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Just like heaven, p.7
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       Just Like Heaven, p.7

           Julia Quinn
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  She moved her lips to speak, but as she lay there, staring up at him, she couldn’t seem to find words. He looked different to her. She’d known this man for nearly as long as she could remember—how was it possible that she had never quite noticed the shape of his mouth? Or his eyes. She’d known they were brown, but it was astounding how richly colored they were, with flecks of amber near the edges of the iris. And even now, they seemed to change as he moved closer . . .

  Closer?

  Oh, dear God. Was he going to kiss her? Marcus?

  Her breath caught. And her lips parted. And something within her clenched with anticipation, and all she could think was—

  Nothing. Or at least that was all she should be thinking about, because Marcus was most definitely not planning to kiss her. He bit off a string of curses the likes of which she had not heard since Daniel had left the country, and then he wrenched himself up and off her, taking a step back, and then—

  “Bloody hell!”

  There was a frenetic flurry of movement, followed by a thud and a grunt, and another string of blasphemy that Honoria was far too sensible to take offense at. With a horrified gasp, she pushed herself up on her elbows. Marcus was back on the ground, and from the expression on his face, this time he’d actually been hurt.

  “Are you all right?” she asked frantically, even though it was clear he was not.

  “It was the hole,” he bit off, gritting his teeth against the pain. And then, as if it might possibly require clarification, he added, “Again.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said quickly, scrambling to her feet. And then, because the situation clearly called for a more substantial apology, she said it again. “I’m very, very sorry.”

  He did not speak.

  “You must know it wasn’t my intention to . . .” She didn’t finish. A stream of babble wasn’t going to help her cause, and indeed, he appeared very much not to want to hear her voice.

  She swallowed nervously, taking the tiniest step in his direction. He was still on the ground, not quite on his back and not quite on his side. There was mud on his boots and on his breeches. And on his coat.

  Honoria winced. He wasn’t going to like that. Marcus had never been overly fastidious, but it was a very nice coat.

  “Marcus?” she asked hesitantly.

  He scowled. Not specifically at her, but still, it was enough to confirm her decision not to tell him about the dead leaves in his hair.

  He rolled slightly to one side until he was more squarely on his back, then he closed his eyes.

  Her lips parted, and she almost spoke, but then she waited. He took a breath, then another, then a third, and when he opened his eyes, his expression had changed. He was calmer now.

  Thank God.

  Honoria leaned a little forward. She still thought it prudent to tread carefully around him, but she did think he might have calmed enough for her to venture, “May I help you up?”

  “In a moment,” he grunted. He scooted himself into an almost-sitting position, then grabbed his calf with his hands, lifting his injured leg up and out of the mole hole.

  Which, Honoria noticed, was significantly bigger now that he’d stepped in it twice.

  She watched as he gingerly rotated his ankle. He flexed his foot forward and back, then side to side. It was the latter that seemed to cause him the most pain.

  “Do you think it’s broken?” she asked.

  “No.”

  “Twisted?”

  He grunted his assent.

  “Do you—”

  He speared her with such a ferocious glare that she shut her mouth immediately. But after about fifteen seconds of wincing at his pain, she couldn’t help herself. “Marcus?”

  He hadn’t been facing her when she said his name, and he didn’t turn around when he heard it. He did, however, stop moving.

  “Do you think you should take off your boot?”

  He didn’t reply.

  “In case your ankle is swollen.”

  “I know”—he stopped, let out a breath, then continued in a slightly more controlled tone of voice— “why to do it. I was just thinking.”

  She nodded even though he still had his back to her. “Of course. Just let me know, ehrm . . .”

  He stopped moving again.

  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.

  “Honoria.”

  “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 nodde
d 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?”

  He motioned with his head. “Over there.”

  She turned them so they were facing the right direction, then said, “Actually, I think the more pertinent question might be, how far is it to Fensmore?”

  “Three miles.”

  “Thr—” She caught herself, bringing her volume down from a shriek to something almost normal. “I’m sorry, did you say three miles?”

  “Approximately.”

  Was he insane? “Marcus, there is no way I can prop you up for three miles. We’re going to have to go to the Royles’.”

  “Oh no,” he said, deadly serious. “I am not showing up on their doorstep in this condition.”

  Privately, Honoria agreed with him. An injured, unmarried earl, completely dependent on her mercy? Mrs. Royle would see it as a gift from heaven. He’d probably find himself ushered to a sickroom before he could protest. With Cecily Royle as his nurse.

  “You won’t have to help me the whole way, anyway,” he said. “It will improve as I walk on it.”

  She looked at him. “That makes no sense.”

  “Just help me home, will you?” He sounded exhausted. Maybe exasperated. Probably both.

  “I’ll try,” she agreed, but only because she knew it would not work. She gave it five minutes at most before he admitted defeat.

  They hobbled a few yards, then Marcus said, “A mole hole would have been much smaller.”

  “I know. But I needed to be able to fit my foot in it.”

  He took another step, then half-hopped the next one. “What did you think was going to happen?”

  She let out a sigh. She’d long since passed the point of embarrassment. There seemed no point in pretending she had any remaining pride. “I don’t know,” she said wearily. “I suppose I thought my prince charming was going to come and save me. Perhaps help me home in precisely the manner I’m helping you.”

  He glanced over at her. “And Prince Charming is . . .”

  She looked at him as if he’d gone mad. Surely he didn’t think she was going to give him a name.

  “Honoria . . . ,” he prodded.

  “It’s none of your business.”

  He actually chuckled. “What do you think I will do with the information?”

  “I just don’t want—”

  “You crippled me, Honoria.”

  It was a low blow, but an effective one.

  “Oh, very well,” she said, giving up the fight. “If you must know, it was Gregory Bridgerton.”

  Marcus stopped walking and looked at her with a touch of surprise. “Greg—”

  “The youngest one,” she interrupted. “The youngest son, I mean. The one who is unmarried.”

  “I know who he is.”

  “Very well, then. What is wrong with him?” At that she cocked her head to the side and waited expectantly.

  He thought for a moment. “Nothing.”

  “You—wait.” She blinked. “Nothing?”

  He shook his head, then shifted his weight a little; his good foot was beginning to fall asleep. “Nothing comes immediately to mind.” It was true. She could do a good deal worse than Gregory Bridgerton.

  “Really?” she asked suspiciously. “You find nothing at all objectionable about him.”

  Marcus pretended to think about this a bit longer. Clearly he was supposed to be playing a role here, probably that of the villain. Or if not that, then the grumpy old man. “I suppose he’s a bit young,” he said. He motioned to a fallen tree about five yards away. “Help me over there, would you? I need to sit down.”

  Together they hobbled over to the long, thick log. Carefully, Honoria unwrapped his arm from her shoulder and eased him down. “He’s not so young,” she said.

  Marcus looked down at his foot. It looked so normal inside the boot, and yet it felt like someone had wrapped manacles around it. And then shoved the whole thing in the boot. “He’s still at university,” he said.

  “He’s older than I am.”

  He looked back up at her. “Has he kicked any dogs lately?”

  “Not that I know of.”

  “Well, there.” He gestured with his free hand in an uncharacteristically expansive motion. “You have my blessing.”

  Her eyes narrowed. “Why do I need your blessing?”

  Good Lord, she was difficult. “You don’t. But would it be so very painful to receive it, anyway?”

  “No,” she said slowly, “but . . .”

  He waited. And then finally, “But what?”

  “I don’t know.” She bit off each word with remarkable enunciation, her eyes never leaving his.

  He stifled a laugh. “Why are you so suspicious of my motives?”

  “Oh, I don’t know,” she replied, all sarcasm. “Perhaps because you spent all of last season glowering at me.”

  “I did not.”

  She snorted. “Oh, you did.”

  “I might have glowered at one or two of your suitors”—damn it, he hadn’t meant to say that—“but not at you.”

  “Then you were spying on me,” she said triumphantly.

  “Of course not,” he lied. “But I couldn’t very well miss you.”

  She gasped in horror. “What does that mean?”

  Bloody hell, he was in for it now. “It doesn’t mean a thing. You were in London. I was in London.” When she didn’t respond, he added, “I saw every other lady, too.” And then, before he realized it was the worst thing he could have said, he added, “You’re just the only one I remember.”

  She went utterly still, staring at him with that haunting, owlish expression of hers. He hated when she did that. It meant that she was thinking too hard, or seeing too much, and he felt exposed. Even when she was a child, she’d seemed to see him more deeply than the rest of the family. It hadn’t made sense; most of the time she was happy, jolly Honoria, but then she’d look at him that way, with those amazing lavender eyes of hers, and he’d realize what her family never did, that she understood people.

  She understood him.

  He shook his head, trying to shake away the memories. He didn’t want to think about her family, about how he’d felt sitting at their table, being a part of their world. And he didn’t want to
think about her, either. He didn’t want to look at her face and think that her eyes were the exact color of the grape hyacinths that had just begun to pop up all over the landscape. They came each year at this time, and he always thought—just for a moment before he pushed it away—that they were her flower. But not the petals; they were too dark. Honoria’s eyes matched the younger part at the base of the flower, where the color hadn’t quite turned blue.

  His chest had grown tight; he tried to breathe. He really didn’t want to think about the fact that he knew that, that he could look at a flower and pinpoint the exact spot on the petal that matched her eyes.

  He wished she’d say something, but of course she didn’t. Not now, not when he would have actually welcomed her babble.

  And then finally, softly, she said, “I could introduce you.”

  “What?” He had no idea what she was talking about.

  “I could introduce you,” she said again, “to some of the young ladies. The ones you said you didn’t know.”

  Oh, for God’s sake, was that what she thought the problem was? He’d met every lady in London; he just didn’t know any of them.

  “I would be happy to do it,” she said kindly.

  Kindly?

  Pityingly?

  “Unnecessary,” he said in a brusque voice.

  “No, of course, you’ve been introduced—”

  “I just don’t like—”

  “You find us silly—”

  “They talk about nothing—”

  “Even I would grow bored—”

  “The truth is,” he announced, eager to be done with this conversation, “I hate London.”

  His voice came out much louder than he’d intended, and he felt like a fool. A fool who was probably going to have to take a knife to his second-best pair of boots. “This isn’t going to work,” he said.

  She looked confused.

  “We’ll never make it back to Fensmore like this.” He could see her struggling to contain an I-told-you-so and decided to save them both the indignity by saying, “You’ll need to go back to Bricstan. It’s closer, and you know the way.” Then he remembered who he was talking to. “You do know the way, don’t you?”

 
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