You May Kiss the Bride(8)By: Lisa Berne
Instead there came the unmistakable sound of hoofbeats. The doe darted in one direction, the stag another, directly across the path where a rider had come and startling his immense black horse, which reared in alarm, deadly sharp hooves flying out, and was promptly reined in, in a display of strength and finesse that Livia watched with a kind of fascinated alarm. She wanted to run away—the horse looked horribly fierce—but wondered, panicked, if it would come after her. It was just the sort of situation in which she would be running, trip over an exposed tree root, and immediately be trampled. For all she knew, the horse and rider would simply go on and leave her to die an ignominious death in the mud. Things like that happened all the time. Her life was far from perfect, but neither did she have any interest in meeting her Maker today. So, willing her erratic breathing to slow down, she stayed right where she was.
It was almost as if she were rooted to the ground.
Five minutes before, Gabriel had muttered out loud:
“Oh, bloody hell.”
It was time to face the truth. He was lost, completely lost, in these infernal woods. He’d tried going in different directions, but it was useless. Finally he pulled Primus to a halt and looked around, scowling. No path in sight. Nobody and nothing.
He squinted. Yes, there was somebody. He urged his horse forward only to see, in a sudden blur of movement, a stag bolting past, close enough that he might almost have touched its immense antlers. Primus reared and if not for his own quick reaction might have unseated him, but by pulling sharply on the reins he’d brought him back under control.
Now Gabriel rode forward.
That somebody was a shabbily dressed girl. Excellent—a servant from a local manor, surely able to give him directions. He noticed that there was quite a bit of mud on her cheek. And on her decrepit shawl, and the revealingly short hem of her gown. Even on the thick untidy auburn braid which lay draped forward over her shoulder.
Then he noticed that her eyes were green—not the hard, overbright green of emeralds, but the deeper color of pine, oak leaf, laurel—and quite pretty.
Really, if one were prone to imaginative flights, one might almost think of a nymph, or a wood sprite, or a sylph from Arthurian legend.
He looked again into those big green eyes.
Which might have been a mistake. A single word floated across his mind:
For a brief, crazy moment Gabriel felt that he could happily drown in their deep green depths.
No, more than that.
Desire surged through him, raw and primal, and as if in a sudden fever-dream he felt that he could with enormous pleasure slide from his horse, take her in his arms, press her against him, and have her—possess her—up against the nearest tree, here in the cold rain, bury himself in the warmth of this living nymph, stay lost with her in this insanely confusing forest forever.
Then he gave himself a mental shake. What in God’s name was he thinking? Within hours he was going to be affianced to the exquisite, the appropriate, the ideal Penhallow bride Miss Orr, and here he was lustfully eyeing this girl like she was his last meal on earth.
Besides, he wasn’t one of those men who viewed comely servant girls as prey.
“Don’t be a fool,” he muttered under his breath, as if giving himself instructions. Water droplets dripped gaily from the brim of his hat, and suddenly he wanted more than anything to be back at the Glanville home, that large and ludicrously overfurnished manse, where his perfectly mapped-out future awaited him. But to accomplish that, he needed this girl’s help. And he’d reward her for it, of course.
Gabriel reached into his pocket and pulled from it a coin, which he held out for her to see. “Hello,” he said. “Can you tell me how to return to the Glanville estate?”
She only gazed up at him, her expression startled.
Oh God, no. Just his luck. A pretty girl, but a simpleton. The way things were going, he’d take the wrong path and end up in Scotland, bumping into his idiot cousin Alasdair, and wouldn’t that be fun. If she would just point. That could be enough. Perhaps he could galvanize her into speech—or a lifted finger, north or south—
He reached for another coin and tossed them both to her which she caught adeptly.
“Tell me how to return to the Glanville estate,” he repeated, enunciating with extra care as well as increased volume.
Livia frankly stared. Heavens, but he was good-looking. He sat his horse with effortless, athletic grace (rendering her odds of being trampled reassuringly low), and it was easy to see the strength of his broad shoulders and long, powerful legs. It was nice to see someone so well put together. And she liked his hair, too: it was brown, neither dark nor light, and thick, straight, rather long. His eyes were also brown, intense and piercing, set off by dark brows. Long sideburns framed aristocratic cheekbones; his nose was straight, proud. And his mouth. He had a thin upper lip which, when you looked at it, and compared it to the fuller lower lip, would seem to be unattractive, but it wasn’t. Somehow they just went beautifully together. It was surprising, really.
“Can you assist me?” he said. “I must return to the Glanville estate, where I am a guest.”