Bess was restless.
She heard the wind flapping the shutters outside, and saw candlelight leap around the walls of her small bedroom. Her heart seemed to be beating to the same wild rhythm, even while she soothingly ran a brush through her long dark hair in preparation for bed.
… And, then, unbidden, she thought of the man on the road yesterday. The tall, well-dressed man with the flashing brown eyes.
"Stop it," she thought to herself, giving her hair a tug with the brush. "He was nothing more than a common criminal."
But another voice, deep within her, reminded her that there had seemed nothing common about this man at all.
She sighed, laid her brush down and walked over to the window, clad only in her dressing gown. She opened the shutters and looked at the inn-yard, the stables across the way and the white road that ran past all of them.
Other than that, there was little to see. The wind whipped the limbs of the few trees in sight, as Bess was sure it moved the heather fields off in the distance, out in the darkness.
The moon was playing tricks that night, hiding behind the clouds for a while and then bursting forth with light. For a moment, she could see nothing, and then the moon appeared, briefly, lighting the world before her with its cool light.
Moonlight and shadow, over and over again. She did not realize how well the lighting suited her ivory complexion and dark hair and eyes.
And, then, off in the distance, she heard something, over the wailing of the wind.
Horse beats, she could swear it… and at this hour of the night! The innkeeper, her father, was certainly already snoring away in his bed, and Bess was the only one awake for miles around. Her heartbeat soon picked up the rhythm of the horse's hoof beats.
Sure enough, a horse and rider soon appeared, cantering up the road.
"Fool," Bess thought, to be riding a horse so hard in the darkness, when the stallion might easily lose his footing. But as the rider moved closer, she could not help but admit that he cut a dashing figure.
He slowed as he approached the inn, and turned off the road into the cobbled inn-yard. His horse's hooves clacked against the pavement.
Bess sucked in a breath and almost withdrew into her room again. He did not appear to be a weary traveler, looking for a room for the night.
But the rider had already noticed her window… the only one lit in the building. If he meant to do her harm, she did not think her flimsy shutters would prevent him.
So, she stayed in her window, as the moon once again shone down and the man and horse walked up, underneath her casement. She drew another quick breath as he looked up at her adoringly.
He wore brown doeskin breeches that fit his shapely thighs perfectly, a wine-colored velvet coat with lace at his throat and a hat of the latest Parisian style.
He might have been mistaken for a young country gentleman… Except most respectable young country gentlemen would be safe in their beds at this hour of the night, and he was here, looking up at her.
And as the moonlight glinted down on him, she saw at his hip, a fine rapier hanging at his side and two pistols also within his reach.
His eyes were a deep brown.
This was the highwayman who had accosted her coach yesterday. The one she had not been able to get out of her mind since.
The day before had dawned crisp and bright. Bess' aunt, who she had been staying with for the past season, had waved her into her father's coach when it arrived with the warmest wishes for her "dear brother" and reminders to Bess to make sure she covered herself properly when they rode over the drafty moor, so she would not catch cold.
Bess had hugged her aunt affectionately, for she was a dear old thing, and promised to remember the older woman's advice. Then, she accepted Tim's hand as he helped her into the carriage.
Tim was her father's ostler, a man of some thirty-five years, nearly twenty years older than Bess. He was short, but compact, with the barrel chest and bowed legs one might expect of a man who'd spent most of his life on a horse.
He was one of her father's oldest and most trusted servants, but Bess could not help but be glad when she was in the coach and able to pull her hand away from his. She could have almost sworn that he held it a moment longer than he had to. The thought made her a little queasy. She twisted her small change purse between her hands.
But, no, Tim was an old, confirmed bachelor… almost like a second father. She was just imagining things…
The coach lurched a little as Tim climbed up onto the driver's seat. Bess heard his assistant, a young lad of twelve, let go of the horses' bridles and clamber up beside the ostler. They were on their way, and her aunt's home was soon out of sight.
The drive between her aunt's home and her father's inn could easily be made in a day, in weather so fine. But, it was a long and lonely drive.
Bess wished for a traveling companion she could talk to, for the scenery was dull. She held the curtains open and watched fields of grain and fields of heather go by for an hour or two, but grew bored. Eventually, the rocking motion of the coach lulled her to lower her chin onto her chest. She closed her eyes.
She could not say she slept, for she was still aware of motion and heard the hoof beats and clattering of the carriage wheels. But she did rest, until she was jolted by a shout outside from Tim. The coach seemed to leap as he urged the horses to go faster.
"A highwayman!" Tim's voice sounded much higher, panicky, than it normally did. But his shout woke her out of her lethargy.
Bess yanked the window curtain open again so she could look out. Sure enough, a finely dressed young man was drawing up alongside the coach on his black stallion. He reached into his velvet coat and withdrew a shiny pistol, which he pointed at the driver's seat of the coach.
"Oh, Tim… Outrun him!" Bess found herself shouting up front, hoping the driver could hear her over the tumble of horses' hooves and what she was sure was the audible pounding of her own heart.
"I can't m'lady," she heard Tim cry. "This is as fast as these beauties can go."
And still, the young man and his sturdy steed were gaining on them. "Pull over," she heard him order in a steady tone. She withdrew her hand from the curtain and sat back, straight up against the seat to concentrate on her breathing. She was about to be robbed.
"Blast," Tim swore, as he pulled in the reigns. "M'lady," he said in a lower tone as the carriage rolled to a stop, "Be sure to give the man whatever he wants… and I don't think he'll harm ye… But it's best to be careful with these rogues… So…" But the ostler's warning was cut off as the highwayman approached.
"Off the seat, there," Bess heard the robber say. The coach lurched as Tim and the boy complied.
"I'll take that gold fob, if you please," Bess heard him say in a most gentlemanly way, as if he was merely asking for Tim's presence at tea. "Thank you… And you, lad, what's that, you're trying to hide in your pocket? Ah, two-pence… That you may keep, young man… And, now, I must insist on tying you up so you don't cause trouble for me while I go through your coach."
Bess heard a scuffle outside, but a few minutes later the coach door swung open and the young man stuck his head in. He must have been successful in tying up her driver and assistant, then. She was still busy, breathing, as she twisted her clutch-purse in her hands.
The highwayman looked around the interior, and his twinkling eyes rested on her when he saw she was the only one inside. He swept off his hat, revealing a mop of dark brown curls, and bowed to her. "My lady," he said pleasantly. "I'm sorry to disturb your journey… But…" he offered his hat in her direction, upside down. "I'm afraid I must ask for some of your coinage."
From the amused look in his eyes and the even tone of his deep voice, one would think he was playing a game, not robbing a coach! Bess felt like telling him where he could take her coinage, but she remembered Tim's hasty warning. If she went along with what he said, more than likely he would not hurt her… She had heard enough tales of scorned highwaymen to quake a little at the thought of not paying him what he asked. Half of his body was still outside the carriage and, for all she knew, the pistol was still in his other hand.
She swallowed hard and looked down at her purse, still twisting in her hands. The robber's eyes followed her glance. Bess unfastened the clasp and reached in for the few coins she carried. She deposited them in the young man's hat, and he bowed again, graciously.
Then, his dark liquid brown eyes met hers. "My lady, these pieces of gold do nothing to match the splendor of your beauty," he said with honey in his voice.
Bess felt the sweet-talk was a trifle insincere, coming from a man who had just robbed her. She stiffened her back.
"Ah, my lady is upset," the man said. "And, rightly so, I suppose." He nodded his head, as if agreeing with himself.
"Well, then," he upended his hat and shook the coins out of it. They fell into his outstretched palm and he tucked them into his waistcoat before putting his hat back on. "I must take my leave of you… Forgive me again for disturbing your journey."
And then the carriage door shut. A few moments later, she heard a horse being ridden away.
Bess twisted her now-empty purse as she sat back into the seat again… pondering what had just happened. The robber had not been the ill-mannered rogue she thought he would be… Not that there wasn't a roguish gleam in his eye.
She took a deep breath, thinking not at all of her lost money.
And then she heard squirming from outside. Tim and the boy! She ran out to rescue them from the rope the highwayman had wrapped around them as they sat back to back on the ground. But, as she struggled against the knots, it was not Tim's grumbling that entered her mind, but the dark handsome appearance of their attacker.
And here he was, underneath her window, saying "My lady," to her again with a twinkle in his eye.
How had he ever found her here? Had he followed the coach all this way yesterday? Why was he here?
She felt fear grip her breast, but then a look into his twinkling eyes dispelled it. He was not here to harm her. She was sure of that.
He stood up in his stirrups, and her window was low enough that he was almost even with her when he did so. He reached into his waistcoat and produced a few coins with a sheepish grin.
"I felt guilty, my lady, for taking from a woman of your beauty when I should instead be worshipping the ground you walk on."
Bess drew back. More sweet-talk. She did not want to be impressed with mere words, and so far, this young man's actions had done little to recommend him.
But, there in his open palm, were the four coins she has passed over to him yesterday afternoon. She looked into his dark eyes again, and they seemed sincere. She reached out and took them, ashamed at the jolt that she felt as their hands briefly touched.
He was still waiting there, expectantly.
"Thank you, sir," she heard herself say. "… But, you could have saved yourself this long journey and much trouble, if you had never taken the coins in the first place."
A smile worked its way across his handsome features, and he sat back down on his horse. " 'Tis true… My lady, I cannot argue… Although, then I would have not had an excuse to come see you again."
Once again she had the feeling this whole thing was a just a dangerous game to him.
He tipped his hat. "And I cannot promise to never come again." With that, he clicked his tongue and his horse moved over the cobblestones of the inn-yard to the gate. And soon he was pounding down the road again.
A common criminal… and, yet, her heart was pounding again. Bess closed her shutters and retreated back into her room. She glanced in the small looking glass across the room and saw her cheeks were flushed.
She did not even know his name… but somehow she found herself wanting to play this dangerous game right along side him.