Authors: Henriette Gyland
Tags: #Romance, #General, #adventure, #Historical, #Fiction
Copyright © 2014 Henriette Gyland
Published 2014 by Choc Lit Limited
Penrose House, Crawley Drive, Camberley, Surrey GU15 2AB, UK
The right of Henriette Gyland to be identified as the Author of this Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher or a licence permitting restricted copying. In the UK such licences are issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, 90 Tottenham Court Road, London, W1P 9HE
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available
from the British Library
ISBN 978-1-78189-073-8 (epub)
ISBN 978-1-78189-074-5 (mobi)
A few years ago this manuscript was on the editor’s desk at Choc Lit, but didn’t quite meet with the approval of the Tasting Panel, so I put it to one side and concentrated on my contemporary novels instead. But I never forgot this story, which I had tremendous fun writing, and decided to rework it and send it to Choc Lit again. I would like to thank the Tasting Panel for passing it with flying colours this time! Also, a huge thank you to the Choc Lit team – working with you is a privilege.
My very special thanks to the dedicated team of librarians at Hounslow Reference Library for helping me create an image of what Hounslow Heath and the surrounding area would have looked like in 1768. When I close my eyes, I can almost see it, hear it and smell it.
No writer can write in an emotional vacuum, and this is where my wonderful family, friends and writing buddies come in. Thank you for your unwavering support and for always saying the right thing at the right time. I’m convinced you’re all psychic!
Hounslow Heath, 1749
The wind howled mournfully across Hounslow Heath, and icy needles of rain stung the lone rider as he galloped across the desolate wilderness of prickly grasses and heather. The few twisted trees offered no shelter, but the man barely noticed. His gaze was fixed on a coach standing by the side of the road near the Old Heston Mill, abandoned and with no sign of horses, coachman or groom.
Jumping down from his horse, he rushed over to the door and flung it open, peering inside. The sight that met his eyes was not pretty and he recoiled momentarily.
He drew in a sharp breath, and the metallic tang of blood reached his nostrils, but nevertheless, he climbed inside and sat down on the velvet-covered seat to contemplate his grisly find. On the floor of the coach, half propped against the seat, sprawled a richly dressed lady, her face so pale it was almost grey. An enormous dark stain had spread across the skirts of her fine silk dress and although her eyes were closed, it was clear that she had gone to meet her maker.
In a wicker basket next to the woman lay what could have passed for a wax doll. As lifeless as its mother, the newborn infant looked like it was merely sleeping, but the small chest didn’t rise and fall and the tiny hands would never grasp anything. The man swore again most foully.
‘Stupid bitch,’ he muttered, aiming a vicious kick at the woman’s thigh. But he knew he was too late and the Grim Reaper had cheated him out of his revenge. The only thing he could deny her now was a decent burial. ‘And by God, I will,’ he hissed. ‘Your brat as well.’
He quickly searched the interior of the coach, even shoving his hands underneath the baby’s bedding, but there was nothing left except the two bodies. Not even the rings that had once adorned the lady’s fingers. Highwaymen? Most likely. And they’d be long gone now.
Frustrated and angry beyond measure, he left the coach and jumped onto his horse, heading back the way he’d come. There was nothing for him here except the bitter taste of defeat, a bilious lump at the back of his throat which threatened to choke him. Even in death she’d somehow managed to get the better of him. The only small mercy was that there was nothing connecting him to her death, or that of the infant.
A mercy indeed.
Silently cursing the lateness of the hour, Jack Blythe, Viscount Halliford, leaned back in the seat of his well-sprung carriage with a sigh as it rumbled along the Bath Road towards his father’s estate at Lampton. With Jack was Rupert Blythe, his second cousin, although their relationship was more that of brothers. Rupert and his sister, Alethea, had been orphaned at an early age, and Jack’s parents had taken them in and cared for them as if they were their own. As far as Jack was concerned, they were the siblings he’d never had.
As usual, Rupert was the reason they hadn’t left London until after midnight. He’d insisted on visiting one of the gaming hells he frequented and had dragged a protesting Jack with him, even though he would have much preferred a quiet supper, followed by a brandy at Brooks’s before returning home.
Jack was now nursing a sore head and the deflated sensation of a purse some fifty guineas
In hindsight, it had been a good decision to go with Rupert, though. He was in the habit of losing large sums, which he would then prevail upon Jack’s father to settle for him. Because Jack’s presence had curbed Rupert’s recklessness, they had only stayed for a few hours, Even so, Rupert had managed to chance and lose a considerable amount of money. He did so with a certain flourish which Jack couldn’t help but admire, although it also appalled him. Jack knew only too well how his father would react when Rupert appeared at the breakfast table in the morning; he would arrange to pay his ramshackle relative’s debt, but the look of disapproval would be levied at Jack, not Rupert.
He glanced at his debonair cousin, taking in the opulence of his garments: the powdered wig, the patch beside his mouth, the exquisite French lace neck cloth and the expensive dove-grey silk coat with gold filigree embroidery on the pocket flaps, cuffs and front. With his eyes closed and his wig slightly askew, Rupert appeared to be asleep and quite likely drunk as well, but it could be pretence as Jack had learned to his detriment on several occasions. Rupert had an uncanny knack for reading his mind.
Wanting to keep his present thoughts to himself, Jack looked away and inspected his own more modest midnight-blue coat for any overt signs of their night on the town. It stank of tobacco smoke and the cheap perfume of the courtesans who had draped themselves over his arm the moment he entered the gaming den. He had been unable to shake them off, no matter how hard he’d tried.
Disgusted, he took off both his coat and his waistcoat; then loosened and flapped his shirt in order to dispel some of the odours. He would have to remember to tuck it back in when they arrived at the estate. If his father was still awake – and there was a good chance he might be, because the earl derived great pleasure from reading in his library till late – Jack wanted to look as presentable as possible.
Unlike his cousin, Jack wore no wig, preferring instead to tie his dark brown hair back with a ribbon of burgundy velvet. He undid it now, shook his hair loose, enjoying the freedom from any restraints, and was retying his hair when the coach lurched and stopped abruptly.
Rupert slid off his seat and landed in a heap on the floor.
‘What? Why? Where?’ he slurred incoherently.
A shot rang out, and one of the horses whinnied. The coach jerked momentarily until the driver had the horse under control again.
‘Stand and deliver!’ came the sharp command from outside the coach.
‘It would appear we’re being held up,’ said Jack, trying not to sound perturbed even though he felt his stomach muscles clench.
‘Damned brigands!’ His slurring gone, Rupert was now fully awake. Jack suspected he might have been putting it on in the first place; Rupert had always been good at putting others at ease by playing the fob, but Jack knew better. ‘There should be a law against bedevilling honest travellers.’
‘Believe me, cousin, there are several.’ Jack felt for the pistol he always had in the carriage when travelling and tucked it down the back of his waistband. If there was one thing he hated, it was highwaymen. He and his mother had had a nasty encounter with one when he was a small boy and he’d never forgotten the incident. The mere word made his skin prickle with icy needles as he recalled how the masked man had threatened Lady Lampton and cuffed Jack when he tried to protect her. He’d never felt so helpless and didn’t want to feel that way ever again.
He opened the door of the passenger cabin and climbed out. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’
The coachman and his assistant were lying face down on the road with their hands behind their heads. Before Jack could make any further movement, the highwayman spurred his horse forward, and Jack had to jump back up on the coach step to avoid being trampled. A cocked pistol pointed to his face, and a savage pair of eyes stared at him through the slits of a black silk mask. The co-driver’s blunderbuss was sticking up from the highwayman’s saddlebag, but as it hadn’t been fired, it would still be loaded. Jack swallowed involuntarily.
‘You is bein’ robbed, pretty boy, that’s what!’
It was a young voice, the voice of a boy of no more than fifteen or sixteen perhaps, although Jack had no doubt he knew how to use a pistol.
Rupert appeared at the door. He had tidied himself from his inelegant landing; his wig was no longer askew and his embroidered tricorne hat completed the picture of a wealthy and powerful man demanding respect. It didn’t have the effect on the highwayman which Rupert had presumably hoped for though. The lad curled his lips in a contemptuous sneer, and he backed up his horse a little, motioning with the pistol for both of them to step down from the coach. Jack wished Rupert had just stayed on the floor.
‘If you’d be so kind, gen’lemen, to step away from the ve’cul, and then fill this here bag with yer valuerbels, I’d be much obliged.’
He tossed a sack at Rupert, who caught it against his chest with a grumbling protest. ‘You’ll hang for this,’ he said coldly.
‘A well-wisher, eh?’ The boy grinned. ‘Well, ain’t I the lucky one. Now while I could stand ’ere all night baskin’ in you wantin’ the best for me an’ all, I’d much rather you were quick about it so we can both get home to our beds.’
Muttering curses, Rupert put his purse and pocket watch in the bag, followed by his snuff box and cravat pin. Jack flung in his watch and purse while he kept his eyes on the highwayman’s face.
‘And your jewellery,’ said the highwayman, pointing the pistol at Rupert’s large gold and crystal ring.
With an oath Rupert yanked the ring off his well-groomed finger and tossed it in the bag.
‘And you, sir.’
Jack eased his gold signet ring off and was just about to put it in the bag when the highwayman stopped him.
‘Let me see that.’
Jack laid it in the palm of his hand and held it up for the boy to see, acutely aware that the pistol was aimed straight at his heart.
The boy pulled back. ‘Keep it.’
Grateful, Jack returned it to his finger. The highwayman obviously wasn’t stupid; Jack’s ring was a family one and would be very difficult to sell. The gold could be melted down of course, but this would require the involvement of another person and thus expose the identity of the highwayman further.
Rupert stiffened beside him. ‘Hell’s teeth! Why are you favouring him? Give me back mine too, then.’ He held out his hand peremptorily, but the highwayman just laughed.
‘Not ’appy, are we, mister?’ he mocked. ‘Perhaps you’d like to contribute a little more to my charitable cause. Take off your coat.’
‘Take off my …?’
It was the first time Jack had ever seen his self-assured cousin struck dumb, and despite their predicament, he had to admit to deriving a certain perverse pleasure from it.
‘And your waistcoat.’
‘Now, look here, that’s preposterous. What would you want with my clothing? The thought of the likes of you wearing my garments is positively indecent.’ Rupert’s tone was laced with sarcasm.
‘Be thankful, sir, that I don’t relieve you of yer breeches as well,’ quipped the lad. It was clear from the way the corners of his mouth turned up that he was amused, but he was smart too. Quickly he inspected the distinctive coat, but then tossed it back at Rupert, keeping only the waistcoat.
The highwayman was tall, slim and lithe with an elegant mouth, Jack noticed, and a finely sculpted face. He was a good-looking boy, from what Jack could see, and would be a handsome man when fully grown. At this rate, however, he was more likely to end his days at Tyburn before his twentieth year, after which his body would be displayed in a gibbet on Hounslow Heath for the crows to pick over. And good riddance
One less menace on the roads, although if he was honest, Jack had to admit it seemed a terrible waste of a human life, especially one so young.
The boy’s hair, an unruly mane of blue-black, was tied at the nape of his neck in a practical fashion, and he was clad entirely in black, including a silk mask covering his eyes. He had a marvellous command of his horse, steering it using only his knees and leaving his hands free. The animal was, as far as Jack could see, very fine.
As the boy watched Rupert undress, with a little wry smile, Jack studied him for other distinguishing marks, but found none – except perhaps his voice, which was clear and slightly high-pitched. From the youth’s manner, Jack judged that this wasn’t the first time he’d held up a coach, and he had to admire the confidence in one so young. Nevertheless someone was bound to finger him for his dastardly crimes one day.
Although taking great delight in vexing Rupert, the boy was being a perfect gentleman about the robbing. Jack wondered if this was due to the security afforded him by the pistol and whether the youngster had the nerve to use it. Recalling that the highwayman had already fired one, he decided to put it to the test.
‘Young sir,’ he said. ‘Might we ask you to do us a favour? Our friends would laugh at us if we went home and told them we were robbed without so much as a token of resistance. Suppose you fire that pistol through the crown of my cousin’s hat; it will at least look like we tried to foil you.’
Jack snatched the silk hat off Rupert’s head, despite his cousin’s protests, and held it up and away from himself.
The highwayman eyed him for a moment, his expression inscrutable in the half-light and under the cover of the mask. For a long tense moment Jack figured his bluff was called.
‘Certainly, sir,’ said the boy. He took aim and fired, and the bullet went clean through Rupert’s hat.
Before the smoke had blown away, Jack dropped the hat and reached for the pistol he had hidden at the back of his waistband. He got no further. With lightning speed the boy had tossed aside his own pistol and drawn a rapier, and Jack felt the pressure of steel against his throat.
‘Nice try, mister.’ The highwayman chuckled. ‘One more move, and I’ll run you through.’
It wasn’t the shock of cold steel against his skin which stilled Jack. It was what he saw. At that moment the full moon appeared from behind a cloud and bathed the heath in revealing light. Allowing his eyes to travel the length of the highwayman’s sword arm to his profile, Jack spied beneath the now-parted cloak the unmistakable curve of a woman’s breast.
‘Your pistol, sir, if you please.’
Too shocked to do anything else, Jack hesitated and continued to stare at her. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that a woman had chosen to rob coaches for a living. Desperate people came in all guises. Nor did it astonish him that a woman could be good at it. After all, he had known a number of females who could shoot and ride as well as any man, his own mother, Lady Lampton, being one of them.
It was the coldness in the woman’s eyes and the sharpness of her command which baffled him. The steady hand which pushed the point of the rapier against his windpipe hard enough for him to know she wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to carry out her threat. She had a clear purpose in mind and executed it without hesitation. Up until now she had disguised her grit behind an insolent boyish exterior – she had even appeared to be amused by Rupert’s complaining, as if she had every confidence that he would never succeed in catching her – but behind the façade was a person of infinite hardiness. Or foolhardiness, perhaps.
Jack had never met a woman like that before, and felt something stir inside him. Awareness. Attraction.
The woman, in turn, stared back at him, running her gaze down his face, neck and settling on his naked chest, which was clearly visible where his shirt was open at the neck. He thought he saw her eyes widen behind the mask, and she moistened her lips. And did her colour deepen, like the blush of an innocent young girl?
A small smile curved the corners of his mouth, and he handed her the pistol. ‘My mistake, young … sir.’ His fingers brushed hers for an instant as she took the weapon from him and he could have sworn a charge sparked between them. He heard her draw in a hasty breath, so she must have felt it too. His heart thudded with sudden exhilaration.
Re-sheathing her rapier, the woman held Jack’s loaded pistol trained at his heart and stared at him as if she sensed that his pause had been deliberate. Then she did something extraordinary. She shoved the pistol down her boot and drove her horse forward with a sudden blood-lust, effectively pinning him between the horse and the carriage. Quick as a falcon bringing down a hapless swallow, she produced a hidden knife, grabbed his hastily tied ponytail with one hand and cut it off. Quicker than she had charged, and before Jack had time to react, she retreated to a safe distance.
Jack was left in no doubt that she could just as easily have plunged the steel blade into his chest.
‘Much obliged to you, gen’lemen,’ she said and inclined her head. Within seconds she had disappeared into the night, and the sound of the horse’s hooves was only a distant memory.
Jack bent to retrieve her discarded pistol as replacement for his own, while Rupert picked up his hat. As Jack restored the frightened coachmen to their seat on the box, he realised his own hands were shaking too, from alarm as well as anger. Clenching his fists, he returned to the coach, but it wasn’t until they were well on their way again that he or Rupert felt like speaking again.