And then I came back.
When he was drunk, he used to tell smart-mouthed travelers the third hound was in the pie. Her brow creased with concern. Her brow was more than a mite annoyed with his interference, and her cheeks were turning an embarrassed pink. But her lips twitched at the corners as though she might cry, and her eyes … Her eyes were just beautiful. They made him too stupid to hold his next thought. Embraced her, of all things. What an idea. Where were these fancies coming from? Any man with a pulse would feel the same. It smacked of romance and innocence and all those other things that had nothing to do with him.
What he wanted with Meredith was different. This strong, self-sufficient woman had awakened a tender impulse inside him. He was responsible for the state of her life. For the state of this village, in fact. His fault that she had to play caretaker to an invalid father by day and constable to a band of unruly drunkards by night.
Every hobbled step her father took, each tiny callus on her hand, every spot of blood on her dainty white tablecloth … all of it was his own damn fault. Horsemanship is in his blood. It is his life. And he did. Suddenly, Rhys understood everything.
The way to redeem his whole wasted life. It all made perfect, unquestionable sense. He looked about the courtyard. He left twelve years ago, when your father ceased paying his living. A curate comes out once a month from Lydford to hold services.
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This made things a touch more difficult. She gave him a cheeky smile. Feel the need to confess your sins? That would take years. No, he just wanted to make things right.
When she spoke, her voice was strangely brittle. I will be, soon. God, he was hungry. If she lost another roll from that basket, it would never reach the hounds. In Buckleigh-in-the-Moor? Travel would be hard on your father. In this remote village. Simply so my father can be a guest at your wedding. But he was rather looking forward to learning how it felt. Awareness sharpened her gaze. Oh, no? Oh no, indeed. The inevitability.
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Her gaze trained on a spot somewhere behind his left shoulder. Rhys recognized some of them from the inn yesterday, but other faces were new. To a one, they all carried flaming torches. For good. He was uneasy, too. But the band of fools holding the torches … they inspired nothing in him but derision.
Rhys stepped toward the center of the courtyard. Now say what it is you mean to say. Fire burned Nethermoor Hall to the ground fourteen years ago and drove your folk from the moors forever. You should have stayed away, too. Rhys wheeled around, searching for its source.
Gideon Myles stood in the doorway of the stables, smoking pistol in hand. Laurence made a sweeping gesture with his torch, sending men leaping backward to avoid being singed. The two faced off, circling one another in the middle of the courtyard. This time, Rhys was not going to stand back and watch. He stepped between the two men and grabbed each of them by the shirtfront. One flex of his arms, and he could bash their skulls together and put an end to the whole scene.
Before Rhys could register its origin, a wave of ice-cold water sloshed over his head, dousing him to the skin. The shock of it froze him in place for a moment.
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An icy rivulet crawled down his back, and he shivered. Rhys recognized it as belonging to Darryl Tewkes. He turned around, and there the youth was, twitchy eye and all. Water droplets flew everywhere.
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He took the fizzling torches from the two men, turned them wrong-end-up, and stubbed them in the dirt. Damn it, he hated making speeches. He tried to keep his voice even.