September 1861—Central Highlands, Victoria
His heart pounded against his ribs. Thrill mixed with nerves to bring on that heady feeling of power. Sweat matted his russet hair and trickled down his jaw into the black kerchief he wore across his nose and mouth. After all these years, he still felt the tiny element of fear that came with the thrill. The day it was no longer there was the day he ought to give it up for good. Fear was what kept him alive.
Beneath him, the horse could sense his emotions. Her hooves shuffled restlessly in the dry gum leaves. Nostrils flared, snorting with anticipation as the thud and vibration of a carriage, pulled by a team of horses, drew closer.
Leaning forward in the saddle, he patted the twitching shoulder muscles of his trusty bay mare.
‘Easy, Persephone,’ he soothed. Named for the bride of Hades, she was the perfect horse for Jack the Devil.
The two men beside him sat light in their saddles, primed and ready, awaiting his timely nod. The shake of his head was barely perceptible, but they understood.
The rattle of the approaching wheels on the road was now unmistakable in the quiet whisper of the trees, but still they waited. The timing had to be perfect to not allow the carriage a last minute change of course. They’d chosen this particular place on the road for its narrowness and the rocky outcrop that hemmed the left side. No chance of escape once inside the naturally formed bottleneck.
After nearly a decade on the highway, Jack had learned a thing or two. Like how not to get caught. And, more importantly, how not to get shot.
‘Stay calm, stay alive,’ he told his men.
He’d said this before he’d robbed his first coach with Bobby as a reckless teenager, and throughout his long and illustrious career it had become his mantra. Like a prayer and an order combined, he said it to his men before each encounter.
And then …
Leaping from their hiding place behind the copse of stringybark eucalypts, the three masked men of the highway formed a vee as they rode directly into the path of the oncoming carriage.
Startled, the four horses leading the vehicle pulled up despite the coach driver whipping them to keep moving. In vain he tried to urge them onwards, but the highwaymen circled the carriage, forcing it to halt.
Jack lifted his gun and aimed it at the driver.
‘Stand and deliver!’
Swearing up a storm, the coach driver resignedly settled the horses.
‘Drop the reins.’
With another quiet curse, the man did as instructed, raising his hands in surrender.
Jack edged Persephone closer to the coach, while Bobby kept his eyes and gun aimed on the driver. Huge steamer trunks were strapped to both the rear and the top of the coach.
Jack grinned beneath his kerchief. So much baggage. And expensive looking.
‘Start checking those trunks on the back,’ Jack instructed Garrett. The boy was young, and flighty yet, but he had the makings of a good bushranger. ‘See if there’s anything of value in them.’
Dismounting with the innate grace of an expert horseman, Jack sidled up to the window of the coach with caution, his gun still at the ready. It wasn’t uncommon for passengers to carry arms these days. After all, the highway was a dangerous place.
Carefully peeking into the dark carriage, he counted only two females. He relaxed his stance and tipped his hat to them. ‘Good afternoon, ladies.’
‘What’s good about it?’ the older woman shot back at him, her voice elegant and acidic at the same time.
‘Madam, I beg you forgive the delay in your travels,’ Jack said, unruffled by the lady’s irritability. ‘You seem to be carrying an awful lot of cargo for only two women. Have you travelled far?’
‘All the way from England,’ she sniped. ‘And what greets us in this wretched outpost of the mother country? Nothing but ill-mannered thieves and these damn flies the size of cattle.’ She took a swipe at a large blowfly with her gloved hand.
‘Careful now,’ Jack said in mock warning. ‘It would be a shame to kill the national bird on your first day here in Victoria.’
A small squeak came from the opposite side of the carriage and he wondered if the other woman might have chuckled at his little joke, but it was quickly covered with a delicate cough.
‘I promise we shall take but a moment to relieve you of your heavy load and you will be on your way to your destination in no time. Now, do either of you ladies have a weapon on your person?’
‘We most certainly do not.’
Ignoring the grouchy old duck, Jack shifted to try and get a better look at her companion. She was a much younger woman, and although her face was slightly obscured by the darkness of the carriage, a pair of large, green eyes, bright as emeralds, stared back at him. Intrigued, he moved behind the carriage to the window on the other side, smiling as he passed Garrett filling his saddlebags with a silver cutlery set from one of the trunks. The grin on the boy’s face reminded him of himself as a younger bushranger. Though at twenty-one, Garrett was slightly older than he’d been when he’d started out.
Leaning an elbow on the window ledge, Jack studied the young woman. He was used to the wide-eyed terror he saw on the faces of passengers, and particularly in the eyes of the women he robbed, but in these extraordinary eyes he saw something beneath the fear. Had he been a more whimsical man he may have suggested it was fascination or excitement. Surely he’d merely imagined it. Regardless, he much preferred to deal with her than the old battle-axe shooting daggers at him through her frosty, wrinkled eyes.
He turned his attentions back to the young lady but could no longer read her expression. She had to be afraid. Everyone feared the bushranger. Many highwaymen thought nothing of taking lives along with the money and jewels. The worst of them took liberties with ladies they came across. Jack had never taken a life in all his years of plundering the roads of Victoria, and had certainly never harmed a woman. It was a point of pride for him.
Tilting his head to peer further into the carriage, he studied her. Early twenties he guessed, pretty. Those eyes, large and bright, glowed against the dimness of the carriage.
Her long sweep of flame-coloured hair was pulled back from her face and held with intricate combs. Mother-of-pearl, if he wasn’t mistaken. He’d be sure to retrieve those before he left.
‘Bail up, if you please.’ He kept his voice quiet, soothing almost.
‘I have nothing of value, sir,’ she answered in a stronger voice than he’d expected.
‘That is not strictly true, is it?’ He glanced down at her décolletage.
The sudden indignant spark in those wide, green eyes thrilled him. He’d always admired spirited women and didn’t bother to hide his delighted grin.
‘I meant your locket, my lady. Do not fear. Your virtue is completely safe with Jack the Devil.’ He shot a quick look at the old lady. ‘Yours especially.’
The old woman huffed and began to mumble incoherently to herself.
Jack turned back to the pretty redhead, expecting to see her looking less concerned now that he had guaranteed he would not harm her physically. If anything, she looked more so.
‘Please, sir, I beg you.’ She spoke in an even tone, but her anxiety was evident to Jack. Her small lace-gloved hand gripped the gold necklace like a vice. ‘This locket is precious to me.’
‘It’s precious to me too.’
She frowned. ‘It is not.’
‘Is too,’ he tossed back grinning slowly, surprised at her sudden determination.
‘Shall we go another round?’ he said with a chuckle as she fumed.
‘Oh, Prudence, just give him the damned locket and let’s get out of here,’ the old woman commanded. Leaning over, she snatched the locket from the girl’s neck, ripping the chain roughly from its clasp, making the girl gasp in pain. She shoved it at him. ‘Take it! And let us be on our way.’
His amusement disappeared in a heartbeat.
‘What is your name, madam?’ he asked the old lady, his jaw clenched.
‘I am Lady Deidre Stanforth,’ she said proudly. ‘My late husband was the Earl of Carrington.’
‘Well, Deidre,’ he said, deliberately slighting her by the omission of her title. ‘There is no need for violence.’
Slowly, Jack took the locket from her and looked back at Prudence. There were tears pooling in her eyes, but she didn’t allow them to fall. He admired her strength and an emotion he was unused to squeezed tight in his chest.
Shaking it off, he took her hand lightly in his. ‘Prudence,’ he began softly. ‘I apologise. But a lady so beautiful as yourself has no need for expensive baubles.’
‘It is not expensive, sir.’ Her voice quivered only slightly. ‘It will fetch you nothing.’
‘We’ll see about that.’
The pain that had filled her eyes was replaced quickly by annoyance bordering on anger. The changes of expression on her pretty face captivated him. He’d thought her repressed at first in her high-necked, lace-trimmed dress. The older woman was clearly in charge, not a governess or a chaperone, a relative most likely, grandmother perhaps, and young Prudence had stayed quiet, leaving all the talking up to the old witch. But when she had something to fight for, she showed her true personality. Not quite fearless, but not completely devoid of courage when it mattered.
He really should let her keep the locket—if only to piss off Grandma—but something made him want to hold on to it. To hold on to a piece of the lovely, emerald-eyed woman with hair the colour of fire and a temper to match.
He reached into the carriage and Prudence leaned back further against the seat. His hand continued its forward path, slowly so that he wouldn’t frighten her, and removed the shiny, mottled pearl comb. Her soft hair swept across his fingers as it fell from its perfect chignon and cascaded down her shoulder, stopping just below her breast.
He stared at the transformation. The simple change of her hair falling naturally around her face had him gawking, entranced at the new wild beauty before him. It suited her much more than the prim, staid façade. He wondered what she’d be like out from beneath the oppressive thumb of the crotchety chaperone.
He shook himself. He was romanticising again. If he didn’t concentrate, he’d end up with a bullet in his gullet. Looking back at his men, he could see they had finished ransacking the trunks and were waiting for him with the horses.
‘Your earrings please, madam,’ he said, holding his hand out to the old woman. Squeezing her lips together so hard they disappeared into her wrinkled face, she removed the ruby earrings and thrust them at him.
‘We have lightened your load, ladies,’ he said, touching a finger to his hat. ‘You may continue on your way.’
‘Scoundrel,’ the old woman shot back. ‘You’ll be caught and gaoled one day, you can be sure of that.’
‘No one’s caught Jack the Devil yet.’ He grinned, pocketing the earrings.
Stepping back, he kept his eyes on Prudence. She didn’t look away, even when he winked at her and said, ‘Farewell, milady.’
‘Drive on,’ he told the coach driver and stood back as the carriage lurched forward.
‘Nice haul,’ Garrett said, moving up beside him with a large hessian bag.
Jack just continued to stare after the carriage until it was almost out of sight. When the young woman leaned her head out of the coach and looked back at him, he grinned like a madman. He didn’t know why it thrilled him so much, but it did.
Once the coach had crested the hill, he glanced down at the gold locket in his hand, rubbing it lightly between his thumb and forefinger.
‘We should move,’ Bobby said, leading the horses up to them.
‘Mmm,’ Jack agreed distractedly, staring again at the dust disappearing over the rise before mounting his horse and following his men back into the bush.
‘Prudence, stop doing that.’
At her grandmother’s snap, Prudence leaned back against the seat and felt the heat rush into her cheeks. He had caught her looking back at him. And so had her grandmother, who immediately proceeded to launch into admonishments. As per usual.
She listened to her grandmother rant on and on about ‘that dreadful man’ and ‘this country full of convicts’. As much as she adored her grandmother, she had learned quickly how to tune out her tirades.
Besides, she was consumed with more exhilarating thoughts.
A bushranger. A real live bushranger! And on her very first day in Victoria.