Excerpt from The Mad Earl's Bride
Dorian glanced back, then quickly ahead again.
He told himself the recent confrontation had agitated him more than he'd suspected, and what he believed he'd just seen was a trick of his unreliable mind.
The ignorant rustics, who believed pixies dwelt all over Dartmoor, had named Hagsmire for the witches they also believed haunted the area. During mists and storms, they mounted ghostly steeds and chased their victims into the mire.
The hoofbeats grew louder.
The thing was gaining on him.
He glanced back, his heart pounding, his nerves tingling.
Though he assured himself it couldn't be there, his eyes told him it was: a demonic-looking female riding an enormous bay. A tangled mane of fiery red hair flew wildly about her face. She rode boldly astride, a pale cloak streaming out behind her, her skirts hiked up to her knees, shamelessly displaying her ghostly white limbs.
Though it was only a moment's glance, the brief distraction proved fatal, for in the next instant, Isis swerved too sharply into a turning.
Dorian reacted a heartbeat too late, and the mare skidded over the crumbling track edge, and stumbled down the treacherous incline . . . toward the quagmire waiting below.
* * *
The pale mare managed to scramble back from the edge of the murky pit, but she threw off her master in the process.
Gwendolyn leapt down from her mount, collected the rope she'd brought, and climbed down the incline to the edge of the bog.
Several feet from where she stood, the Earl of Rawnsley was thrashing in a pit of grey muck. In the few minutes it had taken her to reach the bog, he'd slid toward its heart, and his efforts to struggle for footing where there wasn't any only sucked him in deeper.
Still, the muck had climbed only as far as his hips, and an assessing glance told Gwendolyn that this patch of mire was relatively narrow in circumference.
Even while she was studying her surroundings, she was moving toward the mare, making reassuring sounds. She was aware of Rawnsley cursing furiously, in between shouting at her to go away, but she disregarded that.
"Try to keep as still as possible," she told him calmly. "We'll have you out in a minute."
"Get away from here!" he shouted. "Leave my horse alone, you bedamned witch! Run, Isis! Home!"
But Gwendolyn was stroking under the mare's mane, and the creature was quieting, despite her master's shouts and curses. She stood docilely while Gwendolyn unbuckled the stirrup strap, removed the stirrup iron, and rebuckled the strap. She looped one end of the rope through the strap and knotted it. Then she led the mare a few paces closer to the bog.
Rawnsley had stopped cursing and he was not thrashing about so much as before. She did not know whether he'd come to his senses or was simply exhausted. She could see, though, that he'd sunk past his waist. Swiftly she tied a loop at the free end of the rope.
“You’ll fall in, you stupid—”
"Look sharp now," she called to him. "I'm going to throw it."
She flung the rope. He grabbed . . . and missed. And swore profusely.
Gwendolyn quickly drew it back and tried again.
On the fifth try, he caught it.
"Try to hold on with both hands," she said. "And don't try to help us. Pretend you're a log. Keep as still as you can."
She knew that was very difficult. It was instinctive to struggle when one was sinking. But he would sink faster if he fought the mire, and the deeper he was, the harder it would be to pull him out. Even here, where it was safe, the soggy ground was barely walkable. Her boots sank into mud up to the ankles. Isis, too, must contend with the mud, as well as her master's weight, and the powerful mire dragging him down.
Still, they would do it, Gwendolyn assured herself. She looped the reins through one hand and grasped the stirrup strap and rope with the other.
Then she turned the mare so that she'd be moving sideways from the bog, and started her on the first cautious steps of rescue. "Slowly, Isis," she murmured. "I know you want to hurry—so do I—but we cannot risk wrenching his arms from their sockets."
* * *
The Earl of Rawnsley collapsed as soon as he escaped the mire, but Gwendolyn had to leave him while she returned to the bridle path with his horse. Though Isis had been good and patient through the ordeal, she was restless and edgy now, and Gwendolyn was worried she might stumble into the mire if left unattended. One could not look after horse and master simultaneously.
By the time she’d settled Isis with her cousin Bertie’s gelding, retrieved a brandy flask from the saddlebag, and hurried back to Rawnsley, he had returned to consciousness. To extremely bad-tempered consciousness, by the looks and sound of it.
His black hair dripped ooze from the mire, and he was cursing under his breath as he shoved it out of his face and dragged himself up to a sitting position.
"Devil take you and roast you in Hell!" he snarled. "You could have killed yourself—and my horse. I told you to go away, curse you!"
A mask of grey-green slime clung to his face. Even under the mucky coating, however, the features appeared stronger and starker than in the miniature she’d been given. This was a hard, sharply etched face, while the painted one had been sickly looking and puffy.
The reality was so unlike the picture that Gwendolyn wondered for a moment whether someone had played a joke on her, and this wasn’t Rawnsley at all.
Then he pulled off his mud-encrusted gloves and wiped the filth from his eyes with his fingers and looked at her . . . and she froze, the breath stuck in her throat as her heart missed the next scheduled beat.
Bertie had called him Cat, because, he said, that's what all the fellows at school had called him. Now Gwendolyn understood why.
The Earl of Rawnsley's eyes were yellow.
Not a human brown or hazel, but a feline amber gold. They were the eyes of a jungle predator, burning bright—and dangerous.
Fortunately, Gwendolyn was not easily intimidated. The shock passed as quickly as it had come, and she knelt down beside him and offered the flask with a steady hand.
Her voice was steady, too, as she answered. "No self-respecting witch would go away, on a mere mortal's orders. She'd be drummed out of the coven in disgrace."
He took the flask from her and drank, his intent yellow gaze never leaving her face.
"You may not know that all the best witches come to Dartmoor for their familiars," she said. "A black cat is de rigueur. Since you're the only one available—"
"I'm not available, and I'm not a damned tabby, you demented little hellhound! And I know who you are. You're the curst cousin, aren't you? Only one of Bertie's kin would come galloping into a mire in that lunatic way and blunder about, risking a horse, as well as her own scrawny neck, saving a man from what she got him into. And I didn't ask to be saved, devil confound you! It's all the same to me—I've already got one foot in the grave—or didn't they tell you?"
"Yes, they did tell me," she answered calmly. "But I did not come all this way only to turn back at the first obstacle. I am aware it is all the same to you. I realize the mire would have saved you the trouble of putting a pistol to your head or hanging yourself or whatever you had in mind. But you may just as easily do that later, after we're wed. I regret the inconvenience, my lord, but I cannot let you die before the ceremony, or I shall never get my hospital."
In the past, Gwendolyn often obtained satisfactory results from startling statements.
It worked this time, too.
He drew back slightly, and his furious expression softened into bewilderment.
"It is simple enough," she said. "I need you, and you need me—although I cannot expect you to believe at present since you know next to nothing about me.”
She glanced upward. "We are about to be inundated. We will need to find shelter—for the horses' sake, I mean, since you won't mind dying of lung fever, either. That is not altogether inconvenient. Waiting out the storm will give us a chance for private conversation."