When a Rogue Meets His Match by Elizabeth Hoyt

Chapter One

There once was a jolly tinker who tramped up and down the land selling his wares.…

—From Bet and the Fox

September 1760

On the outskirts of London

There is never a good time to be accosted by highwaymen. However, whilst emptying one’s bladder is a particularly bad time.

Messalina Greycourt froze, the last drops of her urine tinkling into the pretty china bourdaloue she held between her legs. She stood awkwardly in the carriage, both her maid, Bartlett, and her uncle’s wicked factotum, Mr. Hawthorne, having stepped out to give her privacy not two minutes before.

Outside the carriage it was ominously quiet, as if the shouted order, “Stand and deliver!” had stilled everyone there as well.

She swallowed as she strained to hear any sound.

Boom! The gunshot broke the silence.

Messalina let her skirts fall.

The carriage door flew open, and Bartlett was shoved inside. For a second Messalina saw Mr. Hawthorne’s savage face, his wicked black eyes glittering as he ordered, “Stay.”

Then the door slammed shut on the sounds of shouts, gunfire, and whinnying horses.

Bartlett, normally a sturdy, practical woman, looked at Messalina with wide eyes.

The carriage rocked as if something large had been thrown against it.

“How many highwaymen are there?” Messalina demanded.

“I don’t know, miss,” Bartlett replied shakily. “Over half a dozen, I think.” Her gaze dropped to the bourdaloue still in Messalina’s hands, and she added more prosaically, “Oh, let me take that.”

The bourdaloue looked like nothing so much as a gravy boat. Oblong and with a handle at one end, it was a delicate pink, gilded around the lip. Usually, of course, Messalina would hand it out of the carriage to Bartlett, who would dispose of the contents. Now her poor lady’s maid was left standing, holding a china vessel full of piss inside a rocking carriage.

This was all Mr. Hawthorne’s fault. If the man had simply let her stop prior to nightfall as Messalina had suggested, she—

The door was wrenched open again and a large, filthy man filled the frame, his fleshy lips pulled back in a leer.

Bartlett shrieked.

Messalina snatched the bourdaloue from the maid’s hand and flung it in their attacker’s face. The china dish bounced off his forehead, dousing him in urine. Messalina pushed him hard.

He tumbled backward out of the carriage.

She slammed the door closed after him and looked at Bartlett.

The other woman’s face was white. “That was…erm…quick thinking, miss.”

Messalina straightened, trying and failing to control the heat rising in her cheeks. “Yes, well. Needs must.”

Outside, someone screamed and was suddenly cut off.

Messalina found herself holding her breath in trepidation.

The carriage door opened, and Gideon Hawthorne climbed inside.

She let out her breath in a gusty sigh of relief before sinking to the carriage seat.

“Oh, thank the Lord,” Bartlett said, exhibiting a hitherto unknown religious fervor.

Mr. Hawthorne shrugged. “Or me.”

Messalina fought an urge to laugh as Bartlett plopped down beside her.

Then she saw the bloody knife Mr. Hawthorne was holding.

His enigmatic eyes met hers. “I trust you are unhurt?”

He’d killed for her—and himself, of course. “I’m fine.”

Mr. Hawthorne nodded and sat. He produced a handkerchief and began wiping the blood from the knife, staining the fabric bright red as he did so. Without glancing up, he murmured, “I always clean a knife immediately. The blade can become dull if left…dirtied.”

“I’ll be certain to wipe the blood from the many knives I carry,” she said tartly.

“Do so. Besides,” he said with what sounded like perfect seriousness, “blood is ungodly hard to remove from fabric.”

She stared at him, appalled.

Mr. Hawthorne wasn’t a particularly big man. One didn’t immediately think on first glance, Here’s a fellow I should avoid at all costs if I value my life. It was the second look that did it. Then one noticed the competent, muscled frame, the dangerously economical way he moved, and his sudden stillness, as if he was gathering himself to attack.

And then there was his face.

Mr. Hawthorne had the countenance of a devil. His eyebrows formed a deep V over his eyes, the outer edges winging up in a demonic slant. On his right cheek was a long vertical scar, thin and ominous. He was an intimidating man.

A frightening man.

When Messalina could stand the silence no longer, she cleared her throat. “Well?”

He glanced up at her. His eyes were gleaming black like his hair. “Well what?”

Messalina’s own eyes narrowed. “Are the highwaymen gone?”

“Of course.” He flicked the knife closed and somehow made it disappear into his coat before standing to knock on the roof.

Hawthorne sat again, watching her unnervingly.

There were only two servants in the carriage box. Even if Bartlett had overestimated the highwaymen, Mr. Hawthorne and his men had been badly outnumbered.

“Did you worry for me?” His sly, rasping voice interrupted her thoughts.

“No,” she said flatly.

“You’d prefer a band of highwaymen to me?” His inflection had just a hint of the London streets.