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Sussex, England—May 1811
The anger burning in the Marquess of Beauworth's throat tasted of bile and bitter regret. While the horses thundered through shadows and moonlit tracts of rolling Sussex landscape, Garrick fought the urge to turn back for London.
He swallowed his ire and the carriage raced on. Home to Beauworth. The place he hated most in the world.
Not even the person closest to him, Duncan Le Clere, understood his hatred of the place. Sometimes he didn't understand it himself, but lack of knowledge didn't lessen the tension in his shoulders or the foreboding.
The pain of bruised tendon and bone reminded him of the reason for his return. One by one, he unclenched his fingers, forcibly relaxing his hands in his lap, breathing deeply and slowly, regaining control. He lounged deeper in the corner, stretching his legs along the gap between the seats, a picture of insouciance.
After all, the Marquess of Beauworth, idle rake, reckless gambler and bored dandy, had a reputation to uphold.
The carriage swayed violently. He grabbed for the strap beside his head. The vehicle slowed, then stopped.
'Mon Dieu! What now?' He let down the window and stuck his head out.
The carriage horses tossed their heads uneasily, their shapes indistinct in the shadow of the high hedges lining the road. The sound of their hard breathing and jingling harnesses cut through the warm stillness. Garrick narrowed his eyes, staring ahead into the dark. 'What do you see, Johnson?' Probably a puddle. The poor old fellow should have retired years ago.
Something white gleamed eerily in the shadows ahead. A white horse walking in the centre of the road, moonlight slipping luminescent over a dappled coat. At first he saw only the horse. Then another dark shape, a slight figure clutching the bridle. A woman in a black riding habit. Walking alone? Bloody hell. She must be in trouble.
He wrenched open the carriage door, leapt down and started forwards with an offer of help on his lips. The sight of a pair of long-barrelled pistols in her hands, one aimed at his forehead and the other at his servants, stopped him short.
Cold moonlight revealed a black mask covering all but her mouth, while a point-edge cocked hat adorned a curled and powdered peruke. Black lace frothed at her wrists and throat.
'Good God.' The exclamation exploded from his lips as recognition struck. Lady Moonlight, the daring cavalier's lady from Cromwell's time, forced to take to the High Toby to feed her family. Her exploits were legendary in this part of Sussex as were the sightings of her spirit after she'd hanged.
'Stand and deliver!' Her husky voice, tinged with the accent of the dregs of London, echoed off the overarching trees. The grey minced sideways and she checked it with a low murmur.
No ghost this. Merely a common criminal.
Garrick glanced up at the box where Johnson and Dan sat wide-eyed and motionless, apparently taken in by the clever ruse.
'Hand over yer valuables or the boy is dead meat,' she called out.
There was a desperate edge to the coarse voice he didn't like, but the pistols remained steady enough and both were cocked and ready. Damnation, but he wasn't in the mood for this tonight. A rush of anger roared through his veins, a red haze blurring his vision, his fingers curling into fists.
He inhaled long and slowly.
Control. Anything else and someone less innocent than he would die. Behind her mask her eyes glittered. Courage or fear? Would she shoot an unarmed man?
Dan, fear bleaching his cheeks, rose in his seat. One pistol tracked his movement.
'Curse it, lad,' the thief said. 'Yer want to die?'
Nom d'un nom. Garrick might be prepared to take a chance with his own life, but he would not risk the boy. He, more than anyone, deserved better. 'Sit down, Dan,' he ordered.
Scared eyes found Garrick's face. He nodded encouragement. The boy subsided on to his seat beside the rigid Johnson. Garrick shook his head. 'Be still, both of you.'
Clearly realising Garrick's dilemma, the little witch kept one pistol fixed on Dan as she slipped the other into a saddle-holster beside a cunningly wrought sword sling. The intricate hilt protruding from the scabbard fitted her costume well enough. His lip curled. He'd like to see her try to best him with a sword.
She tossed her hat on the ground near his feet. 'Throw yer trinkets in there.'
A shimmer of light surrounded her face and body as she moved. A ghostly light. Was he going mad? Then he saw the sequins. They covered her mask and reflected moonlight from her coat and waistcoat. The little wretch looked like a reveller at a masquerade, and for such a deadly purpose.
An elegant twist of wrist and flutter of black lace drew his attention to the upturned hat. 'I ain't got all day.'
Garrick bowed with a flourish, acknowledging her impatience with charm and grace. 'Your wish is my command, milady.'
As he straightened, her full lips curved in a quick smile. She bobbed a curtsy. 'Yer too gracious, sir.'
Ah, a polite Lady Moonlight.' He raised a brow. 'I'm waiting, chérie.'
Her smile fled and oddly he found himself regretting its loss. 'For what?' she asked. A bullet in yer brain?'
'For my kiss. Lady Moonlight always kisses the men she robs if she thinks them handsome.'
'Just put yer valuables in the 'at, milord.' A hint of laughter coloured her nasal voice.
Aware of the astonished gazes of those on the box, he spread his arms in a mock gesture of appeal. Are you saying you find me lacking? How cutting. You break my heart.'
She chuckled, soft and low and very feminine, but
the pistol steadied in the region of his chest. 'Now, milord.'
He put a hand to his pocket as if seeking his watch and cursed silently. He had left his travelling pistol in the coat lying on the carriage seat. Perhaps it was as well. He had no wish to harm the wench. He kept his voice calm and soft. 'This is dangerous work for a woman. If you get caught you'll hang, whereas I could offer you gainful employment.'
'Hah. I know yer sort's idea of work. Enough gabbing or you'll be joining yer ancestors.' Underneath the bravado, her voice shook with the tremor of tightly stretched nerves.
Much as he didn't care if he joined his ancestors, he didn't want her nervous and threatening the servants again. He pulled out his fob and dangled his watch between them. Slowly, he twisted the gold links in his fingers. The diamond-encrusted case winked and glittered like moonbeams on water.
The pistol trembled. She wouldn't use it. He was certain.
She reached for the prize, her head no higher than his shoulder as she snatched at the watch with her leather-gloved hand. Garrick caught her fine-boned wrist in one hand and restrained her pistol arm tight against her side with the other. He crushed her slender body hard against him, encircling her waist.
Her exhale of shock was warm, sweet and moist on his neck. Soft breasts compressed against his ribs. She smelled of vanilla with undertones of leather and horses. An oddly heady combination. He lowered his head and planted his lips firmly against her mouth, pleased when her lips drifted open in surprise.
The air around him warmed and swirled, sending his
blood pounding and his senses alert to her response. Her delicate lithe body, at first inflexible, softened just enough to let him know she was not unwilling. Indeed, her body moulded most deliciously to his. He ran his hand down her slender back and savoured the soft curves of her buttocks.
Somewhere in this exchange, his earlier fury had softened to the heat of desire. Another passion requiring control. And control it he would. He deepened the kiss and inched his fingers towards her hand, feeling for the pistol.
The little hellion broke free and leapt back, breathing hard, her eyes in the slits in the mask sparkling with reflected sequins or some deeper, hotter fire. Chest rising and falling in quick succession, she levelled the barrel at his chest. A point-blank shot. 'Stay back.' Her glance darted to the servants. 'All of ye.'
Laughing, he reached for her. 'Surely we can find a more amenable way for you to earn a living? One we would both enjoy.'
She stilled, those rosy just-kissed lips curving in a saucy grin. She curtsied, full and deep. 'I think not.'
'Look out, my lord,' Johnson called.
Garrick caught a blur of movement at the corner of his eye. With a curse, he whirled around. A large masked man, a pistol clutched in his fist, raised his arm high. Garrick dodged. The blow hammered against the side of his head. A blinding light flashed. He fought descending darkness. The ground hit his knees as he fell into black.
Blood rushed in Lady Eleanor Hadley's ears. Her head swam. Her heart raced. At any moment she would measure her length beside the man at her feet.
She took a deep breath, crouched at her victim's side and found a strong steady pulse in his wrist. She stood upright, glaring at Martin. 'Did you have to hit him so hard?' she muttered.
'What the devil are ye doing, letting him get so near?' Martin's deep, low mutter rang harsh with anger. He levelled his pistol at the men on the box.
Panting, she stared at the inert body on the ground. What had she been thinking? That he was tall and impossibly handsome under the soft light of the moon? That the easy smile on his lean, dark face held no danger? If not for Martin, she might have fallen into his trap like a wasp in a jam pot. He had to be cocksure of his abilities as a lover if he thought to overpower her with a kiss. A laugh bubbled up. Hysterical, born of nerves and the strange sensations he'd sparked in her body. Never had she felt so horridly wonderfully weak, as if her bones were liquid and her mind was mush. Not her normal self at all.
If it wasn't for his grab for the pistol, he might have swept her off her feet.
'Where were you, Martin?' she muttered. 'Weren't you supposed to be covering the driver?'
'I never saw you start forrard. The plan was for me to give the signal.'
Even in the dim light, she saw his skin darken. Poor Martin. The best man to lead a charge, according to her father, but he made a terrible highwayman. She'd tried to send him away after their first foray. He'd refused point blank. Dear loyal Martin.
'Never mind.' She pointed to her victim and raised her voice. 'See wot 'e's got on 'im before 'e wakes.'
As Martin bent to do her bidding, the coachman fumbled under his seat. Oh God, this could get out of
hand very quickly. She jerked her pistol in his direction. 'Don't try it.'
He straightened and raised his hands again. The angelic-looking boy beside him sat rigid, his shoulders shaking, his teeth biting down on his bottom lip. No heroics there, thank heavens.
Martin rolled the man on the ground on to his back. He moaned, his head lolling against his shoulder, his brow furrowed as if, even unconscious, he was aware of pain. The strong column of neck disappeared into a crisp, elegantly tied neckloth and merged with powerful shoulders encased in a snug-fitting dark coat. Dark hair and olive skin gave his strong features a foreign cast.
Her heart pounded a little too hard. He was beautiful. Not an adjective she normally used about a man. They were usually either rough, or gentlemanly, or they were simply men she saw every day and gave no thought to at all. This one was beautiful in the way of a bronze sculpture: a perfectly moulded jaw, smooth plane of cheek, straight dark brows above a noble nose. Her fingers itched to trace his features, to feel the texture of bone and skin, much like one might run a hand over a fine statue. The line of his full bottom lip echoed the feel of his mouth on hers, warm and unbelievably exciting. And his voice, with its faint French accent, had brushed across her nape like the touch of velvet.
He moaned again. She jumped back. To her relief, he did not open his eyes. Martin had struck him hard. She swallowed. Hopefully not a fateful blow. She didn't want him badly hurt, for all he'd seemed so careless with his life. Nor did she want to face him again. 'Time to go. Into the coach with him. You,' she said, pointing
at the coachman, 'get down and lend a 'and. And no tricks.'
The coachman heaved his portly frame over the side.
Martin went to his head. 'Pick up his feet,' he ordered the coachman, who bent with a grunt and grasped the man under the knees above black Hessians polished to an impossibly glossy shine.
'Hold,' she said.
'What now?' Martin said in a growl.
'Take his boots.'
Stiff with anger, he dropped the man to the ground. He pushed the coachman aside with a grunt of disapproval and heaved off the tight-fitting footwear. He returned to his post at the man's head.
Eleanor opened the door of the carriage and stood back. The two men hoisted their burden on to the floor of the coach. Martin slammed the door.
'Be off with you,' she said to the panting coachman. 'As fast as you can before I change me mind.'
The coachman wasted no time in climbing up and a moment later the carriage sped down the road. Its swaying lamp disappeared around the corner.
Martin bent and cupped his hands and boosted her on to Mist, her steady little gelding, who had waited so patiently all this time.
Eleanor struggled awkwardly with her skirts as she settled into the saddle. 'Next time I'll wear William's breeches.'
'There ain't going to be no next time.' Martin stuffed their booty into his saddlebags and climbed aboard the chestnut. 'Mark my words, you'll end up like her, my lady. On Tyburn tree.'
Eleanor's stomach twisted at the worry in his voice. 'Do you have a better idea?' She dug her heel into
Mist's flank and they galloped swiftly into the protection of the woods. Eleanor used to love the freedom of riding at night. Many times, she and William, her twin, had slipped out to roam the countryside around their Hampshire estate after midnight. They'd been best friends in those days. She'd borrowed his clothes. And why not? She'd ridden as well as, if not better than, her brothers, shot as well as they did. And that was her downfall. She thought she knew better than them.
Look at tonight. This victim had been wonderfully rich, but the night had almost ended in disaster. Everything she touched went horribly wrong. William was on his way home, his ship due in Portsmouth any day now, and he'd come home to find himself ruined.