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The door of the carriage jerked open and a cloaked figure on horseback leaned forward into the coach and pointed a pistol at the man lounging inside. "Stand and deliver!" he called in a low voice.
The inmate of the carriage, a dark, elegantly attired gentleman, raised his quizzing glass and, in an unhurried fashion, proceeded to inspect the highwayman through it. Eventually, he lowered the glass and said softly, "I think not."
"Stand and deliver!" the highwayman said again, his blue eyes narrowing behind the slits of his mask. "Your money or your life!"
Leaning back into his seat, the dark gentleman closed his eyes. After a while he said in a bored voice, "My guarded entourage follows me--about a mile behind. They will come upon us at any moment. I suggest you depart forthwith and play your childish games on someone else."
"I play no games with you, sir, and you are foolish to challenge me," the highwayman declared. "Stand and deliver, I say!"
The dark gentleman sighed wearily. "My dear fellow--you may think it great sport to masquerade as a highwayman on the King's highway, but you have surely had your fun. Take that beast back to your father's stable forthwith--or you may leave me with no choice but to unmask you."
The highwayman laughed scornfully. "You cannot unmask me, sir. It is I who am pointing this pistol at you."
Quick as a flash the dark gentleman moved, knocking the pistol out of the thief's hand. Levelling his own pistol, which he had kept hidden beside him, at the other man, he drawled, "I think you find yourself mistaken."
The hands of the highwayman shook a little, and his blue eyes widened as he stared into the barrel of thegun. He looked indecisively from the gentleman in the carriage to his companion who was holding a pistol to the head of the coachman. Making a sudden decision, he jerked the reins of his horse, and wheeling the animal around, shouted a word to his accomplice, before galloping away. The second highwayman followed him soon after.
The thieves rode hell for leather across the countryside, saying not a word to one another as they sped away. Finally, they came to a secluded copse where they drew their horses up and silently dismounted beside an open carriage which had been carefully concealed amongst the bushes. The leader of the two picked up a bundle from the carriage and slipped away behind some trees, while his accomplice focussed his attention on reharnessing the horses to the carriage.
He went about his task efficiently, muttering to himself as he put the horses in their traces. Finally, raising his voice, he said sharply, "Our escape this time was too narrow, Miss Alexandra. When I saw the barrel of that gun in your face ... Your brother would have my blood if he knew that I aid you in such foolishness."
"It is not foolishness, Ben, and we managed to escape, so don't fuss. Is my appearance tidy enough?"
Ben scowled as he looked across at the young lady emerging from behind the bushes. "Aye, Miss, you look tidy enough. But that wouldn't be the case if a blood stain happened to be marking them pretty clothes of yours."
Alexandra shook her head. "You concern yourself far too much over me, Ben. I admit that today our plans went slightly awry, but Lady Luck has smiled on us--as she always does," she said, laughing up at him.
Ben continued to frown. "Well, in my experience, Miss, it don't pay to tempt fate. We'll be mad to continue this for much longer."
Alexandra opened her eyes very wide. "Continue what, Ben?" she said innocently, as he helped her up into the carriage. "I am a perfectly respectable lady enjoying a perfectly respectable drive in the countryside."
Ben made no reply, merely grunting as he lowered himself into the driver's seat. He clicked to the horses, and set them in motion along the deserted country lane that led onto the main road a few miles further on.
Alexandra settled herself back against the seat, grateful for the swaying motion of the carriage, which enabled her to relax a little. Although she had refused to admit it to her henchman, she was a trifle unnerved by how close they had come to discovery. And when she thought of all that discovery would mean for them, a cold shiver ran through her body. Absently rubbing her hands over her arms, she brooded over the gentleman who had just so successfully turned the tables on her. He had had the audacity to appear almost bored by the attack, not exhibiting any of the signs of fear and anxiety she had come to expect to see in the countenances of the people she waylaid.
Perhaps he had recognised the quality of the animal she was mounted on, she reflected, and had presumed that she was a young gentleman playing at being a highwayman on the road. Alexandra frowned as she considered this. It was a well-known fact that many of the horses used by highway robbers were stolen from the stables of the nobility and gentry. A good, speedy beast was essential for a highwayman's survival, and the best place, of course, to find a horse of good stamp and quality was in a gentleman's stable. Her own mount could very easily have been stolen from such a stable. Yet, for some reason, the man in the carriage had told her to take her horse back to her father's stable, which intimated that he must have thought her to be the son of a gentleman. Something, therefore, in her appearance must have alerted him to the fact that she was not a member of the lower classes, she realised anxiously, but she could not imagine what it could be. She had been convinced that her disguise was impenetrable.
The sound of horses coming up behind them caused her to abandon this line of thought and sit up abruptly. They had joined the main road again by this time and, with a sinking feeling in her stomach, Alexandra turned around to see the coach of the gentleman she had just waylaid coming up behind them. In a low, urgent voice she said to her groom, "The horses, Ben! He may recognise them!"
Ben glanced at her. "Nay, Miss. That he won't. They're in their traces and I disguised their special markings for the attack. Besides, he'll never suspect a lady of being a highwayman, so he oughtn't look at your horses with a leery eye."
"Yes, of course, Ben," Alexandra murmured. She bit her lip. "Yet--the impression I received of him was that he is an uncommonly perceptive gentleman. I had hoped that he would have been well on his way by now..." Shaking her head, as if to clear her thoughts, she straightened her back as the carriage came up beside them, praying that it would continue on its way without stopping.
Her prayers were not answered, however, and her heart began to beat faster as the coach drew up alongside them, and the coachman indicated that he wished for them to stop. Ben halted their carriage, and Alexandra looked expectantly at the other vehicle as a groom jumped down from his perch to open the door of the coach and let down the step, holding her breath in anticipation as the dark gentleman emerged from his coach. He stood immobile in the road for a while, before bowing politely in her direction. Alexandra inclined her head in turn as she observed him. He was very tall, she realised, being well over six feet, and his shoulders were the broadest she had ever seen on a man, filling out his well-cut jacket impressively. Her eyes drifted up to study his features more closely, noting the firmness of his jaw and chin, and the uncompromising line of his mouth. All in all, it was a thoroughly disagreeable face, she decided resentfully.
Unaware that she had been staring at the man for a considerable length of time, Alexandra was startled when he said, "Do I pass muster, ma'am?"
Her eyes flew to meet his and, perturbed at the mocking gleam she saw in their green depths, she said the first thing that came into her head. "I am afraid, sir, that I have never considered dark-haired men to be particularly attractive."
The gentleman's eyes narrowed at this daring remark and he surveyed the woman in the carriage with some interest. She was uncommonly beautiful, he reflected. Creamy skin and sapphire eyes provided a striking contrast to the copper-red curls tumbling around her sloping shoulders, and the proud cast of her face indicated that she was no country bumpkin. Her features were too fine for her to fit that description, he thought, and her temperament far too fiery. He laughed softly as his eyes came to rest on her bright hair again, and he said, "For my part, I have often found red-headed young ladies to be uncommonly impertinent."
Alexandra raised her brows haughtily. "I am returning home, sir, and find it disconcerting that I have been asked to stop my carriage by a complete stranger. Indeed, given the fact that we find ourselves alone on a deserted country road, I consider my natural wariness towards you, not impertinent, but imperative!"
The dark gentleman smiled. "Forgive me, ma'am," he said, bowing again, "I have been remiss in introducing myself. Robert Chanderly, at your service."
Alexandra nodded her head in a regal fashion, and said in a clear voice, "I am Miss Alexandra Grantham of Grantham Place, daughter of the late Sir Henry Grantham."
"I am honoured to make your acquaintance, Miss Grantham," Mr Chanderly replied. "And now I will allay your very natural feminine fears at being asked to stop your carriage by a stranger." He paused, before continuing in a brisker voice, "A few miles back I was accosted by two highwaymen. Not very skilled thieves, admittedly, yet highwaymen nonetheless. They could still be very close to the road, and may attempt to strike again. When I saw your carriage up ahead, I indicated to my coachman that we should stop in order to warn you of the danger."
"Highwaymen, sir?" Alexandra said, her eyes widening. "Here? How shocking! Of course I have heard talk that there are two highwaymen at work in this area, but to be so close to the scene of a crime..." She cleared her voice, before asking diffidently, "But what do you mean by saying that they were not--er--skilled?"
Mr Chanderly shrugged. "They made a mull of holding me up. Somehow I don't think that they are the most experienced of thieves. More than likely they're a couple of youths out for a lark."
"Oh," Alexandra said, trying to hide her indignation at this disparagement of her recent performance.
"Nevertheless, it doesn't pay to take risks. I may be underestimating the danger of these scoundrels, and you--a lady on your own--could prove to be a far easier target for them. May I escort you home?"
Alexandra, who had no desire to spend any more time with the man she had so recently held up, shook her head and murmured, "Thank you, Mr Chanderly, but no. Ben is perfectly able to protect me. He carries a pistol with him, you know."
Mr Chanderly frowned. "Nevertheless, I think I will escort you home."
Alexandra tried to hide her annoyance at this highhanded dismissal of her decision, but her cheeks were flushed as she said, "Indeed, sir, I am not afraid to continue on my own."
"Your intrepidity does you credit, ma'am. I had expected you to succumb to an attack of the vapours upon hearing about my experience."
"Not all ladies are weaklings," Alexandra said smartly. "I have never suffered from an attack of the vapours in my life!"
"You are to be admired then, Miss Grantham," Mr Chanderly murmured, his eyes gleaming. He turned to speak to Ben. "Lead the way home, Ben. I will follow behind you to ensure your mistress's safety."
"Aye, sir," Ben nodded, responding automatically to the authority in the other man's voice.
Alexandra drew in her breath. "Sir, I have made my wishes quite plain to you. I will continue on my own!"
Mr Chanderly regarded her impassively. "You have no choice in the matter, Miss Grantham. I will escort you home."
Before she could utter another word of protest, he had turned away and climbed back into his coach.
Alexandra sank back against the squabs of the carriage, quite put out. What a nerve the man had to impose his will on her in this manner, she thought angrily. She had a strong mind to order Ben to take the longest route home, merely to inconvenience the imperious Mr Chanderly. But, after reflecting on this delightful idea for a moment, she reluctantly put it aside, realising that the less time she spent in the vicinity of this perceptive man, the better it would be for her.
She only hoped that he had not looked too closely at her horses. Even though Ben had disguised their distinctive markings, it was impossible to hide the general conformation of an animal from the experienced eye, and she knew that many highwaymen in the past had been betrayed by their horses. She had read somewhere that even the notorious Dick Turpin had once narrowly escaped the arm of the law when a bay mare he had stolen had been recognised resting in a stable.
Alexandra was well aware how dangerous her criminal activities were, and how easily she too could be discovered, yet she felt bound to continue them, as long as it was reasonably safe, for the sake of the people depending her. She sighed as she considered the plight of the peasants in the district, who were trying to eke out a miserable existence for themselves and their families.
She had first come up with the idea of playing at being Robin Hood when the Vicar's wife, Mrs Simpson, had informed her of the terrible conditions that many of their parishioners lived in. Alexandra had visited a few of the families Mrs Simpson had told her about, and had been shocked by what she had seen. The people she had spoken to seemed to be living in utter penury, and the misery she had seen on their faces had touched a compassionate chord inside her. On a wave of righteous indignation, Alexandra had sought out her brother. John was one of the few landowners in the district who looked after his tenants well, and she told him what she had discovered. Although he had been angered by her revelations, he had not approved of her stated desire to confront the heartless landowners who were their neighbours, telling her firmly that she would do more harm than good if she did so because they would not take kindly to a young woman reprimanding them. Alexandra had reluctantly agreed not to approach them, but she had felt the need to do something of a practical nature to help the poor families, and so had suggested to John that he sponsor food baskets that could be delivered to the poor. To her joy, he had been happy to oblige her in this. But Alexandra, on her daily visits, had quickly come to realise that the peasants needed more than just food to survive. They also needed other material provisions.
If it had not been for the fact that her money was tied up in a trust fund until she either married or attained her majority, Alexandra would have helped the poor from her own pocket. But her money was not hers to do with as she willed and, after thinking the problem over carefully, Alexandra had decided that justice would be best served if the funds the workers needed, but weren't receiving, could be obtained from the very people who were failing in their responsibility to look after them--the privileged classes.
She had enlisted the help of her faithful groom, Ben, and so had begun their series of daring highway robberies. The two of them had become notorious in the region, inspiring fear into the hearts of all the local gentry and nobility. Well nearly all of them, Alexandra revised with a slight grimace as she thought of Mr Chanderly. He hadn't looked afraid or concerned, only rather bored!
She came out of her reverie as they reached the gates of her home. Instructing Ben to halt, Alexandra waited for Mr Chanderly's coach to draw up alongside them, aware that it was incumbent upon her to thank him for escorting her home and make him an offer of some refreshment. The dictums of propriety required it, however much she wished she could ignore them in this instance.
When Mr Chanderly had descended from his coach once again, she formally thanked him for his assistance.
"The pleasure was all mine, Miss Grantham," he said politely, although Alexandra had the uncomfortable feeling that he was amused at her belated attempts at civility.
"May I offer you some refreshment, sir, before you continue on your journey?" she asked, determined not to be betrayed into incivility again, realising that it only set her at a disadvantage in the face of Mr Chanderly's faultless good manners.
"Thank you, but no, Miss Grantham. I must continue on my way."
Alexandra smiled sweetly. "As you wish, Mr Chanderly. Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon, ma'am," Mr Chanderly said, bowing. He made to move away, then turned back to say softly, "I hope we meet again sometime, Miss Grantham. Your attempts at civility have reassured me to the fact that you may not be a complete baggage. Perhaps you will even improve upon further acquaintance."
Alexandra stared speechlessly at Mr Chanderly's back as he re-entered the coach, unable to believe the arrogance of the man, and it was only when the coach had moved off and disappeared round a bend in the road that she recovered her breath sufficiently to order Ben to continue up the drive of Grantham Place.
On returning home, Alexandra hurried upstairs to her bedchamber to bathe and dress for dinner, her thoughts in complete disarray. Never before had anyone upset her equilibrium to the extent that Mr Chanderly had done. There was something about him, she reflected uneasily as she brushed her hair a little later, a perceptiveness, and a quiet steadiness of purpose which quite unnerved her. Shaking her head at her reflection in the mirror, Alexandra decided that the best thing she could do was put him from her mind. There was very little chance of her ever encountering Mr Chanderly again, so there was no reason why she should worry about him, she told herself firmly. No reason at all.