He couldn't contain a smile, however, because with one of her boots off, she was limping almost as much as he did.
John quickly turned and headed back into the woods. After his accident, he had exercised his bad leg religiously, and as a result, he could walk quite swiftly-almost as fast as an uninjured man. The only problem was that overexertion meant that his leg would later ache as if he'd walked-no hopped-to hell and back.
But he wasn't thinking about these consequences as he sped through the woods. Foremost on his mind was how to cut through the forest and intercept Belle closer to Bletchford Manor without her realizing that he had been spying on her.
He knew that the path curved to the right up ahead, so he cut diagonally through the woods, cursing every tree stump he no longer had the agility to leap over. When he finally emerged onto the path about a half mile closer to his house, his knee was throbbing, and he was panting from the exertion. He put his hands on his thighs and leaned down for a moment, trying to catch his breath. Pain shot up and down his leg, and it was pure agony just to straighten it. Wincing, he rubbed his knee until the stabbing sensation receded into a dull ache.
He stood up, and just in time. Belle had just limped around the corner. John quickly took a step in her direction, wanting to appear as if he had been strolling down the path all morning.
She didn't see him right away because she was looking down at the ground for pebbles so that she could avoid them with her unshod foot. They were only about ten feet away from each other when she heard the sound of his footsteps. She looked up instantly and saw him approaching. He was wearing that enigmatic little smile of his, as if he knew something that she didn't. Actually, she thought, it was more like he knew something that she never would.
"Oh, hello, Lord Blackwood," she said, curving her lips into a smile that she hoped matched the mystery of his. She rather thought she failed; she'd never had a mysterious day in her life, and besides, she sounded too cheerful by half.
Amidst all of Belle's turbulent thoughts, John nodded.
"I suppose you're wondering what I'm doing on your property again."
John raised an eyebrow, and Belle had no idea whether his gesture meant: You're an annoying little trespasser, You're an amusing piece of baggage, or Your actions aren't worth the time it would take to think about them. So she plodded on.
"I did, of course, realize that this was your property, but I headed east from Westonbirt when I left this morning. I don't know why, but I did, and the eastern border is really much closer to the house than any of the other ones, and so since I like to take fairly long walks, it's only natural that I'd reach the border, and I didn't think you'd mind." Belle clamped her mouth shut. She was babbling. That was unlike her, and she was quite annoyed with herself for doing it.
"I don't mind," John said simply.
"Oh. Well, that's good, I suppose, because I have no wish to be forcibly thrown off your property." That sounded really stupid. Belle shut her mouth again.
"Would it really require force to get you off my property? I had no idea you liked it so much."
Belle smiled impishly. "You're teasing me."
John gave her another one of those small smiles, the kind that would have said so much if the rest of his face weren't so inscrutable.
"You don't talk much, do you?" she blurted out.
"I didn't think there was a need. You seem to be holding up both our ends of the conversation admirably."
Belle frowned. "That was a horrid thing to say." She looked up. His velvety brown eyes, usually so unreadable, were filled with amusement. She sighed. "But true. I don't usually talk this much, you know."
"Really. I think it's because you're so silent that I feel the need to talk more."
"Ah. So we have shifted the blame to my shoulders?"
Belle glanced flirtatiously at his shoulders, which were a little broader than she'd remembered. "They do seem a bit more capable of bearing such a heavy load."
John grinned at her, really grinned, which was something he didn't do very often. He suddenly felt glad that he'd worn one of his better coats; he frequently threw on old ones for his early morning walks. Then he was annoyed with himself for caring.
"Is this a new fashion?" he asked, motioning to the boot in her hand.
"Blister," Belle said, lifting her dress up a few inches. It was risque, she knew, but she shrugged it off. The two of them had such bizarre conversations, normal rules of etiquette just didn't seem to apply.
Much to her surprise, however, he got down on one knee and took her foot into his hands. "Mind if I take a look?" he asked.
Belle tugged her foot back nervously. "I don't think that will be necessary," she said quickly. Seeing her foot was one thing. Actually touching it was something else altogether.
John held fast. "Don't be a prude, Belle. It could become infected, and then you'll really be miserable."
She blinked a few times, more than a little surprised at his bold use of her first name. "How did you know that I'm called Belle?" she finally asked.
"Ashbourne told me," John replied, examining her pale toes. "Where is this damned thing, anyway?"
"On my heel," Belle answered, dutifully turning around.
John let out a low whistle. "You've got a nasty one there. You ought to get a more comfortable pair of shoes if you intend to hike around the countryside."
"I wasn't hiking, I was walking. And I do have better shoes. I just hadn't intended to take a walk this morning until after I was dressed, and I didn't feel like changing my attire." Belle let out a frustrated sigh. Why did she feel the need to explain herself to him?
John stood up, pulled out a crisp, white handkerchief, and took Belle's arm. "There is a pond not too far away from here. I can get some water to clean the sore."
Belle let go of her skirt. "Idon't think that's necessary,John."
John warmed at her rather pointed use of his given name and was glad that he'd gone ahead and used hers without asking first. He decided he liked this Lady Arabella, even if she was a little too well-connected for his tastes. He couldn't remember the last time he'd smiled so much. She was smart and fun-a little too beautiful for his comfort, but he was certain that with a little effort, he could control his attraction to her.
She did, however, have a rather appalling disregard for her own well-being, as evidenced by her lack of spectacles, her soon-to-be festering blister, and her penchant for unchaperoned excursions. She obviously needed someone to lecture a little sense into her. Since he didn't see anyone else nearby, he decided he might as well be the one to do it, and he started walking toward the pond, practically dragging her along behind him.
"Jo-ohn!" she protested.
"Be-elle!" he countered, imitating her complaining tone perfectly.
"I'm fully able to take care of myself," Belle said, quickening her stride to keep up. For a man with such a pronounced limp, he could move fast.
"Obviously not, or you'd have spectacles perched on your nose."
Belle halted in her tracks with such force that John actually stumbled. "I only need them when I read," she ground out.
"It warms my heart to hear you admit it."
"I thought I was beginning to like you, but now I'm certain that I don't."
"You still like me," he said, grinning as he started pulling her again toward the pond.
Belle's mouth fell open. "No, I don't."
"Yes, you do."
"No, I-all right, maybe a little," she allowed. "But I do think you're acting rather high-handed."
"And I think that you have a hideous little blister on your heel. So stop complaining."
"Yes, you were."
Belle shut her mouth, aware that she'd been blabbering away far too much. With a sigh, she finally gave in and let him lead her to the pond. When they reached it, she sat down on a grassy patch near the shore while John walked over to the water and dipped his handkerchief into it.
"Is that clean?" she called out.
"My handkerchief or the water?"
John walked back to her side and held up the snowy white cloth. "Sparkling."
She sighed at his determination to treat her blister and poked her bare foot out from under her skirt.
"This isn't going to work," he said.
"You're going to have to roll over onto your stomach."
"I don't think so," Belle replied, her tone firm.
John tilted his head to one side. "The way I see it," he said thoughtfully, "we have two options."
He didn't say anything more, so Belle was forced to ask, "We do?"
"Yes. Either you roll over onto your stomach so that I can take care of your blister, or I can slide on my back and wiggle under your leg so that I can see your heel. Of course that would probably require my sticking my head under your skirts, and while the thought is intriguing-"
"Enough," Belle muttered. She rolled over onto her stomach.
John took the handkerchief and gently dabbed it against the sore, cleaning away the small amount of dried blood which had crusted around it. It stung a little when he touched the raw flesh, but Belle could tell that he was being extraordinarily gentle, so she didn't say anything. When he pulled a knife out of his pocket, however, she changed her mind.
"Aaaack!" Unfortunately, the first word to fly out of her mouth was not terribly coherent.
John looked startled. "Is something wrong?"
"What are you planning to do with that knife?"
He smiled patiently. "I was just going to make a small incision in your blister so I can drain it. That will allow the dead skin to dry out."
It sounded like he knew what he was doing, but Belle thought she ought to ask a few questions anyway since she was, after all, letting this relatively strange man take a knife to her person. "Why do you want to dry it out?"
"It will heal better that way. The dead skin will fall off, and the skin underneath will toughen up." He narrowed his eyes. "You've never had a blister before, have you?"
"Not like this," Belle admitted. "I don't usually walk so much. I usually ride."
"What about dancing?"
"What about dancing?" she countered.
"I'm sure you go to fancy balls and all that when you're in London. You must be on your feet all night."
"I always wear comfortable shoes," she replied disdainfully.
John wasn't sure why, but her sensibility pleased him. "Well, don't worry," he finally said. "I've treated many blisters, most worse than this."
"In the war?" Belle asked, her voice cautious.
His eyes darkened. "Yes."
"I imagine you've treated far worse injuries than mere blisters," she said softly.
"I imagine I have."
Belle knew that she should stop her questioning; the war was obviously a painful topic for him, but curiosity overpowered discretion. "Weren't there doctors and surgeons for that sort of thing?"
There was a noticeable silence, and Belle felt the pressure of his hands on her foot as the knife punctured her blister before he finally answered. "Sometimes there aren't doctors or surgeons available. Sometimes you just have to do what you can, what makes sense. And then you pray." His voice was flat. "Even if you've stopped believing in God."
Belle swallowed uncomfortably. She thought about saying something soothing such as, "I see," but the truth was, she didn't see. She couldn't even begin to imagine the horrors of war, and it seemed shallow to imply that she could.
John dabbed at the blister again with the damp handkerchief. "That ought to do it." He stood up and held out his hand to her, but she ignored it, rolling over so that she could sit on the grassy knoll. He stood there awkwardly until she patted the spot on the grass next to her. He hesitated, and Belle finally groaned and slapped her hand down on the ground with considerable force.
"Oh, please," she said in a semi-irritated voice. "I'm not going to bite."
John sat down.
"Should I put a bandage on this?" Belle asked, twisting around so that she could examine his handiwork.
"Not unless you're planning to wear another pair of tight shoes. It will heal faster if you leave it bare."
Belle continued to look at her heel, doing her best to preserve her modesty while she did so. "I don't suppose too many people wander through Westonbirt barefoot, but I think I have enough clout to carry it off, don't you?" She looked up suddenly, offering him a sunny grin.
John felt as if he'd been hit, the force of her smile was so strong. It took him several seconds to tear his eyes off her mouth, and when he did, he moved his gaze up to her eyes, which was a big mistake, because they were as blue as the sky. Bluer, in fact, and so obviously perceptive and intelligent. He felt her stare almost physically, felt it sweeping across his body even though she never took her eyes off his, not even for an instant. He shivered.
Belle wet her lips in a nervous gesture. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Like what?" he whispered, barely aware that he'd spoken.
"Like you're… like you're…" She stumbled over her words, not quite certain how he was looking at her. Her eyes widened in shock as it came to her. "Like you're afraidof me."
John felt dizzy. Was he afraid of her? Did he fear her ability to upset the precious internal balance he'd only recently been able to achieve? Perhaps, but he feared no one more than himself. The things he wanted to do to her…
He closed his eyes against the unbidden vision of Spencer on top of Ana. No, that wasn't what he wanted with Belle, was it?
He had to get a hold of himself. To push her away. He blinked, suddenly remembering her question about running through Ashbourne's house barefoot. "I suppose one can do anything one wants if one is related to a duke," he finally replied, somewhat sharply.
Belle drew back, a little hurt by his tone. But two could play at that game. "Yes, I suppose one can," she said, lifting her chin up a notch.
John felt like a cad. But he didn't apologize. It was probably better if she thought him a boor. He had no business getting involved with her, and it would be so, so easy to let himself do so. He knew a dead end when he saw one. He'd looked her up in Debrett's Peerage after she had visited the day before. She was the daughter of an extremely wealthy earl and related to any number of important and influential members of society. She deserved someone who had a title that went back further than a year, someone who could offer her the material comforts to which she was no doubt accustomed, someone who was whole, whose legs were as perfect as hers.
Dear Lord, but he'd love to see her legs. He groaned.
"Are you ill?" Belle was looking at him, trying not to appear concerned.
"I'm fine," he said curtly. She even smelled good, a fresh, springtime scent that seemed to envelop him. He didn't even deserve to think about her, not after committing such an unforgivable crime against womankind.
"Well, thank you for treating my blister," Belle said suddenly. "It was very kind of you."
"It was no problem, I assure you."
"For you, perhaps," Belle said, sounding as cheerful as she possibly could. "I had to lie on my stomach next to a man I met just three days ago." Please, please don't say something unkind, she silently implored. Please be as funny and as joking and as sweetly stern as you were just a few minutes ago.