From the very beginning, Kit would have done anything to keep Max near her...even behave.
Presently, Kit took an uneven breath to try to calm herself. "You don't see me as a woman," she murmured gruffly. "You think I'm some sort of fragile idiot."
Max started behind her. "You can't really believe that, Kit. I know how intelligent you are. My God, you just graduated from Whitmore College at the top of your class. Have I not told you repeatedly how proud I am of you?"
"Yes," Kit admitted sullenly. "But there are other things--this horse, for instance. You taught me how to ride yourself when I was a girl of six and you a young man of nineteen. Do you not recall?"
"Of course I do. How could I forget? You left me no other choice but to teach you how to ride after I saw the way you ran roughshod all over that poor instructor your father hired for you."
Kit snorted. "Poor, is it? You called Mr. Abbington any number of more interesting words on that day--words I'd never heard in my entire life."
The sound of Max's low chuckle caused goose bumps to rise on her neck.
"All of those...er, colorful descriptors were entirely correct, as well. But no one would blame me for pitying the fool as well, subject as he was to the random, irrational demands of a little hellion princess."
Kit's mouth twisted like she'd just taken a large gulp of sour milk, but she didn't argue. She had bullied Mr. Abbington into letting her ride a horse that was too large, too strong and too wild for a small child.
She'd paid for it, too. Thanks to Max, the price hadn't been as high as it might have been. Kit could still close her eyes and see the way her small hands gripped desperately at the bolting horse's dark brown mane as it raced at a break-neck speed across the corral, preparing to jump the fence for freedom. Kit knew that she could hold on no more, jolted as she had been from the security of the saddle. The ground zoomed by ominously beneath the pounding horse's feet. A terror unlike anything she'd ever known gripped at her heart. Her fingers slipped through the silky mane.
She finally fell, not between the wild horse's dangerous trampling legs...but into Max St. Claire's very capable hands.
She'd suddenly found herself astride a steed even more powerful than the bolting one that jetted toward the corral fence like an arrow from a tightly sprung bow. The horse upon which she sat, however, obviously was controlled by a skilled master. Her stunned six-year-old self had turned and stared up through a thick veil of tears at the most wondrous sight she'd ever imagined in her life.
"I called you my knight in shimmering armor," Kit recalled, her voice husky from the memory. She sensed Max's smile rather than saw it. "You were very kind not to correct me, Max."
"What...and tell you that the usual term was knight in shining armor not shimmering armor?" he asked in vague surprise.
"You saw me through a thick window of tears that first time. I understood what you meant."
"You always did. Even my mother couldn't read my mind like you could." Kit laughed softly. "And you did shimmer like a hero from a fairy tale before my amazed eyes, Max," Kit murmured with a touch of wistfulness.
"The first time you sat on a horse with me your head barely reached my ribcage." He pulled at a mahogany curl that had escaped her coiffure in a familiar teasing gesture. "We've been riding partners for nearly fifteen years now, Kit."
The tone of fondness in his voice rekindled Kit's frustration full-force.
"It cannot be my training that leaves you in doubt as far as riding Atlas, then. If you have faith in my training, it must be my skill and wits that you find lacking."
"Nonsense!" Max said irritably, all the notes of fraternal warmth vanished from his tone. "A finer horsewoman I've never known."
She strained to look at him over her shoulder and inhaled sharply when she realized how close his handsome face was to her upturned one. "Well, then?"
He merely stared down at her for several seconds.
"I'll grant that you are a woman and not a girl, Kit." He tilted his chin upwards and lifted his eyebrows in a challenging gesture when she opened her mouth to speak in triumph. "But nature has not made a woman to have the inherent strength to command a horse like Atlas," he finished with calm finality.
"Oh...you..." Kit ground her teeth together to prevent telling His Smugness precisely what she thought of him. Her frustration swelled past her point of tolerance and transformed into hurt pride. "Why don't you just marry me off? Did you not promise to last year? Perhaps my new husband will not view me as a silly weakling!"
His face hardened. "Is that what you really want?"
"Yes!" Kit spat. "And the sooner the better."
Max said nothing as he turned Atlas back toward the stables. Kit was left to stew in the juices of her impotent rage and thwarted longing as they returned in silence. Hadn't she learned long ago that it was useless to pout and throw a tantrum in front of Max? The man could turn as cold and implacable as nearby Crystal Lake when it froze solid during the most frigid days of winter when he chose to be.
Max didn't speak again until they reached the stable. He put the reins in her hands before he dismounted. He surprised Kit by not helping her down in his usual courtly manner.
"I will see to fulfilling your wish," he said shortly. "There is, in fact, a young man who meets my standards and who I believe your father and mother would also approve of, were they still alive. Keep in mind that I do not take the trust your parents imparted to me for your care lightly."
"I know that, Max," Kit conceded in exasperation. "They couldn't have asked for a more caring and loving guardian for me. You have been exemplary."
His eyelids narrowed over eyes that were so deep, exotic and arresting that Kit never failed to feel as if she were falling headlong into his soulful stare. "Yet you still find fault with me," he commented wryly.
"No! I mean yes, but not in your role as my guardian. Never that," she exclaimed heatedly. Atlas pranced beneath her, made nervous by her emotional state. Kit quieted him instinctively with a touch even though her entire focus was on Max. "It's only that I am growing older. It's time you saw me differently."
"As a woman old enough to marry, correct?"
"Yes! I mean no," Kit replied desperately. She didn't want Max to arrange for her to be married. She would never leave Stangael willingly. She would never leave him. She didn't want Max to see her as old enough to marry just any man.
She wanted him to see her as mature enough to marry him!
Max shook his head. "You vex me, Kitten. But I'll do as I have promised and see to your marriage. I will inform you when I have the plans in order."
Kit just gaped at him as he turned to walk away. The idea of marrying someone other than Max was awful enough, but knowing that she had no one but herself to blame for hastening its occurrence made it twice as bad.