Even as the door was flung open by a masked man, Constance couldn't believe that this was really happening to them. She didn't feel any irony in thinking that it shouldn't happen to them, either. Thieves and crimes belonged in dinner conversation and Mother's warnings, not in real life.
A robbery in broad daylight! She sat frozen but couldn't help the hysterical and automatic thought that she must look a fright. She curled her hand into a fist to keep from vainly patting her blonde curls. She didn't wish it to look like she would even consider flirting with a disgusting highwayman; she just regretted looking hideous.
"Stay back, sirrah!" Constance ordered as the man moved to get in the vehicle. Why hadn't their driver come to their rescue?
"Stop it, girl!" The matron scolded, sinking back in her seat in what appeared to be an effort to look smaller.
Harriet sat wide eyed and helpless as the man hesitated outside the open carriage door. Mrs. Guyer frantically waved a fan in front of her as if to shoo the sight of him away, groaning as she re-opened her eyes to see him still there.
"Your purses and jewelry," he muttered, his eyes sweeping back around the bend of the road as though perilously aware of how soon help might come. He stood there alone on the road, holding the door with one hand and the gun with another, the wind plucking at his makeshift mask and tattered coat.
Constance was suddenly calm, struck with the realization that someone needed to do something, and she was all that was left.
"No," she said, bravely drawing the man's attention back to her. She knew if she could stall him then he might bolt without any of their items.
Her second long glance at him revealed that he wore fine gloves, surely too fine for a bandit.
She suddenly felt sure then that he was a gentleman, perhaps acting on a dare or impoverished by gambling. Although his outfit was plain and worn out, he didn't quite fit the clothes. He was large and reminded her of Sir Geoffrey, only her lost love would never do anything so gauche or impulsive.
Mrs. Guyer immediately thrust her purse at him and then grabbed and threw her daughter's at the man, too. Constance didn't budge.
The annoying cretin didn't pick up the offerings at his feet but waited on her. It looked oddly as if he waited on something else, too, though what felt to her the slowest robbery in history had only taken a moment or so.
Their coachman finally took a chance and dove off the seat at him, yet the bandit merely stepped aside and let the man land on the ground beside him where he lay there gasping, the wind knocked from his lungs.
This seemed to embolden the thief. "Necklace, too," he ordered brazenly, his voice now more menacing and his posture more confident. He gestured right at Constance with his gun.
She shook her head. She didn't want to give up her pin money or her only memento from her former fiance. There was no choice; he could not have either of them.
In that moment, they heard hoof beats of an approaching horse, and Constance sensed the man's frustration.
A quick prick of feared stabbed her. Could her refusal actually get someone hurt? As much as she disliked Mrs. Guyer, she didn't want anything to happen to her and certainly not Harry.
"Necklace or purse," he amended hoarsely, and she knew with a sinking heart that he would not leave without one of them.
If she gave him her money though, any plan she made to win back her former fiance would be ruined. The generosity that she had wheedled out of her father was not likely to be repeated. No, her parents wouldn't re-send the amount she had.
Her face felt frozen as if wearing a mask. Reaching back to release the oval clasp, she resolved that she couldn't let the man know how much it hurt to take off her treasure.
She had stupidly worn her jewelry and had to pay the price. She handed it to him, wishing something would wake her from the awful nightmare while proud that she could act so nonchalant. Even a quick prayer, given as a last resort, made no difference to the outcome.
She bit her lip as the thief thrust the gold necklace into his pocket as though it were less than a scrap of paper. It would be tangled now, and he would sell it for what? Drink or worse? She already regretted her choice and reached for her purse, flinging it at his head as hard as she could.
The rising coachman swiped at his feet in the same moment that the man ducked, evidently preventing the stumbling thief from scooping up any of the purses on the ground.
The masked man rushed to mount his blaze faced horse and then fled as a huge black charger at the crest of the hill had checked and then bounded forward to their aid, urged on by its rider.
Constance looked out of the carriage in awe as one of the most handsome men she had ever seen rushed to dismount and helped their coachman up.
"Are you all right?" he asked, his voice low, his comment directed to all the females.
Constance was briefly amused to see that both her companions were speechless and that the coachman looked offended by the man's interfering aid.
"We've been victims of a robbery," Constance answered.
He instantly glanced at the retreating rider and back to them. "Are you all right?" he asked again, remounting like he intended to give pursuit.
"We are fine," Harriet said, surprising her companions with her boldness. "And we thank you for coming to our aid."
"Was anything taken?" His gaze still rested upon Harriet.
"Naught," said Mrs. Guyer, snatching the purses back from the hand of the sheepish coachman.
"My necklace," Constance corrected her. "A pearl necklace."
"It was merely a trinket," her chaperone protested, waving her hand. "Indeed we do thank you, but I fear for our safety, though. There is only myself and two young women alone with only this blundering driver to protect us."
The black steed danced impatiently, almost signaling the turmoil in their knight errant. It was a question of whether he dare give pursuit or more tamely follow the coach to town. Constance could see the struggle of adventure versus duty battle within him. Sadly, chivalry won out.
He bowed and relaxed. "I am at your service," he said, letting the miscreant gallop away without chase. "My name is Robert Beauchamp, Lord of Fenway, and I would be honored if you would allow me the privilege of escorting you safely to town."
Mrs. Guyer tittered like a love struck schoolgirl. "We are very honored, Lord Fenway. But where are my manners? Allow me a moment for introductions. I am Mrs. Guyer, this is my daughter, Harriet and--and this is her companion, Miss Alford." She glanced to her daughter and back to their gallant hero. "If you like, we could make room in our town coach."
Harriet gasped at her mother's effrontery and Constance openly grinned. The man has no chance, she concluded, even as he looked oddly at her. He had obviously heard her hastily smothered burst of laughter.
Constance couldn't possibly explain that the events had left her so shaken that her only recourse was humor. He wouldn't understand; no one ever did.
The older Guyer tried again. "We would feel safer if..."
He held up his hand. "Madam," he said to her, "I should ride ahead to ascertain whether the bandit has truly left the area. Driver, get this vehicle moving, and I will ride alongside soon...after I make sure it is safe."
"The thief has a weapon," Harry warned as she blushed a deeper red.
Constance felt so proud of her friend. Two sentences to a man in less than ten minutes was a record indeed.
"I will hope he doesn't know how to use it." He smiled with enough charm to leave anyone breathless.
"Be careful," Constance ordered without smiling back, unwilling to admit his likeability.
They watched him gallop up the road, and then they settled back into their seats. The carriage began to move again, and Constance took the opportunity to tease her friend.
"Harry, you should not have talked so much," she said. "Men love an air of mystery."
Although her friend smiled, Mrs. Guyer did not. "I wonder at your manners," she snapped. "Flirting with him when he was clearly looking at my Harriet. 'Be careful,' indeed!"
"Mama," Harry protested. She leaned back against the side of the carriage as though finally remembering her headache.
Constance sighed. She knew what she had to do. It was useless to protest her innocence and disinterest in the man. She had to console the mad mother with some new ideas for matchmaking success.
"Ma'am, do you think it would be appropriate to invite him to dinner? You might thank him for his help and introduce Harriet properly then," she suggested strategically.
She went on, sacrificing her shrinkingly shy friend to facilitate her mother's latest scheme. At least Harry hadn't seemed to mind the fellow. And if she did, Constance could always help Harry choose another suitor later.
"But that is only an idea," she added, dusting off her blue sleeve. "I rely on your judgment of the proper etiquette for acknowledging his service."
Mrs. Guyer's eyes lit up, and she nodded so quickly that her double chin nodded twice.
"I wonder if he has family in town. We might do well to invite all of them."
Constance didn't want to point out that the man had really done nothing. In fact, as Mrs. Guyer clapped and encouraged the discussion of the very detailed menu choices for their hero's special dinner, Constance realized that she still had lost Sir Geoffrey's necklace, and their rescuer was taking a very long time to come back to escort them up the road.
It wasn't fair that a lucky moment of chance and a few brief smiles were all that it took for the man to appear better than he was.
If he had been a true hero, she decided, he would have gone after her necklace. As they fearfully travelled alone up the road, she amended this to include his return. A true hero would not take so long to scout for the thief and leave them helplessly waiting for his protection.