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Grace Eversleigh had been the companion to the dowager Duchess of Wyndham for five years, and in that time she had learned several things about her employer, the most pertinent of which was this: Under her grace's stern, exacting, and haughty exterior did not beat a heart of gold.
Which was not to say that the offending organ was black. Her grace the dowager Duchess of Wyndham could never be called completely evil. Nor was she cruel, spiteful, or even entirely mean-spirited. But Augusta Elizabeth Candida Debenham Cavendish had been born the daughter of a duke, she had married a duke, and then given birth to another. Her sister was now a member of a minor royal family in some central European country whose name Grace could never quite pronounce, and her brother owned most of East Anglia. As far as the dowager was concerned, the world was a stratified place, with a hierarchy as clear as it was rigid.
Wyndhams, and especially Wyndhams who used to be Debenhams, sat firmly at the top.
And as such, the dowager expected certain behavior and deference to be paid. She was rarely kind, she did not tolerate stupidity, and her compliments were never falsely given. (Some might say they were never given at all, but Grace had, precisely twice, borne witness to a curt but honest "well done" - not that anyone believed her when she mentioned it later.)
But the dowager had saved Grace from an impossible situation, and for that she would always possess Grace's gratitude, respect, and most of all, her loyalty. Still, there was no getting around the fact that the dowager was something less than cheerful, and so, as they rode home from the Lincolnshire Dance and Assembly, their elegant and well-sprung coach gliding effortlessly across the midnight-dark roads, Grace could not help but be relieved that her employer was fast asleep.
It had been a lovely night, truly, and Grace knew she should not be so uncharitable. Upon arrival, the dowager had immediately retired to her seat of honor with her cronies, and Grace had not been required to attend to her. Instead, she had danced and laughed with all of her old friends, she had drunk three glasses of punch, she had poked fun at Thomas - always an entertaining endeavor; he was the current duke and certainly needed a bit less obsequiousness in his life. But most of all she had smiled. She had smiled so well and so often that her cheeks hurt.
The pure and unexpected joy of the evening had left her body humming with energy, and she was now perfectly happy to grin into the darkness, listening to the soft snore of the dowager as they made their way home.
Grace closed her eyes, even though she did not think herself sleepy. There was something hypnotic about the motion of the carriage. She was riding backwards - she always did - and the rhythmic clip-clop of the horses' hooves was making her drowsy. It was strange. Her eyes were tired, even though the rest of her was not. But perhaps a nap would not be such a misplaced endeavor - as soon as they returned to Belgrave, she would be required to aid the dowager with -
Grace sat up straight, glancing over at her employer, who, miraculously, had not awakened. What was that sound? Had someone -
This time the carriage lurched, coming to a halt so swiftly that the dowager, who was facing front as usual, was jerked off her seat.
Grace immediately dropped to her knees next to her employer, her arms instinctively coming around her.
"What the devil?" the dowager snapped, but fell silent when she caught Grace's expression.
"Gunshots," Grace whispered.
The dowager's lips pursed tightly, and then she yanked off her emerald necklace and thrust it at Grace.
"Hide this," she ordered.
"Me?" Grace practically squeaked, but she shoved the jewels under a cushion all the same. And all she could think was that she would dearly like to smack a little sense into the esteemed Augusta Wyndham, because if she were killed because the dowager was too cheap to hand over her jewels -
The door was wrenched open.
"Stand and deliver!"
Grace froze, still crouched on the floor next to the dowager. Slowly, she lifted her head to the doorway, but all she could see was the silvery end of a gun, round and menacing, and pointed at her forehead.
"Ladies," came the voice again, and this time it was a bit different, almost polite. The speaker then stepped forward out of the shadows, and with a graceful motion swept his arm in an arc to usher them out. "The pleasure of your company, if you will," he murmured.
Grace felt her eyes dart back and forth - an exercise in futility, to be sure, as there was clearly no avenue of escape. She turned to the dowager, expecting to find her spitting with fury, but instead she had gone white. It was then that Grace realized she was shaking.
The dowager was shaking.
Both of them were.
The highwayman leaned in, one shoulder resting against the door frame. He smiled then - slow and lazy, and with the charm of a rogue. How Grace could see all of that when half of his face was covered with his mask, she did not know, but three things about him were abundantly clear: He was young.
He was strong.
And he was dangerously lethal.
"Ma'am," Grace said, giving the dowager a nudge. "I think we should do as he says."
"I do love a sensible woman," he said, and smiled again. Just a quirk this time - one devastating little lift at the corner of his mouth. But his gun remained high, and his charm did little to assuage Grace's fear.
And then he extended his other arm. He extended his arm. As if they were embarking at a house party.
As if he were a country gentleman, about to inquire about the weather.
"May I be of assistance?" he murmured.
Grace shook her head frantically. She could not touch him. She did not know why, precisely, but she knew in her bones that it would be utter disaster to put her hand in his.
"Very well," he said with a small sigh. "Ladies today are so very capable. It breaks my heart, really." He leaned in, almost as if sharing a secret. "No one likes to feel superfluous."
Grace just stared at him.
"Rendered mute by my grace and charm," he said, stepping back to allow them to exit. "It happens all the time. Really, I shouldn't be allowed near the ladies. I have such a vexing effect on you."
He was mad. That was the only explanation. Grace didn't care how pretty his manners were, he had to be mad. And he had a gun.
"Although," he mused, his weapon rock steady even as his words seemed to meander through the air,
"some would surely say that a mute woman is the least vexing of all."
Thomas would, Grace thought. The Duke of Wyndham - who had years ago insisted that she use his given name at Belgrave after a farcical chorus of your grace, Miss Grace, your grace - had no patience for chitchat of any sort.
"Ma'am," she whispered urgently, tugging on the dowager's arm.
The dowager did not say a word, nor did she nod, but she took Grace's hand and allowed herself to be helped down from the carriage.
"Ah, now that is much better," the highwayman said, grinning widely now. "What good fortune is mine to have stumbled upon two ladies so divine. Here I thought I'd be greeted by a crusty old gentleman."
Grace stepped to the side, keeping her eyes trained on his face. He did not look like a criminal, or rather, her idea of a criminal. His accent screamed education and breeding, and if he was not recently washed, well, she could not smell it.
"Or perhaps one of those dreadful young toads, stuffed into a waistcoat two sizes too small," he mused, rubbing his free hand thoughtfully against his chin. "You know the sort, don't you?" he asked Grace.
"Red face, drinks too much, thinks too little."
And to her great surprise, Grace found herself nodding.
"I thought you would," he replied. "They're rather thick on the ground, sadly."
Grace blinked and just stood there, watching his mouth. It was the only bit of him she could watch, with his mask covering the upper portion of his face. But his lips were so full of movement, so perfectly formed and expressive, that she almost felt she could see him. It was odd. And mesmerizing. And more than a little unsettling.
"Ah, well," he said, with the same deceptive sigh of ennui Grace had seen Thomas utilize when he wished to change the subject. "I'm sure you ladies realize that this isn't a social call." His eyes flicked toward Grace, and he let loose a devilish smile. "Not entirely."
Grace's lips parted.
His eyes - what she could see of them through the mask - grew heavy-lidded and seductive.
"I do enjoy mixing business and pleasure," he murmured. "It's not often an option, what with all those portly young gentlemen traveling the roads."
She knew she should gasp, or even spit forth a protest, but the highwayman's voice was so smooth, like the fine brandy she was occasionally offered at Belgrave. There was a very slight lilt to it, too, attesting to a childhood spent far from Lincolnshire, and Grace felt herself sway, as if she could fall forward, lightly, softly, and land somewhere else. Far, far from here.
Quick as a flash his hand was at her elbow, steadying her. "You're not going to swoon, are you?" he asked, his fingers offering just the right amount of pressure to keep her on her feet.
Without letting her go.
Grace shook her head. "No," she said softly.
"You have my heartfelt thanks for that," he replied. "It would be lovely to catch you, but I'd have to drop my gun, and we couldn't have that, could we?" He turned to the dowager with a chuckle. "And don't you go thinking about it. I would be more than happy to catch you as well, but I don't believe either of you would wish to leave my associates in charge of the firearms."
It was only then that Grace realized there were three other men. Of course there had to be - he could not have orchestrated this by himself. But the rest of them had been so silent, choosing to remain in the shadows.
And she had not been able to take her eyes off their leader.
"Has our driver been harmed?" Grace asked, mortified that she was only now thinking of his welfare.
Neither he nor the footman who had served as an outrider were anywhere in sight.
"Nothing that a spot of love and tenderness won't cure," the highwayman assured her. "Is he married?"
What was he talking about? "I - I don't think so," Grace replied.
"Send him to the public house, then. There is a rather buxom maid there who - Ah, but what am I thinking? I am among ladies." He chuckled. "Warm broth, then, and perhaps a cold compress. And then after that, a day off to find that spot of love and tenderness. The other fellow, by the way" - he flicked his head toward a nearby cluster of trees - "is over there. Perfectly unharmed, I assure you, although he might find his bindings tighter than he prefers."
Grace flushed, and she turned to the dowager, amazed that she wasn't giving the highwayman a dressing down for such lewd talk. But the dowager was still as pale as sheets, and she was staring at the thief as if she'd seen a ghost.
"Ma'am?" Grace said, instantly taking her hand. It was cold and clammy. And limp. Utterly limp.
"What is your name?" the dowager whispered.
"My name?" Grace repeated in horror. Had she suffered an apoplexy? Lost her memory?
"Your name," the dowager said with greater force, and it was clear this time that she was addressing the highwayman.
But he only laughed. "I am delighted by the attentions of so lovely a lady, but surely you do not think I would reveal my name during what is almost certainly a hanging offense."
"I need your name," the dowager said.
"And I'm afraid that I need your valuables," he replied. He motioned to the dowager's hand with a respectful tilt of his head. "That ring, if you will."
"Please," the dowager whispered, and Grace's head snapped around to face her. The dowager rarely said thank you, and she never said please.
"She needs to sit down," Grace said to the highwayman, because surely the dowager was ill. Her health was excellent, but she was well past seventy and she'd had a shock.
"I don't need to sit down," the dowager said sharply, shaking Grace off. She turned back to the highwayman, yanked off her ring, and held it out. He plucked it from her hand, rolling it about in his fingers before depositing it in his pocket.
Grace held silent, watching the exchange, waiting for him to ask for more. But to her surprise, the dowager spoke first.
"I have another reticule in the carriage," she said - slowly, and with a strange and wholly uncharacteristic deference. "Please allow me to retrieve it."
"As much as I would like to indulge you," he said smoothly, "I must decline. For all I know, you've two pistols hidden under the seat."
Grace swallowed, thinking of the jewels.
"And," he added, his manner growing almost flirtatious, "I can tell you are that most maddening sort of female." He sighed with dramatic flair. "Capable. Oh, admit it." He gave the dowager a subversive little smile. "You are an expert rider, a crack shot, and you can recite the complete works of Shakespeare backwards."
If anything, the dowager grew even more pale at his words.
"Ah, to be twenty years older," he said with a sigh. "I should not have let you slip away."
"Please," the dowager begged. "There is something I must give to you."
"Now that's a welcome change of pace," he remarked. "People so seldom wish to hand things over. It does make one feel unloved."
Grace reached for the dowager. "Please let me help you," she insisted. The dowager was not well. She could not be well. She was never humble, and did not beg, and -
"Take her!" the dowager suddenly cried out, grabbing Grace's arm and thrusting her at the highwayman.
"You may hold her hostage, with a gun to the head if you desire. I promise you, I shall return, and I shall do it unarmed."
Grace swayed and stumbled, the shock of the moment rendering her almost insensible. She fell against the highwayman, and one of his arms came instantly around her. The embrace was strange, almost protective, and she knew that he was as stunned as she.
They both watched as the dowager, without waiting for his acquiescence, climbed quickly into the carriage.
Grace fought to breathe. Her back was pressed up against him, and his large hand rested against her abdomen, the tips of his fingers curling gently around her right hip. He was warm, and she felt hot, and dear heaven above, she had never - never - stood so close to a man.
She could smell him, feel his breath, warm and soft against her neck. And then he did the most amazing thing. His lips came to her ear, and he whispered, "She should not have done that."
He sounded... gentle. Almost sympathetic. And stern, as if he did not approve of the dowager's treatment of her.
"I am not used to holding a woman such," he murmured in her ear. "I generally prefer a different sort of intimacy, don't you?"
She said nothing, afraid to speak, afraid that she would try to speak and discover she had no voice.
"I won't harm you," he murmured, his lips touching her ear.
Her eyes fell on his gun, still in his right hand. It looked angry and dangerous, and it was resting against her thigh.
"We all have our armor," he whispered, and he moved, shifted, really, and suddenly his free hand was at her chin. One finger lightly traced her lips, and then he leaned down and kissed her.
Grace stared in shock as he pulled back, smiling gently down at her.
"That was far too short," he said. "Pity." He stepped back, took her hand, and brushed another kiss on her knuckles. "Another time, perhaps," he murmured.
But he did not let go of her hand. Even as the dowager emerged from the carriage, he kept her fingers in his, his thumb rubbing lightly across her skin.
She was being seduced. She could barely think - she could barely breathe - but this, she knew. In a few minutes they would part ways, and he would have done nothing more than kiss her, and she would be forever changed.
The dowager stepped in front of them, and if she cared that the highwayman was caressing her companion, she did not speak of it. Instead, she held forth a small object. "Please," she implored him.
He released Grace's hand, his fingers trailing reluctantly across her skin. As he reached out, Grace realized that the dowager was holding a miniature painting. It was of her long-dead second son.
Grace knew that miniature. The dowager carried it with her everywhere.
"Do you know this man?" the dowager whispered.
The highwayman looked at the tiny painting and shook his head.
But he just shook his head again, trying to return it to the dowager.
"Might be worth something," one of his companions said.
He shook his head and gazed intently at the dowager's face. "It will never be as valuable to me as it is to you."
"No!" the dowager cried out, and she shoved the miniature toward him. "Look! I beg of you, look! His eyes. His chin. His mouth. They are yours."
Grace sucked in her breath.
"I am sorry," the highwayman said gently. "You are mistaken."
But she would not be dissuaded. "His voice is your voice," she insisted. "Your tone, your humor. I know it. I know it as I know how to breathe. He was my son. My son."
"Ma'am," Grace interceded, placing a motherly arm around her. The dowager would not normally have allowed such an intimacy, but there was nothing normal about the dowager this evening. "Ma'am, it is dark. He is wearing a mask. It cannot be he."
"Of course it's not he," she snapped, pushing Grace violently away. She rushed forward, and Grace nearly fell with terror as every man steadied his weapon.
"Don't hurt her!" she cried out, but her plea was unnecessary. The dowager had already grabbed the highwayman's free hand and was clutching it as if he was her only means of salvation.
"This is my son," she said, her trembling fingers holding forth the miniature. "His name was John Cavendish, and he died twenty-nine years ago. He had brown hair, and blue eyes, and a birthmark on his shoulder." She swallowed convulsively, and her voice fell to a whisper. "He adored music, and he could not eat strawberries. And he could...he could..."
The dowager's voice broke, but no one spoke. The air was thick and tense with silence, every eye on the old woman until she finally got out, her voice barely a whisper, "He could make anyone laugh."
And then, in an acknowledgment Grace could never have imagined, the dowager turned to her and added,
The moment stood suspended in time, pure, silent, and heavy. No one spoke. Grace wasn't even sure if anyone breathed.
She looked at the highwayman, at his mouth, at that expressive, devilish mouth, and she knew that something was not right. His lips were parted, and more than that, they were still. For the first time, his mouth was without movement, and even in the silvery light of the moon she could tell that he'd gone white.
"If this means anything to you," the dowager continued with quiet determination, "you may find me at Belgrave Castle awaiting your call."
And then, as stooped and shaking as Grace had ever seen her, she turned, still clutching the miniature, and climbed back into the carriage.
Grace held still, unsure of what to do. She no longer felt in danger - strange as that seemed, with three guns still trained on her and one - the highwayman's, her highwayman's - resting limply at his side. But they had turned over only one ring - surely not a productive haul for an experienced band of thieves, and she did not feel she could get back into the carriage without permission.
She cleared her throat. "Sir?" she said, unsure of how to address him.
"My name is not Cavendish," he said softly, his voice reaching her ears alone. "But it once was."
And then, with movements sharp and swift, he leaped atop his horse and barked, "We are done here."
And Grace was left to stare at his back as he rode away.
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