Page 23

Author: Anne Stuart

He saw her shiver. “I don’t actually like enclosed places,” she said in a small voice.

He’d gotten to his feet, shaking himself slightly, but he paused, looking down at her. He’d known people to became half-mad with fear when forced to be in a confined area, and the memory wasn’t a happy one. “Exactly how much do you dislike enclosed places?” he inquired politely. “Do they make you uncomfortable, or do you curl up in a ball and start screaming?”

She looked at him indignantly, and he breathed an inner sigh of relief. “Do I strike you as the type who would scream?”

I could make you scream, my girl, he thought. I could make you scream and weep with pleasure.

“No, I suppose not,” he drawled imperturbably. “Then you’ll simply have to bear it until we find our way out of here.” He held out a hand to her. There was a streak of dirt across her cheekbone, her tawny hair was halfway down her shoulders and there was a delicious rent in the side of her riding habit. Apart from that she appeared relatively unscathed, thank God.

She considered him for a moment, considered his proffered hand, and then, reluctantly, put her hand in his and let him pull her to her feet.

Wherein she immediately let out a shriek of pain and began to buckle, but he caught her before she could fall, holding her against him, too close, and they were frozen for a moment.

She was looking up at him, all magnificent blue eyes and soft mouth trying to hide the pain she was clearly feeling, and he had the sudden absurd urge to shelter her from any danger or discomfort, to fight dragons for her. He ignored it and went for deliberately provocative. “Apparently you do scream.”

She was white with pain and dust from the chalk caves. “My ankle,” she said with a tight voice. “I must have twisted it when we fell.”

He glanced upward. The light was unlikely to be much better anywhere in the tunnels—at least here they had the filtered sunlight beaming in from overhead. He levered her back down on the hard ground, knelt at her feet and flipped up the hem of her riding habit.

She flipped it back, kicking at him with what must be the undamaged foot. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Checking for damage. I assure you I’m quite capable. I had to patch up my brothers and sister any number of times before our parents discovered what kind of trouble we were getting ourselves into. We had a tendency to climb cliffs and play pirate. I can at least ascertain if your ankle is broken.”

“And what good would that do? If it’s broken it’s broken.”

“If it’s broken the sooner you get it bound and splinted the less likely you are to have permanent damage. How would you feel if you could never dance again?”

A moment’s consternation showed on her face, then quickly disappeared. “There are certainly worse catastrophes in a woman’s life,” she said stiffly. “I’ve never been much for dancing.

“I remember. You did learn quite quickly, though, once you relaxed.”

“It hardly matters when you think about the women I care for…”

So tiresome. “How would you feel if you couldn’t storm around saving your wounded doves? A crippled ankle could effectively damage your charitable activities.”

And it was that easy. “All right. That makes a certain amount of sense.”

“If it’s broken, I’ll get you to the nearest doctor. There has to be one in the nearest town, and your ankle can be properly dealt with. If it’s simply a sprain we can ride back and you can summon your own doctor. Surely that sounds reasonable?”

“It does.” She looked at him from beneath her furrowed brow. “But I don’t trust you.”

“Very wise,” he said. While they spoke he’d managed to get his hands beneath her skirt and clasped around her riding boot. At that moment he yanked, hard, and it came off, and she let out another shriek of pain, this one louder than the first.

He hadn’t wanted to hurt her, a fact he viewed with surprise. In matters like these, one usually did what one had to do and didn’t stop to consider how much it hurt. Charity Carstairs had an unfortunate effect on him.

She’d fallen back on her elbows, pale and sweating. “You could have warned me!”

“That would have made it worse.”

“Impossible.” Her foot jerked as he put his hands on it, gently, his fingers probing for damage. It was a nice foot, narrow, with surprisingly pretty toes. He’d never found feet particularly enticing, but hers were another matter. Then again, he was coming to the unfortunate conclusion that he found almost everything about her enticing.

“All right,” he said, keeping his voice impersonal, “this is going to hurt.”

She managed well enough as he poked and prodded, only muffled groans letting him know when he’d reached a particularly tender spot. He began to slide his hands up her shapely calf, and she jerked, glaring at him. “You don’t need to go any higher.”

He ignored her protest. “The pain might come from your knee, sweet Charity. I need to rule that out.”

It was a lovely knee. He could just imagine pulling them around his hips. And he needed to stop thinking about bedding her and concentrate on the dilemma at hand, no matter how preferable the former was. Her ankle was already beginning to swell, and there was no way he’d be able to replace her boot. Which meant he’d have to carry her, which he didn’t mind but she would doubtless find maddening. He smiled.

“Not broken,” he said. “I can’t be completely sure, but I expect it’s nothing more than a sprain. You need to get it elevated, and iced, if possible.”

“I can do neither at the moment,” she said reasonably, sitting up. “Hand me my boot so I can put it back on.”

He shook his head. “I’m afraid not, my lady. Regardez là.”

She glanced down at her swelling ankle and cursed most impressively beneath her breath. So she’d learned at least one useful thing from her gaggle. “How am I supposed to walk with only one boot?” she said with some asperity.

“You aren’t.” He rose, bent down and scooped her up effortlessly. She was fairly light, and he was strong, used to controlling difficult horses. He could handle her with ease.

“I don’t like this,” she said in a warning voice, her usual serenity deserting her. A good thing, that. Her usual calm infuriated him, when he wanted to see her as rattled as she made him feel.

“I know you don’t,” he said with great good cheer. “One of the few blessings of this afternoon.”

He expected that would make her ire rise even higher, but to his astonishment she laughed. “You,” she began, “are a very bad man. Though I don’t know why that should surprise me—you’re one of the wicked House of Rohan, are you not? I imagine your family’s perfidy predates even the Heavenly Host.”

“Most assuredly. We’re devotedly incorrigible. Which direction would you prefer—right or left?”

She put her arms around his neck. It was a simple gesture—clearly this enterprise would go a lot better if she held on. For some reason, though, it touched him. It was a gesture of trust, of acceptance, whether she knew it or not. She glanced in both directions. “Let’s head to the right,” she said at last.

“Left it is,” he replied. And started off.

She should be a great deal more upset, Melisande thought as she clung to Viscount Rohan’s strong neck. Her ankle throbbed like the very devil, she’d lost her boot somewhere and she was being carted around by her arch-enemy as if she were nothing more than a sack of potatoes.

They were in the middle of nowhere, stuck inside a tunnel with no discernible way out, and he’d called her “Melisande.” He probably didn’t even realize that he had. It had come out spur of the moment, when they’d tumbled down into this subterranean passageway, which made it all the more interesting. When he wasn’t taunting and teasing her, he thought of her as Melisande?

He’d started down one corridor, where they’d swiftly been enveloped in first shadows and then darkness as he’d turned a corner. There was no artificial light down there at the moment, though she could see unlit torches set into the walls as they passed, and scorch marks on the white cave walls. He carried her easily enough, as if she weighed no more than a feather, which she knew was a far cry from the truth. She was, admittedly, curvaceous, even bordering on plump. Carting her around would be a strain on a lesser man. Rohan wasn’t even breathing heavily.

It was getting darker. She wanted to cling more tightly to Rohan’s strong body, but she resisted the need. Really, she had no choice but to let him carry her, given the condition of her ankle, but there was no excuse for cuddling. “Are you certain we’re going in the right direction?”

He let out an irritated growl. “I’m not certain of anything. I was going on instinct.”

“Instinct being that you do the opposite of what I suggest?”

It was too dark to see his expression, but she knew he would be amused. “Indeed. I wonder…” His voice trailed off as he came to an abrupt halt.

“You wonder?” she prompted, only to be dropped from his arms summarily, though he still supported her, and a hand came over her mouth, silencing her.

And then she heard it. Voices arguing, and a growing pool of light heading in their direction.

He moved, fast, as the light came around a bend in the tunnels, and she felt herself being pushed into a dark hole, onto a padded surface, with his hard, heavy body on top of hers, his hand still covering her mouth. “Don’t say a word,” he breathed in her ear.

She nodded, or tried to, though his imprisoning hand made it difficult, and he moved it away, keeping perfectly still in the darkness.

She could see light in the tunnel beyond, and the voices were clearer now. “Did you see someone?” The voice sounded vaguely familiar. A man, in his middle years, clearly of the ton.


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