Heath Kennedy caught his breath as he saw a girl riding like the wind along the shore. As he focused his whole attention upon her, the aches and pains of his body diminished. The girl's beautiful black hair streamed out behind her like a proud banner, and it was obvious that she had a free spirit and loved nature as much as he did. She rode bareback and seemed not to know, or care, that her skirt had ridden up to expose her long, bare legs. He took her for a Gypsy girl, yet he was sure he did not know her. Such a female would be unforgettable.
Heath got to his knees, then slowly, without taking his eyes from the rider, he stood up. He knew she saw him, for she suddenly tossed her head and urged her mount to a reckless speed. Her black Border pony was surefooted and bred for stamina, yet the wild gallop to the far end of the beach showed a wanton desire to display her riding skill. The female hardly slowed as she pivoted her pony and rode directly toward him at full gallop. Heath, who had no intention of moving from her path, planted his feet firmly and laughed at her folly. "Where is the rest of the band camped?" he called. At the last minute she drew rein and slid down from the pony's back. "What band?" she demanded in a challenging voice.
"The Gypsies. You are a Gypsy, are you not?"
Raven stopped dead, four feet away from him. The features of her beautiful face were frozen in outrage.
"A Gypsy?" she repeated in disbelief. "You ignorant swine, I have never been so offended in my life! How dare you offer me such insult?" Raven was stunned that the dark Borderer had mistaken her for a ragtag Gypsy. Her contemptuous glance ran over his bare chest and shoulders with their powerful muscles and corded tendons. He was probably looking for a quick tumble. "I am a LADY! My father is Sir Lancelot Carleton. We own Rockcliffe Marsh, upon which you, sir, are trespassing!"
Now that Heath saw her close up, he could see that she was no Gypsy. Her skin was like roses and cream rather than dusky, and her eyes were a startling lavender-blue. He also could see her aura, which was a matching shade of lavender against her black hair. "An ENGLISH lady." He gave her a mocking bow and winced inwardly at the pain it caused him. "That is too bad."
Raven's chin went up immediately and her temper flared. "Why so?" she challenged.
"Gypsy girls have fire in their blood--English ladies have ice."
She dug her fists into her hips. "Well, there is no mistaking what YOU are: an insolent Borderer, most likely a Scot to boot!" Raven was amazed at her own temerity. An aura of danger surrounded the dark man before her, and he exuded a sense of threat. Her words did not offend him, rather they flattered him. Heath Kennedy was indeed first and foremost a Borderer and a Scot. When she looked at him as if he were the scum of the earth, he smiled inwardly, wondering what she would think if she knew he had a little Gypsy blood mixed in there too. Raven swallowed her fear of the dark and dangerous man who stood before her, and said with bravado, "You had better be off before my brother sets his dogs on you and my father arrests you for trespass!"
Heath smiled wryly. He knew Lance Carleton had once been constable of Carlisle Castle, but thought his years must sit heavily upon him now that he was lame and had been put out to pasture, so to speak. For his service to the Crown, however, he had been appointed an official who sat in judgment at the Border Wardens' Courts, which were held four times a year. "If Sir Lancelot saw you showing off your bare legs so shamefully, he would tan your arse, I warrant."
Raven could not prevent the blush that rose to her cheeks, because there was truth in his words. This, of course, made her so angry she did not trust herself to retort. Instead she shot him a look of scorn, turned her back upon him, and remounted her pony. The blush told him that she was an innocent lass, despite her haughty pride. He felt an instant attraction toward the spirited beauty, in spite of her disdain. Heath allowed her to ride a short distance away from him before he put two fingers to his lips and whistled. Her pony stopped in his tracks, turned, and trotted back toward Heath.
"Sully! Whoa! Whoa, boy! Sully, stop!" Raven cried.
Sully did stop, but not until he stood in front of Heath Kennedy. The bare-chested Borderer reached out a hand and scratched the pony's nose, and Sully moved forward to nudge him.
"What in hell's name are you doing? Raven demanded furiously, suddenly realizing the danger was real.
Heath's fingers took hold of Sully's bridle. "My dearest lady, I find myself in dire straits this morning. I am in need of a mount, and like an angel of mercy you have delivered one into my hands. I pledge to return him at my first convenient opportunity."
Raven laughed in his face. "Give you Sully? You must be mad!"
Heath nodded his head. "A mad Borderer, and a Scot to boot! Allow me to help you dismount."
For the first time Raven's eyes revealed that fear mingled with her fury. She kicked out at him, but he deftly caught her ankle and pulled her from the pony's back. He let go of the reins, and Sully stood obedient to his signal as Heath took Raven firmly by the shoulders and looked down at her. "There is something else that I lust for, my proud beauty." His fingers deftly unbuttoned her shirt.
Raven's eyes widened in shock. "You would ravish me?"
"Another time, perhaps, my lady. Today I only desire the shirt off your back." Raven's mouth fell open as he plucked the shirt from her, leaving her clad in only her feminine undergarment. She began to pant with rage. "You filthy Scots bastard, stealing horses is a hanging offfense, and you will swing, so help me God!"
Heath mounted Sully. "I will not cavil at 'bastard', but I do object to the word 'filthy'. I bathed in the River Eden last night. I bid you adieu, until we meet again."
Copyright Virginia Henley 2001