Authors: Julia Quinn
For my mom,
who makes all things possible.
And also for Paul,
even though she once introduced us
as her son and daughter-in-law. Sheesh.
Grace Eversleigh had been the companion to the dowager Duchessâ¦
Several hours later Grace was sitting in a chair inâ¦
Five miles away, in a small posting inn, a manâ¦
Ten minutes later Grace was in the Wyndham carriage, aloneâ¦
Lovely house,” Jack said, as he was ledâhands still boundâthroughâ¦
Jack had always prided himself on being able to spotâ¦
And that, Jack decided, was his cue to leave asâ¦
And so he kissed her. He couldn't help it.
Jack staggered out of bed at precisely fourteen minutes beforeâ¦
Jack's usual response when delivered unpleasant tidings was to smile.
What Jack saw took his breath away.
Jack did (eventually) find his bedchamber, but even though heâ¦
Grace let Amelia set the pace, and as soon asâ¦
After five years at Belgrave, Grace had become, if notâ¦
In his wanderings at Belgrave, Jack had, during a rainstormâ¦
Jack did not sleep well that night, which left himâ¦
This was not the first time Jack had crossed theâ¦
Three minutes,” Jack said, the moment he pulled the doorâ¦
The drive to Butlersbridge was everything Jack remembered. The trees,â¦
Outside the carriage, the atmosphere was considerably less tense. Theâ¦
race 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
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”ânot 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 Thomasâalways 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 backwardsâshe always didâand 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 endeavorâas soon as they returned to Belgrave, she would be required to aid the dowager withâ
Grace sat up straight, glancing over at her employer, who, miraculously, had not awakened. What was that sound? Had someoneâ
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 jewelsâ
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 forthâan 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 thenâslow 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 timeâone 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
, 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.”
, Grace thought. The Duke of Wyndhamâwho had years ago insisted that she use his given name at Belgrave after a farcical chorus of
your grace, Miss Grace, your grace
âhad 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
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
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 eyesâwhat she could see of them through the maskâgrew 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 beâhe 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? “IâI don't think so,” Grace replied.
“Send him to the public house, then. There is a rather buxom maid there whoâAh, 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”âhe flicked his head toward a nearby cluster of treesâ“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. “Ma'am?”
“What is your name?” the dowager whispered.
“My name?” Grace repeated in horror. Had she suffered an apoplexy? Lost her memory?
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
“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 saidâslowly, 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.”
the dowager begged. “There is something I must give to you.”
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, andâ