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London Outskirts, 1820
Someone was following him.
Dread curled down Stephen's back and settled like a brick in his gut. He reined Pericles to an abrupt halt and scanned the area around him, straining to pick up any sound or movement.
It was so dark, he could barely discern the outline of the forest surrounding him on both sides of the deserted road. A pine-scented breeze cooled the July air. A chorus of crickets hummed nearby. Nothing seemed amiss.
But he was in danger.
He knew it.
An icy chill of foreboding shivered through his body. Someone was there. Watching him. Waiting for him.
How the hell did they find me out here? I was certain I slipped out of London unnoticed. His lips twisted. So much for spending a few peaceful days at his private lodge. Stephen's thoughts were halted by the rustle of dry leaves. Whispered voices reached his ears. A flash of white broke the enveloping darkness. The loud report of a pistol cut the air.
Searing agony tore into his upper arm. He groaned and dug in his heels, making Pericles shoot into the forest. They raced between the trees, their pursuers close behind. In spite of Stephen's best efforts, the thrashing sounds grew ever closer.
He clenched his teeth against the pain spearing his shoulder and pushed Pericles harder. Damn it, I am not going to die here. Whoever these bastards are, they will not win. They have tried before and failed. They will not succeed tonight.
Racing through the forest, Stephen thanked God he had refused Justin's offer to accompany him on this trip. Stephen had needed solitude, and his small lodge was private and unstaffed. A rustic haven free of duties, people, and responsibilities. He prayed he would get there. Alive. But if he did not, at least his best friend would not die also.
"There 'e is! Just ahead!"
The rough voice came from directly behind him. A slick film of perspiration broke out over Stephen's body. The metallic stench of bloodhis bloodfilled his nostrils and his stomach turned over. It flowed, warm and sticky, soaking his shirt and jacket. He felt himself growing light-headed and gritted his teeth against the weakness.
God damn it! I refuse to die like this!
But even as he made the mental vow, Stephen realized his grave peril. He was miles from help. No one, save Justin, knew where he was, and Justin would not expect to hear from him for at least a week. How long before anyone realized he was dead? A fortnight? A month? Longer? Would he ever be found here in the forest? No. My only hope is to lose these bastards.
But the bastards were nearly upon him.
Another shot rang out. The stinging impact jolted Stephen from the saddle. He cried out and fell heavily to the ground, rolling over and over down a steep incline. Jagged rocks tore at his skin. Thorny bushes scraped him unmercifully.
Images flashed in his mind. His father's frigid, unforgiving gaze; his mother's vapid laugh; his drunken brother, Gregorywho would now inherit the title, and Gregory's timid, mousy wife, Melissa; his sister Victoria's radiant smile when she married Justin. So many regrets. So many wounds unhealed.
His downward plunge ended with a bone-jarring splash when he landed in a stream of icy water. White-hot pain sizzled through him. Blackness engulfed him. Cannot move. Hurts so much. Jesus. What a bloody, stupid way to die.
Hayley Albright drove her gig at a steady pace and tried her best to ignore her growing discomfort. Squashed between her two servants on a seat intended for only two, she could barely draw a breath into her compressed lungs. Tired and cramped, she longed for a hot bath and a soft bed. Instead I have a long, bumpy ride and a hard seat.
She tried to move her shoulders, but they remained firmly wedged between Winston and Grimsley. A resigned sigh escaped her. They were hours late getting home. Everyone must be terribly worried about them. And if Winston and Grimsley didn't stop arguing, she'd have to strangle them with her bare handsif she could manage to pry her arms loose. As it was, she had to drive the gig in order to separate them.
A flash of white in the darkness caught Hayley's attention, turning her thoughts from murder and mayhem. She peered ahead but saw nothing.
Except a large shadow lurking near a copse of trees.
Her mouth dried up with fear. She pulled back on Samson's reins, grinding the gig to a squeaking halt, then pointed a shaky finger and whispered, "What is that?"
Grimsley squinted into the darkness. "Heh? I don't see a thing, Miss Hayley."
"That's because yer blasted spectacles are perched on yer bald head instead of yer long nose," Winston muttered, his gravelly voice filled with disgust. "Put 'em where they belong and you'll see fine, ya scurvy old coot."
Grimsley drew himself up as straight as his creaking bones would allow. "Who are you calling an old coot?"
"You. And I called ya a scurvy old coot. Must be a scurvy deaf old coot."
"Well, a body can hardly be expected to hear above the cacophony from that wheel you supposedly fixed," Grimsley replied with a haughty sniff.
"At least I fixed it," Winston shot back. "And a damned bloody good job I did, too. Didn't I, Miz Hayley?"
Hayley bit the inside of her cheek. For the three years her father's first mate had lived with the Albrights, Hayley had attempted to clean up the former sailor's salty tonguethough not always successfully.
"Your repair job was excellent, Winston, but look over there." She pointed again to the shadow moving near the trees. A shiver of fear rippled down her spine. "What is that? Dear God, I pray we're not about to be set upon by thieves!"
She surreptitiously patted her skirt to ensure her reticule was securely fastened and hidden in the folds of material. Good heavens! When I think of the risks I've takenthe lies I've told to get this money, I have no intention of handing it over to highwaymen.
A wave of guilt washed over her. No one, including Grimsley and Winston, had any idea of the true nature of today's excursion to London, and she intended to keep it that way. As much as she hated lying, secrets led to falsehoods. Her family needed this money and she was solely responsible for their security.
Fighting to calm her mounting fear, Hayley looked around. Nothing seemed amiss. The warm summer breeze played with her hair, and she impatiently pushed back several unruly curls. The pungent scent of pine tickled her nose. Crickets chirped their throaty song. She inhaled a calming breath, and nearly choked. The large shadow detached itself from the copse of trees and moved toward them.
Hayley froze. Her mind whispered do not panic, but her body refused to obey. Dear God, what would become of her family if she died on this dark, lonely road? Aunt Olivia could barely take care of herself, let alone four children. Callie was only six! And Nathan and Andrew needed her. Pamela, too.
The shadow moved closer and her entire body went liquid with relief. A horse, she realized. It was merely a horse.
Winston laid a callused hand on her shoulder. "Don't you worry none, Miz Hayley. If there's somethin' evil afoot here, I'll not let any harm come to ya. I promised yer Pa, God rest his soul, that I'd protect ya and protect ya I will." He puffed out his massive chest. "If there's a bandit about, I'll break his scrawny neck. I'll yank out his gizzards with me bare hands and tie the blighter up with his own innards. I'll"
Hayley cut off the grisly diatribe with a dry cough. "Thank you, Winston, but I don't think that will be necessary. In fact, it appears our 'bandit' is nothing more than a riderless horse."