The movement brought their bodies into closer, more fervent contact. She felt him stiffen, heard the soft, abrupt intake of his breath. She went still.
From inside her there rose a sweet, piercing ache that she had not felt in years. Fifteen years, to be exact. With it came an emptiness that was all too familiar, one that Keith had never been able to fill.
It was infuriating. It was astonishing. It was frightening.
Caught in the vortex of her own emotions, she lashed out at the man who had forced her to face them. "You always were good at taking advantage, you and all the other male members of your family."
His sigh lifted his chest, and she could feel the definition of his taut muscles. It did nothing to help her concentrate on what he was saying.
"Still harping on that old tale? I would have thought you were old enough by now to have a little tolerance."
"For your Yankee great-grandfather's misdeeds?" she inquired tartly. "But I would have to extend it to you, too. And you know what they say about falling acorns."
"Good thing my great-grandfather wasn't a tree," he answered in dry amusement.
"He still cheated my great-grandmother, and took advantage of her in other ways."
"I never heard that she complained. Only her husband--and her descendants."
Reid Sayers's great-grandfather had, nearly a hundred years before, been a lumberjack new to the South, looking for opportunity. He had found it when he met Cammie's great-grandmother, Lavinia Greenley. Justin Sayers had enticed the poor wife and mother into a torrid affair. Before it was over, Justin had finagled three hundred acres of prime land from Cammie's ancestress, and Lavinia's husband was dead.
It had been a scandal whose echoes still sounded in Greenley, not the least reason being that Justin Sayers had stayed in the community, had prospered and left descendants. To call the division between the Sayers and Greenley families a feud would have been melodramatic, but the coolness and lack of social contact was real.
"Lavinia Greenley was not the complaining kind," Cammie said stiffly.
"Apparently not. I've often wondered about that." His tone, as he went on, was pensive and a little rough. "I used to wonder sometimes, too, if she was at all like you. And what you would have done in her place."
Her breath lodged in her throat. She had never dreamed that Reid Sayers thought of her at all. It was disarming, and oddly painful, to know that he had pictured her as Lavinia. Without stopping to consider, she said in stifled tones, "Did you see yourself as Justin?"
The taut sound of his voice reverberated in the rain-drenched night that surrounded them. His face, as he hovered above her, was scant inches from hers in the darkness. She could feel the brush of his warm breath across her cheek. His scent surrounded her; it was compounded of fresh night air, a whiff of some woodsy after-shave, and his own warm masculinity, yet with an undertone of wildness that stirred an answering fierceness.
The muscles of his abdomen hardened. His biceps, under her neck, knotted. He drew breath with a soft, hissing sound of tightly leashed control.
Above them the wind sighed in the treetops. Raindrops pattered on the leaves and also on the glazed material of the poncho that covered them. They gleamed darkly in his hair and dripped in a slow warmth from his face to her forehead. Their touch was like a caress.
Cammie knew with abrupt and shocking clarity that if she moved so much as a finger, if she drew too deep a breath or allowed an eyelash to flicker, he would lower his head and press his lips to hers. If she did more, if she lifted her arms to circle his neck or opened her legs even a fraction farther, he might take her there in their nest of wet leaves.
Drifting through her mind, not quite formed but compelling, was the urge to shift, to move, to press against him in wanton invitation. Appalled by it, yet unbearably enticed, she held her breath.
Somewhere behind them a dead tree limb, made heavy by the steady rain, released its hold with a crack. It fell to the ground with a soft thud.
A shudder ran over Reid. He breathed a quiet imprecation, then abruptly levered himself up and away from her. Surging to his feet with lithe ease, he reached down and pulled her up to stand beside him. He whipped his poncho from around his shoulders, swirling it around her and pulling it closed over her breasts.
"Let's go," he said in a toneless command, "before I do something we'll both regret. Again."
Their passage through the woods was swift and sure. The man at Cammie's side never hesitated, seldom slowed, never stopped except to help her over a fallen log, a shallow branch or creek. He could not have been more at home, it seemed, if he had been moving across his own living room.
The poncho Cammie wore was so long that it nearly dragged on the ground. She tripped over it several times before she snatched up the excess material and bunched it in her hands.
Reid Sayers caught her each time she stumbled, almost as if he could see in the dark, or else had a sixth sense about her progress. He released her just as quickly.
Cammie was uncomfortably aware of him as he moved beside her. In some deep recess of her being she anticipated his touch when she faltered and missed its support when he removed it. She didn't want to feel that way, didn't want to feel anything except, possibly, a decent gratitude for his rescue. It was disturbing.
There had been a time, long ago, when she had mooned over Reid Sayers with a secret passion as intense as it was foolish. She had watched him from a distance, enjoying the way his sun-bleached blond hair grew from a peak on his forehead, the sense of fun that leaped so easily into his face, and the crinkles that appeared around the rich blue of his eyes as he smiled. She had liked watching him move, the play of the muscles under the brown skin of his shoulders and arms, the strength of his legs exposed by cutoff blue jeans.
He had been some three years older, and impressively more mature than the boys she went with to the movies, skating, or picknicking. To her, he had seemed sophisticated, experienced. Above all, he had the inevitable allure of things that are forbidden.
There had been moments when she had seen Reid and herself as the star-crossed lovers of some ancient fable. She had imagined that the two of them would come across each other one day when they were alone, and would know in an instant that they were meant for each other. They would be united in marriage, putting an end to the discord that had been festering between the families for nearly a hundred years. Such silly daydreams.
It had not happened quite the way she pictured. She had been swimming off the end of the boat dock at her family's camp house on the lake. Reid had been staying with friends at the camp next door, a fact she had known very well. She had not expected him to surface in the water beside her, however, or to close in on her so they were treading water with their noses practically touching and their legs brushing together in the warm currents of the lake.
"What are you doing?" she had gasped, like the startled virgin she was then.
His answer had been simple. "I saw you down here and couldn't resist joining you. Or this."
His arms had closed gently around her. The sunlight gleamed like molten gold in his hair as he bent his head, brushing his lips over the drops of water caught on her eyelids. Then he kissed her, his mouth warm and sweet on hers, caressing, questing, questioning.
For an instant she had flowed toward him in a response as strong and natural as breathing. Their bodies had melded, fitting together with precision and grace, like two sculptures carefully constructed by a master craftsman for the express purpose of being joined.
His hold tightened as his chest expanded in a breath of wonder. His lips brushed hers, learning their smoothness, their gentle contours, their delicate edges and moist, innocent corners. He tasted her, the tip of his tongue gently abrading; sweetly, tenderly invading. He sought the sinuous, guileless touch of hers. Finding it, he applied gentle suction. Blindly he brushed his hand over her breast beneath the thin, wet material of her bathing suit. Settling with exquisite care around that firm globe, he tested its tender fullness, its fit in his palm.
Pure, unrestrained desire jolted through her with the force of a lightning bolt. She was unprepared for it, unaware that such internal heat and upheaval was possible. In that same instant, she felt the firmness of his arousal against her thigh, sensed his barely controlled need.
In unreasoning fear she pushed away from him. She shouted something at him, though she was so upset that she didn't know then, and never remembered afterward, what she said. Swirling in the water, she turned and struck out for the dock, reaching it in a few short strokes. She scrambled up the ladder on the side and ran for the camp house as if the hounds of hell were after her.
Her parents and their guests were gathered for drinks on the screened porch on the north side of the camp. Cammie had been able to slip in on the east side unnoticed. In her room, she had stripped off her wet bathing suit and wrapped a towel around herself. Then she flung herself down on her bed, crying out her humiliation, bewilderment, and utter, soul-wrenching despair. She hated herself for exposing her inexperience. She hated what Reid must think of her for running like a rabbit. She hated him for making her lose her cool. Most of all, she hated him for destroying her half-formed fantasies.
Reid had remembered; his words back there proved it. The thought was not a comfortable one, even now. Somewhere inside her the consternation and humiliation of that day lingered.
Did he really regret kissing her all those years ago? But why should he? It had, perhaps, been a natural enough impulse for a young man at the height of his sexual drive. She was the one who had created a scene and turned the episode into a tragedy in her mind.
Before today there had been no opportunity to even guess at what Reid had felt then. He joined the army almost immediately afterward. She had heard that he qualified as a Ranger, that elite troop of near-superhuman soldiers whose job it was to infiltrate enemy positions ahead of the advancing army. Later there had been rumors of the CIA and some form of covert operations in Central America and then in the Middle East. Then, just a few weeks ago, Reid's father had died, and he came home.
Cammie had been so preoccupied with thoughts of the past that she didn't notice the light shining through the trees until she was close enough to see that it came from the windows of a house. She halted, standing with the rain spattering down on the poncho that covered her.
As Reid paused, turning back to face her, she said in accusation, "This isn't my car."
"It was closer." The words had a clipped edge of impatience, as if he had expected her objection but was still irritated by it.
"I can't go in there."
"Don't be ridiculous. You need dry clothes and something hot to drink. I promise I won't molest you."
"I never thought you would!" There was anger and a trace of embarrassment in her tone.
"No? I'm amazed. What then? It's just a house; it won't contaminate you."
It wasn't just a house. Lavinia Greenley, so the story went, had been seduced within the walls of the dark, solid structure. No other Greenley had ever stepped foot in it.
It was a rectangular log pile of two full stories topped by a dormered attic. Built of virgin yellow pine, each great log was more than a foot thick. Chimneys of handmade brick flanked it on each side, and there were high, narrow windows that could be closed off by heavy shutters on the inside. With narrow eaves and a flat front, minus the protection of porch or portico in the tradition of homes farther north, it had the look of a place that could be held against all comers.
The house had been built in the early 1890s by Justin Sayers. He had lived in it like a recluse behind an eight-foot-high stockade made of logs. The tall fence had fallen into ruin and been removed years ago, but to the townspeople of Greenley, the place came to be known simply as the Fort.
Every log in the house had been taken from the land Justin Sayers had stolen from Lavinia Greenley. Every board in it had been cut and planed in the sawmill that he had established a few short miles away.
The sawmill operation had been immensely profitable; it made him a wealthy man. Then, some years after the turn of the century, Justin had taken on a partner, a man named Hutton. Hutton worked up North in a paper mill and knew the fledgling industry. Sayers had the land, the timber, the backing, and the contacts. The two men brought in the machinery, and the paper mill replaced the sawmill.
The paper mill, greatly expanded, still squatted at the edge of the town, jointly owned by the Sayers and Hutton descendants. Now, Reid Sayers and Cammie's husband, Keith Hutton, along with Keith's older brother, Gordon, shared the ownership of the mill. Because Reid had inherited the land and his great-grandfather's original stake in the partnership, he had the majority interest, and was therefore the controlling partner.
Cammie glanced at the man beside her, at the bulk of his body in what appeared to be a shirt of tree-bark camouflage worn with faded jeans, at the angles and planes of his face, picked out by the faint glow of light from the house. She moistened her lips before she spoke.
"If you could just drive me back to my car--"
"As soon as you're warm and dry," he agreed in tones of calm reason. "It's a promise."
She shook her head. "I would rather go now. I'll be fine, really."
He stood watching her for long moments while rain plastered his hair to his head and tracked slowly down his jaw to his neck. He took a slow breath and shifted his shoulders, as if abdicating responsibility. Then in a single, smooth movement, he bent to thrust one hand under her knees and the other behind her back. Lifting her high, bracing her against his chest, he strode with her toward the house.
"No!" she cried, but it was too late.
She struggled, bucking and twisting. He clamped his arm around her so tight that the breath went out of her lungs and her face was pressed into his neck. Suffocating, feeling the bite of his fingers, she was made aware of how carefully he had handled her earlier under the trees.
She stopped fighting, allowed her taut muscles to relax; there was nothing else to be done. By degrees his hold eased to no more than a firm embrace.
Reid pushed inside the back door and made his way through a wood-paneled kitchen and along a wide hallway to the foot of a rustic but carefully crafted stairway. As he paused at the bottom, she said, "If I'm supposed to be impressed by this red-necked macho force, you've misjudged me. I prefer finesse in a man. I also prefer one who asks before he grabs."
"Are you going to undress yourself," he said through set teeth, "or shall I do it for you? You will note that I'm asking, though I could always do it for you."
Cammie searched her mind for something more annihilating to say. "And against your worst inclinations, too. Now I'm the one who's amazed."
"I've never forced a woman in my life, but there's a first time for everything," he said in rough tones.
"Oh, yes," she said, "and then you can go back to mistreating animals and children. That should suit you just fine."
She felt the shock of what she had said shudder through him like the unexpected lash from a whip. He would have dropped her if she had not been clinging to him with one arm around his shoulders and a hand clutching the placket of his shirt. As it was, her feet struck the lower stair step with such force that the sting burned all the way up to her knees. She wobbled, only just catching her balance by reaching for the newel post when he wrenched backward from her.
As he stepped free, his gaze was blank, turned inward upon some horror only he could see. His face drained of color, leaving the bronze of the sun on the surface like a stain. A white line appeared around his mouth. His voice rough, almost unrecognizable, he said, "The bathroom is at the head of the stairs, a robe is behind the door. Come down when you're ready."
He met her gaze for a single, searing instant, then turned and strode away, back toward the kitchen.
It was a retreat, fast and definite. Cammie stared after him until her eyes burned and her fingers, pressing into the newel post, were numb.
She had wanted to hurt him. She had succeeded, though how, exactly, she was not quite certain. Of one thing she was positive: the blow had been a direct hit, a hammer strike to the heart. In his eyes, turned up to hers and revealed by the light shining down from the stairwell above them, there had been such unrelieved agony that she felt sick remembering it.
And she never wanted to see it again.
Posted May 9, 2013
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