“Nevertheless, it wasn’t fair of me —”
“It’s forgotten. Come, the rain is worsening.”
“I must fetch my shawl.”
Devon followed her glance to the dark heap in the distance. “Is that it? Good God, leave it there.”
“I can’t —”
“It’s ruined by now. I’ll buy you another.”
“I couldn’t accept something so personal from you. Besides… you can’t afford extra expenses, now that you have Eversby Priory.”
She saw the flash of his grin.
“I’ll replace it,” he said. “From what I gather, people at my level of debt never concern themselves with economizing.” Sliding back against the cantle of the saddle, he extended a hand down. His form was large and lean against the rioting sky, the hard lines of his face cast in shadow.
Kathleen gave him a doubtful glance; it would require considerable strength for him to lift her while he was mounted. “You won’t drop me?” she asked uneasily.
Devon sounded insulted. “I’m hardly some limp-wristed fop, madam.”
“My skirts are heavy and wet —”
“Give me your hand.”
She approached him, and his hand took hers in a strong clasp. A nervous shiver went through her.
She hadn’t touched any man since Theo’s death three months ago. Lord Berwick had attended the funeral, and afterward had offered Kathleen an awkward embrace, but she had given him her gloved hand instead. “I can’t,” she had whispered to him, and Lord Berwick had nodded in understanding. Although he was a kind man, he had seldom been disposed to demonstrations of affection. Lady Berwick was the same, a benevolent but self-contained woman who had tried to teach her daughters and Kathleen the value of self-restraint. “Rule your emotions,” she had always advised, “or they will most certainly rule you.”
An icy runnel of rain ran down Kathleen’s sleeve, contrasting sharply with the heat of Devon’s grip, and she shivered.
The dray waited patiently in the thrashing wind and rain.
“I want you to spring up,” she heard Devon say, “and I’ll lift you until you can find the stirrup with your left foot. Don’t try to swing a leg over. Just mount as if it were a sidesaddle.”
“When should I jump?”
“Now would be convenient,” he said dryly.
Gathering her strength, Kathleen leaped from the ground with as much force as her legs could produce. Devon caught the momentum and lifted her with shocking ease. She didn’t even have to find the stirrup; she landed neatly on the saddle with her right leg folded. Gasping, she fought for her balance, but Devon had already adjusted, his left arm enclosing her in a secure hold. “I have you. Settle… easy.”
She stiffened at the feel of being clasped firmly, his muscles working around her, his breath at her ear.
“This will teach you to bring baskets to ailing neighbors,” he said. “I hope you realize that all the selfish people are safe and dry at home.”
“Why did you come after me?” she managed to ask, trying to calm the little shocks that kept reverberating through her.
“Lady Helen was worried.” Once assured of her seat, Devon reached up with his left hand, tugged at her veil and headpiece, and tossed them to the ground. “Sorry,” he said before she could protest. “But that dye smells like the floor of an East End tavern. Here, slide your leg to the other side of the saddle.”
“I can’t, it’s caught in my skirts.” The horse’s weight shifted beneath them. Unable to find purchase on the smooth, flat saddle, Kathleen fumbled and accidentally gripped Devon’s thigh, the surface hard as stone. Gasping, she drew her hand back. It seemed that no matter how much air she took in, it wasn’t enough.
Temporarily transferring the reins to his left hand, Devon removed his felt hat and pushed it over Kathleen’s head. He proceeded to pull at the twisted, bunched layers of her skirts until she was able to unbend her knee enough to slide her leg over the horse’s withers.
In childhood she had ridden double with the Berwicks’ daughters when they had gone on pony rides. But there was no possible comparison with this, the feeling of a powerfully built man right behind her, his legs bracketing hers. Aside from the horse’s mane, there was nothing to hold on to; no reins to grasp, no stirrups for her feet.
Devon urged the horse into a canter, a gait that was impeccably fluid and smooth in an Arabian or Thoroughbred. But it was different for a wide-chested dray, whose legs were spaced farther from its center of gravity, the three-beat rhythm shorter and rounder. Kathleen perceived immediately that Devon was an accomplished rider, moving easily with the horse and communicating with explicit signals. She worked to find the rolling motion of the canter, but it wasn’t at all the same as riding alone, and she was mortified to find herself bouncing in the saddle like a novice.
Devon’s arm latched more tightly around her. “Easy. I won’t let you fall.”
“But there’s nothing for me to —”
“Just relax into it.”
Feeling how capably he maintained the center of their combined weight, she tried to soften her clenched muscles. The slope of her back came to rest exactly against his chest, and then as if by magic, she found the bend and balance of the horse’s motion. As she melted into the cadence, there was a curious satisfaction in the sensation of their bodies moving in perfect tandem.
Devon’s hand splayed across her midriff with supportive pressure. Even through the mass of her skirts, she could feel the robust muscles of his thighs, flexing rhythmically. An unbearable sweet ache began inside her, intensifying until it seemed as if something might fracture.