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My Rogue, My Ruin
Lords of Essex
By Amalie Howard, Angie Morgan, Alethea Spiridon
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Amalie Howard and Angie
All rights reserved.
Essex, England, April 1817
Lady Briannon Findlay was going to die.
She sat back against the squabs inside her father's coach, her eyes locked on the lethal nose of a polished pistol barrel, and half wished she had worn a finer gown for the occasion. As it stood, her body would be found on the side of the road in the most atrocious gray velvet dress known to man. She might have had a fighting chance had she been wearing her breeches. And her pistol. Sadly, she had neither.
"No displays of heroism, please," a voice behind the gun drawled.
All sense of time slowed to a dull stop, and Brynn's breath lodged like a stone in her throat. Beckett, their coachman, stood within the open gap of the carriage door, his white, curled wig gone from his head, exposing a mop of red hair. He was not alone. A man suited in black, with a black mask obscuring most of his face, stood beside the coachman, the barrel of a second pistol tucked into Beckett's ribs. Her heart hammered a brutal staccato in her chest.
"Now that we have that out of the way, shall we begin?" the man said with a slow, breaking smile. His teeth caught the shine of the carriage lantern, and Brynn frowned. The highwayman who had just set upon their carriage on the darkened, private lane running between her family's estate and the neighboring grounds of Worthington Abbey possessed, quite possibly, the finest smile she had ever seen.
What sort of robber smiled at his victims? Despite the pistols he held and the fear that gripped her, it was his perplexing mouth she was staring at when her mother, seated on the bench opposite, let out with a bloodcurdling scream. Brynn clapped her gloved hands over her ears as Lady Dinsmore's long-winded screech finally waned and croaked off.
The masked man hadn't flinched. Instead, he vaulted a mocking eyebrow to match the smirk on his lips. "My good woman, have a care for the eardrums of your fellow travelers and refrain from doing that again. I assure you, I do not intend for anyone to lose their hearing tonight — just their valuables."
Brynn lowered her hands at his crisp words, her ears ringing. She was certain she'd misheard, but he nearly sounded like a ... a gentleman. His diction was as precise as a Shakespearean stage actor, over-enunciating each syllable. No, she had to have been mistaken, deafened by her mother's shriek. The man was a common bandit putting on airs, nothing more. She mustered her courage and stared down at him.
The corner of his mouth curled in an answering grin. He sent a pointed look at the pearls Brynn wore. "Start with those earbobs sitting upon such delicate and privileged ears," he said, the sarcasm in his voice thinly veiled. Her fingers itched to slap the condescending grin from his face, though she kept them firmly at her sides, ever aware of the gun pointed at her family.
Lord Dinsmore had been immobile on the bench beside his wife, glaring at the bandit in confounded shock. Now, as Brynn moved to unclasp her beloved earbobs, he sat forward, nearly coming off the seat altogether. "Who the devil do you think you are, you pestilent son of a —"
"Papa, stop!" Brynn held out her arms to stop him from lunging at the bandit. "He has a weapon."
Lord Dinsmore seemed to see the pistol pointing into the carriage for the first time. He instantly sobered and sat back into his seat. Relieved, Brynn met the appraising eyes of their attacker. The scoundrel was still grinning. He was either mad or extremely cocky. She wondered if it wasn't a little bit of both. Neither of those would bode well for them — an arrogant criminal was dangerous. An insane one, even more so.
Her gaze fell to the pistols again. Even from the carriage she could see the coiled tensile strength in his arms. Beckett was a strapping youth, country born and bred, and he hadn't stood a chance against his assailant. He was a hair taller and wider than the masked man, too. Of course, having a pistol aimed at his chest was likely enough to cow him. She wondered whether Colton, their driver, had suffered a worse fate, and her stomach plummeted. He had been driving them to Worthington Abbey for the Duke of Bradburne's annual ball and had stopped the carriage to remove a fallen tree from the lane. It had been a trap, Brynn realized.
"Where is our driver?" she asked, proud she'd kept a measure of strength in her voice.
"Indisposed at the moment, I'm afraid," the man replied, and if not for the pistols or the mask, or the obvious fact that he was about to rob them, Brynn would have warmed at how concerned he sounded.
No displays of heroism, please. Those words he'd spoken ...
"You're the Masked Marauder the newspapers have been writing about," Brynn said, recalling at once the numerous articles printed over the last few months. A man had been waylaying carriages in London and its environs and, according to the articles, the Masked Marauder had an unsettlingly smooth, courteous manner while relieving his victims of their personal items. Apparently, he made the appeal for no displays of heroism at the start of each robbery.
Brynn's mother's deathly frightened expression shifted to fierce disappointment. "Briannon! You know how I feel about you reading your father's newspapers. It isn't appropriate."
"Mama," Brynn said through clenched teeth. "Time and place."
The masked man sighed as her mother's face resumed its prior expression. "That ridiculous name. I'd rather be called a bandit than a marauder. Now, to business, if we may?" He cocked the pistol, and Lady Dinsmore startled, her hands fluttering about her person like a pair of terrified birds. "If you would be so kind as to hand all of your glittery baubles to the rebellious Lady Briannon, and of course, whatever is currently weighing down your money purses, I would be obliged. My lord, please do not overlook your cuff links."
Lord Dinsmore all but exploded. "Now see here, you scurrilous blackguard, if you think I'm going to give you anything more than a sound thrashing, you're —"
"Papa!" Brynn cried, again reaching out to her father as he prepared to leap through the carriage door. "Papa, stop!"
Beckett had scrunched his eyes in preparation for the shot to his heart. The guttering oil lamp inside the carriage showed the purple flush creeping up from her father's starched cravat as he held himself still, abandoning his rash action. He slumped back onto the bench in frustrated silence.
"You should thank your daughter for possessing such rational thought," the masked man commented, amusement coloring his tone. Then, "After you hand her your belongings, that is."
Lord Dinsmore continued to glower at the bandit.
"Papa," Brynn pleaded in a low voice, desperate for his safety. The bandit may have sounded like a gentleman, but Brynn sensed he knew how to use the pistols held so confidently in his grasp and would not hesitate to do so if provoked. A cold sensation slunk down to the base of her spine as his shadowed gaze fell upon her. "Please do as he says."
With relief, she watched as her father reluctantly unfastened his engraved gold cuff links and handed them over, along with the small pouch of sterling he always kept in his waistcoat pocket. He nodded at her mother, and Lady Dinsmore tutted and harrumphed while shedding a magnificent amethyst necklace and matching bracelets along with several rings. Brynn swallowed, removing her gloves briefly to slip the rings from her own fingers onto the growing pile in her lap. She was relieved the folds of her cloak were still drawn tightly around her, concealing, she hoped, her most treasured possession from view.
"Here," she whispered, shoving a gleaming handful toward the masked man. "You have what you want. Now let Beckett go, and leave us in peace."
"If you could be so kind," he said to her, stepping backward with a mocking incline of his head, "as to step out and place those into my satchel. As you can see, I do not have a free hand at the moment."
"Why, you impertinent blackguard!" her father sputtered.
"You needn't worry, my lord," the man said. "Your daughter's virtue will still be intact. I require only her assistance."
Brynn bristled and blushed. How dare he speak of her virtue so blithely? And in front of her father no less, who looked as if he were on the verge of apoplexy.
"Do not worry, Papa. I'll be fine," Brynn said, hiking her chin and attempting to sound reassuring despite the wild hammering of her heart. Her mother seemed to be swallowing yet another deafening scream, her face turning a stormy sunset color.
Brynn stood, hoping her fear wasn't as transparent as her mother's. The newssheets hadn't said anything about the man being a murderer — or worse. She fervently hoped they had not chosen to edit such sordid details.
Brynn cupped the jewelry and coins in her hands and screwed up her courage. She would not allow her legs to tremble and display to this vile criminal how nervous she was ... especially not when he was staring at her with such sweeping mockery. Her jaw lifted another notch, fueled by righteous indignation.
"Slowly," the man warned as she climbed out of the carriage. He made no move to offer her assistance. He only continued watching her with that heavy-lidded gaze as she jumped the substantial distance from the coach to the road without the carriage steps. Brynn's knee almost buckled, but she held her ground, cursing him under her breath. The atrocious toad! When she looked up, she shot him the most contemptuous look she could manage. "Where is this satchel of yours?"
"At my waist," he replied. Brynn saw it then — a loosely cinched pouch the size of a hand reticule, strung around his hips. It hung in a most shocking way, and Brynn found her attention riveted to that region of his body. Instantly mortified, a rush of heat warmed her cheeks. Her eyes jerked away.
"You cannot expect me to —"
"Deposit the jewels? No, my lady, I do not expect it. I require it. Your driver is stirring, and I should hate to inflict another blow to the poor man's head."
She clenched her teeth as a wave of anger stormed through her. He'd struck Colton about the head? He was worse than a toad. He was a heartless degenerate who deserved a noose around his neck and a trapdoor under his feet! Fairly glowering with rage, Brynn stood tall before taking a steady, confident stride toward the masked man. She used her pinkies to widen the mouth of the pouch, considering the cups of her palms were filled to the brim, and let it all slide in. "There. You have everything."
Another slow half smile broke across the man's face, making his eyes glint in the lamplight. They, along with his mouth, were the sole features she could see clearly. The black slip of silk covered his forehead to his upper lip and curved down along the masculine cut of his cheekbones and straight nose to his jaw. If he wasn't such a brigand, she would consider him handsome. Brynn nearly swore at herself — her family had been stopped at gunpoint, and here she was, admiring his features like a besotted idiot with cotton in her head.
The bandit's gaze became appraising as he studied her in turn. "Not everything," he said with a pointed gaze to her neckline. Brynn's hand flew to the strand of pearls just visible from beneath her cloak. The folds must have shifted when she'd jumped from the carriage, exposing them. Of all the rotten luck!
It was the first time she'd ever worn her grandmother's pearls, too. She'd wanted to save the three-tiered necklace and drop earbobs for a special occasion, and while the Bradburne Ball was hardly special, Brynn had felt she needed the beautiful accessories to offset such a drab dress. And they were beautiful. Priceless and irreplaceable. The idea of losing them to this ruffian made her blood boil.
"Pearls as lovely as those should not be overlooked," he continued, the gun jerking meaningfully in his fingers. "I'll have them as well."
Brynn's breath hitched, and despair filled her. She had already given him the matching earbobs, and even that had skewered her heart. They were Grandmother's most cherished pieces, given to her by Grandfather on their wedding day. Now this man ... this scoundrel ... was ordering her to just hand them over? She raised her chin, choosing to ignore the deadly weapon trained on her. Some instinct — hopefully not a misguided one — told her he wouldn't shoot. "No."
"No?" His voice held a new, deadly timbre, and Brynn's courage faltered. "My lady, while I admire your ... persistence —"
"If you want them, you'll have to take them yourself. I refuse to hand them over willingly," Brynn interrupted before her idiotic display of bravery could desert her.
Perhaps if she could get the masked man to holster one of his pistols, Beckett, or Colton, wherever he was, would have a chance to overpower him. She drew a deep, fortifying breath. Her plan could work. It could. And it was all she had at the moment.
A reluctant twitch pulled at the corner of his mouth at her audacity. "Then so I shall." He eyed Beckett. "I am going to release you, good man, but I assure you — my weapon will not waver. Take five steps in reverse and then lay upon the ground. Very still. That's good, and with such energy as well," he praised as Beckett crashed belly down on the dirt lane.
He holstered one of his pistols as Brynn had hoped he would, and then closed the door to the carriage with a deliberate snap, separating her from her parents' view. "Your daughter's life rests in your hands," he warned them through the door, the remaining pistol still trained on her. "Not one move."
The bandit's gaze fell back to Brynn. A deep flush rose in her cheeks as his eyes, glittering in a sudden wash of bright moonlight, perused the length of her person. She practically felt the physical press of them as they slowly roved. No doubt the bandit sought some blazing reaction from her. At least the coach door was closed, sparing her parents from this man's indecency. She would not be able to stop her father from doing something rash this time. Her ears burned as his insolent gaze traced her body from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes. She steeled herself, clenching her teeth so hard it felt like they would shatter. His eyes left her feeling bare, as if they were stripping away her clothing, layer by layer.
The dreadfully unfashionable gray velvet gown had been at her mother's insistence. Its long sleeves and high square bodice, which rested just below her collarbone, was a barrier against any chill. One tiny cough yesterday morning had been enough to send her mama into a fit. Brynn counted herself lucky that Lady Dinsmore hadn't insisted on a woolen shawl for good measure.
Though now, as this bandit all but slid the heavy velvet from her shoulders with his eyes, leaving it in a pool around her ankles, Brynn understood that her frumpy dress hadn't deterred him from imagining what lay underneath.
As his lewd attention lingered over the rise of her breasts, Brynn nearly lost her composure.
"Are you quite finished?" she snapped, resisting the urge to draw the cloak around her body like a shield.
Without answering, the man raised his free hand to his lips. His eyes never left hers as he removed the leather glove finger by finger with his teeth. Brynn frowned, but realized that he would need his fingers to maneuver the delicate latch on the string of pearls.
She tried to make eye contact with Beckett, but the cowering footman had his nose in the dirt. She fought the urge to stamp her foot in disgust. So much for her grand plans to foil the bandit with Beckett's help. It appeared she would have to get out of this on her own. The masked man positioned his body directly in front of hers so that she was pinned between him and the side of the carriage. Almost a full two heads taller than she, Brynn couldn't see anything at all but his broad chest directly in her line of sight.
He pocketed the glove and stepped closer still. Brynn's heart skipped. Obviously, she hadn't quite thought this through. Everything about the man was dangerous. His entire body radiated a leashed strength, from the tense muscles in his neck to the rigid line of his jaw. Brynn wanted to believe he wouldn't hurt her, but she wasn't stupid enough to provoke him more than she already had. She held her breath as he lifted his hand toward her.
Excerpted from My Rogue, My Ruin by Amalie Howard, Angie Morgan, Alethea Spiridon. Copyright © 2016 Amalie Howard and Angie. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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