Mr. Ambleside’s furious voice broke the silence. “Robbers! Thieves! Wake up, you fools! Search the house!”
Kitt took a quick step sideways and leapt.
She might have landed safely, if Alex hadn’t lurched to catch her. He lost his balance and fell, and she plummeted down on top of him. She knew the instant she rolled to a stop that she had hurt herself. She lay frozen, the breath knocked out of her, afraid to move, her left leg bent back at an awkward angle.
“‘Tis Lady Katherine to you,” she wheezed.
“Bloody hell, woman, how badly are you hurt?” Alex said, untangling himself and kneeling beside her. “Do I dare move you?”
Kitt moaned. “I dinna know. My leg…”
His hands followed the course of her twisted leg from thigh to ankle. “I dinna feel any broken bones,” he said.
Kitt couldn’t speak. Her heart was clogging her throat. Alex’s touch had been impersonal, but she had felt heat in each spot where his fingertips grazed her thigh, her knee, her calf, her ankle. She wanted to move, to escape his touch, but her leg wouldn’t cooperate. “Help me straighten out my leg,” she whimpered. She had to clench her teeth to keep from sobbing aloud as he unbent her injured knee. Tears pooled, and when she blinked, one slid from the corner of her eye.
“Why couldn’t you just let me catch you?” he muttered, brushing the tear from her cheek with the pad of his thumb. “Would it be so awful to admit you need a man’s help?”
Kitt felt a queer tightness in her chest. It was tempting to lay her burdens on Alex’s broad shoulders. But self-reliance was so ingrained, she did not know how. “You can help me to my feet,” she said at last. Even that was a concession, whether he recognized it or not.
He put his hands under her arms from behind and lifted her as easily as a feather. “Can you stand by yourself?”
She tried putting weight on her left leg, but the pain was excruciating. “I dinna think so,” she admitted.
He swept her up into his arms. “And dinna tell me not to be carrying you to safety!” he snapped.
She felt small and very feminine in his arms. She put her arm around his neck to support her upper body, and felt the hair at his nape. So soft, for a man who was so hard everywhere else. “Do you have any idea where we’re going?” she asked.
“‘Tis only a short way to the postern door, which leads down a path to the cliff above the sea. From there, we can make our way back to the cottage.” “You’ve thought of everything,” she said with a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Alex.” She tried to keep from leaning her head against him, but after a while, she gave up and leaned her cheek against his throat.
“Am I hurting you?” he asked, once they were a safe distance from the castle.
Her knee did hurt from all the jostling, and not just a little. But she didn’t want him to slow down. The sooner she was home, the sooner she would be out of his arms. She liked it much more than she should. “I’ll manage,” she said. “Just get me home, Alex.”
“I suppose Moira will know what to do,” he said.
She bit her lip, then answered, “I dinna want to wake Moira. She’ll ask too many questions.”
“Surely she knows already,” Alex said.
Kitt shook her head. “I told her we were visiting tenants this evening. I dinna want her to know the truth.”
“Why not?” Alex asked.
Kitt chuckled ruefully. “She’d nag. I can already hear her. ‘Be careful, Kitty. ‘Tis too dangerous, Kitty. Let someone else do it, Kitty.’ I’d rather keep this business to myself.”
“You need tending,” Alex insisted.
“You said you wanted to help,” she murmured softly. She felt Alex stumble before he began walking even faster, jarring her knee with every step. She gasped and clutched at his neck, pressing her face against his throat to stifle her cry of pain.
“Be strong, little one,” he murmured. “‘Twill not be long before we’re home.”
Kitt had long since given up being brave by the time Alex laid her on her bed and removed the plaid that had kept her warm in the night air. Once he lit the candle on her bedside table, she had no secrets. Silent tears had dried on her cheeks, and her lower lip was swollen where she had gnawed on it to keep from moaning aloud.
“Let me wake Moira,” he pleaded. “You’re white as the sheets.”
“You can do what must be done,” she said.
He stared down at her and said, “I dinna see how I can treat your knee with you in trousers. They’ll have to come off. If I leave the room, can you manage it alone?”
Kitt imagined trying to do the bending and lifting of body parts that would be necessary to undress herself and grimaced. “I dinna think so,” she conceded. It was mortifying to think of Alex undressing her, and she saw he wasn’t any more comfortable with the idea than she was.
“We could wake Moira and let her –”
“No,” she interrupted. “You must do it.” “Now she wants my help,” Alex muttered as he unlaced the heavy men’s work boots she was wearing and eased each one off. To her surprise he rubbed her toes. “Any blisters?”
Who would have thought a body could feel so much in their toes? She stared at him and he stared back. “No,” she said. “No blisters.”
The trousers had to come off, but she was wearing very little beneath them. Maybe she could manage it on her own. Kitt tried to roll to her side and groaned as her knee protested.
“Dinna trouble yourself, my lady,” Alex said. “I will undress you.” He paused and muttered, “If it kills me.”
She felt panicky at the thought of Alex’s hands on her. Even more so at the thought of his eyes seeing what his hands revealed.
He picked up the quilt folded at the foot of the bed and spread it over her. Kitt gaped. Such a simple solution to protect her modesty. She gave a relieved sigh at his thoughtfulness. “Thank you, Alex.”
The sigh caught in her throat as he reached right under the covering, his fingertips skimming her belly as he searched for the belt that held up her trousers and unbuckled it. Before she could protest, he grabbed hold of the snug material on either side of her waist and began tugging it down. “‘Tis a bit like skinning a squirrel,” he said with a grin. “Can you lift a little?” A moment later he held up her trousers with a triumphant smile and said, “Voila, cherie! C’est fini.”
A look of stunned surprise crossed his face. Perhaps it was the eloquent-sounding French he’d uttered. More likely it was the memory of having done the same thing to some other woman, Kitt thought cynically. At least the worst was over.
“If you sit up, I can pull that shirt off over your head,” he said.
“What?” Kitt crossed her arms protectively over her chest. “Why would I want my shirt off?”
“So I can tend the scratches on your back.”
“From the rose thorns,” he reminded her.
“Oh.” There was no way she could doctor herself. And Alex was right. If the scratches weren’t cleansed, she might very well end up with an infection.
“But this bonnet needs to come off first.” He tugged it off and half of her hair spilled onto her shoulders.
She reached up to pull out the rest of the pins, but he was there before her.
“Let me,” he said.Kitt sat perfectly still as Alex threaded his fingers through her hair searching for pins. She heaved a shuddering sigh when he finally spoke. “There. I think I’ve got them all.”
The sigh came too soon, because his hands sifted through her hair one last time. “‘Tis incredibly soft,” he murmured.
“Now, let’s get that shirt off,” he responded almost gruffly.
He reached for the hem with both hands, and she lifted her arms as the shirt came off over her head, then clutched at the quilt and pulled it up to cover herself. She was wearing a chemise, but it was old and the material had worn thin.
Alex had the misfortune of catching sight of her rosy nipples beneath the thin cloth before they were hidden from view. “Bloody hell,” he muttered. His body was stretched taut with need. It was torture being forced to touch her and yet not touch her. He had promised to keep his distance. But he had never counted on this.