Rebeccah's fingers were sore and her eyes burned from squinting at her embroidery. She set it aside and crossed to the sash window, then stared down at the activity in the sunlit square for a while before turning to find a pair of eyes regarding her.
"Oh!" Her hand flew to her mouth. It was the first time she had seen those striking blue eyes by daylight; the highwaywoman was well named. "You're awake."
Rebeccah poured a cup of water, and carried it over to the bed. "You must be thirsty. Drink this."
Blue-Eyed Nick tried to sit up, groaned, and flopped back against the pillow. "I'm as weak as a babe." Her mouth curled in self-disgust.
"You have been very ill. Here."
She took the cup from Rebeccah with her right hand — her left arm was in a sling — drained it in a single gulp, and handed it back. "Thank you."
Blue eyes scanned the bedchamber, lingering on the reclining easy chair that Mary had helped Rebeccah bring through from the dressing room. "Where am I? The last thing I remember is Putney Heath."
"Our house in St James's Square."
Dark eyebrows shot up. "And how long have I been here?"
"Three days." Rebeccah tugged the bell pull that would summon Mary from below stairs, though it was Monday and the bustle of washday was in full progress.
"That long!" The other woman studied Rebeccah's face and frowned. "Are you well, Mistress Rebeccah? The shadows beneath your pretty eyes weren't there before." She glanced at the easy chair. "My fault, I fear, for I have taken your bed. ... Though this is not yours, I'd venture, or it would not fit me!" She plucked at the nightdress that Mary had produced from somewhere.
Rebeccah tried not to blush. "Your condition caused us considerable disquiet."
"My maid has been supervising your care. Mary's mother was a Cunning Woman. She looks after all our ailments." She bit her lip, remembering her panic as she watched the highwaywoman fighting for her life. "We had some difficulty removing the bullet, then fever almost took you. Were it not for Mary ..." She fell silent.
"So this rank-smelling item," the highwaywoman indicated the poultice peeping out of the left shoulder of her nightdress, "is Mary's handiwork?"
Rebeccah welcomed the attempt at humour. "Her own recipe." She had watched Mary preparing it in her pestle and mortar. There had been lard in it, and honey, opium for the pain, and myrrh — for which the apothecary had charged Rebeccah an outrageous sum — and lord knows what else besides.
A knock at the door made her jump, and sent her scurrying to answer it. She opened it a crack, saw Mary standing there, and opened it wider.
"Come in." She pulled the maid through and shut the door.
"You rang, Madam?"
"Your patient is awake." Rebeccah turned and led the way to the bed.
"I collect that I owe both of you my life," the highwaywoman told Mary, as the maid checked the whites of her eyes and condition of her tongue, examined her wound, gave a satisfied grunt, and replaced the poultice. "My deepest gratitude." The skin around her eyes crinkled.
"Consider it just recompense for your rescue of us," said Rebeccah. "Which brings me to something that has been nagging me ... how was it that you were to hand when we needed you?"
Blue-Eyed Nick's gaze turned inwards for a moment, and she shivered.
Mary frowned and held the back of her hand to her patient's forehead. "Are you well? Your temperature feels normal..."
"It must have been Chance or the Almighty Himself that guided me to you that day," said the highwaywoman. "For I had no idea it was your coach that had been targeted."
Rebeccah leaned forward. "Yet you knew there was to be an ambush?"
She nodded. "I was in a tavern I don't usually frequent, when I heard a whisper." She gave a rueful smile. "I had promised a friend I would lie low, but robbery is one thing, rape and murder quite another. I could not stand by and let it happen."
"And thank Blue-Eyed Nick," murmured Mary. She cocked her head to one side. "We can't go on calling you that. Do you have a name?"
"Mary!" protested Rebeccah.
The plump woman sniffed. "If she wants me to mind my own business, all she need do is say so, Madam. But 'Blue-Eyed Nick' is a mouthful, there's no getting around it."
The corner of the highwaywoman's mouth twitched. "Call me Kate."
"Kate it is then," said Mary, "though it's probably no more your real name than the other was." Rebeccah rolled her eyes. "And while all this chattering is fine and dandy," continued the maid, "what you really need is peace and quiet and building up." Blue eyes tracked from Mary's face to Rebeccah's and back again. "We must put some colour back into your cheeks. Think you can manage some broth?"
Kate considered the question then nodded.
"You too, Madam." Mary turned a stern gaze on Rebeccah. "You've been eating barely enough to keep a sparrow alive."
She was feeling a bit peckish, she realised. "That would be welcome, Mary. Thank you."
The maid curtseyed, then hurried off.
"She's quite a character." The flash of Kate's strong white teeth made Rebeccah's heart race.
Realisation that the undercurrent of attraction between them was as strong as ever made her feel off balance. "Were you mocking me?" she blurted.
"I beg your pardon?"
"When you kissed me. ... For you're a woman, are you not?"
Kate chuckled. "Whoever stripped me of my clothes ..." She sobered as she saw Rebeccah's expression. "But I see you are in earnest.... To answer you, my dear. Indeed I was not mocking you."
For some reason, that 'my dear' soothed Rebeccah's agitation. "Then why did you kiss me?"
"For the simplest of reasons," said Kate gently. "Because the moment I saw you I wanted to." She paused. "Does that shock you?"
It should have, supposed Rebeccah. But instead all she felt was a warm inner glow. "I ... I have read of such things," she admitted. "But ..." She trailed off.
"God gave me an appreciation of the female form," said Kate, her tone unrepentant, "and I thank him for it." Her gaze became quizzical. "Forgive me, but I was under the impression that you did not find my attentions wholly repugnant. Was I mistaken?"
Rebeccah cheeks flamed. "I thought you were a man!"
"So you did." Blue eyes twinkled. "And now that you know otherwise?"
Fortunately for her composure — if she'd known how indelicate this particular Pandora's Box would turn out to be, she'd never have opened it — a knock at the door and Mary's reappearance with a laden tray prevented their conversation from continuing.
"Did Mama see you?" Rebeccah accepted a spoon and a bowl of broth that smelled of beef and vegetables.
"No, Madam. I was the soul of discretion." Mary eased Kate into a sitting position, propped the pillows behind her, and settled the tray on her lap. She handed Kate the spoon and nodded approval as she took her first mouthful. "Mrs Dutton is supervising the laundering of the silks and lace as she always does."
"That's good." Rebeccah tasted the broth, which was delicious. "And so is this."
"Mmm," agreed Kate round her spoon.
Mary's smile was complacent. "Good food and plenty of rest and you'll be back on your feet in no time," she told Kate. "Just as well since Mistress Rebeccah's busybody of a sister — begging your pardon, Madam, but she is a busybody — is due home soon and you must be gone by then.... Now, if that's all, I'd best get back below stairs, or the others will say I'm shirking my washday duties." She bobbed a curtsey and left the two women alone once more.
They finished their broth, and set aside the bowls, then a slightly awkward silence fell.
"Is Clover well?" asked Kate eventually.
"Your horse?" Rebeccah thanked God for the neutral topic. "Yes. She is stabled with our mounts in the Mews around the corner."
"Thank you. She can sometimes be a handful but I would hate any harm to come to her." Kate tried to hide a yawn and Rebeccah remembered her recent ordeal and cursed herself for an insensitive fool.
"You are tired and should rest."
Kate scowled. "I have done nothing but rest for the last three days it seems."
"I would not call that rest. You were tossing and turning and calling out ..."
"What did I say?"
"It was confused. Perhaps you were dreaming of heaven, for you mentioned an angel."
Kate smiled. "A reference to you, I think."
Rebeccah blushed and hurried on, "Several time you mentioned Newgate and a man name Wild ... no Wildey." A shadow passed over Kate's face. "A friend of yours?"
"No." The other woman's eyelids fluttered closed then opened again. "I beg your pardon." She blinked, and licked her lips, but it was obvious she was fighting to stay awake.
"You must sleep if you are to regain your health and strength," chided Rebeccah.
Kate sighed. "If you insist."
The sun had shifted round and was threatening to shine straight in the highwaywoman's face. Rebeccah crossed to a window and drew the curtain, then removed the pillows propping Kate up and made her comfortable.
"Will you still be here when I wake?" There was something wistful in the eyes looking up at her.
She smiled and resisted an urge to brush back a stray lock of raven hair. "If I am not, Mary will come and fetch me."
"Then I shall sleep." Seconds later the highwaywoman was as good as her word.
Caroline sipped her chocolate and regarded Rebeccah with a frown. "I see why your mother is concerned for your health. You look quite pale."
"I'm well enough," protested Rebeccah, glancing towards the other side of the parlour where her mother was reading a book. To her daughter's indignation, Mrs Dutton had taken it upon herself to invite Caroline Stanhope round to the house in St. James's Square. Her aims had been laudable — to lift Rebeccah's spirits and restore her appetite — but unnecessary given that the woman upstairs was out of danger, though of course her mother wasn't to know that. "I have not been sleeping well, that's all."
Her friend put down the dish of chocolate. "The hold-up on Putney Heath still weighs on your mind?"
Rebeccah nodded. "I can't help wondering what might have happened had Blue-Eyed Nick not come to our aid."
"Your mother told me the bare bones of what occurred." Caroline leaned forward. "A horrific experience, to be sure, Beccah. But once again 'your' highwayman," her smile was arch, "was to hand."
"And I thank heaven for it! Never was I so glad to see anyone in my life."
"He must have looked dashing indeed, galloping to your aid, pistols firing. I wish I had been there to see it."
"Be glad you were not."
The parlour door swung open, and the senior footman came in, bearing a silver salver on which sat a solitary visiting card. The warning glance Will shot Rebeccah's way as he limped towards her mother made her heart beat faster.
Mrs Dutton read the legend on the rectangle of white card, looked thoughtful, then muttered a reply. When Will nodded, bowed, and left the room, she returned to perusing her book.
Unable to contain her curiosity, Rebeccah asked, "Who has called on us, Mama?"
Her mother looked up. "Oh, it is only that thieftaker Anne has employed."
Samuel Josselin? Here? And his injured quarry upstairs and vulnerable? Rebeccah clasped her hands together. Surely everyone in the room could hear the blood thundering through her veins.
"He wanted to make his report," continued Mrs Dutton, unaware of her daughter's turmoil. "I told him to come back in two days."
Relief washed over Rebeccah, and she managed a nod.
Caroline looked puzzled and said in a low voice, "Does your sister not know of your sentiments towards Blue-Eyed Nick?"
She shook her head. "Alas, Caro, Anne cannot see beyond his profession ... or the insult he did my person."
Her friend's eyebrows shot up. "'Insult'?"
"Ah." Caroline looked thoughtful. "But surely his rescue of you and your servants now shows him in a much more favourable light?"
Rebeccah sighed. "Perhaps, when she learns of it, Anne will indeed look more kindly upon ... him and dispense with Josselin's services. But —" She shrugged. Anne is hasty in forming her opinions and slow to change them.
"Let us hope so, for your sake, Beccah." Caroline sat back. "Now." She gave Rebeccah a playful smile. "Tell me the details you left out to spare your mother's blushes."
Rebeccah felt an overwhelming urge to tell her friend everything. But she would be shocked indeed to know that at this very minute Blue-Eyed Nick is sleeping soundly in my bed, and what's more that he is a she. So she clamped down on the impulse and asked instead, "What can you mean?"
Caroline rapped Rebeccah's knuckles with her fan. "Did he ask you for another kiss?"
She hoped her cheeks weren't as red as they felt. "He had far more pressing matters on his mind, Caro."
"What, no sweet talk at all?"
Her friend's obvious disappointment made Rebeccah laugh out loud. At the sound, her mother marked her place with her finger and gave her daughter a pleased glance.
"I knew company would cheer you, Rebeccah," she called. "That the incident shook you badly and jangled your nerves, I can allow, but remaining cooped up in your room was not the answer."
Rebeccah said only, "No, Mama."
Mrs Dutton returned to her book and Caroline reclaimed her friend's attention. "Is it true that your highwayman killed all three of the rogues who attacked you yet took no harm himself?"
"Indeed." Rebeccah winced inwardly at having to repeat the lie, but what else could she do? The fewer who knew Kate was here and injured, the better. "Fortune must have smiled on him ... and on us that night."
"No wonder they named him Nick." Caroline's eyes sparkled. "He has the luck of the Devil."
The afternoon passed pleasantly enough, but even while Rebeccah was talking to Caroline, playing cards, eating sweetmeats (her mother smiling at this sign of Rebeccah's returning appetite), and drinking a glass of wine she found herself fretting about Kate and wondering how she was faring. When her old friend had finally departed with a cheery smile and a wave, it wasn't long before Rebeccah made her excuses and darted upstairs.
The injured highwaywoman was still asleep. But it seemed a restless kind of sleep — her eyes were moving rapidly from side to side beneath closed eyelids, her brow was creased, and she was muttering under her breath. A concerned Rebeccah held the back of her hand to Kate's forehead, and was relieved to find it cool to the touch.
Not fever but bad dreams?
Pulling a chair next to the bed, she took Kate's larger hand in hers, pleased to find that, almost at once, the frown smoothed and the muttering ceased. She contemplated the other woman's handsome profile, trying to decide which of her features she found most appealing, deciding in the end that it was those striking eyes, currently hidden from view, that caused her heart to flutter the most.
Kate looked both younger and more innocent in sleep. How old was she? Older than me, I'd wager. Not more than thirty though — the life of a highwayman is precarious and short. That thought saddened her.
A hand on her shoulder brought her back to her surroundings with a start.
"You have the touch, Madam," whispered her maid, indicating the clasped hands and the contentedly sleeping woman.
Rebeccah sighed. "I wish I could do more, Mary. Every moment she remains here she is in danger. Did you know that Josselin came to see my sister this afternoon?"
"Will told me."
"Kate must regain her strength and quickly."
"Have no fear, Madam. This one's as strong as an ox, else the fever would have carried her off."
"I hope you're right."
Their conversation must have disturbed the woman in the bed, for she stirred and began to stretch, then winced and thought better of it. Dark eyelashes fluttered open and blue eyes stared up at the two women rather dazedly before comprehension returned.
Kate's mouth curved into a smile. "Am I the topic of your discussion?"
Strong fingers tightened around Rebeccah's hand, holding it fast as she tried to withdraw it. To struggle with Mary present was more than her dignity was worth, so Rebeccah didn't.
"You look better," said Mary.
"I am. And what's more I'm hungry." Kate sounded surprised.
"A promising sign. More broth, or could you manage something solid? With your permission, of course, Madam." She turned towards her mistress who was being distracted by the oddly pleasurable sensation of Kate's thumb stroking her skin.
"Granted," managed Rebeccah.
"Something solid," said the highwaywoman.
"I'll see what I can find ..." Mary curtseyed and hurried away.
The instant the door closed, Rebeccah freed herself of Kate's grip. "Have you no sense of propriety?"
"Apparently not." Blue eyes danced. "But it was you who held my hand rather than vice versa."
"Because it seemed to help you sleep better."
"Whatever the reason, I am glad of it."
Rebeccah didn't know whether to return the impudent grin or slap Kate's face. She contented herself with a grunt. "While you were sleeping," she said, to change the topic, "We had an unwelcome visitor."
"'S Death!" Kate frowned. "What the devil was he doing here?"
"My sister has hired him to take you."
Pale blue eyes regarded her with astonishment then became thoughtful. "That explains the Rose and Crown."
"No matter. But I am sorry your sister desires to see me hanged."
"As am I." Rebeccah sighed. "It did not help matters, Kate, that the necklace and bracelet you took from her were a gift from one of her suitors." She ignored Kate's snort. "But regarding Josselin, you need have no worry on that score. My mother sent him away until my sister's return."
"Which is to be when?"
"In two days."
"Then I will endeavour to be up and gone from here by then. Though it is a shame our time together must be so brief." She threw back the corner of the bedclothes and started to swing her bare legs out.
"Where are you going?" Rebeccah held up a hand to stop Kate from getting up.
"I need to use the chamber pot."
"When Mary returns she will help you."
"I fear that will be too late."
Kate stood up, but as she did so, her face paled and she began to sway. Rebeccah grabbed her round the waist, and felt an arm go round her shoulders. She glanced up anxiously, relieved to see the colour already returning to Kate's cheeks.
"You stood up too quickly!" She released her hold on Kate's waist but allowed the arm to remain round her shoulder. "I told you we should have waited for Mary."
"But then I would have had no excuse to put my arm around you."
"You are incorrigible!" Rebeccah helped the other woman towards her dressing room. It was difficult for both of them to get through the door at the same time, but by turning through 90 degrees they managed it.
The highwaywoman lifted the lid of Rebeccah's close-stool and regarded the padded seat with the hole in the centre with obvious amusement. "This is a superior chamber pot indeed!" She removed her arm from around Rebeccah's shoulders, and began to lift her nightdress.
Rebeccah squeaked and turned her back.
"Forgive my rough manners," said Kate with a laugh. "You are fortunate my left shoulder was wounded and not my right, or I would be asking for more intimate assistance." A rustle of material preceded the sound of liquid splashing on porcelain and a sigh of heartfelt relief.
Rebeccah waited, fidgeting, until Kate pronounced herself decent, then turned, relieved to find that it was true. She helped the taller woman across to the washstand and poured some water into the basin so Kate could wash her hands — awkwardly because of the sling — then helped her back to bed.
A few minutes later, Mary appeared with a tray containing slices of beef, bread and butter, a lump of Cheshire cheese, some blanched almonds, a cup of beer, and a dish of tea.
"Tea?" Kate grimaced.
"For Mistress Rebeccah." Mary handed the steaming dish to her mistress. "The beer's for you." The dark-haired woman grumbled when she discovered it was only small beer. "Nothing stronger until you are better," chided the maid.
Rebeccah sipped her tea and watched Kate eat. If the speed at which she crammed food into her mouth was any indication, she was indeed hungry. At last, with a contented sigh, Kate leaned back against her pillow.
Mary collected up the crockery and departed, leaving the two women in companionable silence. Rebeccah opened her mouth then closed it again.
"Ask your questions," said Kate.
"They will not tire you?" When there was no reply, Rebeccah paused for a moment longer then plunged in. "How old are you?"
Kate blinked at the personal question but said amenably enough, "Nine-and-twenty. And you?"
Rebeccah blushed. "Three-and-twenty. ... Why did you become a highwayman?"
"A flaw in my nature? For it suits me well."
"Did no one teach you your Bible?"
"I only steal from those who can afford it."
Kate flicked her expressive gaze around the bedchamber with its wainscoted walls and expensive furnishings, and raised one eyebrow. Now was probably not a good time to mention that her mother was second cousin to the Duchess of Marlborough, thought Rebeccah.
"You are saying that because others have more than you, it is acceptable to steal from them?"
"I must earn my living somehow," said Kate. "People depend on me."
Rebeccah's heart skipped a beat. "You have a husband and children?" Somehow she had not considered that a possibility. Kate smiled and shook her head but didn't elaborate further. Rebeccah's heart resumed its normal rhythm. "But the risk," she pressed.
"At first that was a consideration, but now it doesn't deter me. Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, as the saying goes. Besides, risk is what gives life its spice."
"There must be other occupations you could do."
"Indeed." Kate grinned. "My mother paid the premium for me to be apprenticed to a mantua-maker."
The image of the highwaywoman as a seamstress was incongruous. "Mantua-maker?"
"That shocks you. But my stitches were neat and my work of good quality ... or so Mistress Coggs told me."
Kate's face darkened. "Mistress Coggs' husband. Though I was just turned thirteen and he five-and-sixty, the drunken sot took a fancy to me. One afternoon, when his wife was out, he tried to rape me." She shrugged then winced and clasped her injured shoulder. "I was able to defend my honour — my brothers had taught me how. I kneed him in the stones and fled."
"Where did you go?"
"The streets, of course. But I had no intention of selling my body, so I became a cutpurse."
"But surely ... Your parents..."
Kate shook her head. "My father died when I was five. And I could not bring the constables down on my mother. She had been through enough already. ... That was the year my sister died." she explained. "Jane was only nine. Smallpox."
"I'm sorry. ... " Rebeccah puzzled about that for a moment. "But I don't understand. Why would the constables be after you?"
"I had broken my contract of apprenticeship," said Kate, as though stating the obvious. "And assaulted my Mistress's husband." She shifted against her pillow. "Hard labour in a house of correction is not unusual for such a crime."
"But you were only thirteen and he tried to rape you!"
Kate's laugh was unamused. "Who would take my word against that of George Coggs?"
"That's not fair."
"Life isn't," agreed Kate.
That silenced Rebeccah for a while. Then she continued, hesitantly, "You talked of Newgate often in your delirium. You seemed to know it well. Did you visit it often?"
Kate smiled. "You give me more credit than I deserve. It is true I visited my brother Ned there, but later my acquaintance with Newgate became more ... personal."
Rebeccah tried to make sense of that. "But you sport no brand." She indicated her cheek. "Were you pardoned, or did some benefactor pay to set you free?"
"Neither. You are the only benefactress I know."
Rebeccah blushed but would not be put off. "Then how did you get out of Newgate unscathed?"
Kate raised an eyebrow. "I assure you it is not. I am living proof."
"But how — "
"Fortune smiled on me, in the shape of a nail."
"You'd be surprised at the uses to which a nail can be put. In the right hands it can unlock fetters, chip mortar..." Kate's mouth quirked. "Your mother would be horrified to learn her daughter has smuggled such a desperate character into her home."
She would indeed!
Yet it was odd, mused Rebeccah, how safe she felt with this self-confessed thief and escaped prisoner. Maybe that was an indication of just how dangerous Kate really was. She charmed her way inside your defences and before you knew it she had stolen your money ... and your heart.
But how is that possible? She is a woman!
"You are very quiet." Kate settled back against her pillows with a yawn. "No more questions? As I feared, the account of my fall from grace has stunned you with its tedium."
"It has done no such thing. ... Very well, then. To continue. Can you not still become a mantua maker as you planned?"
"You are set on saving my soul as well as my body. That is kind. But I fear you are too late. For the Law is relentless and will not let me escape its grasp without paying for my misdeeds."
The answer depressed Rebeccah and she played with her father's signet ring before glancing up, in time to catch Kate hiding another yawn.
"I have tired you after all!" She rose and removed the pillows supporting Kate's back so she could rest more comfortably. "Sleep now."
"That is all I seem to do, eat and sleep," grumbled Kate. "I would much rather stay awake and talk to you. Or I could simply gaze at you while you read or sew, or otherwise occupy yourself."
"Hush. You are babbling."
"And what about those smudges beneath your own eyes, Rebeccah. Should you not rest too?" Kate patted the bed beside her. "Come, let us be cosy. It will be more comfortable than that chair, and you will be quite safe, I swear." She yawned again, so widely her jaw cracked, then her eyelids fluttered closed. Moments later a soft snore emerged.
Rebeccah shook her head, though whether it was at the sleeping woman's suggestion or at herself for being tempted by it, she was unsure. For a long moment she stood watching her, then she went downstairs to join her mother for supper.
The cries of the streethawkers in the square outside woke Kate. She regarded the lofty ceiling for a moment, then propped herself up on one elbow and glanced at the reclining easy chair. The alert green eyes of its current occupant looked back at her.
"Good morrow, Kate." Rebeccah sat up, rather stiffly. "How is your shoulder?"
The fiery throbbing had eased to a dull ache. "Better, I think."
"Good." The young woman threw off her bedclothes, slipped a robe over her shoulders, then crossed to the bell pull and gave it a tug.
Rebeccah wandered over to a window and stared out. It was another fine day, and sunshine glinted off her fair hair. Kate took the opportunity to admire the young woman's profile — her pert nose was delightful — and to speculate about the figure beneath the nightdress.
A knock at the door drew Rebeccah's attention, and she hurried towards it. Mary entered, carrying a ewer.
"Good morrow, Madam." The maid curtseyed. "Am I to help you dress?" She nodded a greeting at Kate who nodded back,
"Thank you, Mary. If you please." Rebeccah led the way to the little dressing room that adjoined her bedchamber.
Kate leaned back against her pillows and studied her surroundings. Were the furnishings Rebeccah's doing or her mother's? The chintz curtains were the latest thing and matched the bed hangings and quilt. The sheets everyone had been so careless of during her illness were of the finest Holland. As for the feather mattress, it was deeper even than Alice's.
With a pang of guilt she realised that she hadn't given a thought to the red-haired landlady, who probably thought Kate was dead or lying injured in a ditch somewhere.
As soon as I regained my wits, I should have sent word to her. Why am I so thoughtless? But it was no good crying over spilt milk.
Kate pushed thoughts of Alice aside, and wondered how long Rebeccah and Mary would be. It must be strange indeed to have a maid to help you dress ... not to mention to empty your chamber pot. But Rebeccah probably took such things for granted.
She felt twitchy and restless, and the sunshine seemed to beckon. On a day like today, she would normally go riding. (I wonder if they are feeding Clover well.) Undoubtedly her health and energy were returning; she wouldn't be able to answer for her temper if she was forced to stay cooped up in bed.
Throwing back the blankets, Kate stood, pleased to find there was no dizziness today. She crossed to the window, and stared down at the bustle below her. The sling supporting her left arm was a nuisance. She regarded it with pursed lips and unpinned it. Her shoulder twinged as she flexed her arm, then settled to a dull ache.
It will serve.
Returning to the bed, she perched on the edge of it and waited. Five minutes passed, then ten — still no sign of Rebecca or her maid. The pressure on Kate's bladder increased, and she crossed her legs and reached for the deck of playing cards Mary had provided. She was setting out the cards for a game of Solitaire when a rustle of movement made her look up.
Rebeccah was emerging from her dressing room, immaculate in a gown of pale blue silk, her hair brushed and neatly pinned into place. Kate blinked at this vision of loveliness and was about to pay her a compliment when Mary fixed her with a glare.
"What are you doing out of bed? And who told you you could take off that sling?"
"But I feel much better," protested Kate, rising and heading past the amused Rebeccah towards the dressing room.
"Wait!" called Mary. "Where are you —"
"I need to use the chamber pot." Kate hitched up her nightdress, sat on the close stool, and began to make water. Ah!
"Leave her, Mary," came Rebeccah's muffled voice from the other room. "She must be feeling better to walk without assistance." Then, in a louder voice, "Kate, I must go down to breakfast. Mary will bring you something on a tray. I will join you later."
When Kate had finished her business, she crossed to the washstand, emptied the dirty water from the basin into the close stool and poured herself some fresh. She peeled off her nightdress, washed and dried herself, and frowned as she realised she had no idea where her clothes were, or even if they had survived her adventure on Putney Heath.
Racks of Rebeccah's gowns filled one wall of the small room. She selected one at random, held it against herself, and chuckled. It reached barely to her knees. She replaced the gown and pulled on her nightdress once more.
The little clock on the dresser was showing 9 am. On closer inspection, it proved to be a precision piece by Daniel Quare. Kate hefted the candlesticks standing either side of the looking glass. They were solid silver, as were the brush and comb. She was glad to see that no patch box sat among the bowls of cosmetics arranged on a muslin cloth — she thought it an ugly fashion.
The writing desk revealed some letters, stained either with seawater or tears, and signed 'Your loving brother, William'. She perused them quickly. He must be dead, for she hasn't mentioned him. And that jovial-looking man in the pen and ink portrait, presumably sketched by Rebeccah herself. It bored a strong resemblance to Rebeccah, though her nose and jawline were much prettier. Her father?
Kate moved on to the little cabinet, with its display of blue-and-white Oriental porcelain, and began to examine the contents of the drawers — a jewelled buckle, several diamond-headed pins, a painted and perfumed fan, a beautiful amber necklace.... She was studying a diamond pendant, whose stones were of superior quality, when Mary entered the dressing room.
"Breakfast is — What are you doing with that?" The maid's tone was sharp.
"Just looking." Kate put back the pendant and closed the drawer, then eased past the maid into the bedchamber.
A tray lay on the chair beside the bed, containing slices of cold ham, bread and butter, and a steaming dish of chocolate. Kate sat down and pulled the tray onto her lap.
"I hope that is the truth, Kate." Mary had followed her and was standing, arms folded, gaze hard. "For if I find you have taken advantage of my mistress's kindness, I will turn you in to Josselin myself."
The accusation stung. But a dog could not complain if he was suspected of barking, so Kate pushed aside her hurt. "Your loyalty does you credit, Mary." She took a slice of bread and butter and added some ham. "But you may rest easy. I would not treat your Mistress so shabbily." She began to eat.
"Humph!" But after a moment the set of the maid's jaw softened and she unfolded her arms.
"Were my own clothes too badly cut up to be saved?" asked Kate, round a mouthful of food. "A shame if so, for they cost me a pretty penny."
The maid crossed to the tall boy standing against one wall and crouched. As she pulled open the bottom drawer, the scent of dried lavender filled the room. "Mistress Rebeccah asked me to mend and launder them." She pointed. "Your boots and sword are here too. Will cleaned them." She paused and looked uncomfortable. "We mislaid your tricorne. It must still be on the Heath."
"No matter. That was kind. Thank you." She sipped her chocolate without enthusiasm. She had never really acquired the taste for it — just as well considering how expensive it was.
Mary shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "I have duties to attend to. Is there anything else?"
Kate smiled and shook her head.
The maid left her to eat her breakfast in peace.
It felt good to be wearing her own clothes, thought Kate, as she pulled on her hose and breeches and stamped into her boots. She felt far less ... vulnerable.
She pondered whether to bind her breasts, then thought it would be good practice. At first her shoulder objected and made the going awkward, but she persevered and was tying the final knot in the strip of cotton when the door opened and Rebeccah entered.
The young woman let out a muffled apology, halted, and averted her gaze — but not before taking a good look at the half-dressed highwaywoman, Kate saw with a smile.
She pulled on her shirt and began buttoning it. "You may look now."
Rebeccah did, her cheeks slightly pink. "You should have waited for Mary to help you," she chided. "You will break open your wound."
"I have been in the habit of dressing myself since I was a child."
Kate reached for her waistcoat. The colour had faded — the result of much soap and scrubbing, she presumed — but Mary's stitches were almost as tiny as Kate's own, and the darned hole was only visible if you looked for it. "Nice," she murmured, slipping her arms through the armholes and buttoning it up.
"Are you planning to leave today?" asked Rebeccah, trying and failing to hide her dismay.
"What, and forego the pleasure of your company sooner than I must?" Kate shook her head and was charmed to see the other woman's frown disappear. "But go soon I must. For every day deprives you of your bed and risks your reputation."
And I am coming to realise that it is one thing to take advantage of an older, married woman such as Alice, wise in the ways of the world, but quite another to trifle with the affections of an innocent whose future depends on her unsullied good name.
Green eyes blinked at her and soft lips pursed. Kate turned away before the urge to take Rebeccah in her arms and kiss her got the better of her.
The clip clop of hooves and the rumble of carriage wheels drew her over to the window, and she stared down. A coach and four had stopped outside the Dutton residence. The footman jumping down and running round to open the nearside carriage door seemed familiar. She chewed her lip as she tried to place him.
Rebeccah joined her by the window in a rustle of long skirts. "Oh!" Her hand flew to her breast. "It can't be!"
Kate's heart sank as she recognised the woman emerging from the carriage. The resemblance between her and the man in Rebeccah's pen-and-ink sketch was obvious. "Your sister has returned."
"Then I must leave at once." Kate glanced to where her baldric and sword lay. It was fortunate indeed that she had got dressed.
The door opened and Mary rushed in. "Mistress Rebeccah," she called, then stopped as she saw her mistress standing by the window. "Your sister ..."
"Is returned a day early. I know."
The maid glanced towards Kate. "We must get you away from here at once."
Kate reached for her coat, which like her waistcoat was slightly faded and bore signs of darning. She began to ease it over her wounded shoulder.
"Wait!" cried Rebeccah. Kate threw her an enquiring look. "Dressed like that you will attract too much attention."
"Then what do you suggest? For your gowns —" Kate's eyes tracked from the diminutive gentlewoman to her even shorter maid, "— will not fit me."
Rebeccah frowned then her brow cleared. "Will is of a size with Kate, isn't he, Mary? Does he have a spare set of livery?"
The maid's eyes lit up. "A coat and wig should be enough, Madam. I will fetch them at once." As she darted out of the bedroom, Kate turned to Rebeccah for an explanation.
"People rarely look twice at anyone wearing livery. They will assume you are a servant, going about Dutton business."
Kate's look of frank admiration made Rebeccah flush.
When Mary returned a few moment later, Kate allowed herself to be helped into a blue coat that was slightly too large around the shoulders but otherwise a good fit. She tied back her own hair and let the maid cram the footman's wig on her head.
"How do I look?"
"It's not level." Rebeccah adjusted the wig and stood back. "Something's still not right, Mary."
Kate thought she knew what it might be. She darted into the dressing room, mixed some of the kohl from Rebeccah's toilette with face powder, and rubbed a little of the concoction into her upper lip, chin and cheeks to darken them.
"Better," agreed Rebeccah, when Kate emerged.
The tramp of footsteps on the stairs and the sound of servants' voices made Mary turn to her mistress. "You must greet your sister, Madam, or your presence will be missed."
"I know." Rebeccah threw Kate a stricken glance. "Oh, this is too bad! Had I foreseen your departure would be so soon and such a hasty one ... And your wound barely healed ..."
"I will do well enough, Rebeccah," interrupted Kate. "Look to your own safety. For you must not be seen in my company."
"Fare well." Kate bowed, and if it lacked her customary panache, perhaps she could ascribe it to her wound rather than to dismay. I may never see her again.
Whatever Rebeccah was about to say in reply was cut short by her maid's frantic, "Hurry, Madam."
She bit her lip and curtseyed — a gesture that touched Kate's heart — then started towards the door. She had gone barely a step before she paused and looked back. "See her safely to the back door, Mary." Her voice cracked.
"I will, Madam."
Downstairs, a woman's voice was calling, "Beccah. Where are you? Come and welcome your sister."
"And make sure no one sees her."
"They are waiting for you, Madam."
"Oh!" With a stamp of her foot, a last glance at Kate, and a muttered. "God keep you safe," Rebeccah disappeared out the door. Moments later came an excited squeal and the sound of the two sisters greeting one another.
Mary crossed to the door, and pressed her ear against it. "We will wait for them to retire to the drawing room," she said, "then I will take you down."
Kate tucked under her arm the bundle she had made of her coat, baldric and sword, and waited. At last Mary opened the door a crack, peered round it, and threw it wide.
"The coast is clear." She slipped through.
With a last wistful look at Rebeccah's room, Kate followed, placing her feet where Mary did to avoid the creaking stairs and pressing herself against the wall when the butler came into view then fortunately went about his business. The door to the drawing room was closed as they scurried past, or she would have tried to catch another glimpse of Rebeccah.
In the basement, Robert the coachman looked up from shining a harness, did a double take at Kate's appearance, winked at her and went back to his polishing. Mary led Kate to the back door, which opened into a yard.
Kate stood, one booted foot on the first of the stone steps that led up to the square, while Mary rattled off directions to the Mews and Clover's stall in a low voice.
"My thanks," she whispered. "I will send back Will's coat and wig as soon as I am able."
Mary looked round anxiously, then made a shooing gesture.
"Tell your Mistress," said Kate, knowing that she was breaking a cardinal rule, but unable to resist, "that I am greatly in her debt. And should she ever require my assistance, she can reach me at ...." She whispered Alice's address in Mary's ear. "Have you got that?"
The maid blinked, owl-like, at her then nodded.
"Or if I am not there, leave word with Mr Elborrow, the landlord of the Rose and Crown, and it will reach me."
Men's voices wafted from the door leading to the kitchen "Titus is coming," hissed Mary. "You must go. Now!"
So with a last reluctant glance at the house in St James's Square, Kate did.
TO BE CONTINUED AND CONCLUDED IN THE SECOND STORY IN THE REBECCAH AND THE HIGHWAYMAN SEQUENCE.
As with so much, the legend of the highwayman is far more attractive than the reality. In real life, the majority of highwaymen were uncouth, unchivalrous, ruthless criminals who robbed purely for gain. Several were also murderers.
'The Female Frollick', otherwise known as 'An Account of a young Gentlewoman, who went upon the Road to rob in Man’s Cloaths, well mounted on a Mare, &c.', dates from around 1690.
Thanks to the keen-eyed Claudia, Tamara, and Ted for their help in spotting errors and typos.