“Stand and deliver!”
The shout echoed between tree trunks and shivered leaves the deep green of mid-summer.
Wulf did not shift in the saddle nor change the pace of his gelding. He’d heard that voice before, exactly in this spot on the worn dirt path between oaks and firs and thick brush.
It was her favorite location for highway robbery.
“Damn you, Wulf, you were supposed to at least pretend I was still a highwayman.” With that annoyed shout, the love of his life burst through the tree line just ahead of him at a full gallop. As Bea often did now, she wore her gold-brown curls loose. They streamed behind her, whipping in the wind and longer than they had been over a year before when they had met.
Perhaps a better phrase would be when he first met the Honorable Highwayman and fell in love with her.
As Bea’s mare thundered to a stop beside him, Wulf reined in his horse and dismounted. She slipped from the saddle a moment later and he slid his hand beneath her hair. Cupping the nape of her neck to pull her close, he set his lips on hers. Warm and sweet, her mouth curved beneath his and set his blood humming.
She was the most precious thing in his life.
“I did not expect you to return until tomorrow,” she murmured, drawing back as the animals settled. Her hand slipped into his, their fingers linking together as they had a thousand times before.
“I could not wait,” Wulf said simply. With Bea there was no need to guard his words, nor did she do so. At first, they had warily circled each other, each careful not to allow the other too close, but no longer. “There was no sense in staying in London when you were here.”
Her wide, full lips moved with the same slow curve every time. As if her smile needed time to build, to grow from within, before it could be released to the world. “Then tell me your news.”
“As always, it is business before pleasure for you.” Wulf laughed they fell into step, leading their horses along the forest path between Falk Manor and the crossroads that would take him own estate. “The bill for widows and orphans is under consideration. Parliament is on recess and will reconvene in the fall. I do not know how many will read the bill before we return, but it will be up for debate and vote.”
“That is something, at least.” She nodded once, mouth firming. “If the issue of the poor is placed in front of them often enough, they will eventually see the truth.”
Wulf was not entirely certain, knowing the perfidy of the House of Lords and House of Commons, but there was no other way to effect laws beyond going to Parliament.
“We worked together to draft the bill,” he said. “We’ll do so again next session if need be. Although, with the war going on, I am not certain anyone will pay attention.”
“Then we will make them.” Confidence rode on Bea’s shoulders, squaring them beneath a proper riding habit he did not know she even owned before today. He usually saw her in ragged breeches on a horse or wearing pretty gowns during the day, and as often as he could, wearing nothing at all. Perhaps tonight—
“Maybe not in my lifetime, or yours,” she continued, unaware of the direction his thoughts had taken. “But if we speak, others will hear.”
They walked silently for a few moments, their soft footfalls on the path a counterpoint to the clop of the horse’s hooves. Sunshine dappled the ground around them, shown on Bea’s hair and sparked the gold hidden in the brown depths. Without the need to disguise herself any longer, she had let her hair grow free. It suited her, that slightly wild tangle of curls she rarely bothered to bind up. With her cheeks pink from her ride and the green velvet of her habit, she might have been a painting entitled Summer.
She was meant to be out of doors, not in the drawing room.
“Do you miss being a highwayman?” he asked softly. He focused his gaze on her profile, the strong nose, the pointed chin. One corner of her full lips turned up in an expression he had learned to recognize as both amused and wistful.
“Yes.” She spoke as quietly as he, as though carefully weighing her words. “But there is little need for the Honest Highwayman now that you have gathered the local landowners and persuaded them to better care for their tenants. It is time to fight the battle elsewhere.”
“Do you need a new challenge, then, Bea?” He raised their joined hands to his mouth and kissed her sun-warmed skin.
Now she snorted. “Living with my brother is challenging enough—though he has been brought around a bit to the idea of caring for the tenants and villagers. Still, he continues to host those ridiculous house parties. The guests all seem to enjoy themselves, but they are a trial for the servants, what with the constant refilling of glasses and the messes left behind. Wulf, I swear to you, I have scrubbed the rug in the drawing room a dozen times this past year.”
She looked up at him, brows raised and voice full of exasperation. Then her smile bloomed again. “I am glad you are home, Wulf. I missed you terribly.”
“Then marry me.” The words popped out before he was ready to say them. And yet they had been swirling in his mind for months. He had not asked before because Bea was filled with such spirit, he feared she would feel constrained by marriage.
Or that she would refuse him.
But it was too late now.
“Marry me, Lady Beatrice Falk.”
She had stopped walking, her face turned up toward his. Hazel eyes flickered over him, studying each feature as if to ascertain his veracity. Around them, birds called and fluttered in the trees while the wind whispered through their leaves.
“Why?” she finally asked.
“What?” Wulf couldn’t decide if her words were a punch to his belly or if he simply hadn’t heard her correctly.
“Why? Why do you want to marry me?” Oh, yes, she was quite serious. The set of her pointed chin was firm, her lips pressed tightly together.
“Because I love you. Why the hell else?” Frustrated, he dropped his horse’s reins to run his hands through his hair, then quickly snatched them up again lest the animal bolt. “What do you think we have been doing this past year and more?”
“Enjoying each other’s company.” She spoke calmly, but her eyes were wide now. “You love me?”
“Oh, Bea,” he breathed. Quickly, Wulf took the reins of both horses and tethered the animals to a nearby tree, allowing them to clip grass as they chose. When he turned back to Bea, he found her watching him, eyes wary, arms folded so the gold fastenings of the trim riding habit were hidden.
“I do love you, Bea. I’m not sure when it happened, but it was somewhere between having you lodge a bullet in my shoulder and then sneaking away before morning.” It was true. He remembered every moment of that night in the cottage, and every moment since.
The wind picked up, ruffling her hair and snatching at her skirts. Mid-summer flowers lining the path danced in the breeze and birds swooped above them, reveling in the sunshine as they called to one another.
Still, she did not move.
His heart began to pound, a frantic beat that seemed to echo in his ears as he waited for her to speak. Perhaps she would refuse him. As an unmarried woman, she had complete control over her life. Becoming a duchess would change everything.
“Well,” Bea finally said. “I supposed that is convenient, as I love you too.”
And she threw herself into his arms in a flurry of windswept curls and green velvet.