"Rose, my love."
I opened my eyes to see my husband's face. Since we were alone in the coach, I'd pillowed my head on his shoulder, after having spent an indifferent night on a lumpy mattress in what was supposed to be a first-class inn.
"We're nearly there, my love. Should you like to stop somewhere to freshen up?"
I sat up. "Your shoulder must be numb."
"Not really," he said, but I didn't miss the way he flexed his arm as I took my weight off him.
"Liar." We exchanged wry smiles. "If you don't mind, I'd like to go straight there. I want to see what James has done to the manor."
His smile turned wicked. "I thought you didn't want to leave Oxfordshire."
"I didn't." I let my mind wander back over the last two blissful months. "It was wonderful. But I do want to see Tom get married--and Lizzie of course."
The coach jolted as the driver pulled on the reins to stop the horses so abruptly I was thrown forward, but I saved myself by seizing the strap above my head.
My husband grabbed me by the waist and restored me to my seat before he glanced out of the window. "It appears we're being held up." His voice sounded calm, but I knew him better than that and I noticed his note of alarm.
Almost without thinking I took off my ruby betrothal ring and slipped it down the front of my dress, but when I tried to take off the wedding ring, Richard put his hand over mine. "No. He'll expect to see a wedding ring, and if he doesn't find one he might go looking. I'll buy you twenty more, but let that one be."
I saw the sense of that and did as he bade me. Richard reached up and took the pistol that hung in its holster above us. He thrust it into his coat pocket then spoke over the shouting that was going on outside. "Give him your purse and anything else of that nature he asks for. If he tries to go too far--I'll deal with it." He gave me a smile of encouragement as the door was wrenched open.
Cold air rushed into the coach. A figure swathed in a greatcoat with a muffler covering most of his face stood silhouetted against the rain-spattered hedge and trees. He'd pulled his hat well down and had a pistol in each hand. His eyes were grey, but I couldn't see any more of his face.
I'd never gone through this experience before, but I'd read a lot about it in the papers. The country was currently at peace, the army mostly disbanded, and many disaffected soldiers had taken to crime. Highway robbery was on the increase, together with housebreaking and shoplifting, but we were usually better protected than this and hadn't been touched before. I could only thank God that our daughter and her entourage were a few miles behind us.
The man gestured, one pistol jerking towards us. "Get out."
Richard climbed down and held his hand out to help me down, then took a position slightly in front of me, shielding me as best he could.
The two postboys stood by the front of the vehicle. The robber kept one pistol trained on them and one on us, but when he moved we saw he had more flintlocks thrust into his belt.
"Your valuables, please. One person at a time."
He moved to the postboys and I examined him closer. He was a little shorter than Richard, and that glimpse of the weapons shoved into his belt also showed me his figure was actually quite slight. He might be young, but then highwaymen rarely lasted very long. They worked alone or in pairs, vulnerable to a determined person.
He took the watches and purses the postboys offered him without demanding more, and moved on to us. Richard silently handed him his watch and some guineas from his pocket. He wasn't wearing the diamond solitaire pin he used at his neckcloth, for which I was thankful. I'd have hated to see that go.
I gave him my purse and the necklace I wore, part of an agate set I hadn't owned for long. He pointedly stared at my hand, and reluctantly I slipped off my ring. It was a plain gold band, but it had been engraved inside for me. I was sad to lose it, but Richard was right. It wasn't worth risking injury or abuse for. I handed the ring over, trying not to touch his hand. Highwaymen sometimes took more than items of monetary value. Rape and beating weren't unusual. Richard would kill him if this man attempted that with me.
I tried to meet his gaze steadily, although inside, fear was turning my stomach.
"There's more. Your pockets, if you please."
I'd hoped to keep it from him. Unlike some people, I didn't carry two purses, one for the robber and another for me, so I had my handkerchief, my necessaire and the watch Richard's brother, Gervase, had given to me, which was a fine item, a French enamelled repeater set with gems, but it wasn't the value I'd miss. Gervase had bought it for me in Venice in thanks for the help I'd rendered him there.
Reluctantly I handed the highwayman the watch. He turned it over in his palm to see both sides of the pretty toy. "Thank you. You can have this back." He gave me my wedding ring.
It hurt to thank the man who had just robbed us, but I managed it.
He indicated a space away from the coach with the pistol he carried in his left hand. "Move over there."
We obeyed him, Richard keeping his body between me and the highwayman, who climbed into the coach. I remained as still as I could, controlled my trembling and lifted my chin, just like the time when I'd been presented at court. The fear I felt seemed identical.
Ladies hid their more valuable items in secret compartments, but although he found the one in ours in a few moments, its vacant nature must have disappointed him. I was thankful he was on his own, for if he'd got down on his hands and knees outside the vehicle he might have seen the long box lashed to the underside of the coach. But on his own he would be too vulnerable in such a position, so he didn't make the attempt.
A fine bay horse stood by the side of the road gently cropping the grass, but there was nothing to be deduced in that. The horse was part of the highwayman's stock in trade, and he would acquire the best he could find. The chill left by the recent shower of rain raised goose bumps on my arms, but I restrained my shiver. I wasn't afraid, just cold. Not that I could fool myself with that notion for long. Highwaymen were brutal and unpredictable. He might take our valuables and then kill us anyway, since both offences carried the death penalty. Dead witnesses were safer than live ones.
Our horses champed at their bits and shifted, but the coachmen easily kept them under control. We'd collected them at the last inn, but they were a good team, and I doubted they'd bolt or panic. One blew down his nose, the harrumphing sound unnaturally loud in the still air.
Richard had attempted no violence, but he was ready if he needed to. I sensed his tension radiating through him, waiting for a chance. Although events had shaken me, I could still think, and I was pleased to discover that my hand remained steady after my efforts to control it. I wanted to reach for Richard's hand for comfort, but I knew better than to do so. He would need to be free of encumbrances if the man should offer violence to us.
A loaded pistol reposed in the pocket of my travelling cloak. It pulled that side of the garment.
We waited while the man searched the coach as well as he could, but he found nothing except the empty holder for the gun. He wrenched it down, the first time he'd done anything remotely violent, and despite my good intentions, I flinched. He glared at us. "Drop it on the ground," he ordered, looking straight at Richard. "And any others you have."
Richard kept his sangfroid as he took the gun out of his coat pocket and threw it to the ground a few feet from where we stood. The man didn't look at it. "Any more?"
"No," Richard lied. I don't know if the man knew he was lying, but he let it be. He climbed down from the coach.
"I'm going to ride away now. Count to a hundred, then be on your way. I have people watching you."
Richard nodded. The man went to his horse and mounted. If we planned to take him, now would be the best time, but neither Richard nor the postboys made a move.
In the saddle, he wheeled around to face us. "Goodbye."
We watched him ride up the road away from us, and Richard turned around and put his arms about me. I leaned my forehead against his shoulder and took a couple of deep breaths before I showed him an untroubled countenance.
"Spring 'em," he ordered the postboys. "I want her ladyship safe at Hareton as soon as possible."
The postboys nodded and climbed up to their seats on the box while Richard helped me back into the coach and pulled the steps up behind us.
The vehicle set off again with a jerk. The coach rocked as the driver whipped up the four horses and it moved faster.
Richard kept his arms about me, and I was grateful for the comfort. "All right?" I heard a note of anxiety in his voice.
I snuggled in to his warmth, feeling like a small child. "I'm fine. But I'm sorry he got my watch."
He sighed. "So am I, but we might yet get it back."
"If he sells it locally, it might reappear in Exeter. I'll send people to look. It's a distinctive thing, perhaps even unique." He cupped the back of my head in his hand in a soothing movement. I looked up at him to show him I was all right and he kissed me gently. "He didn't try to get the only thing I'd have killed him for."
I smiled at him. "I had a pistol too," I told him. "I might have killed him first."
"He wouldn't have got that far."
I tumbled against him when the coach went over a pothole in the road. This wasn't a good road, and our driver must have been very skilful to go over it at such a pace. "He didn't find the diamonds either," I pointed out.
"It would take two or more of them to get to that box." Richard kissed me again. "I might as well take advantage of this. We won't be alone again until tonight."
"No." I'd have consigned the robbery to history, but he drew back as though he'd thought of something. "What did you think of him?"
"The highwayman? He knew what he was about, that's for sure, but I don't think he was very old. Early twenties perhaps."
"Maybe younger," Richard commented. "But you're right--he's been doing this for some time."
"He's not a Devon man. He spoke with an accent, but it wasn't from here."
He nodded thoughtfully. "I think so too. His voice had the twang of the cockney about it, but there's something else there too--the north, maybe. Many of these men are disaffected Jacobites, so perhaps he's been in Scotland." Richard smiled. "We should wait for Helen's coach to catch up with us." He forbore from reminding me that I had been so anxious to press on that we'd left Helen's nurse changing her and letting her nap at the last inn. We should have waited, but in that case, she might have been held up too. "Shall we get you upstairs when we get there? For a rest," he added hastily, when he saw my raised brows.
"No indeed, what sort of person do you take me for? Of course I was afraid; what sane person wouldn't be? But we're not hurt and we have most of our belongings still."
"Such heart." He drew me to him again.
When I could, I smiled at him. "I've been through worse than that with you."
"Yes," he said regretfully. "And all I wanted to do was to look after you, cherish you and keep you from harm. I really think we should give up on Thompson's, give it back to Carier and Alicia." Richard's valet, his friend Mrs. Thompson and ourselves jointly owned Thompson's, one of the best domestic staffing agencies in the country. And sometimes our private spy network. Every household required a variety of servants and Thompson's could provide them all. Occasionally some of them had special duties to perform.
"That would be foolish. Thompson's is our protection, and as long as we have enemies it would be an act of great folly to give it up."
"But we don't have to get involved in the special activities," he pointed out.
"I enjoy it," I told him. "And I enjoy seeing what it does to you. You come alive, you know you do."
"And I'm not alive at other times?" His smile would have once made me blush, but not now.
"Very much alive. Richard?"
"Will you comfort me again?"
The seat creaked as he drew me onto his lap and we forgot everything except each other for a time.