Gabriel Blakeney is a man who protects those he loves at all costs. If that means becoming a highwayman to help support the community that raised him, then that’s what he’ll do. Risking his life each night, he robs from the rich to redistribute among the poor. He does it to survive. But what he’d really like is to find a woman of his own to protect and love. Despairing of ever finding her, things change one night when he meets Lady Caroline Godwin. Here is a lady who needs protecting, all right – from herself.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. And Caroline Godwin is desperate. Her father has lost a fortune at cards and is bed bound after a stroke. Somehow, she must raise the money within a month or lose her home. Worse, she may be forced to marry the despicable Lord Shard – her father’s creditor – to protect the family name and pay the debt. Frantic, Lady Caroline remembers being held up a few weeks ago. She makes the audacious decision to rob the handsome highwayman. But Caroline gets far more than she bargained for.
With card sharps, traitors, and the militia to worry about, Gabriel and Caroline find danger ever present. He is determined to keep her safe throughout, no matter what it takes!
“Stand and deliver!”
The demand came loud and clear, as Lady Caroline Godwin’s coach came to a sudden stop. She sucked in a deep breath, holding onto the sides of her bench seat to brace herself against falling off. Her maid did the same, looking up at her in fright. “Oh, my lady. It’s a highwayman. I knew we shouldn’t have travelled at night.”
Lady Caroline couldn’t have agreed more. However, upon receiving news that her father was gravely ill and had lost a fortune at cards again, she knew she must leave London and return home. Travelling at night to get there as quickly as possible had seemed worth the risk. Not only did she need to know exactly how much her father had lost, she knew that her mother wouldn’t be able to cope with the situation. Her father had suffered a stroke immediately after losing and was currently bed bound.
Lady Caroline tried to reassure her maid. “I need you to be calm, Maisie. If we do as the rogue asks, we will come to no harm.” Yet after the initial shout, there was no sign of the highwayman. Furious both at her father for gambling away his money, and for getting stopped like this, Lady Caroline was feeling brave rather than scared. She was about to get out of the coach and see what was going on, when there were a few muffled curses from above them, a few thumps and then silence. She frowned, straining her ears to hear more.
“He’s going to kill us all!” cried Maisie fearfully, before fainting.
Lady Caroline looked at her maid lying in a crumpled heap on the bench seat opposite and couldn’t help feeling even crosser. “For heaven’s sake,” she muttered. And what has happened to my coachman and footman? “Frank? George?” she called out. She was met with silence.
She gasped as the door was suddenly pulled open and a tall, masked figure appeared, holding a pistol. The man, dressed all in black and with a tricorn hat on his head, looked around the coach, before returning his gaze to her. The pistol was aimed at her. “Good evening, my lady.”
Lady Caroline stared at him. The moonlight shone down on him, but didn’t reveal much, due to his dark clothing and black eye mask. She could make out sensual lips though, her gaze drawn to them because it was the only part of his face she could clearly make out. Then her gaze dropped to the pistol aimed at her and she felt renewed anger. He’d caused her maid to faint, he’d done god knows what to her male servants and now he was aiming a weapon at her. She raised her chin and glared at him. “It was a good evening, until you came along,” she told him. “What have you done to my coachman and footman?”
The highwayman had the nerve to grin at her. “They’re gagged and bound, my lady. But unhurt.”
He climbed into the carriage, sitting down opposite her, on the edge of the seat, next to her unconscious maid. “Now, if you don’t mind handing over some of your baubles, I will leave you in peace.”
Thanks to her father, Lady Caroline didn’t have much in the way of jewelry. What she did have held no value. She looked down her nose at him. “I’m afraid you’ve robbed the wrong coach tonight.”
Dark eyes glittered behind the eye mask. The man looked her over slowly, glancing at the small travelling bag by her side. “I’m sure my lady has something of interest in that bag which she wouldn’t mind giving to me?”
Caroline refused to back down or be afraid of the imposing stranger. “It contains my smelling salts.”
“Indeed.” The single word spoken in that deep, distracting voice of his as well as the slight twitch of his lips told Caroline he didn’t believe her. Then he glanced down at the unconscious maid before returning his gaze to her. “My lady is clearly made of sterner stuff than her servants. I doubt smelling salts are needed.”
Damn it. The rogue was not to be diverted and wouldn’t leave without something. She was going to have to give him her bag of jewelry or risk being shot. Maybe he would shoot her when he discovered its contents. Caroline sighed. She suddenly didn’t care anymore. This encounter was the perfect end to an awful evening. “Very well,” she said, bringing her bag onto her lap. She reached inside and took out a black velvet pouch. Then she gave him a hard look before throwing it at him.
The man had lightning reflexes and deftly caught the bag before it could hit him in the face. “Careful sweetness,” came the gruff warning.
Caroline merely lifted a brow. “Aren’t you going to open it? See your ill-gotten gains?”
The man considered her in silence for a moment while Caroline held her breath. Perhaps she shouldn’t push him. The pistol remained pointed at her. After several long seconds, he finally rested the pouch on one strong thigh, loosening the strings with the fingers of his free hand. He pulled it open and took out a pair of diamond earrings. He held them up for a look. “Very pretty.”
Caroline gave a harsh laugh. “You think so, do you? Well, they’re paste. Like all of my jewelry, thanks to my gambler of a father. So, you see you’ve wasted your time holding up this coach.” She held out her hand for him to return the pouch. “There’s nothing of value I can give you.”
The masked stranger put the diamond earrings back and handed her the pouch. He was silent when she expected anger. Shrugging, she put the pouch back and looked back to find the man had put his pistol on the seat beside him. Thank goodness. Now he would leave. Instead, he stared at her. “You’re wrong you know.”
“I am?” What was the rogue referring to?
“You do have something of value to give me and I insist I have it.”
It had been a good haul. He wanted to see how good. However, he needed to leave the area first. He urged Samson into a canter, heading in the opposite direction to the coach he’d just robbed. After a few miles, he slowed, then took a path off into some woods.
Gabe dismounted, secured Samson’s reins to a tree and sat down on a log nearby. He took the heavy pouch out of his pocket, feeling the satisfying weight of it in his hand. Whistling a tune under his breath, he opened the pouch, tipping the contents out into his hand. He looked closely at each item, completely absorbed in his task.
“I’ll take those.”
Gabe froze at the softly spoken words as well as the pistol he felt pressed against his back. He frowned. He was being held up by a woman?
“Put them back in the pouch and hand it to me.”
Yes. Definitely a woman. And there was something familiar about her voice. He needed to hear her speak some more, though, to be sure. So, he did as she asked, holding the pouch over his shoulder for her to take. “Here you are.”
“Thank you.” The pouch was pulled out of his hand and Gabe heard the rustle of clothing as it must have been secreted away somewhere. The pistol remained pressed into his back, though.
“May I know who is robbing me?” He wasn’t afraid. He was amused by the situation.
“No. Now your pistol, please.”
Gabe paused. Whoever she was, she had clearly watched him holding up the coach because she knew about the pouch and his pistol. She must have followed him. Smiling at the novelty of a robber being robbed, he took his pistol out of his cloak and held it up. It was taken from his hand and he heard more rustling.
“Wait five minutes after I’ve gone before you move,” she told him.
Ah. Gabe could place her voice now, despite the slight muffling effect of the scarf or whatever it was she must have over her mouth. An educated and well-spoken lady—his feisty lady from a few weeks ago—the one with the sweet lips. He couldn’t possibly let her leave him so soon.
“Is that it?” he asked as he felt the pistol break contact with his back.
There was a slight hesitation, before she responded. “What do you mean?”
Gabe smiled at the hint of puzzlement in her voice. Now he had her and he willed her to come around to the front of him. He wanted to know for certain that it was his lady with the paste jewels. “Don’t I get anything?”
Another pause. “Is it traditional to give the victim something?”
“I always do,” he lied.
Finally, the woman moved, coming around to face him, standing a few feet away. The pistol was aimed at him and Gabe couldn’t help being impressed that her hand wasn’t trembling as she held it. He also admired her eye mask, the silk covering her mouth, the dark hat, and cloak. As she moved, the cloak briefly swung open, revealing a trim form in dark breeches and a dark shirt. Quite an arousing sight. He smiled at her. “If you’re going to take up highway robbery, you need to do it properly, my lady.”
Her next actions confirmed her identity beyond any doubt. She huffed with annoyance, pulled down the silk covering her mouth, showing her lush lips and snapped, “How did you know it was me?”
“Because I’m an intelligent fellow.”
“Stupid enough to let me follow you,” she scoffed.
Gabe laughed at that, instead of being insulted. “There is that.” He had to give her that one. He never would have imagined a lady of genteel breeding capable of such boldness and cunning, to seek him out and take from him. But then his stepmother had been of genteel birth and look what a sly bitch she had been. Gabe immediately shook the dark thought away. His golden lady here was different, he was positive of that.
“Well.” He sighed. “You’ve taken my earnings for the evening. It’s only fair you give me something in return.”
She narrowed her eyes behind her mask at him. “Yes. You mentioned that before.”
He nodded. “I did. It’s the rules of the road, you see, and if you are to continue down this path you ought to obey the highwayman’s code.”
“I didn’t see you give anything to those people in the coach,” she told him suspiciously.
Gabe hid his surprise. So, he was right, the minx had been hiding somewhere watching. He waggled a finger at her. “How do you know I didn’t? You weren’t in the coach with me. I may have given away another kiss.”
“Are so free with them, then?” She sounded cross.
“As it happens, I’m not. No. I let the married couple in the coach keep their rings because they were in love. I gave them peace of mind.”
His golden lady raised a brow. “And what did you give me? You let me keep my paste jewels, but you stole that kiss.”
Gabe gave her a look full of heat, enjoying how she blushed in response. “I gave you a taste of passion, my lady. As well you know.”
Up came her chin. “You most certainly did not!” Her face flushed, her anger rising to the surface. “And I shall not be giving you anything.” Her hand tightened on her pistol as she spoke. “I don’t trust you either. Lie face down on the ground.”
Gabe shook his head, amused by the fact she refused to admit she’d enjoyed their kiss as much as he. “I only wanted to know your name, sweet lady. Surely you could have given me that?”
“I said. On the ground. I’m not falling for your roguish charm.”
She licked her lips nervously, drawing his gaze to their plump, wet softness. “What are you going to do with me?”
A damn good question. He should spank her soundly for putting herself in danger and then he should kiss her senseless for tempting him. He clenched his jaw. He would do neither—for now. He wanted to find out who the hell she was and why she was risking her life. Gabe reached out a hand, ignoring her gasp as he pulled her eye mask off. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with you yet,” he said gruffly. “First, I want to know who you are.”
Her wide blue eyes stared at him and she made him want to kiss her even more by biting her plump lower lip. “Tell me your name.”
“Lady Caroline Godwin,” she finally revealed in a husky whisper.
Gabe regarded her intently. She squirmed a little under such close scrutiny, but she didn’t break eye contact. She was telling him the truth. “Well, Lady Caroline, I’m Gabriel. Gabe to my friends.”
She frowned. “I’m not your…”
He cut her off, saying, “Oh, you’re going to be. You and I are going to become very good friends by the end of the night.”
She gasped in fright, eyes widening.
“Not like that.” He instantly tried to reassure her, regretting how he’d clumsily phrased it. “I meant. I can help you. I’d like to help. You seem to be in some sort of trouble.”
She visibly relaxed when she realized he didn’t mean he was going to ravish her. But she remained silent, lowering her head to avoid looking at him. Gabe tipped her chin up with a finger. “Tell me, Caroline,” he said, dropping her title. “Tell me why a young lady needs to endanger herself at night and rob from a highwayman.”
She swallowed deeply, tears shimmering in her eyes. “I have to find two thousand pounds by month’s end,” she blurted. “Or I’ll lose my family home. Worse, Lord Shard might force me to marry him.”
Gabe removed his finger from her chin, frowning as he considered her words. “I take it your father gambled and lost this amount to Lord Shard?”
She nodded, swiping at a tear which had slid down one smooth cheek. “He lost and had a stroke. He’s bed bound because of it. The doctor said another stroke would kill him.” She swallowed again, trying not to give in to her tears. “Lord Shard visited me a few days ago, demanding the money within a month.”
Gabe’s jaw tightened. The despicable bastard. To visit at all while her father was ill was in poor taste and no act of a true gentleman, but to demand repayment, too? He deserved to be shot. Then Caroline’s reaction from last night came back to him. She’d sounded scared. Also, her words about distrust. “Did he hurt you?” he demanded.
Her flinch confirmed it. “Yes.” She held up her wrist and even in the moonlight, Gabe could make out bruises on her skin, where someone had clearly gripped her tightly. “I made the mistake of slapping his face after he threatened to tame me and he crushed my fingers.”
Gabe swore, swiftly apologized, and reached out to stroke her wrist in a soothing gesture. “He deserved the slap and I’d love to make him pay for hurting you, Caroline. First of all, we need to get you that money so that the debt is repaid and he has no reason to pursue you.”
“We?” she asked, her tears disappearing and a look of hope appearing in her eyes. He nodded. He may not be able to come to her house and protect her, or offer her anything substantial, but he could offer her his friendship. He could help her steal enough money to save her family. “Caroline. I’m going to teach you how to rob coaches.”
“You are?” Then a huge smile lit her face.
He gave her a stern look. “Only until you have raised enough money and only ever with me beside you. Do you understand?”
She nodded eagerly. “Yes, Gabe. Robbing only with you.”
When he was sure that Caroline was definitely listening to him again, Gabe added his final piece. “You will play a minor role in the robberies, leaving the dangerous work to me.” He held up a hand to prevent the protest forming on those lush lips of hers. “You will obey me in this, or I shall not help you.”
He received a look of frustration, watching in amusement as she opened her mouth a few times to speak only to then change her mind, before, finally, she gave a murmur of assent.
“You will do exactly as I say and if you disobey me, I shall have no hesitation in putting you over my knee to spank your backside.”
She squirmed at that, rubbing said backside on his thighs. Gabe barely managed to hide his groan.
“Spank me?” She spluttered in indignation.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “I need to keep you safe Caroline. This isn’t a game. We are risking our lives. I have to be able to trust you.”
“I understand,” she said on a sigh. Then she lifted her chin and gave him a determined look. “You can trust me, Gabe. And thank you.”
He looked for her mare, clicking with his tongue to encourage the horse to come closer. “Let me lift you back onto your mare.” He placed his hands on her waist, lifted her up and helped her climb into her saddle.
“I’ll escort you home now.”
“What about …”
He immediately guessed what she was about to ask. “I’ll start teaching you tomorrow about being a highwayman. It’s too late, now.”
“Woman,” she corrected him.
Gabe grinned. “Yes. A highwaywoman. I’ll teach you tomorrow.”
“I thought you said I could trust you.”
Oh dear. He was furious with her. And rightly so. She had disobeyed him. Placed herself in extreme danger.
“Come out, Caroline.”
She jumped at the angry growl. Then reluctantly came out from behind the tree, walking toward him. It was no use hiding from him. No doubt he’d only come after her, making it worse. He’d already dismounted and stood glaring at her behind his eye mask.
“I can explain,” she said.
“It had better be good.”
“It is.” Caroline was confident that Gabe would understand once he heard of Lord Shard’s visit. She came to stand in front of him, turning to watch the coach disappearing into the distance.
“Are you hurt at all?” His question drew her attention back to him. “Only a few scrapes from diving out of the way.”
She saw his jaw tighten. “You could have been killed.”
She knew that, swallowing deeply, suddenly on the verge of tears now that the reality of her close encounter with death was sinking in. “I know.”
Without further comment, Gabe turned away, leading his stallion out of the road. He walked over to Caroline’s mare and grabbed the reins. Then he led both horses into the woods, away from the road. Caroline didn’t question his actions, she merely followed. It was better if they found somewhere quiet, out of sight of the road, for her to explain why she had robbed that coach on her own.
However, she frowned as they seemed to go deep into the woods. The distance was rather excessive, she thought, for a simple talk between them, before they then hopefully robbed another coach—together this time. About to ask him why they were going so far, Caroline closed her mouth again, when they entered a small clearing. She stood still, watching him secure the horses to a tree. Anger was obvious in his jerky movements, and all of a sudden, she was feeling concerned that he was going to refuse to help her anymore.
“I’m sorry, Gabe,” she blurted, approaching him.
He swung around. “Did you get any valuables?”
She winced at the barely controlled fury in his voice. He ignored her apology. Then fumbling inside her cloak, she brought the pouch out. “Yes. Look.” She opened the pouch, tipping the diamond jewelry out into her hand.
He grunted. “Well, at least you got something for endangering your life like that. For disobeying me, Caroline.”
She bit her lip to stop it trembling as she stared at him, hoping for a softening in his stance. It didn’t happen. She lowered her head, looking at the jewelry. He didn’t understand. She’d had to do it. As she put the items back in the pouch, she glanced back up. “Let me explain, please.” He made a move of his head to indicate she could.
Caroline put the pouch back into her cloak, took a deep breath and spoke, “I was desperate, Gabe. Lord Shard came to visit me today. He was going to reduce the deadline by two weeks. He was going to leave me with only a week to pay him back!”
Gabe clenched his fists at his sides, but he didn’t comment. Somehow that made it easier for Caroline to continue. Brushing away a tear, she did so. “He, he wants me to fail so that I’m forced to, to marry him. He made lewd suggestions and was going to touch me, but I threatened him with a paper knife.” She paused for breath, beseeching Gabe with her eyes for him to understand. “He’s made it clear that he likes women to struggle against him and my behavior aroused him. Luckily for me though, he decided not to attack me and he’s given me two weeks rather than reducing it to just one. One less week than I had.”
“Ah, sweetheart.” Gabe moved, opening his arms and Caroline went into them. He hugged her to him, comforting her. She breathed in the delicious scent of him, laying her head on his chest, closing her eyes for a moment, enjoying being held by him.
“Now you know why I acted so recklessly. I had no way of contacting you, Gabe and I need to rob several coaches a night if I am to avoid ruin.”
“I understand,” he said gruffly.
She smiled. All was well between them again.
“But you still disobeyed me, Caroline. I can’t risk it happening again if we are to continue.” She stiffened in his arms, then leaned back to look up at him. Surely, he didn’t mean to carry out his threat?
* * *
Despite her emotive explanation, Gabe was going to have to spank her. It was for her own good. She had taken years off his life when he saw her dive for cover under that coach as the coachman attempted to shoot her. If he hadn’t been riding toward her house earlier than agreed and seen the coach held up, he might have been too late. Although he understood how desperation had made her act on her own, she had still planned this knowing she was disobeying him. He was also convinced she had hoped to commit the robbery in plenty of time to meet him, ensuring he was none the wiser. Except it had gone wrong.
Gabe cupped a soft cheek in one hand. “Tell me truthfully, Caroline. Did you hope I wouldn’t know about this?” A guilty look immediately appeared on her face and she nodded. “I thought so. That’s mostly why I’m going to spank you, sweetheart. You said I could trust you, but I can’t.”
“Hush.” He placed a finger against her lips. “You need this. I don’t want you to ever endanger yourself in such a way again. I also want to be able to trust you.”
“You can. I won’t ever do it again without you, Gabe.” She pleaded for forgiveness from him with her eyes. However, he had to discipline her. She needed smarting buttocks to remind her.