Then she heard it again. A wolf? But there were no wolves here anymore. Perhaps a wild dog? Perhaps a pack of wild dogs. She reached for the whip as her heart raced. Is this how Paul had died? Attacked and ripped to pieces?
In a panic and with her pulse racing, she tried to get the mare to move, but the stubborn animal stood as still as if it was made of bronze--except for the flick of its ears this way and that. Muscles tensed, ready to bolt if danger threatened, it continued to eye that luscious grass in the ditch. A howl echoed along the hills and Victoria’s blood turned cold. She froze and stopped struggling with the horse. She held her breath and listened. Even the birds had stopped twittering. Then she saw it. A lone wolf moving stealthily down the hillside to her right.
Gulping back her panic, she flicked the whip on the mare’s flank. The mare shied to the left, but did not step ahead. The wolf stopped moving, he crouched, ready to lunge from above.
“You stupid horse!” Victoria yelled. She could feel the icy sweat on her brow. She hit the horse with the whip as hard as she could. Once. Twice. She stood up and hit the horse a third time so violently the horse screamed, reared up and then took off as if the very devil was after her--which was what Victoria had hoped for, but she was unprepared for the jolt as the buggy lurched forward.
The force knocked her backward and onto the floor of the buggy. The reins slipped from her fingers. She had to use all her strength to hang on as the crazed mare galloped down the sloping hill. The reins trailed along on the ground. She could never grab them. She prayed that the horse would not crash the buggy into the trees, or into another vehicle--or worst of all, go over the side of the hill.
The scenery flew by as the mare raced along and Victoria’s head spun. Jostled violently on the hard wooden floor, she gritted her teeth as the vehicle bounced into every rut in the road, she considered jumping out, but the possibility that she would break a bone--or a few of them--kept her where she was. Also, the fact that there was a wolf out there.
How fast could a wolf run? Was he right behind the buggy?
She heard a shout. And another. She struggled to see who was calling out, but with the wild rocking of the buggy, she could barely focus.
The buggy slowed--and then stopped. Weak and dizzy, Victoria clutched at the whip in her hand. Would she be able to scare the wolf away with it if he came at her?
She crawled from beneath the seat. Her stomach heaved and she clamped her hand over her mouth. She would not be sick.
She narrowed her eyes to focus them and saw the Beast sitting astride his great black horse. He held the reins to the buggy in his gloved hands.
“You dropped these?” His contemptuous tone did not surprise her though the rather sulfuric shade of yellow tingeing his aura did. She suspected by the set of his square jaw that a prudent move would be to duck for cover. After all, she had disobeyed his edict--and her little excursion could have ended very badly. Still, she was truly glad to see him. She glanced around, but did not see the wolf.
Despite the throbbing of her bruises, she pulled herself up onto the seat, straightened out her dress, and dusted herself off. “A wolf appeared on the hillside and the mare bolted in fright.” Actually, the dim-witted mare probably would have been the wolf’s dinner. Victoria gulped. And she would have been the wolf’s dessert. However, she decided not to discuss that.
The Beast’s expression clouded over and a savage glint came into his eyes. Her heart began to race. “There are no wolves here.”
“I saw it.” She glared back at him. “And I heard it, too.”
“I told you not to leave the estate.”
She met his fierce look without flinching and lied. “I needed some new ribbons.”
He swore. At least, she thought he did--she could not tell because the words were in his own harsh language.
A tremor went through her even though she fought to squelch it. Yes, it had been a very close call. Nevertheless, she had her pride. “I am not hurt, and neither is your mare.”
He dismounted and tied the reins of his horse to a sturdy bush. Without any more discussion, he examined the mare and then unhitched her from the buggy. He walked over to the side of the buggy and frowned. Victoria leaned over the side of the buggy and swallowed hard when she saw what had happened to the back wheel. If she had gone on much further, the wheel would undoubtedly have come off.
She felt the blood drain from her face as the Beast lifted his gaze to hers. The sulfuric color of his aura had shifted to a shade of orange. What did the fiery color indicate?
“You will ride on Smialek with me. The mare will follow.” It was an order.
He reached up to take her from the buggy. She winced as his hand pressed against her bruised skin.
“You are hurt!”
“No. It is nothing. Only a bruise.”
His lips pressed into a grim line. He swept her into his arms and carried her to his great black horse. With her heart thundering in her chest, she could not control the trembling of her body. But when the Beast mounted the horse and she leaned back against him a sense of calm came over her. She closed her eyes. She was safe. For now.
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