The mineral waters closed abruptly over Theo’s head, and he flailed about, trying to get from his back to an upright position with his head above water where it belonged. Strong hands gripped him under the armpits and yanked him up above the water’s surface.
Spluttering and gasping for air, Theo was chagrined to find that he had made the mistake of relying on strength he no longer possessed. Now he was indebted to a stranger for his life.
“Thank you,” he croaked out between spasms of coughing. Thornfield’s strong arms held Theo steady, bearing his full weight without effort, seeming unconcerned that he held a naked man against his own skin.
The realization that this powerful stranger had stripped bare to enter the pool sent a flush of desire through Theo. He’d been held against too many male bodies not to realize this man was well formed everywhere, not just in his shoulders and face.
“Injured you may be, Captain, but at least one part of you is in prime condition.”
Theo went scarlet from his head to well beneath the water line. Embarrassingly, his erection did not diminish. The sound of Thornfield’s deep chuckle in his ear merely fanned Theo’s desire.
“Now then, Captain, if you are quite done with being offended at your friend’s interference, permit me to accompany you to somewhere more comfortable. I have a carriage waiting, so there is no need to call for a chair.”
After that ridiculous plunge beneath the water, Theo wasn’t certain he wanted to go anywhere at all with Thornfield. Even so, his body’s embarrassing reaction made Theo want to know the man more intimately. That calm, unruffled reaction to Theo’s arousal had awakened his curiosity.
“Here we go.” Thornfield pulled Theo’s left arm around his neck, catching Theo’s right hip with his other hand.
Theo gasped a little at the pain in his left side and back, until the pressure of a strong hand on his hip eased the strain. Though not a short man himself, Theo realized Thornfield likely stood several inches taller than six feet, to judge by the upward angle of his arm as it rested across those broad shoulders. Unexpectedly, Theo’s pride rebelled, though he’d accepted such assistance from his fellow officers. “I can manage,” he panted, pushing away from his erstwhile savior. Though admitting it would be humiliating, just staying upright was proving to be harder than expected.
“If you don’t stop fussing like a baby, I will carry you like one,” Thornfield remarked mildly, keeping a firm grip on Theo’s waist. “Bear with the indignity and the pain, please. Better that than have you fall again and injure that leg beyond repair.”
Theo stopped struggling at once. The thought of enduring more surgical ministrations on his leg left him queasy, though other parts of him were responding despite his feelings of humiliation. That large, warm hand easily spanned Theo’s hip, making him wonder how it would feel to have his cock wrapped in Thornfield’s strong fist.
Damn. That wayward thought brought his flagging erection to full mast again. With an effort, Theo redirected his mind toward the excruciating climb out of the baths. Despite the shallow steps placed for convenient entry and exit, his slip had wrenched his hip badly, and his legs were shaking beneath him. If Thornfield hadn’t been present, he might have drowned, unable to bring his weakened muscles to lift him from the water.
His ardor waned at last, and he sat shaking on the edge of the bathing pool. Damn his body for betraying him and leaving him vulnerable. He’d managed on his own just fine this morning—oh, yes, just fine, except for nearly falling on the floor in his attempt to reach the chamber pot beneath the bed. Quite humiliating to realize his salvaged leg could not bend worth a damn to allow him to sit with ease.
A large length of heavy linen landed across Theo’s shoulders, interrupting his maudlin ruminations and trapping the heat of the mineral bath against his skin. He looked up to see Thornfield standing over him with a similar length wrapped and knotted about his waist. “Thank you,” Theo replied, striving for the civility appropriate to the situation.
Thornfield didn’t immediately respond. When he did, his words had nothing to do with courtesy. “You nearly died at Hougoumont, Captain. That was barely six months ago. You really shouldn’t be out and about without an orderly.”
Hurt roiled through Theo’s gut. By rights, it should have been Joseph standing there, or Will Haverly, not this strapping lout with bad manners. “I’m fine, blast your hide! I’m perfectly capable of managing on my own.”
Then the meaning of Thornfield’s words struck home. You nearly died at Hougoumont.
He swallowed. That meant Thornfield had been at Waterloo, in that damnable mess of a cavalry charge. Or at the hospital. “Who are you, Robin Thornfield? Just what do you know about me?” His voice came out in a croak, but he didn’t care. Suspicions flooded his mind—suspicions of Haverly acting in some damn fool manner to replace Joseph and give Theo what Will himself couldn’t.
“Who am I?” Thornfield’s voice held amused chagrin and the faintest touch of sarcasm. “Nothing but a groom, Captain. A cavalryman assigned to care for the horses until they all died or until I did.” After a pause, he continued. “What do I know about you? More than you think, but not as much as I’d like.” He squatted beside Theo, giving him an eyeful of what the cloth covered.
It was a nice eyeful, Theo thought, wishing he still had the courage to reach out and touch what Thornfield seemed to be offering. Thoughts of Joseph’s back as he stormed out of the tent interfered.
Thornfield leaned close, whispering in Theo’s ear. “Your grey was too gentle to ride into battle. You should have chosen a better mount.”
It felt like an accusation. “He was prime blood!”
Thornfield smiled at Theo’s infuriated retort, kneeling to take the cloth from Theo’s nerveless fingers. He began drying Theo, starting with his shoulders, rubbing firmly enough to sop up wetness, but gently over the tender flesh of the scars. “True, Captain. Even so, your gallant Smoke had neither the stamina nor the temperament to withstand cannon fire without terror. Had he been steadier, you might have escaped with less injury. You might have been able to flee on horseback with Captain Haverly rather than simply becoming his shield.”
Theo shivered at the memory of his horse shying from the smell of blood and the sound of cannon thunder, throwing Theo to the ground and shattering Theo’s leg in stamping panic. A convulsive twitch shuddered through him at the memory of the pain.
When Haverly had come to his rescue, dismounting to haul him up, there had been only the shrill, warning scream of the shot whistling. Only scant seconds to protect the man Theo loved more than life from the devastating shot flying at them.