James, Earl of Crofton

by Rebecca Cohen

James, Earl of Crofton - Rebecca Cohen
Editions:Kindle - First edition: $ 3.99 USD
ISBN: B0867SRYF9
Pages: 298

James Redbourn enjoys all the pleasures King Charles II’s Restoration court affords him as the Viscount of Crofton. His encounter with the enigmatic Chivalrous Highwayman in Epping Forest, sets the court aflame. Tales of the charming rogue treating his latest victim with his usual gentle hand has ladies’ fans quivering with every whisper.
While the Chivalrous Highwayman is a delicious fantasy, it is the intriguing Adam Dowson, the son of one of the greatest Cavalier generals, who fires James’s daytime desires. Their friendship might be growing stronger, but Adam seems to be one of the few men who is impervious to James’s charms, no matter how hard James tries.
When James’s father become deathly ill, James races home. He is ill-prepared to become the 4th Earl of Crofton, and his father’s vague but dire warnings on his deathbed only make matters worse. Now the earl, James must discover what is happening at Crofton Hall that had troubled his father so deeply.
James turns to Adam for help. Despite Adam’s own secrets, James trusts him. James hopes he’s not making a mistake, risking his family estate, and his already bruised heart. Together, they need to work to clear out the rotten core at Crofton Hall, and along the way secure a happy future for them both.

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Excerpt:

The carriage lurched to one side. James cracked open an eye, which caused his head to throb. His stomach rolled as the coach bounced across the ruts in the road. Several moments passed before his foggy brain recognised someone was shaking his arm violently.

“James, wake up.”

Tilly, or Lady Matilda Carson, as her title afforded her since she was the daughter of the Earl of Talbot, didn’t look upset. Quite the contrary. She leaned over him, her cheeks flushed and eyes wide, which spoke more to excitement than concern.

James was in no mood to entertain his cousin. “Calm yourself. I need peace not your shrieking.”

“You ignorant lout. This is not the time to keep calm. We are being chased!”

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James struggled to sit up, regretting the last glass of hock he’d had before leaving Crofton Hall. It had always been his intention to travel to London in the afternoon, and he should have known better than to expect to be able to doze away the hours with Tilly as a travelling companion. If it wasn’t for the way the coach bounced around he’d have accused Tilly of letting her imagination get the better of her.

“Chased?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice breathy as her bosom heaved.

James held onto the padded bench to stop himself from being sent flying as they hit a particularly deep divot. Something had the driver troubled. Given they were still in Epping Forest, with the light fading, he came to one natural conclusion. He swallowed thickly, determined not to let fear colour his voice. Unlike his cousin, he didn’t think being chased by murderous thugs an exciting pastime. “Bandits?”

“Oh no, so much better.” She pulled away and, before James could stop her, stuck her head out of the window.

He dragged her back inside, finding her idiocy appalling. “Are you mad? Do you want to be shot or hit by an axe?”

“Calm your fears. I recognised our pursuer’s horse from the stories at court. We, dear cousin, are being chased by the Chivalrous Highwayman, and he would not be so ungentlemanly to throw an axe at a lady’s head.”

The words cleared James’s head faster than a poultice of peppermint. Everyone had heard the stories, the tale of the highwayman in Epping Forest who could charm the jewels off any man or woman without spilling a drop of blood. Despite having told his cousin off for doing the same, James thrust his head out of the window, wincing as he almost snagged his wig on a hook in the frame in his haste. He saw a black-cloaked figure riding a chestnut mare. A white blaze down the horse’s nose matched the description circulating at court.

A crack sliced through the air, accompanied by a bright flash from the highwayman’s direction as he discharged his flintlock pistol. The horses panicked and the coach jerked to the left, beginning to slow, before it came to a stuttering halt. The horses, terrified, reared and whinnied, disturbed by the chase and the shadows of the trees. Much to his dismay, James found himself hauled back inside, in a similar fashion as he had done to Tilly.

She trembled with delight. “It’s him, isn’t it?”

“It appears so. Fits the tale the Russian countess was telling last week at Whitehall.” He couldn’t believe he sounded as breathless as Tilly. He should have been terrified. Maybe he was, but he couldn’t help but want to be part of the romance and thrilling tales that followed the Chivalrous Highwayman.

James flinched at a second crack of gunfire. Moments later, he heard the driver jump down from the coach, the sounds of snapping twigs clear as he raced away into the cover of the trees. James would not stand for the coward’s actions. Words would be exchanged later—there were plenty of other able-bodied men who needed a job, and neither he nor his father would look kindly on one of the hall’s servants bolting like a rabbit.

Three loud bangs on the roof of the coach made James jump in his seat and Tilly gasp and clutch his arm. If it weren’t for her gleeful grin he’d have thought she’d grabbed him for comfort.

“If you would be so kind, step out of the carriage, my lord and lady.”

If James was not mistaken, the voice belonged to an educated man, or at least one intelligent enough to make himself sound like one. James could hear nothing in the words to suggest whereabouts he came from in the country. His soft tones could have easily slipped into a conversation at court.

“Stay here,” insisted James.

“I will not,” said Tilly, indignant, her eyes flashing with annoyance. “I know you far too well, James Redbourn. If anyone is going to claim the right to brag over the Chivalrous Highwayman, it will be me.”

“How dare you. I am merely trying to protect you.”

She snorted. “You care not one whit, Cousin. Not content with bedding any pretty maiden fool enough to let you, you are happy to extend your favours to charming young men. I will not let you snatch this one from under my nose as you did Lucas.”

“I did no such thing. Lucas was never in my bed. You should ask the good Lady Trathers about his fate. Besides, you had no interest in the ambassador’s son until you realised he had no interest in you.”

A further three raps broke up their squabble. “As pleasant as the evening air is, I would ask once more that you step out of the carriage.”

“We are not finished with this discussion.” James glowered at her. “But for once do as you are told.”

“I do not answer to you.” Tilly pushed him aside and flung open the door. She clambered down, gathering the material of her skirts as she did.

James followed, hot on her heels, because despite their squabble he did not wish to see Tilly hurt. The Chivalrous Highwayman might have a reputation of not harming his victims, but like any robber he had the potential to be dangerous. Then there was the matter of self-preservation, as James would not like to face Tilly’s father if any harm were to come to her and he had not tried to prevent it.

The sight that greeted him was one to behold, and one he would savour in the privacy of his bedchamber for many nights to come. Despite his fears, James recognised beauty when he saw it. He had no care whether the subject of his gaze was male or female, distracted equally by a smooth décolletage as by a pair of firm thighs. And the exquisite pair of thighs gripping the saddle were a cause for celebration.

The flintlock pistol less so.

Dressed in black from head to foot, in a fashion most definitely current and expensive, the highwayman was as dashing in reality as in the stories. James could understand how this man had caused the hearts of his fellow nobles to flutter. The highwayman dismounted, giving James a better chance to study his height and build. Their assailant was slightly taller than himself but similarly broad. The poor light didn’t afford James the chance to see the colour of his eyes, neither did the wide-brimmed hat which helped obscure his face. But it was the mask over his eyes and nose that did the real work of hiding his identity. Something about the mask triggered a distant memory that refused to be forthcoming. However, the square, clean-shaven jaw was a joy in itself. A mystery indeed—one that could tempt even the sanest of men and women.

Tilly flicked open her fan and held it against her heaving bosom. James had to bite the inside of his cheek to prevent his utterance of contempt at her actions. “Good sir, I am but a simple woman.”

“My lady, I would never call the daughter of the Earl of Talbot such a thing. I am sure you are far from simple.” He bowed his head a fraction. “Now, if you were to be so kind, please remove that necklace and those rings. I assure you that your own beauty far outshines something as dull as a perfectly cut sapphire.”

Tilly stood straighter, refolding her fan. She leaned forwards, presenting her creamy white cleavage for display. “If you want them you will have to remove them yourself.”

The highwayman’s lips quirked. James suspected this was not the first time a beautiful woman had directed him to place his hands upon her. “You are not discouraging me, my lady. Quite the opposite in fact.”

James pursed his lips as the highwayman traced the edge of the necklace with a gloved hand, Tilly quivering in delight as he released the clasp, demonstrating that he was an expert at relieving a lady of her jewels. He took even less time to remove the rings. Tilly batted her eyelashes and parted her perfect bow-shaped lips. “I have other non-monetary treasures.”

“Of that, my lady, I am sure. But you have been more than gracious.” He kissed the back of Tilly’s hand and she flicked open her fan. If she’d fluttered it any harder she might have left the ground. James couldn’t stop himself from tutting.

The highwayman glanced in his direction. “Do not be impatient, my lord. I will come to you in due course. Once this lovely young lady is back inside the carriage.”

James was not about to argue, especially with a pistol pointed in his direction. Tilly held out her hand and the highwayman helped her board, her expression wistful, if not a little disappointed.

Tilly safely away, James found himself under the full scrutiny of the Chivalrous Highwayman. “Now, my lord, if you would be so kind as to take a few steps further into the trees.”

James didn’t move. He had no desire to be led away into the dark undergrowth. At least if he stayed by the carriage he could rely on Tilly’s resourcefulness to save him if something went wrong. “You can take my valuables as easily from here.”

“I would prefer that you did as you were told.”

The barrel of the pistol waved close to his cheek. James gritted his teeth and didn’t move. “I might not have the reputation of my father for shrewd business acumen, but I can count to two. You have discharged both of your pistols.”

With a speed he could not match, a blade was pressed against the side of James’s neck. “But I am not unarmed. Now, my lord, move. I find gentlemen far less obliging when I search them than the ladies. Once tied to a tree I know they are more inclined not to act the hero, or something similarly idiotic.”

James knew which battles to fight and, once he had been relieved of his valuables and the highwayman had departed, Tilly could set him free. He realised he was relying on the Chivalrous Highwayman’s reputation not to hurt him as he ventured into the trees, not that he had much option with a blade pressed to the side of his neck. If the stories were true, he would have fewer injuries if he didn’t put up a fight, but that was a long gamble to take on a man who, if caught, would be dancing the Tyburn Jig.

He kept his head high and back straight even as the ground beneath his feet became more uneven and unsuited to the heeled shoes he’d chosen to wear. “Against the young oak, if you wouldn’t mind, and place your hands either side of the trunk. I promise to be gentle.”

Despite what his grandfather used to say about him, James was capable of following orders, especially orders that would avoid him getting hurt. Standing with his back to the tree, James steeled himself for the rope burn once his wrists were bound, but instead was surprised when the length of rope was carefully tied behind the cuffs of his jacket, avoiding his exposed skin. While care had been taken not to harm him, his bonds were fastened tightly and he would not escape them without help.

“I hear the Viscount of Crofton has a fondness for pretty things.” The highwayman came to stand in front of him, much closer than James was expecting. He could smell the heady mix of expensive scent, mingling with horse and leather. It was intoxicating. No wonder people freely offered themselves to this man.

“I am honoured you know who I am.”

“Let us just say that I am fond of pretty things.” A deep chuckle accompanied the hand that made quick work of opening his jacket. “But today I am particularly interested in your love of little watches.”

“You have taken time to observe me. I should ask if am special.” His voice betrayed none of his emotions. He wanted to preen, but his thundering heart dampened any sense of pride. As intriguing as this man was, James was wary. He was not a coward, but neither was he a fool, and he would play the game to ensure he walked away unhurt.

He bit down on his tongue rather than let out a gasp as a hand stroked the silk of his shirt before snaking inside the inner pocket of his coat, and then the highwayman leaned closer. “You know yourself that you are a fine gem in the crown of the court. You are a far cry from some of your fellow courtiers—you turn more away than you accept.”

James’s interest was piqued further by such a statement, as few realised his games were not as widespread as many touted. “You think you know me well.”

“As well as any of the many beauties at court. I watch you all, but some closer than others. A-ha!”

The exclamation coincided with the retrieval of James’s money pouch and his most recent purchase from Daniel Fletcher, a watchmaker who had come to his attention of late.

James shivered as the warm body that had been shielding him from the cool air moved away. “I fear I must bid you adieu. Parting is such sweet sorrow—please forgive this inconvenience, but I for one will have very pleasant memories from being so close to the Viscount of Crofton. I see why many tremble at the mention of your name.”

With a rustle of fabric as he secreted his looted goods, the highwayman was gone, leaving James to strain his hearing to listen to the retreating footsteps, which were thereafter replaced by hooves beating an escape into the forest.

He couldn’t tell exactly how long he waited, trying fruitlessly to loosen his bindings, but he heard twigs snap underfoot as someone approached.

“Ah, there you are, James.”

Tilly appeared, ducking under a low branch and seeming not to care that her long skirts were dragging through the dirt and undergrowth.

“Come and free me.”

She chuckled but did as requested. “I would wager you did not mind being tied up by the Chivalrous Highwayman. He has taken great pains for your bonds not to hurt you, and they are not so difficult to release.”

The ropes fell away and James shook out the tingling sensation in his arms. He may not have been tied up for long, but it was enough to be uncomfortable. Any longer and he might have lost the feeling in his hands.

“His reputation still stands—he knew me well enough to search for and take my watch.”

“It is not like you are some hermit who hides away in his country house. The whole of London knows of your willingness to part with money for anything that catches your fancy.”

Her dismissive tone rankled, but there was little point in taking her to task—scolding had never worked before and it was unlikely to work now. “As if you are any better. Now, come, we should get back to the carriage.”

“Yes, we should get to London as fast as possible. That loathsome driver of yours has returned and is readying the horses. I gave him a piece of my mind, I will be writing a letter to your father about him. He looked at me in the most impertinent manner.”

“I would not vex yourself too much about him. If he is lucky, he may still be allowed to look after the pigs back at Crofton Hall, but his driving days are finished.”

James strode away, Tilly trotting to keep up. “Quickly, Cousin, we don’t want it any darker while we travel the last few miles out of the forest.”

Tilly huffed. “I don’t care about the dark. I just want to get to court.”

“Straight to court?” Could she really want to head directly to the palace? They were a mess, arriving too late in the evening to be polite and in no fit state to be seen.

“Of course. I want to waste not one minute to tell this tale. Fresh from our adventure with the Chivalrous Highwayman, the dirt still on my dress, as I regale them all with how we survived at his hands. And how I rescued you from your dire position. It will be glorious.”

COLLAPSE

About the Author

REBECCA COHEN spends her days dreaming of a living in a Tudor manor house, or a Georgian mansion. Alas, the closest she comes to this is through her characters in her historical romance novels. She also dreams of intergalactic adventures and fantasy realms, but because she’s not yet got her space or dimensional travel plans finalised, she lives happily in leafy Hertfordshire, England, with her husband and young son. She can often be found with a pen in one hand and sloe gin with lemon tonic in the other.

First published in 2011, Rebecca primarily writes gay romance but in many sub-genres (historical, sci fi, fantasy, contemporary), and she simply can’t bear not to follow a story even if it is set in a different time, space or reality.


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