Revelin smiled at the beggarly woman’s haughtiness. Her head was high, but the muddy hand gripping the younger woman’s shoulder oozed blood from a cut. She swayed slightly, as if about to faint, and he realized that the women leaned against each other to keep their balance. Sympathy for their plight made him move a step closer despite the fierce face challenging him. “Could I be worse than the others?” he asked with a nod toward the forest.
“Ye could be less and still do harm,” Una answered unhesitatingly, but she put out a hand to grip his arm tightly. She closed her eyes momentarily against the needle-sharp pain that suddenly shot through her chest. There was no time to give in to the pain, no time to do anything but help Meghan escape before the herdsmen regained their courage and returned. “’Tis the lass. She tried to stop them. I fear she’s most hurt.”
“Let me have a look at her,” Revelin answered. As his hand gently closed over her slim shoulder, he felt a shudder pass through the girl. “There’s nothing to fear, lass. I want only to help you.”
Meghan’s head pounded with blinding fury. The terror of the last minutes was with her still, overriding the realization that she was safe. Only a moment before, hard hands had been about to cast her into flames. This touch was more gentle, yet it prodded her to action. Instead of turning toward him as the pressure of his hand demanded, she jerked free and took a few halting steps before she stumbled and sprawled in the rain-slick grass. The impact left her breathless. Incredibly, the warm, wet edge of a rough tongue reached out and bathed her face before she could even draw a breath.
Ualter sniffed the girl delicately and then licked the wound on the back of her hand. Finally he thrust his muzzle under her palm.
“Ualter!” A few quick strides brought Revelin to the fallen girl’s side and he aimed a booted kick at his dog. “Let her be, you mangy cur!”
He knelt and lifted her, turning her over so that her head came to rest against his chest. The fleeting thought of how light she was disappeared as he saw the purple bruise on her right temple where a stone had struck. Had its blow been harder to the fragile spot, he knew, she would have been killed. Restraining a fresh spurt of anger in English curses, he gently touched the trickle of blood at the corner of her lips. Her face was turned from him and for a moment he wondered if the fall had broken her neck. His fingers splayed over the slender column of her throat to the place where her pulse throbbed rapidly.
“Is she dead?” Robin called from his saddle.
“No,” he shouted back, not looking up.
Meghan stirred, trying not to moan as she breathed. “Please! Please, don’t hurt us any more.”
Encouraged by the sound of her voice, Revelin answered, “Hurt you? You’ve nothing to fear from me, lass.” He caught her chin. “Open your eyes and you’ll see nothing to harm you,” he said gently.
Meghan shook her head, straining against the sensation of comfort in the man’s voice. There was no help; why would her dreams taunt her now?
“Look at me, darlin’,” Revelin coaxed in yet a softer tone. “I may not be the man of your dreams, lass, but I’ve never made a lady swoon yet.”
No other words could have made Meghan open her eyes, but the mention of her dreams made them fly wide.
His face loomed above her. His bright hair! The rain had darkened it, though, to bronze rings that clung to his brow. They were his eyes—the deep green irises ringed by violet now as full of surprise as her own.
The moment she looked up at him Revelin felt a jolt of familiarity. Sea-blue eyes caught and held him a moment in their whirlpool of emotion, then his gaze moved to the hand covering her left cheek. Frowning, he pried loose the fingers she had clamped over her cheek, though her nails curled into her flesh in clawing desperation. The gesture touched him deeply. Was she so afraid of a man’s regard? And then he saw it. A perfectly shaped blood-red rose birthmark.
“You!” he whispered, jolted back into English by his surprise. “You are real.”
With the lightest of touches his thumb caressed the fine velvety plush of her cheek and then drifted across the distinct floral mark that was no trick of mud or bruise. He had not imagined it. He had not dreamed her.
“So you know her? Trust you to make the most of your days in the wilds.”
Revelin raised his head to find that Robin had dismounted and come to stand over him. His mouth tightened in annoyance. There was little of this he was ready to explain to Robin, least of all why he knew the girl.
“’Twas mean spirited to keep your companions waiting while you exercised your tender charms upon a country wench.” Robin bent over Revelin’s shoulder with a mischievous grin. “Let’s have a look at your Hibernian sweetheart.” He cupped the girl’s face. “She’s a bit muddy, isn’t she, but—God’s blood!” His full horror echoed in his words as Robin jerked his hand away and took a backward step.
Meghan turned her face into the coat sleeve of the man who held her. She did not need to understand English to know that her mark had once again frightened a stranger.
Revelin’s arm tightened protectively as he felt her shrink against him. “What the devil ails you, Neville?”
Robin swallowed hard, his boyish face suddenly pale. “She…she bears Satan’s mark. Put her down, Rev,” he continued as he raised his palm to look at it. “Oh, God, and I’ve touched her, too!”
“Curse you for a fool,” Revelin answered. “What’s a mark, more or less?”
“I’ll thank you to shut up, Robin,” Revelin cut in, amazed by the tide of anger he felt rising within himself and yet sure of its validity. “The girl doesn’t need your superstitious prattling; she needs your help.”
“My help?” Robin voiced faintly. “Really, Butler. This is above all call of duty, even for a gentleman. Leave her, man. Who’s to tell when that rabble may regain their courage and return? We aren’t even privy to the reason for the attack. Mayhaps the women are witches and…”
Robin faltered, amazed at the look on Revelin’s face. Court gossip whispered that the young Irishman had the devil’s own temper when aroused, but never before had Robin glimpsed the danger that lay like a treacherous current beneath the surface.
Revelin’s voice was taut with anger as he said, “This ‘witch,’ as you would brand her, pulled me from the bottom of a marshy pond where I was entangled and drowning five mornings past. If she be a witch, then I thank God for it.”