January's Love Story
DUKE IN WINTER
Impeded by a blinding snowstorm, the Duke of Highrow is determined to find his way home. But when the highwayman demanded he stand and deliver, he didn’t know she would steal his heart.
Hunching his shoulders against the bitter wind, Wulf guided his stallion onto the narrow track between the trees. With luck, he would be standing before his own fire before the storm worsened.
“Stand and deliver!” The shout was sharp beneath the swirling snow, echoing between the silent, naked trees.
Cursing, Wulf lifted his forearm to block the white flakes and studied the shadows dancing between the wind-tossed snow.
The highwayman was not ten feet away, sitting atop a horse in the center of the path. His greatcoat swirled in the wind as he raised his arm, the double-barreled pistol he held appearing small and light.
Though size was not indicative of deadliness. The thief held the weapon as straight and steady as any spymaster Wulf had encountered during the Reign of Terror.
“What shall I deliver?” Wulf pitched his voice above the wind and narrowed his eyes, evaluating risk. He kept a pistol in his saddlebags, but he would never be fast enough to beat his opponent.
Still, he took one hand from the reins and slid it onto his thigh. Easily, he hoped, so it would seem natural and not calculated to move closer to the saddlebags.
“You may deliver whatever valuables you have on your person.” Through the eerie, dim, snow-light and thickening flakes, Wulf could distinguish a cap pulled low and a scarf wrapped around the thief’s face that was substantial enough to fight the wind. “Beginning with the winnings in your pockets, sir.”
“Now, how is it you know about the blunt in my pockets?” Wulf leaned casually on the pommel. Considered his adversary.
“A rich nabob like you, coming from a house party? Of course you have blunt.” The man’s jacket was big enough he might swim in it. A local lad, perhaps, fallen on difficult times.
Or the Honorable Highwayman.
Wulf had yet to make the acquaintance of the local legend, though he had heard a great deal about the highwayman’s ill-gained generosity.
“I don’t particularly care to give up my blunt, even for widows and orphans.” Though he was actually quite willing to forgo his winnings for such a cause. “At least not at the end of a pistol,” he continued, attempting to stall.
Another few inches and Wulf would be able to reach his weapon. He shifted again, setting his hand a little closer to the saddlebag.
Wind rattled the branches above them, so they clacked and creaked like brittle bones. Wulf’s stallion sidestepped, pranced a few paces. Using both hands—unfortunately—Wulf brought the animal under control again.
“Very well, Your Grace.” The pistol notched higher, its barrels seeming to stare at Wulf with two dark, round eyes. “Then I shall wound you with the first shot. Perhaps you shall change your mind.”
“Unlikely.” Still, Wulf had lost the precious inches he’d gained reaching for his own weapon. His stallion was edgy, and the storm swirled around them—and the coins and pound notes in his pocket were not worth the effort.
But by God, it was the principle. He’d not spent years dodging the guillotine in France only to be bested by a highwayman a few miles from his home.
The wind sharpened, howled, and in the momentary silence as it died again, Wulf clearly heard a long-suffering sigh.
“As you wish, Your Grace.”
The report was deafening, slicing through the silence of snow and night. The already-spooked stallion reared, pawed the air. Even as Wulf recognized the searing pain in his shoulder for what it was, he understood he would not keep his seat.
“Bloody hell!” he cursed, tumbling through flying snow.
When the ground slammed into the back of his head, everything went black.
* * *
She’d shot him. Actually shot him.
“Damnation.” As the sound of panicked horse hooves faded into the night, Bea looked down at her pistol and let out an irritated huff. “Why did you have to pick now to be slippery?”
Her aim was nearly perfect, and she’d never yet wounded any of her intended prey.
Only frightened them.
Bea contemplated the man sprawled on the ground as snow began to blanket his greatcoat. She couldn’t leave him here. Unconscious, wounded, and without a horse, since his had gone running off into the trees.
He was also the Duke of Highrow—a boy she’d known. A man she didn’t.
“Damnation,” she said again, as she saw the stains on the snow. Blood. She didn’t need sunlight to recognize the dark drops dotting the ground.