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Authors: Highwayman Husband

Helen Dickson

“Why, my poor little wife, what is it?

Are you telling me that you missed me after all?”

To her consternation and fury, Laura felt her cheeks grow hot. Angrily she slapped his hands away. “I am not telling you anything of the sort. At least have the decency to explain to me where you have been for the past two years—and why you are cavorting about the county as a highwayman. Tell me!”

“Trust me. I know exactly what I am doing, and why I am doing it.”

“Then let us dispense with this conversation and go and tell Edward who you are, before that accomplice of yours shoots him.”

Lucas’s fingers closed cruelly on her upper arm as she began to walk away. “Do not even
consider
doing that. Defy me on this and nothing would give me greater satisfaction than to make you regret it.”

HELEN DICKSON
Highwayman Husband

HELEN DICKSON

was born in south Yorkshire and still lives there, with her husband, on a busy arable farm where she combines writing with keeping a chaotic farmhouse. An incurable romantic, she writes for pleasure, owing much of her inspiration to the beauty of the surrounding countryside. She enjoys reading and music. History has always captivated her, and she likes travel and visiting ancient buildings.

Prologue

1792

T
he man stood at the prow of the small vessel as it smashed its way through the black, choppy water of the English Channel. His feet were slightly apart, his back straight, his hands clasped behind him. France was receding. England was within his sights.

His features were quiet, intent. A sense of purpose filled his heart and mind and was etched in every line of his tall, lean frame. An aura of authority and power seemed to surround him, and he possessed a haughty reserve that was not inviting and set him apart from his fellow passengers and the crew. There was something about his eyes, shadowed with some deep-felt emotion and a mocking cynicism, as though he found the whole world a dubious place to be, that made others shrink from seeking his attention.

Having been condemned by the tribunal in Paris, fully comprehending that nothing could possibly save him from the black prison of La Force, where he had been incarcerated to await the day of his execution, where torture and deprivation had driven him to the brink of madness, he had struggled to retain his grip on sanity for two whole years, sustaining himself by focusing his mind on escaping his
prison and returning to his own fireside and his sweet young wife—and at the same time concentrating on his hatred for the man who had put him there. When freedom had come, unexpectedly, it had been received with relief and an indescribable joy, and he had lost no time in leaving France.

In all his turbulent thoughts, in all the heated workings of his heart and mind, he had stood against resignation and mercifully his hold on life had remained strong. He was impatient to plant his feet on England’s soil. As if sensing the need in him, in an act of mercy and a desire to appease him, the wind chose that moment to stir and fill the sails and drive the vessel onward with a sprightly vigour. The man shuddered, having forgotten how cold the wind at sea could be. He turned his collar up, without relinquishing his gaze fixed on the distant shoreline—on England. His home.

He envisioned his homecoming and considered the shock his return would be to those close to him—to his wife. How had his disappearance affected her? Was she devastated, tormented with grief and despair? One thing he did imagine was that she had been told he was dead, and he had to consider the possibility that after the required one-year period of mourning had passed she might have wished to marry again. He found this thought repugnant and grimly thrust the unpleasant possibility and the complications associated with it from his mind, deciding that in her childlike devotion to him she would have remained loyal and would be waiting for him no matter what.

After two years’ deprivation he vowed never to take anything for granted again. He wanted to return to his home and cleanse himself of the filth of La Force, he wanted a life with meaning and a marriage filled with love. Beyond that he had only one more, less noble, aim in life—and that was to see the man who had tried to end his life consigned to hell. He wanted vengeance, and he would succeed in that goal if he himself expired in the process.

Chapter One

H
ow the mind played strange tricks the moment darkness came to the moor and the traveller passed the lone gibbet at four land ends. The clanking and creaking of rusty chains as they moved in the wind encased the lifeless, decaying body of some poor wretch who had fallen foul of the law. Murderer, thief, highwayman or smuggler…what did it matter now he was dead? But he hung there, carrion for the birds, and for the entire world to see, a sordid warning to others—a grim reminder of what to expect for those who chose to follow the same path. This was a test for any man’s nerves who crossed the moor after dark.

Night came quickly to this bleak, hostile landscape the night Laura Mawgan and her betrothed, Sir Edward Carlyle, travelled to Roslyn Manor on the south Cornish coast. They had been celebrating their betrothal at Edward’s home, Burfield Hall, with friends and neighbours. It had been an extremely grand affair and Edward had tried to persuade Laura to stay the night and return to Roslyn Manor the next day, but, young as she was, she had become used to making her own decisions, and had insisted on travelling home.

On the moor there was no transition between light and dark. Ghostly shapes of rocks were awesome, etched
against the night sky. With just the flickering coach lamps giving off a dull yellow glow there was insufficient light, the moon hidden behind thick cloud. Coming to high ground, they became enveloped in a dark, misleading mist in which one could get hopelessly lost, even those who believed they knew the moor.

Amos, the driver, was determined not to be hindered by this sudden onset of mist, and the coach continued to travel at breakneck speed, rumbling and lurching over the rough Cornish roads. He had a natural horror of the moor, and had no desire to linger for longer than was necessary. The shadows about him, giving the impression of skulking figures among the rocks, turned his bones to water. He was bedevilled and imagined the whispers and echoes of a past long since gone had become the present. With a primeval fear in his heart he quickened the horses, darkness making the road even more treacherous.

Secure within the confines of the coach, Laura gazed out into the night. On the hem of the mist the moor was like some petrified sea in a silent world. The ground was strewn with rocks, and for miles around it was littered with ruined druid temples and ancient stone circles, darkness infusing itself into the rocks rising like sharp blades into the sky. She was drawn out of her reverie when Edward reached out and took hold of her hand.

‘Marry me soon, Laura,’ he said, in his firm, cultured voice, ‘and make me a happy man.’

Laura turned and looked at him, her luminous eyes meeting his in the dim light. How attractive he is, she thought, and extremely prepossessing in his fashionably cut clothes. His dark brown hair was drawn back from his face in a style most becoming to his near-perfect features. The blue eyes were more often than not cold and unemotional, but his smile could be full of charm when he chose to exercise it.

How she wished she loved him, but she didn’t. She
greatly respected his ability and skill at managing his estate and his mine, Wheal Rose, and, while she often chafed at his high-handed conduct towards her, she was fond of him and immensely grateful to him for having taken her under his wing when her husband had died two years ago. But were fondness and regard enough to build a marriage on?

‘You are too impatient, Edward. We have only been betrothed one week. I would like a little more time to get used to the idea,’ she said in answer to his question.

‘We have known each other almost two years,’ he responded sharply, irritated by her resistance. ‘Time enough to get to know one another, I would think.’ He gave her a studied, half-lidded look. ‘There isn’t anyone else, is there, Laura?’

‘You know there isn’t. But you—you do care for me, don’t you, Edward?’ she asked tentatively, wanting reassurance.

‘Of course I do—I’m not in love with anyone else. I do believe we have it in our power to make each other happy. Besides, it’s time you thought of your future and realised that you can’t go on as you are—and stopped rattling around in that great, draughty old house.’

Laura bristled, resenting his remark. ‘Edward, it is my home you are speaking of.’

‘Not for much longer. You will have no need of Roslyn Manor when you are married to me—which is good enough reason to avoid delaying the ceremony. You have done an admirable job running it for the past two years, but you will have to relinquish control when we are married and turn it over to your husband. I’m not sure what I’ll do with such a rambling old place, but I’m sure I’ll think of something,’ he retorted harshly.

‘Roslyn Manor is a beautiful house,’ Laura remarked, coming quickly to the defence of the house she had grown to love in the two years she had lived there, and she was deeply concerned about what Edward would do with it and
the servants when they were married. It was a matter that still had to be discussed between them and both their lawyers. ‘I shall miss not living there.’

‘I am certain when the time comes you will be relieved to surrender the burden and apply yourself to running Burfield Hall instead.’

Laura averted her eyes and reined in her tongue to keep from saying something that would anger him—something she would regret. Her brother Philip, who lived in London with his wife Jane and two small children, had expressed his desire to see her settled and favoured the match with such an estimable gentleman. When he had brought Jane and the children to Roslyn Manor recently, he had pressed her to accept Edward’s suit—harshly telling her that if she wanted to drag herself through the years ahead as a soured widow that was up to her, but she would live to regret it. Always willing to consider her brother’s wishes, she had seen the reason behind his directive, and so she had accepted Edward’s proposal, although it was a decision she was already beginning to regret.

It was only in recent days that she had become aware of her late husband’s dislike of Edward, a close neighbour whose land ran adjacent to the Mawgans’, and the idea that she had consented to marry him made her uneasy. Suddenly her relationship with her betrothed seemed a mockery and a dishonour to her husband’s memory.

Having lived all her life in London, on finding herself a bewildered young widow in a strange place, with no friends or relatives close by she could turn to, at first she had been touched by Edward’s quiet solicitude and attention, but it was only after a decent period of mourning that she had allowed him to call on her.

No gossip had ever reached her ears about him—and she was not one to take much notice of it if it did, but on a recent visit to St Austell to do some shopping she had overheard him being discussed by total strangers and had lin
gered over the purchase of a pair of gloves while she listened. Since then the more she found out about the man she was committing the rest of her life to, the more she realised she didn’t know him at all.

He was the owner of two small tin mines in the district—one, Wheal Rose, still operating, and the other closed years ago. To settle debts, his late father had sold a large portion of his land to the Mawgans, land Edward would like to repossess—particularly one piece of land that swept down to Roslyn Cove, which was an ideal place for landing contraband from across the Channel.

Edward’s wealth had mysteriously increased over the last two years. On the occasions when he visited London he had begun to lead an exotic life, playing for only the highest stakes at the gaming tables, buying a fashionable house in Kensington, where he entertained on a lavish scale, and here in Cornwall his stables—as Laura had seen for herself—were filled with only the finest horses.

There was no accounting for his sudden affluence, which, because production was low, could have nothing to do with his mine, as many people up in London believed. Of late, she had heard it whispered that he was the leader of a well-organised smuggling ring—an illicit yet highly lucrative trade prevalent on the south coast.

At first she had discounted the truth of this, for no one seeing Edward Carlyle—a highly respected pillar of the community—would take him for a criminal, much less one hugely involved in bringing contraband from France or the Channel Islands and landing it in secluded creeks and coves on the Cornish coast. However, through the thought process by which Laura’s sensitive perceptions worked, taking everything into account, including Edward’s frequent trips across to France, despite the violent unrest in that country, she came to the conclusion that there might be some truth in these rumours.

Her sharp eyes had recently observed the comings and
goings of men in the middle of the night, and the dark, sinister shapes of boats and men down in the cove, of wagons stacked high and packhorses weighted down with barrels and packages disappearing onto the moor before dawn. She could have confronted them and forbidden them to cross Mawgan land, but, fearing reprisals, she thought it prudent to do as everyone else seemed to do in Cornwall and turn a blind eye to the activities of the smugglers. To inform on them would mean certain death.

Having inherited her husband’s estate, it was only natural that Edward should want to marry her, but with these grave doubts about him now clouding her mind she was reluctant, which was why she played for time as the only ally in her favour.

‘I have to go away tomorrow morning,’ Edward announced in a more tolerant tone, although his features were set in an unsmiling expression as he regarded her. ‘I shall be gone one week, no more. It will give you ample time to think about our wedding. I would like you to be more decisive when I return.’

‘Yes, of course,’ Laura replied stiffly, averting her eyes once more.

Edward stared at her profile, tracing with his gaze the fine, classic contours of her face, the brush of her long ebony eyelashes on her cheeks, the hollow at the nape of her neck where a mass of blue-black curls came to rest. He had never seen the like of her, not in London nor in Cornwall. She was quite extraordinarily lovely, but it was not for these qualities that he wanted to marry her, it was more for who she was and what she would bring him when she became his wife.

His highly developed hunting instinct and quick grasp of opportunity were the reasons he had presented himself at Roslyn Manor shortly after her husband’s death, leaving her as sole beneficiary of his will, and she had been so engrossed in her grief and recent loss that she failed to
notice how manipulative he was being. Reaching out, he took her hand once more. Lifting it, he placed it to his lips.

‘You will be mine very soon, Laura,’ he murmured in softer tones. ‘We both know it.’

Laura turned and looked at him once more, meeting his gaze. His eyes told her nothing—they were as clear and calm as they always were, but his grip on her hand was firm and held no promise of release. She struggled to free herself from the haunting darkness of the moor, and the closeness of the man next to her.

Leaving the desolation behind, the coach passed through a wooded area. The wind was strong enough to keep the trees in a constant stir, masking the sound of the coach wheels on the road. Laura shuddered. It was the sort of wild night that made one believe all manner of spirits and demons might be abroad.

However, it wasn’t a spirit that suddenly appeared on the side of the road—sprung out of the ground as if by magic—but two horsemen.

At the sudden appearance of these ghostly apparitions looming large and menacing, Amos trembled with fear and icy water trickled down his spine. They were both wearing redingotes, and their tricorn hats were pulled well down. The lower halves of their faces were covered by handkerchiefs. Amos’s terror was transmitted to the already frightened horses and they screamed and bolted, hurtling the coach along the rough road so the wheels were lifted clear of the ground.

Desperately Laura and Edward—who was savagely cursing and saying something about footpads while he fumbled at his waist for his pistol—clung to anything their fingers could hold as they were tossed about inside the coach. Conscious of the horsemen, flying hooves and the clatter of the wheels, Laura felt that she was in the power of demons. After what seemed like hours instead of minutes, the two
horsemen managed to bring the maddened beasts to a skidding, shuddering halt.

‘Whoah! Whoah, now. Steady, now.’

The muffled words of someone trying to calm the horses came to Laura inside the coach. Peering gingerly out of the window, she saw one of the horsemen riding towards her. She stared transfixed at the apparition, his horse’s breath snorting out like a dragon’s in the cold night air. An icy shiver passed over her and an indescribable terror seized her when she saw a long-barrelled pistol pointing unwaveringly at her.

The men were highwaymen, that was obvious. Daring robberies by armed men took place frequently on the highways at night, and people were cautioned not to travel. Laura was beginning to regret refusing Edward’s suggestion that she wait until daylight to travel home.

The lamp on her side of the coach had gone out, and now it was so dark that the figure had no face. Her immediate instinct was to shrink back into the dark interior of the coach in a childish effort to shut out the threat of danger. But some power within her made her retain her calm and anger took hold of her, giving her courage.

‘Who are you?’ she cried. ‘What do you want? How dare you frighten the horses in this way? You could have killed us all.’

‘Please accept my humble apologies,’ the man said, his voice deep and without contrition, muffled in the folds of the handkerchief across his mouth. ‘I have a tremendous respect for horses. It was not my intention to cause them any distress.’ With a touch of his spurs he drove his mount to the side of the coach and leaned forward, peering inside. ‘Ah, just the two of you. Step down, if you please,’ he said with mock-courtesy.

The effect of this assault upon Edward—who was always calm and in complete control—was explosive. ‘Go to the devil, you thieving blackguard,’ he spluttered, roughly pull
ing Laura away from the window, while cursing his clumsiness, which had caused him to drop his pistol onto the floor of the carriage. If he tried to retrieve it he was in danger of being shot. ‘This is disgraceful! I am Sir Edward Carlyle and I have powerful influence in these parts. Allow us to go on our way or by God you will pay for this appalling outrage with your life.’

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