Insanity must run in the family. How else to explain her father’s obsession with Mesopotamian antiquities and her own current escapade? Disguising herself as a highwayman and holding up a coach in the December 23rd twilight was hardly a rational act, but Harriet had a good reason: to save herself from a forced marriage to a much older man, a collector even dottier and more ancient than her sire. He probably drooled.
If she had any sense, she’d go home now. Though a little hazy about the laws of marriage, she was pretty sure the bride had to consent. But she wanted her beloved, exasperating father to have the Christmas gift he was expecting, the Assyrian warrior’s ring Lord Ashburn had offered in exchange for a wife forty years his junior. And since Lord Ashburn had proposed this despicable arrangement, she felt little compunction about robbing him.
The sound of hooves told her the visitor to Holton Hall had turned off the main road. A pair of horses, she thought. She cocked her pistol and hoped Ashburn hadn’t bothered with an armed escort for the short drive out of London.
“Let’s go, Argent,” she whispered, and propelled her horse round the laurels into the road. “Stop!” she shouted, in the deepest voice she could manage. It came out a bit croaky, as though she had a sore throat.
The vehicle was a curricle, not what she expected an elderly earl to drive. On the other hand, the fact that the driver was alone, without even a groom, must be an advantage when it came to daylight robbery. She’d have the treasure off him in no time, and gallop home with plenty of time to change into her oldest, plainest evening gown to greet their guest for dinner. Since Ashburn wouldn’t have the ring, her father wouldn’t insist on the marriage. Still, it was safer to make herself as unalluring as possible.
“Stand and deliver!” she cried, which she understood was the correct greeting for a highwayman. “Don’t move or I’ll blow your head off,” she added for good measure, in case the poor man didn’t understand. He might well be weak in the brainbox to have agreed to such a ridiculous marriage contract.
The chestnut pair drew to a halt, snorting breath into the frigid air. “Are you sure you can hit me?” the driver asked. “I’ve never yet encountered a woman who could shoot worth a damn.” Disobeying her order, he leapt down from the bench and Harriet got a good look at him: a tall, powerful figure with windswept black hair, a penetrating pair of dark eyes, and a faint smile on very nicely shaped lips. His face was not much below hers, even when she was mounted on Argent, and he didn’t appear frightened, or even mildly alarmed.
A couple of things became clear. Lord Ashburn, if this was he, was unlikely to suffer any symptoms of senility. He wasn’t old – twenty-five or thirty at a guess. Neither was he weak-minded. He’d penetrated her disguise with insulting ease.
Being held up, in daylight, on the approach to a private manor house in a quiet part of Surrey, seemed delightfully improbable. The fact that his assailant was female greatly improved a dreary journey to a dull visit duty. The highwaywoman (if that was a word) has a good seat on a horse and long graceful legs, revealed by well-fitting breeches. Though she wore a back mask over her eyes, he could tell she was young and pretty.
“I’m an excellent shot,” she said, no longer troubling to disguise her voice. A lady of quality and, if he judged correctly, slightly peeved.
“In that case,” he replied, “I’d better do whatever you ask.” He let his gaze slide down to her bosom, hidden, alas, beneath a heavy riding coat. “I can think of a number of ways I’d be happy to accommodate you.”
Well-shaped red lips pursed in shock at his deliberate leer and suggestive words. She recovered gamely and brandished her weapon. “What you can do is empty your pockets.”
“Don’t wave your gun that like that. Keep it pointed at me. That way, if it goes off by accident you’re bound to miss.”
“You underestimate my shooting.” Definitely peeved now.
Not really wishing to test the truth of her assertion and curious to see where this adventure would lead, Ashburn fished his purse from his pocket and held it out, but she shook her head. “What else do you have?”
“Besides my handkerchief? Only this.”
The reason for his visit, the curious antique ring, five strands of gold intricately braided and topped with a lion’s head, lay on his open palm. The girl would have snatched it, but he closed his gloved fist. “No. I must deliver it to Sir John Holton as my uncle commanded. They were friends and rival collectors and he wanted Sir John to have it. Even a desperate villain like yourself must respect a deathbed promise.”
How typical of her father! No doubt the death of an earl had been reported in the newspapers, but Sir John lived in an extremely distant past. Harriet doubted if the new Lord Ashburn was aware of the agreement his predecessor had made.
She looked at Ashburn again and, with a pang of regret, lowered the pistol. “Take it to him, then. I wouldn’t wish to thwart a man’s last wish.”
“A rogue with a conscience.” He smiled as he replaced the ring in his pocket and she felt an odd tightness in her chest.
“I should go,” she said but their eyes met and she couldn’t bring herself to leave.
Neither did he make any move to return to the curricle and complete his journey. His smile widened. “I had an odd letter from Sir John,” he said. “He offered me his daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange for the ring.”
Her mouth felt dry. “Very odd. He must be quite eccentric.”
“There’s no need for the girl to make such a sacrifice.”
“It would be a sacrifice. A terrible sacrifice.”
“I’d never demand it. I’ll give him the ring anyway.”
“Very noble. The right thing to do.” She tried not to sound disappointed.
“You sound peeved.”
“Why would I?”
“I doubt Miss Holton and I would suit anyway. And besides, I had no desire for a bride.”
Did she imagine the slight emphasis on one word? “Had?”
“Have. I have no desire for a bride. Especially not Miss Harriet Holton who must be an elderly spinster with a face like a cod if she has to get a husband this way.” The blackguard stood with his hands on his hips, laughing at her, and looking impossibly handsome. “Touched in the head, as well, “he continued. “Mad as a march hare. One knife short of a canteen.”
“I’m glad to see you amuse yourself.” She gathered her reins, anxious to get home and change into the new gown she’d been saving for the Twelfth Night assembly. “I must leave.”
“Places to go, people to rob?” he asked, seizing the cheek strap of Argent’s bridle to prevent her escape.
“I must be home for Christmas,” she said
“I doubt I will.” Ashburn unclasped her right hand from the reins and tugged off her riding glove. His lips were warm and his breath hot against her wrist, and then her palm. “I have a sudden desire to spend the feast at Holton Hall.”
Copyright 2011 Miranda Neville