Whether it was the unexpected sound of her voice, or some other inexplicable event, her mount--engaged in an even trot near the fringes of the lake--reared and bolted. Had she been a better equestrienne, Clementina might have kept her seat, or even brought the mare under control. Such was her lack of skill however, that she tumbled into an inelegant heap on the ground, fortunate not to have been tangled in the sidesaddle by her trailing skirt.
After several stunned moments, Clementina pulled herself to a sitting position, winded and aching. She pulled off her hat which hung gracelessly, with its jaunty plume broken, over her left ear; half her hair tumbled down with it. Her pleasure in the day destroyed, she watched the mare circle the lake like one possessed.
She must walk back to the Hall, she supposed, though she was jarred in every joint. Her crop had fallen several feet away, and she stretched to reach it. In doing so she leaned upon her right wrist. Immediately, with a shiver of exquisite pain, she fainted.
A cool dampness bathing her face brought Clementina back to her senses, and discomfort amid comfort was her chief sensation. She ached abominably but her head was comfortably resting on a broad shoulder and a strong arm was supporting her.
"Nicholas?" she murmured, struggling to open her eyes.
It was not Nicholas' lean face above her anxiously, but Major Rhyle's increasingly familiar one. His broad forehead was creased with concern, and his heavy flaxen brows drawn together in worry. He was bathing her face with a snowy handkerchief apparently dipped in the lake.
"My lady!" His deep voice revealed his relief. "There is naught to distress you. How do you feel?"
"Wretched," she said, surprised to her that her voice was weak. "That blessed horse! Riding is not my forte, but I was doing very well. The miserable animal bolted…"
His gaze sharpened at her words even as he continued to survey her with concern. "Bolted!? You were alone? Where are you hurt? I will take you to the Hall, but not before I know how best to avoid further injury to you."
Gingerly Clementina drew herself up from his marvelously comfortable shoulder.
"I ache in every limb but only from bruises, I believe. Except my wrist..." She lifted her right arm and experienced agonizing pain as she tried to move her hand. She swayed in sick amaze.
Rhyle, biting off an exclamation, supported her with care. "'Tis sprained at least. We must hope it is not broken. Close your eyes and rest against me, my lady." With one hand, he ripped off his impeccable cravat while keeping anxious eyes on her white face. He released her to fashion a sort of sling to support her arm and hand.
His coat, she realized with a dullness she could only attribute to shock, was already about her warding off any chill.
"I wish I could carry you, but I can only support you up to the Hall, my lady." He stood stiffly, then bending his long length, helped her easily to her feet.
"I am no featherweight, sir, you could not convey me anyway." Her wrist was stabbing her with pain.
"My wound is mostly healed, but not enough. It will prevent me from proving you wrong." He smiled down at her a gently teasing gleam in his eyes.
She let his strong arm support her. It was over a half-mile back to the Hall, and Clementina concentrated on his large hands as she determinedly held back tears of pain on the walk. He said nothing, but his eyes were full of reassurance as he glanced down from time to time.
When they reached it, the great oak door to the Hall stood open. Lady Cheriton was visible within, Christopher at her side. She was in urgent conversation with Pate and the groom Marshall.
The marchioness uttered a little shriek as Major Rhyle loomed up in the doorway with his white-faced companion.
Little Kit ran to his mother. "Mama, mama," he wept, clutching a fold of her habit.