Southeastern England, 1815
Shaky, I pressed my hand to the wet gash on my temple as the world around me swirled into focus.
Gunshots. Highwaymen. The carriage crashing to its side. The whole awful encounter raced through my mind like a runaway horse.
The blazing afternoon sun filtered in through a window of the upturned carriage, illuminating disheveled squabs that slumped to my right and left. Dust lay suspended in the air, oddly seasoned by the scent of my lavender perfume. The bottle must have broken when the carriage crashed onto its side.
Wedged between the door and the seat, I attempted to sit up, but my muscles ached in response.
A faint cry took flight on the wind, and my eyes shot fully open. “Isaac!” I clawed at the splintered wood around me. “Isaac? Mama’s here.” I could hear my cousin’s words resounding in my mind as I struggled to get my bearings. “You really should be more careful with the boy.”
I thrust a loose bandbox from my legs and forced myself semi-upright. The movement sent a shooting pain like lightning through my head, and I cried out. My stomach rolled in answer as blood throbbed its way to my forehead. What was left of the carriage I was pinned within swam around me in circles, but nothing would keep me from my son.
Several heart-pounding seconds passed as I pawed through the disheveled interior. Finally I located Isaac’s curly blond head in the far corner. Black spots crept into the sides of my vision as I stared at his motionless form. Was he injured—or worse?
I stretched out my trembling hand just as his eyes popped open. He let out a frantic cry and his gaze found mine. Gasping for air, I screamed, “Oh, Isaac!” Tears spilled down my cheeks as he crawled over the various pieces of luggage and into my lap, my fingers sliding over every inch of his precious body.
“Madam, are you hurt?” A deep voice echoed from somewhere above, but I couldn’t maneuver around to see its owner. My ears buzzed as I drew Isaac close, reveling in the feel of his warm arms.
We had a rescuer, but what now? My entire body throbbed in pain. And—the Palmers! They were expecting us in Dover. Tonight. The horrid highwayman had ruined my carefully laid plans.
Blood trickled down my wrist as I pressed the wound on my forehead. “I don’t think anything is broken, sir . . . only, my head . . . I believe I hit it rather hard.”
“It was a ghastly accident, I’m afraid.” The voice was that of a gentleman, a passerby perhaps? “I’m afraid your coachman has suffered greatly. I’ve bound up his leg, but he has not yet regained consciousness.”
I clenched my jaw. “Indeed, it was ghastly! Did you see the devil who ran us from the road?”
A pause. “Well, yes.” A metallic squeak sounded, and the equipage jolted. “I’ve the door open above you now. I think it best if I come in and assess your wounds before lifting you out.”
Unable to take the sudden flash of bright light, I shielded my eyes with my hand. “That sounds reasonable. My son seems unharmed, though I’m not certain I can move at present. My head is awfully tender.”
The carriage shivered as the man dropped safely into the coach. He pushed my valise out of the way and knelt at my side, bringing his face into view at last. I stifled a gasp as an icy wave filled my chest.
It was him—the highwayman. I clutched Isaac against me.
He held up his hand, his voice adversely tender. “Don’t be frightened. I’m only here to help.”
“Is that so?” I pushed through the burning twinge inching down my neck to dip my chin. “A highwayman with a conscience. What a comfort.”
His hand retreated to the rag covering his nose and mouth, and he mumbled under his breath, “I forgot I still had this thing on. Guess there’s no denying it now.”
He reached up to lower the mask but hesitated as he gripped the cloth. “Perhaps it would be best if we remain as we are—two strangers, nothing more.”
I shrank against the cold glass of the side window, the memory of my terror at the approaching robbery charging my nerves once again. “What is it you want? We haven’t any money . . . or jewelry for that matter. I was on my way to accept a position as housekeeper.” I gave him a hard smile. “You’ve risked our lives for nothing.”
He shook his head, his voice grim. “This entire mishap was just a shocking misunderstanding. I’m dreadfully sorry to have involved you and your son.”
My gaze flicked to the broken window. “And our driver?”
“Unfortunately, he will need a doctor straightaway.” The highwayman gestured to my bent legs lying lifeless among the loose items that had fallen during the collision. “Considering we haven’t much time, it is imperative I check your injuries at once. May I?”
I flinched as he extended his arms.
His voice softened. “You know you’ll have to trust me if I’m to get the three of you out of this.”
He sounded reasonable enough, and someone else might not come along for some time. But I’d not let a man this close to me . . . not since Brook. My muscles stiffened before I forced a nod. After all, what other options did I have?
The highwayman felt along my feet and knees before moving his hands to my arms and around my shoulders. His touch was gentle yet assured and eventually brought a pair of pale blue eyes a few inches from my face. We assessed each other for a quiet moment. The man’s steady gaze was familiar somehow. Did I know him? Surely not.
He gathered Isaac from my chest, then strong-armed me into a sitting position close to his side. “There. Does it pain you terribly to move?”
At first I thought the worst was over, but my ears soon buzzed to life, my stomach churning in response.
Unaware of what raged inside my body, he went on. “I believe there is an inn a few miles ahead—”
All at once my face felt hot, and a black veil dropped over my vision. I tried to warn the man, flitting my hands in the air, but there wasn’t time before I tipped over—straight into his lap.
The unexpected caress of the man’s fingers at my back and on my arm startled me as I woke, and he guided me once again into a sitting position. I thought his subtle touch at odds with the villainous robber he presented on the road moments before, but I was far too preoccupied to remark upon it.
He moved quickly to assess the wound on my head. “I begin to fear you might be concussed.”
“Actually, I feel a bit better now.” But I’d spoken too soon. The carriage seemed to tilt, and I felt the man lower me back onto the side of the coach, which served as the floor at present.
“This is a bit more complicated than I thought. I’m greatly concerned you’ve—What the deuce?” He sprung to his feet and cast a quick glance out the window above before ducking back into the shadow of the coach, Isaac wriggling in his arms. A muscle twitched in his cheek. His voice, however, was composed as he said, “It appears we’re to have company. There are horses approaching.”
The roar I’d heard before swelled within my ears, and I feared I might slip from consciousness once again. The highwayman sought to avoid my stare but couldn’t entirely manage to do so. I wondered if he shared my concern or if something else drove his actions. And those eyes. They were indeed familiar. Struck by a sudden notion, I motioned him near. He leaned toward me and, cautiously, I scrutinized every last curve of his exposed face.
Could it be? Brook? When he’d broken my heart and refused to acknowledge my son about a year and a half ago I thought I’d never see him again. Yet here he was—stooping beside me as if he owned the world. I shifted to mouth his name, but my lips wouldn’t cooperate. Perhaps I’d already fallen within a dream. As I continued searching the eyes that focused on mine, I realized they were not quite as familiar as I’d thought.
The man’s hand was at my chin, his voice urgent. “Stay with me. It won’t be long now till help is upon us.” Footsteps pounded somewhere beyond the black tunnel of my vision. The highwayman shouted up at the open door above us, “We’re in here. Make haste! A woman is injured.”
Then he whispered to himself, “Oh God, what have I done?”
It was not Brook Radcliff speaking beneath that mask. No, the voice was deeper, more refined. In a curious haze, I tugged the rag from the man’s face just as voices crested the open door of the carriage.
“I say! Is everyone all right in there?”
Darkness circled my vision. As the buzzing in my ears drowned out all other sounds, I lay stunned at what my fingers had unwittingly revealed.
It wasn’t Brook who forced my carriage from the road and yelled, “Stand and deliver!” It was his disreputable older brother, Lord Torrington.
Taken from Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey by Abigail Wilson. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.
Abigail Wilson combines her passion for Regency England with intrigue and adventure to pen historical mysteries with a heart. A Registered Nurse, chai tea addict, and mother of two crazy kids, Abigail fills her spare time hiking the National Parks, attending her daughter’s gymnastic meets, and curling up with a great book. In 2017, Abigail won WisRWA’s Fab Five Contest and ACFW’s First Impressions contest as well as placing as a finalist in the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. She is a cum laude graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Dripping Springs, Texas, with her husband and children.