Ignoring the pain flaming in his left arm, Lord Ross Rushmount swung his legs out of the upturned carriage and leaped out of the wreckage onto the rutted lane.
What’s that maniacal sound? Like voices from a thousand hells. Oh my God, the horses! And Anne? Where’s Anne?
He whirled around, peering into the fading light, and spotted her lying helpless in a ditch. A peasant woman hovered over her. The sight of the creature’s hands on his wife when his own had hardly touched her infuriated him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted. “Get away from her!”
As if he hadn’t barked out an order, the woman didn’t heed him in the slightest. Anne stirred, tossing her head from side to side, moaning in a low, lost voice. The woman began murmuring to her all the while chafing her fingers between her own rough paws.
Ross slid down into the bottom of the ditch. With his intact hand, he grabbed a fistful of the creature’s hair and yanked. The woman yowled and fell back against the clay bank.
“Anne. Dearest.” He knelt by her side. How bloodless she looked. Even her blonde hair released from its bonnet had gone pale in the gloaming.
He’d never seen her less than perfectly groomed. Now she lay in a welter of tumbled skirts, her bonnet on the ground beside her, one glove on, one off. What of her rings? The wedding emerald had damn near cost him the price of a small farm, and that peasant had been…no, it still adorned her finger. Another moment or two and who knew what might have become of it?
Where had the woman gone? He turned to check, and at the sight of her, his breath fled his body in a gasp of astonished surprise. An unkempt, disheveled girl—with dirty feet, her hair a disordered tangle of red curls and the most beautiful face he’d ever seen—glowered back at him. As if to verify her beauty, a final ray of sun shot down and quickened her glorious hair.
In that same instant, he wondered why red hair was so despised. Because no one who matters has ever seen this girl.
Her eyes appeared green. For some reason, he had to be certain. He lowered Anne’s arm to her side, stood and stepped within inches of the girl. Yes, green and glaring at him.
Her lips were full, the lower lip rounded and the upper a perfect bow. A short, straight nose. Not retrousse, the London rage. And cheekbones sculpted high with no peasant fleshiness at all.
What of her teeth? Seldom were teeth straight and white. Perhaps they were flawed. If so, her perfection would crash into nothing. He hoped that would be the case. It wouldn’t do for an untutored wench by the side of the road to outshine his Anne the way a star outshines a candle.
His resentment boiled anew. “Were you about to rob her?”
The girl leapt to her feet. In her height, too, she outstripped Anne. “I am not the thief here.”
Her coarse gray skirt, marred with clumps of clay, swirled around her ankles as she scrambled up the bank to the roadbed. “Nor am I the murderer here!”
The outrageous gall of the little savage. Didn’t she know he had men punished for less?
“You vixen!” he said. “There is no murderer here.”
Her eyes spat green fire. “You’re right about one thing. A vixen I am for certain. Like Granuaile before me.” She threw back her head and laughed. In that instant, he saw her teeth were perfect.
Who in blazes is Granuaile?
Ross watched her stride away on bare feet, her back as straight as an arrow. A strange thought came into his mind.
All Irishmen are descended from kings.
He’d never believed that, not for a second.
Anne stirred and mewled like a kitten. He turned back to her, his wife, a descendant of William the Conqueror.