Sometimes, taking responsibility that isn’t yours, can lead to a situation which threatens everything and everyone you hold dear. Lou has no idea what a chain of events she has set in motion, until it is too late…
Simon Ashton, Earl of Garswood, has grown-up with his father openly parading mistresses and Society turning a blind eye to the fact. Hating the fickleness of the Society he belongs to, he becomes aloof and unattached. He will never lose his heart to the people he despises.
Set on his life’s path, a foolish trip across heathland in the dead of night is to lead to a series of events which will change his life forever. Can he allow someone into his life? Especially someone who is so completely at odds with everything he’s known. Could she be the woman who offers something else – something sincere – something true? Just when he thinks there is a chance of a happy future, events unfurl which threaten those he cares for the most. No one is going to be left unscathed…
Lady Lou the Highwayman is a Regency romance topped with a generous dose of humour, action, and tears. If you like simmering chemistry, fast-paced adventures, and strong characters, then you'll love Audrey Harrison's Regency tale.
Buy Lady Lou the Highwayman to find excitement and true love today!
Release date: February 5, 2019
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 278
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Lady Lou the Highwayman
Hampstead Heath 1809
The shot rang out across the clear night, startling the four horses travelling at speed over the open heathland.
“Halt, and no one will die!” came the loud, gruff voice of the lone rider on a dappled grey steed when the carriage led by the fine thoroughbreds came to an ungainly standstill.
The coachman and footman travelling on the outside of the carriage were not foolish enough to attempt any imprudent heroics when two guns pointed in their direction. Jackson, the coachman wouldn’t have been able to do anything, even if he’d wanted to as he had his hands full, trying to calm the normally exquisitely behaved animals.
The horseman dug his knees into the flank of his horse and slowly approached the now stationary carriage. He was dressed in a large black cloak, black gloves, tri-corn hat, and a dark cravat, which was being used to cover his face. The horses attached to the carriage expressed, by the rolling of their heads, their displeasure at being frightened and brought to a sudden halt, shaking their manes, and snorting indignantly. This was not how the high-quality beasts were used to being treated.
The highwayman noted that the coachman soon had the animals under control. His eyes took in everything about the scene whilst keeping his pistols pointed in the direction of the servants.
“If you are sensible, no one needs to be hurt. No fast movements, and your families won’t be forced to go into mourning,” came the rough voice, spoken through the dark cloth, which was wrapped across the lower features, revealing only the bright eyes that were observing and anticipating every movement.
The footman put his hands up in an effort to ensure there would be no misunderstanding about reaching for a weapon. Jackson was holding tightly onto the reins, desperately wanting to flick the leather to send the horses into a speedy getaway but knowing that a bullet could travel far faster than even four horses working together. He grappled to restrain his instinct to flee. He might want to escape, but he didn’t want to die in the attempt.
“I want your blunt and your jewellery. I am not interested in who you are or what you’re doing on the heath at this time of night,” the attacker said, finally reaching the barouche door and pointing one of the guns underneath the hanging curtain into the now open window.
A female gasp was heard at the movement, but the material hid the occupants of the carriage.
The sound had come from Lady Helena Ashton. She had been persuaded by her brother and his friend to be the last ones leaving the ball they had attended. A game of cards had spiralled out of control, the bets increasing in size at an alarming pace, and neither gentleman had wanted to leave before they managed to make the purses of their fellow players a lot lighter. It was typical behaviour of the pair. Helena had become embroiled due to the lack of a female chaperone, from which other young ladies in society had the benefit. So far, she’d managed to persuade her brother that he was the best escort she could have, and as it would have meant introducing an older, more circumspect woman into their family, her brother had been easily convinced, but a chaperone would have insisted upon an earlier departure.
Lord Simon Ashton, the Earl of Garswood, and his friend, Lord Henry Roby, Earl of Ince, looked at each other as the tip of the pistol intruded into the plush vehicle.
“Give me your blunt before I force you to step outside. The decision is yours: blunt or carriage. It is a long walk to town, and there isn’t only myself on the heath tonight, I promise you,” came the menacing voice, offering an unattractive choice.
Simon touched his finger to his lips, looking at his sister, and took a pistol from the inner pocket of the opposite seat. He nodded to Henry and slowly began to open the door on the other side of the carriage from the robber. His movements were fast but careful. If he made the vehicle rock, their attacker would realise he was trying to deliver a counter-attack. Discovery would guarantee someone getting hurt, and he wasn’t going to allow that to happen.
Henry took out a small purse of money from the pocket of his frock coat and slowly moved it through the curtain. “Don’t shoot! We will give you whatever we have of value. There is no need for violence.” His voice was unusually meek as he played the part of the frightened gent.
“Wise man,” was the gruff response. “But I don’t want any stupidity. Give me everything now, and I’ll let you go. The quicker you are, the sooner you will be on your merry way.”
“My friend has a necklace that is valuable, but is proving difficult to remove,” Henry said amenably, sounding surprisingly calm for one who had a gun pointed at him.
The nose of the pistol was used to pull the curtain to one side, revealing Helena struggling with her necklace; that it was because her hands were shaking so much did not matter. She was aware she needed to delay handing over her valuables to let Simon do whatever he was planning. The thought that her brother was putting himself in danger didn’t help as she tried to unfasten the clasp. Helena had never felt fear like this, and it was only by gritting her teeth that she prevented herself from crying out in terror.
The high pad eyed the necklace with approval. It would be worth the wait. A cascade of diamond droplets rested elegantly around Helena’s neck. It was the perfect accessory for the more restrained dress of a debutante.
“Hurry!” The assailant cursed when Helena fumbled once more. “I haven’t got all night!”
“I would say your time is up right about now,” came Simon’s clear cold voice before the second shot of the evening rang out into the moonlit night.
The masked horseman had time only to register surprise in his eyes before the force of the bullet hitting his body unseated him, and he fell to the ground. The placid, dappled grey was frightened enough to rear slightly at the unexpected movement before galloping away into the night.
Helena managed to stifle the scream she wanted to release, instead slumping against the plush interior of the carriage, feeling the weakening effects on her body of the terrifying few moments that had just passed.
Henry flung open the door nearest their attacker and jumped down. “Have you killed the damned cur?” he asked his friend.
“No. I aimed at the shoulder. I want to see this high road hang,” Simon said fiercely.
“He’s still alive then?” Helena asked, leaning towards the open door to try to see what was happening. She was not one for fainting fits but was definitely feeling more wobbly than normal as a result of the incident.
Simon bent down and felt for a pulse and placed a hand on the chest of the attacker to feel the body moving as it breathed in its unconscious state. He had never considered for a moment that they would face any danger on the heath. Highwaymen patrolled the area, but he was contemptuous enough to have dismissed them as a real threat. His arrogance had put them all at risk. He appeared his usual calm, uninterested self, but inside he was deeply disturbed.
“Shall I drive to the find the nearest magistrate, My Lord?” Jackson asked, leaning over the top of the carriage. He was still shaken from the experience and wished to flick the reins as soon as possible. Every second remaining in the open was a second too long in his opinion.
“No. He is out cold. We’ll put him in the carriage. I’m not wasting any more time in this God-forsaken place. This thief spoke the truth when he said there will be others keen to take over where he left off,” Simon said fiercely, admitting, inwardly at least, that he’d been a buffoon to travel on the roads so late at night.
He was angrier with himself than the situation; he’d been half-witted and had risked his sister, his friend, and his servants as a result. They should have commenced their journey home when the ball was coming to a close; his foolhardiness had put those under his care in danger.
The footman immediately jumped off his perch in order to help his master lift the offender into the carriage, but he paused when Simon stood over the body, hands on hips, a deeper frown than usual marring his expression. Simon was doubting what he’d felt, but the niggle wouldn’t be pushed aside.
“My Lord?” the footman asked tentatively.
“What is it, Simon?” Helena asked her brother, still looking out of the open carriage door.
“Something’s not right,” Simon responded, still frowning. He bent and removed the hat and mask of their attacker. Helena and Henry watched as Simon crouched for a moment, loosening the neckerchief that had been so tightly fastened. He leaned back on his haunches, running a hand over his face.
“Simon?” Helena repeated in concern.
There was a pause before Simon looked at his sister and his friend. “I’ve just shot a woman,” he said dully.
“A woman? No!” Helena gasped. She stepped out of the carriage, her curiosity overcoming the feelings of shock, which until that moment, had kept her glued to her seat.
“I’m pretty damned sure,” Simon groaned. He was not one usually for cursing in his sister’s company, but the fact that she did not respond at the outburst showed they were all too caught up in the strange situation to notice the expletive.
“She’s still a thief,” Henry reminded his friend.
“Maybe so, but what kind of dog am I that I shot first?” Simon responded. “We need to get her to a doctor.”
“What about the magistrate?” Henry asked.
“She needs a doctor first. The magistrate can wait,” Simon said firmly, his insides churning.
He stood in order to assist the footman in lifting the thief into the carriage. Glancing down at the now unmasked woman, he felt sick to his stomach. According to everyone in the ton, he was an unfeeling brute. His loyal sister was the only one who saw the real person underneath the façade. His cold, uncaring persona was an image he was keen to reinforce. He wasn’t without a heart; it was more that Society, and people in general, left him feeling cold, so keeping them at a distance was his aim.
His own father had been aloof at the best of times; he had been a man without feelings or morals in Simon’s opinion. Women had been paraded in front of Simon and Helena while they grew, all being their father’s Cyprians. He would then invite them into his own circle to socialise with his wife. Simon had watched as everyone acted falsely, being openly welcoming yet critical when a back was turned. He’d hated his father’s behaviour and the way his mother had never challenged it, but most of all he despised Society for their fickleness. Refusing to trust anyone in his circle, he had built an immovable block around his emotions and had allowed only Helena to remain in his heart.
Simon’s gentlemanly code of conduct railed against inflicting harm on anyone of the weaker sex, and he helped lift the body into the carriage far gentler than he would have done only a few moments before.
The three original passengers climbed into the barouche in silence, the space suddenly feeling small and oppressive as the carriage moved off.
The trio travelled without speaking for a while, all seated on the same side of the carriage, the thief having been laid on the opposite seat. She was dressed in black from head to toe, a cloak covering the male clothing she wore underneath. The hat had been left at the roadside, and although she wore a scarf over her hair, several long, wavy, red strands were freeing themselves. A slender face was revealed now that the face cloth had been removed. Her skin was startlingly white in contrast to the dark shirt she wore.
Simon had tied a pad of cloth to her shoulder in an effort to soak up the blood. Henry was right: She was a thief, but that did not stop the bile threatening to rise each time he looked at her. He had shot a woman, and every fibre of his gentlemanly body felt the wrongness of the act.
“When did you realise?” Helena asked.
Simon flushed slightly at the question. “The first hint was when I placed my hand on her chest to feel for signs of breathing, but I doubted the reality of what I had felt.”
“Oh.” It was Helena’s turn to look discomfited. “She didn’t sound like a woman!”
Henry looked at Simon with a smile on his face. “You have always been the luckiest of men!” he chortled.
Simon shot Henry a look that spoke all that he could not say in front of his sister. “I had rather not have shot a female. That’s not how I get my thrills.” Simon spoke the truth although he had felt a rush of adrenaline when he’d been climbing out of the carriage and sneaking around to the other side. The burst of excitement at the situation had been a refreshing change to feeling nothing.
“She was stealing from us,” Henry pointed out reasonably, looking as relaxed as one could. No one seeing him would guess he’d just had a gun pointed at his chest. “She will still hang, so what’s the difference if she is male or female?” Henry was six and twenty and spent much of his time involved in the more wanton side of life. Only his friendship with Simon kept him from completely disappearing from Society in search of permanent debauchery. His dark good looks made him look like the devil he acted, and he used his handsome features and sarcastic charm to gain access to as many women as were enticed by contrived angelic expressions and bad-boy actions. He was an unlikely friend for Simon, but in a way, it was because Henry was open with his opinions and behaviour; there were no hidden depths to him. There was an honesty to Henry’s actions, even if Simon did not approve of everything he did.
“How can you be so brutal?” Helena exclaimed in shock. Only a year out of the schoolroom, at eighteen, she had the confidence of the young, who presumed they knew the ways of the world, only to find their experience sadly lacking. The only person she’d met who could unnerve her with a look or a word was Henry. They had an uneasy relationship. He always bordered on the darker side of life, and his more cynical teasing was beyond Helena’s experience. As a result, he made her feel uncomfortable, to which she reacted badly.
“You wouldn’t be so forgiving if one of those pistols had gone off,” Henry snapped. He was old enough to treat a debutante more gently, but Helena always seemed to bring out the worst in him. He took issue with what he saw as her condemnation of him. Helena would have been surprised to know she had such an effect on Henry. To her mind, he did everything he could to taunt her whilst remaining annoyingly disdainful and smug. “She risked being hanged the moment she embarked on her scheme. I am not going to start feeling remorse just because she’s a wench.” He shrugged and folded his arms a little defensively. Helena’s censure was regular and consistent.
Helena turned to her brother. “Why would a woman do such a thing?”
“I have no idea, but I’m determined to find out,” Simon responded grimly. He didn’t like being unsure or uncertain of any situation in which he found himself, and this whole situation had unnerved him. The sooner he regained his cold, unruffled demeanour the better.
* * *
Lou tried to remain still and passive as she rocked and rolled on the seat as the carriage moved at speed. She could weep with the pain in her shoulder, but she could not reveal that she was awake.
She had listened to the conversation with stirrings of hope; they were not going straight to the magistrate. There might be a chance of escape. She silently cursed. There had to be an opportunity to make off. The girls depended on her, and she would not fail them. But, oh! The pain! She had never felt anything like it, and it took all of her strength not to betray herself by casting up her accounts. No. She gritted her teeth; remaining still would hopefully give her the opportunity to choose her chance of freedom.
She tried to focus on what had happened to take her mind off the pain. She had never been so foolish before; her over-confidence had cost her dearly. She should have pulled the curtain back as soon as she approached the carriage. A curse threatened to escape her lips. Her self-assuredness had endangered the people who relied on her.
Dizziness overtook Lou when a particularly deep hole on the road made the carriage rock to one side, jolting her shoulder, and for once, she didn’t fight it but allowed the blackness to engulf her.
Simon watched the colour drain from Lou’s face when the carriage lurched. The action helped to increase his annoyance with the whole situation. He was not self-indulgent enough to assign himself unnecessary blame, but he had hurt someone, and it didn’t rest easy with him. He had been foolish in the extreme to stay late and then to refuse the hospitality of the host to stay the night. His hauteur at the concerns of their hosts could have cost him the lives of his sister and his friend, something that would see him staring at the canopy of his bed long into the early hours.
The sooner they reached home the better.
* * *
The streets of London had never been so welcoming to the three conscious occupants within the carriage. When, eventually, the vehicle came to a halt outside number ten Half Moon Street, the footman landed nimbly on the pavement. Opening the door, he helped Helena down the steps before positioning himself to best help his master and friend move the injured woman out of the carriage.
They paused when Lou groaned in pain, but her eyes remained closed, and no one was sure if she had regained consciousness or not. Helena had given instructions that the doctor be sent for and a fire set in the largest guest room. It seemed ridiculous setting the finest guest room for someone who, not so long ago, had been pointing a gun at them, but Helena knew it would be easier to nurse her in the largest room.
The bustle surrounding their arrival eased only when Lou was placed on the bed. The housekeeper ushered everyone out of the room while she tended to the unexpected arrival in preparation for the doctor’s attendance.
Simon waited in his study for the medical man to be sent in to him. Simon had to be somewhat honest in explaining what had happened, but he did not wish to announce to everyone the sorry details of the evening, so he explained only that there had been a robbery and shooting. By the time the doctor saw his patient, there was no evidence of her being a highwayman; all outer clothing had been removed.
Once the doctor had been taken to the bedchamber, Simon poured himself a large glass of brandy, placing the cool glass against his forehead. The excesses of the early evening had left a dull ache, which was probably worse than the hangover he’d have suffered if the journey had been uneventful.
By the time the doctor returned to the study after making the examination, Simon was ensconced in a chair in front of a crackling fire, letting the heat wash over him as he pondered what to do. He had shed his fine frock coat and loosened his perfectly folded cravat, feeling unusually constrained in his attire.
Henry had offered to stay around, but Simon was aware that Henry was more inclined to act on gut instinct, and for some reason, that would not do for this situation. Simon had wished him a cordial goodnight. Henry was always quick to offer his opinions, and after the evening’s events, Simon was reluctant to have them clouding his own thoughts.
“My Lord.” The medical man bowed.
“Doctor Rowson, how is the patient?” Simon asked, standing.
“She has been lucky. The bullet appears to have travelled straight through her shoulder, so there is no need for surgery,” Doctor Rowson explained.
“That’s something, I suppose,” Simon said with unexpected relief. “I would appreciate your discretion with regard to our temporary house guest. We don’t know the details of the robbery as yet, and I am loath to cause widespread panic.” Simon wasn’t sure why he’d decided to lie and make-out that the unknown woman had been the victim, but he thought it the best course of action.
“Of course,” Doctor Rowson said. “I shall check on her in the morning. There’s no need for me to stay for now. I have left laudanum with your housekeeper to top up the dose I have already administered. I doubt she’ll regain consciousness during the night.”
The doctor left the room, and Helena passed him in the hallway, entering the study after he left.
“Mrs Cox asked me if you have already informed the magistrate,” Helena said to her brother.
“Ah, the staff have already been gossiping,” Simon said with annoyance.
“Mrs Cox is hardly one to gossip,” Helena responded diplomatically, defending the housekeeper.
Simon sighed. “I suppose so. I will inform on the rascal when I know she’s out of danger.”
“She is a criminal. Should we not be handing her over now?” Helena asked.
“Am I the only one slightly curious as to why a woman is taking to the heath and acting as a highwayman?” Simon asked with frustration.
“It is an extremely dangerous thing to embark on,” Helena admitted.
“Which is the reason I want to know why she was doing it,” Simon responded. It was unheard of for a woman to put herself in such a precarious position. Rivalry between highwaymen was rife; if they had found her, she would have been attacked in the most brutal way before being left for dead. Yet, she had looked small and fragile in the carriage. His instinct was telling him she didn’t belong to the life she’d chosen, and it piqued his curiosity. “She will face the magistrate, but I want some answers first.”
“Is she not likely to steal from us while we sleep?” Helena asked, normally one to go along with any of her brother’s schemes, but the evening had rattled her.
“You’re beginning to sound like Henry,” Simon responded.
“I had rather be shot than be compared to that beast!” Helena said angrily.
Simon chuckled at his sister’s outburst.
Helena sat in the chair opposite her sibling. She hadn’t changed out of her finery, and her necklace glistened in the firelight. “You are going to take on this woman as one of your charitable causes, aren’t you?” sister asked brother.
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