“Stand and deliver!”
The demand came loud and clear, as Lady Caroline Godwin’s coach came to a sudden stop. She sucked in a deep breath, holding onto the sides of her bench seat to brace herself against falling off. Her maid did the same, looking up at her in fright. “Oh, my lady. It’s a highwayman. I knew we shouldn’t have travelled at night.”
Lady Caroline couldn’t have agreed more. However, upon receiving news that her father was gravely ill and had lost a fortune at cards again, she knew she must leave London and return home. Travelling at night to get there as quickly as possible had seemed worth the risk. Not only did she need to know exactly how much her father had lost, she knew that her mother wouldn’t be able to cope with the situation. Her father had suffered a stroke immediately after losing and was currently bed bound.
Lady Caroline tried to reassure her maid. “I need you to be calm, Maisie. If we do as the rogue asks, we will come to no harm.” Yet after the initial shout, there was no sign of the highwayman. Furious both at her father for gambling away his money, and for getting stopped like this, Lady Caroline was feeling brave rather than scared. She was about to get out of the coach and see what was going on, when there were a few muffled curses from above them, a few thumps and then silence. She frowned, straining her ears to hear more.
“He’s going to kill us all!” cried Maisie fearfully, before fainting.
Lady Caroline looked at her maid lying in a crumpled heap on the bench seat opposite and couldn’t help feeling even crosser. “For heaven’s sake,” she muttered. And what has happened to my coachman and footman? “Frank? George?” she called out. She was met with silence.
She gasped as the door was suddenly pulled open and a tall, masked figure appeared, holding a pistol. The man, dressed all in black and with a tricorn hat on his head, looked around the coach, before returning his gaze to her. The pistol was aimed at her. “Good evening, my lady.”
Lady Caroline stared at him. The moonlight shone down on him, but didn’t reveal much, due to his dark clothing and black eye mask. She could make out sensual lips though, her gaze drawn to them because it was the only part of his face she could clearly make out. Then her gaze dropped to the pistol aimed at her and she felt renewed anger. He’d caused her maid to faint, he’d done god knows what to her male servants and now he was aiming a weapon at her. She raised her chin and glared at him. “It was a good evening, until you came along,” she told him. “What have you done to my coachman and footman?”
The highwayman had the nerve to grin at her. “They’re gagged and bound, my lady. But unhurt.” He climbed into the carriage, sitting down opposite her, on the edge of the seat, next to her unconscious maid. “Now, if you don’t mind handing over some of your baubles, I will leave you in peace.”
Thanks to her father, Lady Caroline didn’t have much in the way of jewelry. What she did have held no value. She looked down her nose at him. “I’m afraid you’ve robbed the wrong coach tonight.”
Dark eyes glittered behind the eye mask. The man looked her over slowly, glancing at the small travelling bag by her side. “I’m sure my lady has something of interest in that bag which she wouldn’t mind giving to me?”
Caroline refused to back down or be afraid of the imposing stranger. “It contains my smelling salts.”
“Indeed.” The single word spoken in that deep, distracting voice of his as well as the slight twitch of his lips told Caroline he didn’t believe her. Then he glanced down at the unconscious maid before returning his gaze to her. “My lady is clearly made of sterner stuff than her servants. I doubt smelling salts are needed.”
Damn it. The rogue was not to be diverted and wouldn’t leave without something. She was going to have to give him her bag of jewelry or risk being shot. Maybe he would shoot her when he discovered its contents. Caroline sighed. She suddenly didn’t care anymore. This encounter was the perfect end to an awful evening. “Very well,” she said, bringing her bag onto her lap. She reached inside and took out a black velvet pouch. Then she gave him a hard look before throwing it at him.
The man had lightning reflexes and deftly caught the bag before it could hit him in the face. “Careful sweetness,” came the gruff warning.
Caroline merely lifted a brow. “Aren’t you going to open it? See your ill-gotten gains?”
The man considered her in silence for a moment while Caroline held her breath. Perhaps she shouldn’t push him. The pistol remained pointed at her. After several long seconds, he finally rested the pouch on one strong thigh, loosening the strings with the fingers of his free hand. He pulled it open and took out a pair of diamond earrings. He held them up for a look. “Very pretty.”
Caroline gave a harsh laugh. “You think so, do you? Well, they’re paste. Like all of my jewelry, thanks to my gambler of a father. So, you see you’ve wasted your time holding up this coach.” She held out her hand for him to return the pouch. “There’s nothing of value I can give you.”
The masked stranger put the diamond earrings back and handed her the pouch. He was silent when she expected anger. Shrugging, she put the pouch back and looked back to find the man had put his pistol on the seat beside him. Thank goodness. Now he would leave. Instead, he stared at her. “You’re wrong you know.”
“I am?” What was the rogue referring to?
“You do have something of value to give me and I insist I have it.”
Caroline felt a prickle of true fear for the first time since her coach had been stopped. Did he mean to ravish her? Yet, he must have seen the fear on her face for he shook his head. “I only mean to have a kiss, my lady.”
“Oh.” Staring at his sensual lips, she wasn’t sure she felt any safer. She swallowed, before licking her lips nervously. “Do you have to?”
He chuckled, a deep rich sound which made her insides flutter. “I’m afraid I must have something for my trouble tonight. A kiss from a fair lady should do it.”
Then, before Caroline could even think to stop him the man leaned forward, took her face between his hands and kissed her. Not the hard, selfish kiss she was expecting where he only took from her. It was soft, coaxing her to respond. And respond she did, opening her mouth when he demanded entry, moaning at the plush feel of his tongue inside. Heedless of time and place, or who he was, Caroline clung to him, kissing him back.
The man finally pulled back from her, grabbed his pistol, opened the door and was gone in a flash. Whereas Caroline blinked, still reeling from his expert kiss. Slowly her wits came back and she immediately went to the window, to see the gentleman robber already mounted on his horse. He glanced back, offering her a cheeky salute before riding away.
“Wretch!” she shouted after him. He’d stopped her coach, caused her maid to faint, done god knows what to her male servants before threatening her with a pistol. He’d had the audacity to kiss her and make her enjoy it—even forced her to kiss him back—before disappearing without a word. “Damn and blast him to hell,” she muttered furiously. As if she didn’t have enough on her plate at the moment. Now she was going to be reliving that moment spent in his arms for days to come.
The sound of Maisie stirring had Caroline turning back into the coach. She looked at her maid. “It’s all right. The highwayman has gone.” She helped the woman to sit up as she spoke and Maisie stared at her with a pale face. “Truly?”
“Thank goodness.” Relief was evident in her tone but then she frowned. “Did he take anything, my lady?”
Not willing to admit to sharing a kiss with the gentleman robber, Caroline shook her head. “I think my paste jewelry wasn’t enough, but fortunately he decided not to shoot me and rode off.”
“Oh, don’t make light of it, my lady,” said Maisie horrified. “And I’m sorry for fainting, leaving you to him. But I was that scared.”
Caroline laid a comforting hand on her maid’s arm. “Calm yourself, Maisie. The rogue took nothing and I’d rather forget about the whole incident once we’ve checked on Frank and George.”
Maisie immediately slapped a hand across her mouth. “I’d forgotten about them.”
Caroline opened the door. “Well. We need to see if they’re unharmed and then continue on our way.”
“Be careful, my lady.” The maid warned as Caroline stepped out of the coach.
“Oh, the rogue has quite gone. I witnessed him ride off. Now, hurry down in case I need your assistance, Maisie.”
Caroline was trying not to get exasperated with her servant, but her nerves were frayed enough. She just wanted to get home before another highwayman decided to hold them up and she could do with help rather than having to mollycoddle her maid. She called out the name of the coachman and footman and heard a muffled response. She frowned, concentrating on where she thought the sound had come from. She was sure it had come from on top of the coach. Flipping her travelling cape over her shoulders and hitching her skirts up, she climbed onto the coach to peer on top. The two male servants lay gagged and tied up on the roof.
“How dare that rogue tie up my servants?” No wonder there had been a delay between the initial demand for them to stop and the man opening her coach door. He had indeed been busy taking care of these two, just as he’d told her. But at least they were unhurt. She had to give the highwayman that. He had been honest. She glanced them over, then smiled in reassurance. “Easy George. I’ll climb up and untie you both,” she said to the nearest man. When he nodded, she looked back down at Maisie, who had finally gotten out of the coach. “Hold the horses still please, Maisie, while I untie Frank and George.”
Caroline waited for her maid to do as bid and then slowly pulled her way onto the roof of the coach. The first thing she did was to ungag both men who promptly thanked her. Then she fumbled with the bindings on their feet and hands. Once one man was free, he insisted that she get down while he untied the other. “Thank you for your help, but it’s no place for you up here, my lady. I’ll see to Frank.”
Caroline nodded, before carefully climbing back down. She was grateful to George for taking over. Now that the incident was over she was feeling rather wobbly on her feet. She got back into her coach and sat down, trembling slightly with all the emotions surging through her. She was more than a little concerned that the most potent feeling was one of excitement. She couldn’t help touching her lips where they still tingled from the masked man’s overwhelming kiss.
Her first kiss.
* * *
Gabriel or ‘Gabe’ to those closest to him, watched from the trees as the lady’s coach drove past. A brave young woman to stand up to him like that. And she had the sweetest tasting lips. He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle at the memory of her innocent yet passionate response to his kiss. He’d almost taken things further than he’d intended. “What a shame such passion will be wasted on the lord you marry, my sweet,” he muttered, as her coach disappeared down the road. For Gabe knew that she was unlikely to have a choice in whom she married and love would definitely not come into it. Such was the way of the nobility.
He shook his head. “What’s it got to do with me anyway, eh Samson, my old friend?” he said to his stallion, patting the animal’s flank, before urging him forward. It wasn’t as though he would be seeing the lady again. However, he would ensure she reached home safely. Other highwaymen may not have been so kind to the lady with only jewels made of paste. Gabe would hate for her to be hurt, even though she did deserve a spanking—traveling at night was far too risky.
Gabe rode out of the trees to follow the lady’s coach along the road. The vehicle had already turned out of sight around a bend so he now felt there was enough distance between them. Although he gave a rueful shake of his head at his behavior. Sadly, all he had to show for tonight’s work was an empty purse. Still, that kiss had been worth it. His adopted family wouldn’t starve just yet, nor would the community, thanks to rich takings the previous night. Gabe loved everyone in the close-knit village. They had welcomed him as a boy all those years ago, when Giles Tanner, the kindly farmer, had brought him back from London after finding him wandering the streets. Now, Gabe helped to look after the people who’d taken him in. If he had not taken to the road as a gentleman robber, they’d be rioting like so many others in a country beset by unrest.
Yes, Gabe risked his life on a nightly basis to steal from the rich and redistribute the wealth where it was needed most. But he never hurt anyone, for he abhorred violence. He did what he did for survival and in return the villagers protected him from any enquiries about possible highwaymen in their midst. He had quite the price on his head, too.
Gabe followed the coach mile after mile, until it finally turned through the gates of a vast estate. “Goodbye, my lady,” he said, pleased that she was safely home. Then he chuckled when his horse snorted. “Yes, I know, Samson. Back to her life of luxury, eh?” He was a fool for caring, he thought, as he turned his stallion around to head back home, empty-handed.
* * *
“What do you mean, you got nothing? That’s unlike you, Gabe.” Smithy, the blacksmith, looked up from hammering a new shoe on Samson.
“Yes. I know.” Gabe eased himself off the wooden pillar he’d been leaning against while watching the blacksmith work and uncrossed his arms. “But her jewelry was paste like she said, Smithy. No good to us. She wasn’t lying about that.”
The other man just grunted, before returning his concentration to his work.
“I don’t think the lady was lying about her gambler of a father either,” Gabe added.
Smithy paused in the act of hammering the last nail in. “That’s the trouble with these peers. They’ll gamble away fortunes at the turn of a card or the throw of a dice, without thought to their families. I doubt she’s the only one around with paste for jewelry.”
Gabe nodded. “That’s why I let her go.”
The last nail in, Smithy released Samson’s foot. “There you go, boy.” He patted the stallion, smiling when the horse nudged him. “Thanking me, are you?”
“He’s polite. Like his master.”
Smithy snorted at that, looking at him. “If you’re so polite and charming, why did you get nothing off the lady? I mean we’ll be all right for a few weeks yet thanks to that haul of yours last night, but it’s a shame she didn’t have something of value to take.”
“Oh, I didn’t leave without taking something,” Gabe couldn’t resist saying.
The blacksmith laughed, clapping him on the back as the two men turned to leave.
“Pretty was she?”
“Very pretty and she had the sweetest lips I’ve kissed in a while.” So much so that she’d nearly tempted him to stay for more. Then he’d have been in real trouble, possibly bringing the militia down on their heads.
Smithy slapped him on the back again. “I reckon that fairly made her swoon with fright being kissed by some commoner. I like your style, young Gabe. Perhaps you should kiss all the ladies you rob. Cut the romantic robber figure, you would.”
Gabe remained silent, letting his friend think what he would. The spirited beauty hadn’t been the fainting type. On the contrary, she’d nearly taken his eye out when she’d thrown her jewel pouch at him. He grinned, remembering. He’d rather liked her. Then he grunted when he got elbowed in the ribs.
“You’d better not let the luscious Letty hear about you kissing this young lady, mind.”
Gabe cringed at the warning made in jest. “You know I’m not interested in her.”
Smithy chortled. Again. “I know it, lad. The whole village knows it. The only person who hasn’t got the message yet is Letty herself.”
Didn’t Gabe know it. The voluptuous older woman made her availability known at every opportunity, regardless of how many times he rebuffed her. She simply wouldn’t believe he didn’t want her. He sighed. “I wish she’d focus her attention on someone else.”
“She’s comely enough. Not many a man would refuse such welcoming arms.”
The two men continued walking, until they entered their local tavern, where they were promptly greeted and offered a tankard. Gabe took a grateful swig, before turning to his friend. “That’s the problem. If I simply want to slake my lust, I can find a woman in another village. I respect the women here too much to have a casual affair. Besides I want something more. I want conversation, to have things in common with her, to get to know her. I want someone to protect.”
Smithy gave him an odd look. “Since when?”
Gabe shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m out of sorts lately.”
“I’m not surprised,” his friend said. “You’ve taken on the mantle of protecting and providing for everyone in this village at great risk to yourself.”
Gabe paused in taking another swig of his ale. “That’s no hardship, Smithy. I love everyone in this village and I’d die for them. I guess the problem of finding a woman to be with is that I know all the ladies here and as I say, I respect them.”
Smithy grinned. “Still don’t see a reason why you can’t sleep with Letty while showing her respect.” He waggled his eyebrows, causing Gabe to laugh.
“The answer remains no.”
Smithy finally gave up on ribbing him about the determined red head, much to Gabe’s relief. He allowed his thoughts to wander—back to a feisty blonde, who’d tempted him into kissing her. What a shame their paths wouldn’t cross again, for there was a lady who needed protection—from herself.