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Thunder crashed. A great jagged bolt of lightning split the sky, its brilliant white light illuminating the muddy road ahead for no more than a few seconds. Still, it was time enough to reveal five ominous horsed figures leaping from the copse of oaks at the road's bend to gallop furiously toward the oncoming coach.
"Stand and deliver!"
The terrifying cry, hurtled from the storm-tossed night, put the final, dismal cap on what had been, for all four occupants of the coach, a most harrowing day. Even as four pairs of eyes widened, and four spines straightened, the command was punctuated by a musket blast. The crested brougham swayed violently as Will Coachman, caught by surprise as he all but dozed on the high seat, snapped upright, his hands tightening reflexively on the reins. Beside him Jonas, the young groom pressed into service as outrider for this odd start of the earl's, almost went off the bench seat as the coach's wheels slipped in the mud. Saving himself with a hasty grab, he fumbled for the ancient fowling piece that Will had tucked beneath the seat at the last minute before departure. Before his hand did more than touch the cold metal, another musket barked, the ball whistling too close to the groom's head for comfort. Jonas ducked, swearing, and abandoned all thoughts of heroics.
For his part, Will thought for a moment of whipping up the horses and making a run for it, but the beasts had travelled clear from Thetford that day and were as tired as he was. The earl's instructions had stated clearly that they were to take no more than this single day upon theroad. His lordship was of no mind to pay for a night's stay at a hostelry when there was no need. He wished to see my lady in London on this very date, February the twenty-sixth. Will and the rest of the staff, as well as the lady herself, had all done their collective bests to comply with the earl's instructions, though my lady had had only two days to prepare for her journey. And yet just look where such praiseworthy obedience had brought them: to a perilous clash on a dark, deserted road with near a half-dozen highwaymen brandishing muskets! Had ever there been such an ill-fated day?
First one of the horses had gone lame, which meant that the beast had had to be replaced with a post horse, an expense with which the clutch-fisted earl would not be pleased. Then the rain had started, an icy downpour that turned the post-road into a quagmire and sent the coach slipping off into a ditch. It had taken the stout backs of a willing farmer and his son, plus Jonas and himself, to get the coach back on the road again. Which mishaps, of course, had made them far later than they should have been in getting to London. At that very moment it was nigh onto ten o'clock, and here was yet another delay!
Perhaps that was not quite the right way to think of an attack by five armed bandits, but that was how Will saw it, at least in the first few, surprised minutes. After all, in this the year of our Lord 1814, with Napoleon Bonaparte running wild all over the Continent and England bereft of near all but lawless men, being held up was not so uncommon. If they did but cooperate, the old man thought hopefully, they would suffer no hurt but the loss of the lady's valuables. And, bless her, she was not one to take on about that, nor blame him for that which he could not help.
Black-cloaked figures swirling out of the darkness to encircle the moving coach resolved his dilemma. Clearly, the only thing that an attempt to flee would accomplish would be his own and Jonas's ruination. With a silent, heartfelt apology to the lady within, Will bowed to the inevitable and pulled the coach up. Two of the thieving rogues immediately grabbed at his reins; his horses, unused to such cavalier treatment, reared up in the shafts, whickering shrilly with fright.
Inside, Lady Isabella Georgiana Albans St. Just sat a little straighter on the plush velvet seat as the coach jolted to a stop. The widening of her soft blue eyes was one of the very few hints of perturbation she revealed. Like Will on the box, she had been near dozing. Allowing her head to rest against the curved seat back had caused the masses of baby-fine brown hair that had plagued her since earliest childhood to work free of its pins, as it frequently did. Tickling tendrils straggled distractingly around her face as she blinked awake. It was a moment before she was certain that the muffled noises which had awakened her came from outside the coach and were real, not part of some disturbing dream.
If her pale skin went a shade whiter at the knowledge, the light from the single carriage lamp that was still lit was too uncertain to reveal it. Her fine-boned body in the unfashionably plain blue woolen frock remained stiffly erect but unmoving as she listened to the commotion outside. Long, slender white fingers tightened fractionally over the reticule she held in her lap, but the convulsive movement was covered by the lap robe that was tucked around her waist. The tip of her tongue appeared to wet lips that were far too wide for beauty. The nostrils of her narrow-bridged nose flared as she drew in a deep breath, for a moment calling attention to the dusting of freckles that had plagued her as long and persistently as her disobedient hair.
Then her breathing steadied. One hand emerged from the lap robe and rose in a gesture so automatic that it required no thought to brush the...Tiger's Eye. Copyright © by Karen Robards. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.