Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson
“I am tired and cold and cramped from the long ride,” she said, noting that he frowned at the truth. Hearing him mutter something as he peered past the lowered curtain at the window, she asked, “Was I mistaken? I thought I heard the man in the village tell Scribner we should reach Coldstream before nightfall. That was hours ago.”
“The storm has slowed us.” He pulled on the check-string, and the vehicle came to a stop. When it bounced as the coachman leapt from the box, Bradley raised the curtain and leaned his elbow out. The wind-driven snow lashed them as he called, “Scribner, how much farther to Coldstream?”
The man hunched within his frozen cloak while he held up a lantern from the box. He stamped his feet as he answered, “I fear the numb-wit we asked for directions misdirected us badly, Mr. Montcrief. This road seems to be leading nowhere. We might be wiser to turn about and return to the main road north.”
“Do so,” Bradley ordered. He cursed, then apologized hastily to Romayne. “Forgive my frustration, my sweet. When I am so close to having you for my own, it enrages me to be denied even a moment longer.”
“We have waited so long for this day,” she said soothingly. “Think how much sweeter it shall be to speak our vows when the time finally comes.”
He grinned, his expression macabre in the long shadows from the dim lantern as Scribner walked back toward the horses. “You make it so simple to love you, Romayne. Tell me that you love me, my dear.”
She started to answer, raising her hands to his shoulders. Her words were swallowed by the coachman calling a warning.
Bradley pushed her away as he looked out the carriage window. Snapping an order, he swore again. Romayne started to ask what was wrong, then she heard hoofbeats approaching at a rapid pace on the frozen road. The taut expression on her betrothed's face warned her he too suspected the sound heralded trouble.
“Get us out of here!” Bradley bellowed to his coachman.
Romayne said, “Perhaps if you help Scribnerâ”
Romayne gasped at the venom in his voice. Never had he spoken like this to her. She put her hand on his arm, but he shrugged it off as he leaned out the window to call to his coachman.
Shouts careened through the storm. The carriage jerked, tossing Romayne back against the seat as Scribner tried to turn the vehicle. The road was so narrow that he had to lead the horses in a crazy dance, moving them backward and forward at sharp angles as he tried to get the bulky carriage facing in the opposite direction.
“Hurry, man! Get us out of here!” shouted Bradley as the coachman clambered back into the box. Folding his arms over his chest, he grumbled, “I should have turned him off years ago. The man is a lame-hand.”
“He is doing his best, Bradley,” Romayne said, putting her hand over his.
She gasped when he brushed it away and retorted, “I hope you think so when those high pads catch up with us.”
Romayne pressed her hands to her mouth. Highwaymen! She had thought they would be free of that threat when the rain outside the carriage had changed into a late-winter snowstorm. Fear clamped its icy claws around her throat, and she clutched her pelisse when the carriage lurched forward as Scribner plied the whip to the horses. She wondered if they could possibly escape. The team hooked to the carriage were tired and pulling a heavy load. The highwaymen's mounts might be fresh and eager for a run, even in the snow.
The carriage came to a halt so suddenly that Romayne rocked forward. She winced as pain raced up her arms when she stopped herself with her hands against the front of the carriage. She cried, “Bradley, tell him to drive on! Drive on beforeâ”
A scream died in her throat as the barrel of a gun pushed aside the curtain in the window beside her. A battered face peered into the coach. She could see little beneath the floppy hat the high pad had pulled low to conceal himself. The cackle of triumphant laughter pinned her against the cushions, but her fingers inched toward Bradley's. When she could not find his hand, she pulled her gaze from the highwayman's to discover Bradley was raising his hands over his head in a pose of capitulation.
“A right charmin' lady,” cooed the bridle-cull, leaning through her window. Using the end of his gun to tip back her bonnet's brim, he laughed again as she cringed away. “A right charmin' lady. Yer wife, sir?”
“Not yet,” Bradley said through clenched teeth. Romayne could see the strain along his jaw as he struggled not to throw curses into the highwayman's teeth. She wanted to caution him to hold his temper. One misspoken word and they could be dead.
“Then she must be yer convenient,” continued the man in his broad, Lowlands accent. “Ye both be right convenient fer us tonight. M'boys thought nobody would be out on such a night, but I told them some fat-pated Englishman would dare to come along Duffie's road. Ye proved me right again.”
“What do you want?” Bradley asked.
“Cooperation, milord.” He pushed his hat back to reveal a nose that had been broken many times. A scar ran along his left cheek, pulling his lips up into a perpetual smirk. “From ye and yer lady.”
“Leave Lady Romayne alone.”
“Lady Romayne, is it? A fancy name for yer dasher, milord.”
She flinched at the man's insult. She was no Cyprian, and she had no wish to hear her name on his vulgar lips. How she would delight in telling him so, but she must guard her words as closely as Bradley must guard his temper.
“Take what you wish and begone,” Bradley ordered.
“Aye, that we will.”
Romayne steeled herself for his demands. When the gun was withdrawn and the curtain fell back into place, she breathed a ragged sigh of relief. She strained to hear anything to tell her that they were not alone on the country road. If someone else was riding this way, the highwaymen might play least in sight before the law was called down upon their scraggly heads.
Her hopes vanished when the door was jerked open. A filthy hand grabbed her arm. Horrified, she cried, “Bradley!”
“Cooperate,” he snarled back.
She stared at him in disbelief. Had Bradley gone queer in his attic? Slapping at the hand, she heard despicable laughter. The black-hearted collector grasped her arm and pulled her off the seat.
Her cry for help went unanswered as he lifted her from the carriage and placed her at the edge of the light from the lanterns his men held. There were at least a half-dozen highwaymen, each holding a weapon. Several were trained on Scribner, who was raising his hands in surrender as Bradley had.
Mud oozed over her low shoes, and icy snow scratched her face. She shivered as the wind taunted her with the odor from the highwaymen. They stank of too much horseflesh and too few baths. With her eyes focused on the pistol in her captor's hand, she whispered Bradley's name. How she longed for his arms around her to keep her safe from these thieves!
“Step to the side,” her captor ordered.
Romayne faltered, and he jabbed her with the sharp barrel of his pistol. She swallowed her scream as she took an uneasy step through the muck. Looking back, she watched Bradley emerge from the carriage. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw snowflakes drifting before the guns which glittered in the flickering carriage lantern.
Her captor, whom she guessed to be the leader of the highwaymen, motioned for Scribner to come down from the box. The nearly frozen coachman obeyed slowly. When a gun rose behind him, Romayne cried a warning. The sound became a gasp of horror as he was knocked to lie sprawled in the thickening snow. A trickle of blood edged along his cap.
She searched the road in both directions, but it was as deserted as if they stood in the middle of the Highlands instead of on the English side of the River Tweed. Uneven stone walls contorted along the twisting road, then vanished into the night. Not even the lowing of a cow broke the moan of the wind careening through the bare trees which were stretching their spindly fingers over the road.
Hearing Bradley's raised voice, Romayne forced herself to suppress her panic so she could listen. His words were snatched away by the squall, but she saw fury in his stance. What could he promise these men when the squires of the pad could take whatever they wished?
“Bradleyâ” The poke of a pistol in her back silenced her.
When Bradley folded his arms against his greatcoat, the highwayman shrugged with insolent nonchalance, then laughed. Bradley clenched his fists.
Fear cramped her stomach. If Bradley, in his determination to protect her, struck the land-pirate, the other men would attack him. When she took a step toward him, a gun jabbed at her as another man growled a warning.
His voice must have reached his comrades, for the leader of the highwayman turned. He swaggered through the mud toward her. His laughter was as vicious as a slap when he splashed mire onto her. The dark stain inched along her pale blue coat, bringing icy coldness to climb up her legs.
She wanted to stamp her feet to keep them warm, but she did not dare. He might see the motion as defiance. Surely Bradley had been right. They must cooperate, so they could escape with their lives. Looking past the highwayman, she frowned in puzzlement when she saw Bradley sitting on the step to the carriage. He looked as unruffled as if they were among bosom bows.
“Ye be a good girl now,” the leader ordered in his nasal tone. “Do ye ride?”
Bradley must have felt her eyes on him, because he looked in her direction. With his blond hair frosted with a thin layer of snow, he pulled his feet beneath his great coat. She wanted to beg him to help her deal with the madman who was poking a pistol into her shoulder. Bradley did not move.
“Yes,” Romayne said as she looked at the highwayman again. “I can ride.”
“Can you keep yer seat? Or do ye fall off the beast if he does more than walks?”
She considered lying, but she had no idea what he might do if he discovered her falsehood. Again she looked to Bradley, but he was staring at the frozen mud and tapping his fingers impatiently on his knee. Why was he sitting there when this man was pointing a gun at her? She silenced the horrible thought. She did not want Bradley to sacrifice his life needlessly.
“Do ye ride well, Lady Romayne?” demanded the highwayman.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“That be good.” He snapped his fingers. A man brought a black horse forward. “Ye will need to where we be goin'.”
“Going?” She shook her head. “I cannot leave Bradley.”
Again he chuckled. “Ye will not want to be goin' where he be goin'.”
Horror strangled her as hands seized her by the waist. When an involuntary shriek burst from her lips, she heard more laughter. She grasped the front of the low saddle as she was placed on the scrawny horse. When she started to slide from the saddle, the leader of the highwaymen aimed his pistol at her heart.
“Sit yerself there, lassie, or we shall have to be dealin' rough with ye now.”
Romayne knew it would be useless to argue. In silence, she watched as the leader mounted another black horse and grasped the rein hooked to her horse's bridle. Twisting in the saddle, she saw Bradley was standing over Scribner as the coachman struggled to his feet. They still were surrounded by a quartet of bridle-culls.
“Bradley!” she cried as the leader tugged her horse closer to his. A pistol appeared in front of her face. The click of its trigger warned her not to speak again.
“Get what ye want, lads, then finish up here.” He flashed a broken-toothed grin at Romayne as his men pulled everything from the carriage's boot, tossing her clothes into the muddy snow as the highwaymen looked for anything of value. “We have more fun ahead of us tonight.”
She was sure her heart had forgotten how to beat as she saw the lascivious glow in his eyes. Was this torment the price she must pay for ignoring her grandfather's orders? With a shudder, she thought of his sorrow when he learned what had happened to her.
Romayne swallowed past the lump of fear in her throat. She
the granddaughter of the Duke of Westhampton, a respected diplomat and a veteran of the Colonial wars in America. Never had he surrendered. Neither would she. Raising her chin in weak defiance, she was startled and satisfied when the highwayman lowered his eyes first.
When her left hand was grasped, Romayne cried, “Don't touch me, sirrah!”
“Be quiet, lass, or ye will be sorry,” growled her captor as one of his men ripped off her left glove and threw it into the snow.
Victorious cheers from the brigands confused her. If they feared her cries might alert others to their crimes, why were they acting as if they were celebrating a fair day? Her bafflement became anguish as the thief pulled her betrothal ring from her finger. In the dim light from the carriage's lantern, the pearl, set in the gold and rubies, had a luminous glow.
Tipping his hat to her, the high-boty grinned and tossed the ring to his leader. The man cached it beneath his ragged coat.
“You shall not enjoy the profits of your misdeeds for long,” Romayne said with every ounce of her bravado. “I shall see you wear a hempen cravat.”
“No one has caught Artair Duffie yet, lass. No one will.” He shouted orders to his men.
Three of the thieves swung into their saddles with the ease of men accustomed to their hard profession. They encircled her. Her horse was tugged to follow the leader's mount. Glancing back, she saw two men guarding Bradley and Scribner, who was fighting to stay on his feet.
Her false courage abandoned her. “Bradley,” she whispered. She feared she never would see him alive again. She could imagine but one reason for the highwaymen to separate them. The villains planned to kill both of them and leave their corpses in two different locations to confuse the authorities.
Although he could not have heard her, Bradley looked at her for what she feared was a final time. His shadowed face gave no hint of his expression, but she could feel his frustration and distress in her own heart. The stiff set of his shoulders warned of the temper she had tried never to rouse. She feared it would matter little if he lost it now, for their lives were already forfeit as a price for getting lost on this deserted road.