Her Gentleman Thief Excerpt

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Annalise Petty sat primly on the carriage seat, hands folded neatly in her lap. Outside she probably appeared to be the perfect genteel lady, full of grace and peace. Inside, a battle raged. Her heart beat wildly and her stomach felt more like a gnarled mess of knots. In two days she would become wife to the most boring, proper man in all of London. A man she had foolishly fancied herself in love with when he’d first begun to court her, then he’d revealed his true self. Now she knew he was rather indifferent to her and only interested in the business deal the union brokered.

She chewed at her bottom lip. The carriage rumbled along through the dark night. Her parents had already made the journey to Kent, but Annalise and her younger sister, Penny, had stayed behind for one last fitting of the wedding gown. The layers of cream-colored gossamer silk was the finest garment Annalise had ever owned. Her betrothed had purchased her an entire wardrobe of proper clothing that would be delivered to his estate sometime next week. The wedding gown though sat neatly into a trunk on the back of the rig.

Hildy, their maid, sat quietly across from them pretending not to nap even though her level breathing and spontaneous snores betrayed her. Penny sat quietly, her expression blank. Sweet and beautiful Penny. Annalise sighed, this should have been her trip, her wedding gown in the back.

As if her sister had read her mind, Penny placed a gloved hand over Annalise’s. “You should be excited,” Penny said. “Your grin belies your worry.” She smiled warmly. “Relax.”

Annalise thought to argue, then nodded. “You know me far too well, sister. I cannot help but think that all of this should be for you. This is your Season, your introduction to Society.”

“And you never had either.” She put a hand against her chest. “I am so very happy for you. Your union with Lord Benning has no bearing on my finding a good match. Besides, you are older, you should marry first.”

Yes, but Cousin Millicent hadn’t offered to sponsor a Season for Annalise, and though her father was an earl, they had no money to provide either a dowry or a proper coming-out. So Annalise had had neither, which had been fine for her. She’d resigned herself to never marrying. But when the opportunity had come along for Penny, well, the entire family had moved themselves in with their distant cousin in hopes of a quick marriage. But this had not been what any of them had planned.

At three and twenty, Annalise knew she should consider herself lucky to have found a man willing to marry her. She certainly wasn’t unattractive, but she was fleshier than most Society beauties. Still she hadn’t been properly introduced at Almack’s. She’d only gone to London at Penny’s request to act as a chaperone of sorts. And as she’d sat in the corner at that first ball, she’d seen the tall, handsome Griffin Hartwell, Viscount Benning moving in their direction. She’d even reached over and squeezed Penny’s hand in excitement for her younger sister. Then when the rich baritone voice had asked her to dance and the masculine hand had extended not to Penny, but instead to Annalise, it had been scandalous. She’d wanted to decline, had known it would have been the more appropriate thing to do, but as she’d looked up into his handsome face, all her girlish fantasies had seemed to come to life and she’d found herself nodding and extending her own hand.

That one dance had led to three more that evening and had tongues wagging all over London. He’d played proper court to her after that scandalous evening, never once seeking time alone with her and only speaking about her, rarely to her. Her parents had eagerly accepted his offer of marriage and in one afternoon Annalise had gone from the unassuming sister to betrothal of a viscount. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to marry-she did-but she was foolish enough to long for a marriage with love and warmth. All her life she’d been dutiful and obedient, but her parents had not once asked her how she felt about this union. Nor had Griffin, beyond the polite proposal staged perfectly in front of her entire family. An impossible situation for her to say “no thank you.”

She supposed matters could be worse. Griffin could be old or cruel, and he was neither. Instead he was only a few years her senior and polite and so dashing she had nearly choked on her lemonade the first time he asked her to dance. Then had come the proposal and she’d wondered at her great fortune. It hadn’t taken long for her to see the truth. A man so handsome and dashing—a man so rich—he couldn’t possibly want her. He’d only asked for her hand because he wanted some property her father owned. Her lack of dowry hadn’t been an issue, so they’d brokered a deal and she was the price. She exhaled loudly, but thankfully did not disturb Hildy.

Suddenly the carriage jerked to a stop. Outside she heard muttering, men’s voices. Perhaps they’d lost a wheel or taken a wrong turn. She peeled the curtain away from the window, but in the dark of the night, she could see nothing but outlines of the trees lining the road.

Hildy stirred. “Why are we not moving? Have we arrived?”

“I don’t believe so,” Annalise said still trying to make something out of the dark shadows. She placed a hand on Penny’s knee to offer protection.

Then the door flew open. “Out, ladies,” a male voice said curtly.

“Out?” Hildy said, clearly outraged. “It’s dark. If there is a problem with the carriage, we shall sit here until you fix it.”

A masked man stepped in front of the opened carriage door. Annalise looked around the carriage and noted that most of Penny’s form remained hidden in the shadows. Annalise sat forward, trying to put her body in front of Penny’s. Her heart slammed against her rib cage. Good heavens, they were being robbed.

Without thought, Annalise tossed her cloak over her sister. “Stay still,” she whispered.

He showed them a small pistol. “I said out.”

“Do not leave this carriage,” she warned her sister in a whisper, then Annalise made haste to climb down the carriage steps. Hildy promptly fainted at the sight of the gun. An excellent chaperone, that one. The lanterns hanging off the carriage afforded her with enough light to take in her surroundings. Annalise noted their driver and footman were both tied and blindfolded to a tree.

“Sir, we don’t have many valuable with us, but what we do have is yours,” Annalise said. “If you would simply let us be on our way.” She fought the urge to glance behind her to the carriage. She knew Penny would obey Annalise’s instructions and stay hidden.

“Indeed.” The masked man came to stand in front of her. If she hadn’t known any better, she would have sworn recognition flickered in his eyes. The carriage door remained open and Annalise knew he could see Hildy’s large body slumped over. Eventually the woman would awaken, but for now her silence kept Penny safe and unseen. “You ladies are out quite late this evening.”

Annalise bravely looked up to meet the highwayman’s gaze and found herself locked in by the most stunningly beautiful green eyes. And were it not for the silk black domino mask tied behind his head, she might have forgotten who he was and what was happening. The lantern-light flickered off his face, of the features she could clearly see–a strong jaw, sculpted lips, a hint of a day’s growth of whiskers–it was quite evident that he was devilishly handsome.

The highwayman leaned against the carriage, crossing his feet at the ankles. The pistol dangled from his hand, almost as if he held nothing more than a handkerchief. There was a casual air about him, as if this situation were a perfectly normal occurrence for a Monday evening.

His sensual lips curved into a smile. “And where are you going at his hour?”

“My wedding,” she said.

But as the words left her mouth a realization surged through her. After this incident, there would be no wedding. No one here could attest to the fact that this man, this thief had not ravished her. Hildy had not roused and the other two servants were blindfolded and tied-up. No one save Penny and were she to speak up, she too would be ruined and then she would never have the opportunity to marry. Simply by being stopped by this highwayman her reputation, her virtue, had been sullied. And who was to say he wouldn’t ravish her still? But Penny could be saved. She needed only to get Penny to safety.

Before she could further think on the matter, she reached out and placed a hand on the highwayman’s chest.

“Take me with you,” she said.

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