* * *
For a few half-seconds, Arlo didn’t reply. Not because he didn’t know the answer. He had been trying to work out why she had changed the subject, only the sound of his name on her lips seemed to have momentarily stopped his brain working.
Just seconds earlier he’d been trying to remember why he’d thought it a good idea to give her a job.
Something about putting her off-limits—that was it. An imbalance of power.
Now that decision felt premature on so many levels...not least because he felt uniquely and perilously at a disadvantage.
Hoping his silence suggested that he was taking her question seriously, rather than taking leave of his senses, he dragged his gaze away from her soft pink mouth.
‘When I was twelve years old, I read The South Pole by Roald Amundsen. I found it gripping. The menace and the mercy of nature. There’s a copy in the library if you want to read it. Second shelf on the level as you walk in.’ His eyes met hers. ‘Don’t worry. The books are a lot better behaved downstairs.’
She smiled then, and suddenly it was his turn to change the subject.
‘So how are you finding the work? Not too dry, I hope?’
‘Not at all.’ She hesitated, then, ‘Actually, your notes are surprisingly interesting.’
‘Thank you. I think,’ he said, the corners of his mouth pulling up very slightly.
‘It’s just that there’s a lot of numbers. You know...percentages of this and metric tons of that.’
He frowned. ‘In other words, facts.’
‘Exactly.’ She stared at him impatiently, as if he was missing something glaringly obvious. ‘I know you love facts, but most people find them really intimidating, so you have to make them interesting and understandable. And you have. I mean, if someone like me can understand them you must have done.’
‘What do you mean, “someone like me”?’
She bit her lip. ‘You know... Someone who lacks “discipline and diligence”.’
There was a small, stiff silence as he replayed her words—his words, in fact—inside his head. ‘Look, I wasn’t thinking straight this morning. I was still angry and scared—’
Her chin jerked up. ‘Scared?’ She screwed up her face as if she didn’t believe him. ‘Of what?’
He hadn’t meant to admit his fear out loud, and now he felt his body tense as he remembered that grey wall of water rising up around her. Remembered, too, the promise he had made to himself all those years ago. Never to let fear overrule facts. Never to let the preventable become the inevitable.
‘Scared that you’d be hurt.’ Or worse.
Frankie was staring at him in silence. ‘I thought you hated me...’
They were so close he could see each and every freckle on her face. He wondered how long it would take to count them. And where exactly they stopped on her body.
He cleared his throat. ‘I don’t hate you.’
He heard her swallow. ‘I don’t hate you either.’
His breath stalled as her eyes rose to his face. Gazing down, he could see the pulse at the base of her throat beating in time with the blood pounding through his veins.
He was powerless to look away.
Time seemed to soften and then stop.
Their legs were touching at the knee...her hand was just inches from his. Never in his life had he wanted to kiss a woman so badly...
But before he could wrap his hand around her neck and bring her mouth to his, the grandfather clock at the end of the room chimed the hour.
She blinked, as if waking from a dream. ‘It that the time? Constance said supper was at a quarter past.’