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An Unexpected Engagement
By Sara Reinke Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Sara Reinke
All right reserved.
Chapter One Essex County, England October, 1748
"Stand and deliver!"
At the cry, Charlotte Engle snapped awake with a startled gasp. Her eyes flew wide, the last vestiges of sleepy disorientation whipping from her mind as a sharp, booming report of gunfire ripped through the air outside of the coach.
She had been on the road from London and into Essex County for little more than an hour and had not meant to doze off. However, the sun had set, leaving the carriage to darkness along the highway, with only the dim, golden glow of interior lamps for illumination and the droning, inane gossip that passed for her aunt, Maude Rutherford, the Dowager Viscountess Chelmsford's idea of conversation for company.
Charlotte yelped in bewildered alarm as the carriage lurched and she plowed gracelessly into the side of the coach belly. She could feel the wheels skitter for uncertain purchase along the edge of the rutted highway. The horses screamed, and the carriage shifted again, listing to the right before sliding to a jostling halt. She stared across the carriage cab at Una Renfred, her maid, her eyes wide in alarm, her hand darting instinctively for the muff against her lap.
"Highwaymen!" she gasped, even as Lady Chelmsford uttered a low and horrified moan, her hands fluttering about her bosom.
Charlotte heard footsteps hurriedly approaching the left side of the coach, and she jerked out the loaded pocket pistol she carried tucked within her muff. Lady Chelmsford caught sight of the weapon and moaned again, nearly swooning. Charlotte drew the doghead back against her thumb and leveled the petite weapon at the carriage door just as she heard someone outside take the handle in hand. The hinges creaked and the door opened wide; Charlotte caught a glimpse of a shadow-draped figure beyond, moving as if he meant to lean into the coach, and then she squeezed the trigger.
The pistol bucked against her palm, the barrel seeming to explode in a sudden, bright shower of sparks and a thick, pungent cloud of smoke. She heard the man at the doorway cry out, but could not tell if she had hit him or not. The door bounced closed as he fell away, and the smoke from the gunfire filled the coach cab, choking them.
"Come on!" Charlotte cried, whooping for breath, tears springing to her eyes. She groped about blindly in the thick smoke and caught Una by the wrist. She punted the door open and sprang from the coach, dragging Una in tow. She shoved the older woman toward the trees beyond the edge of the road.
"Run, Una!" she cried, choking on smoke, struggling for breath. She turned, reaching into the carriage and seizing Lady Chelmsford by the outstretched, flapping hand. She nearly toppled backward and onto her rump as her aunt came stumbling gracelessly from the cab. "Run!" she cried again, snatching Lady Chelmsford's redingote in her hands and offering her a hearty push in the direction of the forest. "Into the trees! Go! Go!"
Charlotte turned to run as well, and yelped when she felt a strong arm catch her firmly about the waist. "Let go of me!" she yelled, ramming the heel of her shoe firmly against the top of her captor's foot, drawing a surprised, pained yowl. His arm loosened about her, and she shoved her elbow mightily into his gut, knocking the breath from him. She wriggled from his grasp and tried to run again; the man caught her by the sleeve, whirling her around.
"Turn me loose!" Charlotte cried, closing her hand into a fist and sending it in a wicked arc from the fulcrum of her shoulder. Her knuckles slammed into the man's cheek; she could see he wore a black tricorne hat and a heavy black greatcoat, his face obscured by a drape of black fabric. His head snapped toward his shoulder at the impact of her fist, and again his hand loosened from her coat.
She turned to bolt for the trees, and plowed headlong into another highwayman. This one grabbed her firmly by the wrists; when she tried to draw her knee up into his crotch, he pivoted his hips, struggling with her, blocking the proffered blow with his thigh. She looked up into his face, also hidden by a scarf, and screamed at him. "Turn me loose, you rot damn bastard!"
She could not see his eyes above the edge of his scarf because of the heavy shadows cast by the brim of his hat, but he stiffened all at once, as if startled. She heard him draw in a sharp, hissing breath and his fingers slackened about her wrists. She wrenched herself free and staggered away from him, nearly tripping as her heels settled unsteadily in the soft loam at the road's edge.
Before Charlotte could regain her footing, much less her wits, she heard Lady Chelmsford utter a high-pitched, warbling wail. "Aunt Maude-!" Charlotte gasped, turning in time to see a third highwayman tussling with Lady Chelmsford. He had caught her by the arm, and she proceeded to swoon. Lady Chelmsford was a well-endowed woman, and when her legs failed her, she tended to take anyone not observing a safe margin of space down with her. She crumpled as Charlotte watched, and the highwayman yelped, his hands flailing as she knocked him beneath the broad basin of her pannier frame and the ballooning swell of her skirts.
"Do not move, my lady," said another highwayman, the first to have grabbed her. He had recovered from her blow, and managed to give Una chase. He dragged the older woman ahead of him, holding a dagger blade pressed beneath the shelf of her chin.
"Una!" Charlotte whimpered. Her brows furrowed, and she closed her hands into fists, squaring off against the highwayman. "Let her go, you coward rot."
The stern measure of her voice, the baring of her fists, seemed to give him pause, because she saw the edge of the knife against Una's throat momentarily falter.
"Charlotte, do as they say," Una said quietly. She was remarkably calm for a woman in her circumstances, and she held Charlotte's gaze evenly. "Do not fight them. Let them take what they want and leave."
"Let her go," Charlotte said again to the highwayman. She stepped toward him, and when the one behind her caught her shoulder, she pivoted, drawing her fist back to strike.
"Charlotte, stop it," Una said, more sharply this time. Charlotte's fist paused, and she held it cocked, glaring at the highwayman.
"Step against the coach, my lady," he told Charlotte. His voice was hoarse from gun smoke, tremulous with uncertainty. Charlotte doubted the lot of them had ever before encountered a woman who would resist them. She could not see his face or eyes, but she could tell from the angle of his head, the hoist of his chin, that he was eying her readied fist with appropriate caution. "Please," he said. "Stand against the coach."
Charlotte and Una stood together with their backs to the carriage, watching the three highwaymen set to work. While one held a pistol on them, the other two bound Lady Chelmsford where she had fainted, with her hands trussed behind her back. Next, they dragged the driver, Edmond Cheadle-apparently unconscious-from the front of the coach.
"What have you done to our escort?" Charlotte demanded as they began to bind Cheadle. "You bastards, did you shoot him?"
The highwayman with the pistol trained at them stepped forward. "Do not fret," he said. "Your man is clumsy, not shot. He pitched off the driver's bench when the horses started. Knocked the wits from himself." He studied her for a moment and then chuckled. "He did not prove much of an escort, if I do say so, my lady."
Charlotte glared at him. "Bugger off."
"Such foul words from so lovely a mouth," the highwayman said, and he laughed. He held a small black sack out to them, not lowering his pistol. "Your jewelry and coins, my ladies," he said. "Kindly tender them, if you will."
Una poked her elbow firmly into Charlotte's arm, a mute but plain admonishment: Do as they say. Charlotte opened the front of her redingote, her motions sharp and angry. As Una removed her modest and inexpensive necklace and rings, Charlotte jerked at her dress ornaments, snatching the small, diamond-studded brooches each in turn from her stomacher. She shoved them unceremoniously into the pouch, and reached for her earrings, glowering all the while at the thief.
"You must feel like such a man," Charlotte told him. "Holding a pistol on a pair of unarmed women. How magnificently bold of you."
The thief paused; to judge by the canted angle of his head, he looked at Charlotte with surprise. "I beg your pardon?" he said.
"I would have thought the hanging of Dick Turpin would be enough to keep the likes of you cowed," Charlotte said, lifting her chin and pinching her brows.
"The likes of me?" the highwayman said, and then he shook his head and laughed. "Have we met before, my lady? Do you know me so intimately?"
"I would as soon be intimate with a corpse," Charlotte said, and when he laughed again, it stoked her outrage all the more. "I have read about you. You are the Black Trio, a rotten lot of scoundrels preying up and down these highways."
The highwayman chuckled, shaking his head again. "I think 'prey' perhaps is a bit strong a word," he remarked. "I would have you know I am a proper gentleman. The gazettes favor saying so, at any rate."
"You have been misinformed by the gazettes," Charlotte told him. "You, sir, are no gentleman."
"And you, my dear, are no lady," he replied.
Charlotte stiffened at his challenge, and Una uttered a soft groan.
"You have without question the most abrasive tongue I have ever heard from a woman," the thief said pointedly. "You throw a punch like a man in a gin-prompted brawl. You damn near scattered the brains from my associate's head with that little Bunney pistol you packed."
"How dare you," Charlotte challenged. "How dare you imply that because I do not swoon before you, quaking and pleading for mercy as you strip me of my valuables, I am not a lady."
"I am implying nothing," he said. "I am simply making an observation." He stepped closer to her, drawing so near she could see the faint glow of lamplight from inside the coach reflect from his eyes, winking beneath the shadow of his hat brim. She shied reflexively, feeling the back of her pannier frame press against the carriage, and as her eyes left his face, her gaze finding the barrel of his pistol still aimed at her, Charlotte felt the first inkling of anxious fear. Her throat tightened, her breath hitching softly, and any retort she might have offered faded from mind and tongue.
"You missed one," he said softly, tapping the barrel of his pistol against a small brooch holding her fichu closed at the swell of her bosom. Charlotte blinked, glancing down at it, a small rosette of diamonds.
She looked up. She could see the glint of his eyes; she could discern the outline of his nose and mouth beneath the drape of silk covering the lower quadrant of his face. "I ... the clasp is broken," she said. "It ... it is difficult to put on, much less remove once in place."
When he smiled, she could see the wry uplift of his mouth beneath the scarf. "Take it off, please."
"I told you, the clasp is broken," she said. "I do not know if I can."
"Why do you not give it a go?" he suggested mildly, rekindling her ire.
"It belonged to my grandmother," she said. "I would as soon keep it, if you do not mind. It is an heirloom, one of few reminders I have of her."
That aggravating measure of his smile, only hinted at beneath the scarf, widened. "Then I assure you, my lady, I shall hold it dear to my heart."
Charlotte blinked at him. "You are reprehensible," she whispered. She reached for the brooch, struggling with the clasp. She could hear one of his fellows rummaging through the luggage stowed against the back of the coach. The other tromped toward them, taking Una by the arm and forcing her to sit by the wheel, where he promptly set about tying her hands to the spokes.
"You are taking too long," he growled.
"It is not my fault, I assure you," the highwayman before her replied. "Our unladylike lady is distracting me."
His friend finished with Una and stood, moving toward the rear of the carriage. "Get her jewels and come on," he said.
The highwayman looked at Charlotte, and moved the pistol slightly. "You heard the gentleman," he said. "Move your hands aside. I will get it."
Charlotte did as she was told, watching as he tucked the pistol beneath his coat, under the waistband of his breeches. He stepped near to her, close enough to feel the weight of his hips buckle her pannier inward slightly. He reached for the brooch and tried to wrest the pin loose of the clasp. After a moment's futile effort, he glanced at her. "You were not lying."
"No," she said, scowling. "I was not."
His fingertips slipped unexpectedly down the front of her stomacher, delving into the slight margin between her breasts, beneath the top of her stay. Charlotte's breath caught against the back of her throat, and her eyes flew wide. She had never so much as kissed a man before; the delicate friction of his gloved fingers slipping against her flesh stoked something immediate and unexpected within her. She felt her heart thrum suddenly, frantically, and she slapped at his hand, knocking him away. "Do not touch me," she said.
"I only meant to try from the other side," he said. "I meant no disrespect."
"Then you should not offer it," she said. "Do not touch me."
He looked at her for a long moment, until Charlotte realized he understood her innocence and was amused by it. "Am I the first to do so?" he asked. "Have none ever ventured before me, then?"
"None with teeth remaining intact."
He laughed. "There is a blessing and a shame," he remarked. "A blessing for the man who is fortunate enough to be the first in full, and a shame for the rest of us. I told you I am a gentleman. Do not worry. Your virtues are secure."
"You will forgive me if your reassurances bring me little comfort at the moment," she said, and he laughed again.
"If you were as you claim-a gentleman of some meritorious character-you would not resort to highway robbery," Charlotte said, shrugging against the back of the coach to draw away from him. She hoped to bait him again, get his tongue wagging, and his attention diverted from her brooch. She had not lied; it was her grandmother's, and an heirloom. It was the most precious thing Charlotte owned, worth far more within her sentiments than any price it might fetch at a pawn shop, and she had no intention of surrendering it to him.
"How do you know I do not need the money?" he asked, feigned injury in his tone. "How do you know I am not pressed into such circumstances by dire poverty?"
Charlotte frowned. "This is your eighth robbery-I have read the gazettes. You have made more than enough to cover any costs of your own subsistence and beyond. You wear the fine clothes of someone with a well-padded purse, and I am sure you did not walk to this site to greet us. Undoubtedly you have a horse near at hand-a horse you must feed and stable. You should be ashamed that you would offer such an excuse as need or poverty. You are greedy, nothing more."
"Greedy?" he asked. "You speak as though I run amok, robbing tithe bowls or convents. I am pilfering spare change and paste jewels from aristocrats so bloated by their own perceived self-importance they can scarcely sometimes fit through their carriage doors. If I did not take it from them, they would only squander it at card tables or on courtesans-or perhaps in your circumstance, my lady, on season tickets to Vauxhall. That seems more your fare than a brothel."
Charlotte blinked, caught completely off guard by his rebuke. Her surprise proved only momentary, as her fury restored and her brows narrowed again. "The operatic season is scarcely a squandering of money," she said. "And it is my money to spend as I please. I did not steal it from others."
"Oh, no," he said with a laugh. "You get it from your parents, I am certain. A modest allowance so you might enjoy that fair lifestyle to which they have seen you so accustomed."
"I earn my own money," Charlotte snapped, balling her hands into defiant fists. "I do not need any allowance-I write essays for what is mine."
"Essays?" he scoffed.
"Essays and chapbooks, yes," she replied.
"And let me guess-flowery verses of delicate prose," he said. "Something inane and idle, chirping about true love and rose gardens."
Charlotte planted her hands against his chest and shoved with enough force to send him stumbling back a step. "I write about social ills," she said. "About how people suffer needlessly in our society because of scoundrels like you who think wealth is something one is entitled to-whether by birth or force-rather than something attainable through hard work and education. Things you obviously know nothing of-you have likely never tendered a day's effort at anything in your life, save for crime. The only greater shame you should know is that the gazettes have made heroes out of you-and there are poor children who learn of it, and aspire to nothing greater than your pathetic measure."
Excerpted from An Unexpected Engagement by Sara Reinke Copyright © 2007 by Sara Reinke. Excerpted by permission.
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