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“We shall arrive within the hour, I daresay. The Pelican assured us we should reach Avebury by two o’clock, which I must say will be a welcome reprieve to this horrid jolting. I swear my teeth are coming loose in their sockets.”
Miss Anna Tunstall gave a sidelong glance at her ill-favored companion, not expecting a reply, of course, for she had received little in return for all her efforts these three days past.
Her taciturn companion, however, still had the element of surprise and managed something beyond a monosyllable. “Best be closing that window, miss, as these parts is run by high pads. They’ll do over quicker’n ye can stare.”
The irritation of a long journey from London with a noiseless young woman, whose grasp at hygiene was tenuous at best, goaded Anna into a retort.
“If there are highwaymen afoot, closing the window won’t avert the threat. My, Beatrice, at last you speak. How kind of you to edify me with your conversation, but if you think to frighten me with your Friday face, you are wide of the mark.”
Beatrice, a hired companion for the journey and unknown to Anna before they’d set out together, appeared to think she had done her duty in warning the mistress. She lapsed again into silence, pulling the worn cloth traveling bag closer to her chest and looked up to where the frayed yellow squab met the velvet ceiling of their rented coach. Anna’s brother, Stratford, Earl of Worthing, had lent them a carriage for their journey, but it had broken an axle at the last stage. Anna had deemed it best to rent another one rather than delay her arrival by awaiting its repair.
Anna raised her eyes heavenward at Beatrice’s sullen contribution and allowed herself the luxury of an internal rant. Emily Leatham, I will murder you for saddling me with such a creature for a traveling companion. Quickly her humor got the better of her, and Anna turned toward the window as a smile tugged at her cheeks. If I don’t murder Beatrice first.
Anna had no one with whom to share her private joke. It was the first time she had been away from Phoebe, her twin, for more than an afternoon, and she began to better appreciate her gentle foil. Phoebe had always been a sober, mellowing presence. Anna could indulge in her flights of fancy and humor, and Phoebe checked her when that humor took her too far. Anna sighed. Without Phoebe, she would have to watch her own tongue. How responsible she must now be.
However, it was worth the trip to see Emily Leatham—droll, lighthearted Emily—whose sense of mischief matched Anna’s own. They had certainly found ways to amuse themselves in their first London Season before Emily’s husband snatched her up. An added benefit to this visit was that Anna would escape a dreary four weeks playing cards with their Aunt Shae, taking slabs of pork in covered baskets to the poor, or accompanying her brother to visit his tenants as befitted the newly appointed Earl of Worthing.
Even the fun of preparing for her brother’s wedding held no appeal when she was more likely to be handed the pork slabs than asked to plan the wedding breakfast. Phoebe always had been the industrious one and urged Anna to go visit Emily, saying in her gentle way that Anna would be missed but not needed, a truth that both relieved and stung. Emily hadn’t promised higher treats for Anna’s visit than what a country village could offer, but at least no one knew Anna there and nothing would be required of her. No, even without Phoebe’s comforting and steady presence, Anna had done well to go to Avebury
A sharp report rent the air and Beatrice gave a shriek. Anna turned with a start, more alarmed by the maid’s reaction than the initial noise. Beatrice had forgotten her earlier objection to looking out the window and was now peering out to see the source of the commotion.
“It’s jest as I warned yer, miss,” Beatrice said. “Them collectors hev come.”
Anna hadn’t time to assimilate Beatrice’s meaning before a shot pierced the carriage from the top of the side panels through the roof. This was much too close for her liking, and Anna’s heart began to hammer in her chest. She wasn’t prone to anxiety, which was a point of great pride for her, but this ruffled even her sensibility, and darkness threatened to edge onto her vision.
Be calm, Anna told herself. She drew a steady breath and smoothed her skirt while she waited.
The carriage had, by now, come to a halt. There were men shouting outside, but Anna could barely make out what they were saying before the door on Beatrice’s side was flung open.
“Out wid ’ee, doxy.”
A man’s bulky frame blocked the entrance. He was of average height and wore brown clothing and a kerchief over his face and had no distinguishable characteristics other than a pungent odor. With a sharp yank, the man pulled Beatrice out of the carriage, and she stumbled and fell on her hands and knees. Then he turned his attention to Anna, staring at her until she was unnerved by his silent regard.
She kept her voice composed. “Well, sir, must I alight as well?”
The man laughed, an unpleasant sound that would frighten Anna if she allowed it. “Ay. Unless ye want me knife stripping thee along with the squabs.”
Anna reached for the door handle at her left, but the man shook his head.
“No, missy—go on. You’ll be getting out right here.”
It meant moving toward the enemy, and Anna swallowed nervously as she obeyed. Thankfully, the man stepped away from the carriage as she slid across the seat.
“Thee.” He waved his pistol at the driver. “Ye stand wid the misses, and if ye be sweet as a lamb I mid let ’ee live.”
The driver of the rented vehicle obeyed the summons and stood next to Beatrice, his gaze fixed on his boots. Anna joined the pair, her expression controlled. A second highwayman trained his pistol on their group. The first ransacked the carriage, cutting into the squabs to look for hidden jewelry, which would not be there, of course. This was a rented vehicle. He must not be a very clever robber if he couldn’t tell that.
Something moved in the trees to Anna’s left, and the second highwayman turned to see what had caught her gaze. The distraction was just enough for the driver of the coach to take flight, and she watched in amazement as he cut around the horses and sped into the cover of the trees where the robber could not take aim. Well, how about that. Anna had assured her brother she would not need a male escort—not that he would have had time for it with his affairs at Worthing and all his attention focused on his upcoming wedding and honeymoon. Now, without the protection of her family, Anna was realizing just how vulnerable she was, and she began to tremble. The driver had completely vanished into the woods before the thief had finished his search.
“What’s this?” The highwayman poked his head out of the carriage. With a glance at his accomplice and then the two women, he laughed. “He left ye, did he? Ha! Liver-hearted.” The thief swung down from the steps, his soft leather boots silent when he hit the road. “’Tis nothing to be found. They must be setting snug in yer trunk.”
other scanned the edge of the woods, where she thought she’d seen movement. “Unless it’s on yer person.” He slid one finger along her jaw, and Anna stiffened her spine, refusing to back down from his gaze. For the first time in her insouciant life, she felt cold tendrils of fear creep up her spine.
“It’s in the trunk,” she said, proud to keep her voice even.
Maybe he would be happy with the jewelry, which would be of no great loss to her. She had done well to leave her most precious items at home, and if this could stave off personal harm, she would accept the loss. All this time, Beatrice had said not a word, but before moving over to the trunks that were strapped on the back of the carriage, the thief crooked his finger at her.
“Thee. Open the trunk.”
Beatrice dropped her bundle and followed him to the carriage, where she began to sullenly unwind the straps on the trunk.
“Ye got the look of a dobin rig about ye, girl,” the thief said. “What say thee to casting thy lot wid me?”
Beatrice gave a sniff and worked at a stubborn knot until it came free. “Ye ain’t got nothing I be needing. I know the likes of ye and what a life wid ye is like. I hev my place in the kitchen and ’tis not one as I’d be leaving.” A
The thief shrugged. “Have it your way, pullet.”
The trunks, now released from their straps, were free for the robber to rummage through. Anna watched her undergarments being flung to all sides, and her fear turned to anger.
“Watch what you do with my possessions,” she said. “You need only the valuables. No need to fling my affairs about.”
“Ye find the gewgaws then.” The robber paused in his rummaging. “What’d ye do? Put them in the bottom of the trunk? Not very accessible-like.”
Anna folded her arms. “I’m not going to help someone else to my valuables. You take them but have a care for my things, if you please.”
The robber laughed again, this time with real pleasure. “Not often I meet wid a mort such as yerself.” He drew her folded gown against his face. “Silk.”
After throwing all of the items out of the trunk, he still found none of her valuables. Anna was so astonished, she couldn’t refrain from drawing near. The highwayman eyed her and seemed satisfied that her surprise was real. He turned to Beatrice.
“I suppose I know where them sparklers hev gone.” He snapped his fingers. “Vixen. Ye’ll vamp with me.”
Beatrice stamped her foot. “No, I ain’t.”
The thief grabbed her by the forearm and dragged her to where their horses were tied to a tree, but Beatrice did not go quietly. She shrieked and fought him, greatly hampering his progress, as she continued to scream in short bursts. Anna watched in alarm, wondering if she should attempt to help the girl or flee. Where was the sack with her jewels and coins anyway? Had Beatrice taken them? Anna considered what little good she could do in such a situation and was just about to dive into the carriage for a weapon—her parasol?—when a hand snaked around from behind, holding her arms in a prison-like grip and clamping her mouth shut. How could she have forgotten there were two of them?
“Ay, poppet,” he murmured in her ear. “You’ll come quiet now.”
Flashes of light pricked at the back of her eyelids as her fear mounted. Anna cast her eyes about at the trees in front of her, searching desperately for help. Surely someone would come. Someone had to come. They were near a public road, and Beatrice could summon the dead with her shrieks. Despite the man’s threat, Anna screamed—or tried to—but to no avail.
The best she could manage were some muffled cries, which came out amid the whimpers
Suddenly Anna heard another voice. It did not belong to either of the robbers. “Hoi, Ambrose.” She felt the highwayman turn in surprise, pulling her with him. Anna had only time to wonder at the addition to their party before she felt the air stir next to her head.
Everything went black.
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