This is the first chapter of The Highwayman Incident, a novel that began as a story for an anthology, but grew into a full-fledged book, and then became the beginning of a whole series of novels. I thought the ending of the Beyond Series (Beyond the Pale is a hairbreadth away from being polished enough for my editor) would be the end of my time-traveling novels.
The Highwayman Incident
At any wedding, protocol demands that all attention should be focused on the bride, even if the bride happens to be your sister, and even if your sister designed a horrid dress. But Celia defied conventions and refused to look at Mia. Although she knew her funk bordered on lunacy, she just couldn’t shake it. Not even for her sister’s wedding.
The lone man sharing her table looked as if he wanted to say something. Leaning forward, he opened his mouth, but then must have reconsidered. He did this at least three times, making Celia wonder if she frightened him. He looked familiar, like someone she knew from a long time ago—but a faded out version. Gray hair at his temples, thick head of hair, wrinkles around his eyes—handsome for his age—and yet, something tingled in the back of her mind, trying to tell her something, warning her.
Celia sat back with a humph and crossed her arms over her chest. The putrid pink dress had a bunchy bodice, giving her a va va voom that, when she first saw it, made her complain first to Mia and then to grandmother.
“It’s her wedding,” Grandma Geneva said. “If she wants you to dress like a cat, you better get used to whiskers.”
And in the interest in peace in the family and not wanting to upset her mom, Celia bit her lip about the dress and vowed that when it was her turn to marry she would do it on the courthouse steps.
And Mia would have to wear a clown suit.
Complete with a red nose.
She caught the man looking at her. His glance slid away.
She shook off the hair standing on the back of her neck feeling and considered leaving, but where would she go? Join her friends on the dance floor? No, her shoes pinched her toes. The dessert table for more cake? No, her stomach was already churning. A drink from the bar? No, she needed to stay sober, if not sane. She slumped back in her chair, wishing the stranger would leave or her friends would return.
As if he read her mind, the man pushed away from the table and left.
Perfect. Now she was alone. And this should have made her happy, because she wanted him to leave, but it didn’t. She sighed and used her fork to poke holes in the frosting roses on her slice of cake. The blush pink roses matched her dress, which matched her shoes, which matched the ribbon on the bridesmaid bouquets. Celia smashed the cake and watched the frosting ooze between the fork tines.
Beside her, someone chuckled. Looking up, she saw the man had returned. He carried a goblet and a slice of cake sans frosting.
“I asked for a piece without frosting,” he said as he slipped into the chair beside her. He slid the cake toward her. “For you.”
She thought about refusing it, but instead said, “Thank you.”
Without saying a word, he placed the wine flute in front of her. “It’s just water,” he told her.
“Thanks. Too much—”
“Too much sugar makes your teeth hurt.” He finished her sentence with a smile that sent another warning jolt down Celia’s spine.
“How did you know I was going to say that?”
He lifted his shoulder in a shrug. “Just a guess. I could tell that you don’t like frosting by the way you were mutilating that cake. My name is Jason.” He offered his hand.
“Celia Quinn.” She put her hand in his and a zing started in her fingers and spread to her center. She left her hand in his longer than necessary, then pulled away. She couldn’t be attracted to this man. He was older than her dad.
“I know a Jason.” She studied him for a moment before her gaze slid to the other Jason across the room. Dark hair, tall, lean—why were the hot guys the most lethal?
“And you dislike him.”
She met the older Jason’s warm gaze and sniffed. “I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t have to say something for it to be true.” He settled back in his chair. “Just like you didn’t say anything, but you don’t like your dress.”
Celia blew out a sigh.
“You think it’s a poor advertisement for your grandmother’s shop.”
Celia shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. The store’s dying anyway.”
“Why do you say that?”
Celia shot the younger Jason a hateful glance. He lounged against the wall between the wedding arch and an enormous swan ice sculpture. The black suit accentuated his blue eyes and dark hair. Even the hideous pink tie looked good on him. He caught her eye and lifted his glass, acknowledging her.
She wished she had something other than her bouquet to throw at him.
“Just because you’re losing the lease doesn’t mean you’re losing the business, you know.”
Celia put puzzle pieces together. “Are you related to Jason West?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“You…look like him.”
The older Jason smiled. “I’m not his dad, uncle…”
He was probably too young to be his grandfather, and he couldn’t be his brother. “What do you know about my grandmother’s shop?”
“DeeDee’s Dressing Occasion? It’s a great shop.”
“It was a great shop.”
“But this dress…” He nodded at the sateen fabric bunched around her like a deflated balloon. “Pepto-Bismol Pink.”
“Mia calls it pearl pink.”
“And you call it putrid.”
She stared at him.
“Maybe not out loud, but I bet it’s what you think.”
“How would you know that?”
He propped his elbows on the table. “Tell me, what are your plans for the shop?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, since you lost your lease—”
“I didn’t lose the lease.” Her attention shifted back to the younger Jason. “My grandmother was persuaded it was time to leave.” She slumped back in her chair. “We were doing fine.”
“But maybe now you can do better.”
Celia picked up her fork and stabbed at the cake. She thought about joining her friends on the dance floor. Becca and Lacey had both kicked off their shoes. They bounced beneath the sparkly lights. Celia wanted to be happy, but she felt like she carried the weight of her grandmother’s store on her shoulders.
“You’re afraid that losing the store is like losing your mom.”
She shot Jason a glance and he leaned close. “She’ll be fine, you know.”
“How can you know that? Do you know my mom?”
“You’re a friend of my mom’s?” Celia blinked back a sudden tear.
Jason touched her hand, just briefly, and the tingle returned. “The cancer—it won’t last. She’ll beat it. She’s strong. Like you.”
“You don’t know me,” Celia said. “You might know my mom, but you don’t me, and there’s no way you can know my mom is going to be okay.” She stood to leave. Her toes scream in protest, but she pushed to her feet, ignoring the pain. Unless. “Are you a doctor?”
Jason looked down at the goblet. He picked it up and swirled the water. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m good at that…at offending people. I don’t mean to.”
The band began a slow song and couples formed. Lacey and Becca both found partners. The bride and groom danced in the center, directly beneath the disco ball. Lights twinkled across the room. It would have been a perfect day, except for the putrid pink dresses, and Jason West.
“Do you know my sister?” Celia considered him. She was sure they hadn’t met.
He nodded. “And the groom. He’s an…old family friend.”
“Are you from Stonington?”
“Not originally, although I lived here for many years.”
She waited for him to elaborate.
“I’m from Darien.”
“Oh. Is that how you know Jason West? He’s from there, too.”
“He’s a good guy, just doing his job.”
Celia couldn’t help it. She made a face.
“I know you don’t think so now, but you should forgive him.”
Celia held up her hand. “I don’t know who you are, but I do know that if you think—”
Squealing cut her off. Becca and Lacey both ran to her side.
“Come on, Cee,” Becca said, taking her hand. “Mia’s going to throw the bouquet!”
Celia let her friends pull her away from the table and lead her across the room. Mia stood on the wide steps, several feet above the clustered bridesmaids and single women in the crowd. Celia’s mom sat in a chair at a table with Geneva, Celia’s grandmother, both looked tired but happy. Celia edged toward the back, close enough to be a part, but too far to be in danger of actually catching anything.
Mia gave her a wicked smile, turned her back, and flung the bouquet straight at Celia. Flinging up her arms, Celia protected her face from the flying flowers.
People around her cheered and Celia opened her eyes.
Becca, aloft in Jason West’s arms, clutched the bouquet. She wiggled as Jason set her down and turned to face him. Wrapping her arms around his neck, Becca kissed him full on the lips. She held the bouquet in her hand, and it poked above Jason’s head, looking like a large, floral hat.
“I owe you!” Becca said, pushing away from Jason.
He didn’t respond to Becca but met Celia’s gaze.
She felt shaken by him, although she couldn’t say why. She felt as if his look was trying to tell her something. Something he didn’t know how to say.
He’s a good guy. Just doing his job, the older Jason’s words floated back to her.
Becca disentangled herself from Jason and smiled into her bouquet. “I love weddings,” she said to no one in particular. “They’re such a happy beginning.”
Celia’s gaze wandered back to her mom and grandmother. A beginning always comes after an ending, she thought. Celia gave Becca a tight-lipped smile and headed back to her table. The older Jason had disappeared, and Celia gratefully sunk into her chair. Swirling the wine flute, she watched the water form into small tidal wave before she took a drink.
And the world turned dark.
Her body hummed with energy and she grinned in the darkness. She found the rhythmic motion hypnotic and soothing. The clip-clop of the horses…
Celia eye’s popped open. She sat in a carriage. An obese woman draped in satin and furs sat directly in front of her, snoring, her mouth ajar.
Celia’s own mouth dropped open. She sat up and took note. Same putrid pink dress. Same pinchy shoes. But the wedding, Mia, her mom and grandmother? All gone. Replaced by a grotesque snoring thing wearing a satin tent.
Celia ran her hands first over the velvet seat cushion, then the burnished wood walls, and finally the black, smooth drapes. It all felt real.
But she must be drunk. Or hallucinating. Had she had too much champagne? No. That drink! That Jason person! He must have put something in her water! But it looked like water. It tasted like water. Celia ran her tongue over her teeth, trying to find an aftertaste, or a hint of something.
She drew back the curtain and peered into the dark. A brilliant, star-studded sky gazed down on her. No street lights. No lights at all, except for the one bobbing on the front of the carriage. Leaning forward, she craned to see the driver, but saw nothing but a horse’s butt and its swishing tail. As if the animal knew she was watching, and he didn’t appreciate her stare, he lifted his tail to poop.
Celia closed her eyes and let the rhythmic sway of the carriage lull her back to sleep. When she woke, she’d be at home. In her bed. And she’d never have to wear this dress again.
Celia’s eyes flew open. She sat up straight and glanced at the woman across from her. The woman snorted and nestled her double chin into her fur collar. What was that sound? Was the carriage breaking beneath the woman’s weight?
Was it gun fire? The carriage lurched, stopping so quickly that the portly lady slid off the seat.
“What the devil?” the woman moaned, righting herself. She gave Celia a cross look as if Celia had knocked her off the bench.
“Gunshots!” the woman hissed. She pursed her lips, yanked off an enormous emerald necklace and shoved it at Celia. “Hide this.”
Celia stared stupidly at the jewels. If they were real, she could use them to pay the lease on the shop! Wishing she had a pocket, her mind scattered over options. In her bra? No. The stones were too big and the bodice too tight. Not knowing what else to do, she lifted her skirts and tucked the necklace into her lace garter. She patted her skirts back into place just before the door flew open.
“Stand and deliver!”
Deliver what? And how could she stand inside of a carriage? Celia crouched on her seat. Slowly, she lifted her head and saw nothing but the silvery end of a gun pointing at her forehead. None of this is real, Celia told herself. It’s the champagne speaking.
“Come, come ladies,” the voice spoke again. It sounded familiar. A chill went down her back.
The man stepped out of the shadows and his gaze met hers, but not an ounce of recognition glistened in his eyes. She thought she knew him, but since a mask hid half his face she couldn’t be sure.
“My lady.” He swept his arms in a low bow.
“Who are you?” Celia gave the gun another glance. It looked real enough.
He lifted one eyebrow and the corner of his lips, a slow and lazy smile, but continued to point the gun at her forehead.
The emeralds pinched her thighs. She couldn’t look at them. She couldn’t adjust them. She couldn’t call his attention to them in any way.
His gaze traveled over her horrid pink dress and stopped at her mid-thigh as if he could see through the layers of sateen and frilly slip to the garter smashing the emeralds against her leg.
“May I be of assistance?” Again, that trill of recognition tingled over Celia. She knew him. Somehow.
She shook her head, knowing she couldn’t touch him. If she touched him and he was real, tangible, then she would…well, she didn’t know what she would do. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before.
“Are you mute?” he asked, cocking his head at her. His grin deepened. “Or is my charm rendering you speechless?”
“Have you considered that maybe I’m put off by the gun you’re holding to my head?”
“Ah, so you can speak after all. Pity that. I do love a quiet woman.” He placed his hand on his heart. “Please, my dears, join me.”
But Celia refused to budge, and since her companion stood behind her, they both stayed in the coach. She stood, staring at his mouth—the only part of his face she could see—other than his eyes. She found his eyes and lips hypnotizing. Her gaze traveled from one feature to the next, wondering which one she liked the most.
He’s a highwayman! Her inner voice of reason told her. And a figment of your imagination!
“I’m sure you understand this is not a social call.” His gaze flicked over Celia and rested on her va va voom bodice. “Not entirely. Although I do enjoy mixing business and pleasure.”
“Where’s Eddie?” the woman barked over Celia’s shoulder. “What have you done with Eddie?”
The woman leaned over Celia’s back, and Celia’s foot caught on the door’s lip. She would have tumbled and fell if the highwayman hadn’t shot out his arm to steady her. His hand tightened around her and in one fluid movement, he lifted her out of the carriage and placed her on the ground.
She stood, breathless and warm from his sudden, brief contact. Her breath came in ragged huffs.
A snapping twig drew her attention to three men standing in the shadows. They stood as silent and watchful as the trees. All three had weapons drawn.
“Where’s Eddie?” the woman barked out.
“Have you hurt the driver?” Celia asked, with a hiccup catching in her throat.
The highwayman flicked his head toward a cluster of trees. “He’s unharmed, except for, perhaps his ego.”
“What is your name?” the woman whispered.
“My name?” Celia asked.
“Not your name, you goat head! I know your name.”
Celia wondered what her name might be, or her role, or position. Was she a maid? A paid companion? A relation? She shivered, and told herself that she needed to wake. This dream had gone on too long already. She should have woken as soon as she saw the gun. That’s what normally would have happened. Nightmares typically ended with a major scare.
She tried pinching herself. It hurt, but not enough to wake her.
The woman fixed her attention on the highwayman. “Who are you?”
“Why would he tell you that?” Celia asked, a little stung at being called a goat head.
The man chuckled. “You do not need my name, but I need your valuables.”
Quiet descended and Celia noticed for the first time the clamor of crickets, a hooting owl, and a nearby tumbling river. Country night sounds, usually masked by the roar of constant traffic on the parkway.
He waved his gun at the woman. “That ring, if you please.”
Celia watched, wondering what the woman would do.
Slowly, the woman climbed from the coach.
The horses stamped their feet impatiently and shook their reins. For a second, Celia thought about jumping on a horse and riding away. But then she remembered that she knew nothing about horses and getting one loose from the carriage might be tricky. Besides, even if it wasn’t real, that gun looked like an actual gun, which meant that the bullet might possibly feel real, and she didn’t like pain—real or imaginary.
The woman drew the ring off her finger. “I have a reticule in the carriage,” she told the man. “If you’d like, I’ll give it to you.”
The man snorted a laugh. “Not likely.” He waved the gun at one of the henchmen, his gaze never leaving the two women. “Search the carriage. Tell me if you find any hidden pistols.”
Celia slid a quick glance at the woman, wondering if she was cunning or just stupid.
The second man passed by. He smelled unwashed and earthy. The woman reached out and shoved Celia into him. “Take her!”
The man stumbled under Celia’s sudden weight, but the highwayman caught her in his arms. One arm drew her to him and held her close. She felt safe there, although she knew that she shouldn’t.
“Hold her hostage! Kill her if you must!” The woman clambered into the coach and slammed the door.
Celia fought to breathe. She knew she had to leave, she knew that staying pressed up against the strange and dangerous man was stupid. He had his hand on her belly, his fingers splayed across her. He smelled of cloves and when he spoke, his breath warmed her.
“That was most unkind,” he said, sounding surprised and disapproving.
The second man scrambled after the woman and flung open the door. Amid the screams, the carriage rocked back and forth.
“I won’t harm you,” the highwayman whispered, his lips brushing against her hair.
Celia glanced at the gun. In the moonlight, it looked very real and very lethal. Almost as devastating as the man holding her in his arms.
He shifted, bringing her in front of him. In one quick moment, he captured her lips.
Celia’s knees buckled. Her thoughts raced back to all those Regency romance novels of her grandmother’s that she had read as a girl. Georgette someone. Hideous, Horrendous, no, Heyer. Yes, that was it. Georgette Heyer. What would Georgette call this? A seduction? A ravishing? Oh my gosh! That was it! She was being ravished by a rake!
Wake up! Her mind screamed. No more kissing!
Oh, but it felt so good. So very, very good.
Panic gripped her. Breaking lose, she ripped off his mask.
Jason West stood in a pool of moonlight, gun dangling at his side.