October 26, 1824
Tonight, Bart, the Shadow Man, would discover what it meant to be frightened, Elspeth thought, dipping an old paintbrush into a small pot of crushed barite. The stone, left out in the sun all day, glowed in the gloom of the barn with an eerie pale light the color of the winter moon.
She brushed a second light coating of the whitish powder down the long face of her black pony, Gallant, and stepped back, tilting her head from side to side, studying the effect. A shiver tickled her across her shoulders, part anticipation and part a flash of superstitious dread at the eerie sight. She’d created it from a few strokes of phosphorescent powder, and yet even she felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise as Gallant snorted and shifted. The pale streaks on his face and body glimmered in the soft shafts of light making their way into his stall. The untouched dark areas around his liquid black eyes, nostrils, and mouth evoked the vengeful, hollow-eyed appearance of a skeleton horse. She brushed more of the shimmering powder down his neck and in streaks across his chest, marking the throat, spine and ribs until they shone like ghostly bones.
“Ready?” a man’s voice whispered over her shoulder.
She jumped, one hand clutching the rough mane of her pony, the other tipping a misty cloud of barite over her breeches. The trailing, tattered wisps of silk she’d sewn to her shirt and waistcoat fluttered with her movement.
“You startled me,” she said sharply. Glittering dust settled over her clothing and hands, streaks forming over the small knuckles and bones of her fingers.
The dust left black spaces in low areas between her fingers, creating a nightmare skeleton of her as she stood next to her horse. Shrugging, she dabbed a bit more on her cheekbones and nose before placing the small bucket and brush on the floor next to Gallant’s stall.
“Are you sure you wish to do this, Els?” Charles asked. His own horse, a large, pale gray mare snorted and pawed at the ground near the stable door, seeming contemptuous of the worn-out, rickety stable so unlike the buildings at Chiswick Hall. The animal’s sleek coat caught the moonlight and glowed in the shadows, the dappled pale gray almost as bright as the luminescent powder Elspeth had painted on her black pony.
“Yes, I’m sure.” Elspeth turned away to lead Gallant outside. “That highwayman frightened Aunt Louise so severely that she cannot even leave the house after sunset. Her nerves are shattered—her hands shake—you have not seen her when the first blue shadows of twilight darken the windows. That cowardly ruffian terrified her.” Elspeth’s eyes grew warm and burned, and she angrily brushed away the moisture.
How could she explain her helplessness and anger over her inability to comfort her gentle aunt after her harrowing experience? She never expected to be robbed as she was returning home from a small supper party with her friends at the rectory. The distance she’d traveled had been short—she should have been safe.
Elspeth’s jaw tightened. “I won’t have such things happen again—I simply won’t! He must be taught a lesson. The Shadow Man.” She snorted with disdain. “He will see what it is like to be terrified of even the smallest shadow when we are done.”
“I should think the prospect of a hangman’s noose would be terrifying enough,” Charles said dryly as he climbed into the saddle of his huge gray mare.
“They have not caught him, yet, and I doubt they will. No. If there is to be justice, we must be the ones to see to it.”
“Then go back to bed, Els. I will be pleased to ensure our friendly highwayman finds justice tonight. A single shot should suffice,” Charles suggested.
Although his face was hidden within the darkness cast by his wide-brimmed hat, the grating tenor of his voice sounded grim.
“No—no shooting,” she answered abruptly. “He must be made to suffer as he has made my aunt suffer. He must fear the night as it deepens and gathers strength outside his door—he must start at every soft whisper, shrink from every shadow, feel horror at the sound of mice scratching within the walls—just as Aunt Louise does.”
Charles laughed, his chuckles low and partly muffled by the high collar of his coat. “Waxing poetic again, my dearest Elspeth?”
Flushing in the darkness, her hands jerked. She covered the movement by stroking Gallant’s coarse, rough mane. “If I am poetic, it is only appropriate, as it is poetic justice that I seek,” she answered lightly, turning away. “Promise me you will not shoot—your only role is to act as an innocent traveler, lost and alone, to tempt our highwayman out of hiding.”
“And what if he decides to shoot you?” Charles bent forward over the neck of his horse to peer at her. “He will be armed; if you scare him enough, he will certainly shoot.”
“And miss.” She snorted with derision. “His hands will be shaking so violently he will be unable to do more than shoot into the mist. No,” she shook her head, “he may shoot, but his shots will most assuredly go wild.”
“You cannot be sure of that. Even wild shots sometimes hit the mark.”
Despite her annoyance at his obstinacy, his words warmed her, reminding her of their deep friendship. Who else would accompany her on this wild adventure, or act as the bait in her trap? No one.
“I will be safe enough.” She shifted uneasily, though, and glanced back at her cottage. No comforting lights lit the windows; both her mother and aunt had gone to bed long ago, and the house looked dark and still. “Aunt Louise will have her sweet revenge on the beast who terrified her, and he will learn his lesson.”
“Perhaps,” he answered in a low voice. “Though I wonder if she will see it that way.”
She couldn’t quite look at her friend, fearing to see a look of concern etched upon his face. He should be laughing with excitement over their adventure, not worried about her safety. He shouldn’t care that much about her.
She bit her lip and stroked Gallant’s neck to settle him down.
Her mother had been so disappointed; her eyes had filled with such sadness when Elspeth told her that Charles had decided to marry and that his bride was to be Anne Hamilton, not Elspeth Bramley. Even Elspeth had felt a twinge of something akin to regret as her mother’s hazel eyes studied her features, searching for signs of tears.
But Elspeth had smiled steadily at her, though her hands twisted together in her lap as she related the news.