She actually took a step back. “Never mind.”

He reached forward to touch his injured ankle through his boot, presumably to test the swelling. Honoria scooted around so that she could see his face. She tried to discern the extent of his pain by his expression, but it was difficult. He looked so at the edge of his temper that one really couldn’t tell much beyond that.

Men were so ridiculous that way. She realized that it was her fault that he’d twisted his ankle, and she understood that he was going to be at least a little bit irritated with her, but still, it was obvious he was going to need her help. He didn’t look able to come to his feet on his own, much less walk all the way back to Fensmore. If he were thinking sensibly, he would realize this and allow her to come to his aid sooner rather than later. But no, he needed to snap about like a wounded tiger, as if that might make him feel he was in charge of the situation.

“Ehrm . . .” She cleared her throat. “Just so I’m sure I’m doing the right thing . . . Can I help you in any way, or would it just be best for me not to make a sound?”

There was an agonizingly long pause, and then he said, “Will you please help me remove my boot?”

“Of course!” She rushed over. “Here, let me, er . . .” She’d done this long ago, when she was a little girl aiding her father, but not since, and certainly not with a man who had just been lying on top of her two minutes earlier.

She felt her face burn. Where on earth had that thought just come from? It had been an accident. And this was Marcus. She needed to remember this. Marcus. This was only Marcus.

She sat opposite him, on the far end of his outstretched leg, and grasped the boot with one hand at the back of the ankle and the other on the sole. “Are you ready?”

He nodded grimly.

She pulled with the ankle hand and pushed with the other, but Marcus let out such a cry of pain that she dropped his foot immediately.

“Are you all right?” She almost did not recognize her own voice. She sounded terrified.

“Just try again,” he said gruffly.

“Are you certain? Because – ”

“Just do it,” he ground out.

“Very well.” She took up his foot again, grit her teeth, and pulled. Hard. Marcus did not cry out this time, but he was making an awful noise, the sort an animal made before it was put down. Finally, when it was more than Honoria could bear, she let up. “I don’t think this is working.” She looked back at him. “And by that I mean I will never get it off.”

“Try again,” he said. “These boots are always difficult to remove.”

“Like this?” she asked, in complete disbelief. And people said that ladies’ garments were impractical.


“All right.” She tried again, with the same results. “I’m sorry, but I think you’re going to have to cut it off when you get home.”

A flicker of pain crossed his face.

“It’s only a boot,” she murmured sympathetically.

“It’s not that,” he snapped. “It hurts like the devil.”

“Oh.” She cleared her throat. “Sorry.”

He let out a long, shaky exhale. “You’re going to have to help me to my feet.”

She nodded and rose to her own. “Here, let me take your hand.” She took his hand in hers and yanked up, but he couldn’t get his balance right. After a moment he let go.

Honoria looked down at her hand. It looked empty. And felt cold.

“You’re going to have to grab me under my arms,” he said.

This might have shocked her before, but after trying to take off his boot for him, she couldn’t see how this could possibly be any more improper.

She nodded again and bent down, sliding her arms around him. “Here we are,” she said, letting out a little grunt of exertion as she tried to get him up to his feet. It was strange to be holding him, and terribly awkward. Ironic, too. If it hadn’t been for his stepping in the mole hole and crashing into her, this would have been the closest she had ever been to him.

Of course, if he hadn’t stepped in the mole hole again, they wouldn’t be in this position.

With a bit of maneuvering and one more half-uttered curse on Marcus’s part, they got him onto his feet. Honoria stepped back, putting a more proper distance between them, although she did put his hand on her shoulder to steady him. “Can you put any weight on it?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, testing it out. He made a complete step, but his face twisted with pain as he did it.

“Marcus?” she asked hesitantly.

“I’ll be fine.”

He looked awful to her. “Are you sure?” she asked, “because I really think – ”

“I said I’m fi – ow!” He stumbled, clutching onto her shoulder to prevent himself from going down.

Honoria waited patiently while he collected himself, offering her other hand for extra balance. He took it in his firm grasp, and once again she was struck by what a nice hand it was, large and warm. And safe, too, although she wasn’t sure that made any sense.

“I might need help,” he said, clearly loath to admit it.

“Of course. I’ll just . . . ah . . .” She moved toward him, then a bit away, then readjusted.

“Stand next to me,” he said. “I’m going to have to lean on you.”

She nodded and let him drape his arm over her shoulder. It felt heavy. And nice. “Here we are,” she said, sliding her arm around his waist. “Now which way is it to Fensmore?”