When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, the Highwayman comes riding, riding…The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes
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Hooves clattered in the darkened courtyard. Sparks shot from the stallion’s iron shoes as he slid to a halt, climbing the air in a full rear. Simon leapt from the saddle, his red velvet cloak, a slap in the face of the authorities, billowing in a bitter gust. As a bad feeling crawled down his backbone, he shivered. He squared his jaw, ignoring superstition and the chilling call of his Irish blood. Silence ebbed and flowed like the tide of clouds washing over the moon.
Darby Manor was shuttered and barred, but Simon knew who waited alone in a big, soft bed. His heart quickened as a bolt of desire shot through him. His love would be in her pristine white nightdress, often shed to their passion along with his clothes. The thought heated him, but before dawn, he had an assignation with a royal coach. Excitement glazed his skin as the scent of heather blew on him. Bloody cold night. Yet he was glad clouds hid the moon. Darkness made his job easier. Wind screamed around the corner of the house, and he tugged his cloak tighter about him. He hated this place. The house itself seemed to resent any intrusion, including the recent return of Lady Victoria Darby.
A week ago, she’d arrived in a handsome carriage on a sunny afternoon. Since the house had been deserted, Simon often grazed his horse in the parkland, then returning to the inn he and many a brigand called home. Still, every time he glanced at Darby Manor, shivers chased down his spine. Ah, but the beautiful Lady Darby had disembarked in all her finery. Her blue satin gown caught the golden afternoon light in iridescent colors. Her beauty and grace robbed him of breath, a rare occurrence in his trade. Why were there no servants? It was if she’d hurried to the manor unaccompanied except for the lady’s maid bustling along in front of her.
At the time, watching from the parkland, Simon had smiled. He’d heard rumors Lady Darby was willful and reckless. Perhaps, she’d given society the slight and escaped to the country with only her serving woman for company. The servants summoned from the village were long gone by nightfall. The house’s reputation of being haunted was to blame, no doubt. Most locals believed in the ghost of Darby Manor.
As it turned out, Lady Darby had indeed escaped the London Season, and a small miracle occurred. Here he was, the brigand, in a nobleman’s cobbled courtyard on a winter’s night, to call a lady forth from her shadowy firelight.
Goliath snorted, dancing on the slick stones. Gooseflesh prickled Simon’s arms. The hair at his nape rippled. I’m being watched. Hand on his sword hilt, he whirled. Naught but shadows fleeing from a shaft of moonlight.
When Simon glanced at the bright orb of the moon battling a cloudy sky, he glimpsed an indistinct face floating in the tower window. An icy hand stroked his spine as the apparition beckoned with a pale, insubstantial finger. In taverns, the locals whispered of the manor ghost, a woman by all reckoning. Poppycock. He didn’t fear the living. He damned sure didn’t fear the dead.
“Not a fit night for man or beast, what say you, Goliath?” He caressed the horse’s soft muzzle. It wasn’t respite from the weather, but the refuge of soft arms Simon sought. He offered a whippoorwill whistle to Tory’s window.
In seconds, she flung the creaking shutters wide. She’d been waiting for him. A warmth at odds with the chill night seeped through him. Until October last, he’d never have risked such reckless behavior, but one night on the moors had changed a great deal about him.
Tory, an ivory cameo framed in ice-glazed stone, smiled down at him. “Simon,” she breathed. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”
She leaned over the casement. A silken cascade of perfumed hair washed down the wall. Her satin breasts peeked from a blue velvet robe. Inhaling desire, he reached up to touch the bright red love-knot plaited into her long black hair. Passion smoldered in him, focusing in his damn tarse. The thing had a mind of its own. In truth, Simon was afraid to name the rich mingling of desire and something far purer, more powerful. The force that had bound the highwayman and the lady sizzled like lightning in the frozen night.
“Will you stand in the cold or warm yourself by my fire?” Tory stretched to brush a fingertip to his lips.
He captured her hand and dotted a kiss to each soft finger. His soldier stood at the ready, but would see no action tonight. He smiled as he imagined riding with an erection and how uncomfortable that state of affairs would be. His sword and his pistol, not love and kisses, would be his companions tonight. Still, he’d had to see her, couldn’t ride into danger without, at least, touching her hand.
With a cavalier bow, he clamped a hand over his heart. “’Tis only a kiss I may have. Tonight, we ride for prize. Will you ride with me, Tory, me lad?”
On their forays, Lady Victoria Darby, his Tory, garbed as a male peasant, capably aimed her pistol, covering him while he relieved the nobility of their money and jewels.
Tory gripped the window ledge. “Pray do not. From Lord Sebastian’s own mouth, I heard it. They will stop at nothing to catch you.”
Hand on hip, he threw back his head and laughed. “These country bumpkins couldn’t catch their own shadows. Ah, my love, the prize is more than worthy. A coach laden with gold bound North from London-town.”
“Dead or alive, Simon. The countryside is up in arms. This gold coach is a trap. Please,” the robe fell leaving her cloaked only in midnight tresses.