The criminal was alive and well. Yet, the one man who could have exposed him was dead. Phoebe stared at the clipping of the obituary notice printed in the Times five days ago. The knowledge of his death settled around her as black as the darkness surrounding her carriage. The lantern flickered with the sway of the carriage as she slid her gaze over the paragraph that extolled Bow Street Sheriff John Stafford’s criminal expertise, and past the mention of his involvement in The Cato Street Conspiracy. A man’s life reduced to two paragraphs. For the hundredth time since she’d first read the obituary, she settled her gaze on the final line.
September 1837, John Stafford died in his London home.
Phoebe refolded the clipping, set it on her lap, and pulled another document from her reticule. She ran her fingers along the age-yellowed edges of the only letter her father had written to her mother, the letter she had shown John Stafford when she’d visited him in his home five years ago. She unfolded the foolscap and, with a deep breath, began reading. Her lips moved in tandem with the words she’d long ago memorized.
May 20, 1820
My Dearest Amelia,
Please forgive this letter so long overdue. I am well and I have found safe haven—at least for the moment. You have, no doubt, heard the news that I am wanted for high treason, and now you know that my suspicions were correct. Amelia, you cannot know how my accusers make even the most abhorrent criminal look like one of God’s angels. I sorely underestimated the depth of their deceit. Fool that I am, I did not anticipate being branded a traitor in their stead.
I know your heart is heavy, my love, but no more so than mine. It is shocking to learn that one’s leaders are willing to sacrifice their countrymen for money and power. Ironically, had I known then what I now know, I would be guilty of their accusations. Do not shudder. I know I speak treason, but you cannot comprehend the fine line between reason and desperation when all choices have been eliminated.
Would it shock you to hear that I relish the day I shall destroy my accusers? They have taken all I hold dear: you, our darling Phoebe and, lastly, my freedom. While I cannot like Arthur Thistlewood—his motives are not pure as he would have us believe—in one thing he was right: those few rich and powerful men who rule supreme in our society have stolen our rights.
I have a plan, which, of course, I cannot elaborate upon here, but I must uncover the truth. Otherwise…well, otherwise, I am no better than Thistlewood—or those men who brought him to justice.
I do not know when I will have another opportunity to write. Give Phoebe my love, and do not despair. I have not.
Your loving husband,
It wasn’t until her mother’s death ten years ago that Phoebe learned her father sent this letter. The letter, hidden amongst her mother’s personal correspondence, had been folded with a newspaper clipping dated February 24, 1820, the day after the Spencean Society’s planned assassination of the Cabinet. The newspaper clipping, a statement made by Lord Sidmouth to the London Gazette concerning the charge of high treason against Thistlewood and his murder of Bow Street runner Richard Smithers, also mentioned the bounty on Thistlewood’s head. The paragraphs were framed by a note written in her father’s hand on the sides.
Sidmouth could not have yet known that Thistlewood killed Smithers. Here is proof positive the noose had been put around Thistlewood’s neck before he even planned the assassinations.
“Why?” Phoebe whispered. Why had her father been falsely accused and why had he cared that the government ensured Thistlewood’s capture? Thistlewood was a known murderer, a man—A sharp sideways jostle yanked Phoebe back to the present. “What in—” Another jolt cut short the exclamation.
She yanked back the curtain and peered into the darkness. No lights dotted the countryside as they should have, and moonlight revealed open fields beyond the road.
She quickly refolded the letter and clipping, stuffed them into her reticule, then opened the door an inch and called, “Where are we, Calders? I don’t recognize this road.”
“Taking a shortcut, Miss,” came the muffled reply.
“Wha—” The coach listed, and she slammed the door with the force of the movement, tumbling back against the cushion. “By heavens.”
Phoebe seized the handle again. The door was yanked from her grasp and flung open. A man filled the doorway. She jerked back as a rush of air guttered the lantern flame. Her heart jumped when she lost sight of the intruder for an instant, then the light flared to life again. The man gripped the side of the open doorway of the slowing carriage, one leg braced on the floor. She took in eyes bluer than any she’d ever seen, an angled face, and a fit body leaning forward on one powerful leg—a leg clad in finely cut trousers. Thievery paid well these days!
She cut her gaze to his and he grinned. Phoebe pooled her strength. Understanding flickered in his eyes the instant before she kicked his shoulder with a slippered foot. With a loud grunt, he toppled from the coach. She lunged forward, caught hold of the flapping door, and hung her head out the doorway, scanning the road behind for the brigand. The coach was slowing even more, and her heart leapt higher in her throat when he jumped to his feet and starting toward them.
“Calders,” she yelled, “lay whip to the horses. Quickly!”
The coach halted so suddenly, she tumbled through the door, and landed on her side. A dull pain throbbed deep in her shoulder. She pushed onto an elbow and fingered the tender place on her arm. No blood. Thank God she’d worn a cloak.
The carriage creaked and Phoebe looked up to see the murky form of her coachman as he dropped to the ground. She scrambled to her feet and turned in the direction of the highwayman. He wasn’t hastening to them as expected, but strolled forward while dusting off his trousers. She turned on unsteady feet to face Calders and her eyes came into sharp focus upon the face of a stranger.
She recoiled, then narrowed her eyes on him. “Where’s Calders. What have you done with him? If you harmed him—”
“Never fear, madam, he is unharmed.”
Phoebe whirled at the sound of the velvet, deep voice belonging to the highwayman.
“I promise,” he said, “Calders was simply delayed.”
A sudden pounding of hooves riveted her attention onto the distant shadowy forms of four approaching horsemen.
“There!” one of the newcomers shouted. “There she is.”
She looked back at the highwayman in time to see him step toward her. He seized her arm. She tried to yank free, but he dragged her toward the carriage.
“Mather,” he said in a low voice, “get this coach underway. Now.”
Phoebe dug her heels into the ground and was abruptly hauled over his shoulder. She cried out, but he didn’t slow his pace.
“Release me, you fool!” she shouted. His shoulder dug into her stomach with each long, hurried stride he took. Phoebe kicked, despite the pain.
“Be still” he ordered, and clamped his arm down on her legs.
She thrashed harder. A shot rang out. She jerked her head up, but found herself tossed onto the cushions of the carriage.
The highwayman jumped into the carriage after her. “Damnation.” He slammed the door shut. “They mean to put a ball through me.”
He pounded on the coach roof and they lurched into motion. Phoebe clutched at the door handle, but pitched forward despite the effort. Her captor shoved her back against the cushions, holding her firm as he pulled back the curtain and peered out the window.
“Bloody hell.” He looked at her. “Fine time for shenanigans.”
She frowned. “Perhaps you should keep a tighter hand on your band.”
“They are not my band, madam.” His gaze was still fixed out the window. “They are, however, a persistent band and will reach us momentarily.” He twisted to look in the direction they were headed, then pounded on the carriage roof and shouted, “Mather, make for that abandoned farm up ahead.”
The carriage veered and Phoebe bounced left and right despite his hold on her. Stories of runaway carriages conjured pictures of broken necks and twisted bodies, and she envisioned herself pitching forward head first into the opposite seat. The arm pinning her to the cushions suddenly encircled her waist. Another jolt of the carriage, and her unwanted companion yanked her tight against his chest.
Her senses flooded with the aroma of wool and musky sandalwood. They listed when the carriage swayed perilously to one side. Phoebe seized his lapel and buried her face deeper in his chest. If there was a God in heaven, she would land on the brigand when the carriage rolled and he would break his neck while saving hers.
The carriage halted. He threw back the door and jumped to the ground, dragging her with him. The farmhouse stood a few feet away. Phoebe scanned the distance. The riders approached at a gallop and would soon reach the barn that sat sixty feet from the house. The highwayman grabbed her hand and started around the side of the ramshackle farmhouse. She started to yank free, but hesitated. Two bands of extortionists? Why—and which was the more dangerous?
They rounded the building, then he pushed her against the wall, and demanded, “Which of your other admirers am I dealing with?”
Other admirers? Phoebe flushed. Adam.
She had refused Adam’s offer of marriage three times this year alone, but hadn’t considered that her childhood friend would kidnap her in an effort to coerce her into accepting his proposal. But if this man was Adam’s friend, where was he—and who were the other thugs? God only knew, but at least Adam’s friends didn’t pose any real danger—other than the possibility of her ending up in Gretna Green.
Her kidnapper drew a pistol from the back of his waistband. Phoebe pressed closer to the rough stone of the farmhouse. He stepped forward two paces past her, extended a steady hand, and leveled the weapon on the oncoming riders. A shot rang out and shouts damned him to the darker parts of hell.
He ducked back behind the farmhouse. “Never thought I’d need more than one shot.” He stuffed the pistol back into his waistband. “How many did you count, Mather?”
“Only three? Not terrible odds.”
“If you say so, sir.”
“Do you hear that?” the highwayman whispered.
Before Phoebe could reply, he hurried along the building to the rear. She took two quick steps to the corner at the front of the house and peered around the edge toward the road. The brigands were nowhere in sight.
“Bloody hell,” her captor cursed, and Phoebe turned. “They left their mounts on the other side of the barn.” He hurried back to her. “Mather, your second pistol, if you please.”
The older man handed over the Murdock Scottish flintlock pistol he gripped.
“You haven’t got a spare pistol you can give me?” she asked. The highwayman’s head snapped in her direction. “I need protection,” she said.
“I am your protection.” He grasped her arm and hurried her along the farmhouse.
“Who will protect me against you?” she demanded.
Phoebe was sure she heard a chuckle as he continued around the back of the building. He halted and pointed at Mather, then jerked his head toward the far end of the building. Mather hurried to the edge and, a moment later, held up one finger, clearly indicating another of their attackers was closing in on the side he surveyed.
The highwayman motioned Mather toward the trees, then leaned toward her, his breath startling her as his mouth touched her ear. He whispered, “We’ll make a dash for those trees. Hold tight to my hand.”
He grasped her hand and sprinted forward. Phoebe yanked up her skirts as they raced across the short expanse. He glanced back in the instant before they entered the cover of trees, then muttered something and dragged her to the ground. His body rolled onto hers like the weight of a fallen carriage, and she gasped for air. A shot rang out and she flinched. Mather shouted, then her companion sprang to his feet, pulling her up beside him. Phoebe dragged in a heavy breath, barely managing to keep pace as he hurried deeper into the trees. A man appeared up ahead. Relief eased the knot in her stomach upon recognizing Mather. The highwayman stopped once they reached his side.
A long moment of silence passed before her captor said, “I want to see if they’ve given up. Double back around to the north, Mather. You know where to meet should we become separated.”
“Perhaps, sir, I should deal with the men?”
“I will be quicker in dispatching them.”
“As you wish, sir,” Mather replied. “But bear in mind, should anything happen to you, it is I who will face your father.”
“Never fear,” a chuckle tinged the highwayman’s voice, “I won’t leave you to so deplorable a fate. I have no intention of allowing these common brigands to get the best of me.”
“Would that be common in comparison to a not-so-common brigand such as yourself, sir?” Phoebe asked.
“You don’t take kindly to being abducted by one brigand, while being pursued by another?”
“A comedian,” she commented dryly.
“A comedian is a much safer wager than those fellows,” he said, then slinked off in the direction they had come.
Phoebe followed Mather in the opposite direction. She waited until she was sure they were alone, then groaned and swayed.
“Miss!” He caught her before she collapsed.
She leaned heavily on him. “I-forgive me.”
“Are you all right, Miss?”
Phoebe nodded. “You understand the strain of two abduction attempts in one night?”
“Well…” he began.
“I’m unaccustomed to skulking about in the forest.” She shivered for good measure.
“Indeed,” he agreed, and allowed her to lean on him as they started forward.
Phoebe sighed. “Perhaps…” she let her voice drop off.
“What is it, Miss?” He guided her around a large branch.
“If I were back in the safety of my carriage…”
“We’ll soon have you back,” he replied.
“Can’t we go directly there? Your master will make short work of those men. We could—”
“Oh no, we must be sure those rogues are dispatched before we return.”
“Which rogues do you refer to?” she demanded.
“Beg your pardon, Miss?”
His voice, she realized, carried a note that was just a bit too solicitous. She yanked free of his grasp. “Very funny, my man.”
“Are you sure you’re all right, Miss?” he asked with no change of demeanor.
“No, I am not all right. Would you be all right if you had been abducted against your will?”
“No,” he answered thoughtfully, “I suppose not.”
Phoebe distinguished the edge of the forest up ahead.
“We’ll wait here.” Mather grasped her arm and urged her down to the ground.
She resisted. “I don’t want to sit on the ground. It is wet.”
“Better wet than dead.” He shoved her with enough force that she plopped onto the ground.
“You are no gentleman,” she muttered.
They waited for what she estimated to be twenty minutes when Mather said, “You’re looking fit, sir.”
She twisted to see Mather’s master approaching. Even in the darkness she discerned his limp.
“Well enough, Mather,” he rejoined.
Phoebe rose as he neared.
“Shall we?” Grasping her arm, he started toward the road.
“That’s a bit of a limp you’ve got there,” she said as they broke from the trees. “Have a little trouble when you did away with those scoundrels?”
He looked sharply at her. “I did not do away with anyone, madam.”
“You did away with the one you shot.”
“I didn’t kill him or the others. Though, they will have blazing headaches tomorrow.”
“Payment for injuries inflicted?” Mather asked, keeping his gaze straight ahead.
“It was,” he said with emphasis. “But only because the one fellow was reluctant to lay down his weapon.”
Mather gave a single nod. “As you say, sir.”
Phoebe glanced about for the carriage. The dilapidated farmhouse lay to the left a short distance, but the carriage wasn’t where they’d left it in front of the building. She scanned to the right and spied the coach sticking out from the trees a little farther down the road.
“Why didn’t they take the carriage?”
“Lack of funds, I would imagine,” the highwayman replied.
“What does that mean?”
“It means, their employer didn’t pay them enough to make it worth the possibility of getting their heads shot off.”
“I did not hear your pistol discharge—and you said you didn’t kill them,” she said.
“I didn’t kill them,” he said irritably. “Still, they resisted. Once I relieved the one gentleman of this, however,” he produced a pistol from his waistband at it his back, “they were much more docile.”
Phoebe grasped his wrist. He halted.
“A Circa Percussion Dueling pistol,” she remarked. “Deluxe nickel plated engraved barrel, trigger and butt plate.” She dropped his hand and it fell limp at his side. Phoebe regarded him. “Rather fine weapon for a highwayman. But then, it would seem highwaymen live fine lives these days.” She looked meaningfully at his clothes.
He lifted a brow. “As I have yet to rob you, madam, I don’t see that you are justified in branding me a highwayman.”
Phoebe extended her arms, holding tight to her cloak. The breeze filtered through the cloak and around the silk gown she wore. Locks of golden hair that had come loose from their pins fluttered before her vision. “I have nothing of value.”
He grinned and a flash of white teeth shone. “But, my dear, you have a great deal to offer.”
Phoebe blinked, then narrowed her eyes. “Tell Adam the answer is still no.”
“Ahhh,” he intoned. “Progress. Does Lord Stoneleigh know of the illustrious Adam?”
“Lord Stoneleigh? What has he to do with Adam?” A chill shot through her. These men weren’t friends of Adam. “What does Lord Stoneleigh want with me?” she demanded.
The highwayman made a tsking sound. “Regan was right. You are in a fit.”
“What are you talking about?”
He didn’t respond, but stuffed the pistol into his waistband, then glanced at the sky. “We should be off.”
“Aye,” Mather replied and began again in the direction of the carriage.
The highwayman bowed slightly and gestured for her to precede him. Phoebe stepped back a pace. He didn’t move until she retreated a second step, then he moved in tandem with her third step. His gaze didn’t waver from hers but, on the fifth step, he halted.
“You can’t go far.”
He leapt forward. Phoebe dodged his grab. Turning on the ball of her foot as he propelled past her, she kicked his rump. He stumbled, landing face down on the ground. Phoebe dashed for the trees. Mather’s shout broke the quiet. She had just entered the trees when iron fingers seized her arm. He swung her around and into his arms.
The highwayman caught her with a grunt. “Perhaps you ought to have foregone the honey cakes at Drucilla’s soirée.”
Phoebe kicked his shin.
He yanked her roughly to him. “You will do no better in these woods than you would have at the hands of those footpads. Don’t forget, they could awake anytime. Where would you be, then?”
He wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her from the ground. She allowed her body to sag and her weight yanked him downward.
“Bloody wench.” He hauled her over his shoulder.
For a horrible instant it seemed the momentum would land her on her head. She threw her arms around his waist as his arm clamped down on her legs. “By heavens, sir, I have been conked on the head once tonight as a consequence of you. I would prefer not to make it twice.”
He muttered something under his breath and started toward the carriage.
Phoebe noted his limp had become more pronounced. “Does that injury hurt?”
He remained silent. When they stepped from the forest, the carriage sat within a few feet of the trees with Mather at the open door. For the second time that night, the brigand threw her onto the cushions of the coach.
“Mather,” he said, stepping in behind her, “take us from this accursed place.”
Mather closed the door. Phoebe edged toward the opposite door.
“Pray, do not force me to chase you again.” He settled himself against the cushion opposite her. “Have you anything to say for yourself?”
The coach started forward and Phoebe was jostled to one side. “It is you who owe me the explanation.” She righted herself. “You kidnapped me.”
“I am no more a kidnapper than a highwayman.”
She arched a brow.
“I am taking you to Regan.”
Her mind raced. What did the earl want with her? Did this have something to do with Heddy? Heddy was furious with him for dallying with Lady Phillips, and decided to teach him a lesson by not meeting him this evening as planned. But Lord Stoneleigh hadn’t seemed the least bit concerned about Heddy when he’d flirted with Phoebe earlier that evening. In any case, the earl certainly didn’t make a habit of kidnapping ladies. As for the man sitting across from her…
“Sir, whatever your game, this has gone far enough. One does not kidnap a lady.”
“Miss Ballingham, really—”
“Miss Ballingham—you think I’m Heddy?” Relief flooded through her. “This is nothing more than a case of mistaken identity.”
“You have mistaken me for Hester Ballingham. Understandable, given that I am in her carriage.”
“A fine barouche-landau.”
Phoebe gave him a recriminating look. “I understand it is a rare vehicle, but I am not her.”
“I see,” he replied. “So aside from sharing an expensive carriage, you also share the same unusual hair color?”
“Only somewhat,” Phoebe said. “Heddy is fair haired, but not so golden.”
“Your hair is, indeed, golden,” he said in a soft voice. Before Phoebe could reply, he added, “Where is Miss Ballingham this evening? Why isn’t she in her own carriage?”
“Heddy is ill.” Or she would be once Phoebe got her hands on her. Heddy knew the barouche would be recognized, so had sent the expensive carriage for Phoebe, while she used a nondescript chaise she kept for assignations with gentleman she wished to keep secret from her current protector—in this case, Lord Stoneleigh.
The highwayman leaned forward and placed a hand on hers. “You needn’t worry. I didn’t lie when I said I would deliver you straight to Regan.”
Phoebe snatched her hand away from beneath his. “I do not wish to go to Lord Stoneleigh.”
He sat back. “You will, no doubt, be just as pleased to see him as you were Lord Beasley earlier this evening.”
Phoebe narrowed her eyes. “You were spying on me.”
“I was at the ball.”
“Then you saw Lord Stoneleigh dance with me.”
“I didn’t see Regan at the party.”
“He was there,” Phoebe insisted.
The corner of the brigand’s mouth twitched. “You carried on shamelessly with Lord Beasley.”
“What? I danced with him twice. That is hardly shameless.”
“Indeed, it is,” he said. “But you were also dancing much too close.”
She groaned inwardly. Lord Stoneleigh’s cupid clearly knew of Hester’s reputation for shameless flirtations and feminine tantrums, and—”Wait,” Phoebe exclaimed. “If you saw me at the ball, how could you possibly mistake me for Hester?”
“It wasn’t until I saw you in the coach that I knew you were the woman I saw dancing with Beasley.”
“By heavens, why didn’t you speak with me then, make sure who I was before embarking on such a numskull plot?” she demanded.
“I fully intended to seek an introduction to you, sweetheart, but when I received word that Miss Ballingham had left in her coach I was forced to leave.” He smiled. “Imagine my disappointment when I discovered you were Regan’s paramour.”
He regarded her. “I wonder what Regan would do if I kept you to myself instead of giving you back.”
She stared. “Give me back? I’m not yours to give—or his to have!”
The highwayman sighed. “I suppose he would fret if we didn’t meet him as promised. He explained his offence, by the way. Really? Is it fair to punish him for a slight indiscretion—or were his trinkets not expensive enough to sooth your wounded pride?”
“I hardly call disappearing into Lord Rupert’s gardens with Lord Phillip’s young widow a slight indiscretion.” The words were out of her mouth before she realized her mistake.
“So I thought,” he said.
“I am not Hester,” she shot back.
“The trip to Brahan Seer is only two days—”
“Two days?” Phoebe exploded.
“Two days there and two days back. Then there are the days you and Regan will reconcile.”
Four days—or more? Panic coursed through her. Her uncle would be frantic, not to mention, she couldn’t begin to comprehend the affect this affair might have on her career as an English spy. Her employment with the Crown was tenuous, despite the fact she had proven her worth when information she gathered two years ago exposed Lord Capell of Parliament as the man responsible for the disappearance of a dozen young girls. He’d been supplying brothels with the girls, many of whom had been murdered by the brothel owners.
Phoebe saw her hard work going up in smoke. Her mentor, Lord Alistair Redgrave, might overlook the fact she’d been spirited away in the dead of night by a man, but her superior, Lord Briarden, wouldn’t appreciate the attention such a scandal would bring to one of his agents. This is what she got for allowing her maid to leave when she’d claimed illness. Phoebe should have gone home with the girl.
“I can’t be away for four days,” Phoebe insisted.
“My apologies for interfering with your other assignations,” the highwayman said.
“There will be hell to pay when my absence is discovered,” she snapped.
“Regan will sooth your pride.”
“I am speaking of my family, you fool. My uncle will have your hide.”
“I wager Regan will appease him as well,” he replied.
She stared. “You truly are mad.”
“You don’t wish to snare an earl?” he asked.
“I do not.”
“Perhaps you have your sights set higher?”
She didn’t break from his stare. “Has it occurred to you that if I am telling the truth, you will be the unfortunate who is forced to marry me?”
“So you are ambitious,” he murmured. “But at least you’re honest.”
“Take yourself out of my carriage,” she ordered.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere. Where would I go?”
Phoebe gave him a sweet smile. “Go to the devil.”
“And my coachman?”
“You will need him more than I.”
“You would drive these chestnuts yourself?”
“Interesting,” he said.
She scowled. “That I can drive a pair of horses?”
“No. That you haven’t yet resorted to fainting.”
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Genre – Historical Romance
Rating – R
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