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Hounslow Heath, London1810
It was the perfect day for a wedding.
The October morning was crisp and filled with sunshine. The sky was a cloudless blue. Hounslow Heath was a rich green, and the surrounding oaks and beeches that peppered the heath had turned the prettiest shades of red and gold. But as the solitary dark liveried coach sped across the heath Lady Marianne Winslow noticed nothing of the beauty.
'We had better pray that Pickering is still waiting in the church. I would not be surprised if he has suffered a change of heart and gone home. And who could blame him? He has his pride, after all. What on earth were you doing in your bedchamber for so long?' George Winslow, the Earl of Misbourne, pulled his watch from his pocket and flicked open the gold casing.
Marianne wondered what her father would say if she told him the truththat she had been staring into the peering glass for the last two hours, wondering how she might bring herself to marry a man she had met only twice, was almost as old as her father and scrutinised her as if she were a prize filly. But her father did not wait for an answer.
'Forty-five minutes late and we have yet to reach Staines.' He snapped the watch case shut and returned it to his waistcoat pocket. 'Good lord, girl! We cannot risk losing Pickering after the fiasco with Arlesford.'
'Papa marrying Mr Pickering I am not at all sure that I can '
'Marianne, as your mother has already told you, what you are feeling is nothing more than wedding-morning nerves, which are perfectly normal in any young lady. We have been through all of this before.'
'Yes, but '
'I thought when Mr Pickering and I were first betrothed that I would grow used both to him and to the idea of marriage. But I need more time. It is barely a month since he gave me his ring.' She glanced down at the heavy signet ring upon her finger.
'A month is more than adequate for a betrothal, Marianne.'
'But, Papa, I barely know him.'
'You will come to know him soon enough and Pickering is not a demanding man. He will be kind to you.'
The gold of Pickering's ring glinted in the sunlight.
'I can understand that he may not be the most appealing of bridegrooms,' said her father, 'but he is steady and solid and reliable. Not only is Pickering's fortune vast and he highly esteemed within the ton, but he is a man of influence and power. No one can question the sense of the match.' He paused. 'The wedding must go ahead. You will say no more of it and do as you are told, my girl.'
She stared down at the wedding posy clutched in the clamminess of her hand, at the pale pink roses delivered fresh from a hothouse in the country that morning and the tiny white babies'-breath flowers. She knew all of her father's arguments and knew, too, that they were right. Yet it did not make the prospect of marrying Charles Pickering any more palatable.
The coach took a bend in the road too fast and Marianne reached up for the securing strap to stop herself from sliding across the seat, her posy tumbling to the floor in the process.
'Papa, please, can we not at least travel a little more slowly?'
'The time is too short, Marianne. If Pickering walks away from this, there will be the devil to pay.' He glanced away, a strange expression in his eyes. His mouth tightened as she watched and then he seemed to remember himself and continued. 'John Coachman is under instruction to make up the time. Besides, Houns-low Heath is hardly a place to be dallying, even in daylight.' Her father retrieved her posy from where it rolled in the dust and returned it to her.
Marianne gave a little shiver. 'You cannot think that the highwayman'
But her father cut her off. 'Neither sight nor sound has been had of the highwayman for over two months. Now that the Horse Patrol has been put in place to catch him he has likely taken himself elsewhere. And even were he still around, the hour is yet early. He would be lying drunk in some tavern, not waiting upon the heath especially for us. I will not risk losing Pickering.'
'It always comes down to my marrying,' said Marianne with a heavy heart and looked away.
'Marianne.' Her father gave a sigh and took her hand between his own. 'You know you mean the world to me, do you not?' She gave a nod.
'That I would only ever do what is best for you?'
'Yes, Papa.' It was the truth.
'Then believe me, my dearest, when I tell you that marrying Pickering is for the best.'
She nodded again. She would marry Mr Pickering because her father had arranged it and it was the right thing to do, even though the thought of becoming the man's wife filled her with dread.
The carriage slowed to a crawl to cross a narrow bridge and the sunlight shone through the window, illuminating her father's face as he smiled at her. She could see the specks of dust floating in the sunbeams, could see the gentleness of her father's eyes. His hands were warm around hers. Everything in the world seemed to quieten and calm. The wheels fell silent. Even the birds ceased to sing. It was a moment of pure tranquillity in the golden light.
And then the shot exploded and all hell broke loose.
The grooms were shouting and the coachman yelled a curse before a loud thud sounded. The horses whinnied. The coach lurched, then stopped. Something hard and big hit one panel, making her jump. She stared at the side from which the noise had emanated and, from the corner of her eye, saw the dark shadow move across the window. There was galloping and screaming and running feet. Then silence.
Her father scrabbled for his pistols in the pocket of the door and sat ready, a pistol primed in each hand, his eyes flicking nervously from one door to another, waiting.
She could hear the thud of her own heart and the heaviness of her father's breathing.
'The highwayman ' she whispered. 'It must be.'
Her father's jaw was clamped tight. He gave no response.
'Give me one of the pistols, Papa. Please.'
'Do not be so foolish, Marianne,' he snapped and his knuckles were white where he gripped so tight at the pistols' handles.
They waited, and there was nothing.
They waited, and the seconds dragged; the fear and the dread were almost overwhelming. Her father must have felt it, too, for he muttered beneath his breath, 'Come, show yourself.' But whoever, or whatever, was outside did not heed him.
Nothing moved. Not even a flicker. The air was so thick with tension that she felt she might choke with it. Time held its breath as surely as Marianne.
She wondered if their assailant had fled, whether they were alone. Her father must have thought the same, for he looked across at her and gave a slight shake of the head, she knew that he meant for her to remain silent and say nothing. She nodded and watched him edge towards the door.just as it swung open.
Her father's pistol fired, a deafening noise within the confines of the coach, so loud that her ears hurt from it and her eyes watered from the cloud of blue smoke. The stench of it was acrid, filling her nostrils, catching in her throat. She made to move, but her father's hand caught hard at her wrist, thrusting her back down on to her seat.
'Stay where you are, Marianne!'
The silence in the aftermath of the pistol shot seemed almost as loud as the shot itself. It hissed in her ears and seemed to vibrate through her very bones. Through the smoke she saw a shadow flit across the open doorway and heard the taunt of a man's harsh whisper.
Her father fired at the shadow with his second pistol and launched himself out of the open doorway.
There was a thud against the carriage panel at the side of the door and the coach rocked as if something had been thrown against it. She heard a grunt of pain and then an ominous silence that made her stomach drop right down to her shoes.
'Papa?' She checked the door pockets for a spare pistol, but her father had taken no such precaution, so she hoisted up her skirts and scrambled to the door, trampling on the pink-and-white posy in her desperation to save her father. The smoke was clearing and the scene was quite clear before her as she jumped down from the coach.
The horses had been cut loose. Of the coachman, grooms and footmen there was no sign. Her father was leaning back against the side of the coach, his face powder-white, a trickle of blood seeping from the corner of his mouth, staring with angry black eyes filled with the promise of violence. Marianne knew that the highwayman was there, knew that he must be watching her at that very moment, but she could not look. Her heart was thudding hard; the fear was pounding through her blood and she was afraid to look, even though she knew that she must. Taking a deep breath to control her rising panic, she slowly followed her father's gaze to the tall dark highwayman.
He was dressed in black, wearing a long shabby greatcoat and, beneath it, a pair of buckskin breeches.
His boots were scuffed, the leather cracking in places with age and wear. Even his gloves were dark and old, well worn. On his head was an old-fashioned tricorn hat; it too was black to match the rest of his outfit, and under it she could see his unfashionably long hair, the colour of rich dark mahogany. All of this she absorbed in an instant, with barely a glance, for her focus was fixed firmly on the dark kerchief that was tied across his lower face, hiding his identity.
Her stomach was clenched small and tight, and beneath the ivory-and-pink-patterned silk of her skirt her legs were trembling. Her eyes lingered on the piece of cloth for a moment, then she screwed her courage to the mast and, with slow deliberation, she raised them to meet his.
The highwayman's eyes were not cruel and pale, but a warm honeyed brown, and his gaze was steady and strong and compelling, holding hers so that she could not look away. She felt her heart miss a beat and a shiver shimmy all the way down her spine. She did not know whether it was from shock or relief or fear, or a combination of all three.
'What the hell do you want?' her father snarled at him.
The highwayman glanced away, releasing her gaze, and only then did she realise that he had a pistol in each hand and both were aimed at her father's heart.
She knew that he smiled at the question, even though she could not see his mouth behind the kerchief. He smiled, but there was nothing of mirth in his eyes as he looked at her father.
'Stand and deliver.' The man's voice was quiet and harsh, as if half-whispered.
'You'll rue the day you picked me to thieve from, you scoundrel.'
'I think not.' He cocked his pistols.
'My daughter is on her way to be married.' If her father had thought to reason with the highwayman then he was mistaken, for the man's eyes did not so much as flicker. His gaze remained hard and relentless.
'I have a purse of money.' Her father scrabbled in his pockets, pulling out the small brown-leather pouch. 'Here.' He threw it in the direction of the highwayman. 'Take it and be gone.' The purse landed on the grass between them.
The highwayman did not even look at the purse, heavy and bulging with coins though it was. 'I do not want your money,' he said in his harsh half-whisper, his eyes fixed unblinking on Misbourne's.
Her father looked at the highwayman for a moment, as if unable to comprehend the man's answer, before speaking again. 'There is my diamond cravat pin and my watch; both are gold.' Her father's fingers were trembling slightly as he unpinned the diamond and threw it down to lie on the grass by the side of his purse. The stone glinted and sparkled in the sunlight. Then he took the watch from his pocket, unfastened the fob and offered the watch and its dangling chain to the highwayman.
But the villain made no move to take it.
'Marianne, take off your pearls and throw them down by my purse,' her father commanded, adding beneath his breath, 'Pearls before swine.' But for all his bravado, his brow glistened with sweat as she reached for the clasp.
The highwayman shook his head. 'Nor your jewellery, Misbourne.'
Her fingers stilled, then dropped away, leaving the pearls intact around her neck.
Her father frowned and she could see the suspicion and fear that flitted across his face. 'You know my name?' His voice was sharp.
'I know a lot more than that.'
The two men watched one another. The silence was heavy, pregnant with foreboding.
'Then what do you want?' asked her father at last.
There was a pause before the highwayman spoke. 'We'll come to that in time, but for now I'll take from you the same I took from the othersthat which is most precious in the world to you.'
Every last trace of colour washed from her father's face. His beard and moustache, grizzled and grey, stood stark against the pallor of his skin. Across the heath a blackbird was singing, and in the background was the gentlest whisper of the wind. Nothing else stirred.
Her father forced the semblance of a laugh. 'You mean to kill me?'
'No!' Marianne stepped forwards in alarm. 'Do not harm him! I beg of you! Please!'
The highwayman's eyes met hers and they looked almost golden in the morning light. 'Rest assured, Lady Marianne ' how shocked she felt to hear her name upon his lips ' both your father and I know that it is not his life of which I speak.' His voice was that same stony half-whisper, devoid of all emotion, but the look in his eyes was cold and hard as the deepest winter and filled with such implacable determination that she shivered to see it. He turned his focus back to her father. 'Don't you, Misbourne?'
'No.' Her father's voice was little more than a croak.