Noel knelt, trying to get a better view of the shelf where the cria lay. Going down was probably not the problem. Or at least not as big a problem as climbing up would be. Either way, it was nothing he hadn’t done a million times—though, granted, not since his fall.
“I’ll do it.”
Francis look relieved. “No, no. I’ll do it, of course. I only brought you here to lend a hand. I’ll make the climb. It’s my little lost llama.”
Noel happened to be watching Robert, so he saw him roll his eyes.
“You’d probably better let me do it, Francis.” Noel rose, dusting the snow from his gloved hands. “I’ve got more experience at this kind of thing.”
Robert made that sound that fell somewhere between a snort and a splutter. “Yes, any time a llama went missing you were always my first thought.”
Noel tossed the coil of rope at him. “Make yourself useful and tie that around that tree trunk.”
“Tree trunk? That’s optimistic.” Robert took the coiled rope and carried it to the lightning blasted stump of pine tree. He looped the rope around the trunk to anchor it, hauled on it hard to test its resistance, and then walked back with the lengths looped around his arm. He moved toward Noel, but Noel waved him away.
“It’s not for me. I’m going to use the tarp to make a sling and lift the calf up that way.”
“Right. Anyway, it’ll be safer for both of us in case it freaks and starts struggling.”
“Tie it around your waist climbing down at least. There’s no reason to take a chance when you don’t have to.”
“And here I was thinking you’d enjoy watching me break my neck.”
“Not in front of Francis.”
Noel was busy tying one of the ends of rope around his waist. Robert was right. No need to take stupid chances. Beyond the stupid chance he was taking in climbing down there to start with.
When he finished tying a neat mountain climber’s knot, he started to move away. Robert hooked a hand beneath his arm. “Hold it.”
He reached for Noel’s waist and double-checked the knot.
“It’s not Everest you know.”
“I know. It’s at least twenty feet down and there’s loose rock and ice.”
Noel nodded. “If this keeps up, I’m going to start thinking you care.”
“Always the wiseass. Just watch what you’re doing.”
“Piece of cake.”
“Please be careful,” Francis said as Noel squatted on the ledge.
“It’s okay, Francis.” Noel swung a leg over the edge. He kept his gaze trained on the tree the rope was tied to.
Mind over matter. You know what you’re doing. You’ve done it hundreds of times.
He ignored that sickening shift, the conviction that his equilibrium was sliding out from under him. His gaze dropped to his gloved hands gripping tightly to the outthrust rock. Snow dusted the black wool and he could see every sparkling crystal blazing like diamonds in the sunlight.
Slowly, cautiously, he felt with his right foot for a toe hold. There was another disorienting slide, but he knew—logic told him—that regardless of the message his body was sending, he was perfectly all right. He was not moving. The hillside was not moving.
A hand clamped down on his wrist.
Noel looked up.
Robert was leaning down, his head blotting out the sun, throwing his face in shadow. Even so, Noel could make out the predatory gleam of his eyes.
“What’s going on?”
“Huh?” Noel was confused. “Nothing’s going on.”
“Bullshit.” Robert leaned closer as though trying to read his face. “There’s something wrong with you. There’s a problem with your equilibrium, isn’t there?”
Talk about lousy timing. “It’s no big deal. All I have to d—”
“Get up. Get out of there.” The hand locked around Noel’s wrist, tightened. He couldn’t free himself without struggling and no way could he afford any fast moves balanced as he was.
“What is it? What’s happening?” Francis asked, looking worriedly from Noel to Robert. Daisy trotted up and down the opening, whining, Even the llamas were gargling at him. In another time and place it might have been funny.
“Change of plan,” Robert said, brisk and businesslike. “I’m climbing down and Noel will hang onto the rope.”
“The hell.” Noel’s normal pragmatism gave way to affronted male ego.
Infuriatingly though, the rope looped around Robert’s large gloved mitt was already being retracted. He held his other hand out. His own balance apparently unshakable. “Come on, Noel. Let’s not waste any more time. You trying to climb down there is a very bad idea and you know it.”
Noel. It sounded natural coming from Robert. It sounded…nice. Which didn’t change the fact that he was totally incensed at being treated like he was helpless.
“No way. I can handle this. I just have to go slow. I’ve still got more experience than you have.”
“You have no idea of my experience. Now get up here.”
“You won’t fit through this opening.”
Robert laughed. “Now you’re being rude because you’re pissed off.”
Partly. Not entirely. Robert was going to be a tight fit. If he was in the least claustrophobic, it would be a no go.
“Chop chop. Little lost llama is waiting.”
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