A Hint of Seduction


Catherine let the mare have her head and galloped through the fading darkness. The chilling air stung her cheeks and watered her eyes, but she kept up the exhilarating fast pace, feeling free for the first time since coming to London.

The ribbons of her riding bonnet loosened and the wind blew it to the back of her shoulders. For a moment she felt as if she were back in her village on her favorite horse chasing the dawn.

Suddenly, another horse and rider shot out of a side path right in front of her.

Catherine tugged hard on the reins, jerking up her horseís head. The mare reared in panic. Catherine lost her stirrup, and the leather went slack in her hands as the frightened animal came down hard on all fours, and then reared again.

She felt herself falling backward. She tried to grab hold of the horseís neck, her mane, anything to try and calm her mount, but the animal was too frantic.

One moment Catherine was tumbling down, and the next she sprawled on the cold ground flat on her back.

Catherine didnít know if she was breathing. She knew her eyes were open because she saw the grayish-blue sky swirling above her.

She hadnít been unseated in years and it stunned her.

Suddenly a man loomed over her. "Miss? Miss, are you injured?"

Catherine blinked to clear her blurred sight and managed to focus on the manís face. The first thing she saw was dark, dark eyes filled with concern. She wanted to tell him that only her pride was wounded, but for some unknown reason air seemed trapped in her chest, and she didnít have the breath to speak.

The man poised above her had hair as black as his eyes and it fell attractively across his broad brow. Her gaze moved down a nose that narrowed at the bridge making him look ever so handsome. High, angular cheekbones and his clean-shaven chin and jaw looked strong and square. His mouth appeared wide and his lips were full and well-defined. They showed the same concern she saw in his eyes.

She knew he spoke to her again, but she remained still, gazing into his handsome face, feeling intrigued and captivated by the strange sensations going on inside her. Was it the intensity of his gaze that did confounding things to the rhythm of her heart, or was the fluttering caused by her fall?

He reached down and shoved one arm beneath her back, and he hooked the other under her legs, lifting her from the ground. Her muscles flinched at his touch more from surprise than fright that she might be in any perilous danger from this stranger.

Catherine felt strength in his arms and the immediate warmth of his hard body pressed against her hip. His impressive, masculine power embraced her as if she weighed no more than a quill.

The scent of shaving soap and leather awakened something soft and feminine inside her and for a moment she had an intense desire to cuddle into the warmth of the strong arms that held her.

It wasnít until he started walking that her common sense returned.

"What are you doing? Please, sir, put me down."

His arms tightened firmly about her at first, but she pushed at his chest, saying louder, "Unhand me, you scoundrel."

She kicked her legs and squirmed until he set her down on her feet.

Catherine realized she stood far too close to this tall, lithe, wide-shouldered man whose breathing was as fast and rippled as her own. She was quite embarrassed sheíd been thrown from her horse, and she tried to restore her dignity by taking a deep breath and pulling on the hem of her black velvet riding coat.

Her gaze locked on his. Catherineís stomach did a slow flip.

"What do you mean by touching me, and where do you think you were taking me?"

His full, feathered eyebrows drew together in a curious expression and framed eyes that shone clear as dark amber glass in the ever brightening light of day.

"I thought you were hurt. I was going to place you on my horse and go for help."

His voice was low, soothing, and as handsome as his face. A glow of unexpected pleasure filled her, causing her stomach to tingle.

There was something compelling about him and that caused her to be wary but not frightened.

She took a step back and said, "I donít need help, sir. Iím not harmed."

"Iím glad to hear that, Miss, however I didnít know that at the time I offered assistance. My apologies."

Catherine brushed a strand of hair away from her face and took a calming breath. This was not a situation in which sheíd expected to find herself.

"If you hadnít come racing out from under the trees like Lord Pinkwaterís ghost was after you, you wouldnít have spooked my horse, and I wouldnít have landed on the ground."

He stood looking at her with the right amount of self importance. She could see by the cut of his fine, broadcloth riding coat there was no doubt that a gentleman stood before her and quite possibly one of the titled few.

"You are correct, but how was I to know there would be such a lovely young lady in the park on a horse galloping out of control, especially so early in the morning?"

Catherine shuddered in outrage as she pulled her bonnet back on her head, settling it in place.

"I beg your pardon, sir. Iím a very good horsewoman. My mare was not out of control. We were racing the wind."

A disarming, rogueís grin lifted one corner of his mouth. "Racing the wind?"

Her statement had amused him, and that didnít sit well on Catherineís ignited temper or her bruised ego. "And I might add that I was winning."

The stranger threw back his head and laughed.

His laughter was appealing, deep and rich with indulgence. The wide smile on his face, showing even white teeth made him even more handsome, and something that felt very much like pleasure curled deep inside her. This man stirred feelings in her that sheíd never been made aware of before.

She couldnít imagine why she had made that ridiculous comment. She was making things worse for herself, not better. It wasnít like her to get flustered over anything, certainly not a man.

Suddenly, she very much wanted to know who he was. She opened her mouth to ask him to identify himself when she remembered Victoriaís parting words and Catherineís promise to her not to stop. What was she doing standing here and allowing this man to fascinate her when she needed to get the carriage to Mills?

Catherine had to make a hasty retreat.

She looked around where they stood but saw only the strangerís gelding. "If you are quite finished with your merriment, would you please tell me where my horse is so that I can be on my way?"

He cleared his throat and quickly wiped the grin off his face as best he could and answered, "Iím afraid she ran off after throwing you."

She gasped. "You let my horse run away?"

"Forgive me for having more interest in whether you were hurt than if your mount hightailed it out of the park."

"Merciful goodness," she mumbled to herself as she took in a deep breath, realizing her ribs were sore and her head was pounding.

What was she going to do? She must get to the carriage and take it to Mills and Victoria. It was best she not to tell this stranger about her sister. Victoria was strict about her rules, and she would not approve of Catherine talking to this man no matter the unusual circumstances.

"Might I add that a proper young lady should not be out riding alone," the man added.

"I wouldnít be alone and at the mercy of a stranger if you hadnít frightened off my horse. Now, sir, I need to borrow yours."

She reached for the reins he held in his hand and just as her fingers would have closed around the strips of leather he whisked them from her grasp.

An inquisitive expression settled across his face. "Are you daft? I canít let you have my horse."

"Why not?" Catherine asked in her most sensible voice. "Iíll return him."

That handsome, roguish grin returned to his face, and Catherine knew without a doubt that under different circumstances this man could do what no other man had ever done—capture her fancy.

"For one, heís not accustomed to strange riders. The other is that no gentleman I know would give a lady his horse."

Fighting her attraction to the man and beginning to feel more her confident self, Catherine said, "So you have no concerns for my needs although you nearly collided into me, causing my mare to unseat me and run off. What kind of gentleman are you, sir?"

He bowed and said, "One who will put you on my saddle and walk you to wherever it is you need to go."

"Rubbish. That is completely unnecessary and will waste time for both of us. You need have no fear I shall harm myself or your horse. I have managed untrained horses before."

"Yes, I see how well you handle horses."

Catherineís blue eyes widened. His retort stung. "Must I remind you that you are the one who rode out in front of me?"

"No. But I must say again, Iíve never had to worry before about a lady riding on this path so early in the morn."

Catherine opened her mouth to tell him about Mills, but thought better of it. There was still a chance she could keep Victoria from knowing she had talked to this man.

"Sir, Iím on a serious mission, and I donít have time to argue with you over who is at fault for my current predicament. I really need to borrow your horse."

With that, she reached for the reins again and this time her hand covered his.

They both wore gloves, but that didnít keep Catherine from feeling a shock of awareness as her fingers closed over his tight fist. Teasing warmth prickled across her breasts and settled low in her stomach. She was sure sheíd never met a man who stirred up her senses like this one.

By the look in his eyes he also felt the same strange sensations. His dark gaze looked deeply into her eyes before sweeping down her face, past the front of her riding habit, down to her waist and back up to her eyes. A strange thrill skittered through her.

"I daresay Iíve never met a young lady as bold and as unconventional as you."

She let go of his hand as quickly as if itíd been a hot poker.

"And Iíve never met so stubborn a man. Sir, I donít have time for your obstinacies. There is something I must take care of immediately and I canít do it without a horse."

"Tell me where it is you wish to go, and I will help you onto my horse and walk you there."

"That will take longer than I have. Merciful goodness, you try my patience."

That enchanting smiled played along the corners of his lips again. "And youíve worn on mine. Now come, Iíll help you climb up on my horse."

The daylight brightened the sky to a light powdery shade of blue. He was obviously as strict about rules as her half-sister. He would not be swayed from doing the proper thing.

Sheíd lived all her life in the country, but sheíd often read about the rigid rules of London society, getting old copies of the Times and other broadsides when the mail coach came to her town. She knew there was nothing to do but get on the horse and let this man lead her to the carriage. She could only hope that Victoria would not consider her reputation ruined for talking to him.

"Very well, if it is the only way I can leave immediately Iíll acquiesce to your wishes."

He bowed. "Thank you."

She looked into his eyes and held out her gloved hand. Their gaze held for a moment longer than was necessary and Catherineís breaths grew uncommonly short. A heat she couldnít explain coiled deep inside her abdomen and rose up to tighten in her chest.

He ignored her hand and instead, settled both his around her waist. They were strong, and comforting. She shivered with pleasure at his firm touch and her arms immediately went up and her hands grabbed onto his broad, firm shoulders so she could help steady herself.

Catherine liked the feel of his body beneath her hands. She liked the warmth that emanated from him and flowed to her.

He boldly took hold of her, lifted her off the ground and onto the saddle. Her black velvet skirt pooled around her legs as she tried to fit her bottom sideways into a saddle made for riding astride a horse. With deliberation, he took the stirrup and was attempting to shorten it fit her.

Catherine looked down and saw the slack strips of leather in his black gloved hand.

Temptation rose up inside her.

Should she?

Without further thought she reached down and grabbed them from his grasp.

She glanced at his eyes and saw a flicker of shock just before she kicked the horseís flank with the heel of her boot and shot past him.

Catherine held on tight and didnít turn around as she quickly put distance between herself and the handsome stranger.

(September 2004)
Berkley; ISBN: 0425198022

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