She’d turned onto the road which led to Longbourn, traversing the small slope immediately following when she heard thunderous hooves pounding from behind. Before she could move out of the way, a horse and rider nearly ran her down, jumping over her body at the last minute. Startled, she screamed and tumbled into the ditch.
Arms flailing helplessly, she rolled once and came to a soggy stop at the bottom of the shallow gully. With shaking hands she pushed her bonnet back off her face and took a few precious seconds to gather her wits. Nothing was broken, that she could tell, and her heart raced along as though she’d run all the way home from Lucas Lodge. She heard the rustling of grass as the rider of the horse slipped down the embankment toward her.
“Are you hurt?” he queried.
She nodded, not trusting her voice. Tears threatened to overflow onto her cheeks with the realization of how perilously close she’d come to being injured, or killed.
“Here, take my hand. I’ll help you up.”
She raised her hand, but when he went to pull her toward him, she cried out at the sharp pain in her side.
“I don’t know,” she managed to breathe out and pressed her palm to her side where the pain still radiated.
She finally glanced up at the rider and gasped. Before her stood Lord George Kerr. They’d met briefly at Lizzie and Darcy’s wedding breakfast at Pemberley, their conversation lasting only a few short minutes before she’d been called away by Mama.
“Miss Catherine Bennet!” He seemed equally surprised. “I’m so sorry for having caused you such undue pain. Please let me help you up this embankment.”
Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment. She’d been giddy about the small attention she received from him last November and for months painted a romantic dream around his dark good looks and storm colored eyes. Now, the fantasy presented itself in living color and she was mortified to be covered in mud and weeds, through no fault of her own.
He slipped and slid closer and with a perfunctory ‘Sorry’, cradled her in his arms and lifted. She clenched her jaw tight and tried to not cry out, but couldn’t stop a small whimper from escaping.
“I’m truly sorry, Miss Catherine. I wouldn’t blame your father if he called for a public flogging because of my recklessness.”
“No worries, Lord Kerr,” she panted out in quick breaths. “Father isn’t bothered by much. Mama wore him down years ago.”
She thought she heard him chuckle and dared to glance up at his face, which was achingly close now that he held her in his arms. She noted a firm chin and full mouth, which was most definitely curved in a smile at her comment. Before he caught her staring, she fixed her eyes on the ditch they were in.
“There is a natural incline over there.” She pointed to the area where the gully gradually met the road. “If you must carry me, this would make it much easier to gain access. I don’t wish to be a burden.”
“Miss Catherine, you are no burden. I swear you are as light as a feather, but I agree, the access is much easier over there.” He began walking toward the berm and within minutes set her on her feet, holding her arms for a few seconds longer until he was sure she wouldn’t collapse.
“I’m fine, Lord Kerr. I’ll be on my way.” She attempted a small curtsy and winced.
“What kind of gentleman do you think I am, allowing an injured female to walk home when I have a perfectly fine horse to carry us?”
“No!” She pulled away from him and almost fell again in pain. This time, her ankle refused to hold her weight. With lightning fast reflexes, he caught her before she hit the ground. “We can’t ride together. What would people say?”
With his arms wrapped firmly around her, he glanced up and down the road. His eyebrow arched and he grinned. “What people do you see, Miss Catherine?”
“You never know who could come along. No, I’ll have to walk.”
She pushed lightly against his chest and he allowed them to separate, but kept his hands firmly on her forearms, to steady her balance.
“No.” His tone was resolute. “I’ll walk, you’ll ride Buttons.”
“Buttons?” She tried not to laugh out loud as it hurt, but the horse was a handsome steed, worthy of a name like Zeus, Juno, or Lightning.
“Laugh if you must. I bought him from a friend whose son named the beast. To change it now would confuse him greatly.” He placed his hands around her waist and lifted her with ease onto the saddle. She grimaced from the pressure on her ribs and once again he apologized. “Let’s get you home and then we can send for a doctor.”
With that he swung up behind her and she stiffened, arching her body away from his strong, solid one. He slid an arm around her waist, his other hand loose on the reins.
“Relax, Miss Catherine. I’ve got you.”
Jaw clenched tight, she nodded and relaxed her body into his.
“You might want to hold onto my arm, to give you better balance.”
He was wedged against her so tight his voice resonated through her body, and his essence, the sheer maleness of him surrounded her. The sensation was as much frightening as it was exciting. Face aflame, she did as he bade. All her romanticized day dreams of Lord George having his arms about her did not come close to the real thing.
Soon the thrill of his arms around her subsided. With each rocking step Button’s took, pain spiraled across her ribs and it required all her concentration to take in shallow breaths.
“We’re almost there, Miss Catherine. I can see a house through the break in the trees.”
She lifted her gaze and almost wept at the sight of Longbourn. Both her mother and father exited the house to greet them, no doubt having been warned by a servant they were coming up the drive. She expected a full on assault by her mother and was not disappointed.
“Whatever happened?” Mrs. Bennet’s mouth gaped open at the sight of Kitty seated in front of Lord George, his arms around her in a familiar fashion.
Lord Kerr slid off the horse and turned toward Kitty. She placed her hands on his broad shoulders and with great care he lifted her off Buttons. She fully expected him to set her on her feet, instead, with little effort he swung her up into his arms and turned to face her parents.
“I apologize for this breach of decorum, but Miss Catherine has been injured. Do you have somewhere I may take her?”
“Right this way, Lord Kerr.” Mr. Bennet said, waving his arm in the direction of the door. He’d obviously recognized Lord George from Lizzie’s wedding.
“Oh my nerves. My body is trembling. Hill, I need my smelling salts.” Mrs. Bennet held the back of her hand to her forehead and swayed on her feet.