Caron’s honey-blonde hair streamed out behind as she clung to the runaway horse. As the forest grew denser branches tore at her hair and clothes. She was forced to lie low on the mare’s back and could feel the moist heat of the animal’s sweat-lathered body, could almost smell the fear that pulsed through the scared creature with every pounding step, ears well back, stride long.
Her throbbing heart threatened to rob her of breath, her knees, pressed into the animal’s sides in a supreme effort not to be thrown, ached with the constant pressure, her arms ached, everything ached. And nothing she could say or do stopped the mare’s thundering hoofs.
The man came from nowhere. A giant of a man who took in the scene in one fleeting glance, throwing himself at the horse, hanging on to the halter, pitting his strength against that of the racing animal. Black hair he had, black and curly, that was all Caron noticed. He spoke to the animal as he was half dragged, half ran beside her, words that meant nothing to the girl on the horse’s back and yet miraculously soothed the rampaging beast.
Within seconds of the man’s appearance Caron felt the tenseness go out of the animal, yet her own fingers refused to let go of the mare’s mane, every bone in her body was locked.
“You can get down now.”
The curt tones filtered into her haze of shock but although Caron looked at the stranger she was still unable to move.
He gave s snort of anger and with his hard-fingered hands spanning her waist he lifted her down, dumping her on the floor with as much ceremony as if she were a sack of potatoes.
Caron’s legs buckled beneath her; only by reaching out and supporting herself against the furious man did she manage to stop falling into an ignominious heap at his feet.
There was no compassion in him. Within seconds he had pushed her savagely away and ruthless anger blazed out of eyes that were an intense shade of blue, followed swiftly by the cutting edge of his voice. “You do realise your stupidity could have killed that horse?” Not a word about herself! “If you’re not capable of handling such an excitable animal you shouldn’t be riding.”
Caron could not believe that this man was condemning her so absolutely. Did he not care that she might be shaken, that she had probably been more scared than the mare who was now contentedly cropping grass a few yards away? That she could have killed herself never mind the horse? What sort of a man was he that he could think more of the animal than he did her?
“I am an accomplished rider,” she told him coldly. “It wasn’t my fault that she bolted.”
“But yours that you hadn’t the experience to control her.” His harshly riven features turned his face into planes and angles. “And why aren’t you wearing a hat?”
The full intensity of censuring blue eyes seared painfully through Caron as she faced him and she felt disinclined to tell him that it had been a moment of impetuosity that had made her jump on the horse and ride her bare-back across the moor. It had been an exhilarating, thrilling ride; she had felt at one with the animal until Sandy reared for no apparent reason and then charged as though all the hounds in hell were after her.
“What I do is my business,” she declared aloofly, knowing she ought to thank him for stopping the horse but finding it difficult to be gracious when he was so obviously angry.
“Have you far to go? Do you intend riding the horse back?”
Or had she lost her nerve? It was a third, unspoken question and Caron felt a prickle of annoyance. “Of course I shall ride her back.” What did he think she was going to do, walk?
“She needs rubbing down, and soon, or she’ll catch cold,” he told her briskly. “You’d best go now. Do you make a habit of riding without a saddle? It’s a very dangerous practice and it’s a wonder it hasn’t made you sore.
“I like to feel the horse beneath me,” Caron retorted. “Come on, girl.” She patted the horse and looked around for a suitable boulder or tree-stump. Normally she would have taken a running jump and hauled herself up, but she felt such an action would be too undignified in this man’s presence.
Without a word the stranger linked his hands to form a stirrup, and also without speaking Caron stepped on to them and swung her other leg over the horse’s back.
“Maybe I should come with you?” His tone was deep and gruff and only slightly less fierce, his eyes still blazing with very real anger. “I don’t like to think that this beautiful mare might take fright again.”
Always the mare, never her, thought Caron bitterly. This man certainly did have a thing against women. “It was a one-off thing, I’m sure,” she countered. “You really have no need to worry.
He nodded curtly, their eyes meeting for a few explosive seconds, until Caron pressed her knees into Sandy’s sides and the horse moved obediently forward. “Thank you for your help,” she called belatedly over her shoulder, catching a glimpse of him standing there, tall and forbidding, his blue eyes narrowed enigmatically.