Red Riding Hood and the Lone Wolfe

Red Riding Hood and the Lone Wolfe

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ROSEWYN BAKER stopped on the creek side path when she heard hoofbeats pounding down the hill. She twisted in its direction. What fool hurried this early in the morning? And in the rain?

A huge beast galloped through the shrubs, a rider hunched over it, his hat bouncing free. Man and creature hurled toward the creek swollen from the rains. Then the horse crashed to a halt short of the bank.

The man flew over its head, flipped and landed on his back. Water erupted into the already wet air. A startled bird cried and flew away.

“Oh.” Rosewyn’s hand pressed against her cheek.

‘Tis not something ye see every day.

She lifted her skirts and hopped across stepping-stones and tufts of dead grass to reach his side. She gasped as icy water entered her boots, finding every hole and thin spot to soak her woolen stockings.

The man did not move.

What if he be dead? Good and proper that would do me if he died.

She cast an accusing glance at the horse that browsed the creek side for a bit of green.

“Mister. Mister, be ye all right?” Rosewyn shook the man’s shoulder. She’d not seen him afore.

He was a great stick of a man, all sprawled in the rushing water. None of his limbs seemed broken, so she grabbed hold of his coat and dragged him to higher ground. He weighed no more than her gran, her being eighty-four and all and a bit wobbly on her legs.

Hands on hips, Rosewyn stood over the man. What to do? Catch the black beastie and ride him to the village? Walk there in wet boots? Who was the idiot, anyway? Galloping a horse downhill and expecting it to jump a creek too wide?

The man groaned and twitched, and his left hand thumped the ground like a dog’s.

“Goddess above, but you’re lucky,” she cried down to him. “What be ye thinking?”

He’d lost his hat, and dark curls hid his eyes as he groaned again and tried to sit.

Rosewyn made a tsk sound like she might have to one of her older brothers and knelt to help the wet fool.

“Ye be all right. Nothing a fire and a drink won’t mend.” She whipped off her red cloak to cover him. “Here. I’ll be wanting that back. Don’t think you can steal from Rosewyn Baker.”

“Is that your name?” He sat with her help and drew the wool closer. “I’m in your debt.” He scraped his hand across his mouth, leaving a smudge of black mud.

She rocked back on her heels. He’s spoken in a cultured accent, nothing like her rough one. Was he gentlefolk then, one up by the castle? Must be, from the look of his elegant clothes and his use of such a fine animal.

“Are ye hurt?” Mockery dropped from her voice. If he was from Eastlocke, a bad word from him could ruin her.

“I’ve been better.” The man shook his head then stared at her with deep brown eyes. “Why is your hair so short?”

Rosewyn clapped a hand to her shorn locks, usually hid by the cloak’s hood. “Fever two months past. Healer Perth cut it off to release the sickness. Fool.” She spat on the ground then remembered his social standing. A man of her class wouldn’t think anything of swearing or spitting, but one of his? She’d best be on good behavior.

“Sorry, sir. Sorry.”

“Don’t be. No doubt the man was a fool to cut such beautiful hair.” A moment later his fingers sifted through it.

Rosewyn stiffened. She knew men, she did, and he had no right touching her, gentleman or not.

“You’d best keep your hands to yerself.” She touched the knife handle sheathed at her waist.

His brown gaze followed the movement, and he dropped his hand. “No offense, Mistress Baker.”

She didn’t correct the title. Let him think she had a great, jealous, brutish husband at home, one who’d knock about anyone who hurt his wife.

“None taken. Let me help you up and best you be on the way.” The path led from Chissen village to Wintock, with no one about at dawn.

The man grabbed her hand, and she pulled him up. He stood a head above her, so thin she cried out, “Look at you. Ye need to eat more.”

He glanced down. Mud covered him, ruining his fine clothes.

“I am a mess, aren’t I?” He returned the cloak and sketched a bow. “Many thanks, mistress.” He reached into a pocket, but came away with an empty palm. “I have no coin for you.”

Rosewyn’s eyes rounded. “I’d not take it. Can I not help those who do need it?”

“Again, my apologies.” He leaned down and picked up the basket she’d dropped when he fell. His eyebrows rose as he saw the bread and rolls inside, wrapped in flannel. “You’re a baker?”

Did he insult her craft? Rosewyn straightened, and ice entered her voice. “I’m the baker of Chissen Village.” As had been her ma, rest her soul, and her gran afore her.

“I’ve not had decent bread in weeks.” His eyes looked like a puppy’s, big and begging.

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