It had taken Colin two days to travel to Holywell, two days in which he had steeled himself to smile and be charming. But ultimately the princess had charmed him. Heiress to a mining magnate, Marietta had caught the eye of a visiting (and impoverished) member of the Habsburg royal family. Though she had been impeccably trained at the best finishing school in Paris, when Colin arrived, he found her teaching the housekeeper’s parrot to curse in five European languages. “Don’t call me Princess,” she whispered, casting a grim eye to the housekeeper, hovering at the edge of the terrace. “Or she will raise my rate.”
It had taken three more days to separate Marietta’s pos-sessions into two groups: those which the carriage could carry and those which would have to be shipped from Liver-pool around the coast to London. Most difficult had been determining exactly which clothes she could (and could not) do without for her first week at court. Then, just when he had thought that they might set out, she had insisted that his coachman, Fletcher, accompany her trunks across the inlet to ensure they were well stowed for their London journey. All told, he had been gone from London for more than a week before he bundled Marietta, her paints, her embroidery, her knitting, her books, and a handful of magazines into the carriage and set off on their trip. But somehow he had not minded. Marietta was sweet, resilient, and companionable, anticipating the birth of her child with real joy.
He shifted in his seat, but his legs—outstretched on the backward-facing seat to give Marietta more room—felt like leaden weights, long past numb from a lack of circulation. He moved one foot down into the small space remaining between Marietta’s feet and the carriage door. The blood began to move agonizingly into one set of toes.
He unfolded his map and began to recalculate their trip. Holywell to London was two hundred and eight miles. Even a mail coach, traveling at seven miles an hour, could travel the distance in thirty-two hours, and his brother’s third-best carriage was able to clip along at ten. But the princess needed substantive food, frequent stops, a real bed at night, and opportunities to shop at any tempting village store they passed. Their first day, they travelled only to Wrexham. Twenty-six miles in six hours. Their second day would measure little more. He had already promised she could spend the night—and morning—in Shrewsbury. Using his fore-finger as a measure, he counted off the miles from Shrews-bury to London. The return would take a sennight, if he were lucky.
Marietta moaned and tried to shift her weight. Why— he berated himself for the fiftieth time—hadn’t he borrowed a better carriage? One with ample seats, thick comfortable bolsters, and better springs. If he were to play escort to a pregnant princess, why hadn’t the Home Office informed him? Had they intentionally withheld the information? Or had they not known?
He forced his attention back to the map. If Marietta gave birth on the road with only him and Fletcher for midwives, he would kill someone in the Home Office. He wasn’t yet sure who. Perhaps the lot of them, but he would begin by strangling Harrison Walgrave.
The carriage began to slow, the springs creaking into a new rhythm. Colin waited for Fletcher to offer the usual signals: two slow taps for an inn, a fast double-tap for a crossroads, and a heavy heel-kick for danger. But no taps, kicks, yells, or pistol shots alarmed him, except perhaps the nagging absence of any warnings.
Colin tapped on the roof and waited. No response. His senses grew more alert, listening, but he heard nothing beyond the normal sounds of a country road.
Even so, he shifted his second foot—still numb—from the opposite seat to the floor and slid several inches towards the middle of the bench. There, Colin moved a cushion aside to reveal a built-in pistol cabinet that had been added by his brother, the Duke of Forster.
His movement wakened Marietta, and she began to speak, but he held up his finger before his lips, then touched his ear. Be quiet: I’m listening. Her green eyes, always expressive, widened, and she nodded understanding. She pulled the thick feather comforter up over her belly, as if to hide.
The door handle moved slightly as someone tried to open the door. Luckily Colin had bolted it from the inside. Their highwayman grew frustrated, pulling against the door handle several times.
Reacting viscerally, Colin wrenched the pistol cabinet door open. But before he could withdraw the pistols, the window glass shattered inward. Marietta recoiled and tried to push herself up as the curtains were torn away, wrenched outward. Colin moved to protect Marietta, trying to place himself between the princess and the broken window. But his feet found no solid purchase, just a river of down shifting beneath his weight. Losing his balance, he fell back hard onto the seat.
Two hands in long leather gloves, each holding a pistol, reached through the window frame into the carriage.
As in battle, everything slowed. Both pistols pointed at a spot in the middle of his chest. At this range, he had no hope of surviving. And he felt more relief than fear.
Colin held out his hands to show he was unarmed. He could see nothing of the highwayman. Only a dark duster and a mask.
The guns didn’t fire.
One pistol shifted to the opposite seat. But Marietta wasn’t there. Seeing her on the floor, the highwayman repositioned his sights.
Realizing in an instant this was no robbery, Colin flung himself between Marietta and the barrel. He heard the cock of the trigger, saw the flash of fire, and felt the hit of the ball in his side. Black powder burned his flesh.
Dark smoke filled the cabin, and he choked, coughing.
His ears rung from the boom of the gunshot, but he saw the flash of the second pistol firing along with a shower of sparks from the side and barrel of the gun. He felt Marietta’s scream. He pulled himself up, half standing, one hand against the carriage roof to steady himself. His side stabbed with pain at each expansion of his lungs.
Marietta tried to rise behind him, choking as well. She pulled against the clothes on his back, but he brushed her hands away. When the smoke cleared, his body would stand between Marietta and their assailant. He would die. But after Belgium, he felt dead already—what would be the difference?
Marietta beat the backs of his legs. Small burning embers burned on Marietta’s pallet. Some of the lit sparks from the pistols had fallen onto the down-filled bed. He assessed the dangers automatically. Once the embers ate past the woolen cover and fire caught the feathers, the danger would spread quickly.
Still on the floor, Marietta pushed herself backwards toward the opposite door, kicking the smoldering bolsters and pallet away from her. With each kick, she further entangled his feet. He couldn’t reach her, at least not easily. And he couldn’t reach and load a gun without stepping from his defensive position in front of her. Thick smoke burned his eyes.
With neither sound nor sight to help him, he had to choose: the dangers of the fire, growing with each second, or those of the highwaymen who could be waiting outside. Tensing, he unbolted the door, pushed it open, and leapt out. His leg hitting wrong, he fell and rolled into the ditch beside the road. He raised himself cautiously. The highwaymen were gone, having attacked, then left. Not robbers then.
He pulled himself to standing. He should worry about Fletcher and the postboy, Bobby, but there was no time. Smoke from the feather-stuffed pallet billowed from the coach. He could see Marietta’s legs, vigorously kicking the smoldering bed away from her. She was alive, but trapped against the locked door on the opposite side of the carriage.
Ignoring the pain below his ribs, he pulled hard on the pallet, dragging a portion through the coach door. Already, the smoldering feathers were breaking through the wool in patches of open flame. He heaved again, releasing all but a third from the coach. Flames began to dance across the pallet.
If the pallet broke apart before he could remove it, he’d have to sacrifice the carriage, and then he could offer little protection to Marietta. He pulled hard once more, and the pallet fell onto the green verge next to the road. Then, to protect neighboring crops and livestock, he dragged the pallet, flames licking at his hands, into the middle of the road, where it could burn without harm. Once carriage and countryside were out of danger, he hunched over, hands on his knees, and tried to breathe without expanding his lower rib cage.
After a few minutes to recover his breath, Colin looked up at the carriage. Fletcher remained at his post, his body slumped forward.
Colin climbed the side of the coach, gritting his teeth against the pain. Blood oozed through the hair at the back of the coachman’s head. Pressing his fingers to the older man’s neck, Colin felt the beat of the artery. Alive.
Listening and watching for trouble, Colin weighed his options.
They needed to move, to get off the open road. But for that, he needed Fletcher conscious. At least he wouldn’t have to explain to Cook how her man had been killed on a quiet English road after surviving a dozen campaigns against Boney.
Still unable to hear, Colin retrieved a water flask from under the coachman’s seat. Tenderly cradling the older man’s head, Colin washed the blood away. The wound was a long gash, slantways from the back of Fletcher’s ear toward the back of his head. He pressed his fingers against the gash. Long but not deep and worst at the curve of Fletcher’s head where the weapon bit hardest through the skin.
Colin lifted Fletcher’s chin. “Pistol shot. Can’t hear.” Colin picked up the fallen reins and held them out. “Can you drive?”
Fletcher took the reins in one hand. Then, raising his eyes to Colin’s, Fletcher held out his other hand, palm down, as one does when indicating a person’s height.
“Bobby?” Colin looked around for the postilion. Fletcher’s nephew had grown up on the ducal estate. The loss of Fletcher or Bobby would devastate the household.
Fletcher nodded yes, then scowled. Leaning forward, he braced his elbows on his knees and supported his head with his hands.
“I’ll find him. Stay with Marietta.” Colin took the rifle and the cartridge bag from beneath the coachman’s seat, loaded the gun, then placed both on the bench. Fletcher put his hand on the gun.
Colin leapt from the coach, gritting his teeth against the pain as his feet hit the ground. Then, walking back along the road, Colin began looking for the boy, searching through the overgrown verges and dreading what he might find. A child’s body bleeding and broken after a fall from the carriage. Let him be alive . . . and, if wounded, with wounds that can heal.
Colin turned at the curve.
About a tenth of a mile beyond, he saw the boy’s body at the verge of the road. Colin ran to the boy and knelt beside him, checking his wounds. No gunshots. Colin felt his relief like cool water on a parched tongue. Bobby’s arm was twisted before his chest, as if he had been flung from the coach-top or dragged down from it. But Bobby was alive. Fletcher, Bobby, Marietta, all alive. At least their deaths wouldn’t weigh heavy on his conscience.
The boy struggled to lift himself up and began to speak.
But Colin shook his head, pointing to his ears. “Can’t hear.”
Bobby pointed to his ankle. Colin felt it. No obvious broken bones. “Can you stand?”
The boy shrugged and held out his uninjured arm for help. Ignoring the arm, Colin lifted the boy to his feet. Luckily Bobby was still small and lithe, not the strapping youth he would be in another year. Colin supported Bobby’s weight gently as the boy tested his ankle, gingerly at first, then with more pressure. When Bobby tried to step fully on the ankle, he recoiled in pain.
“Let me help.” Colin wrapped his arm around Bobby’s waist, avoiding his injured arm. The two walked slowly back to the carriage. There, Fletcher and Colin helped the boy to the seat next to Fletcher, and Bobby took up the pistols.
When Bobby was settled, Colin motioned for Fletcher’s attention. “Where’s the other one? The one the stable master insisted would care for the horses?”
Hit me, Fletcher mouthed, demonstrating a blow to the back of his head.
Colin’s strength suddenly faded. “How far to the next inn?”
Fletcher held up two fingers, then three. Two to three miles.
Colin moved slowly to the open carriage door, calling out in case Marietta’s ears had recovered from the pistol shots. “Marietta, there’s an inn within the hour.”
He stepped in front of the open door. Marietta was seated on the floor, leaning against the backward-facing seat riser, her legs bent at odd angles. Her eyes closed, she held one hand to her chest, the other cradled her belly. At her shoulder, blood seeped through her fingers, covering her hand and staining the front of her chemise. Blood pooled on the floor below her.
Colin’s chest clenched. He swung himself into the carriage, yelling “Fletcher! Drive!” as he pulled the door shut behind him.
He pulled off his cravat and tore it into strips to make a bandage, then crawled beside her.
To stage an attack and steal nothing . . . not robbery. Murder. He needed to think. But first he needed to slow Marietta’s bleeding.
The carriage began to move, first slowly, then faster, and faster still.