Lord Midnight: Chapter One
Only a miracle could halt the wedding now.
Marisa Dunsmore whispered another hopeful prayer, though it did nothing to slow the carriage racing toward Westbrook Hall, the home of her betrothed. Soon she would have to abandon dreams of aid, divine or otherwise, but for the moment optimism was still a comfort.
She glanced at her brother Bernard, sleeping across from her, his head lolling in a most undignified fashion against the gold silk interior. He would be horrified to learn his meticulously arranged blond curls had flattened on one side, while his cravat was crushed beyond repair. Marisa bit back a grin. Since Bernard had refused every appeal to help her escape the wedding to Lord Westbrook, she would not inform him of his sartorial fauxpas.
After all, betrayal did have its price.
They were still several miles from Westbrook Hall, though there would be no further stops, or chances to escape. Freedom had been so near at hand at the last posting inn. As soon as the carriage had stopped, Marisa had exclaimed the interminable trip from London had shattered her nerves, putting her in dire need of the necessary. She had clapped a hand over her mouth and run to the back of the inn. Once there, she detoured for the stables, ready to borrow one of the horses awaiting its turn in the traces. She reached toward the nearest mount, her heart leaping with elation, until Bernard's hand clamped around her arm, a triumphant expression lighting his features.
Marisa closed her eyes, weary at the reminder of her latest setback, and what it meant for her poor Aunt Althea. She tugged her red wool cloak closer, though the chill she tried to ward off was not due to any deficiency in Lord Westbrook's carriage. In truth, the coach's only defect was its inability to speed her away from the upcoming nuptials. Was it too much to hope for a small portion of divine intervention?
A single gunshot exploded, piercing the stillness with a loud crack.
"Stand and deliver!"
The coach skidded to a halt, the coachman yelling out to the York horses squealing in protest. Marisa bounced on the bench seat, grabbing for something, anything, to keep herself in place. She flew across the carriage, landing atop her brother, her elbow slamming into the side of his head. Bernard sat upright, blinking as he rubbed the newly inflicted injury.
Marisa's stomach tumbled with excitement.
Her prayers had been answered, and so quickly.
She darted toward the side glass, eager to glimpse the highwaymen accosting them. The carriage lamps reflected little except her own likeness, and she was not at all interested in the blue eyes and unruly blonde curls mirrored there. She rubbed the glass for a better view. The moon proved to be a brilliant lantern, illuminating the dozen or more brigands as they galloped from the surrounding beech trees, positioning their mounts around the coach.
"It is fortunate Lord Westbrook insisted on covering his crest on the carriage door," Bernard said in a tight voice.
Marisa swiveled to look at her brother. He tugged the ends of his cravat, frowning as the ruined linen drooped even further.
"Why should the crest matter? They have stopped the carriage regardless."
"You are quite valuable to your future husband," Bernard said, running his fingers through his hair.
"Do you think they will abduct me?"
"I apologize, poppet." He stopped primping and reached his hand to her. "I did not mean to frighten you. I can assure you that will not happen."
"Oh." Marisa sagged against the silk cushions.
Bernard laughed. "Any other female would be clawing through her reticule for her smelling salts. Yet, rather than being terrified, you are irrationally hopeful."
"I am quite serious about not wedding Lord Westbrook."
She could see he was ready to retort, most likely something he had uttered earlier, such as the maddening "You must marry some man, why not a wealthy one?" or the infuriating "I suppose you must insist on marrying for love".
Before he could incense her with the phrases again, the carriage door was thrown open, flooding the coach with the chill of a spring night, and the exhilarating prospect of freedom.
"Come join me under the stars this evening," a seductive voice invited.
Marisa's heart raced. Some deity had heard her prayer, and answered it in a most extraordinary fashion. She stepped forward, eager to set eyes on her rescuer.
Bernard's arm shot out and blocked the doorway.
"I shall descend first," he said.
"Of course," Marisa demurred, retreating to her side of the carriage.
Bernard's eyes narrowed. "Do not attempt anything foolish, poppet."
Marisa donned her most innocent expression. The widened eyes and raised eyebrows often deceived her father into believing she had submitted to his will. However, her brother had experienced it too many times to be duped anymore.
"I am serious," Bernard warned, but the corner of his mouth tilted up, spoiling the admonition.
Marisa fought off her own grin. "As am I, Bernard."
He studied her a few moments before vaulting through the open door.
She heard Bernard's boots hit the hard ground, followed by the highwayman's cultured tones. "Thank you for your cooperation, my good man. And your traveling companions? Have they been overcome by shyness?"
Marisa giggled. She had been labeled many things in her twenty years, but shy was never atop the list. "Headstrong" and "hoydenish" were frequent descriptors, as was "devil's handmaiden", particularly when she refused to agree to her father's demands.
Such as his insistence on this wedding to Lord Westbrook, a man twice her age.
She placed a gloved hand at the opening of the carriage, her stomach fluttering with renewed optimism. She stretched her foot down to the metal step, but it had managed to disappear in the darkness, and she tumbled toward the paved roadway.
The highwayman sprang forward, before Marisa's own cry of dismay was past her lips. His gloved hands caught her at the waist, and in the next heartbeat Marisa's arms reflexively encircled his neck. Once assured that she was safe, the rogue should have placed her feet on the ground, and stepped away. Instead, he slid his arms around her, placing her flush against his chest in a very scandalous fashion.
Marisa's heart pounded, most likely with relief at avoiding disaster, though she had to admit her pulse raced anew at being held in such a protective embrace. She felt the muscled strength in the way he cradled her, yet it was tempered with gentleness, banishing any fear.
A hint of sandalwood rose from his warm skin, mingling with the virile scent of a man accustomed to doing whatever he wished with his life. It was a combination both exotic and comforting. For the first time in a long while Marisa felt safe, and she had to fight the urge to lay her head on his shoulder.
She closed her eyes, thankful he could not see her reddened face, or divine her wayward thoughts. He was a means to freedom, nothing more. If only Aunt Althea had not filled her head with romantic notions throughout her childhood. . .
The highwayman lowered her until her half boots touched the ground, and only then did he release his hands. Marisa nearly sighed her disappointment.
"I must thank you for preventing a most disastrous episode," she said.
"I am delighted I could be of service to you, Mistress."
The merriment in his voice caught her off guard. She glanced up, impatient to see this man who had been heaven-sent to aid her.
Her breath stopped in her throat. In the next instant, she could not remember the correct sequence of breathing, or how to restart it now that it had halted.
He was beyond handsome. Her brother Bernard was considered handsome, as were her other five brothers, so she was accustomed to seeing comely men on a daily basis.
This man was in a category of his own making.
His strong jaw and elegant cheekbones denoted noble bloodlines, yet it was unlikely a man of aristocratic lineage would become a knight of the road. Perhaps he had been born on the wrong side of the blanket, and his only opportunity in life was to take up this lawless profession. Still, he wisely wore a strip of leather to conceal his identity, though it did nothing to disguise his appeal.
His long blond locks fluttered, as if the light breeze found them as irresistible as Marisa did. His thigh-high leather boots, and the black cape which swirled around him, made her heart skip more than once. She glanced again at his face, to see amusement sparkling in his blue eyes. He tossed her an impudent wink.
Clearly he enjoyed her detailed perusal.
Her face heated, earning her a broad smile. The dimple accompanying his upturned lips completely captivated her.
The highwayman executed a magnificent bow, never taking his eyes from hers.
Delighted, Marisa sank into a formal curtsey, as though they were ready to commence a stately minuet for the entertainment of the brigands surrounding them.
"Come, Mistress.” The highwayman extended his hand to her, and Marisa took it, glad for his assistance. Her knees wobbled more than she anticipated when she impetuously responded to the highwayman's gallant gesture.
"Poppet, perhaps you should stand here with me."
Marisa glanced over her shoulder at Bernard, reading the unspoken warning in his expression. His mouth was pursed with annoyance rather than fear, so she dismissed his silent reprimand. She would not be dissuaded from her purpose.
"I should so hate to be deprived of her company," the highwayman said, his lips turned down in a mock pout. He kept her small hands in his, the twinkle in his eyes demonstrating he felt no urgency to release her. Marisa was in no hurry either.
"I can scarce imagine you stopped our carriage merely to clasp my hands."
The highwayman smiled, bringing a great deal of bliss to Marisa's heart when his dimple reappeared. He touched one of her errant blonde curls, seemingly enchanted as he twirled it around a gloved finger. Marisa felt her heart speed up once more, and she was grateful the cool night air soothed the heat threatening to overtake her body.
"Had I but known what a jewel resided in this coach," the highwayman replied, his voice a caress.
Bernard coughed, but before Marisa could investigate, the highwayman captured her full attention again.
"Perhaps I should receive a small boon in return for my heroic deed," he suggested.
Before she could respond, he turned her hand over, exposing the pale skin of her wrist above the kid glove. He raised it to his lips with infinite slowness.
Marisa's knees trembled, but she had yet to swoon in her short life. She did not intend to do so now, lest she miss the heady experience of being kissed by a knight of the road.
His eyes never left hers, daring her to call a halt to his audacious act. She returned his gaze, her breathing ragged, her feverish skin impatient for his touch. When his lips finally brushed against her, she closed her eyes and allowed the exhilaration to wash over her.
Why had she not been forced to wed a man such as this one? There would be no need for defiance or escape plots if her father had decreed this man was to be her husband.
A horse nickered in the background, diverting the highwayman's attention, ending the kiss much too soon for Marisa's taste. Her eyes fluttered open, and she ached to return to that delicious moment of pure sensation.
Bernard stepped forward to retrieve her, but a rogue with unruly red hair waved him back with a large pistol. Her brother frowned, unhappy at being bested by a young man whose menacing glare was accompanied by a rash of freckles.
Marisa turned to hide her smile, but the highwayman saw it and he chuckled.
"You have distracted me from my original purpose, angel." He brushed her hand with a quick kiss before releasing it.
"You have done the same to me," she replied.
"Indeed? And how might I serve your purposes?"
"Poppet," Bernard growled. He shot her another warning glance, but she ignored it as before. He had left her with no option, despite her repeated pleas. Marisa's future was not the only one at stake.
"I am to wed Lord—"
"Here," Bernard said in a rush, reaching inside his greatcoat. "Take these. They are all we have in the way of valuables." He extended a jewel case toward the highwayman. "You may have these so long as we are free to resume our journey."
Marisa gaped at her brother. He was a younger son, one of many in her large family, and not likely to possess jewels of any kind. The majority of his meager allowance was spent on ensuring he was in the first stare of fashion. How had he—
Realization knocked the air from her chest. Bernard could have utilized the jewels to finance a very comfortable life for both of them, preventing her upcoming nuptials. Yet clearly he had not been motivated to do so. His betrayal stung, for he had allied himself with Father, even knowing how desperately she needed his help.
The highwayman grasped the case and opened it. He stepped back a pace, his eyes wide. Surely jewels and jewelry cases were the norm, indeed, the raison d'etre, for a man who robbed the king's highways each night. Yet this man appeared as astonished by their presence as Marisa had been.
The rogue guarding Bernard raced to the highwayman's side, eager to view the treasure. Bernard clutched Marisa's arm, and pulled her toward the carriage. She twisted away from him, dragging her heels, determined to depart with the highwayman. He was her only remaining chance at freedom. She had to find her way back to London, before it was too late.
She curved away from her brother, but he was too quick. He tightened his grip and hurried her to their equipage, determined to leave before Marisa divulged her valuable status.
Marisa glanced back at her erstwhile rescuer, but he was transfixed by the jewel case in his hands. She opened her mouth to call to him, but Bernard propelled her into the coach, slamming the door behind them. The coachman slapped the reins against the mounts, eager to make up for the time lost during their misadventure. Perhaps the horses sensed the driver's fright, for the carriage bolted down the highway, leaning precariously to one side.
Marisa spied the highwayman in the coach's path ahead of them, oblivious to the danger speeding toward him. She swallowed her scream. Was this part of her dire future too? Not only must she wed a man she feared, she must also witness the destruction of this cavalier, the embodiment of her romantic dreams.
In the next instant, the red-haired brigand grasped the highwayman's cape and dragged him to safety.
Marisa's heart fell back into place, resuming a somewhat normal rhythm, though it would be a while before the pangs of disappointment subsided.
Yet another failed attempt at escape.
At least the knight errant was in no further danger. He would live to steal kisses from another impressionable miss one day. Perhaps, if she were lucky, he would include their midnight tryst in his memoirs, when he was in his dotage, recalling the stirring adventures of his youth.
She peered out the side glass once more, craving a final look at the dashing highwayman as they raced past. Their hasty departure twisted the covering on the carriage door, exposing Lord Westbrook's crest. The highwayman's eyes lit up with instant recognition. He looked up at Marisa, and his lips curved into the most delicious smile.
A heartbeat later, the darkness erased him from her sight. Marisa was once more racing to Westbrook Hall, certain she had imagined the entire escapade. She wiped away a tear before Bernard could see her in a rare weak moment, and report on it to their father.
Why had the Fates dangled the hope of escape in front of her, only to wrench it away in such a cruel, heartless fashion?
Q&A with author Donna Cummings:
1. Tell me about yourself: Where are you from and how long have you been writing?
Right now I am from Massachusetts, but I've lived a lot of places, from the Seattle area, to the Midwest, and the Hamptons. I've been writing for about 20 years, although I took a ten-year break in there.
2. Tell me about the novel—what inspired it?
I've always loved stories with highwaymen. They were known to be dashing and witty and charming, even though they were actually robbers. But they did it with such panache! So I knew I was going to have a highwayman as the hero, but I needed a reason for him being in this career. I was reading a newspaper article about how the U.S. vice-president's political fortunes depended on something horrible happening to the president, allowing the VP to move up the chain. And it made me wonder what if somebody wasn't willing to wait to move up? That's when I decided my hero's uncle would be that impatient sort, and decided to kill his nephew to steal his title and estates. Fortunately the uncle was not successful, but he doesn't know that yet!
3. What genre do you write in and why?
I write romance, and what I call "humorously-ever-after" romance. I love knowing there is a happy ending awaiting my characters, especially when they have to go through so much to overcome their doubts and fears and trust issues. I love having humor in my stories. Not only is it fun, but humor can be very disarming, allowing characters to trust each other a little more easily. My hope is that my books can provide a little respite from the travails of everyday life.
4. What’s the next project for you? Tell the readers about it.
I have a few projects in the works, but I'll mention a book that's releasing next month. It's called I Do. . .or Die, and it's a romantic comedy/mystery involving a commitment-shy heroine who gets shot at during a wedding in which she's a bridesmaid. As it turns out, that's the best thing to happen to her love life. Prior to that, she's had colds that lasted longer than her relationships.
5. Let’s put the novel aside and talk about YOU for a minute—what are your hobbies and what can’t you live without that’s non-book related? What do you do when you are not writing? If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?
My hobbies. I'm not sure I have any! But as for what I can't live without -- coffee, and Twitter! I'm totally addicted to Twitter, and I love talking about coffee on there. When I'm not writing, I usually feel guilty about not writing, or I'm "getting ready" to write, which usually means chatting on Twitter. If I could live anywhere in the world, I'd be greedy and have a few residences. One would be in England, because I fell in love with it on my one-time long-ago visit. It felt like I'd lived there before, so I know it would be no problem to settle there now. I also love tropical places, so I'd have a house in Hawaii, which I've visited a couple times, or the Caribbean, which I'm sure I *need* to visit. Oh, and New Orleans holds a special place in my heart for a lot of romantic reasons--and they have the best food in the world there.
6. If a reader asked you to recommend the three BEST books to read, aside from your own, what would they be?
Ack! I don't know how to answer this. I could list the last three books I read. Or the ones I re-read even though I don't have time to read everything waiting patiently for me on the mountainous TBR pile. (Did I distract you yet from the fact I didn't exactly answer this? LOL)
7. If you could have dinner with one author, who would it be and why?
There are many current authors I'd love to dine with, but I know I'd leave after dessert feeling like I could never reach their level of greatness. So I'll go with something else completely: Jane Austen. Of course, it would be in her era, and I would do my best not to snicker at her irreverent comments about everyone we met throughout the course of my visit. I know it would be great fun time-traveling to an era I love to write about. It would also be fun telling her about the infamous "Darcy emerging from the pond" scene that makes modern-day women all aflutter! I know she would get a kick out of that.
8. Where can you can found?Website ~ Pinterest ~ Twitter ~ Goodreads ~ Facebook
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