The note was short. A time, a place, a handwriting she knew. But no apology.
Lady Emmeline Hartley read the note again.
I must see you. I wouldn’t ask, knowing how we parted. But I must say it: lives depend on it. Come to the great oak at midnight. The light of the moon will guide your way.
For months she’d imagined how she would respond if Adam Locksley ever sent her such a note. After long con- sideration, she’d determined she wouldn’t see him. She would let him and his rabble-rousing friends go; she would do good in her own way. She had her own funds. She didn’t need to overturn the aristocracy to feed those on her estate or in her shire.
She threw the note into the fire.
But she had no choice but to meet Adam. A week ago, Lord Colin Somerville had arrived, haggard and wounded both in body and soul. He was her childhood defender, her dear and constant friend. He’d asked for shelter and for secrecy. She’d promised him both. She wouldn’t let her indiscretions alter that.
If she didn’t meet Adam, he would come to the estate. He’d done it before, stood under her balcony with a hand- ful of pebbles and hit every window but her own. In the months since she’d seen him last, she’d moved her bedroom to another wing of the manor, so whatever window his pebbles struck, it couldn’t be hers. That made it more likely that Colin would hear him, and then she’d have to explain. The thought of her upstanding defender pacing off a duel with her criminal lover twisted her stomach.
No, she had to meet Adam. But she didn’t have to trust him.
She dressed quickly in a dark riding dress covered by her grandfather’s greatcoat, shortened to fit her height. Removing a muff pistol from her dressing table, she carefully loaded the chamber, then tucked it into an inner pocket she’d sewn for the purpose. When Em picked up her walking stick, her giant Newfoundland dog, Queen Bess, rose and joined her.
Taking a deep breath, Emmeline slipped into the hall, Bess padding quietly behind. She stole down the staircase and through the door leading into the kitchen garden. No one noticed.
At the garden, two paths led to the great oak. The smoother, wider, but more public, route took her toward the village, joining the forest where the bridge crossed the river. The longer, but more secluded, route led through the uneven ground of the churchyard. She chose the pri- vate cemetery path.
Since the moon was bright, she walked close to the chapel walls. Inside the churchyard, she passed the graves of her oldest ancestors. While she was within the view of the house, she forced herself to move slowly, stepping from the shadow of one tree to the next. If someone looked out a window, she wanted to appear no more than a trick of the moonlight, or, for the more superstitious, a ghost uneasy in the grave or one of the faerie folk come to dance among the oaks.
At the graves of her sisters, she quickened her pace. As a child, she had carried her bowl of porridge to their trim plots, believing they could know she was near them. But as she’d grown, she had set aside such fancies. Nursery rhymes and folk tales only cloud the judgment. Even so, she was grateful her sisters had been long silent: she would have hated for them to know what a fool she’d been.
Stepping into the forest, Emmeline quickened her step, but not because Adam waited. She could never make her way to the great oak’s clearing without thinking of her mother and sisters, lost in a carriage accident when Emmeline was just six. Her mother, Titania—named after Shakespeare’s Queen of the Faeries—had believed the clearing was one of the few remaining places where the human and faerie worlds overlapped. On picnics, Titania would enthrall her daughters with tales of magic and enchantment, her voice a lilting honey-gold. Sometimes Titania would sing them an eerie, tuneless song she claimed the Faerie Queen had taught her. On those days, Emmeline would dance around the great oak, believing that she could see shadowy figures melt out of and back into the trees.
Had Emmeline not grown up half in love with faeries, she wouldn’t have fallen so easily under Adam’s spell. When she’d first encountered him beneath the shadows of the giant oak, she would have known that, though he was playing a lyre, he was just another highwayman. Emme- line slowed, not wishing to tax her leg, as she navigated her way carefully across the raised tree roots that broke up the path. But even so, she reached the clearing long before the time he’d set.
He stood much as he had the first time she’d seen him. His long dark cloak was the color of shadows, and his doublet and trousers were a rich forest green. This time, however, he had no lyre, and, without his rich baritone, the clearing was oddly silent.
Even so, she wasn’t prepared for the visceral jolt of recognition when she saw him or the way she longed to feel the touch of his hands and lips. But she refused her desire. She couldn’t allow herself to trust him again.
“No song tonight?” She kept her distance, keeping her hand hidden inside her cloak.
“I feel little like singing.”
Even in the dark, her mind saw his words as texture and color.
He walked to the altar rock, gesturing for her to sit beside him as they used to do. His body appeared tense, his shoulders and neck held taut.
“What troubles you?” She leaned up against the giant oak instead. “Could you find no good and true English- men, to seduce with your words?”
“You’re still angry.” He stepped toward her.
“No, to feel angry, I’d have to feel something for you.” She held up her walking stick menacingly, and he stopped several feet away. “But you killed my good feelings when you let those men die. All that’s left is revulsion.”
“What if I told you that they weren’t dead? That they and their families are living well on their own plots of land, happy in the colonies?” He raised his hands in sup- plication.
“I’d ask what other fairy tales you wish for me to be- lieve. I saw the notice of execution. My only disappoint- ment was that your name wasn’t on it.” She knew the words weren’t true, but she wouldn’t let him see other- wise. Her life would be better without him.
“I knew this was a bad idea.” He raked his hand through his hair.
“After months of silence and last week’s massacre at Manchester, did you expect me to be grateful for your summons?”
“Then why did you come?” Adam held out his hand, but she ignored it.
“To warn you,” she said flatly.
“Of what?” He looked hopeful.
“Set foot upon my lands again or in the village or any where in this county, and I will have you hung. I will testify myself.”
“How can you testify without revealing your part in my crimes?” Adam’s tone sounded almost amused.
“I can’t. That’s your dilemma. You promised me once that you would never allow me to be harmed by riding with you. If you stay, I will have you jailed and tried, and I cannot help but be harmed if I testify.” She spoke slowly. She would not be misunderstood. “You have a choice. You may hold your meetings. Create your reform societies. Tempt the farmers and workmen to peaceful protests like the one at Peterloo, where they will be killed or maimed. But not here.”
“Em, I didn’t intend . . .” He stepped forward, but she held up the walking stick, stopping his progress.
“I don’t care what your intentions were. I thought you were a good man, that you hoped to ease the sufferings of your fellow men, that you wanted rational reform. You showed me those sufferings in ways that I’d never seen before.” She willed her voice to remain even. “But you betrayed the cottagers who believed in you, and you led them straight to their deaths. And I was beside you. Their blood is on my hands as surely as it is on yours. My only redemption will be to oppose you and men like you to my last breath.”
“I need your help.” He held out his palms in supplication, walking toward her.
“Never. I reserve my help for the families men like you destroy. Now leave my land before I set the magistrate on you.” She let her cloak fall open and lifted her hand, di- recting her pistol at his heart. “Or I will kill you myself.”
“Would you send me away if you knew it meant my death?”
She looked deep in his eyes and cocked the trigger. “Yes.”