Wet roads, a carriage that needed new springs, a relentless drizzle, and still Jacques Laurent had enjoyed one of the best days he’d had in a long time. Seeing his parents safe in England, after worrying about their fate in France all these years, was a relief beyond measure. If not for an important meeting in London the following morning, he would have stayed a few more days in the country.
Now that he had their well-being to worry about too, he could ill afford to miss an opportunity to increase his accounts.
His small covered carriage did little to protect him from the drizzle, and even less as it turned to a light snow. One never could predict November. He pulled the collar of his coat tighter.
Something large and gray darted into the trees on the side of the road. Pulling back on the reins, Jacques squinted into the dense woods. “I saw you, so if you have plans to attack me, you may as well show yourself.
I am well armed and not the least bit worried about dispatching a villain tonight, though it would ruin a perfectly good day.”
The leaves rustled, and someone cleared her throat.
Jacques’s curiosity was piqued. He’d never met a female highwayman. Would they be called a highwaywoman? He would give it thought, but later. Her gun barrel preceded her out of the shadows into the dusk of evening.
Hair the color of the richest coffee tumbled around her shoulders as her cape caught on a low branch. “I am also not afraid to shoot. Are you a spy?” Her question was not unusual. His French accent had provoked the notion more than once. It was the times, and nothing could be done about it until the unrest passed. “Certainly not. Spies do not dress well, and they keep terrible hours. The question is, why would a lady such as yourself be traveling alone at night and on foot? More importantly and far more interestingly, why do you concern yourself with spies rather than highwaymen and murderers?”
She raised the barrel of her shotgun and looked at him through the threads. “I’m not in a position to answer any of those questions. You should be on your way.” She motioned down the road with the weapon while keeping her cheek against the butt and her finger on the trigger.
Chest tight, he sighed. “I’m afraid I cannot leave you here, madam.” “Why on earth not?” Her nose scrunched up in the most adorable way.
Wishing he could discern the color of her eyes, he squinted to try to make them out. Blue, perhaps, but the light was dim with the late hour and persistent snow. “I am a gentleman.”
“And that means you can’t leave a total stranger to her own devices?” A hint of amusement filtered into her voice.
There was something compelling about the low, raspy tone. “Were you running into or out of town?”
She huffed. “I’m not running.”
“I suspect this is a falsehood, but it is none of my business.”
“That much is true.” She pressed the gun’s butt tighter to the crease of her shoulder.
Laughing, he said, “If you are willing to stop pointing the dangerous end of that weapon at me, I would be happy to convey you into London and drop you wherever you wish.”
She lowered the gun, her bravado faltering. Her eyes cast down, she pursed her lips. “I will bash you on the head with this if you so much as look like you will attack me.”
“Noted.” He took both reins in one hand and offered her the other to climb up. Once she was seated, he clucked to Midas and the horse trotted on. “You may leave me at Parliament or Piccadilly, whichever is more convenient to you.” Weapon across her lap and no luggage, now her bravado failed, and she might have been a lost puppy rather than the bold woman
of a moment before.
It tugged at something inside Jacques that a woman with an education, from the sound of her voice, had come to be alone on the road several hours outside of London with nothing but a shotgun. He had a suspicion. “If you have no place to stay tonight, I can offer you my townhouse or perhaps take you to the home of one of my married friends. The Duke and Duchess of Middleton would be happy to take care of you this evening.”
Shoulders back, she stared straight ahead. “That is very kind, but unnecessary. I will be fine.”
The snow came down harder. “I am sure that is true. What is your name?” The silence stretched out until he was sure she would refuse to answer.
Then, her voice barely a whisper on the wind, she said, “Diana.”
Why her name should make him grin, he had no idea. “Yet there is no moon.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He kept his attention on the road but felt her looking at him. “Your name. Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon.”
“Yes, well, my father was fond of mythology.”
A tiny noose tightened around his heart. It was absurd. “And your father is no longer with you?”
It was a straight bit of road, and he turned his head in time to see her frown and the tightening of her full lips. She reached up and pulled her hair back, twisting it into a knot at her nape. “My father died a year ago.” “I’m very sorry. I am Jacques Laurent. Have you any family to whom
I might deliver you this evening?” Already sensing the answer, he wanted her to say something positive and comforting. The idea of her being alone in the world gnawed at him.
“No. I have no family. You may drop me at one of my previously stated locations.” Her back was straight as an oak, and she stared ahead into the waning gray day. Snow speckled her dark hair. Pulling her hood up, she hid her beauty.
It wouldn’t do to pull the hood back and demand she let him see her. He sighed. The places she’d requested to be left were both heavily frequented. She chose spots where she would not be alone. Obviously, she needed the crowd for protection. But who was she afraid of?
None of his business was the mantra he repeated in his head. He would drop her in the city, go to bed, attend his meeting in the morning and then head back to the country with his friends. The Duke and Duchess of Middleton were anxious to visit with his parents. Preston had been his friend since birth, as their fathers had attended school together. They would collect the dowager duchess and head back to Crestwood, the small estate he’d purchased for his parents. He’d left them with a competent staff, but he hated the notion of them being alone after their long journey.
His friends had recently married after meeting when Millie was hired through the Everton Domestic Society to be Preston’s matchmaker. It was no time at all before the matchmaker became matched. Jacques liked Millie; she was smart and funny and the perfect wife for the serious Duke of Middleton.
It was an early first snow. The wind picked up and the chill seeped through his coat. He imagined Diana was freezing in that light cape.
She pulled the edges closer around her neck, and her teeth chattered together in cadence with the rumble of the wheels. The snow was making it harder and harder to see, and the horse misstepped, pulling the carriage sideways.
Diana gave a short yelp and grabbed the seat.
Jacques couldn’t blame her. They had come inches from running off the road. “I think there is a small inn or a farmhouse up ahead. I assume you will not be keen on the idea, but we have to stop for the night and hope the weather clears by morning.”
Her shoulders lifted then sank with a long sigh, and she gave him a nod. The inn was indeed small, and a bit worse for wear. Jacques immediately doubted the wisdom of stopping at such a place with a lady, but they had
little choice. Neither he nor Midas could continue.
As soon as they stopped, a round-bellied man in a robe and nightcap rushed into the yard. “Lord, what a night. I expect you two got caught up. Come in. Leave the horse. I’ll have young Robbie take the beast for feed and shelter. He’ll give him a good rubdown as well. Come in, come in out of the cold. Mrs. Tinker has water boiling for tea.”
Jacques secured the reins and turned to Diana. “It seems we are welcome for a bit of an adventure.”
The smile she graced him with nearly toppled him from the seat. “It would seem so.”
He was going to have to get himself under control. This woman was nothing to him, and he would do well to remember that. Offering his hand, he helped her down from the carriage. He leaned close to her ear. “I shall have to give him a false name and tell him we’re married. I assume you have a reputation to protect regardless of your current situation, and you would not wish to be forced to marry me.”
“Heavens, no.” Wide-eyed, she truly looked horrified.
“You wound me with the quickness of your reply.” He joked, but her decisive rejection gnawed at him.