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Highwayman Lover by Sara Reinke
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Highwayman Lover by Sara Reinke
Excerpt from the book
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Essex County, England October 1748

“Stand and deliver!”

At this cry, Charlotte Engle snapped awake with a startled gasp. Her eyes flew wide, the last vestiges of sleepy disorientation whipping from her mind as a sharp, booming report of gunfire ripped through the air outside of the coach.

She had been on the road from London and into Essex County for little more than an hour and had not meant to doze off. However, the sun had set, leaving the carriage to darkness along the highway, with only the dim, golden glow of interior lamps for illumination and the droning, inane gossip that passed for her aunt, Maude Rutherford, the Dowager Viscountess Chelmsford’s idea of conversation for company.

Charlotte yelped in bewildered alarm as the carriage lurched and she plowed gracelessly into the side of the coach belly. She could feel the wheels skitter for uncertain purchase along the edge of the rutted highway. The horses screeched, and the carriage shifted again, listing to the right before sliding to a jostling halt. She stared across the carriage cab at Una Renfred, her maid, her eyes flown wide in alarm, her hand darting instinctively for the muff against her lap.

“Highwaymen!” she gasped, even as Lady Chelmsford uttered a low and horrified moan, her hands fluttering about her bosom.

Charlotte heard footsteps hurriedly approaching the left side of the coach, and she jerked out the loaded pocket pistol she carried tucked within her muff. Lady Chelmsford caught sight of the weapon and moaned again, nearly swooning. Charlotte drew the doghead back against her thumb and leveled the small pistol toward the carriage door just as she heard someone outside take the handle in hand. The hinges creaked and the door opened wide; Charlotte caught a glimpse of a shadow-draped figure beyond, moving to lean into the coach, and she squeezed the trigger.

The pistol bucked against her palm, the barrel seeming to explode in a sudden, bright shower of sparks and a thick, pungent cloud of smoke. She heard the man at the doorway cry out, but could not tell if she had hit him or not. The door bounced closed as he fell away, and the smoke from the gunfire filled the coach cab, choking them.

“Come on!” Charlotte cried, whooping for breath, tears springing to her eyes. She groped about blindly in the thick smoke and caught Una by the wrist. She punted the door open and sprang from the coach, dragging Una in tow. She shoved the older woman toward the trees beyond the edge of the road.

“Run, Una!” she cried, choking on smoke, struggling for breath. She turned, reaching into the carriage and seizing Lady Chelmsford by the outstretched, flapping hand. She nearly toppled backward and onto her rump as her aunt came stumbling gracelessly from the cab. “Run!” she cried again, snatching Lady Chelmsford’s redingote in her hands and offering her a hearty push toward the forest. “Into the trees! Go! Go!”

Charlotte turned to run as well, and yelped when she felt a strong arm catch her firmly about the waist. “Let go of me!” she yelled, ramming the heel of her shoe firmly against the top of her captor’s foot, drawing a surprised, pained yowl. His arm loosened about her, and she shoved her elbow mightily into his gut, plowing the breath from him. She wriggled loose of his grasp and tried to run again; the man caught her by the sleeve, whirling her around.

“Turn me loose!” Charlotte cried, closing her hand into a fist and sending it in a wicked arc from the fulcrum of her shoulder. Her knuckles slammed into the man’s cheek; she could see he wore a black tricorne hat and a heavy black greatcoat, his face obscured by a drape of black fabric. His head snapped toward his shoulder at the impact of her fist, and again his hand loosened from her coat.

She turned to bolt for the trees, and plowed headlong into another highwayman. This one grabbed her firmly by the wrists; when she tried to draw her knee up into his crotch, he pivoted his hips, struggling with her, blocking the proffered blow with his thigh. She looked up into his face, which was also hidden by a scarf, and screamed at him. “Turn me loose, you rot damn bastard!”

She could not see his eyes above the edge of his scarf because of the heavy shadows cast by the brim of his hat, but he stiffened all at once, clearly startled by her fury. She heard him draw in a sharp, hissing breath and his fingers slackened against her wrists. She wrenched herself free and staggered away from him, nearly tripping as her heels settled unsteadily in the soft loam of the road’s edge.