As they began up the hill, Devon slowed the dray to a walk and leaned to distribute more weight over the horse’s front legs. Obliged to lean forward as well, Kathleen grasped the dray’s rough black mane. She heard Devon’s voice, muffled by a peal of thunder. Turning her head to hear him better, she felt the electrifying texture of shaven bristle as his jaw brushed her cheek. It sent a ticklish feeling into her throat, as if she’d just bitten into a honeycomb.
“We’re almost there,” Devon repeated, his breath searing against her wet skin.
They ascended the hill and cantered toward the stable block, a two-story building constructed of plum-colored brick, with arched entrances and molded stone surrounds. A dozen saddle horses were housed on one side of the structure, and ten harness horses and a mule on the other side. The stable also housed a saddle room, harness room, tack room, a forage loft, a coach house, and grooms’ chambers.
Compared to the manor house at Eversby Priory, the stables were in far superior condition. Without a doubt that was because of the influence of the stable master, Mr. Bloom, a stout Yorkshire gentleman with white muttonchop whiskers and twinkling blue eyes. What Bloom lacked in height, he made up for in brawn, his hands so meaty and strong that he could crush walnuts with his fingers. No stable had ever been run with more exacting standards: The floors were always scrupulously clean, every piece of tack and leather highly polished. The horses in Bloom’s care lived better than most people. Kathleen had met the stable master approximately a fortnight before Theo’s accident, and she had liked him immediately. Bloom had known about the Carbery Park Stud Farm, and the exceptional Arabian strain that Kathleen’s father had developed, and he had been delighted to include Asad in the Ravenel stables.
In the aftermath of Theo’s accident, Mr. Bloom had supported Kathleen’s decision to keep Asad from being put down, in spite of the demands made by Theo’s friends and peers. Bloom had understood that Theo’s recklessness had contributed to the tragedy. “A horseman should never approach his mount with anger,” Bloom had told Kathleen privately, weeping in the aftermath of Theo’s death. He had known Theo since he’d been a young boy, and had taught him how to ride. “Especially an Arabian. I told Lord Trenear, ‘If tha goes into a pitch battle with Asad, tha’ll excite him to wildness.’ I could see his lordship was having one of his spates. I told him there was a dozen other mounts that were better for him to ride that day. He wouldn’t listen, but I blame mi’sell all the same.”
Kathleen hadn’t been able to make herself return to the stables since Theo’s death. She didn’t blame Asad in the least for what had happened, but she was afraid of what she might feel when she saw him. She had failed Asad, just as she had failed Theo, and she didn’t know when – or how – she could ever come to terms with any of it.
Realizing that they were riding through the stable’s main arch, Kathleen closed her eyes briefly and felt her stomach turn to ice. She clamped her lips together and managed to keep silent. With every breath, she took in the familiar scents of horses and bedding and feed, the comforting smells of her childhood.
Devon stopped the dray and dismounted first, while a pair of stable hands approached.
“Spend extra time caring for his feet, lads,” came Mr. Bloom’s genial voice. “This kind of weather brings thrush.” He looked up Kathleen, his manner changing. “Milady. ’Tis gradely to see thee here again.”
Their gazes met. Kathleen expected a hint of accusation in his eyes, after the way she had avoided the stables and abandoned Asad. But there was only friendliness and concern. She smiled tremulously. “It’s good to see you too, Mr. Bloom.”
As she dismounted, Kathleen was surprised to find Devon assisting her. His hands fit at her waist to ease her descent. She turned to face him, and he removed the hat carefully from her head.
Handing the dripping felt object to the stable master, Devon said, “Thank you for the loan of your hat, Mr. Bloom.”
“I’m glad tha managed to find Lady Trenear in all that rain and wuthering.” Noticing that Kathleen’s gaze had flickered to the row of stalls, Bloom commented, “Asad is in fine fettle, milady. These past weeks, he’s been the best-behaved lad i’ the stable. Reckon he’d be pleased wi’ a word or two from thee.”
Kathleen’s heart thumped erratically. The stable floor seemed to move beneath her feet. She nodded jerkily. “I – I suppose I could see him for a moment.”
To her astonishment, she felt Devon’s fingers slide beneath her jaw, gently urging her to look up at him. His face was wet, his lashes spiked, the dripping locks of his hair as shiny as ribbons. “Perhaps later,” he said to Mr. Bloom, his intent gaze remaining on Kathleen. “We don’t want Lady Trenear to catch a chill.”
“Aye, reckon not,” the stable master said hastily.
Kathleen swallowed hard and tore her gaze from Devon’s. She was shaking deep inside, dull panic rising. “I want to see him,” she whispered.
Wordlessly Devon followed as she went to the row of stalls. She heard Mr. Bloom giving directions to the stable hands about seeing to the dray. “No faffin’ about, lads! Gi’ the horse a good rubdown an’ warm mash.”
Asad waited in one of the end stalls, watching alertly as Kathleen approached. His head lifted, his ears perking forward in recognition. He was a compact gelding with powerful hindquarters, an elegant conformation that afforded both speed and endurance. His coloring was a shade of chestnut so light it appeared golden, his mane and tail flaxen. “There’s my boy,” Kathleen exclaimed gently, reaching out to him with her palm upward. Asad sniffed at her hand and gave her a welcoming nicker. Lowering his finely modeled head, he moved to the front of the stall. She stroked his nose and forehead, and he reacted with pure gladness, blowing softly and nudging closer.