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A Poor Relation
By Joanna Maitland
Mills & BoonCopyright © 2003 Joanna Maitland
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Carriage stopped up ahead, m'lord."
Lord Amburley did not spare a single sideways glance as he took his curricle past the stationary vehicle at the gallop and raced towards the bend in the wooded road.
"M'lord -" The groom made a move to look back.
"Keep your eyes on the road ahead, Brennan," said the Baron sharply.
Brennan gave a grunt of surprise and turned to stare at his master, but Lord Amburley clenched his jaw grimly, ignoring the unspoken question. A moment later, they had rounded the curve and the groom was grabbing wildly for the side of the curricle, as the team was brought from headlong gallop to steaming halt in the space of a few yards.
"M'lord -" began the groom, sounding agitated.
"Keep your voice down. If he realises we've stopped, we'll never take him by surprise." Lord Amburley reached under the seat with his free hand as he spoke. "What are you waiting for?" he added in an exasperated whisper. "Go to their heads, man. I've got my hands full as it is." Extracting a pistol from its hiding place, he jumped down and started to make his way cautiously into the trees that now hid the curricle from the carriage.
Just before he disappeared into the thick cover, Lord Amburley threw a final instruction over his shoulder. "Get the other pistol,Brennan. That ruffian may well be armed - and he may have accomplices, too. If you hear any shots, bring the curricle back up the road - at the double. And don't be afraid to shoot if you have to." He did not wait for a reply. He knew his groom would obey his orders to the letter, whatever the risk.
It was probably no more than a few hundred yards to the stationary vehicle, but it took Amburley an infuriatingly long time to pick his way through the neglected woodland. The snap of the smallest twig among the dense leaf litter might betray his presence. And he was determined to retain the advantage of surprise. He had seen only one assailant raising his hand to attack the woman by the carriage, but the man was unlikely to be alone. Since the end of the war, the roads were full of bands of starving, desperate men, preying on unwary travellers, especially women. Nothing could excuse such crimes, in Amburley's view, even though many of the robbers were ex-soldiers, thrown on the scrap-heap by a wickedly ungrateful country.
He crept forward, silently cursing his failure to remove the white driving coat that might so easily betray his presence. He would need to use all the available cover, just as he had learnt to do when he was a soldier in Spain. Pity he had no troop of men at his back, this time.
At last he could see the outline of the carriage through the trees. Taking refuge behind a gnarled oak, he strained his ears. Only one low voice - a woman's - sounding neither distressed nor anxious. Remarkable, in the circumstances. In Amburley's experience, gentlewomen usually had a fit of the vapours at the first hint of danger. Perhaps she was only a servant, after all.
However much he tried, he could not quite make out what the woman was saying. Then he heard a second voice - male, deep, a little hesitant.
Amburley risked a quick glance from his hiding place. There was no one else among the trees. The assailant must be alone. Strange - but certainly welcome. It stacked the odds in his own favour.
Levelling his pistol, he walked slowly towards the stationary vehicle.
As he emerged from the trees, the woman started and gave an audible gasp. Everyone else turned, saw, and froze - the coachman on the box, the groom mounted behind, at least one other female cowering in the dark recesses of the carriage - and the woman's assailant.
Confronted by this petrified tableau, Amburley had time to wonder why neither coachman nor groom had made any move to overpower a single attacker who - he could now see - was neither young nor strong. The two servants appeared to have left the woman - a plain, worn-looking person of indeterminate age, her face hidden by the poke of her faded bonnet - to fend for herself. Odd, unless -
"Pray, what are you about, sir?"
On hearing her educated voice, Amburley's first thought was that this woman must be much younger than he had supposed. And fully in command of herself.
"Would you be so good as to put up that pistol, sir?" A slight edge of annoyance had crept into the shabby young woman's voice. This was surely no mere servant.
Keeping his pistol steady, Amburley half turned from the would-be assailant, who was looking increasingly shifty, as though he might take to his heels at any moment.
"Certainly, madam," Amburley said evenly, not taking his eyes off the man. "Just as soon as I have an explanation as to why this man was assaulting you." He raised his pistol a fraction, so that the man would be in no doubt of his willingness to use it, if he attempted to escape.
The accused man took two steps back, eyes suddenly wide with fear at the sight of the gun's menacing little black muzzle. He made to speak, but no words came out.
The woman moved smartly between Amburley and his target, turning her back on the pistol and putting her hands reassuringly on the older man's arms. "Don't worry, Jonah," she said gently. "I'll deal with this. Nothing will happen to you, I promise."
Excerpted from A Poor Relation by Joanna Maitland Copyright © 2003 by Joanna Maitland. Excerpted by permission.
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