The only thing she really knew about Paul Cormier was that he was dying.
The blood from the wound in his chest had soaked through his white silk shirt and white linen suit and was running in small rivulets over the white marble tile.
The old man opened his eyes as Mattie Sharpe crouched helplessly beside him, grasping his hand in hers. He peered up at her, as if he were trying to see through a thick fog.
"Christine? Is that you, Christine?" Even in a croaked whisper, his accent was elegant and vaguely European.
"Yes, Paul." Lying was the only thing she could do for him. Mattie held his hand tightly. "It's Christine."
"Missed you, girl. Missed you so much."
"I'm here now."
Cormier's pale blue gaze focused on her for a few seconds. "No," he said. "You're not here. But I'm almost there, aren't I." He made a sound that might have started out as a chuckle but turned into a ghastly, gurgling cough.
"Yes. You're almost here."
"Be good to see you again."
"Yes." A hot, torpid island breeze wafted through the front hall of the Cormier mansion. The silence from the surrounding jungle was unnatural and oppressive. "It's going to be all right, Paul. Everything will be fine." Lies. More lies.
Cormier squinted up at her, his gaze startlingly lucid for an instant. "Get out of here. Hurry."
"I'll go," Mattie promised.
Cormier's eyes closed again. "Someone will come. An old friend. When he does, tell him...tell him." Another terrible gasping sound drained more of the little strength he had left.
"What do you want me to tell him?"
"Reign..." Cormier choked on his own blood. "In hell."
Mattie didn't pause to make sense out of what she thought she'd heard him say. Automatically she reassured him. "I'll tell him."
The hand that had been clutching hers slackened its grip. "Christine?"
"I'm here, Paul."
But Cormier did not hear her this time. He was gone.
The horror of her situation washed over Mattie again.
She struggled to her feet, feeling light-headed. Without thinking, she glanced at the black and gold watch on her wrist as if she were late to a business appointment.
With a shock she realized she had been in the white mansion overlooking the ocean for less than five minutes. She would have been here two hours earlier if she hadn't gotten lost on a winding island road that had dead-ended in the mountains. At the time the delay had made her tense and anxious. It occurred to Mattie now that if she had arrived on time, she probably would have walked straight into the same gun that had killed Paul Cormier.
The toe of her Italian leather shoe struck something on the floor. It skittered away across the tile.
Mattie jumped at the loud sound in the eerily silent hall. Then she glanced down and saw the gun.
Cormier's, probably, she told herself. He must have tried to fight off the intruder. Dazed, Mattie took a step toward the weapon. Perhaps she should take it with her.
Even as the words formed in her mind she shuddered. The last gun she had handled had been a little plastic model that had come in a box labeled, "Annie Oakley's Sharpshooter Special. For ages five and up." A friend had given it to her on the occasion of her sixth birthday. Mattie had practiced her fast draw for hours, whipping the toy gun out of its pink fringed, imitation leather holster over and over again until her concerned parents had taken it from her and replaced it with a box of watercolors. Mattie had dutifully played with the paints for approximately ten minutes and succeeded in producing a cheerful yellow horse for Annie Oakley to ride. The picture had been cute, but was not deemed good enough to hang on the refrigerator next to her sister Ariel's latest rendition of a bouquet of flowers.
Her training in handguns thus halted at such an early stage, Mattie realized, now that she had absolutely no idea of how to use the lethal-looking monster lying at her feet on the white floor.
On the other hand, how complicated could it be? she asked herself as she stooped to pick up the heavy weapon. Every punk on every city street back in the States owned and operated one. It was a sure bet most of them were too illiterate to read the manuals. Besides, it was easy to see which end to point away from herself.
Oh, God. She was getting hysterical. It was a sure sip of losing control. She had to get a grip on herself. She could panic later if necessary.
Mattie took several deep breaths while she fumbled the gun into her elegant black and tan leather shoulder bag. She paused as she noticed the bloodstains on the strap. Cormier's blood. It had come from her hands.
She had to move quickly. A man was dead and among his last words had been the advice to get out of the mansion in a hurry.
She did not doubt that the danger was still hovering. Mattie could sense it as if it were a palpable presence. She took one last look at the body of the silver-haired old man. She had a fleeting vision of white-white linen suit, white buck shoes, white silk shirt, white marble tile, white walls, white furniture. White, endless, pure, unadulterated white. Except for the red blood.
Mattie felt her stomach heave. She could not be sick now. She had to get out of here. She stumbled for the open front door, her heels clattering loudly on the marble. Her only thought was to reach the battered old rental car that she had picked up at the tiny island airport two hours earlier.
She was nearly out the door when she remembered the sword.
Halting, she glanced back into the room of white death. She knew she could not go back. Valor, the fourteenth-century sword she had been sent to collect, was valuable but not worth the trip back into that room. Nothing was worth going back into that room. Aunt Charlotte would understand.
What was it Aunt Charlotte had told her about the ancient weapon? Something about there being a curse on it. Death to all who dare claim this blade until it shall be taken up by the avenger and cleansed in the blood of the betrayer.
The terrible prophecy had apparently been fufilled in Cormier's case, Mattie thought. Not that she believed in such things. Still, Cormier had claimed the blade and now he was dead. Mattie suddenly had no interest whatsoever in locating the medieval sword and taking it back to Seattle.
She whirled around again and ran through the open door, scrabbling in her purse for the key to the rental car. Perhaps that was why she didn't see the man who stood on the veranda to one side of the open door.r
Nor did she notice the booted foot he stuck out in front of her until she tripped over it and went flying. She sprawled on the white planking of the veranda, the wind knocked out of her. Before she could get back enough breath to scream, she felt something cold and metallic against the nape of her neck.
Mattie wondered with an odd, clinical detachment if there would be any small warning sound before the trigger was pulled.
"Hell, it's you, Mattie," said a deep male voice Mattie had not heard in nearly a year. The gun was no longer pressed against her nape but Mattie was still frozen with fear and shock. "You almost got yourself killed. I didn't know who was going to come running out that door. You all right, babe?"
Mattie managed to nod, still fighting for breath. She opened her eyes and realized the wooden planks she was staring down at were less than three inches away. She could not seem to gather her thoughts. It was all too much. Stress.
A big hand closed around her shoulder. "Mattie?" The dark, rough-edged voice crackled with impatience.
"I'm okay." A strange relief washed through her at the thought. Then came another chill. "Cormier."
"What about him?"
"He's in there."
She closed her eyes. "Yes. Oh, God, yes."
"I don't think I can."
"Yes, you damn well can. Move it, Mattie. We can't lie around here chatting." Strong fingers locked around her waist and hauled her to her feet.
"You never did listen to me, did you, Hugh?" Mattie brushed aside the tendrils of tawny brown hair that had come free of the neat coil at the nape of her neck. She looked up into gray eyes that were so light they could have been chips off a glacier. "What are you doing here?"
"That's supposed to be my line. You were due into St. Gabe at nine this morning. What the hell are you doing here on Purgatory?" But he wasn't paying attention to her, not really. He was eyeing the driveway behind her. "Come on."
"I'm not going back into that house."
Predictably enough, he ignored her. "Get inside the hall, Mattie. You're a sitting duck standing in the doorway." Without waiting for a response he yanked her back through the wide opening.
Mattie stumbled after him, keeping her eyes averted from the sight of Cormier's body. She clutched at the strap of her shoulder bag in a vain effort to keep her fingers from trembling.
"Don't move," Hugh said.
"Don't worry, I won't." She hoped she would not be sick all over the marble floor.
He released her and strode quickly over to the body in the white linen suit. He stood looking down for a few seconds, taking in the absoluteness of death in one glance. The expression on his face was difficult to read. It was not shock or surprise or fear or horror -- just a remote, implacable sort of fierceness.
Mattie watched him, aware she should be grateful he had appeared at this particular moment in her life. No one else she knew was better qualified to get her out of this sticky situation than Hugh Abbott.
Too bad the mere sight of him enraged her. Too bad that after that humiliating debacle last year she had never wanted to see him again as long as she lived. Too bad that the one man she needed right now was the same one who had devastated her after she had surrendered to him, body and soul.
He had not changed much in the past year, she realized. Same thick, dark pelt of hair with maybe a bit more silver in it. Same lean, whipcord-tough body that still didn't show any hint of softening, despite his forty years. Same rough-featured, heavily carved face. Same beautiful, incredibly sexy mouth. Same primitive masculine grace.
Same lamentable taste in clothing, too, Mattie noted with a disdaining glance. Scarred boots, unpressed khaki shirt unbuttoned far enough to show a lot of crisp, curling chest hair, a well-worn leather belt and faded jeans that emphasized his flat belly and strong thighs.
Hugh glanced at her. "I'll be right back. I'm just going to get some stuff from the kitchen." He was already moving past the body. He held the gun in his hand so naturally it seemed an extension of his arm.
"The kitchen. For God's sake, Hugh. This is no time to grab a cold beer. What if he's still here? The man who shot poor Mr. Cormier?"
"Don't worry. There's no one else here. If there were, you would be as dead as Cormier by now."
Mattie swallowed as he left the room. "No, -- wait, please don't leave me here with -- " Mattie bit off the rest of the frantic plea. She, of all people, ought to know better than to plead with Hugh Abbott to stay. "Damn you," she whispered.
Mattie stood listening to the ring of Hugh's boots on the marble tiles. She heard him move down a hall into another room, and then there was nothing but the awful silence and the hot breeze.
Glancing nervously out the door, she toyed with the keys of the rental car. Nothing said she had to stand around and wait for Hugh. She could drive herself back to the airport. Right now she wanted nothing more than to get on a plane and leave this dreadful island.
But she was feeling very lost and uncertain. Practicing a quick draw with the Annie Oakley special had been one of her few forays into the world of adventure. Her artistically oriented family had emphasized more civilized and sophisticated pursuits.
Hugh Abbott, on the other hand, understood situations involving violence and danger all too well. As chief troubleshooter and free-lance security consultant for Aunt Charlotte's multinational company, Vailcourt Industries, he was on intimate terms with this sort of thing.
Mattie had privately thought of Hugh as her aunt's pet wolf long before she had met him last year. Nothing she had learned about him since had given her any cause to change her mind.
She heard his boot heels on the tile again. Hugh reappeared carrying two large French market-style string bags that bulged with an assortment of unidentifiable items.
"All right. We've spent enough time fooling around here. Let's go." Hugh glided around Cormier's body, not looking down. He saw the keys in Mattie's fingers. "Forget that junker you rented. You're not going anywhere in it."
"What do you mean? Are we going to take your car? Where is it, anyway?"
"A few hundred yards up the road. Hopefully out of sight -- but who knows for how long?" Hugh strode toward her. "Here, take one of these. I want to keep a hand free." He thrust one of the string bags into her fingers as he glanced out the door and up at the leaden sky. "It's going to start pouring any minute. That should help."
Mattie ignored the comment about the impending rain. She was too busy trying to juggle the heavy string bag and her purse. "What are these sacks for? We don't need this stuff. I just want to get to the airport."
"The airport is closed."
Mattie stared at him in shock. "Closed? It can't be closed."
"It is. I barely made it in myself. There are armed men on the road, and every plane that didn't get off the island as of forty minutes ago is probably in flames by now. Including mine, goddamn it. Charlotte's going to have to reimburse me for that Cherokee. It was a real sweet little crate."
"Dear heaven. Hugh, what's going on? What is this all about?"
"With your usual fine sense of timing, you walked straight into the middle of what looks like a two-bit military coup here on Purgatory. At the moment I have no way of knowing who's winning. In the meantime the only way off the island is by boat. We're going to try for Cormier's cruiser."
"I don't believe this."
"Believe it. Come on, let's go."
"Go where?" she demanded.
"First to the bathroom." Hugh started down the hall.
"For God's sake, Hugh, I assure you I don't have to use the bathroom. At least, not right at the moment. Hugh, wait. Please stop. I don't understand this."
He turned in the doorway, his eyes cold. "Mattie, I don't want to hear another word out of you. Come here. Now."
Deciding she was too stressed out to think clearly, Mattie trailed after him. She closed her eyes as she stepped around Cormier's body and found herself following Hugh down a white hallway into a luxurious bedroom suite done in silver and white.
"Mr. Cormier certainly didn't like colors very much," Mattie muttered.
"Yeah. He used to say he'd worked in the shadows long enough. When he retired he wanted to live in the sun." Hugh opened a door off the bedroom suite.
"What did he mean by that?"
"Never mind. It doesn't matter now. Here we go." Hugh strode into the bathroom.
Mattie followed uneasily. "Hugh, I really don't understand." She frowned as she watched him step into the huge white tub and push at a section of wall behind the taps. "What in the world -- ?"
"Cormier built a lot of ways out of this place. He was a born strategist."
"I see. He was expecting trouble, then?"
"Not specifically. Not here on Purgatory." Hugh watched as the wall panel slid aside to reveal a dark corridor. "But like I say, he was always prepared."
"Oh, my goodness." Mattie shivered as she stared into the darkness. The old uneasiness she always felt in confined places stirred in the pit of her stomach. "Uh, Hugh, maybe I should warn you, I'm not very good in -- "
"Not now, Mattie." His tone was impatient as he stepped into the black corridor and turned around to reach for her hand.
"Do we have to go this way?" Mattie asked helplessly.
"Stop whining, babe. I don't have time to listen to it."
Thoroughly humiliated now, Mattie found the strength to step into the corridor. Hugh pushed a button and the panel slid shut behind her. She held her breath but discovered she did not have to stand long in the darkness. Hugh switched on a flashlight he'd taken from one of the string bags.
"Thank God you found a flashlight," Mattie said.
"No problem. Cormier kept a couple in every room of the house. I picked this one up in the kitchen, but there's probably one in here, too. Electricity is always a little erratic on an island like this. Come on, babe."
The hallway was narrow but mercifully short. With the assistance of the light and several deep breaths, Mattie was able to control her claustrophobia just as she did in elevators. Hugh was pushing another button and opening an exit in the side of the house before her own personal walls had begun to close in to any great extent.
Mattie stepped outside with a sense of relief and found herself in the middle of a leafy green jungle bower that grew right up to the side of the mansion. She batted at a huge, broad leaf that was directly in front of her. "Well, that wasn't so bad, but I really don't see why we had to leave that way. It seems to me it would have been simpler to walk straight to the car."
Hugh was moving forward into what looked to Mattie like a wall of thick foliage. Once again he ignored her comment. "Stay close, Mattie. I don't want to lose you in the jungle."
"I'm not going into any jungle."
"Yes, you are. You and I are going to do the only smart thing we can do under these circumstances. We're going to stay out of sight until we can get hold of transportation."
"Hugh, this is crazy. I'm not traipsing off into that jungle. In fact, I'm not going anywhere at all until I've had a chance to think."
"You can think later. Right now you're just going to move." He was already vanishing into the greenery.
Aunt Charlotte's pet wolf was apparently accustomed to giving orders and having them followed. He had been known to give orders to Charlotte, herself.
Mattie stood irresolute near the wall of the mansion, the string bag dangling from her fingers. Common sense told her she should be running after Hugh. He was, after all, the expert on this kind of thing. But a sickening combination of disbelief, shock, and an old irrational anger held her frozen for an instant.
Hugh glanced back over his shoulder, eyes narrowing. "Get moving, Mattie. Now."
He did not raise his voice, but the words were a whiplash that broke through Mattie's uncertainty. She hurried forward, fighting with her purse and the string bag.
Two steps past the barrier of broad leaves, Mattie found herself completely enveloped in an eerie green world. Her senses were overwhelmed by the rich, humid scent. The ground beneath her shoes was soft and springy and nearly black in color; a giant compost pile that had been simmering for eons. It sucked at her two-hundred-dollar Italian shoes as if it were a living thing that feasted on fancy leather.
Massive ferns that would have won first place in any garden show back in Seattle hovered in Mattie's path like plump green ghosts. Long, meandering vines studded with exotic orchids billowed around her. It was like swimming beneath the surface of a primeval sea. A couple of fat raindrops landed on her head.
"Hugh, where are we going? We'll get lost in here."
"We're not going far. And we won't get lost. All we have to do is keep the house to our backs and the sound of the ocean to our left. Cormier was a wily old fox. He always made certain he had a bolt hole, and he kept the escape plans simple."
"If he was so clever, why is he dead back there inside that mansion?"
"Even smart old foxes eventually slow down and make mistakes." Hugh pushed past a bank of massive leaves that blocked the way.
The leaves promptly sprang back into position. A mass of beautiful white lilies slapped Mattie right in the face. "Ariel was right," she muttered under her breath at Hugh's disappearing back, "you really aren't much of a gentleman, are you?" She pushed at the lilies, the string bag and her purse banging wildly about her sides.
"Watch out for these leaves," Hugh advised over his shoulder. "They're real springy."
"I noticed." Mattie ducked to avoid the next swinging mass of greenery. She was grateful for the aerobic exercise program she had begun nearly a year ago on her thirty-first birthday. She had taken it up as one of many antidotes to the stress that seemed to press down on her from all directions these days. Without that regular exercise, she never would have had the physical stamina to keep up with Hugh Abbott as they raced through a jungle.
Not that it was ever easy for a woman such as herself to keep up with Hugh under the best of circumstances. As he had once made very clear, she was not his type. Mattie winced at the memory of that old humiliation.
"Not much farther now. How you doing, babe?" Hugh vaulted lightly over a fallen log and reached back to give Mattie a hand.
"I'm still here, aren't I" Mattie asked between her teeth. The rain was getting heavier. The canopy of green overhead began to drip like a leaky ceiling. Mattie heard something tear as she scrambled over the log. She thought at first it was the seat of her beautifully tailored olive green trousers but realized it was the sleeve of her cream-colored silk shirt instead. It had gotten caught on a vine.
"Damn." Mattie glanced down at the rip and sighed. "Why would Cormier show you his escape route?" she asked, raising her eyes to Hugh's back. "I didn't know you even knew him."
He didn't turn or even slow his pace as he answered. "You'd have found out I knew him if you'd stuck to your original schedule and been on the plane to St. Gabe this morning the way you were supposed to be. Didn't Charlotte's travel department make the reservations for you?"
"They made them. I altered my plans at the last minute when I saw the itinerary. I recognized St. Gabriel Island and realized I was being set up. I decided I didn't need you for a tour guide."
"Even though you were going straight into Purgatory?" he asked dryly. "Come on, now, Mattie. You know what they say. Better the devil you know. Look what happened when you decided to go your own way."
"I suppose you would have realized instantly that there was a military coup going on here?"
"Long before you did, babe. As soon as I contacted the tower, I knew something was wrong. If you'd been with me, we wouldn't have even touched down. I'd have turned and headed for Hades or Brimstone and tried to contact Cormier by phone to see what was happening."
"Hugh, please. I realize that you are ever vigilant and always prepared when it comes to this sort of thing and I'm not. But I really don't need any of your lectures right now."
To Mattie's astonishment, his voice gentled. "I know, babe, I know. I'm still a little shook, myself, that's all."
She stared at his broad-shouldered back, not believing her ears. "You? Shook?"
"Hell, yes. I was afraid I was going to walk in and find you dead in that hall along with Cormier."
"Is that all you can say?" The gentleness had already vanished from his rough voice.
"Well, I can see where it would have been a bit awkward explaining things to Aunt Charlotte."
"Christ. There is that, isn't there? She'd have had my head." Hugh came to an abrupt halt. He was looking at a small, fern-choked stream flowing past his boots. "Okay, here we go."
Mattie peered at the twisting ribbon of water. "Now what?"
"We turn left and follow this stream." Hugh glanced back the way they had come. "I think we've got the place to ourselves. Everybody's busy with the revolution. Let's go."
The rain was coming down harder now, battering at the leaves so violently that it created a dull roar. Mattie followed Hugh in silence, her whole attention focused on keeping up with him while she juggled the string bag and her purse.
The black earth was turning to mud. Her shoes were caked with it. Her hair had long since come free of its neat coil and hung in limp tendrils around her shoulders. Her silk shirt was soaked. The rain had cooled things down a little, but not much. The whole jungle seemed to be steaming like a thick, green stew.
Mattie eyed the ground, watching each step she took so that she did not stumble in the tangle of mud and vines. She took a closer look at the vines when she caught her toe on one.
"Hugh," she asked wearily, "what about snakes?"
"What about 'em?"
"Do they come out in the rain?"
"Not if they've got any sense."
"Damn it, Hugh."
He chuckled. "Forget about snakes. There aren't any on these islands."
"Are you sure?"
"I hope you're right." She dragged the string bag over another fallen log. Something small and green came alive under the hand she had used to brace herself. "Hugh."
He glanced back. "Just a little lizard. He's more scared than you are."
"That's a matter of opinion." Mattie forced herself to take several deep breaths as the small creature scuttled quickly out of sight. "Hugh, this really isn't my kind of thing, you know?"
"I know it's a little outside your field of expertise, babe, but you'll get the hang of it. Your problem is you've spent too much of your time with those namby-pamby art collectors whose idea of living dangerously is investing in an unknown artist."
Mattie bristled at this echo of their old argument. "You're quite right, of course."
He didn't seem to notice her sarcastic tone. "Sure, I'm right. You ought to get out of Seattle more often. Go places. Do things. Charlotte says this is your first vacation in two years. When was the last time you did something really exciting?"
Mattie shoved wet hair out of her eyes and set her back teeth. "About a year ago when I seduced you and asked you to marry me and take me back to St. Gabriel with you. You may recall the occasion. And we both know where that bit of excitement got me."
Hugh was silent for an embarrassing amount of time before he said, "Yeah, well, that wasn't quite what I meant."
"Really?" Mattie smiled grimly to herself and pulled a shoe out of the mud. "I assure you, that was adventurous enough for me. I've been thoroughly enjoying the quiet life ever since. Until now, that is."
"Babe, about last year -- "
"I don't want to discuss it."
"Well, we're going to discuss it." Hugh slashed at an orchid-covered vine with his hand. "Damn it, Mattie, I've been trying to talk to you about that for months. If you hadn't been avoiding me, we could have had it all worked out by now."
"There is nothing to work out. You were quite right when you told me I was not your type." She pushed wearily at more vines. "Believe me, I couldn't agree with you more."
"You're just a little upset," he said soothingly.
"You could say that."
"We'll talk about it later." Hugh came to an abrupt halt.
Mattie promptly collided with him.
"Oooph." She staggered backward a step and caught her balance. It was like running into a rock wall, she thought resentfully. No give in the man at all.
"Here we go," Hugh said, apparently oblivious to the collision. He was looking up.
Mattie followed his gaze, aware that the roar of water had grown considerably louder during the past few minutes. She realized why when she peered around Hugh's broad shoulders and saw twin waterfalls cascading out of the old lava cliffs in front of her.
The two torrents plunged fifty feet or more into a fern-shrouded grotto. The pool at the base of the falls was nearly hidden by masses of huge, exotic blooms and the twisted rock formations typical of long-cooled lava.
Mattie frowned. "This is Cormier's escape route?"
"The escape route is behind the falls. There's a network of old lava caves in this mountain. One of the tunnels leads to a cavern that opens in the middle of a sheer rock cliff that faces the sea. The cavern is partially flooded. Cormier always kept a boat in there."
"Caves?" The sense of uneasiness that had been bothering Mattie since they had entered the dense jungle crowded closer. "We have to go through a bunch of caves?"
"Yeah. Don't worry. Nothing tricky. Cormier marked the route so we won't get lost. Ready?"
"I don't think so, Hugh." Her voice was high and thin.
Hugh shot her an impatient glance as he started toward the grotto. "Don't dawdle, babe. I want you off this damned island as soon as possible."
He was right, of course. They could hardly hang around here. There was too much chance of running into the same people Paul Cormier had recently encountered. But oh God, caves. Her worst nightmare made real.
Mattie was already damp from the rain and her own perspiration. Now she felt icy sweat trickle down her sides and between her breasts. She took a few deep breaths and chanted the mantra she had learned when she had taken lessons in stress-relieving meditation techniques.
Hugh was already moving along a rocky ledge that vanished into inky darkness behind one of the falls. He balanced easily on the slippery, moss-covered boulders, his movements unconsciously graceful. He looked back once more to make certain Mattie was following, and then he disappeared behind a thundering cascade of water.
Mattie took one more deep breath and prepared to follow. She reminded herself grimly that she had once vowed to follow this man anywhere.
What a fool she had been.
The mist off the falls looked like smoke as she passed through it. If she had not already been soaked by the rain and her own sweat, she would have been drenched by the spray. As it was, she barely noticed the additional moisture.
But her Italian leather shoes had not been designed to undergo this sort of abuse. Mattie clung to her purse and string bag and struggled desperately to balance on the uneven surface. She felt her left foot slide across a slick patch of moss, and everything started to tilt.
"Oh, no. Oh, no." Wide-eyed and helpless to save herself, she started to topple backward into the pool at the base of the falls.
"Watch your step, babe." Hugh's hand shot out of the darkness and clamped around her wrist to steady her. With effortless ease he yanked her to safety behind the falls.
"There you go, babe. No sweat."
"Tell me something, Hugh," she asked acidly. "Were you always this fast on your feet? You move like a cat."
"Hell, no. I used to be a lot faster. I'm forty now, you know. I've slowed down some. Happens to everyone, I guess."
"Amazing." Her voice was drier than ever, but Hugh didn't seem to notice.
He was busy rummaging around in the string bag. "And I'll tell you something else, babe," he added, "No matter how fast you are, there's always someone faster. That's one of the reasons I finally got smart and took that nice cushy job with your aunt."
"I see." His answer surprised her. It also made her curious. She really did not know all that much about Hugh Abbott. "Have you ever actually met someone faster than yourself?"
Hugh was silent for a heartbeat. "Yeah."
"What happened to him?"
"So he wasn't quite fast enough."
"I guess not."
But their conversation couldn't distract Mattie from the horrible darkness that loomed ahead. A cave. She would never be able to handle this, she thought. Never in a million years. This was far worse than any elevator or dark hall or jungle. This was the real thing, straight out of one of her childhood nightmares.
Mattie's stomach twisted.
She started to tell Hugh she could not go another step when something went crunch under the toe of her expensive, ruined shoe. Automatically Mattie looked down and saw the flattened body of the biggest cockroach she had ever seen in her life.
"That does it," Mattie announced. "You'd better get out of the way, Hugh. I'm going to be very sick."
Copyright © 1991 by Jayne Ann Krentz