“That’s it. Give ‘er her head.”
Thomas’ calm voice in her ear sent a thrill down Elinor’s spine. She eased out a little more of the rein and the mare tossed her head appreciatively. Thomas’ broad chest against her back was thrilling. He’d taken it upon himself to teach her how to ride before they returned to her family’s castle at week’s end. Riding double with him was rather exhilarating. Having spent the last week getting to know him she could say with confidence that she felt more than just attraction for her betrothed.
“Good. Now, squeeze her side, just a little.”
Elinor blew out a deep breath and squeezed her knees together around the mare’s barrel shaped sides. The horse shook her head and resisted, but with Thomas’ hands on her waist Elinor gather her courage and persisted, adding a little cluck of her tongue. The mare shook her head again but picked up the pace to a bouncy trot. Elinor could not help the giggle that escaped at the simple pleasure this brought.
“Now, ask her to stop.”
“But I don’t want to stop.”
She shot back and felt his laughter reverberate through her back.
“We aren’t finished.”
Elinor scrunched her nose in distaste, it was so much fun riding with him. Well, it was only her second lesson. Pushing her weight down in the stirrups she drew back on the reins.
The mare stopped and flicked her ears backward as if to ask what was going on. She felt Thomas’ warmth leave her back and turned in time to see him slide to the ground beside the mare. He looked up at her with those lovely hazel eyes and smiled. It was a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes and made them twinkle. She had come to adore that smile.
“Now try that by yourself.”
Elinor widened her eyes.
“By myself? But it’s only my second time.”
“No better time to practice then.”
Not for the first time Elinor wondered if her betrothed took pleasure in pushing her limits. Rolling her shoulders Elinor squeezed the mare’s sides.
The horse stepped forward, she tried to head for the paddock gate and Elinor turned her head. The mare snorted in annoyance but obeyed. Thomas had moved to sit on the fence now and watched them as she asked the mare to turn a figure eight and change directions. So far so good. This was so much fun. What a joy it was to finally learn how to ride. He had said it was vital on the Tethras estate since getting to some of the villages was impossible without a surefooted horse in the mountains.
“Try the trot, Elinor.”
She bit her lip, it seemed a lot more daunting without his reassuring presence. But no matter, she would try it. She had resolved to be stronger than her fears before he’d come back, she wouldn’t give in now. She squeezed the mare’s sides and clucked her tongue. The horse resisted again, tossing her head and stepping sideways. Elinor persisted. She had to do this. Finally the mare took a couple hopping steps before breaking into a bouncy trot. She felt the laughter bubble up again, it was such a wondrous feeling to glide over the ground on horseback. They passed Thomas on the fence and Elinor smiled at him.
“Want to try a ride along the road tomorrow?”
He asked as she rounded the paddock.
She called back and he nodded.
“If you think I’m ready.”
“Only way to be ready is to try it.”
“All right then.”
Elinor patted the mare’s neck, she’d been keeping up a lovely trot this whole time. Perhaps just a little faster…Elinor squeezed her knees together again and gave the horse a little more rein. The mare took three steps and broke into a very fast canter. Elinor threw back her head and laughed. It was glorious.
After two turns around the ring she drew the mare to a halt and praised her. Hopping from the saddle she kissed the mare’s forehead and turned her back to let the horse rub on her. She watched as Thomas removed the bar that kept the gate locked. He was nothing like what she’d expected. She’d stopped thinking of him as her betrothed, he was her Stranger. The man who’d met her barefoot on the beach and understood her fears. Thomas was that man, it had not been a front or a plan. As she watched him approach her she wondered at her good fortune that the Duke had selected this man as her second husband.
“We’re going to try something a little different now.”
Elinor tilted her head to look up at him. There was a twinkle in his eye that she had come to know meant he was about to push her limits.
She raised an eyebrow at him but did as he asked. He took hold of the mare’s chin strap and led them out of the paddock. Elinor watched the back of his head as he led them beyond the barn and out toward the hilly, southern pastures. The last week had confirmed in her mind that she would do everything in her power to make their marriage a love match despite the arranged beginning. There was a kind of wildness in him that matched her own and made her giddy.
“A stirrup please.”
He was looking up at her and she mutely removed her foot so he could ascend. He swung up into the saddle behind her and wrapping his arms around her took the reins. They leapt forward into a trot and then in a flash he had the horse racing headlong down the road. Elinor held tightly to the saddle but as the wind dashed at her face and she felt his broad chest behind her she relaxed. The horse thundered beneath them and she settled into the smooth rocking motion. They moved as one, their bodies surging with each step the mare took. Elinor started to laugh as he pulled the mare back to a walk. They were far out in the grassy hills now, isolated from the world, only sheep grazed in the distance. She leaned back into his chest and tilted her head to look up at him.
“Do you think it’s possible for us to make our marriage a happy one? Not just a convenient partnership, but well, more.”
He looked down at her. This close, mere inches separating them she could see the flecks of gold and green in his hazel eyes and individual strands of his brown hair that had fallen from his tight braid. Her breath caught in her throat. She’d only ever been this close to Benjamin. She felt the color rising in her cheeks as he leaned forward and ghosted his lips across her cheek.
He murmured the word, his breath caressing her cheek and she shivered. Elinor tilted her head slightly and pressed now trembling lips to his. It was a bold, unladylike thing to do, but she wanted to taste his lips before their wedding night. She wanted to be brave. His hand came up to gently cup the back of her head and she smiled into the kiss. Apparently, he didn’t mind.
As they broke their embrace she felt a blush spread on her cheeks. That had been so very imprudent. And yet, she wanted to do it again, and again. His lips pressed against her cheek and Elinor turned to meet his lips with her own. This time the kiss was slow. She was aware of everything; of his chest against her back, her hand clutching his on her waist and of the gentle rocking of the horse beneath them. It was electrifying and she felt warmth suffusing her limbs like warm mead on a cold night.
Finally, when she thought she might burst from the roil of emotion in her he broke the kiss. She sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder.
“I’ve been wanting to do that since our wedding day.”
His murmured admission caused her to giggle.
“I hope it wasn’t a disappointment.”
His lips found hers again and he kissed her quite senseless in answer. She lazily watched from the comfort of his arms as he turned the mare for home. Riding with Thomas made her feel more alive than she’d ever thought possible and the freedom he gave her, to ride, to laugh, to be herself in his company made her feel seen for the first time in her life. She tilted her head to look up at him and found him looking at her. She smiled whatever lay ahead, they would face it together. For the first time in her life she wasn’t facing the world alone.