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It grew darker as we rode into the forest. Sunlight pierced down in shafts through the canopy of leaves. The quiet grew until the sound of the iron-banded wheels on the dirt road and the clopping of the horse hooves seemed to thunder and reverberate back from the rows of trees. Once, as I stared out into the gloom, I caught a glimpse of a stag near a moss-covered, fallen tree. It leaped away into the undergrowth, its powerful muscles flexing.
The carriage halted in a swirl of dust along a shadowy stretch of road, where the arching tree branches overhead made things dim on the forest floor. I waited, frowning, hoping it was nothing more than a tree that had fallen across our path.
“Step out of the carriage!” a voice shouted.
I snatched up the pistol and hurried to the other side of the carriage. A whip cracked. The air was rent with the shriek of a horse and the thunder of hooves. The carriage jerked forward and sent me careening into the opposite bench. The impact knocked the pistol from my hand.
More shouting. Harlan, I thought, but then the carriage lurched to a halt again, sending me crashing back into the bench I had started on. I scrambled to snatch up the pistol, feeling like a child’s ball being battered back and forth.
There was a thud and a grunt and someone fell to the carpet of leaves along the side of the road. It was Harlan. He didn’t move, and I prayed he wasn’t seriously hurt. I sat frozen, the smooth curve of the pistol heavy in my hand. If only it were loaded.
It was silent for a long moment, save for the snorting and stamping of the horses.
“Stand and deliver!” that voice shouted once again.
My heart punched hard and fast in my chest—the heart of a hare beneath the shadow of the hawk. I clutched the pistol tighter, my back against the carriage wall, trying to look between both sets of windows to see where he would appear first. I had no idea what I’d do then, with only an unloaded pistol between me and a bandit who was most certainly armed.
“Come out of the carriage! I shall not ask again!”
“I am only a woman alone,” I shouted back, cocking the flintlock on the pistol as quietly as I could. I hadn’t loaded it because I was deathly afraid of it going off accidentally, but now I could only curse myself for my caution. “You frighten me!”
Would he fall for the ego game? I kept glancing back and forth between the windows, straining to hear something. Then, the creak of saddle leather and the thump of boots on the ground. I heard his footsteps slowly approaching the carriage. An idea exploded in my head like a cannon shot. I sat down on the floor facing the carriage door, the pistol in one hand, and drew back my legs, silently cursing the spill of skirt and petticoats that only seemed to get in the way.
His large shape filled the window over the door, and I kicked out savagely with both feet. The door flew open, crashing into the highwayman and sending him flying back into the dust. I stood as quickly as I could to see my handiwork, still cursing my skirts like the devil.
The highwayman clambered to his feet. The door had knocked loose his pistol, and it lay in a drift of leaves. He made a lunge for it.
“I wouldn’t move, if I were you,” I said, aiming the empty pistol at his head.
He froze and then slowly turned toward me, his rapier still in one hand. His eyes widened a bit when he saw me, though at the pistol or the fact that I was half hanging out of my bodice from all the bouncing around in the carriage I couldn’t tell.
“Drop your sword, sir,” I said, and he did so. He seemed to collect himself, and swept off his hat with its long black plume in a courtly bow.
“My lady, forgive the intrusion.”
“What did you do to Harlan?” I could see the coachman from here, but he was still unmoving.
“He’s only stunned,” the highwayman said. “A blow to the head with the butt of my pistol. I didn’t want to shoot him.”
“That’s uncommonly kind of you.” I had the chance to look the Highwayman over. Broad shoulders in a well-cut dark coat. Tall. Blond hair tending toward long, perhaps he hadn’t seen a barber in a while. Rugged facial features, handsome indeed, but with a hardness and an edge that Edgar had never possessed. But his eyes were kind. Strange to say about a man who had just clouted my coachman and had been set on stealing my jewels, but there it was. There was no malice in his gaze, and the smile on his face was more than a little chagrined at finding himself disarmed by a lady. Kindness and more than a little bit of desire in his eyes, and danger or no, that made me want to stand and be admired.
I liked him, God help me. Only a moment ago I’d been in fear for my life, but now, seeing those eyes, and with the pistol firmly in my hands and his hands empty, I liked him. Strange how reversing a situation could instantly change one’s perceptions.
I stepped down from the carriage, keeping well away from the Highwayman all the same. I edged over to Harlan and knelt down next to him.
“Give me your word that you won’t try anything while I attend him,” I demanded.
His face grew solemn, and I thought I saw something new in his eyes. I thought it was respect, but I was far from certain. “I swear it,” he said.
That was the best I could hope for. Harlan was indeed only stunned. He’d have a nasty bruise, but his breathing was slow and steady. I stood again and raised the pistol.
“You may mount your horse and leave,” I said. “Leave your weapons behind. They will be here when we set off again.”
“I’m sorry, my lady, but I cannot.”
“I don’t make idle suggestions, sir.”
“And I don’t idly refuse the suggestion of a beautiful woman,” he said. “But alas, I must.”
We stared at one another for a long moment. He really was quite handsome. In another place, at another time….
“You will not go then?” I asked. “You would force me to shoot you?”
“I cannot leave a lady unprotected on such a dangerous road.”
My laugh was sharp, cynical. “You, sir, are the chief danger on this road.”
He took a step toward me, his smile wider than ever. “An insignificant detail.”
I backed up a step. “I prefer you to stay where you are.”
He took another step forward. “And I would prefer to kiss your hand in greeting.”
“And snatch the pistol away as well? Do you think me a fool?”
“I think you anything but a fool,” he said. “However, I give you my word that when the pistol leaves your fair hands, it will be you who sets it aside.”
I said nothing. The world would think me a fool to trust the word of a rogue and a bandit, but those eyes….
He began to walk toward me slowly, his hands raised, his eyes locked on mine. I backed up until I bumped the baseboard of the carriage, and then I turned and hurried up the steps, wildly thinking that I could hide in there and he might just go away and leave me alone.
He came to the carriage door, set his hands on the posts, and paused, staring in at me with blue eyes brimming with lust. Those eyes smoldered down my neck to the tops of my breasts, lingered there for so long that were I a blushing maid, I’d have certainly been blushing. I was half-amused, half-aroused by the desire I could see shimmering there. Possibilities began to blossom in my mind. Wicked, delightful possibilities. Denying them only seemed to make them stronger.
“I shall not hurt you,” he said softly. “You have my word.”
“The word of a Highwayman?”
“The word of a former officer and a gentleman fallen on hard times. But let’s not speak of me.” He leaned toward me. “I prefer to speak of you.”
“I—” but then he kissed me softly upon the lips. I was seated upon the velvet seat and still held the pistol pointed between us, but thought of the pistol, and every other thought and fear, fluttered out of my mind like a flock of birds taking sudden flight. His lips were warm, like sunlight on my skin.
I found myself kissing him back. Harder, more insistently. We drew the kiss out, and I was aware that I wanted him. Wanted him as strongly as I had ever wanted a man, and the devil with the consequences. Edgar flashed into my mind and right back out again, chased by an image of him in the pantry with that girl. He could not begrudge me the dalliance.
If I dared… if I dared.
I broke the kiss first, breathless, my mind swimming from the heady pleasure of the contact. He leaned back on his boot heels, crouched before me in the carriage. If anything, the desire in his eyes had grown hotter than ever. He set a hand upon my knee, and even through the layers of my skirts, my skin jumped with shock and delight. So I did what any respectable woman would’ve done. I raised the pistol into his face.