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It was trying to snow, the bitter winds blowing the flakes horizontally across the carriage windows. Charity Weston felt a flicker of relief that there were no passengers riding on the top of the Scarborough to York cross-country mail. Black, low-lying clouds were making the winter day even shorter and soon the familiar landscape would be lost in a gloom as deep as that which filled the carriage. It was very different from the bright limelight in which she spent most of her days- or rather her nights-on stage.
She wondered what her fellow passengers would think if they knew she was an actress. The farmer and his wife might not have smiled at her quite so kindly when she took her seat, but then, all they saw was a fashionably dressed lady accompanied by her maid. She had even gone back to using the soft, cultured voice of a lady, having thrown off the rather flat, nasal tones of the south that she had assumed, along with another name, whilst working in London. It would be no wonder, therefore, if they thought her a lady of some standing. However, if they lived in or near Allingford it was quite possible that they would realise their error in the next few months, for she had accepted an offer from her old friend to join his theatre company.
A new town, new roles and a new audience. Once the idea would have filled her with excitement, but for some reason Charity could not raise any enthusiasm.
Am I getting old? she wondered. I am seven and twenty and all I want is a place of my own-not the lodging houses I own in London, but something more .
The carriage was rattling through a village and she saw a little cottage set back from the road. Golden light shone from the downstairs window, and the door was open. A woman was standing in the threshold, arms thrown wide to welcome the two little children running up the path towards her. Charity watched her catch the babes in her arms and look up at the man following them. Even in the dying light it was possible to see happiness shining in her face, and Charity felt something clutching at her heart.
That was what she wanted: a home and a loving family.
She turned in her seat, pressing her head to the glass to look at the cottage until it was out of sight. The scene had been a happy one, but it was no more than a single moment, and she knew only too well how deceptive appearances could be. Once they were all indoors, out of sight, the children might shrink behind their mother's skirts as the man towered over them, Bible in one hand and riding crop in the other. He would demand complete obedience and reward any defiance with a thrashing. Shivering, Charity huddled back into her corner and closed her eyes, struggling to repress the memories. Perhaps it had been a mistake to come back to Allingford, so close to her roots.
The sudden slowing of the coach and raised voices from outside caused the farmer's wife to shriek. Charity heard a mutter from Betty, her maid, who was sitting beside her.
'Oh, lordy, what's amiss?'
'Most likely a cow on the road,' Charity replied calmly. She let down the window and leaned out. 'No,' she said with equal calm. 'It is not a beast. Well, not a four-legged one, at any rate. It is a highwayman.'
Betty gasped and the farmer's wife began to gabble hysterically, her hands clasping the silver locket resting on her ample bosom, but Charity felt nothing more than a mild excitement as she regarded the horseman who was standing beside the road and brandishing a pistol towards the driver and guard. In the gloomy half-light he presented a menacing figure with his hat pulled low over his brow, throwing his face into deep shadow. Everything about the highwayman was black, from his tricorn to the hooves of the great horse that carried him. In a rough, cheerful voice he ordered the guard to throw down his shotgun and hand over the mailbag.
Charity felt a touch on her arm.
'I pray you, madam, come back into the shadows,' muttered the farmer in an urgent whisper. 'Mayhap once he has the mail he won't bother with us.'
She sat back at once but made no attempt to put up the window again, lest the noise and movement should attract the man's attention.
'I think it pretty poor of the guard,' she whispered. 'He's made not the least attempt at resistance.'
'There must be a gang of them,' breathed Betty.
'No, I don't think so.' Charity leaned closer to the window again. 'I can only see the one man.'
The rider dismounted and picked up the mailbag, throwing it over his saddle. Charity turned to the farmer.
'Surely between you and the two men on the box, you could overpower him?'
The farmer immediately shrank back farther into his corner.
'Not if he's armed,' he declared, a note of alarm in his voice.
'He's coming over,' hissed Betty. 'Oh, lordy!'
She clutched at Charity's sleeve as the door was wrenched open and the stranger said jovially, 'Well, now, let's be seein' who we have in here. If ye'd care to step down, ladies and gentleman!'
The farmer's wife whimpered and shrank back against her husband as the lamplight glinted on the pistol being waved towards them. With a little tut of exasperation, Charity climbed out, sharply adjuring Betty not to dawdle. The farmer and his wife followed suit and soon they were all four of them standing on the open road, with the winter wind blowing around them. She glanced towards the box, where the driver and guard were sitting with their hands clasped above their heads.
'Will that be everyone?'
'Unless there is someone hiding under the seat,' retorted Charity, rubbing her cold hands together. 'If you intend to rob us then please get on with it so we may be on our way.'
The man's face was in shadow, but she could feel his eyes upon her. Now that she was closer to him she could see the deeper black of a mask covering his upper face. It did not need Betty's little gasp of dismay to tell her that drawing attention to herself was not the wisest thing to do.
'And who might you be, ma'am, to be making demands?'
'That is none of your business.'
'Ah, well, now, beggin' your pardon, ma'am, but I have to disagree with you.' He waved the pistol. His voice was still cheerful, but there was no mistaking the note of steel in his tone or the menacing gesture. She drew herself up.
'I am Mrs Weston.'
'The devil you are!' He stepped a little closer and she had the impression that she was being scrutinised very carefully. 'You'll be on your way to Beringham, then?'
'I have no business in Beringham.'
'No, I am going to Allingford.' She hesitated. 'To the theatre. I am an actress.' She held out her reticule. 'Here, if you are going to rob us, take it!'
She saw the flash of white as he grinned. 'No, I don't think I will. 'Tis a charitable mood I'm in this evening.'
'Are ye not going to rob us, then?' The farmer goggled at him.
'I am not. I've decided I'll not take your purse, nor the ornament that's a-twinkling on your lady wife. Get ye back into the carriage ah, except you, ma'am.'
Charity's heart lurched as he addressed her. Not for the world would she show her fear, and she said with creditable assurance, 'I have nothing for you.'
'Oh, but I think you have.'
Betty stepped up, crying, 'You'll not touch my mistress!'
Charity caught her arm. 'Hush, Betty.'
The pistol waved ominously.
'Send your maid back to the carriage with the others, Mrs Weston.'
'Do as he says, Betty.' Charity held her maid's eye and put her hand up, her fingers touching the discreet pearl head of the hatpin that held her bonnet in place. 'I'll deal with this.'
She saw the understanding in the older woman's eyes and with a grim little nod Betty walked away, leaving Charity alone with the highwayman.
'I've changed my mind,' he told her. 'I'll take that fancy brooch you have pinned to your coat.'
It was a small cameo and of no particular value. Charity supposed he would present it to his sweetheart and found the idea did not please her. He reached out his hand to pluck the brooch from her breast and she forced herself to keep still while his fingers fumbled with the catch, but after a moment, and with a huff of exasperation, she brushed his hands aside.
'Here, let me.' She unfastened the cameo and held it out to him. 'There, take it. Now may I go?'
'Not just yet, lady.'
He stepped closer and she was enveloped in his shadow. Charity was a tall woman, but he towered over her, the caped greatcoat making his shoulders impossibly broad. A tremor ran through her, but she told herself he was only a man, and in her profession she had dealt with many such situations.
She said calmly, 'Surely you will not attack me here, in front of everyone.'
He laughed, and again she saw that flash of white teeth.
'Attack? Faith, me darlin', that suggests you ain't willing.'
'Indeed? Well, I-'
Her words were cut off as he reached out and dragged her to him. She found herself pinioned against his chest, one arm like an iron band around her shoulders. She looked up to protest and at that moment his head swooped down and he kissed her.
Through luck or expertise his mouth found hers immediately and her senses reeled from that first, electric touch. She could not move and he continued to kiss her, his tongue plundering her mouth and causing such a rush of sensation through her body that it was impossible to resist him. The stubble on his face grazed her skin but she hardly noticed, her mind spinning with such irrelevant thoughts as the fact that he did not smell of dirt and horses. Instead her head was filled with a succession of scents. First there had been the unmistakable smell of leather and the wool of his greatcoat, but when he pulled her closer she recognised the pleasant tang of soap and lemons, spices and clean linen. As his tongue explored her mouth her bones dissolved and hot arrows of pleasure drove deep into her body. The sensations were new and unnerving. She wanted to cling to him, to push herself against that hard, male body.
Time stopped. She was his prisoner, fighting her own desire to kiss him back rather than struggling against his embrace, and when he finally raised his head she was strangely disappointed. She remained in his arms, unable to move and staring up at him. Her eyes had grown more accustomed to the darkness and she could make out his features a little better beneath the shadow of his hat. The smiling mouth and lean cheeks, the strong lines of his jaw that ran down to the cleft of his chin, the hawkish nose and most of all those dark, dark eyes, gleaming at her through the slits of his mask.
'Mmm,' he murmured, soft as a sigh. 'Heavenly.'
Charity had forgotten her surroundings, the icy wind that was even now scattering tiny flakes of snow over them, the fact that he was a stranger. She had even forgotten that he was a highwayman, until he raised his head and barked out an order to the coachman and guard.
'Keep yer hands on yer heads, me fine friends.'
His rough warning brought her back to reality. She pushed him away-no, he did not move, it was she who stepped back, hiding the trembling of her hands by vigorously shaking out her skirts. A glance behind her showed the coach still standing on the road, the driver and guard still sitting motionless on the box and the white faces of the passengers visible at the coach windows. It could only have been a minute that had passed, maybe two, yet Charity felt as if something momentous had occurred. She gave herself a mental shake. Good heavens, it was only a kiss, and she had been kissed before, but never had it had such an effect.
It was the excitement, she told herself sternly. Fear set your nerves on edge and made you feel the experience all the more keenly.
The highwayman was holding out his hand to her.
'Having exacted my price from you, madam, you are now free to go on your way.'
Silently she took his hand and let him help her back into the carriage. He closed the door and she saw the glint of amusement in his eyes as he touched the barrel of the pistol to his hat brim in a mock salute. He stepped back and glanced up at the box.
'Now, me lads, I'll thank you to sit where you are a while longer.'
He whistled and the black horse trotted up to him. Charity noted the athletic way he leaped up into the saddle and galloped away, leaving everyone in a shocked, immobile silence.
As the hoofbeats faded, the spell was broken. The farmer began to rage about the impudence of such rascals while his wife fell back in her seat, fanning herself vigorously and declaring she could feel a seizure coming on. Betty muttered up a prayer of thanks and the guard clambered down to retrieve his shotgun and to ask if the passengers were all right.
'All right? Of course we are not all right!' shouted the farmer. 'What're you about, to let one rascally knave with a popgun cause us all such terror? Look! Look at my wife. Right terrified, she is. 'Tis a disgrace, I tell 'ee. One man on the road and all you can do is drop your gun!'
'Aye, I dropped it right enough,' replied the guard, affronted. 'He were threatenin' to shoot me head off.'
'So you let 'im get away with daylight robbery!'
'As I recall, he didn't take anything o' yours,' the guard retorted.
'He stole the mail,' countered the farmer's wife.
'And he assaulted my mistress,' added Betty.
'Which is why I came to enquire if she was hurt.' The guard turned his attention to Charity. 'Well, ma'am? Have you suffered any injury?'
Charity was reliving the memory of being imprisoned in those strong arms and her lips still burned from the highwayman's kiss, but she would never admit that to a soul.
'N-no, I am a little shaken, but I am not hurt.'
'The rascal stole your brooch, Miss-'
'Hush, Betty. It was a mere trinket.' She turned to the guard. 'Please, it is not important. Let us get on.'
The guard seemed satisfied with that. He nodded.
'Then we'll be on our way. We're stopping at Beringham to change horses, so we will report the incident then.'
He closed the door and the carriage rocked as he climbed back onto the box beside the driver.
'Aye, and I'll be reporting this to the mail company,' muttered the farmer as they set off again. 'Never seen the like, a guard and driver made to look no-how by a lone horseman-why, between the three of us we could have taken him!'
'That's just what my mistress sug-'
Charity dug her maid in the ribs. She summoned up a bright smile.
'Well, I for one am glad we came off so lightly. I pray we will have no more excitement before we reach our destination.'