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The Highwayman’s Lady by Ashe Barker – Sample

Chapter One

The Highwayman's LadyYork, North of England, 1750

“I have never considered you a particularly bright young man, but you are trying my patience more than usual this morning, Sidney. Is there some part of the word ‘no’ that escapes your understanding?”

My stepbrother plants his not inconsiderable weight on both feet as he curls his lip in a near snarl. His voice is sneering, his expression one of contempt as he regards my mother’s diminutive form seated on the chaise longue before the fire. He manages to block the heat with his body.

“It is you who has failed to grasp the reality of this situation, stepmama dear, if you think for one moment I intend to allow this nonsense of yours to continue. This house is mine. Everything in it—mine, including your precious daughter. She may be a mewling little bitch but I shall have her and all that comes with her.”

My mother reaches for her cane and leans on it as she hauls herself from her chair. I move to assist but she waves me away with her free hand. As she reaches her full height of exactly five feet, she has to crane her neck to scowl into my stepbrother’s ruddy features. She stands straight, unflinching as he towers over her, his fists clenched by his sides. Sidney Smethurst does not conceal his temper well, but my mother is uncowed by his snarling visage. She was never intimidated by her overbearing stepson regardless of his size and distinctly unpleasant disposition. She continues to deliver her stinging assessment of his character and to demolish his latest attempt to drag me into marriage with him.

“Sidney, you are a fool. Worse, you are an arrogant, deluded fool. It is quite beyond me how a man as fine as your father ever managed to produce a specimen as vile as you. You are greedy, self-serving, and cruel, to number but a few of your baser characteristics. I could go on, but we have rehearsed this often enough already. Suffice it to say, you will not wed my daughter—not now, not ever. Imogen deserves far better than you and she shall have it. My husband left the both of us well provided for and you have no say, none whatsoever, in our plans for the future. They do not concern you and never will. Now, if you would do me the service of removing yourself from my drawing room, I would appreciate that.” She tilts her chin up, and if he were even slightly less concerned with his own ridiculous posturing, my stepbrother might be able to discern the effort even that show of resistance costs her.

“You will learn not to cross me, madam. Since my father’s death, I control our business interests and the Smethurst finances. I could beggar you if I choose to.”

My mother’s snort of derision causes Sidney’s colour to rise yet further. I half suspect he might take an apoplectic fit right here on the drawing room carpet. My mother is unimpressed by his threats. “I think not. I have my own portion, left to me in my husband’s will, as does Imogen. Financially we are beyond your reach and influence, even if we are compelled to share our home with you. Now, if you would be so good as to remove yourself as I asked, I believe it may be time for tea.”

Sidney leans down until his bulging, ruddy nose almost touches my mother’s elegant if frail features. “I will have my way, madam. You will regret those words, both of you. Your slut of a daughter will be mine and my father’s fortune will be mine too, all of it. As it should always have been, were it not for you two turning his addled head. Then we shall see who has the upper hand here.”

On that he spins on his heel to leave though the effect is somewhat diminished by his swaying a little on landing, no doubt still under the influence of the fine port he is fond of consuming in copious amounts. It may be just mid-afternoon, but my stepbrother has had ample time to imbibe this day and does not hold his drink well. That alone would be sufficient cause for my mother to resist his suit so strenuously but there are other persuasive reasons too.

Her damning summary of his less than fine qualities is accurate enough. Ten years my senior in age, Sidney has cast a dark shadow over both our lives since my mother met and married Arthur Smethurst fifteen years ago when I was just five years old. In contrast, my stepfather was the kindest, most generous of men both to my mother and to me. I adored him and he was unfailing in his devotion to the pair of us. I recall he made strenuous efforts with his sullen, embittered son also, but to no avail. Sidney loathed my mother and myself on sight and made no secret of that fact.

I suspect had Arthur Smethurst known the domestic turmoil his remarriage would cause, he might have thought better of it. He was a quiet, uncomplicated soul who wanted nothing more than a peaceful, happy existence. His first wife died in childbirth and he spent the next ten years working hard to build his thriving commercial concerns as well as bring up his motherless son. He succeeded admirably in the first endeavour but somehow fell short in the second. I was witness to his efforts, could not fault his resolve, and I am convinced he did not make a favourite of me. He treated us with equal generosity and therein lay his fault as far as Sidney was concerned.

I can see now that the insecure boy was consumed with jealousy. He felt threatened, belittled by my sunny, yet assertive mother. She entered his life ready to befriend him, to be a mother to him as best she could, but he rejected each and every overture. Her patience was exhausted after a year or so and their relationship became something of a hostile standoff. Overt warfare was avoided for the most part, for Arthur’s sake as much as anything, but it simmered below the surface, erupting with increasing regularity as the years advanced.

I disliked Sidney from almost the day I arrived to take up residence in Arthur Smethurst’s fine townhouse in York in the north of England. He marched into my pretty new bedroom on the second floor and snapped the head off my fine porcelain doll, a gift to me from his father upon marrying my mother. Arthur purchased another doll for me and chastised his ill-tempered son, but the die was cast. We hated each other. That situation worsened steadily with each year that has passed, but plummeted to new and previously untapped depths when Arthur died unexpectedly following a fall from his horse.

He was but fifty and two years old and had enjoyed rude good health. He should have lived for years yet. My mother felt his loss keenly; it almost killed her too. I half expected her to hurl herself into his grave on the day of his interment, so bereft was she. Two years have passed since we lost Arthur and despite her spirited and unfailing response to Sidney’s repeated attempts to claim my hand in marriage, I consider it fair to say my mother has never quite recovered. Her grief has been almost palpable and may have contributed to the steady decline in her health since the awful day they carried my stepfather’s lifeless body back to our home. Her once smiling features rarely shine these days; her demeanour is subdued, lacklustre. In short, she is wasting away.

She knows it. I know it. Had he the wit to see beyond the end of his own red-veined nose, Sidney would know it too. My stepbrother, however, is consumed by the perceived injustice of it all. He flew at once into a bitter rage that his father had had the temerity to leave any part of his vast fortune to my mother and he was even more incensed to learn that I was remembered in Arthur’s will also. He all but throttled the hapless man of affairs to whom fell the unpleasant duty of reading Arthur Smethurst’s last will and testament on the day of the funeral. Sidney protested, threatened, demanded that the will be set aside. He insisted that his father’s estate should be his, full and undivided. He has hardly calmed in the years since.

The law did not agree with Sidney’s view of the matter and there were no grounds whatsoever for disregarding Arthur’s wishes. To my mother, Arthur left twenty thousand pounds and two fine houses, hers to enjoy during the remainder of her lifetime. He settled a further twenty thousand pounds upon me, with the instruction that my inheritance should come to me on the occasion of my twenty-first birthday. Thus, we continue to occupy our home in an affluent suburb in the bustling city of York and to enjoy the luxury afforded by a life of wealth and comfort. In short, we are well provided for.

Alas, no amount of money can guarantee good health and my mother is fading fast. Her continued battles with Sidney are not helping, but I will not allow him the satisfaction of considering himself the cause of her demise. That honour goes to the growth in her belly that has wrought its damage—relentless, unstoppable. She grows weaker by the day despite the almost unbroken succession of physicians who cross our door to prod, poke, and gaze sadly upon her. Their visits are usually followed by a few days of pain-free relaxation, accomplished by the judicious application of ever increasing doses of laudanum. I suspect we will need to draw upon that comfort now.

As my stepbrother storms from my mother’s pretty drawing room, slamming the door in his wake, I reach for the phial we always keep to hand.

“Mama, please, sit down. I will ring for the tea tray.” I am already measuring the normal dose into a small spoon. I usually pour it into her tea but she may take it straight from the spoon if her pain is particularly severe. It seems that it is as she drops back into her chaise longue with a sharp groan and gestures for me to hurry. I do so and she swallows the drug quickly. She lies on her couch, her eyes closed, her breathing slow but steady. Several minutes pass before her ashen countenance takes on a slightly pinker tone. She lifts her eyelids and manages a wan smile for me.

“My dear, I think I might manage a small cup of Earl Grey now. Would you be so kind as to ask Matthews to bring it in, please?”

“Of course, mama.” I pat her thin, frail hand before rushing to the door. Matthews, our butler, is hovering outside in the hall. “We would like our tea now, if you please. And perhaps a few biscuits, if cook has some fresh.”

He bows and starts for the kitchen, then pauses. He turns, clears his throat.

“Yes, Mr… Matthews?” I wait, my hand on the door handle.

“Mr… Smethurst has gone out, miss. He appeared … agitated. I do not believe we will see him back today. Nor tomorrow, probably.”

I incline my head, not in the least surprised to learn that Sidney has stormed from the house intent upon a drinking binge. It is his usual habit following a confrontation with myself or my mother, but he always manages to find his way back home again, alas. I thank the butler for his update and return to my mother’s side.

Her pallid face is lined; the effort of just speaking seems to exhaust her. How she summoned the strength to deal with the latest onslaught from Sidney is beyond me. I tried to block his way but he shoved me aside and barged into her drawing room uninvited, intent upon a fight. She gave as good as she got but the effort has taken its toll.

“Sweetheart, come close. I need to speak to you.” She beckons me near so I pull up a footstool in order to sit right at her side. I take her hand in mine and my heart sinks at the trembling in her fingers.

“Would you like me to help you with your tea, mama? Might you fancy a small cake perhaps?”

“Maybe later. We need to make plans… for after, when I am no longer here.”

“Mother, I do not think—”

“We must, Imogen. I have not long left.”

“That is not true, mama. You will recover. You must. We will find other doctors. There must be someone, something…”

She shakes her head. “There is not. We must face the facts. I need to know that you will be safe and happy when I am gone.”

Tears stream down my face as my mother insists on repeating her instructions. She has drilled this information into me for the last several weeks. I know it by heart. Yet it pleases her to go over everything again as though making plans for my future can somehow erase the stark fact that she will no longer be a part of it.

“You must go to Beatrice, my cousin, in Stirling. She will look after you until you reach the age of twenty-one when you may claim your inheritance and you will be free to do as you please, go where you like. Just eight months, that is all. Beatrice will not let us down. You will be able to travel, to see the world as I know you long to. You may indulge yourself in the books you so adore. You may even marry, should you feel so inclined, though you will have sufficient fortune that you can live an independent life. Do not, in any circumstances, allow that greedy, conniving drunkard to get his hands on what is rightfully yours, Imogen. When the time comes and it is not far off now, you must leave here at once and make your way to Scotland. Beatrice will welcome you, I know it.”

“Mama, please, let us not speak of this today.”

My mother ignores my pleading. “Beatrice and I were close friends as well as cousins when we were children even though she was a few years younger than I was. She was a sweet girl, always kind, generous to a fault. She married for money, of course and for position. She was to be a countess. Her husband is older than she and a member of the Scottish aristocracy. We argued about her plans. I am a hopeless romantic, as you know, and married for love both times. It is ironic, indeed, that my dearest Arthur was also fourteen years my senior, the exact same difference in age between Beatrice and her Scottish earl. Beatrice was ambitious, though, and not to be swayed. She ignored my advice and went ahead with the wedding. I regret not having resolved our differences, especially after I remarried, but that will have no bearing on this matter. Blood is thicker than water. And for all I know, her husband has turned out to be a fine man. Their marriage has lasted these twenty years or so.”

“Mama, I have never even met Lady Beatrice. She may not even know of my existence.”

“She will recognise you at once, for you are so like I was twenty years ago. You have my blue eyes and your grandmother’s pretty brown hair. You must go to Beatrice. Go at once, explain that I am ill and not able to care for you and seek her aid. It will be all right, I know it.”

For myself, I am not so sure and I have absolutely no intention of leaving my mother here to deal with Sidney alone. But I recognise the lack of any better ideas and cannot really fault her logic. As soon as I reach the age of twenty-one and command my own affairs I will have choices, my own money. I will be financially secure and independent, but until that time, Sidney will not let up in his efforts to gain control of my fortune by bullying me into marriage.

The very idea revolts me. I have no real objection to the married state. Indeed, having witnessed my mother’s happiness with my stepfather I can see there is much to recommend it. But not with Sidney. As his wife, I would be under his cruel control for ever. My life would be a miserable existence, subject to his violence, his drunken moods, his vicious temper. Once he had control of my fortune, he would have no further use for me and I fear for my safety. I know this terror consumes my mother too, hence her determination to see me safe beyond his reach.

I stroke her hand, seeking to calm her. “Very well, I will go to Beatrice if and when I must. But not yet. I am staying here—with you.”


“Mama, I will go, I swear it. But not yet. Now see? Matthews is here with the tea tray and he has brought us some sweet fancies too. Your favourites.” I bless the interruption of the butler as he enters bearing a tray, which he sets down on a side table. “Shall I pour you a cup?”

Suitably distracted, my mother agrees to shelve the issue for now. I know we shall return to it soon enough.

I was wrong. We did not discuss Beatrice again, nor did we return to the subject of my future. We had not the time. My mother passed away later that night, in her sleep. I like to hope that her death was peaceful in the end and that she is now reunited with her beloved Arthur.

In the days immediately following her passing, I was grief-stricken and so preoccupied with making the necessary arrangements for my mother’s funeral that I had no time to plan beyond it. I saw little of Sidney, though my occasional glimpses of his gloating, smug countenance as he slunk around the house were enough to sicken me.

Now, I stand alone to survey the mound of fresh earth under which lie the mortal remains of the one person in the world who loved me and whom I loved in return.

We were not short of mourners at her burial. My mother was liked and respected as had been my stepfather. Many of the merchants who had traded with Arthur came, along with several members of the local gentry. Even the archbishop turned out to conduct the service at our local church. All are now gone, dispersed, their expressions subdued but already moving on to continue their lives as though nothing much has changed.

I remain here, alone in the silent churchyard, to contemplate the unthinkable—a future without my dear mama. She was the one person I could rely upon, my only companion. I am on my own now. And I am in danger.

Sidney lurks. He will not go away and I have no doubt his strategy will alter. He will be bolder now that my mother no longer presents a formidable barrier to his plans. He was nasty before; he will be vicious from here on. Worse, he will consider himself unstoppable, which heralds real peril for me.

I set aside my misgivings at presuming too much of a family connection long abandoned. I have been overtaken by events and have no choice but to approach Cousin Beatrice for her aid and I must do it now. Thus resolved, I turn my back on the fresh grave and start the short walk back to our house. I need to pack.

I enter by the door at the rear and make my way through the kitchens and dining room into the main vestibule. I reach the foot of the stairs before I am accosted by Sidney emerging from the library on my left.

A flicker of resentment gives me pause. The library was always my stepfather’s domain and mine. As a child, it was the place I loved to go to listen to his stories and savour the homely scent of his cigars. When I grew older I came to adore the vast collection of books as much as Arthur did and I have added many volumes of my own. The library was always my sanctuary, my place of refuge, but in recent years Sidney has taken over the cosy room. He has no love of literature or learning and uses my precious library mainly to indulge his love of alcohol. I am convinced his choice of this room for his own leisure is driven mainly by the desire to discourage my enjoyment of it. Today his consumption of fine brandy has been even more excessive than usual, if his unsteady gait is any indication. I take a step to my right in an attempt to avoid him.

“Not so fast, slut. You and I have matters to settle.” His speech is slurred, the words no less stark for that.

He grabs my elbow and I instinctively seek to shake him loose. His grip tightens, to the point of pain.

“Let go of me. I have nothing to discuss with you.” I am indignant, outraged. It is years since he has dared to actually assault me though I was regularly on the receiving end of a spiteful slap or punch as a child.

He twists my arm behind my back and shoves me face first against the balustrade at the foot of the stairs. “That’s right, my sweet little sister, you won’t be discussing anything. Now you will listen. Now you will do as you are fucking told.”

I struggle in his rough grasp and he wrenches my arm hard. I let out a scream, which I fully expect to bring the household staff running. No one appears.

He sniggers. “That’s right, bitch. Scream all you like. This is my house now and my servants know their place. There is none here to aid you, unless I allow it. You will dance to my tune in the future.”

“Let me go. You have no right to—aagh!” He halts my protests with another sharp twist to my arm. My vision is greying; I believe I may pass out with the pain and shock of his violent assault. I grasp the post at the foot of the stairs and hang on, fighting to ride the pain.

My strategy works, after a fashion. He releases his vicious grip and flings me across the hall. I land on my knees at the door to my mother’s drawing room, clutching at the handle as I attempt to stand up again.

Sidney is across the hall in a moment and grabs my hair, twisting it around his meaty fist. He hauls me back onto my feet, forcing my head back so I have no choice but to stare up into his ruddy, hate-filled features. His eyes are bloodshot and there is spittle around his mouth. His thin lips curl up in a parody of a smile.

“At last, the usurping bitch is gone and my house is my own again. And so are you, dearest sister. I am the head of this fucking household. I will have your obedience, even if I have to beat it out of you. Especially then, in fact.” He pauses in his tirade to treat me to his twisted smile. I am convinced he is quite mad. “You will be my wife and even if I must endure your miserable face and your nagging, complaining voice, I shall have back that which was taken from me.”

“Never. I—”

I do not see the blow coming. He connects a hard backhanded slap to my jaw and I taste blood in my mouth. But for his unrelenting fist twisted in my hair, I would again be thrown across the hall.

Is there no one here to assist me? This house is full of servants; they cannot be unaware.

“That is the end of our little discussion, Imogen. I have obtained a special licence, just for you. We shall be wed tomorrow.”

“You cannot. Reverend Thomas would never agree. He knows—”

“We shall go to Leeds, where a more amenable class of clergy is to be found. For the right price. We leave tonight and will arrive in time for a private ceremony to be conducted before breakfast. By the time we return here tomorrow afternoon you will be my wife, wedded and soon to be bedded.”

Still grasping my hair, he starts to drag me back along the hall in the direction I came, toward the kitchens. The servants are conspicuously absent, the usually bustling nether regions of the house for once deserted. He manhandles me through the kitchen and the scullery and I realise where he intends to take me. I resume my struggles in earnest.

It is to no avail. He reaches the door to the cellars and flings it open. I am dragged down the stairs in pitch darkness until we reach the narrow passageway at the foot. I rarely come down here. I hate the dark and the damp stillness of such enclosed spaces terrifies me.

Sidney knows that and this is part of his plan to subdue me, to assert his will. He believes himself to be in power here now and everyone is to know it. He will incarcerate me in the cellars for no better reason than that he can.

He at last relaxes his cruel grip and I sink to the cold stone floor. He is standing over me, panting from the exertion of having hauled me down here. Were it not for his shortness of breath, I daresay he would land a kick or two to further emphasise his dominance.

“We leave after dinner. Well, after my dinner. You, my dear, will eat nothing until I decide you have earned sustenance. Your days of filling your belly with my victuals are over. There will be no more quenching your thirst with my wine nor will you take your ease on my furniture. And you will most certainly not be waltzing off wherever you please with money that is rightfully mine. Things are changing around here, sweet slut, starting now.”

He steps back and I hear him groping around to locate the handrail. His heavy footsteps thud up the stairs as I huddle on the floor in the dark. There is a brief sliver of light from above as he opens the door to the scullery, then closes it behind him. The lock scrapes and all is silent.

For several minutes I crouch, scared to move. My jaw throbs, my scalp stings where he dragged me by the hair. My shoulder still aches from his initial assault. I hate him. I loathe him. Above all, I am sick with fear. He will force me to marry him, I have no doubt of it. All that will be required is some vicar more greedy than godly, a witness conscripted from the street and well paid for his trouble and my future will be in his grasping, vile hands. As soon as the vows are exchanged, all that I own, or ever will own, becomes the property of my husband. Sidney will have my inheritance and with it, my freedom, my independence, all my hopes and those of my mother will be lost. If he succeeds in dragging me to the altar, there will be nothing I can do to prevent his perfidy.

I must escape.

Thus fortified with a resolve born of desperation, I scramble to the top of the stairs and start to hammer on the door with my fists. There must be someone within earshot; the kitchen is the most bustling part of the house. I pause in my efforts to listen and I know there is someone there. I discern low mutterings, whispers, the scrape of a chair. I recognise Matthews’ voice and call out to him.

“Help me, please. I am locked in the cellar.” I hammer on the door again. “Matthews, let me out. I know you can hear me. You must help me.”

I grab the handle and rattle it, my voice rising in my fear and frustration. “Matthews, Sidney means to force me into marriage. I must escape. I have to get away. It is my only chance. You cannot allow him to do this. You have to help me. Open the door and let me out, please.”

There is silence from the other side of the door but I am convinced they are there. I am surrounded by a houseful of staff, yet no one will lift a finger to assist me now.

“Miss, I am sorry.” Matthews’ tone does sound contrite, it is true, but there is little comfort for me in that fact.

“Mr… Matthews, open this door.”

“I cannot, miss.”

“Of course you can. You have keys. Let me out at once. Do you not understand—?”

“I am sorry, miss, truly, but I cannot help you. It is my job, you see…”

“Your job? Your job? Matthews, this is my life. That madman will kill me before he is finished. You cannot mean to stand by and watch it done.”

“I wish I could aid you, miss, I surely do. We, none of us want to work for Mr… Smethurst, but decent employment is hard to come by in these parts. Afterwards, when you come back, if there is anything I can do—”

“By then it will be too late. I will be raped, robbed, quite probably murdered. I will soon be beyond your help or anyone else’s, Mr… Matthews. You must act now.” I pound my fists on the door again as if that might serve to convince those on the other side of the severity of my predicament.

It does not. With a last murmured apology the butler takes his leave and I assume the rest of the servants shuffle off with him. There is no further sound from beyond my cold, dark prison. I sink to my knees and I sob.

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