Excerpt from Amber by Lauren Royal

Sussex, England
June 1668

Kendra Chase adored her brothers, except when she wanted to kill them.

"Jason is right," Ford told her as they rattled down the road in a shabby public coach. "You're twenty-three years old, and it's high time you take a husband."

Kendra slanted a glance at the plainly dressed stranger sharing the coach with them. "Not the Duke of Lechmere," she said with an exasperated glare at her twin. "I won't be 'your graced' for the rest of my life."

Kendra's oldest brother, Jason, tried unsuccessfully to stretch his long legs. "And what, pray tell," he drawled in an annoyed tone, "would be wrong with that?" Crammed onto the bench seat between Kendra and his wife, Caithren, he sighed. "I only wish to see you live a life of comfort. Would you prefer to travel this way all the time?"

As if to drive home her brother's point, the springless vehicle lurched in and out of a rut, rattling Kendra's teeth. She gritted them. Though Jason was careful with money, he was, after all, a marquess, and they did own a rather luxurious carriage. But one of its wheels had broken on their way out of London, and they'd been forced to take public transport—or else risk missing an urgent appointment back home at Cainewood Castle.

An appointment to introduce Kendra to the latest "suitable" man her brothers planned to foist upon her.

"My comfort isn't the issue here—"

"This is your last chance to make your own choice," Jason interrupted her, gathering the cards from the hand of piquet they'd just played. "If you won't marry Lechmere, you'll have to select one of the other men who have offered for you. Or I will do the selecting."

"The other men." Kendra tossed her head of dark red curls, not believing her brother's ultimatum for a moment. The wretched day had put him in a bad mood, but he was generally the most reasonable man she knew. "Old but well-off, or widowed and settled with children, or young but just plain boring. Stable, wealthy men in the good graces of King Charles, every last one of them."

Her brother's green eyes flashed. "Yes, perfectly acceptable, every last one of them."

"As it should be," Ford put in.

Mournfully shaking her head, Kendra sent Caithren an imploring glance. "They'll never understand."

Cait's eyes filled with sympathy and a bit of shared exasperation. She laid a hand on her husband's arm. "I've told you before, Kendra wishes to marry for love, not—"

"Stand and deliver!" a deep voice interrupted from outside.

With an unnerving suddenness, the coach ground to a halt. Stopped in mid-sentence, Cait's mouth gaped, and Kendra's stomach clenched in fear.

Ford leaned forward and pushed open the door. A man on horseback—a highwayman!—poked his head inside.

The most compelling head Kendra had ever seen.

"You?" Jason and Ford said together.

They knew this man?

Since Kendra hadn't heard that either of her brothers had been hurt—or even robbed, come to think of it—most of her fear dissipated, and her heart lifted with excitement instead.

Nothing like this had ever happened to her!

Looking slightly disconcerted, the highwayman dismounted. "Aye, it's me," he said slowly. Beneath the mask that concealed the upper half of his face, a grin emerged. An engaging slash of perfect white.

Well, not precisely perfect. One of his front teeth had a small chip, but she found that tiny imperfection endearing. And he was dashing, not to mention forbidden. If any of her hopeful suitors had been like this man, she'd have married him in a trice.

She wanted to say something to make him notice her. But for the first time in her memory, her mouth refused to work.

His gaze swept the coach's dim interior as though she weren't even there. "You," he said succinctly, motioning to the whey-faced businessman seated beside Ford. "Get out."

"There be five of us in here, three of them men, likely with pistols," the man said stiffly. From his haircut, plain clothes, and the short, boxy jacket beneath his cloak, Kendra knew he was a Puritan. "Perhaps thee had better think again."

"Oh, it's violence you threaten, aye?" The highwayman's voice was deep and a little husky, with, curiously, the barest hint of an accent. "Perhaps you had better think again. My friends," he drawled, gesturing toward the hill behind him, "would make certain you cease to exist within the minute. Get out. Now."

Kendra looked out the door and up. Sure enough, there were a dozen or so men at the top of the hill, their guns trained on the coach.

The Puritan must have recognized the threat, for he reluctantly climbed down. Kendra shifted within the coach, the better to see out.

The victim was a good foot shorter than the robber, who looked impossibly tall and elegant in a jet-black velvet surcoat. Close-faced and resigned, the Puritan emptied his pockets and handed over his money, then turned to reenter the coach.

The highwayman reached to grab the victim's sleeve. "Not so fast."

Visibly shaken, the smaller man stilled but said nothing.

The highwayman shook him a little. "Surely a…man of business, such as yourself, will be carrying more gold on his person than this. Where is it? Sewn into your cloak? Hidden in your luggage?"

Though Kendra could see the rise and fall of his agitated breathing, the Puritan turned back boldly. "Surely thee has no need of gold," he spat out, tugging his sleeve from the bigger man's grasp while eyeing his groomed appearance and expensive, tailored suit. "A…gentleman such as thyself."

The highwayman's eyes were amber, edged in a deeper hue—bronze, Kendra decided—that now spread in toward the center as his expression hardened. "Your luggage and your cloak, then—seeing as you won't cooperate."

He swung his pistol in the coachman's direction. The driver scrambled down and fumbled with the ropes securing the passengers' belongings. A shove sent the Puritan's trunk to the rutted road with a decisive thunk.

"Your cloak." The highwayman held out his free hand, almost as though he were bored, while his victim struggled out of his plain mantle.

"What about them?" he sputtered, handing it over. His gaze swung toward the Chases.

The highwayman glanced inside and flashed Kendra's brothers a conspiratorial smile before answering. "They're friends. Good day."

"Good day? Good day?" The poor man was as red as a squalling newborn, and Kendra almost felt sorry for him—until she reminded herself that it was his ilk who had killed her parents during the Civil War.

Her brothers indeed carried pistols—and swords and knives and God knew what else—and had the man not been a Puritan, she was sure one or both of them would have jumped to his defense. But because of men like this one, Jason had been left to raise his orphaned siblings, all of them forced to spend the Commonwealth years in poverty and exile.

She turned to watch the amber man remount and make his way down the road and up the hill toward his cohorts. He'd been superb. Magnificent.

Romantic, she thought on a sigh.

Amber. His clean-shaven, suntanned complexion. His eyes, a deep gold the color of the finest liquor. The black plume on his cavalier's hat fluttered as he rode, and beneath it he wore a long, crimped brown periwig that rather reminded her of her twin Ford's hair. But she was certain the highwayman's real hair wasn't brown. Though many men had shaven heads under their periwigs, he wouldn't. His own hair would be cut short, but not off, certainly—she shuddered at the thought—and it would be golden. Amber.

"Are thee going to let him get away with this?" the Puritan demanded, clambering up and glaring at her brothers with their rapiers at their sides.

One of Jason's black brows rose, and he spoke for them both. "I expect so."

The coach lurched and they continued on, but the atmosphere was decidedly strained, and the Puritan got off at the next stop.

Kendra moved to sit in the now-vacant spot beside Ford. "A highwayman," she breathed as soon as the carriage resumed moving.

"Why didn't he rob us?" Caithren asked. "How is it you know him? He called you a friend."

"He uses the term lightly." Jason's smile was enigmatic. "We've run into him before. But he's never robbed us."

"He didn't look like he needed to rob anybody," Kendra pointed out. "His suit was nicer than yours."

He'd looked nicer than Jason all around, she mused. Not that Jason wasn't handsome, but he had the general look of her family, a look she was inured to, to say the least. This man, on the other hand, had looked…exotic. All golden and dressed in black—black suit, black shirt, black boots, black mask—not the look of your typical scruffy felon, that was for sure.

Jason shrugged, absently running a hand through his wife's straight, dark-blond hair. "Almost anyone can afford one nice suit of clothes, if he makes it his priority. You cannot judge a man by his looks, Kendra."

But of course she had. Judged him, and liked what she saw.

Restless, Jason sighed and stretched his legs, then raised Cait's hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles, earning a soft smile in return. "Perhaps we should turn him in," he suggested playfully. "This is getting to be somewhat of a nuisance."

"You wouldn't dare!" Kendra burst out. "He's…well…he'd fit in at court. And he robbed only the Puritan. I'd wager he's a Royalist."

"There could be a reward for him. And Lakefield House is in sad shape," Viscount Lakefield, otherwise known as Ford, lamented half-seriously. "I cannot live with Jason forever."

"Oh, yes, you can," Kendra said heatedly.

Jason turned to her. "Is it that important to you, then? I didn't realize your Royalist loyalty ran so deep."

"Well…it does," she declared, thinking about the highwayman's broad shoulders.

"Well, then." Ford's deep-blue eyes gleamed with mischief. "I suppose we'll have to leave him be. At least it provides him with a stake for the card games."

Jason glared at their brother.

"What?" Kendra slanted him a suspicious glance. "What card games?"

"All highwaymen play cards," Jason said firmly. He picked up their own deck and shuffled it expertly, then dealt out new hands.

Kendra arranged her cards slowly, her mind not on the game. She remembered the highwayman's voice. He'd spoken cautiously, as though he were considering each word.

Not like her family. The Chases, as a rule, blurted everything that came into their heads, generally at the tops of their lungs.

"What was his accent?" she asked. "Did you hear it?"

"Scots, aye?" Cait said, exaggerating the burr she was born to. "Though I'd guess he hasn't been home for many a year. I'm surprised you even noticed."

When Jason looked up sharply, Kendra pretended to study her fan of cards. He frowned back down at his own hand. "Why do you want to know?"

Why? She could scarcely comprehend such a stupid question. She wanted to know everything about the mysterious highwayman.

"Just curious," she said lightly, leading with a jack of hearts. "Your turn."

Kendra awoke the next morning with a massive headache. Jason couldn't be serious. After her disastrous interview with the Duke of Lechmere, he'd laid down the law: she would be wed by summer's end.

He and Ford were off to a monthly house party they attended—no females allowed—and when they returned, they'd be expecting to hear whom she'd decided to marry.

She stared up at the underside of the mint-green canopy she'd begged for in her youth. Although their parents had depleted the family fortune financing the king in the Civil War, Jason had always seen to it that she'd never wanted for anything. To the best of his abilities, he'd indulged her every whim. He wouldn't force her to marry now.

Would he?

With a huff, she rose and pulled on her new hunter-green satin riding habit. She ran a comb through her hair, not bothering to call her maid in to curl and pin it. In no time at all, she was mounted on Pandora, her mare, galloping across the Sussex Downs.

Her brothers would be mightily vexed if they knew she was riding unescorted, but they could go hang for all she cared right now.

Besides, they were away all weekend and would never know.

The fresh country air eased her aching head, but just thinking about that weasel Lechmere made her shiver. And the rest of her prospects weren't much better.

The Earl of Shrewsbury came complete with a meddling mother—the "shrew" in her title was all too fitting. The Marquess of Rochford was a widower and kind enough, but his hair was completely gray—doubtless from dealing with his seven unruly children. Viscount Davenport didn't talk, he whined. The Duke of Lancashire lived in—well, Lancashire—which was entirely too far from her family. The Earl of Morely was wealthy and wise, but nearing fifty. Lord Rosslyn was young, handsome, and fun loving, but lacking somewhat in brains. She wondered if he could read.

Jason couldn't be serious.

Coming out of her thoughts, she slowed to a stop. She hadn't realized how far she'd ridden. In fact, she noticed with a start, she was at the same spot where they'd seen the highwayman yesterday.

His friends had been atop that hill, lying on their stomachs, their hats pulled down to conceal their faces, training an impressive assortment of pistols on the hapless Puritan.

This morning, the hill was deserted and the highwayman nowhere in sight. In an attempt to judge the time, Kendra glanced at the sky, but it was all clouded over. The day was turning beastly. Not cold, but muggy, with a definite threat of rain. With no sun to confirm it, she guessed the time to be about ten o'clock. Perhaps highwaymen slept in.

Plainly, highway robbery wasn't a full-time occupation. Not that she had any idea of what she'd have done if the highwayman had been here. Run for her life, in all probability. But she drifted into a vague fantasy of herself riding down the road at breakneck speed, her long, dark red hair floating on the breeze, impressing the hell out of him with her horsemanship and her grace. In her fantasy he stared after her, openmouthed with surprise and appreciation, struck temporarily dumb by a bolt of…love at first sight.

Well, second sight, actually—but he hadn't paid any attention to her the first time, so surely that didn't count.

Then she would turn around, ride back, stop in the middle of the road, right in front of him, and slide off Pandora slowly…so slowly. Still gazing at her, he'd come forward, reaching her in two or three of his long strides, his large hands spanning her waist as he eased her to the ground. And then…

She had no idea. Inexperience didn't make for detailed fantasies. And she certainly wouldn't have anything to do with a highwayman, anyway. Her fantasy wasn't only boring, it was absurd.

But instead of turning back, she rode along the crest of the hill a spell, then turned away from the lane. And there, perhaps a hundred feet distant, was a very mysterious mound.

It wasn't sculpted by nature, Kendra realized immediately. Its shape was angular, its surface dirt, not grass.

A grave. A fresh grave.

Her hands tightened on the reins as she approached the tomb. Who could be buried there? The highwayman? A victim of his? Either one was unthinkable. She bit the inside of her cheek, worrying the soft flesh with her teeth.

A single raindrop fell on one of her clenched fists, and a gust of wind whooshed as she reached the mound. From her perch atop Pandora, she saw the loose dirt blow across it, revealing a sheet of canvas underneath. Her heart hammered at the sight. Was the man not buried properly, then—just covered with a spot of fabric?

She slid off Pandora and led her forward to investigate. Leaning down, she took a corner of the canvas, just a corner, in two shaking fingers and lifted it…

If her brothers had been here, they'd have told her, as usual, not to jump to conclusions. And this time, they'd have been right. Her shout of laughter rang across the Downs as she threw back the canvas.

Twelve blocks of wood. Twelve narrow pipes of various gauges. Twelve hats with different colored plumes and a variety of hatbands.

She tethered Pandora to a tree. Atop a nearby hill, she set a hat on a block of wood with a pipe sticking out from under it. When she ran back down and glanced up, it looked for all the world like a man lying on his stomach, pointing a gun at her.

He was clever, this man. Very clever.

"What do you think you're doing?"

She froze. She hadn't heard anyone approach, and for the barest second she thought the voice was in her head. But he was standing behind her. She could feel his presence, maybe three feet away.

"I'm…" Words failed her. "I'm…"

"You're letting my hat get wet."

"Oh." Kendra put a hand to her head, feeling the mass of her hair curling with dampness. She hadn't noticed the increasing drizzle. "It's raining."

"Very observant of you."

She turned then and gazed up at him, and he looked exactly the way she'd known he would. His hair was golden—thick, silky, and straight. It was cut short, not chin-length like a Puritan's, nor cropped like a wig-wearing Royalist's, but somewhere in between, and the front was hanging in his eyes. She wanted to reach out and sweep it off his forehead, but she seemed rooted in place, and she wouldn't have dared to touch him, anyway.

His snug black breeches were wool, not velvet, and his shirt was white, not black. He wasn't here for business, then.

"I've come to save my props from the rain. Will you help me, seeing as you're here?"

Help him? She ought to be bolting for Pandora at this very moment. "Of course."

Had she said that? She knew she shouldn't have. He snatched up the three props, then turned and strode back to the rest of them. Windblown, his golden hair bounced in time with his steps as she followed.

She concentrated on his broad back, watching the play of muscles beneath his thin shirt as he flipped over the canvas and piled the hats on top, bundling them up and tying the four corners in a neat knot to make a parcel. He hefted it, testing its weight, then turned to her. "You can carry this, aye? Before you, on your horse?"

He didn't sound angry at her, more like he was simply resolved to complete his task in the most efficient manner possible. Kendra was somewhat relieved, but she moved in a haze of unreality.

She managed to find her voice, however. "If you'll hand it up to me, yes, I'm sure I can carry it. Where are we taking it?"

"A cottage over the next hill, not too far." He gathered the pipes under one arm and lifted the bundle by its knot. "Let's be off, before it starts raining in earnest."

His horse was tied by hers—amber, of course, his glossy coat a tawny tan color. Pandora's hide was a deep brown, and Kendra thought they made a handsome pair.

It was difficult to see over the bundle in front of her, but it was a short ride.

The cottage was unlocked, and the highwayman made short work of tethering their horses before depositing the pipes inside and returning for the bundle. After handing it to him, Kendra slid off Pandora slowly…so slowly…and a second later he was back, and his large hands were spanning her waist as he eased her to the ground.

His fingers rested on her waist a little longer than necessary, and she felt their warmth through her satin habit. She looked up at him. He had a wide mouth, the full lower lip perfectly straight across the center bottom edge. She wanted to touch him, just there.

Her eyes locked on his, and her breath caught in her throat.

A crash of thunder rent the air, and big raindrops started pelting to the earth. He jumped back, motioning her to follow him inside.

She should leave. Now. But it was pouring…

The cottage looked more like a well-appointed hunting lodge, warm and cozy and very masculine. He shut the door behind them and wandered to a leather-upholstered couch, throwing his long form onto it with a surprising grace. "Close, aye? Five more minutes, and my hats would have been ruined. I thank you for your help."

"You're welcome," Kendra said from just inside the door where she still stood in a daze. She couldn't believe she was in a hunting lodge with this dangerous man. It was incredible—and, all of a sudden, incredibly scary. She couldn't remember ever having been alone with a man, save her brothers. And she didn't know the first thing about this one—except that he was a criminal.

The fear must have shown on her face, because he sat straight and patted the cushion beside him. "Come here—I don't bite. You'll stay till it stops raining, aye?"

"Aye—I mean, yes." Criminal or not, she loved the way he talked, the words slow and melodic. Though her heart was pounding, she screwed up her courage and moved to sit gingerly beside him. "I'm Kendra. Kendra Chase."

"Trick Caldwell."

"Trick?" she echoed, startled. She turned to him, forgetting for a moment that he was supposed to be frightening. "What kind of a name is Trick?"

"Ah, and that's a story." He smiled at her, a wide white smile that lit up the cottage and belied the dreary day. Leaning forward, he reached out a hand and placed it on her wrist, just lightly, but a tingle raced up her arm and throughout her body, warming her in the strangest way. Something snapped inside her, and the sense of unreality was gone.

She was here, really here, with the amber highwayman—no, Trick, she corrected herself— alone, and he wasn't scary at all.

Well, not very.