Villainy is my forthcoming novelette featuring the fictional English highwayman Richard Winthrop. A gentleman and a thief, the former by birth and the latter out of necessity, Winthrop is on a mission to legitimize his claim to a landed title. However, forces are moving even now to strip Richard's father of his title and lands, and where will that leave the illegitimate heir?
Written with the inspiration of Gothic classics such as Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, Villainy captures the airs and graces of a more gentile time, while under the surface, the characters' humanity plays out in darkness, as is our wont.
Please enjoy the following excerpt from Villainy:
When the sound of hoof beats reached our ears, the parallel ruts below shone as ghostly bars of silver. Rapier in hand, I made sure my boots would not snag on the thick branch overhanging the Gloucester road. ‘Twasn’t my concern if Sir Charles thought it wise to wend his way home amidst the haunts and howls of midnight. The rasp of the brake barked out as William stood and waved a lantern, his horse lying prone across the grass-edged thoroughfare.
My heels shook the coach’s roof as I declared, “Stand and deliver!”
“Ruddy blackguard,” the driver murmured, raising his hands.
“That’s ‘Lord Blackguard’ to you if’n you’d like to keep your head,” said William.
Flickering coach lights, mounted high on either side of the cabin, illuminated William atop the miraculously healthy bay mare he favored on late-night forays. Bonnie Bill - his nom de guerre when wooing the roadhouse ladies - always said the pretty stallions were too flighty. I often wondered if that was some sort of subtle insult, but the man was loyal to a fault, with ne’er a bad word to say and always ready to stand to in a pinch.
“What in blazes is going on, Jackson? Why are we stopped?”
Lord Charles’ balding head poked out of the side window. As he craned forward to see around the lantern, I rested the tip of my blade on the nape of his neck. The Baron of Shipton jerked upward and, if I had not expected it, would have run himself clean through. As it was, he took about a half-inch of steel, certainly enough to draw blood. He clapped a kerchief-clad hand to the wound and fell back into the coach’s interior. Seeing that William had the driver to rights with his pistol, I swung down and opened the door so recently vacated by the Baron.
“I suppose if you have to get about at night, this is the way to go,” I said to no one in particular, surveying the accommodation in which Lord Charles traveled. The coach’s interior was lavish by any standard, with benches on either side of the door practically bulging with tufted crimson upholstery. Matching curtains, trimmed in gold and white, festooned the windows and ceiling.
“My word, Charles,” I said, climbing in, “aren’t you in the least embarrassed to ride amid such finery while your people barely eke out a living tending your holdings?”
The play of expression across the Baron’s face was a sight to behold. It looked as if every emotion vied for supremacy while his visage shifted from outrage to umbrage to acute discomfort, finally settling on a mix of confusion and resignation.
“Oh, it’s you.”
“Now, is that any way to treat your long lost son?”
“You are most certainly not my son, you . . . you brigand.”
“Charles, really. I thought we had settled this matter once and for all.” I clucked my tongue and shook my head. “Poor old mum barely a year in the grave and you’ve already disowned her only son. The family heir, no less.”
Pushing back against the cushions opposite as if he could escape the very suggestion, Lord Charles settled for a moody silence in response, accompanied by frequent knuckling of his thin mustache.
Seeing that my father would not take up the debate, I continued on my own, “You cannot deny that you lay with Miss Penelope and left her with child. To wit, me. And that makes you my father whether you bloody well like it or not, so you might as well get used to the idea.”
Smoothing his thinning hair, Lord Charles finally said, “I will do nothing of the sort.” Another backhanded stroke of the mustache. “While I allow that I may have tarried with Miss Penelope on occasion, you have no proof that . . . that you are anything more than some opportunistic vagabond trying to blackmail my good name.”
Just then, William sidled his mare up to the window. “Are you two going to parley all night or is there a payoff in our future?” Bonnie Bill still had his trusty Sharpe pointed in the general direction of the coachman who, thankfully, had no appetite for lead this evening.
“Come now, Bill. The Baron and I are just having a bit of polite conversation is all.”
“You’ve been at it like two sewing ladies for ten minutes. Meanwhile, the fire is getting low at the Stag and Hound, if you know what I mean.”
I took Bill’s reference to the state of the fireplace in our current roadhouse to mean his ardor was cooling a bit while sat atop the mare instead of some willing crumpet. I rolled my eyes and held up a gloved hand, “Fair enough.”
Turning back to Lord Charles, I extended my left hand. He looked at it with light brown eyes, moisture glistening around the edges. I cleared my throat, curling the fingers back toward the palm in the universal gesture with which men have been demanding money for centuries. A sigh preceded the Baron’s deposit, and he still refused to so much as look me in the eye.
I hefted the leather purse. “Not bad, Sir Charles,” my words accompanied by a muffled jingling sound as I massaged what felt like gold sovereigns within, “but all the ducats in England won’t change the fact that I have the birthright.”
My father squirmed in his seat like a spoiled maiden before her confirmation. “You are not my son,” he said from between clenched jaws, enunciating each word as if doing so would make them true.
William’s mare nickered and I heard my stallion snort in response. I pushed open the door and stepped into the saddle, tying the purse at my belt. “Damn you for a coward, Sir Charles,” I said, snapping the reins and kicking my black away and down the road westward.
“Damn you for a coward,” I whispered, the wind whipping the moisture from my own eyes as we galloped toward home, such as it was.