"Ow!" he howled.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" she said quickly. "Here, let me see to that."

She stepped on his toe.

"Ouch!"

"I'm sorry sorry sorry." She looked terribly concerned, and normally he would have milked this for all it was worth, but damn it, his foot really hurt.

"I'll be fine, Miss Hotchkiss," he said. "All I need is for you to step off of my toe, and—''

"Oh, I'm sorry!" she said, for what seemed the hundredth time. She took a step back.

He winced as he flexed his toes.

"I'm sorry," she said.

He shuddered. "Don't say that again."

"But—"

"I insist."

"At least let me see to your foot." She bent down.

"Please don't." There were few situations in which James thought begging appropriate, but this was one of them.

"All right," she said, straightening up. "But I should—''

Smack!

"Oh, my head!" she yelped, rubbing the top of her scalp.

"My chin," James barely managed to get out.

Her blue eyes filled with worry and embarrassment. "I'm sorry."

"Brilliant aim, Miss Hotchkiss," he said, shutting his eyes in agony. “Right where you whacked me with your hand."

He heard her gulp. "I'm sorry."

And that was when he made his fatal mistake. Never again would he keep his eyes closed around a suspiciously clumsy female, no matter how appealing she was. He didn't know how she managed it, but he heard a surprised yelp, and then somehow her entire body crashed into his, and he went tumbling toward the ground.

Well, he thought he'd hit the ground.

If it had occurred to him to hope, he would have hoped to hit the ground.

But as it turned out, he should have prayed he'd hit the ground. It would have been so much more pleasant than the rosebush.

Chapter 5

“I’m sorry!''

"Don't say that," he growled, trying to decide which bit of him hurt the worst.

"But I am!" she wailed. "Here, let me help you up."

"Don't," he yelled frantically, finishing with a somewhat quieter, "touch me. Please."

Her lips parted with mortified horror, she started blinking rapidly, and for a moment James thought she might cry. "It's perfectly all right," he forced himself to lie. "I'm not hurt." At her incredulous stare, he added, "Very much."

She swallowed. "I'm so clumsy. Even Susan refuses to dance with me."

"Susan?"

"My sister. She's fourteen."

"Ah," he said, then added under his breath, "Smart girl."

She caught her lower lip between her teeth. "Are you certain you wouldn't like a hand up?"

James, who had been quietly trying to extricate himself from his thorny prison, finally faced the truth that in one-on-one combat, the rosebush would emerge the victor. "I'm going to give you my hand," he directed, keeping his words nice and slow, "and then you are going to pull me up and out. Is that clear?''

She nodded.

"Not to the side, not forward, not—"

"I said it's clear!" she snapped. Before he even had a chance to react, she grabbed his hand and hauled him out of the rosebush.

James just stared at her for a moment, more than a little shocked by the strength hidden in her tiny frame.

"I'm clumsy," she said. "Not an idiot."

Again, he was rendered speechless. Twice in one minute had to be a new record.

"Are you injured?" she asked brusquely, picking a thorn off his jacket and then another from his sleeve. "Your hand looks scratched. You should have worn gloves."

"Too hot for gloves," James murmured, watching her as she picked more thorns off him. She had to be a complete innocent—no lady of any experience, even with mere flirtation, would stand so close, her hands running up and down his body ...

Very well, he admitted to himself, he was letting his imagination and his libido get the better of him. She wasn't exactly running her hands up and down his body, but she might as well have been with the way he was reacting. She was so close. He could just reach out and touch her hair—see how soft it really was, and—

Oh, God, he could smell her.

His body hardened in a second.

She pulled her hand back and looked up, her eyes innocent and blue. “Is something wrong?''

“Why would anything be wrong?'' he asked, his voice strangled.

"You stiffened."

He smiled humorlessly. If she only knew....

She picked off another thorn, this one caught on the collar of his jacket. "And to be frank, you sound quite odd."

James coughed, trying to ignore the way her knuckles accidentally brushed against the side of his jaw. "Frog in my throat," he rasped.

"Oh." She stood back and examined her handiwork. "Oh, dear, I missed one."

He followed her eyes ... down to his thigh. "I'll get that one," he said quickly.

She blushed. "Yes, that would be best, but—"

"But what?"

"Another one," she said with an embarrassed cough and a pointed finger.

"Where?" he asked, just to make her blush some more.

"There. A little higher." She pointed and looked away, turning red as a beet.

James grinned. He'd forgotten how much fun it was to turn ladies' cheeks to pink. "There, now. Am I clean?"

She turned back, looked him over, and nodded. "I really am terribly sorry about the, ah, rosebush," she said with a contrite tilt of her head. "Truly very sorry."

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