This little excerpt from Willing Love takes place shortly after a tense introduction to the man Prudence thinks is the new stable master. He helps her saddle up her horse, but she's distracted and the horse bolts, leaving Prudence stranded in the mud with a sprained ankle.
“The good news is that it doesn’t appear to be broken, merely sprained,” he said at last, setting her foot on the ground.
She immediately missed the warmth of his hands. “Thank you, Mr. Evan. And the bad news is?”
He stood and placed his hands on his hips. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to ride back.”
“Ride what?” Prudence made an exaggerated pretense of looking around for her horse. “As you have pointed out, my horse has abandoned me.”
“Ride me.” He turned and presented her with his broad, wool-clad back.
“Excuse me?” The heat rose in her cheeks. Did he realize how inappropriate his suggestion had been?
“Come on. Hop on.”
Nothing in the man’s expression suggested an intended insult. In fact, he looked a little like Richard had when he had given her piggyback rides through the meadows. But she was a grown woman now. Not a child of seven or eight.
“Never in a million years will I ride on your back.” As though her dignity hadn’t suffered enough! She rose, putting all her weight on her good ankle. “You will help me walk.”
The stable master shrugged. “Fine, we’ll try it your way. Here, put your arm around my shoulders.”
He bent at the knees so she could reach around his neck. When he stood, Prudence’s feet dangled off the ground, and her ankle throbbed from the strain of being suspended in midair.
“That won’t work. You’re too tall. How about if I put my arm about your waist?”
“Fine.” He lowered her to the ground.
Prudence put her arm about his waist, and they started forward.
“Ow, ow, ow!” She stumbled. “That won’t work either. I can’t take enough of my weight off my ankle with my arm merely at your waist. You’ll have to carry me.”
“Yes, Mr. Evan. Carry me.” Prudence said, glad for the darkness that covered the heat creeping up her neck.
“Carry you?” he said again, doubt in his voice.
He looked at the hill as though he could see through it to the land and house beyond. Then he turned to her and gave her a speculative perusal that reminded Prudence of the look a farmer might give a prize hog.
Oh, for heaven’s sake. She wasn’t that heavy. He had lifted her into Bolt’s saddle like she was nothing.
“It’s got to be half a mile. I could carry you up a flight of stairs, but I couldn’t carry you for a full half mile.”
Prudence tried to brush the image of him carrying her up a flight of stairs out of her mind. The only stairs she could picture were those leading to her bedroom. The image left her far more discomfited than her ankle.
“I offered to give you a ride, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to accept.” He turned his back toward her again, hunched forward and held his hands back, palms facing up. “Hop on.”
She couldn’t miss the way his breeches stretched over his muscular backside.
“I…I…I can’t ride on your back with this dress on.” Prudence grasped at the first thought that popped into her muddled mind.
He turned to face her. “You had no problems with your horse, and I assure you, my back is not as broad as hers.” He turned back again. “The night is not getting any younger, Miss Ashcroft, so I suggest you get on so I may return you safely home before someone in the household starts to wonder where you’ve been.”
That did it. Most of the household staff liked Prudence, but some of them would take great delight in gossiping. The story of how she returned with the stable master, her dress covered in mud, would get juicier with each telling.
Mr. Evan groaned when Prudence stuck her good foot into his entwined hands. “You could have wiped your boot on the grass first.”
“Sorry.” She did her best to scrape the mud from her boots before trying again.
As before, her skirts were hiked up to her knees, and she wrapped one arm about his neck to support herself as she tried to tug one side of her skirt down using the hand that held her spare boot.
“If you strangle me, I won’t be able to carry you back to the house,” he said in a choked voice.
“Sorry,” Prudence said again, ceasing her efforts to cover her knees.
“Oh!” Prudence gasped when he clasped his hands so his interlocked fingers supported her bottom.