Irish rebel, p.18
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       Irish Rebel, p.18

         Part #3 of Irish Hearts series by Nora Roberts
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  Since the statement wasn't delivered in what could be mistaken for a complimentary tone, Keeley turned to frown at him. "What's wrong with you?"

  "There's not a bloody thing wrong with me. But you could use some work. Do you have to do everything yourself, every flaming step and stage of it? Can't you just take help when help's offered and shut the hell up?"

  She did shut the hell up, for ten shocked seconds. "I simply assumed that you'd be tired after your trip."

  "I'll let you know when I'm tired."

  "The gelding here doesn't seem to be the only one with something nasty in his system."

  "Well, it's you in my system, princess, and it feels a bit nasty at the moment."

  Hurt came first, a quick short-armed jab. Pride sprang in to defend. "I'll be happy to purge you, just like I'll purge this horse tomorrow."

  "If I thought it would work," he muttered, "I'd purge myself. You'll want to wait until at least midday," Brian told her. "You can't be sure the last time he was fed."

  "I know how to treat stomach-bots, thank you." Gently she began to apply the blister to the injured knee.

  "Here, you'll get that all over your clothes."

  Keeley jerked away bad-temperedly when Brian reached for the pot of blister. "They're my clothes."

  "So you should have more respect for them. You've no business treating a horse in clothes like that. Silk dresses for God's sake."

  "I've got a closetful. We princesses tend to."

  "Nevertheless." He curled his fingers around the lip of the pot, and under the sick gelding they began a vicious little tug-of-war. He would have laughed, was on the point of it, when he looked at her face and saw that her eyes were wet.

  He let go of the pot so abruptly, Keeley fell back on her butt. "What are you doing?" he demanded.

  "I'm applying a non-irritating blister to a knee spavin. Now go away and let me get on with it."

  "There's no reason to start that up. None at all." Panic jingled straight to his head, nearly made him dizzy. "This is no place for crying."

  "I'm upset. It's my stable. I can cry when and where I choose."

  "All right, all right, all right." Desperately he dug into his pocket for a bandanna. "Here, just blow your nose or something."

  "Just go to hell or something." Rather grandly, she turned her shoulder on him and continued to apply the blister.

  "Keeley, I'm sorry." He wasn't sure for exactly what, but that wasn't here nor there. "Dry your eyes now,a grha , and we'll make this lad comfortable for the night."

  "Don't take that placating tone with me. I'm not a child or a sick horse."

  Brian dragged his hands through his hair, gave it one good yank. "Which tone would you prefer?"

  "An honest one." Satisfied the blister was properly applied, she rose. "But I'm afraid the derisive one you've used since we got here fits that category.

  In your opinion, I'm spoiled, stubborn and too proud to accept help."

  Though the tears appeared to have passed, he thought it wise to be cautious. "That's pretty close to the truth," he agreed, getting to his feet. "But it's an interesting mixture, and I've grown fond of it."

  "I'm not spoiled."

  Brian raised his eyebrows, cocked his head. "Perhaps the word means something different to you Yanks. Seems to me it's not everyone who could casually ask their father to write a check for five thousand dollars for a sick horse."

  "I'll pay him back in the morning."

  "I've no doubt of it."

  Baffled now, she threw up her hands. "Should I have just left him there, walked away so that idiot Tarmack could find a jockey who would go up on him?"

  "No, you did exactly right. But the fact's the same that you could toss around that kind of money without blinking an eye."

  Brian walked to the gelding's head to examine his eyes and teeth. It grated on him. He wished it didn't, as it said little for him that her easy dismissal of money scored his pride.

  But it had, at that heated moment at the track, slammed the distance between them right in his face.

  "You're a generous woman, Keeley."

  "But I can afford to be," she finished.

  "True enough." He ran his hands down the horse's neck, soothing. "But that doesn't take away from the fact that you are." Slowly he continued to work his way over the horse. "You'll have to forgive me—Irish of my class are generally a bit resentful of the gentry. It's in the blood."

  "The class system's in your head, Brian."

  That, he thought, wasn't even worth commenting on. What was, was. His fingers found a small knot. "He's a bit of an abscess here. We'll want to bring this to a head."

  They'd bring something else to a head, she decided and moved in so they faced each other over the gelding's back. "So tell me, how do men of your class deal with taking women of mine to bed?"

  His eyes flashed to hers, held. "I'd keep my hands off you if I could."

  "Is that supposed to flatter me?"

  "No. It just is, and doesn't flatter either of us." He moved out of the box to get flannel to heat for a hot fermentation.

  No, she thought. She'd be damned if she'd leave it at that. "Is that all there is to it, Brian?" she demanded as she followed him out. "Just sex?"

  He ran water, hot as his hand could bear, and soaked a large section of flannel in it. "No." He spoke without turning around. "I care about you. That just makes it more difficult."

  "It should make it easier."

  "It doesn't."

  "I don't understand you. Would you be happier if we just jumped each other, without any connection, any understanding or feelings?''

  He hauled up the bucket. "Infinitely. But it's too late for that, isn't it?"

  Baffled, she walked back into the box behind him. "You're angry with me because you care about me. This water's too hot," she said when she tested it.

  "No, it isn't. And I'm not angry with you at t'all." Murmuring to the gelding, he lay the heated flannel over the abscess. "A bit with myself, maybe, but it's more satisfying to take it out on you."

  "That, at least, I can understand. Brian, why are we fighting?" She laid a hand over the one he held pressed to the flannel. "We're doing the right thing here tonight. The method of how we got the gelding here isn't as important as what happens to him now."

  "You're right, of course." He studied the contrast of their hands. His big, rough from work and hers small and elegant.

  "And why we care for each other isn't as important as what we do about it."

  About that he wasn't as sure, so he said nothing while she lifted another square of flannel and wrung it out.

  Morning dawned misty and cool. As she'd slept poorly, Keeley's mind refused to click into gear. Her usual rush of morning adrenaline deserted her so that she began her daily chores with her body dragging and her brain fogged.

  Brian's doing, she thought sulkily. This inconsistency of his, this off-and-on insistence to keep a distance between them was baffling. She'd never run into a problem she couldn't solve, an obstacle she couldn't overcome. But this one, this one man, might just be the exception.

  He hurt her, and she hadn't been prepared for it. Could they have spent so much time together, been so intimate, and not understand each other? He cared about her, and that made it a problem. What kind of logic was that? she asked herself. Where was the sense in that kind of thinking?

  Caring about someone made all the difference. She'd seen that constant well of compassion in him. It was, she admitted, as attractive, as appealing to her as that long, tough body, that thick, unkempt mane of sun-streaked hair.

  The look of him, the face of planes and angles, the bold green eyes, might have stirred her blood—and had, though she'd been more annoyed than pleased initially. But it was the heart, the patience, the nurturing side he refused to acknowledge that had won her interest and respect.

  Rather than being a problem, it had been, and was, the solution for her.

  How could he look at he
r now, after all they'd shared, and see only the pampered daughter of a privileged home?

  How could he, believing that, have feelings for her?

  It was baffling, irritating and very close to infuriating. Or would be, she thought with a yawn, if she wasn't so damned tired.

  The lack of energy struck unfairly keen when Mo bounced into the stables. "Just had to come by before I headed off to the eternal hell of school." She popped right into the box where Keeley was examining the injured knee. "How's he doing?"

  "He's more comfortable." Testing, Keeley lifted the gelding's foot, bending the knee. He snorted, shied. "But you can see there's still pain."

  "Poor guy. Poor big guy." Clucking, Mo patted his flank. "You were such a hero last night, Keel. I mean just stepping in and taking right over. I knew you would."

  Keeley's brows drew together. "I didn't take over. I don't take over."

  "Sure you did—you always do. The original take-charge gal. Very cool to watch. And this guy's grateful, aren't you, boy? Oh, and the hunk wasn't hard on the eyes, either." Grinning, she gave an obvious and deliberate shudder. "The real physical type. I thought he was going to punch that idiot Tarmack right in the face. Was kinda hoping he would. Anyway, the pair of you made a great team."

  "I suppose."

  "So, what about those smoldering looks?"

  "What smoldering looks?"

  "Get out." Mo cheerfully wiggled her eyebrows. "I got singed and I was only an innocent bystander. The guy looks at you like you were the last candy bar on the shelf and he'd die without a chocolate fix."

  "That's a ridiculous analogy, and you're imagining things."

  "He was going to pound Tarmack into dust for dissing you. Man, I just wanted to melt when he hauled the guy up by the collar. Too romantic."

  "There's nothing romantic about a fight. And though I certainly could have handled Tarmack myself, I appreciated Brian's help."

  Damn it, she thought. She hadn't even thanked him. Scowling, she stomped out of the box for a pitchfork.

  "Yeah, you could have handled him. You handle everything. But not really needing to be rescued sort of makesbeing rescued more exciting, you know."

  "No, I don't know," Keeley snapped. "Go to school, Mo. I've got mucking out to do."

  "I'm going, I'm going. Sheesh. You must be low on the caffeine intake this morning. I'll come by later to see how the gelding's doing. I've got a kind of vested interest, you know? See you."

  "Yeah, fine. Whatever." Keeley muttered to herself as she went to work on the stalls. There was nothing wrong with being able to handle things herself. Nothing wrong with wanting to. And she did appreciate Brian's help.

  And she didn't need caffeine.

  "I like caffeine," she grumbled. "I enjoy it, and that's entirely different from needing it. Entirely. I could give it up anytime I wanted, and I'd barely miss it."

  Annoyed, she snagged the soft drink she'd left on a shelf and guzzled.

  All right, so maybe she would miss it. But only because she liked the taste. It wasn't like a craving or an addiction or…

  She couldn't say why Brian popped into her head just then. She was certain if he'd seen her staring in a kind of horror at a soft drink bottle, he'd have been amused. It was debatable what his reaction would be if he'd realized she wasn't actually seeing the bottle, but his face.

  No, that wasn't a need, either, she thought quickly. She did notneed Brian Donnelly. It was attraction. Affection—a cautious kind of affection. He was a man who interested her, and whom she admired in many ways. But it wasn't as if she needed…

  "Oh God."

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