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'Stand and deliver!'
The command shattered the stillness of the autumn evening and bounced from tree to tree in a slowly diminishing echo. Even as he struggled awake, the door of the carriage was being wrenched opened.
'Stand and deliver!'
He was looking down the barrel of a duelling pistol. An odd choice of weapon, his mind registered, but fleetingly, for the pistol was ominously close and waving him to descend. He rose from the padded leather very slowly, the mists of sleep still clouding his vision. They were in a rare open space amidst the thick canopy of forest and a black cloaked-and-booted figure astride a chestnut horse filled the aperture. The moon was riding high and flooding the clearing, glinting across the gloss of the mare's coat and lighting the silver braid of the man's three-cornered hat. In its ghostly white gaze he saw that his attacker was unusually slight, hardly a match for the gruff voice issuing from behind a silk handkerchief.
He calculated his chances of foiling this blatant piracy and decided they were good enough, despite the risk of the cocked pistol. He was carrying a substantial sum of money and had no wish to see it fall into the pockets of a gentleman of the road.
The chestnut was becoming restive, bucking and prancing at the side of the carriage, the white blaze between its eyes shifting in and out of the moonlight. With luck the mare's antics would distract its rider, for the one pistol must cover two men. He made as though to descend as he'd been ordered, but then at the last moment shot his arm forwards and grasped his assailant's wrist in a punishing grip. The wrist, as he suspected, was as slender as the form and crushed beneath his iron grip. The pistol faltered, drooped and fell with a thud onto the turf. He looked at the eyes behind the mask and saw them dark with dismay. The arm was pulled violently and suddenly from his grasp and the sharp tear of cambric filled the silent glade as the attacker's sleeve ripped apart. Then in a breath the highwayman had backed his horse, turned and was riding into the distance as though all the demons of hell were on his heels.
And so they should be, he thought grimly. The scourge of ambush had all but disappeared from England's roads but not, it seemed, from the deeps of Sussex. He picked up the discarded weapon and a scrap of lace which lay nearby, the remains of a torn ruffle, then looked closely at the abandoned pistol. It confirmed his earlier impression that it was a strange choice for a robbery. The gun was beautifully balanced, intricately decorated and evidently expensive. Hardly a toy for a highwayman!
He slipped both pistol and lace into the capacious pocket of his travelling coat and called to his coachman.
'It's all right, Fielding, it's quite safe to come down.'
The man arrived at his side in seconds, breathing hard and looking downcast. 'My lord, I had no choice but to stop.' His voice quavered slightly. 'He was threatening to shoot the horses—and then me.'
'He was indeed a desperado.' The tone was quietly ironic and there was a pause before his master continued, 'Although my guess would be a local youth out on the spree or intent on winning a wager.'
'I don't know about that, my lord,' Fielding puffed at the implication. 'He looked the real thing to me.'
'He would hardly win his wager if he had not.'
'Whatever he was, he has cut the traces,' the coachman remarked with something like a note of triumph.
His master strode to the horses' heads and retrieved the trailing leather. Before he had been jolted thoroughly awake, he remembered hearing in the muffled distance the jangle of harness.
'An intelligent move for a callow youth.'
'Yes, my lord, we're good and stranded.'
'You are stranded, Fielding,' his employer corrected gently, as he unhooked the broken traces from one of the leaders. 'I shall ride this expensive beast to the nearest inn and hire whatever transport they can offer.'
The coachman sighed, but his master affected not to notice. 'Tomorrow you will seek out the nearest saddler and arrange for the traces to be replaced. In the meantime we must find a home for the carriage and horses.'
The coachman sighed again a little more loudly, and his master added in a kindly fashion, 'As soon as I find a hostelry, I will give instructions for your rescue.'
Lucinda rode at breakneck speed hunched low over the mare's neck. She lost time in threading a complicated path through the trees, but she needed to be sure that she had shaken any likely pursuit. Now she was out of the forest and hurtling down the rutted lane she had traversed so hopefully only an hour earlier. She must put as many leagues as possible between herself and her nemesis.
Her plan had gone abysmally wrong. The man in the coach was not supposed to attack her. She was the assailant: she issued the commands and he was meant to deliver. Instead she had found herself temporarily mesmerised by his powerful figure and urged into action only when he'd grabbed her with such paralysing force that she had dropped the gun and fled the scene. Even now her left wrist throbbed sickeningly, and she was barely able to touch the reins without a shudder of pain. She thanked heaven that Red knew her way home and would take her there safely.
Only gradually did she slow her headlong gallop. A thicket of trees appeared in the distance, small but dense, climbing its way up the shallow hillside as though each set of roots was planted atop the trees beneath. Within their branches lay a secret, vital to her plans if she were to accomplish the task she had set herself.
But would she? Tonight had been a disaster and she could not afford another. It was only by the quickest of thinking that she had galloped free, a split-second decision to abandon the pistol and run. If she had not had the forethought to cut the traces first. .it did not bear thinking of.
The man would have picked up the gun, she was sure, but he would not know to whom it belonged. It was most unlikely that he would ever trace its owner. And if by the very worst of luck he did, what would he find—a young man left to rot in a verminous London gaol. Certainly no highwayman free and riding the road. Her brother! She could weep when she thought how badly she had let him down. There would be no escape for him now; he would remain, as she had seen him just days ago, thin and ill, surrounded by every kind of dirt and disease.
She slid from the saddle and walked towards a wall of greenery. Coaxing Red forwards, she lifted the intertwined branches one by one to reveal a rough, wooden entrance built into the hillside. She tugged on the iron handle and the door swung smoothly back. She was safe, but, thanks to her bungling, Rupert was still in danger.
Assuming the guise of a highwayman had been a crazy idea, but since her visit to Newgate she had been unable to keep it from her mind. She had been struck by one of Rupert's fellow prisoners, a giant of a man with shaggy, black bristles and laughing black eyes. He'd smiled at her saucily as the turnkey escorted her to her brother's miserable cell and she'd been compelled to ask his name.
'Black Jack Collins,' the gaoler had said, as though she should know. And then when she'd continued to look blank, he'd added helpfully, 'A gentleman of the road so called, who'll hang before the week is out.'
Despite this grim prediction, the image of Black Jack Collins had stayed with her. A gentleman of the road did not sound as brutal as a robber, particularly if the victim was stupidly wealthy and emerged unhurt. If she became a highwayman for just one night, she might rescue her brother. The idea held and she'd thrown herself into the adventure, relieved to be doing something, anything, to aid Rupert. All it would take was one successful theft. She would choose a wealthy traveller, a man who would hardly miss the money he'd be forced to surrender. It wouldn't be simple, it would need careful devising, but it was possible.
She had bubbled with excitement at the audacity of the plan and been filled with hope for its success. The black suit had been her brother's, a little baggy, but with Molly's quick needle, it fitted well enough. Molly's mother, a chambermaid at the Four Feathers, had found the tri-corne at the back of a dusty cupboard, no doubt abandoned long ago by its nefarious owner. And the weapon had been simple—Rupert's duelling pistols had pride of place on his bedroom wall. She had taken one and prayed that she would not have to use it.
Meticulous planning, but all for nothing! The adventure had started well enough: the coachman had been cowed by the sight of the pistol, his horses obediently still, but the man she had been tipped to rob had not been as obedient. He had not read the same script as she and her wonderful scheme had crumbled before her.
A little ahead and at a point where the narrow stone passage branched in opposite directions, a dimly glowing lamp was being held high in the air. Red gave a gentle whinny at the sight of the waiting figure.
'Miss Lucy, thank goodness! You're here at last.' A young girl rushed forwards. 'I thought you would be returned an age ago.'
'There was some trouble, Molly, and I had to take the long way home.'
'Trouble, miss?' The maid's eyes held worry. 'Then you didn't '
'No,' she said flatly. 'I have returned with nothing.'
'But you found the coach—the one Mother told us of?'
'Yes, I found the coach.' Her mistress's voice was faint with weariness. 'I even brought it to a halt. But its passenger was too strong for me and ' she stumbled on her words '.I was nearly caught.'
The maid took a sharp intake of breath.
'You must not worry.' Lucinda gave her a quick hug.
'Red spirited me from the scene and, as you see, I'm safe and well.'
'Thank the lord, Miss Lucy, you're home. I've been that anxious. But.'
'There's trouble brewing. Your uncle is fair beside himself.'
'Uncle Francis? What ails him?' Surely her uncle could not have got wind of this exploit.
'I don't rightly know, miss, but he's been demanding to see you this past hour. I said you were laid down with the headache. But he fell into such a tantrum that I'm afeared he'll be banging on your door before long and demanding to come in.'
'Then I must make sure I'm behind it when he arrives,' her mistress said with a brightness she was far from feeling. And before her maid had turned to lead the horse away, she was racing along the opposite passage, making for the concealed staircase.
She had barely struggled out of the incriminating clothes and into her wrapper before there was a peremptory knock and her uncle strode into the room. She tried to compose her face into one of suffering and hoped that her cheeks were not glowing too pinkly from the nighttime gallop. Francis Devereux planted his plump figure firmly by the window embrasure and stared at his niece.
'I understand from your maid that you have been indisposed. Did you not think to tell me? I waited dinner for at least half an hour.'
She should have thought. Her uncle's mealtimes were sacrosanct and an attack on his food was an attack on him. 'I'm sorry, Uncle. Molly was busy attending me, else I would have sent her much earlier with a message.'
He harrumphed irritably. 'I trust her ministrations were successful. You are recovered?'
Lucinda thought she had better be recovered. Even in candlelight, she was looking far too healthy.
'She brewed me a wonderful concoction of her mother's—Mrs Tindall is a genius—and since I have rested, the headache has vanished.'
Her uncle's small blue eyes peered at her shortsightedly. 'I'm glad to hear it. You certainly look well enough and it is most important that you do so.'
He began to pace up and down the room, the wooden floor occasionally creaking beneath his considerable weight. After a few minutes he stopped to face his niece and saw her puzzled expression. 'I wish you to look your very best.'
As an explanation it fell far short. She was beginning to think that perhaps her uncle had imbibed rather too heavily at dinner when he startled her by saying, 'In the event it is fortunate that he has not yet arrived—although I must say that I do not understand the delay.' His tone was pettish and there was a frown on his face. 'I trust that he will be with us tomorrow at the latest.'
'Do you never listen, Lucinda?'
She tried to look contrite, but it was difficult. She had no idea to whom her uncle referred nor any memory of a likely guest. Guests at Verney Towers were as rare as hen's teeth. She seldom had time for her uncle's little schemes and tonight even less. Tonight she had almost been caught and the spectre of the gallows wavered in the shadows of her mind. She shuddered as she thought of Black Jack's fate. She had risked that same terrifying destiny, but only to fail. Her beloved twin was still imprisoned, still liable to succumb to illness or worse.
But she tried to school her face to one of complacence, for her uncle must not suspect for one minute what she had been at. 'I'm sorry, Uncle Francis, you must have spoken of this some time ago and it has completely gone from my memory.'
She must humour him sufficiently that he would go away. Reaction to her wild adventure was setting in and every limb felt leaden. Her wrist was throbbing ever more painfully and her whole being felt as though weighted by iron. All she wanted was sleep.
Her guardian shifted impatiently and when he spoke his tone was part irritation and part indulgence. 'I shall never understand how women can remember the precise shade of a ribbon, but ask them to remember something of importance and it is all hay with them.'
She felt indignation rising. Long ago she had come to the conclusion that her uncle was one of the most tiresome men she would ever meet: a combination of foolish pride and moral rectitude was not a happy one. But she needed to be rid of him and she forced herself to sound agreeable. 'Please remind me, Uncle.'
'The Earl of Frensham is to visit us!' Francis Devereux said this with the air of a ringmaster about to produce his most celebrated lion.
'I see.' She knew her response was inadequate, but her uncle appeared too absorbed by his own cleverness to remark on it.
He had resumed his pacing, the squeak of new boots now joining with the creaking floorboards in rampant disharmony. 'I did not mention earlier that a message had come from the earl, for I had no wish to unsettle you unnecessarily.'
You thought it best not to put me on my guard, she translated inwardly, but why he had been so reticent, she had no idea.
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