A bucket of icy water thrown fully into her face could not have produced any more of a deterrent to her wayward thoughts than that last sentence. The panic returned full force. What exactly did this stranger know about her? She shoved her hands against his chest as hard as she could. She hadn’t enough strength to move him, but after a long moment, he got the idea and stepped back, releasing her from the alcove. She bolted for her chair.
Katrina was at a loss as to what to do. Her hands were moving nervously in her lap, always a tell-tale sign of her distress. When finally he spoke, she jumped at the sound.
"Do you think I could have some coffee or tea?"
"Wh...what? Oh. I...I don't have either one. I could fix you some hot chocolate. Or I have some cold juice."
"Chocolate will be fine, thank you. Make two cups." It was not a question, but an order. She didn’t really care. It was easier to bear his nearly overwhelming presence if she had something specific to do, something to keep her busy.
Katrina practically flew into the kitchen. Her hands were shaking as she filled her old battered teapot with water and set it on the burner. She turned to the cupboard for the chocolate and found Mr. Browning standing in the doorway, watching her.
She went cold all over, swayed with a sudden dizziness and reached for the counter. In an instant he was at her side, a supporting hand under her elbow.
"Are you all right?" Concern filled his eyes and softened his voice. At her nod he relaxed a bit, still holding her, but more gently. Taking a deep breath, she found her voice.
"I'm fine, really. You just...startled me. I…didn't hear you follow me in here...that's all. Sorry. If you'll go out into the living room, I'll bring your chocolate to you as soon as it's ready." She looked up at Mr. Browning uncertainly.
Still holding her elbow, he watched her intently. "What is it with you, Katrina McSwayne?" His hold tightened on her arm. "I can't figure you out." Katrina bit her lip to keep from crying out at the pain his fingers were inflicting. She'd probably have bruises tomorrow, and wondered briefly if he would care.
"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean, Mr. Browning."
"Please stop with the formality. After all, we're not exactly strangers anymore. My name's Gavin." His voice dripped sarcasm.
She examined his face, but couldn’t read his expression. "I don't know what you mean by that, either. I've never set eyes on you until a few minutes ago. To me, we are still very much strangers."
"You mean you let strangers come into your home and kiss you, just like that? My, my, my...how indiscriminate you are. You should be more careful. Somebody might just take advantage of you." His voice was hard and cruel.
The teapot began to whistle, breaking the tension. He stepped away as she moved to take the noisy pot from the burner, turning off the flames with her other hand.
Katrina retrieved the can of cocoa. Shakily, she took it, moving away from him to prepare the beverage. She took a small glass pitcher from another cupboard and dumped the ingredients into it. Her eyes were blurred with tears of confusion and panic, and it was hard for her to see how much sugar she was adding to the rich brown powder. Her hands were trembling. Her heart was beating so loudly he had to be able to hear it from across the room where he was standing. Katrina felt as if she were moving in slow motion as she struggled for some semblance of peace to her chaotic emotions.
At last it was ready, but she had gained little control over her feelings. She laid two paper napkins on the table, put cups on top of them, poured the chocolate from the pitcher, and waited until he was seated before sitting across from him.
Katrina looked away from him, concentrating on taking small sips from the cup in front of her rather than look at him again. He watched her, which only succeeded in making her more nervous than ever. Katrina could not think of a thing to say. The silence stretched forever and became nearly impossible to bear.
Finally, his cocoa gone, he spoke. "Thank you for a very nice cup of chocolate. The company was a little sparse, however. Do you never talk unless you’ve been spoken to?" He quizzed her, a quirk of a smile playing hide-and-seek with the corners of his mouth.
"I...I... didn’t quite...um...know what you want to talk about." Miserably, she looked at the half-empty cup in front of her. Her throat was closed and she was amazed she hadn't choked on the few sips she had been able to force down.
"Come now, like anyone, I talk on almost any subject. I am not an uneducated man. Surely you must have some interests you enjoy talking about? Speak to me of those."
Katrina sat, still looking at her cup. Words would not come. She really didn't know what to say to this man. She didn't know him and the things she did want to know, she didn't dare bring up. She heartily wished he would go away and let her be.
The silence stretched again and she felt more uncomfortable than ever. He stood, placing his paper napkin beside his cup. He muttered under his breath. The words were almost indiscernible, but Katrina thought she heard him say, “He was a fool to let you slip away.”
Katrina didn’t understand what he was talking about, but wasn’t about to inquire, either. She was afraid of what the answer would be. She frowned.
She stood with a sigh and started to gather the cups. His hand clamped on her wrist. Startled, her eyes flew to his face and she licked her dry lips.
Suddenly, she was being crushed to his chest, her lips once more his willing captive. This was not a soft, gentle kiss. It was far deeper, and much more; hot, hungry, nearly savage in its intensity. Answering fire raging in her veins robbed her of the will to fight.
She just stood, giving in to his kiss, knowing she would regret it later, thoroughly enjoying it now.
Her arms, of their own volition, crept up around his neck. Her senses were reeling. She had never felt like this when Charleston had kissed her, not even when she was newly in love with him. Passion burned clear through to her soul.
Suddenly, roughly, she found herself set aside. The sense of loss was as deep a shock to her as the kiss had been. Katrina looked up at him, but only saw the back of his head as he strode from the room.
What was happening? Why did he do that; kiss her then push her away? She must not kiss very well. Charleston used to tease her about her inexperience. Toward the end, he'd badgered her about it.
Katrina decided that must be why Gavin put her aside; her lack of experience must still show. Well, she hadn't kissed anyone since she had fled Charleston, so it was quite understandable. It hurt more than she wanted to admit, but at least she could understand it. Or maybe she really was the cold, unresponsive woman Charleston had always accused her of being.
Katrina sighed and took the cups to the sink. She shook her head to clear it, then slowly followed him into the living room. He was standing at the window next to the folding table she used for a desk. His back was to the room.
Katrina quietly went to her chair and sat down. She knew the questioning would have to take place, then he would go away and leave her in peace. Peace? She looked at him filling the small room with his very presence. Her tiny home would never be the same after he left. She didn't want him to go, but she was terrified he would stay. She had to know what he knew about her, though, and why he was here.
He suddenly turned to face her and she jumped at the unexpected movement. He looked at her and there was pain in his face.
"Oh, Katrina, what am I going to do with you? An enigma. That's what you are. Your kind should not be turned loose on an unsuspecting world! Do you realize that?"
Quietly, she looked at him, wondering what she did wrong.
He looked at her and groaned.
"There ought to be a law, Katrina Lee McSwayne! There ought to be one just for you!"
"I'm sorry for whatever it is I've done wrong, Mr. Browning. And I'm sorry I'm not very...good at...kissing." This last was a mere whisper, the misery heavily stamped in each word. Shocked at her own words, Katrina looked at her fingers nervously fiddling in her lap. She wasn’t brave enough to look at him.
His laughter rang out, surprising and confusing her all the more. Shame goaded a response from her.
"What...why are you laughing at me?" She blinked rapidly to keep from crying.
He stooped down, coming to a level even with her eyes. His face was all hard planes and angles again, his voice a little rough.
"What is your game, Katrina McSwayne? You obviously know why I'm here and you are going to play it for all you're worth, aren't you? The innocent, the siren, the tearful little girl, I wonder what’s next?" His savagery bit into her, tearing at her already badly frayed nerves.
"I don't know why you're here!" she protested, her tears spilling over. "I don't know anything about you except your name and that you've asked me about my husb...about Charleston. That's all I know. I don't know about a game. I don't play games. I don't even know how to play games. Not people games and politics games and that kind of stuff. I just don't know how! What I do know is that it's late and I'm tired and I wish you'd go away and leave me alone. Please!"
He looked at her a long moment then stood and removed a fine linen handkerchief from his pocket and placed it in her hand. Confused, she looked from the handkerchief to his face. He sighed, took it from her, knelt and gently dried her tears.
Finished, he shook his head. "If you’re for real, Katrina, I know how it happened." He made a clicking noise with his tongue and touched her cheek softly with one knuckle.
"Such an innocent!" He looked deeply into her eyes. "Or an excellent actress!"
As she made to protest, he held up his hand to stop her speaking. "You're right. It is late. I'm going to leave now, but I will be back after I do some more checking." He stood, collected his coat and walked to the door, unlocking it, then closing it gently behind him.
Katrina was a mass of confusion and unanswered questions, but of one thing she was certain. He'd be back.
Suddenly, her heart sang.