The crash of shattering wood and the terrified screams of horses sliced through the frosty night like a knife.
Sebastian Sinclair, Earl of Kinvarra, swore, brought his restive mount under control, then spurred the nervous animal around the turn in the snowy road. With cold clarity, the full moon shone on the white landscape, and starkly revealed the disaster before him.
A flashy black curricle lay on its side in a ditch, the hood up against the weather. One horse had broken free and wandered along the roadway, its harness dragging. The other plunged in the traces, struggling to escape.
Swiftly Kinvarra dismounted, knowing his mare would await his signal, and dashed to free the distressed horse. As he slid down the icy ditch, a hatless man scrambled out of the smashed curricle.
“Are you hurt?” Kinvarra asked, casting a quick eye over him.
“No, I thank you, sir.” The effete blond fellow turned to the carriage. “Come, darling. Let me assist you.”
A graceful black-gloved hand extended from inside and a cloaked woman emerged with more aplomb than Kinvarra would have thought possible in the circumstances. Indications were that neither traveller was injured, so he concentrated on the trapped horse. When he spoke soothingly to the animal, the terrified beast quieted to panting stillness, exhausted from its thrashing. While Kinvarra checked the horse, murmuring calm assurances throughout, the stranger helped the lady up to the roadside.
With a shrill whinny, the horse shook itself and jumped up to trot along the road toward its partner. Neither beast seemed to suffer worse than fright, a miracle considering that the curricle was beyond repair.
“Madam, are you injured?” Kinvarra asked as he climbed up the ditch. He stuck his riding crop under his arm and brushed his gloved hands together to knock the clinging snow from them. It was a hellishly cold night.
The woman kept her head down. From shock? From shyness? For the sake of propriety? Perhaps he’d stumbled on some elopement or clandestine meeting.
“Madam?” he asked again, more sharply.
“Sweeting?” The yellow-haired fop bent to peer into the shadows cast by the hood. “Are you sure you’re unharmed? Speak, my dove. Your silence strikes a chill to my soul.”
While Kinvarra digested the man’s outlandish phrasing, the woman stiffened and drew away. “For heaven’s sake, Harold, you’re not giving a recitation at a musicale.” With an unmistakably impatient gesture, she flung back the hood and glared straight at Kinvarra.
Even though he’d identified her the moment she spoke, he found himself staring dumbstruck into her face. A piquant, vivid, pointed face under an untidy tumble of luxuriant gold hair.
He wheeled on the pale fellow. “What the devil are you doing with my wife?”