BOOKS BY ANNE MATHER 1 ñòðàíèöà 44
THE LEGEND OF LEXANDROS
LORD OF ZARACUS
THE ARROGANT DUKE
MASTER OF FALCON'S HEAD
WHO RIDES THE TIGER
THE PLEASURE AND THE PAIN
STORM IN THE RAIN BARREL
THE SANCHEZ TRADITION
ALL THE FIRE
THE RELUCTANT GOVERNESS
THE HIGH VALLEY
LIVING WITH ADAM
A DISTANT SOUND OF THUNDER
THE NIGHT OF THE BULLS
JAKE HOWARD'S WIFE
PRELUDE TO ENCHANTMENT
MASK OF SCARS
THE SHROUDED WEB
WHITE ROSE OF WINTER
CHASE A GREEN SHADOW
SEEN BY CANDLELIGHT
A SAVAGE BEAUTY
NO GENTLE POSSESSION
THE WATERFALLS OF THE MOON
DARK MOONLESS NIGHT
SILVER FRUIT UPON SILVER TREE
THE AUTUMN OF THE WITCH
LEGACY OF THE PAST
THE INNOCENT INVADER
THE JAPANESE SCREEN
(LEOPARD IN THE SNOW)
ARROGANCE OF LOVE
COUNTRY OF THE FALCON
PALE OAWN. DARK SUNSET
COME THE VINTAGE
TAKE WHAT YOU WANT
FOR THE LOVE OF SARA
VALLEY DEEP. MOUNTAIN HIGH
BEWARE THE BEAST
THE SMOULDERING FLAME
BORN OUT OF LOVE
CHARADE IN WINTER
now a major motion picture
Illustrated with 16 pages of photographs from the film
Mills & Boon
London ■ Sydney ■ Toronto
First published in Great Britain in 1974 by
Mills & Boon Limited
ij~ig Foley Street
Lmdon WtA zDR
© Anne Mather 1974
This illustrated edition 1978 Reprinted February 1978
Reprinted May 1978
Philippine copyright 1978
ISBN O 263 72639 8
The text of this publication or any part thereof may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any meant, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, storage in an information retrieval system, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher.
This book is sold subject 10 the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherviise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the prior consent of the publisher in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All photographic material is reproduced by kind
permission of SEASTONE PRODUCTIONS
LIMITED and LEOPARD IN THE SNOW
Made and Printed in Great Britain by
C. Nicholls & Company Ltd The Philips Park Press, Manchester
In spring and high summer the lofty fells and mountain-shadowed lakes echoed with the sounds of tourists, eager to escape from the steel and concrete jungles of the cities. They came in their thousands, car after car, picnicking and camping, and towing their caravans behind them like an invasion of giant snails. Climbers, many of whom had never before put on spiked boots, trekked to Wast Water and Skafell Pike. Traffic jammed the narrow roads which skirted the more frequented lakes like Ullswater and Windermere. There were card shops and gift shops, and exhibitions of local crafts. On the lakes themselves the white sails of yachts mingled with orange-sailed dinghies and noisy outboard motors. Almost everywhere one looked there were people in parkas and sailing gear, all trying to look as though this was their natural habitat. The hotels were filled to capacity - the bars did a roaring trade.
And the locals watched and waited and longed for the city dwellers to return to their city homes and their city jobs, and leave the Lake District to those whose heritage it had always been.
It was that summer lakeland that Helen remembered. When they had had their home in Leeds her father had kept a boat at Bowness, and in the summer holidays when she was free from school, he had taught her to sail. In retrospect, it seemed an idyllic period in her life. It was in the days before her father became ambitious, before he allowed his small company to be amalgamated with Thorpe Engineering, before he married Isabel Thorpe and became such a rich and influential man with interests in more sophisticated sports than sailing...
But now the fells were clothed in snow. It had apparently been snowing for days, and even the lakes themselves had a film of white coating their surfaces. When she had stopped at the last village for directions to Bow-ness she had found herself well off her original route which wasn't altogether surprising when half the signposts had been covered with snow, too, and she had been too warm and snug in the car to bother to get out and wipe it away. She had been foolish, she acknowledged it now, but her memory did not go as far as recalling the dozens of minor roads that spun off the so-called major ones, and as they all looked much the same in these ghastly conditions she had obviously taken several wrong turnings.
Still, she consoled herself, with a glance at her wrist watch. It was only two o'clock and she had plenty of time to find a hotel before nightfall. Any hotel would do, just so long as it provided food and shelter. She could continue on her way tomorrow.
She spared a thought for her father. By tomorrow he would have discovered she had gone away. What would he do? Would her note that she needed to get away on her own for a while satisfy him, or would he institute some sort of search for her? The latter seemed the most likely. Her father was not the kind of man to be thwarted, and he would, no doubt, be furious that his daughter, his only offspring, should try to defy him.
But the chances of him discovering her here were slim. In fact, Helen congratulated herself, deciding to come north had been an inspiration. In recent years her most usual haunts had been the West Indies and the South of France, and if her father looked anywhere for her it would be somewhere warm. He knew how she loved the sun, how she enjoyed swimming and sailing, all water sports. He would never expect her to remember the small hotel where he had taken her as a schoolgirl in the years following her mother's death when they had been everything to one another. And he would certainly not expect her to drive into a raging blizzard...
The snow was thickening on her wiper blades, causing them to smear the windscreen rather than clear it. It seemed ages since she had passed another vehicle and she paused to wonder whether in fact the road she was following led anywhere. It might simply be the track to some farm or a private dwelling of some sort, and how on earth would she be able to turn in such a narrow space?
She frowned. If it was a farm track she would go and knock at the door and ask whether they could give her some firm directions as to how to reach the nearest village. She no longer expected to reach Bowness tonight.
The wipers got worse and with an impatient exclamation she stopped the car and leaving the engine running climbed out and brushed the snow away. It clung to her fingers. It was so cold, and with a shiver she clambered back inside again. Maybe she had been foolhardy in bringing the car. Perhaps she should have used the train. But she had not wanted to risk someone at the station recognising her and possibly remembering this when her father discovered she was missing and started making a fuss.
To her annoyance, the wipers stuck again, and she was forced to get out again and attend to them. She had taken off her long boots with their platform soles because they were impossible for driving and when she had attended to the wipers the first time she had balanced on the door valance. But this time she stopped to put her boots on and while she did so the engine idled to a halt.
Shaking her head, she got out and stood in the snow. It was quite deep, even on the road, and brushed the turnups of her flared scarlet pants. Drops of snow melted on her shoulders as she quickly cleared the snow from the windscreen and satisfying herself that the wipers would at least work for a short period, she got into the driving seat again.
It took several more minutes to divest herself of the boots again and then she turned the ignition.
Several minutes later she gave up the attempt to try and start the car again. It was getting later all the while and pretty soon it would start to get dark. She dared not risk staying here any longer in the vain hope that someone might come along and rescue her. There were no visible signs that anyone had passed that way that day although the steadily falling snow hampered any real inspection of the road's surface. Nevertheless, her most sensible course would be to leave the car and go in search of assistance, she decided. If she stayed where she was and no one came, the car could well be buried by morning and she had heard of motorists freezing to death in this way.
Thrusting such uncomfortable thoughts aside, she reached fox her boots and began to pull them on again. It was quite an adventure, she told herself, in an attempt to lighten her spirits. Who would have thought when she left London this morning that by late afternoon she would be the victim of an abandoned car in a snowstorm? Who indeed? Her earlier self-congratulation that her father would never look for her here might rebound on her in the most unpleasant way possible.
She shook her head and got out of the car. At least her coat was warm. Made of red suede and lined with sheepskin, it showed up well against the whiteness of the snow. Maybe someone would see her, even if she didn't see them. She drew the hood up over her head, and tucked inside the long strands of black hair which the wind had taken and blown about her face. Well, this was it! Sheepskin mittens to warm her hands, her trouser legs rolled up almost to the knee, her handbag - what more could any intrepid explorer want?
She looked up and down the deserted road. There seemed no point in retracing her tracks. She knew there was nothing back there - at least, not for miles. Forward it would have to be!
The snow stung her cheeks, and the wind whistled eerily through the skeletal branches of the trees and bushes that hedged the track. She was tempted to penetrate the hedge and climb the sloping fields beyond in an attempt to see some form of habitation in this white wasteland, but a preliminary reconnaissance landed her in snow at least two feet deep and was sufficient to deter any further forays in that direction. It wasn't possible, she told herself, that one could walk so far without encountering either a house or another human being, but she had. This winding road which had quickly hidden the car from view might be circling a mountain for all she knew. Certainly she was going uphill, her aching legs told her that, but what alternative had she?
She stopped and looked back. It was impossible to distinguish anything beyond a radius of a hundred yards. She was totally and completely lost and the greyness in the sky was not wholly due to the appalling conditions. Evening was approaching and she was no nearer finding a place to stay than she had been an hour ago. A fluttery sense of panic rose inside her. What was she going to do? Was this how fate repaid her for challenging her father's right to choose her a husband?
Something moved. Out of the corner of her eye she could see a movement, a trace of some colour up ahead of her. She blinked. What was it? An animal probably, foraging for food. Poor creatures. What could any animal find beneath this all-covering blanket?
Shielding her eyes, blinking again as snow settled on her lashes and melting ran down into her eyes, she tried to see what it was that had caught her attention. It was an animal, that much She could see, and no doubt her red coat had attracted its attention, too. It might be a dog, she thought hopefully, with an owner close at hand. Oh, please, she begged silently, let it be a domestic animal!
The creature was loping towards her. It looked like a dog. It was a curious tawny colour, and as it drew nearer she saw that it had splashes of black, too. A sort of tawny Dalmatian, only there weren't such things.
Then her legs went weak.
For a moment she was rooted to the spot. She was mesmerised by that silent, menacing gait. She moved her head helplessly from side to side. There were no leopards in Cumberland I This must be some terrible hallucination brought on by the blinding light of the snow. The creature made no sound. It couldn't be real.
But as it got closer still, she could see its powerful shoulders, the muscles moving under the smooth coat, the strong teeth and pointed ears. She imagined she could even feel the heat of its breath.
With a terrified gasp she did the thing she had always been taught never to do in the face of a charging animal, she turned to run. In the days when she was a teenager, she had sometimes gone to stay with a friend from boarding school whose parents had kept a farm. They had taught her that to show any animal panic only inflamed the creature's senses, but right now she knew only a desperate desire for self-preservation.
She stumbled through the deep snow at the side of the road and forced her way through the hedge, feeling the twigs tearing at her hair, scratching her cheeks painfully. But anything was better than the thought of the leopard's claws on her throat and panic added its own strength to her weakened limbs. The field was a wilderness of white, the deepness of the snow hindering her progress. Any moment she expected to feel the animal's hot breath on her neck, its paws weighing her down. Sobs rose in her throat, tears sprang to her eyes. She should never have left London, she thought bitterly. This was what came of behaving selfishly.
Beneath the snow her foot caught in a rabbit hole and she lost her balance and fell Sobbing, she tried to crawl on, but as she did so she heard a sound which she had been beginning to think she would never hear again. That of a human voice - a human voice shouting with all the curt-ness of command: "Sheba! Sheba-heel!"
Helen's shoulders sagged, and she glanced fearfully over her shoulder. The leopard had halted several feet away and was standing regarding her with disturbing intensity. A man was thrusting his way through the hedge, a tall lean man dressed all in black - black leather coat, black trousers, and knee-length black boots. His head was bare and as Helen scrambled to her feet she saw that his hair was so light as to appear silver in some lights. Yet for all that his skin was quite dark, not at all the usual skin to go with such light hair. There was something vaguely familiar about his harshly carved features, the deep-set eyes beneath heavy lids, the strongly chiselled nose, the wide mouth with its thin lips that were presently curved almost contemptuously as he approached her. And she saw as he climbed the ridge that he walked with, a distinct limp which twisted his hip slightly.
The leopard turned its head at his approach and he put down a hand and fondled the proud head. "Easy, Sheba!" he murmured, his voice low and deep, and then he looked at Helen. "My apologies,' he said, without sounding in the least apologetic, "but you ought not to have run. Sheba wouldn't have touched you."
His contempt caught Helen on the raw. She was not used to having to run for her life, nor to feeling distressed and dishevelled in the face of any man. On the contrary, her warmth and beauty, the silky curtain of dark hair, her slender yet rounded figure, had all made her contacts with men very easy relationships, and although she wasn't vain she was not unaware of her own attractiveness to the opposite sex. But the way this man was looking at her made her feel like a rather ridiculous child who had trespassed and found herself facing rather more than she had bargained for.
"How can you say that?" she demanded, annoyed to find that her voice had a tremor in it. "If you hadn't called as you did just now, I might have been mauled!"
He shook his head slowly. "Sheba is trained to bring down her prey, not to maul it!"
"I wasn't aware 'that I was prey!" retorted Helen, brushing the snow from her sleeves.
"Oh, I see." Helen tried to sound sarcastic. "I'll try to remember not to do that in future."
The man's hard face softened slightly with mocking amusement. "We didn't expect to find anything worth hunting today."
Helen drew an unsteady breath. "You didn't!"
"You underestimate yourself." He glanced round. "Are you making a walking tour of the fells?" Helen's cheeks flamed. "My oar has broken down back - back there." She gestured vaguely towards the road. "I - I was trying to find help, when - when your leopard-"
"Sheba?" The man glanced down alt the big cat which stood so protectively beside him. "Sheba is a cheetah, not a leopard, although I suppose they're members of the same family.
"I really don't care" what she is," said Helen tremulously. "Could - could you direct me to die nearest phone box and I'll try and make arrangements to be picked up?"
The man smoothed the cheetah's head. "I regret there are no phone boxes within walking distance."
"Then - then private houses - someone who has a phone!"
He shrugged. "There are few dwellings about here."
Helen clenched her fists. "Are you being deliberately obstructive, or is this your normal way of treating strangers?"
The man was annoyingly unperturbed by her rudeness. "I'm merely pointing out that you're in a particularly isolated area. However, you're welcome to my 'hospitality if such a thing is not abhorrent to you."
Helen hesitated. "I -I don't know who you are."
"Nor I you."
"No, but -" She chewed uneasily at her lower lip. "Are you married?"
His eyes narrowed. "No."
"You live - alone? Apart from this - this creature?"
"No." He moved as though standing too long in one place made his leg ache. "I have a manservant. There are just the two of us."
Helen digested this. Oh, lord, she thought, what a situation! Faced with two impossible alternatives. Either to continue walking in these awful conditions in the hope that sooner or later she would come upon a shepherd's croft or a hill farm, which was a decidedly risky thing to do. Or to accompany this man - this stranger - to his home, and risk spending the night with two strange men. What a dilemma!
"Please make up your mind," the man said now, and Helen thought she could see lines of strain around his mouth. This outward sign of vulnerability decided her.'
"I'll accept your hospitality, if I may," she murmured, with ill grace. "Ought I to go back for my suitcases?"
"Bolt will get them," replied her companion, beginning to descend the slope to 'the hedged road. "Come. It will be dark soon."
Helen licked her lips. "Ought - oughtn't we to introduce ourselves?"
The man gave her a wry look. "I think it can wait, don't you? Or are you enjoying getting soaked to the skin?"
Helen sighed. There was no answer to that. Instead, she followed him down the slippery slope, taking care to keep a distance from the sleek body and long tail of the cheetah. Once on to the track again, for that was all it was now with the drifts of snow at either side, the cheetah stalked disdainfully ahead and Helen was forced to walk at the man's side. For all he limped, he moved with a certain grace, a certain litheness, which made her wonder if he had once been an athlete. Was that why hisface had seemed momentarily familiar? Or was it simply that he reminded her of someone else - someone she knew?
Just beyond the bend in the road a narrower track left the main one and it was on to this narrower way that they turned. A sign, half covered with snow, indicated that it was a private road and Helen felt a twinge of nervousness. This man could be almost anyone. He could be taking her anywhere. He might even have lied about there being no call boxes or farms in the near neighbourhood.
As though reading her thoughts, he said: "If you would rather turn back, you're at liberty to do so. I shan't send Sheba after you, if that's what you're afraid of."
Helen moved her shoulders in a deprecating gesture. "I - why should I want to turn back?"
"Indeed." The man glanced sideways at her and she noticed inconsequently that he had the longest lashes she had ever seen on a man. Dark and thick, they shaded eyes that were a peculiarly tawny colour, like the eyes of Sheba, his cheetah. And like Sheba's, they were unpredictable.
The track wound upward steadily. They passed through a barred gateway, crossed some fields through which a track had been cleared, and climbed a stone wall, half hidden beneath the snow. Eventually, a belt of stark trees rose up ahead, and beyond them, no doubt concealed in summer when the trees were fully in leaf, Helen saw the house they were making for. It was a rambling kind of building, its stone walls shrouded with snow. Smoke was issuing from its chimneys, and there were lights in some of the downstairs windows. A grassy forecourt was just visible beneath the prints of man and beast, and this gave on to a cobbled area in front of the house,
Helen's companion stamped his feet and advised her to do likewise to shake the snow from their boots. Then he thrust open the studded wooden door and indicated that she should precede him -inside.Helen glance apprehensively at Sheba. The cheetah was watching her with an unblinking stare, but as it seemed perfectly willing to remain by its master's side, she walked rather gingerly ahead of them into the hall of the building.
Warmth engulfed her and it was only then that she realised exactly how cold she was. The desolation, her terrifying encounter with the cheetah, her subsequent confrontation with its master - all had served to provide her with other matters to concern herself, but now in the warmth of that panelled hall she began to shiver violently and her teeth started to chatter.
Their entrance brought a man through a door at the back of the hall. Even in her shivering, shaking state, Helen could not help but stare at the newcomer. As 'tall as the man who had brought her here, and twice as broad, he was built on the lines of a wrestler, with massive shoulders and a completely bald head. The look he gave Helen was cursory before his gaze travelled to the man with her.
"You're late, sir," he announced, polling down his shirt sleeves which had been rolled above his elbows. "I was beginning to get worried about you."
The man with Helen began to unbutton his coat, his eyes flickering thoughtfully over the shivering girl in front of him. "As you can see, we have a visitor, Bolt," he remarked, in his low attractive voice. "The young lady's car is out of action some distance down the lane. After you've prepared us some tea, perhaps you'd go and retrieve her suitcases."
Bolt's expression as he listened to his master was rather like Sheba's, Helen thought uncharitably. They both behaved as though the safety and well being of the man they served were the most important things in the world.
"Of course, sir." Bolt's mouth moved in the semblance of a smile. "I gather the young lady will be staying the night. I'll prepare a room for her, shall I?"
"Thank you, Bolt." The other man threw off his leather coat to reveal a black silk shirt and waistcoat beneath. The manservant took his coat, and then his employer turned to Helen. "You may give your coat to Bolt, too. I assure you he knows how to handle wet garments without causing them any ill effects."
Helen was shivering so much she couldn't undo the leather buttons, and to her astonishment the man limped forward and brushing her cold hands aside unfastened the coat himself. Then he lifted his hands and slid it off her shoulders and the man Bolt caught it as it fell.
Helen shivered all the more. She resented the way he had taken control without her permission. She didn't know this man with his harsh face and mocking tongue, and nor did she want to. Something about him disturbed her, frightened her even. She told herself it was his limp, the way his hip twisted when he moved, the arrogance of the man. And yet the fleeting touch when his fingers had deposed tiers had caused a shaft of fire to shoot up her arm almost as though his touch had burned her, and she was at once fascinated and repelled.
Bolt moved to open a door to their right. Realising that both men were waiting for her to make the first move, she walked jerkily into the room beyond, hugging herself tightly in an effort to stop the enervating shivering. She found herself in an enormous living room lit by two standard lamps and by the glow from a roaring fire in the huge grate. Logs had been piled on to the blaze and the room was redolent with 'the scent of pine. The floor was partially covered with rugs and as well as several dining chairs and a bureau there was a dark brown, tapestry-covered three-piece suite which, although it had seen better days, looked superbly comfortable. Some shelves to one side of the fireplace were well filled with books and paperbacks and magazines, and a tray on which reposed a bottle of Scotch, a decanter of what looked like brandy, and two glasses were set conveniently beside the armchair at the farther side of the fire.
The door closed as Helen was pondering those two glasses, and she flinched as the cheetah brushed past her to stretch its length on the hearth. She glanced round apprehensively, 'half afraid she was alone with the beast, to find the man limping towards her. The servant Bolt had apparently gone about his business.
"Won't you sit down?" he asked, indicating the couch in front of the fire, and after a moment Helen moved to perch uneasily on the edge of an armchair.
The man gave her a wry look, and then took the armchair opposite, stretching his long legs out in front of him with evident relief. After a moment, he turned sideways and took the stopper out of the decanter. "Some brandy, I think," he remarked quietly, with an encompassing glance in her direction. "You seem in need of - sustenance."
He did not get up to give her the drink but stretched across the hearth and Helen had, perforce, to take it. Brandy was not her favourite spirit, but she was glad of its warmth to take away the chill inside her. She sipped it slowly, and gradually she stopped shaking.
Her companion did not have anything to drink, but lay back in his armchair, his eyes half closed, surveying her with penetrating intensity. Before she had finished the brandy, Bolt returned with a tray of tea. He ousted the cheetah from its comfortable position on the hearth and set an occasional table in its place, putting the tray within easy reach of his master. Then he straightened, and said: "I'll go for the suitcases now, sir. If the young lady will give me her keys."
"Oh! Oh, yes, of course." Helen gave him a rueful smile and rummaged in her handbag. She produced the leather ring which held all her keys and handed it over, "I'm very - grateful, Bolt It's about a mile down the road- the car, I mean."
Bolt nodded. "I'll find it, miss."
"Thank you." Helen wriggled a little further on to ha chair. The brandy had done its work and she was beginning to feel almost normal again. This time tomorrow she might have reached Bowness and this whole episode would be simply a memory, something amusing to tell her friends when she got back to London.