Stephen Fletcher hunched forward in the saddle against the late afternoon storm. Rain stung his eyes and stole down his neck in cold rivulets. He rubbed an impatient hand over his face and ignored the discomfort.
Lord Rothwell’s urgent injunction, shouted at Stephen’s back as he rode away from his friend’s London townhouse, took on a rhythmic cadence to the horse’s hooves galloping down the muddied, wooded road.
Secure the map. Kill the thief.
Roth’s chagrin over the crucial map’s disappearance from his desk paled in comparison to the fury of King Charles II if it fell into the wrong hands. Rothwell’s butler could give little description but that the tall, brown-haired man must have had the quickest hands in England.
Despite the high stakes, slapping rain and unfamiliar horse beneath him, Stephen considered this a routine chase. The thief didn’t have much of a lead, and five other agents had been sent out in different directions to hunt him down. If Stephen found him, he was instructed to retrieve the map, force information from the man, and kill him.
If it weren’t Roth himself who had been robbed, Stephen might have remained at cards. Not only was he attempting to get information from two men believed to be traitors, he’d also just gone for the sixth trick playing Renegado, about to win a fivefold payout of twenty pounds each. Two ladies, both of whom had shrugged off his attentions the day before, now elbowed each other, trying to catch his eye. When the butler scurried into the room bellowing about a theft, Stephen’s first thought was to help Rothwell and his second that finding the thief had better be worth dashing away from the card table.
With five hundred pounds and a fast royal mare offered for the retrieval of the map, he figured it was worth it. In spite of his connections, he needed only a little more than that to purchase the estate of his dreams and raise thoroughbred horses.
Lightning blazed the sky and thunder took no time in following. The damnable storm was right on top of him.
The frantic screaming of horses alerted him only an instant before they rushed from the woods directly in front of him. His horse shied and nearly threw him from the slippery saddle. Grunting a surprised oath, he tightened his thighs and jerked the reins left in time to dodge the coach shaft that whipped from the trees behind the harnessed horses.
The animals continued across the road into the trees but within seconds became tangled by their twisted harness. They groaned and squealed in terror, foaming at the mouth.
He couldn’t leave them there. They’d hurt themselves through their struggling. He reined in, dropped to his feet and began a slow but steady approach, speaking soothingly to the wild-eyed animals over the roar of rain and thunder. Beyond calming, they tossed their heads and wrenched their bodies in efforts to escape. He drew his knife and swiftly cut the harness behind them. The horses bolted down the road in crazed panic. Soon enough they would tire, and the smell of hay would lead them to a barn somewhere.
Across the road and within the woods lay the remains of the coach on its side. Nearby a man lay sprawled on the ground, his head bent at an odd angle. The driver? A quick search around the perimeter revealed no other person.
Rothwell’s servants had described a coach clattering away at great speed on the cobblestone street. Here in the country, the roads were not much better than wide, water-worn ditches with loose stones strewn about. Only a fool would try to escape in a coach, especially since daylight was fast fading. Mayhap he’d had found his thief. An easy capture—almost disappointing.
Dashing up the muddy, slippery side of the coach, he squinted through the window. Crumpled within lay a lone figure in a dark cloak.
“You,” he said. “Get up.”
He glanced around again, then pulled open the door and dropped inside. He knelt and pressed the point of his blade against the person hard enough to make his intent known. “Turn over. Show your hands.”
A soft moan came from the body, weak and light. And undeniably feminine.
A woman, alone? An instant, primal need to protect made him yank away his knife. At the same time, the familiar prickle on the back of his neck elevated his awareness of danger. This could be a trap. Women didn’t travel without guard or companionship. “Turn over.”
Another moan answered his command.
He held the knife in one hand and slid his other down her arms and hands, checking for broken bones—or weapons. Finding neither, he rolled her gently onto her back and searched the folds of the cloak. Finally, his gaze moved over her face, her fine brows, high cheekbones, delicate nose, and full lips. How lovely she was.
She gasped and muttered a few unintelligible words.
He leaned closer. “Can you hear me?”
She didn’t answer, and didn’t open her eyes.
Years of honed instinct pierced his concern for her condition. She was setting him up. Perhaps an accomplice waited outside to attack him. There had to be someone else. No woman would be traveling alone through the countryside, especially in this storm and at this time of day.
He forgot about everything else but escaping this trap, and stood to give a cautious look out.
Then the woman whimpered, a small, pained sound that threatened to shove compassion through his intent. He stooped again, safe for the moment. He’d know by the movement of the carriage if anyone tried to climb up. “Can you speak?” he asked. “Tell me your name.”
Another crack of lightning seared the sky. In the flash he saw her terrorized eyes flicker over him. She shrank away. He relaxed his tone and touched gentle fingers to her wet cheek. Such soft skin over hard bone.
“I will not hurt you. Can you talk?” Her lips pressed together. His patience began to wane and his voice hardened. “Where are your companions? Your guard? What is your name?”
Her leg brushed his knees as she struggled to sit up. “I must go on.”
He held her shoulders. “I think not. Tell me who else is with you.”
“No one,” she said, her voice laced with pain and caution. “My-my companion was forced from the carriage and killed by highwaymen. The driver set the horses to a gallop to get me away from them.” She pushed at his chest. “Please, I must make haste.”
“No one is chasing you, madam. You are safe.”
She didn’t seem to hear him. “Tell my driver to get the horses ready to ride.”
“Your driver is dead.”
Her hands slid limply from his chest. “Dead?”
“Yes. Broken neck.”
He shook his head. “Gone.” He glanced down her form. “You may be injured. Do you feel any pain?”
“No. I am only bruised, I think. Will you help me, sir? I must reach my destination.”
He had no time for her. But leaving her out here alone was unthinkable. His father had taught him better.
“I cannot take you on to London.”
“London?” Under his hands her shoulders stiffened. “Why there?”
He released her. “Is that not where you were heading? Your carriage is facing north.”
She hesitated. “Facing London?”
“Yes. Unless the horses turned it around in their panic.” He held his patience with an iron grip. His thief could be several miles ahead by now. He wanted that reward. “Where are you going?”
Caught in a blaze of lightning, her face looked young and deathly white, eyes wary. Her voice, although still weak, became decisive, anxious. “South. I will accept any aid you can provide.”
Her soft, cultured tones indicated a noble background. He had no reason to think she was anything but a woman unaccompanied and in distress. Still, the knowledge that he knelt in a coach on its side with only one way out made him feel like a fox surrounded by drooling hounds. The other agents of the Royal Elite, trained in sustaining England’s security and who answered only to King Charles II and his closest advisors, would call him a fool for his decision to enter the contraption in the first place.
He glanced up. In case someone did wait outside, the woman could be used as cover. She deserved no better if this were a trap. “I am riding south,” he said. “I will take you to an inn a half-mile down the road. There I will secure a doctor for you. After that, I will be on my way.”
“But I cannot—” She brought her hands together at her breast, and her face became pinched with panic.
“You have nothing to fear,” he said. “A traveling coach will be along on the morrow, I am certain. It can be slow at times, but you will get to your destination safely. I will give money to the innkeeper to pay a servant to accompany you.”
She began to say something, hesitated, and said, “Thank you.”
He started to slide his hands under her body. “I need to lift you so you can climb up and out the door. Can you move your arms and legs?”
She slapped at his shoulders with surprising strength. “Wait.” She reached up and put her wet arms around his neck. “Stand. Do not touch me.”
Did she think he meant to ravage her in her helpless condition? He bit back his curt reply and stood slowly, bracing his hands on the walls of the carriage, and stopping just short of poking his head out the door above him. No need to provide an easy target.
Her arms in their damp sleeves were cold and slippery around his neck. By the brief press of her chest against his as he rose with her, it was plain her breasts were insignificant. Something primitive within him railed in disappointment.
Straightening, she released her arms from his neck. “I am well enough to stand on my own.”
“Grab onto the edge and I will push you out. My horse is nearby.” He grasped her waist and prepared to boost her up.
“No,” she said, pushing his hands away. “Please kneel. I will step onto your back.”
He shook his head in annoyance, but did as she commanded. “No need to fear my intentions. If I meant to take liberties, I would have done so already.” He winced at a twist of her heel between his shoulder blades. Rising carefully, he pushed her out through the opening. The carriage rocked slightly. She must have slid down on her own.
So much for cover. Last month, another agent had almost been killed while pursuing a man who’d attempted to poison a Duke. He’d been hailed by a woman claiming to have been attacked, but the poisoner had been waiting in a doorway. The agent had barely brought up his sword in time.
If Stephen had been set up, he could only blame his own despised empathy that made him a target for whoever hid in the woods, waiting to run him through with a sword.
Grimly, he knelt and swept his hand around to see if a weapon lay among the woman’s belongings. His fingers bumped a wet satchel with only clothing and items for grooming. He tossed it out the carriage door.
He drew his pistol—no, too wet—and replaced it. Standing, he cautiously raised his head above the doorway. Seeing no one—including the woman—he lifted himself out of the coach and jumped to the ground. “Madam?”
No answer greeted him but the rain beating the soft earth—and the muddied, fast-paced thump of receding hoof beats.
“No.” He slogged across the road.
She was gone. On his horse.
He’d been robbed.
“No!” Running, he sloshed down the road a few yards before his boots slipped from under him in the mud. Falling onto his rear only increased the blood pounding hot at both his futility and stupidity. He should have gone on without stopping to help—no matter that his initial purpose had been to catch and kill a thief. Now he had his own thief, and he’d have to change his plans and catch her.
Rothwell’s hope, the king’s expectation, and Stephen’s dream of buying the estate in Surrey all disappeared like his backside in the muck.