"You're almost here," he said in a calm voice. "Just a little further."
Hannah's heart pumped in double time. She tried to keep her eyes straight ahead, to look only at the man in front of her, but her terrified brain wouldn't cooperate. Fear forced her gaze to stray to his left to the wide open spaces just beyond his broad shoulders.
"Look at me. Just at me. I'll get you down safely."
She pulled her gaze away from the abyss. She looked into Quinn's eyes and saw the conviction of his words.
Hannah took one more crawling step. The rough asphalt shingles of the roof bit into her palms and bare knees, but she kept going. Quinn continued to hold out his hand to her.
"I've almost got you."
She concentrated on his hand. The fingers were long and lean, the palm smooth and unblemished, unlike those of most of the men she knew, men whose palms were callused and scarred from years of heavy farm labor. Dark hair sprinkled his forearm, exposed by the rolled up denim shirt sleeve. His palm faced up as if in supplication. More than anything in the world, she needed to feel the strength and confidence in that hand. With a huge effort that left her breathless, she reached out to him. He leaned forward and grabbed her.
"Good girl, Hannah. I knew you could do it."
She clung to his hand as if it were a lifeline. He let her catch her breath for a moment.
"Are you ready for the next part?"
Not really, she thought, but she nodded anyway.
"Okay, you're going to have to turn around and let me put your feet on the ladder."
Panic burst inside her like an over inflated balloon. This was the really scary part, the part where she was totally blind and totally without control. She tugged on her hand as if to make a getaway, but he held fast.
"You're going to be all right, Hannah," he said softly. "I won't let you fall."
Quinn's voice calmed her, and she fought back the fear. After years of looking after everyone else, it felt strange having someone look after her. The knowledge that she wasn't alone flooded over her in sweet relief.
"I'm okay now," she said, releasing a pent up breath. "What do I do?"
"Turn around. I'll guide you."
He let go of her, and Hannah felt suddenly bereft. A moment later he gently grasped her shoulders, urging her to turn. She sighed in relief, desperately glad for his support.
She made a complete about-face. He placed a hand on her left leg, near her ankle.
"I'm going to guide your leg down to the first rung now. Just follow my directions."
Hannah did as she was told. Everything faded away and there was only his voice and the touch of his hands as he guided her onto the ladder. Nothing else mattered but that he could lead her safely to terra firma.
"There, you're ready. When I say go, take one step down. I'm standing a couple of rungs below you and I'll move at the same time. Do you understand?"
Hannah closed her eyes and nodded.
Quinn put one hand on her leg to guide her. "Okay Hannah, it's show time. One, two, three, go."
Hannah lifted her right foot and felt her way to the next rung, letting out a rush of air when her left foot safely joined it. She rested her head against the ladder to catch her breath.
"Are you okay?"
With an effort, Hannah lifted her head. "Just peachy. Let's just get off this damn thing."
She heard his amused chuckle. "Whatever you say. On three. One, two, three."
They made two more steps, but instead of gaining confidence the closer they got to the ground, Hannah felt the palms of her hands sweat and her limbs begin to tremble. She tried to concentrate on Quinn's instructions, but her mind raced with fear. She needed him to talk to her, to provide a distraction.
"You're not from around here, are you?" she said breathlessly as she took another step. "I think I know everyone within a twenty-five mile radius. Which isn't too hard considering we're not exactly overpopulated in Saskatchewan."
"I'm from Toronto. I saw your poster at the service station in Qu'Appelle when I stopped for gas."
Qu'Appelle was the small town just three miles down the road from Hannah's farm. She had put up posters advertising for part-time help for her new B and B at the town's one and only service station. Perhaps she was finally getting some results.
"What are you doing here? Just passing through?" Most people considered Saskatchewan a big, flat, empty space to get through on their way to where they really wanted to go.
"I've got some business here."
Hannah wondered what kind of business he could possibly have in Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan, population three hundred, but Quinn didn't elaborate.
She fell silent. For some reason it bothered her that he wasn't from around here and wouldn't be staying. Why should that be, she wondered? Quinn Anderson was a total stranger--a kind one, but a stranger none the less. Did she feel that way because she enjoyed being touched by him?
Hannah's foot slipped. Brightly colored images of everyone she'd ever loved raced through her memory like a silent film set at high speed. How about that? Hannah thought in surreal amazement. A person's life really did flash in front of her eyes the moment before her death.
She felt herself falling. Her worst possible nightmare had just come to life.