“Stand and deliver!”
The command rang out, cutting through the night air, sharp as a sword.
The carriage traveled slowly, the driver more than a tad bit tipsy. The night air had an edge of chill to it, and to keep warm, he’d imbibed a goodly quantity of rum while awaiting his passenger. Just so as to ward off the night chill, he told himself. Though, truth be told, it did help pass the deadly dullness of the wait.
He spied a shape looming out of the gloom ahead, and the surprise shook him from his stupor. He pulled the horses to a stop and forced his befuddled brain to concentrate on perusing the silent, solitary figure blocking the narrow country road. The fog on the moor rose, and the carriage lanterns cast a scant, sickly yellow glow that did little to cut through its shivering wisps. The coachman narrowed his bloodshot eyes to a squint, striving to focus on the rider as the flimsy strands of gray slowly parted like a spectral curtain drawn aside by a pair of ghostly hands.
Bleary-eyed as he was, he could make out little; the man before him was muffled and cloaked against the damp of the night so that his features were hidden. The one thing he could tell for certain: His accoster sat astride a gray. The horse blended into the fog, adding to the sense of the preternatural. Fingers of fear tickled down the driver’s spine.
He forced his addled brain to work despite his sodden state. Surely, he reasoned, as the Earl of Carlysle’s coachman, he had nothing to fear. Who would be foolhardy enough to attack the property of someone as wealthy and powerful as the Earl? And, as to such things as ghosts and ghoulies, the saner part of him whispered those things did not really exist. The silent figure facing him was surely not some form of bogey sent to spirit him away. Besides, through the haze of his rum-soaked brain, the driver saw the solitary horseman appeared peaceful enough and could easily be nothing more than an innocent, wayward traveler caught too late abroad and hurrying home to hearth and kin.
The driver had all but convinced himself of his safety when the rider’s words cut through the thick night air, putting the lie to any doubts he may have had about the man’s intent. The driver shivered, knowing he faced the dreaded fear of the English countryside.
A daring bandit bent on relieving hapless travelers of their purses…a hardened brigand intent on plundering his prey…a common thief with no regard for the rights of decent, law-abiding folk such as an unarmed coachman on a lonely, deserted moorland road.
“Stand and deliver!” Again, the command rang out, the voice sterner with an edge of impatience.
Nervously, the coachman fingered the reins, too tipsy to make up his mind. Should he prudently halt as commanded and let the highwayman have at the carriage? Or should he valiantly charge his way past the ruffian, defying the possibly armed and dangerous brigand? The coachman wavered uncertainly. Prudence or valor? Which would it be?
The carriage horses, perfectly matched bays, sensed his incertitude. They snorted their restlessness, tossing their heads impatiently and straining forward against the taut reins. Thrown off balance, the coachman nearly tumbled from his perch as the carriage jerked forward several inches. He righted himself and yanked back on the reins with the full force of his impaired strength, battling the team. By the time he’d regained control, the carriage was a dozen paces closer to the highwayman. The driver took a deep breath to clear his groggy head, flexing his muscles to ease the strain in his shoulders and arms. He darted a quick glance at the highwayman. The man hadn’t moved a muscle.
He blinked his eyes, shaking his head to clear the rum cobwebs. He remembered reasoning it all out just moments before. As coachman to the Earl of Carlysle, wasn’t it his duty? Albeit one he’d admittedly been willing to forgo when first accosted by the highwayman. But now, at second glance, the highwayman didn’t seem so fearsome. He’d made no move to stop him when the bays nearly bolted, still sitting silently astride his horse. Why, the man hadn’t even pulled a pistol! A new thought struck the coachman. Perhaps the fool weren’t even armed?
And then there was the matter of the brigand’s mount. Now the carriage was closer, the gray appeared slightly more distinguishable in the weak glow of the lanterns. The coachman eyed it contemptuously. As head coachman to the Earl, he fancied he knew more than his fair share about horseflesh, and the gray seemed one of the sorriest nags he’d ever seen. A sway-backed, knock-kneed hack that appeared to be in danger of foundering! Surely it could not match the earl’s bays, he thought proudly, seeing as they’d been specially bred for speed and endurance as well as beauty. Especially with an expert driver such as himself at the reins. He sat straighter, throwing back his shoulders and puffing his chest, assured of his own capabilities, as well as the bays’. Why, the more he thought on it, the more certain escape seemed.
If only he could gage the highwayman’s determination. Once again, his resolve wavered, flickering like the flame on a candle in a puff of wind. He craned forward on his perch, straining for a glimpse of his accoster’s face. But the highwayman’s features were masked, a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes and a red silk scarf muffling his chin and mouth.
“A poor judge of horseflesh and a coward to boot—all muffled up like a damned papist monk!” The coachman snorted, his confidence now fully restored. “Why, the fool probably don’t even have a weapon!”
His decision made, he raised his hand to flick the reins and run the brigand down where he stood. He stiffened as he heard the cocking of a pistol, the sound deadly loud in the stillness of the empty moor. The coachman’s hands froze. His eyes, wide as saucers, stared at the pistol the highwayman conjured out of thin air and now pointed unwaveringly at his forehead. The highwayman guided his horse to the side of the carriage.
“I would think again if I were you.” His eyes, two chips of obsidian above the scarf, flickered from the coachman to the team of bays appraisingly. “Your horses might, just might, be able to outrun my own—but not before I place a ball between your eyes.”
Lightly spoken, yet there was an underlying threat in the highwayman’s voice, in the deadly stillness of his stance, in the rock-steadiness of the hand that calmly aimed the pistol at his head, all convincing the driver that the other was serious. Deadly serious. Numbly, the driver nodded his understanding.
“Down from the carriage.”
Quickly, the coachman obeyed. He scrambled down from his perch to stand in the road before the highwayman.
“Lift your hands out to the side and turn about slowly.”
The driver did as ordered, turning to stand with his back to the highwayman. His heart pounded madly, and his knees knocked together uncontrollably, his brief bout of bravery gone. For surely the brigand meant to cut him down where he stood. It took all his strength not to collapse in the middle of the road and beg for his life!
“There’s naught to fear if you keep your wits about you and don’t attempt to play the hero.” He said it almost as if he’d read the driver’s mind. The highwayman pointed with his pistol to a stand of yews a short distance from the road. “Go rest under those trees while I have a word with your passenger.”
The coachman bleated in relief, fleeing as quickly as he could on his wobbly legs, forgetting his duty to protect the earl’s property in his haste to protect his own person.
The highwayman watched the driver’s retreating form with a wicked glint in his eye. It seemed the driver’s courage, like the driver himself, had fled. With the trace of a smile, he thumbed down the hammer of the pistol, returning it to its hiding place within the folds of his greatcoat. Dismounting, he trailed his reins on the ground, pausing a moment to rub his stallion’s muzzle affectionately. The stallion nickered in response, butting his head against his master’s shoulder as if an oversized dog. With a final pat, the highwayman turned his attention back to the business at hand. He strode to the carriage door and yanked it open to reveal one of the most beautiful, bewitching creatures ever to grace England—the Lady Evelyne Carlton, Countess of Carlysle.
The highwayman bowed deeply before her, touching his hand to the brim of his hat. “A pleasant evening for a journey, Milady…Although, one might question your ladyship’s traveling abroad so late of an evening without adequate escort.”
The countess appeared not the least disturbed by the sudden appearance of the brigand, or by his bold words. She rested against the coach’s velvet cushions, her chin cupped in the palm of one soft, bejeweled hand.
“I thought that bumpkin, Thompkins, halted for something as damnably boring as a thrown shoe,” she drawled, her attention focused on the barren moor outside the carriage window.
She turned and gave Morgan a smile bright enough to dazzle a blind man, a fact he regarded with suspicion. With practiced grace, she held out her hand. He took it reluctantly, holding it loosely in his own. Coyly, she arched an eyebrow at him. Proper manners dictated he kiss the proffered hand. He did so unwillingly, his lips barely brushing the tips of her fingers before abruptly releasing them.
She fixed her violet gaze upon the brigand as she turned from the window. Her eyes widened in lustful surprise as they traveled admiringly down the length of his long, obviously well-muscled frame and back up to his muffled face. What a delightful surprise!
She would have expected a highwayman to be deplorably unhandsome. Springing from the dregs of society as they did, she would have expected the man before her to be leery-eyed, bandy-legged, and perhaps even hump-backed. But this highwayman was a male specimen to behold. A hungry gleam appeared in the depths of her eyes as she appraised his merits; a pair of well-muscled legs encased in high, polished boots, shoulders so broad they crowded the carriage’s doorway, haunting eyes that melted her brazen heart, and a husky voice hinted at unbearably pleasurable bedroom escapades. All combined to send a sudden shiver of excitement down her spine, a sensation her jaded spirit had grown unaccustomed to feeling, especially at the mere glance of a man. This man definitely deserved more than glancing—was indeed worth quite a vigorous pursuit. She sat a bit straighter, moistening her lips with the tip of her tongue.
She turned the full power of her ample charms upon him. “How enchanting to discover my mistake. That I am, in fact, the victim of a bold brigand!” She pouted breathlessly, and her bosom heaved in mock concern while her hand fluttered provocatively above it. “I hope you shall not use me too badly?”
Secretly she hoped he would!
He merely looked at her.
Surprised, her hand fell to her lap. She glared at him peevishly, astounded by his indifference. She was unaccustomed to such careless treatment. She was used to men fawning over her, vying for her favors, coming to blows over her. And yet, this man remained aloof, oblivious to her many charms, to the fact he was alone on a lonely moor with one of the most beautiful, most willing women in all England.
She pouted for real, her lust piqued. How dare he treat her so cavalierly!
Yet, in spite of it—nay, because of it—he intrigued her all the more. There was more sport to the chase if the prey was unwilling to be caught. And she was just the huntress to snare him, as many a male quarry could testify. She smiled to herself, her peevishness dissipating at prospect of the chase—a chase that would certainly prove exhilarating. For this game was decidedly the most masculine, mysteriously handsome quarry she’d ever stalked. She turned her radiant smile back upon him.
“I’m afraid, sir, that you have me at a disadvantage…You have the use of my name, but I do not have the pleasure of yours?” Her smile invited him to take as much advantage as he liked. She leaned toward him expectantly, contriving her cloak to part even farther, revealing an ample portion of alabaster bosom. Her perfect white teeth bit her lower lip teasingly, invitingly.
His gaze traveled from her face to her heaving bosom. His eyes, dark and unfathomable, appraised her coolly, sending shivers of desire rippling through her body. He leaned toward her, perhaps to steal a kiss? Her lips parted slightly, eagerly anticipating the feel of his lips on her own. She closed her eyes in expectation. And waited.
But his lips never found hers.
Instead, his lips lingered next to her ear. “Call me nothing at all, Your Ladyship,” he whispered, “for our acquaintance is but fleeting. I merely wish you to deliver a message to Carlton. Tell him that justice shall, at last, be served.”
Startled, her eyes shot open to find him seated as far away from her as possible. Her mouth formed in a pout more provoked that he had, as yet, kept her virtue intact—he had not so much as stolen a kiss—than at the threat he made toward her husband.
“What can my husband have possibly done to you?” she complained petulantly. “He is an ailing man. He hasn’t the strength to leave his estate let alone to have done anything vile enough to earn your hatred—”
He chopped his hand through the air, silencing her. “I’m not speaking of the earl but of his son, the viscount.”
The countess’ mouth snapped shut at mention of her stepson’s name, her face paling a shade under its carefully applied powder. She made a pretext of brushing a mote of dust from her cloak to give herself time to consider. FitzJohn had insisted they practice caution. She had been careful. Certainly, her secret liaison could not have been discovered! Or had it been, she thought with a start. Could the brigand possibly know of her not-so-maternal relationship? She must choose her words carefully.
“Of what concern is the viscount to me?” she asked slowly, as nonchalantly as she could with her heart fluttering as rapidly as a hummingbird’s wings. “Surely you cannot imagine he would heed the words of a mere stepmama?”
“Not an ordinary stepmother,” the highwayman replied curtly. “From what I’ve gleaned, you are anything but an ordinary stepmother.”
Rather than blushing, Lady Evelyne brightened visibly at his remark. Did she detect a note of jealousy? Jealousy was an emotion she understood quite well! It was an emotion she’d awoken in many a man, an emotion she always twisted to her own advantage.
“In that, sir, we are in perfect agreement,” she purred. “I am not, I promise you, by any means ordinary.” Once again she leaned toward him. “If you would but allow me to, I could demonstrate some of my more extraordinary talents.” She promised him a world of pleasure in what she left unsaid.
She reached a finger, tracing a pattern up his arm, her hand coming to rest appreciatively on the bulging muscles of his biceps.
Once again, her lips parted in expectation as she leaned even closer.
He put out a hand to stay her.
“Milady, my pardon, but I am not interested in your…talents, no matter how delectable they promise to be.” The gallantry of his words did nothing to mask the contempt in his voice. “I understand that your relationship with the viscount is hardly stepmotherly.”
She opened her mouth to deny it. He placed his fingers over her lips to stop her lie.
“No use denying what I know for the truth,” he warned sternly.
She tried to explain. He pressed his fingers more firmly against her lips, hushing her.
“I care little for your reasons, less for what the two of you do. All that matters to me is that you deliver my message. Do you understand?” His words rapped out, forcing her attention.
“Tell him to recall events of six years past. And tell him I shall have my revenge!”
His lips brushed her hair, tantalizing her, as he whispered his message next to her ear. Then he swept her a deep bow, reaching out to open the carriage door.
“Wait!” the countess shouted in panic at the thought of losing her prey. She caught his hand in hers, imprisoning it against her bosom, searching for a means of keeping the handsome stranger in her carriage even if for only a moment longer. “And my reward for carrying out your demand?”
He smiled a hardened smile.
“That, Your Ladyship, will be determined after the service is rendered.” He pulled his hand from her clutch.
“Then, I shall see you again?” she asked, hope welling in her breast. “To receive my reward?”
“Trust me. You shall be amply rewarded,” he replied dryly.
Did she detect a hint of promise in his words? Only, to the countess, a hint of a promise wasn’t good enough.
“I’d like to receive something of a reward just now,” she demanded imperiously.
One glance at the hardened set of his eyes and she hastened to add in a wheedling tone, “Just to insure I don’t forget the message.”
Her jaded heart skipped a beat, her bosom heaved in earnest when he brought his fingers to his lips, placed a kiss on them, and transferred it to her eagerly awaiting lips. She closed her eyes in rapture, pressing her lips to his fingers, imagining ever so much more. But sadly, when her eyes at last fluttered open, it was to discover him gone, astride his gray and galloping away into the night.
A deep sigh of discontent escaped her. She’d just spent a rollicking evening in the company of her stepson, an evening that should have left her completely sated—would have, if not for her chance encounter with the brigand. Once again, she felt restless as a cat in need of catting about. She was of a mind to order the nitwit Thomkins to turn the carriage around and return straightway to FitzJohn despite the lateness of the hour. Perhaps in FitzJohn’s arms she could fantasize herself in the arms of the brigand. A smile played across her lips at the thought.
But prudence prevailed. When Thompkins, at last, cowered his way back to the road, she ordered him to drive home in the sharpest of tones. As the carriage swayed on its way, she hung out the window like a young school miss, in hopes of catching one final glimpse of the highwayman. A glimpse that was not forthcoming.
Irritated and more than slightly randy, she drew in her head. She closed her eyes as she leaned back against the cushions. A smile played across her lips as a vision of the highwayman formed in her mind, a vision in which he leaned over her, bestowing a properly passionate kiss. She placed her hand on her breast to still its palpitations as she remembered the feel of his fingers on her lips. Her fingers moved to her throat, imagining the feel of his hands on her bare skin and she bolted upright. Her sapphire necklace was gone! She threw herself back against the cushions, swearing volubly in a most unladylike fashion.
The rake had divested her of her property!
While the necklace was not of the highest quality, it irritated her he had proven so ungallant. Still, she couldn’t remain angry with such a handsome rogue. A sigh of longing escaped her. The price of the necklace was well worth the titillation he’d provided. And perhaps he’d taken it as a token to remember her by till next they meet? Closing her eyes and conjuring up the tempting image of the highwayman, the countess made a secret vow.
“I promise you this, my handsome brigand. Next time we meet, and so help me there shall be a next time, you shall not escape me so easily!”
Catherine gazed out her bedroom window at the early spring morning. A lark perched in the branches of the elm preened its feathers and trilled a song. A robin chirped in answer from the garden below. She spied it by craning her neck out the window; it bobbed about in one of the rose bushes below. The robin hopped from branch to branch, tilting its head from side to side in time to its own happy tune. Its jaunty little jig brought a smile to her lips.
Robin Red Breast, harbinger of spring! As if awakened from their winter slumber by his song, the rose bushes were beginning to leaf out. Here and there on the stark branches green nubs broke through the bark as if miniature caterpillars crawling out of their cocoons. Another month and the garden wouldn’t be so bare. Another month and it would explode in a riot of pale pinks and vivid reds, pristine whites and vibrant yellows.
Catherine sighed. The garden had been her mother’s pride and joy, tended lovingly year in and year out by her ladyship until five years ago when a tragic carriage accident claimed her life. Every spring since, Catherine’s father, Sir Arthur Amberly, had tended the roses in loving memory of his wife, painstakingly pruning the bushes and weeding and mulching the beds with his own hands. And, when his labor was complete, he spent many a twilight hour resting on the garden’s stone bench, companionably whispering to his lost love. Catherine had often watched him fondly from this very window, the dear gray head bent ever so slightly, as if awaiting his beloved’s praise.
Until this spring.
This spring it would be up to Catherine to tend the bushes. A mist sprang into her eyes, quickly sending her attention skittering away from the rosebushes and the now-sad memories they conjured.
She turned her attention to the high yew hedge surrounding the rose garden, its bushes standing in straight, even lines like so many sentinels sent to guard the roses. Beyond the hedge lay the cobbled drive which led from the stables, past the house, and around to the front portico. The drive ended at the stables, where it was met by a dirt path that meandered through the Amberlin estate; its crooked course touched on all the tenant farms sustaining the Amberly’s meager coffers.
Any moment now, she expected her brother, Robert, to ride along the path on his way home from the farms, and she might catch a glimpse of horse and rider beyond the hedge. He’d ridden out in the early morning with their estate agent to visit their tenantry. She awaited his return, expecting to catch up on the latest gossip from the farms but especially eager to hear news of the latest sensation—a highwayman who’d been seen haunting the lonely roads of the shire.
A knock at the door drew her attention from the window. “Come in,” she called.
The bedroom door opened, and Catherine’s maid, Beth, entered the room.
Beth was the oldest daughter of the Nickerson’s, one of the Amberly’s tenant families. At nineteen, she was just a year older than Catherine but there the resemblance ended. Where Catherine was a bit taller than average height and slimly built, Beth was short and amply padded in the bosom and hips. Catherine’s hair blazed of spun gold, Beth’s blended of russet hues. Catherine’s face was a masterpiece of delicate features; small, pert nose, widely-spaced, brilliant emerald eyes, perfectly arched, golden eyebrows, and a generous, full-lipped mouth. Beth’s face was a hodgepodge of mismatched parts; a long, sloped nose, closely-set amber eyes, bushy eyebrows that nearly met, and a mouth too wide and straight to be considered attractive. And yet when she smiled, which she did quite often, her eyes lit with a warm friendliness and her lips formed into a kissable bow, softening her features into a kind prettiness.
Luckily for Beth, Catherine hadn’t considered her looks or even her skills as a lady’s maid when hiring her. Instead, she had chosen the girl for the mere fact she was a sweet, simple country girl.
Catherine found herself thrust into the role of Mistress of Amberlin Hall upon her abrupt arrival home from finishing school, summoned home due to a fit of apoplexy that had left her father paralyzed and bedridden. A role that entailed she dress and act a certain part. She’d interviewed many a lady’s maid over the first painful month after her return home, all with credentials proving they would see her properly attired and coiffed. And she found them all too stuffy. She despaired of ever finding a maid she could bear to have around after one horrific interview after another.
The girl’s hesitant smile and quiet demeanor immediately appealed to Catherine, even if she had absolutely no experience. Besides, Catherine reasoned, what they each needed to learn to fulfill their future duties could best be learned together.
As for Beth, serving Catherine was a dream come true. Here she was, living in a fine house, in the service of a kind, caring mistress.
The year she was eight, their crops had done quite well and, for Christmas, her parents surprised her with a doll. Not just any doll. Not a stuffed rag doll or a carved wooden doll like she already owned, but a genuine porcelain doll with real hair piled atop her dainty head and dressed like a real lady. A doll that had delighted the little girl.
Over the years, Beth took loving care of the doll, painstakingly sewing her new clothes from scraps of material she scavenged and fashioning new coiffures to match each new outfit. The mistress of the estate noted the little girl’s play during one of her visits. After that, Beth found herself the happy recipient of bits of silks and satins and snippets of lace and ribbons that allowed her to create ensembles she was sure were worthy of the greatest lady of fashion.
Somehow, over the years, her child’s play grew into a desire to serve as lady’s maid, as close as the young girl could ever come to the silks and satins and complicated hairstyles she so loved. And now, lucky enough to serve the daughter of the beloved mistress of the manor. Her doll, unforgotten, lay lovingly placed on the pillow of her bed in her attic room.
As Beth entered, Catherine noted she carried a bulky parcel that threatened to tumble from her hands.
“What is it, Beth?” Catherine asked.
The maid sketched a shaky curtsy in Catherine’s direction, almost dropping the cumbersome object. “A package from France, Milady. Tom’s brought it up from the village just now.”
The maid nodded.
“But I haven’t ordered anything from France…Put it on the chest, and I’ll have a look at it later.”
The sound of hooves on the cobblestones echoed below. Catherine glanced down, spying Robert, his hat, as always, set at a jaunty angle. He glanced up, and she waved to him, receiving an answering wave before turning to her maid.
Beth was bent over, laboriously sounding out the label on the package. “Come all the way from Paris, it has!”
Catherine frowned as she left the window to come and stand next to Beth. She gazed at the package, a sinking sensation growing in the pit of her stomach. She reached out and traced a trembling finger lightly over the package’s label. The parcel was from Paris, from the modiste shop of one of the most famous Parisian couturiers. Her finger came to rest on the string binding the package closed. Her mouth turned in a slight frown, and her brow wrinkled in thought. She hadn’t ordered anything from Paris. Indeed, in the last six months she hadn’t ordered any new clothes at all, except for a wardrobe of unrelieved black sewn by the village seamstress.
“Pardon, Mistress, but don’t you wish to open it?” Beth asked eagerly.
Catherine shook her head, drawing her hand back from the package as if it were a red-hot flame. She clasped her hands in front of her, staring blindly at it. She couldn’t bring herself to open it.
Beth watched her with the eagerness of a child waking to the thought of presents on Christmas morn, but her face fell as she saw the anxiety in her mistress’ eyes. She turned to the four-poster bed, making a to-do of straightening it, allowing her time to recover.
Catherine felt a twinge of guilt at her maid’s obvious disappointment.
“Why don’t you open it for me?’
Beth turned back to her. “’Twould be all right?” she asked slowly.
The maid hesitated only a fraction of a second before her obvious curiosity won out, and she grabbed up the package, attacking it with childlike zeal. It took several attempts before her clumsy fingers managed to untie the cord holding the wrapping paper in place. Once freed of the cord, the paper fell to reveal the contents of the parcel. With a squeal of delight, Beth clapped her hands to her cheeks and stared in awe.
“Oh, ’tis beautiful!”
“What is it?’ Catherine asked. “Show me.”
Carefully, Beth lifted the parcel’s contents. The drab brown paper fell to reveal an elegant evening gown of watered silk. The gown was a deep sapphire, the deep blue of late evening just before the sun sinks and true night sets in. The décolletage was cut low and edged in silver lace with short, cap sleeves, shaped like stars. A delicate web of stars, stitched in silver thread, decorated the skirt in a scattered wave.
Her first ball gown. A fairy tale gown.
As Beth shook out the folds of the dress, a small handwritten note fluttered to the ground. Catherine stooped to pick it up. As she read it, a small cry escaped from deep within her.
“Put it away, Beth! In the back of the wardrobe, where I won’t see it!”
Beth clutched the gown to her chest, casting a worried sideways glance at her. Hurrying to the wardrobe, she opened the door, and pushing the everyday gowns out of her way, found a peg on the back wall.
“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you, Milady.”
“It’s not your fault.” Catherine took a deep breath, willing herself not to cry. “It’s just…my father ordered the gown for me to wear to the masked ball.”
Belatedly, Beth comprehended Catherine’s distress at sight of the gown. Sir Arthur must have ordered the gown before taking ill. “The masked ball held by the Earl of Carlysle?”
“Yes.” Catherine nodded sadly. “I was to come out at the masque this year. Father wrote to me at school, telling me so. He must have ordered the dress as a surprise.”
Beth cast an admiring eye over the splendid gown before pulling the everyday dresses together and shutting the wardrobe door. “Well, ’tis a perfectly lovely gown. One your father would have wanted you to wear. And enjoy every minute of its wearing.”
Her voice more than hinted at the possibility of Catherine attending the ball.
“Fancy it having arrived in time,” Beth mused aloud. “I’m sure if any alterations are necessary the village seamstress can handle it. But it appears to me your father had your measurements fair exact. There’ll be plenty of men swooning around you; the sensation you’ll be in that gown!”
Catherine hastened to disillusion her. “I’m afraid all your imaginary admirers will be greatly disappointed for I have no intention of attending.”
“Not attend?” Beth stopped plumping the pillows, turned, and stared at Catherine in open disbelief. “Why ever not, Milady?”
Catherine shrugged her shoulder in reply.
She had no real reason. True, she had been in strict mourning the last six months. But surely her period of mourning had been long enough no one would fault her for shedding black for one evening of pleasure? Especially since it had been one of her father’s last wishes to present her at the masque.
Catherine had anticipated the masque with all the eagerness of a young girl planning her first soiree while still at school. But since being summoned home to her father’s deathbed, she’d given up any thought of attending, storing away all visions of her first ball in the attic of forgotten desire. The arrival of the dress brought all those visions flooding back to the fore. After six months of mourning, she yearned to attend the ball, wished to dance the night away on the arm of a handsome man, wanted to taste her first glass of champagne, dreamed of her first kiss under the moonlight.
She yearned for it desperately and yet, hesitated. For, if she attended the ball, she was bound to encounter the one man she dreaded meeting, the one man she wished beyond all else to avoid.
“You’ve no need to be so fidgety at thought of the ball, Milady,” Beth interrupted her reverie. “For a certainty, you’d be the loveliest lady there.”
“’Tisn’t that, Beth!” Catherine wasn’t the sort to worry overly about her appearance or who might be prettier than she. She sat on the chest and picked up the discarded wrapping paper, beginning to fold it over and over.
With simple-hearted understanding, Beth pinpointed Catherine’s fear. “Is it the Viscount Carlton, then?”
Catherine’s cheeks flushed a becoming pink, but she made no reply. She picked up the cord binding the package and began to wind it around the paper.
Beth, in her simplicity, had guessed correctly.
They’d met at her father’s funeral. She’d felt his eyes boring into her during the church service. At the graveside, he’d stood across from her, watching her every move like a hawk. Afterward, when the coffin had been consigned to the cold, hard ground, he’d swooped down on her, devouring her with his eyes as his stepmother, the Lady Evelyne Carlton, performed the introductions.
Since that day, it seemed she could go nowhere in the shire without encountering him. Sunday dinner at the vicarage and the viscount made sure to be seated at her elbow. A ride through the parklands and he appeared on the back of his blooded stallion to canter at her side. A shopping expedition to the village and his carriage waited at the curb to see her safely home.
At first, Catherine had been flattered by his attention for he personified everything a young lady could hope for in a suitor. He was the perfect embodiment of breeding, wealth, and good looks. A member of the London social elite his manners were impeccably polished and poised. As for his looks, the viscount was the embodiment of the Greek gods pictured in the mythology books in her father’s library. All the ladies viewed him as disarmingly handsome. Tall and well built, with finely sculptured features marking him an aristocrat and hair that shone as golden as the sun god, Apollo’s.
Wealthy in his own right, he stood to become even wealthier still when he inherited his father’s lands. And he would inherit the title of earl as well. Whatever lady managed to wed him would have wealth and riches the rest of her life. And the title of countess to boot.
“A fine catch, he would make!” Beth echoed her thoughts.
“I suppose he would,” Catherine admitted grudgingly. “If he were to make an honest proposal.”
“If he did, Mistress Catherine, think what a match it would be.” Beth sighed. “His looks and wealth, your beauty and charm. What wouldn’t any lass give to make such a match!”
Catherine shook her head vehemently. “Perhaps many a lass would wish to wed him, Beth, but marrying the viscount isn’t for me.”
“Why is that, Milady?” Beth stared at her in astonishment.
Catherine sighed, at a loss. How to explain to her maid the aversion she’d grown to feel whenever the viscount was near? How could she explain that when she tried to see beyond his handsome face and figure, beyond his well-polished façade, there was precious little to behold? At times, times that seemed to be growing more frequent, when his debonair manners slipped and she could see the true man behind the genteel illusion—she saw a man with no passion, no heat, only a calculated coldness that frightened her to the depths of her soul.
“Because a perfect match with the viscount would be missing the most important particular of all,” she answered at last.
“And what would that be, Milady?” the maid asked.
“I’d never marry the viscount for I could never love him, Beth. I want a man of passion, a man of purpose, a man who will sweep me off my feet. A man who will be my one true love.” Now that she was on safer ground, Catherine grew dreamy. “When I give myself to a man, it shall be because he has stolen my heart. And I shall do my best to steal his!” The dream fled as suddenly as it had come. She finished, “That is something I fancy could never happen with the viscount.”
“If it isn’t the viscount with his goodly looks and his wealth, who would be the man that could steal your heart?” Beth straightened all of a sudden as if a fresh idea struck her fancy. “Per’aps, if it’s a thief of hearts you’re after, you should turn your sights to the highwayman that everyone be talkin’ of.”
“Wilkins, the gardener, heard down in the village that he stopped Lady Carlton’s coach last night, and rumor has it,” Beth’s plump little body danced with the need to impart her juicy gossip, “he spent quite some time closeted alone with her ladyship!” She stopped her jig and gave her a knowing wink. “I’d like to know what went on inside the carriage!”
“Knowing Lady Evelyne’s reputation, I’d be embarrassed to hazard a guess,” Catherine replied ruefully.
“They do say the highwayman is quite handsome and cuts such a dashing figure for a brigand,” Beth waxed on, “and such a gentleman to those he robs, especially the ladies.”
“Don’t be romanticizing him, Beth—he’s nothing but a brigand!” Catherine cautioned. The viscount was certainly not her one true love but certainly neither would be a common thief. “And besides,” she challenged her maid, “how would anyone know if he were handsome or not? I’ve heard he keeps his face hidden with a scarf.”
“Ah, then you’ve thought about him!” Beth pounced like a kitten with a ball of yarn. The maid’s plain face broke into a broad grin that changed to a grimace of exasperation when Catherine merely shrugged. “Well, and it does sound more romantic-like for him to be handsome now, don’t it though? Who’d care to swoon over a pie-faced brigand?”
Catherine grinned back, shaking her head at her maid’s incorrigibility. Before she could reply, there came a knock on the door, and Robert strode into the room. He leaned down and gave his sister a hearty kiss on her cheek before depositing himself in a chair next to the fireplace and draping his legs over the arm.
Her brother made a ludicrous sight. Still dressed in his riding clothes, he’d only taken the time to remove his muddy boots and replace them with green velvet slippers before rushing to her room. Due to his shortness, his legs stuck out from the side of the chair, the slippers waving in the air.
“Perhaps, now that my jack-o-napes brother has so rudely interrupted us, we shall have some fresh gossip regarding him.”
“And whom exactly are we gossiping about, my nosy sister?” Robert pulled a face at her.
“The highwayman of course! Tell us what, if anything, you’ve learned about him?”
“You mean the highwayman who seems to have robbed no one other than the Countess Carlton, regardless of the rumors flying about?” Robert teased. “I’m afraid I haven’t the time, dear sister.”
Catherine knew her brother well enough to know he was bursting to tell her something. She raised a curious eyebrow in his direction. One glance at his cherubic face, brimming over with secret mischief, alerted her to the fact that some fresh prank was afoot.
“And why is that, dear brother?” she asked suspiciously.
Rather than answering directly, Robert explained his morning ride.
“This morning, Nugent and I stopped in at the farms. Billy Taylor fell out of a tree and broke his left arm, the Jones’s baby is cutting its first tooth, and oh, by the way, Mistress Suxby said to thank you for the horehound for her throat. After discovering all these interesting tidbits, I decided to ride into the village and stop at the tobacconist for some of that new rum flavor I like so well. You know how well it packs in my pipe, Catherine, and how smoothly it burns.”
Catherine rolled her eyes in her brother’s direction. Never could Robert come directly to the point of any story.
Robert’s face broke into a devilish grin. “But I digress. The point being, on my ride home from the village not a half-hour hence, whose carriage should I pass but that of the Viscount Carlton.”
Robert paused again, and Catherine glared at him askance, willing him to arrive at a finish to his story. He obliged by hurriedly adding, “It seems that the viscount is on his way to Amberlin Hall. And I have done you the service, dearest Catherine, of finishing my journey at great risk to life and limb by hacking it across country rather than by the road to give you a fair fifteen minutes to prepare for his arrival.”
Robert brought out his pocket watch and consulted it for the accuracy of his report. “Make that twelve minutes!”
Catherine sprang up from her seat on the chest, crying out in exasperation. “Robert, why did you not come to the point immediately? I’m still in my nightdress!”
Robert merely laughed at her, once again consulting his watch for the time. “You’d best not waste precious time bemoaning the fact. Unless you wish to greet the viscount in your present state of undress?”
Catherine menaced him with her closed fist, and he laughed before opening the door to leave. With the barrier of the door for protection, he poked his head back into the room for a parting riposte.
“Perhaps the viscount is about to make us an offer we shouldn’t refuse?” He stuck out his left hand, laughing anew, and waggled his ring finger in Catherine’s direction. Catherine picked up a book from the opposite corner of the chest and hefted it in his direction. Robert managed to shut the door with a last roar of laughter a bare second before the book crashed into it.