Daemon paused as he pulled on his boots. He started to laugh. Ifhe was her elder, then what did she think about the Priest?
When Daemon got to the stable yard, there were two ponies saddled as well as a gray mare and Dark Dancer. Not sure which horse was intended for him, he approached Andrew. The stable lad gave Daemon a wobbly smile before ducking his head and re-checking Dancer's saddle.
"Be careful," Andrew said quietly. "He's jumpy today."
"Compared to what?" Daemon asked dryly.
Andrew hunched his shoulders.
Daemon's eyes narrowed. "Is there a reason for this jumpiness?"
The shoulders hunched a bit more.
Feeling the tension running through the yard, Daemon looked around.
Jaenelle was talking quietly to one of the ponies. Wilhelmina stood nearby, waiting for someone to help her mount. Her cheeks were prettily flushed from the crisp autumn air and the excitement of riding, but she kept glancing nervously in his direction and refused to acknowledge him. "Mother Night," he muttered and went over to Wilhelmina to give her a leg up.
After helping Wilhelmina mount, Daemon turned to give Jaenelle a hand, but she was already on her pony, grinning at him.
"We'd best be off if we're going," Andrew said nervously.
As Daemon turned to answer him, he glanced around the yard. All the stable lads stood absolutely still, watching him. They all know, he thought as he mounted Dark Dancer. She was their precious secret.
Guinness came out of his office and headed toward them, his head down and shoulders hunched as if he were walking into a heavy wind. When he reached them, he sucked his cheek for a minute, cleared his throat a couple of times, and looked in their direction without looking at any of them. He cleared his throat again. "Now, you ladies haven't been out for a while, so I want you to take a nice easy hack. No rough riding, none of them big jumps. Nothing faster than a canter. And De—Dark Dancer there hasn't been out much either"—he glanced guiltily at Daemon—"so I don't want you to let him have his head and hurt himself. Understand?"
"We understand, Guinness," Jaenelle said quietly. Her voice was serious, but her lips twitched and her eyes sparkled.
"Lady Benedict and Prince Alexander are still out riding, so you watch for them, you hear?" Guinness sucked on his cheek. He waved a hand at them and said gruffly, "Go on now."
The girls took the lead, walking their ponies sedately through the yard and down the path while Daemon and Andrew followed.
"I don't remember Guinness ever calling this horse by name before," Daemon said.
Andrew shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "Miss Jaenelle doesn't like us calling him Demon. She says it makes him unhappy."
"You know, Andrew," Daemon said in a quiet, silky voice, "if this horse breaks her neck, I'm going to break yours."
Andrew chuckled. Daemon raised one eyebrow at the response.
"Wait until you see them together. It's worth watching," Andrew said. "When we get to the tree, you can have the mare. I don't think the pony can carry you."
"Very considerate of you," Daemon said dryly.
They kept to a walk all the way to the tree. When Andrew and Daemon got there, Jaenelle was already dismounted and waiting. Daemon's heart thumped crazily at the soft, shining look in her eyes, and then felt squeezed by a taloned hand when he realized she wasn't looking at him.
The stallion nickered softly and thrust his head forward. "Hello, Dancer," Jaenelle said in a voice that was a sweet, sensuous caress.
Sweet Darkness, he would give his soul if her voice sounded like that when she talked to him, Daemon thought as he dismounted. He adjusted the stirrups for her. "Give you a leg up?"
Andrew's head whipped around as if the suggestion was totally inappropriate. Perhaps it was. Daemon had the feeling she didn't need the help, but what he wouldn't have admitted to anyone for anything was that he wanted—he needed—to be able to touch her in some innocent way, even if it was just to feel her small booted foot in his cupped hands.
Jaenelle's eyes met his and held them. He fell into those sapphire pools, and he knew she saw what he didn't want to admit.
"Thank you . . . Daemon." Her voice was a feathery caress down his spine that set him on fire and soothed him.
A little giddy, Daemon cupped his hands and bent over. For the briefest moment, she pressed her foot into his hands. Then she lifted it just slightly and propelled herself into the saddle.
Daemon stared at his empty hands and slowly straightened up. The eyes looking at him were amused, but they didn't belong to a child.
"Shall we go?" Jaenelle said quietly.
As Daemon mounted the mare, Jaenelle vanished her hat and undid her braid, letting her hair float behind her in a golden wave. They set out for the field, Jaenelle riding ahead of them, her murmuring voice floating back on the breeze.
Relieved that Philip and Leland weren't in the field, it took Daemon a moment to realize that Dark Dancer was cantering far ahead of them and stretching into a ground-eating gallop.
"They're heading for the ditch!" Just as Daemon started to urge the mare forward to cut across the field and head the stallion off, Andrew grabbed his arm.
"Watch," Andrew said.
Daemon gritted his teeth and held the mare still.
Dark Dancer came up to the ditch fast, his black tail and Jaenelle's golden hair streaming behind them like flags of glory. As they approached the ditch, he checked his speed and made a wide, easy turn back toward the center of the field where the small jumps were placed. He took the little wooden jumps as if they were brick walls, high and showy, and as he cantered toward them, Daemon heard Jaenelle's silvery, velvet-coated laugh of delight.
She turned the stallion to circle the field again. Daemon urged the mare forward and they circled at an easy pace, side by side, with Wilhelmina and Andrew following.
As they reached the beginning of the circle, Jaenelle slowed Dancer to a walk. "Isn't he wonderful?" She stroked his sweaty neck.
"He's been a little more ambitious when I've ridden him," Daemon said dryly.
Jaenelle's forehead wrinkled. "Ambitious?"
"Mm. He's wanted to teach me to fly."
She laughed. The sound sang in his blood. She turned toward him then. Beneath the high spirits her eyes were haunted and sad. "Perhaps he'd like you more if you talked to him—and listened."
Daemon wanted to say something light and cheerful to take away the look in her eyes, but there was something about the way the stallion suddenly twitched his ears and seemed to be listening to them that pricked his nerves. "People talk to him all the time. He probably knows more of the stable lads' secrets than any other living thing."