Essex, England, April 1817
Lady Briannon Findlay was going to die.
She sat back against the squabs inside her father’s coach, her eyes locked on the lethal nose of a polished pistol barrel, and half wished she had worn a finer gown for the occasion. As it stood, her body would be found on the side of the road in the most atrocious gray velvet dress known to man. She might have had a fighting chance had she been wearing her breeches. And her pistol. Sadly, she had neither.
“No displays of heroism, please,” a voice behind the gun drawled.
All sense of time slowed to a dull stop, and Brynn’s breath lodged like a stone in her throat. Beckett, their coachman, stood within the open gap of the carriage door, his white, curled wig gone from his head, exposing a mop of red hair. He was not alone. A man suited in black, with a black mask obscuring most of his face, stood beside the coachman, the barrel of a second pistol tucked into Beckett’s ribs. Her heart hammered a brutal staccato in her chest.
“Now that we have that out of the way, shall we begin?” the man said with a slow, breaking smile. His teeth caught the shine of the carriage lantern, and Brynn frowned. The highwayman who had just set upon their carriage on the darkened, private lane running between her family’s estate and the neighboring grounds of Worthington Abbey possessed, quite possibly, the finest smile she had ever seen.
What sort of robber smiled at his victims? Despite the pistols he held and the fear that gripped her, it was his perplexing mouth she was staring at when her mother, seated on the bench opposite, let out with a bloodcurdling scream. Brynn clapped her gloved hands over her ears as Lady Dinsmore’s long-winded screech finally waned and croaked off.
The masked man hadn’t flinched. Instead, he vaulted a mocking eyebrow to match the smirk on his lips. “My good woman, have a care for the eardrums of your fellow travelers and refrain from doing that again. I assure you, I do not intend for anyone to lose their hearing tonight—just their valuables.”
Brynn lowered her hands at his crisp words, her ears ringing. She was certain she’d misheard, but he nearly sounded like a…a gentleman. His diction was as precise as a Shakespearean stage actor, over-enunciating each syllable. No, she had to have been mistaken, deafened by her mother’s shriek. The man was a common bandit putting on airs, nothing more. She mustered her courage and stared down at him.
The corner of his mouth curled in an answering grin. He sent a pointed look at the pearls Brynn wore. “Start with those earbobs sitting upon such delicate and privileged ears,” he said, the sarcasm in his voice thinly veiled. Her fingers itched to slap the condescending grin from his face, though she kept them firmly at her sides, ever aware of the gun pointed at her family.
Lord Dinsmore had been immobile on the bench beside his wife, glaring at the bandit in confounded shock. Now, as Brynn moved to unclasp her beloved earbobs, he sat forward, nearly coming off the seat altogether. “Who the devil do you think you are, you pestilent son of a—”
“Papa, stop!” Brynn held out her arms to stop him from lunging at the bandit. “He has a weapon.”
Lord Dinsmore seemed to see the pistol pointing into the carriage for the first time. He instantly sobered and sat back into his seat. Relieved, Brynn met the appraising eyes of their attacker. The scoundrel was still grinning. He was either mad or extremely cocky. She wondered if it wasn’t a little bit of both. Neither of those would bode well for them—an arrogant criminal was dangerous. An insane one, even more so.
Her gaze fell to the pistols again. Even from the carriage she could see the coiled tensile strength in his arms. Beckett was a strapping youth, country born and bred, and he hadn’t stood a chance against his assailant. He was a hair taller and wider than the masked man, too. Of course, having a pistol aimed at his chest was likely enough to cow him. She wondered whether Colton, their driver, had suffered a worse fate, and her stomach plummeted. He had been driving them to Worthington Abbey for the Duke of Bradburne’s annual ball and had stopped the carriage to remove a fallen tree from the lane. It had been a trap, Brynn realized.
“Where is our driver?” she asked, proud she’d kept a measure of strength in her voice.
“Indisposed at the moment, I’m afraid,” the man replied, and if not for the pistols or the mask, or the obvious fact that he was about to rob them, Brynn would have warmed at how concerned he sounded.
No displays of heroism, please. Those words he’d spoken…
“You’re the Masked Marauder the newspapers have been writing about,” Brynn said, recalling at once the numerous articles printed over the last few months. A man had been waylaying carriages in London and its environs and, according to the articles, the Masked Marauder had an unsettlingly smooth, courteous manner while relieving his victims of their personal items. Apparently, he made the appeal for no displays of heroism at the start of each robbery.
Brynn’s mother’s deathly frightened expression shifted to fierce disappointment. “Briannon! You know how I feel about you reading your father’s newspapers. It isn’t appropriate.”
“Mama,” Brynn said through clenched teeth. “Time and place.”
The masked man sighed as her mother’s face resumed its prior expression. “That ridiculous name. I’d rather be called a bandit than a marauder. Now, to business, if we may?” He cocked the pistol, and Lady Dinsmore startled, her hands fluttering about her person like a pair of terrified birds. “If you would be so kind as to hand all of your glittery baubles to the rebellious Lady Briannon, and of course, whatever is currently weighing down your money purses, I would be obliged. My lord, please do not overlook your cuff links.”
Lord Dinsmore all but exploded. “Now see here, you scurrilous blackguard, if you think I’m going to give you anything more than a sound thrashing, you’re—”
“Papa!” Brynn cried, again reaching out to her father as he prepared to leap through the carriage door. “Papa, stop!”
Beckett had scrunched his eyes in preparation for the shot to his heart. The guttering oil lamp inside the carriage showed the purple flush creeping up from her father’s starched cravat as he held himself still, abandoning his rash action. He slumped back onto the bench in frustrated silence.
“You should thank your daughter for possessing such rational thought,” the masked man commented, amusement coloring his tone. Then, “After you hand her your belongings, that is.”