Flickering light penetrated Phoebe’s consciousness. Orange and red flames swam before her vision and she blinked into focus the fire that burned in the hearth beyond the foot of the bed where she lay. She moved her gaze to the left and saw a door leading to… Phoebe concentrated in an effort to place her surroundings, but the world outside that door—the world beyond this moment—remained a mystery. She looked to the wall on her left, saw an armoire, then the deep alcove farther left. She started at sight of the tall form standing at the alcove’s end, staring out the window.
He shifted. She clamped shut her eyes. The pad of boots on the carpet drew near and continued around the bed to her right. A faint rustle of clothes followed, then silence. She waited a moment before slitting open one eye. The highwayman reclined in a chair beside the bed. His legs, stretched out before him, spanned the remaining length of the bed. His head rested against the chair back and his eyes were closed. He reached up and rubbed the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger as if to ward off a headache. His hand fell away from his face and Phoebe closed her eyes. Had he seen her? She abruptly felt the dislocation of air near her face, the sense of his nearness, though she had heard no sound of movement.
“What possessed you to take such a foolhardy risk?” he whispered.
A wisp of air brushed her eyelashes. His sigh.
A soft scratching sounded at the door and a dull pain rumbled through her head.
The door clicked open and a voice said, “You must rest, sir.”
“If the lady wakens with you hovering over her as you are, you’re likely to give her a start.”
“Unlikely,” the highwayman replied in hushed tones. Phoebe knew by the location of his voice, he had straightened away from her. “Any woman who would jump from a moving carriage isn’t easily frightened. I’ll be glad when Connor has another look at her. Until now, she hasn’t moved a muscle.”
“He promised to be here bright and early,” Mather said.
“Yes,” the highwayman replied in a dry tone. “I wonder if his dedication is due to concern or curiosity.” He chuckled. “The good doctor gave me an odd look when I told him Heddy had fallen from the carriage. Damn, but I hope he doesn’t take it in his head to contact my father.”
“Old Connor knows which side his bread is buttered on,” Mather said with such loyalty, Phoebe wanted to roll her eyes.
“My father is the one who butters Connor’s bread,” the highwayman said.
“Speaking of,” Mather began.
“Please,” he cut in, “no more lectures on how my father will whip you should you allow me to stray from the path of righteousness.”
“As you wish, sir. If I must, I can face him with the news that you collapsed from fatigue.”
“I doubt he’ll pay that news much heed.”
Phoebe could contain herself no longer. She opened her eyes and said, “Such a paragon of a father would surely have your despicable hide for this foolish stunt.”
Both men looked at her.
She stared back at them. “I heartily wish to meet your father and inform him what a beast of a son he sired.”
“I see that crack to your head did nothing to diminish your wit,” the highwayman said.
Phoebe gingerly touched the gash on her forehead. “My head pounds dreadfully. What happened?”
“You jumped from the carriage.”
She shot him a reproachful look. “I know that. What I do not recall is how I came to be here. How did you find me?”
He raised both brows. “I believe I mentioned you might have done better to leave off eating those honey cakes.”
“When you jumped,” he explained, “the carriage rocked.”
She narrowed her eyes, but ended up squinting due to the sudden sharp throb in her head. The pain subsided, and she said, “If the carriage rocked, it was your large girth tramping about up top that caused it to do so.”
The highwayman angled his head. “As you say, madam. We shall call it luck, then.”
“Whose?” she muttered. “Certainly not mine.”
“I beg to differ. If I hadn’t discovered you, you might be among the dead instead of the living.”
“Rubbish,” she retorted, then added in a quieter tone when the pounding in her head again thrummed, “Where are we?”
“What is that and where is it?”
“The Green Lady Inn, not far from where you jumped from the carriage.”
“Oh,” she replied, then, “I require some privacy.”
“Whatever you need, Miss Ballingham, just ask.”
He regarded her more closely. “Is something wrong?”
“Nothing that a moment of privacy won’t cure.”
“Mather or I can attend to anything you need,” he insisted.
“Of all the bloody inconvenience,” she burst out. “The day I can’t manage a chamber pot myself is the day I meet my maker.”
A distinct stillness cloaked the room. “Considering the circumstances,” he said in a tight voice, “I find that jest in bad taste.”
“Never mind.” Phoebe sat upright and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
“Miss Ballingham,” he strode around the bed, “you are to remain in bed.”
“I can’t remain in bed when the chamber pot is in the corner.”
She shoved to her feet as he neared. The room spun. Her stomach lurched and she felt herself falling forward. Strong arms grasped her shoulders and pulled her against a solid body. Phoebe recognized the smell of sandalwood and clutched at the lapels of the highwayman’s open jacket. She squeezed her eyes more tightly shut against the nauseating sense of spinning.
“B-by heavens.” Her voice, she noted with distress, was not as clear as it had been when she lay in bed. “I am a bit dizzy.”
Phoebe felt herself lifted in his arms. She tightened her grasp on his coat against a sense of falling she knew was ridiculous, but she couldn’t keep from burying her face in his chest in an effort to anchor herself.
“Easy,” he soothed.
“Stupid,” she managed in a mumble.
He didn’t answer, and she was eternally grateful when he didn’t move. She became aware of the warmth that seeped through his shirt and into her cheek, then the sure, strong beat of his heart. She released a slow breath and he must have sensed that her orientation had returned for he settled her back onto the bed.
Despite the heat of the room, he pulled the blankets up to her chin then began a methodical tucking in of the blankets around her. When he bent over her and switched to the other side, she found herself staring at his angled profile. A hint of whiskers shadowed his jaw, giving him a dangerous look that had been absent when he’d appeared in her carriage. His raven dark hair brushed the collar of his shirt. She had the urge to see if the tresses were as soft as they appeared.
He paused and turned his face to her. Phoebe pressed back into the pillow before realizing the action. He lifted a brow and she flushed. Damn the devil, he was pleasant to look upon and knew it—knew she’d been thinking just that. Something flicked in his eyes—understanding—and she cursed him again. He went back to securing the blanket in a business-like fashion until she felt as if she were being mummified.
“Lay still,” he commanded.
The warmth of the blankets bordered on stifling. She wriggled, then realized the garment she wore wasn’t her gown. “What am I wearing?”
The flash of gray flannel she’d seen before swooning came to mind. Her cheeks warmed again. Someone had removed her gown, then dressed her in the nightgown she now wore. Phoebe glanced from the highwayman to Mather, then fastened her gaze back onto the highwayman. There was no question which of the two men would have undertaken the task of undressing her. The culprit straightened, apparently finished with making her a veritable prisoner beneath the blankets.
“Perhaps you should take yourself off for a rest.” Phoebe said, gritting her teeth as much against the throbbing in her head as to control her rising temper.
He gave her a quizzical look.
“Sir.” Mather stepped forward.
“Mather,” the brigand said without looking at him, “I’ll stay.” He glanced over his shoulder at the window where soft light had begun to filter into the room. “Mrs. Grayson may already be about. If she isn’t, please wake her and inform her Miss Ballingham requires tea and some of those cakes I know she prepared yesterday.”
“I thought you said I was too fat and shouldn’t eat more cakes,” Phoebe said.
“I said nothing of the kind.”
“You most certainly did,” she replied. “You said the carriage nearly tipped over when I jumped from it.”
He bent, placed a hand on each side of her and leaned in close to her face. “I didn’t say the carriage nearly tipped over. I do say, however, let both those incidents be a lesson.”
“Yes. Not to repeat such addlepated actions in the future. Mather,” he straightened, “see to Mrs. Grayson.”
“Aye, sir.” Mather left.
Phoebe, covered to the chin, wriggled beneath the blankets. “It’s intolerably hot under here.” She squirmed more. “And I can’t do without that chamber pot much longer.”
“Had you continued sleeping, you could have done without it.”
“What do you think woke me?”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “I’ll help you with the pot, Heddy.”
“You will not.”
“But I will.” He fetched the pot and returned to the bed.
She eyed the pot, then him. “I can manage.”
“As you did a moment ago?”
“Mrs. Grayson, then.”
His demeanor turned thoughtful. “Mrs. Grayson is a stout woman. Still…perhaps another maid might assist her.”
“Slip the pot under the blanket.”
“If you miscalculate—”
The door opened and an older woman entered, tray in hand, followed by Mather.
“Just as you said,” Mather said. “She was already bustling about the kitchen.”
Mrs. Grayson set the tray on the nightstand. At sight of the tea and cakes on the tray Phoebe’s stomach growled.
“Of course I was,” the housekeeper said with an indignant sniff. “It is nearly five in the morning.”
“Good morning, Bridgett,” the highwayman said.
“Morning,” the woman replied as she slipped an arm beneath Phoebe’s back and gently lifted her away from the pillows.
The covers fell forward. Phoebe grabbed for them, but Mrs. Grayson had propped the pillows against the headboard and was easing Phoebe back against them before she could grasp the blanket. The housekeeper urged her arms out of the way, then twitched the blanket up over her breasts.
“There, now, dearie.” Mrs. Grayson plucked a folded napkin from the tray and gave it a smart shake before placing it on Phoebe’s lap. “Are you hungry?”
“That’s not all,” Phoebe said.
Mrs. Grayson gave her an inquiring look, but the brigand said, “Miss Ballingham requires assistance.” He lifted the chamber pot for all to see.
Buy Now @ Amazon
Genre – Historical Romance
Rating – R