The last conscious thought Cassie had was of being stomped to death by the reddish beast. She let the black calm take her and felt as though she were floating. Was this what death was like? Funny how there was no pain.
The voice sounded faint at first. It held a warmth and concern that greatly appealed to Cassie's senses. She felt the fog lift as he continued to call to her. Did the voice belong to God?
"Miss. Open your eyes."
She tried to, but they felt ever so heavy. Surely God could just open them for her if He wanted them to be open. Little by little, the feeling was coming back to her. She felt something wrapped around her back. Had God given her angel wings?
"Are you all right, miss? Please wake up."
Cassie opened her eyes and stared up into the handsomest face she'd ever known. God was certainly dashing. She chided herself. Of course God would be dashing. He was, after all, God.
But what had happened? For a moment, she couldn't remember anything, but the more she concentrated, the clearer it became that this was not heaven, and the handsome man was not God. The reality of it all was quite disappointing, for she wouldn't have minded spending eternity in the presence of one so lovely to look upon. The man's dark blue eyes held her captive, while his frown assured her that her injuries must have been grave.
"Am I ... how badly am I hurt?" she asked, trying to detect any pain in her body. The absence of it was almost unnerving. More disturbing still was the warmth of the stranger's arms around her as he knelt beside her.
He smiled, and Cassie felt mesmerized. "I don't believe you have any injuries, miss. I'm afraid you fainted dead away when Portland began to fret."
Cassie tried to remember what had happened. The horse! She could see those horrible hooves coming down on top of her and gripped the man's arm without meaning to. He pulled her closer.
"I wasn't thinking ... I mean ... I was, but not about where I was going." She realized how intimately he held her and felt her heart skip a beat. "I was upset. It was silly. Oh bother." Pushing away, she refocused on the moment. "Am I truly without injury?" She scrambled to her feet and smoothed out her skirt.
The man chuckled and got to his feet as well. "I don't know for certain. Perhaps you should tell me."
Cassie shrugged. "I suppose the only thing truly injured is my pride."
This caused the man to laugh all the more. "Well, I speak from experience when I say that such things mend quite quickly if left alone."
Cassie smiled. "I suppose you saved my life from that brute."
The man sobered. "Portland is not a brute. You startled him. That was all."
"He started it," Cassie countered. "He startled me with his stomping and snorting. It was like some kind of demon possessed him."
"Now, stop. He's just over there, and he might hear you. You'll hurt his feelings." The man's teasing voice was not at all what Cassie had counted on.
She watched as he walked to where the horse awaited him. He took up the reins and drew him toward Cassie. She immediately backed up until she was pinned against a large maple tree.
"No. Get him away." The terror in her voice was clear even to her own ears.
"I don't understand," the man said. He seemed sympathetic enough and stopped in midstep. "My horse is quite friendly. He won't hurt you."
"My father was killed in a riding accident. The horse threw him and then trampled him to death. I watched the entire thing," Cassie said, drawing her arm up as if to shield herself.
"I'm so sorry. No wonder you have such an irrational fear."
This bolstered Cassie a bit. "It's not irrational. I have a very good rationale for my feelings."
"Yes, I suppose so. But they aren't reasonable. Our entire society is dependent upon horses for transportation and work. You cannot merely go about being terrified of them the rest of your life."
Cassie relaxed a bit and shrugged. "It's suited me well enough for ten years."
"But it would suit you better to overcome such fear. Now come here and make up with Portland."
Cassie felt her eyes widen as she caught the large brown eyes of the horse. "Sir, I do not know you, and I have no desire to know your mount."
He laughed. "I am Marcus Langford, but my friends call me Mark. And you are ... ?"
"Cassie. Cassandra Stover."
"And where do you live, Miss Stover?"
"There," she said, pointing to the Jameston mansion. She saw him frown and wondered why her response seemed so unappealing. "What's wrong? It's a wonderful house. I am Mrs. Jameston's companion. She's the older woman who owns this property."
"I see. And how long have you been her companion?"
Cassie thought the question strange, but at least it kept him from forcing her to meet his horse. Goodness, but why did some men think they had to fix everything? "I've only just started. I've been there for about two weeks."
"And do you find it to your liking?" He reached up and stroked his horse casually.
"I do. Well, I did until her son came back to stay. He was injured, though, and there was no putting him from the house. He's caused all sorts of upset, however. No one likes him." She clenched her jaw shut and shook her head. "I'm sorry. I should be more careful about speaking my mind."
Mark laughed. "I like a woman who speaks her mind. It makes her more honest and her company more enjoyable."
"I doubt that is true of me. I do try to refrain," she said with a sigh, "but sometimes ... like now ... it just pours out of me."
Cassie eyed the horse again. She was surprised at how calm the animal had remained at Mark's side. He appeared perfectly safe, but she couldn't allow herself to believe that.
"I see you are reconsidering Portland. He's a fine gelding. And actually, he's very mild-mannered. When you came running out around that shrubbery, he was taken by surprise. That's all. He meant you no harm."
"You talk as if you understand what he's thinking," Cassie said, returning her gaze to the man. He was dressed well in a dark blue frock coat and trousers with a bit of a green striped waistcoat peeking out from against a nicely starched white shirt. His face was clean-shaven, and his wavy brown hair was cut close and combed back under his hat.
He allowed her scrutiny for a moment. "I hope I pass inspection."
Cassie was slightly embarrassed but made the best of it. "I believe for a rescuer, you cut a fine figure."
He smiled and tipped his hat in her direction. "And for a damsel in distress, you could not play the role any better."