Mandy looked sidelong at James; his mouth was set in a thin line and the shadows under his eyes told her that he probably hadn’t had much more sleep after she drifted off. He was already up and showering when she had woken, disorientated, in his bed and had said very little to her when she outlined their plans for the day. He was, as a general rule, more laid back than her but he would usually have some input on what they were doing; tiredness seeped out of him like a fog and for a moment she considered telling him to turn back so that he could get some sleep. But, remembering how he had rallied the day before, she held her tongue.
They set out on foot- James’ bag was lighter as they were planning on circling back to the cottage for lunch, although Mandy had filled hers with the usual supplies of notebook, binoculars and camera.
Disaster struck on a hill that peaked behind their cottage; Mandy, preoccupied with the night before, caught her foot on a branch that had been buried under layers of leaves and fell. Her fingertips brushed James’ coat as he whipped round to catch her and missed, watching helplessly as she tumbled to the ground and landed bodily on the cold ground. A sharp pain shot up Mandy’s ankle and she howled as James dropped to his knees beside her. He reached out to cup her booted foot.
“No! No, no, no, it hurts!” she jerked away from him, tears spilling down her cheeks, “I twisted it.”
He nodded, once, and reached up to the zip of his coat, pulling it down and threw the padded fabric from his shoulders.
“Here, take this,” he curled the coat around her shoulders and pulled it tight around her, “We’re not too far from the cottage, I’ll run back and get Theresa and her husband. I can’t carry you and the bags back on my own.”
“No, don’t leave me!” she felt the panic rising in her chest and clung to his shirt, balling the thin material in her fist. The movement sent another shock along her ankle and her lip quivered.
“Listen,” he held both her hands tight against his chest, “I will be right back. Call my mobile and I’ll stay on the line the whole time, okay? I promise.” Quickly, he pressed his cold lips to hers and she felt a heat rise up in her cheeks. “I promise,” he whispered again, his face flushed and lips pale.
She shivered on the hill as he raced off, her phone grasped tightly in gloved hands on her lap. Occasionally, he panted platitudes down the line as he ran until the subdued knock of a fist on wood signalled that he had arrived at the cottages. Muffled conversation and then James’ voice clear on the line.
“Graham and I are heading back up. Theresa is fetching an ice pack. I’m on my way, Mandy. Hang in there.”
After some awkward shuffling down the hill, propped up by James and a portly middle-aged man who spoke very few words to them, Mandy found herself being deposited on the sofa in their cottage while Theresa fussed over the both of them. The rain had started falling as they reached the courtyard and even the chill of the cottage was welcome. Theresa cooed over James as he shivered at the threshold, scolded him for being a gentleman as she winked at Mandy. Boot off and without the adrenaline coursing through her, the damage to her ankle seemed less somehow and Mandy felt a wave of embarrassment at the fuss.
“Lucky for you, love, I used to be a nurse before I ended up here. It’s not broken, maybe a sprain at most. It’ll hurt for a few days but keep applying a cold compress to reduce the swelling and you’ll soon be as right as rain.” Theresa patted her thighs as she stood up, turned to James and gestured towards the fireplace. “Remember where the wood is? Keep the fire going this eve otherwise you’ll both end up ill.”
Graham gave them both a nod as the pair of them left, pausing briefly to shake James’ hand before the door swung shut. In the silence, Mandy’s chattering teeth were obvious and James padded over to touch her cheek.
“They’re right, I should get this fire going. How are you feeling?”
“Cold, embarrassed. Sorry for freaking out on you.”
“Not like I’ve never done the same thing!”
He looped his scarf twice around his neck before heading towards the door. The wood shed hadn’t been far from the cottage when Theresa showed them round but in the downpour he was likely to come back cold and sodden.
“Won’t be long,” he gave her a wave as he stepped out of the door, leaving it on the latch behind him. The wind was howling and Mandy felt the chill, even from the sofa. In front of her, the fire was dwindling down to embers and she pulled the blanket closer around herself and readjusted her ankle on the pillow.
Soon enough, the door banged shut and she turned to watch as James stamped is muddy boots on the mat and shook his head to dislodge some of the rain water in his hair. His head was drenched and his glasses steamed up from the sudden warm air in the cottage; he wiped them on the corner of his shirt and blinked at her when he replaced them on the bridge of his nose.
“Phew!” he blew his damp hair out of his eyes roughly, “I won’t be going back out there in a hurry.”
“Get yourself dried off,” she laughed, “We can’t call Theresa out again tomorrow because you’ve caught pneumonia.”
He pulled off his shirt by the sink, wringing it out before depositing it in the basin. She blushed furiously at the sight of him and felt a familiar tingle of longing in her chest. Not for the first time it became obvious that the guys she had been attracted to in the past were all built similarly to him; slim, but with the very obvious evidence of a life spent helping on farms. James may have been a studious child but he had never shirked from helping her and her parents at whatever animal emergency required growing up. ‘Rural skinny’, her mum had dubbed it once, winking at her when she found them both sunbathing in the back garden.
“You okay?” he cocked his head at her, his voice pulling her from her thoughts, “Looks like you’re burning up. don’t tell me that I went out in that and you’re suddenly too hot!” His voice was teasing, but she was sure she heard a nervous lilt and when he came over to feel her forehead he was blushing.
“I just wasn’t quite expecting the strip-tease display you decided to give me.” His blush turned redder. Straightening up, he shoved one hand in his pocket and lifted the other to push his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. The gesture was remarkably boyish, something she had seen him do for years, and she laughed suddenly.
“I’m kidding. Now go shower before you catch your death.”