The highwayman's horse proved that it was indeed Ed Deppity's nervous gelding, by rearing, tearing its reins free from their loose tethers, and galloping off again.
Straight towards where they were standing.
"Look out!" The highwayman shoved Araminta out of the way as the gelding went galloping past. She caught her heel on a tree root, tripped, grabbed at his coat to save herself from falling, and brought him down on top of her.
There was another shot, and the sound of a bullet thunking into the tree trunk above their heads.
And then a voice that sounded familiar, roared, "Get off her!"
Lord Torquil loomed over them then, grabbed his associate by the coat collar, and yanked him to his hands and knees.
But it was not his voice she'd heard.
"You too! Step away from her!"
All three of them turned their heads in the direction the shots, and the voice had come from.
It was Jack! Her groom held a smoking pistol in each hand, his face grim.
"You let my Lady up," he snarled.
The highwayman glanced up at Lord Torquil, who still had his fingers curled into his coat collar.
"He's fired both of those pistols," he murmured softly without moving his lips.
"Just what I was thinking," replied Lord Torquil.
Lord Torquil raised his hands in the air. The highwayman scrambled to his feet. They exchanged a look which boded ill for her groom.
She opened her mouth to shout a warning, but the fall to the ground, or the landing on top of her of a large and muscular rogue, had combined to knock the breath out of her. All she managed was an agonized wheeze as the pair of reprobates launched themselves at her hapless groom.
Though Jack was outnumbered, and outranked, he stood his ground. Dropping his pistols, he just had time to raise his fists before the others reached him.
Araminta groaned. Not another mill! Why must men always be fighting?
She had to get to her feet unaided. And as she did so, she discovered that her skirt was torn. Her bottom lip quivered. She'd lost a shoe when the highwayman had forced her onto his horse, she'd sacrificed her expensive bonnet to the cause of peace in the lane, and now this!
She'd had enough of adventures.
And of men.
With a little sob, she made her way across the clearing, entirely unobserved since the three combatants were dancing round each other in the bracken, arms whirling like windmill sails.
She paused to remove her one shoe before setting out on a path she thought she recognized, for her husband had often brought her on walks or rides out this way. She flung it angrily towards the men - not that they took a blind bit of notice of her.
But at least the sound of grunts crashes and thumps swiftly faded as she made her way, barefoot, deeper into the woods.
Why they had all pretended to be so interested in her? It was obvious they were all far more keen on besting each other.
There was something havey-cavey going on around these parts. In which some, or all of them, were involved up to their necks.
Not that she believed in Lord Torquil's tales of smugglers and French spies. She tossed her head and laughed rather wildly. She might have believed him, had he not claimed to have opened a fishmonger's. He was more or less admitting his story was fishy. And after that, she wondered how on earth his accomplice, Jim or Bob or whatever he called himself, could possibly claim he was serving the crown by robbing innocent people travelling the King's highway. When he wasn't running brandy, that was. She might never have travelled beyond the borders of Kent, but that did not make her an idiot.
There was something decidedly smoky about that Duke, too. He could not stop talking about money, which her mama had taught her was vulgar. Could a Duke really be that vulgar?
And come to think of it, what was Jack doing lurking about the woods with those pistols? He should have been half way to Midbury by now, seeing to the repair of her phaeton.
As for Ed Deppity...an image of that naked torso, rising from the water flashed into her mind, slowing her steps. Her lips curved into a pensive smile. For the moment, she would acquit him of being anything except too attractive for his own good.
Besides, she'd cheered up now that she'd escaped from the Dastardly Torquil and his accomplice with many names.
And escape them she had. Just down the next dip in the path, lay a cleverly concealed entrance to a secret tunnel. A secret tunnel which would take her right back to Ambleforth House.
Oh, but they would be mad as fire when they came searching for her, she thought gleefully, as she ducked behind the trunk of a gnarled old oak tree, and brushed aside a curtain of ivy.
Come back tomorrow for the next installment!
Annie has a July release from Harlequin Historicals: "An Escapade and an Engagement"
You can find out more about her works at www.annie-burrows.co.uk
Or come and "like" her author page on facebook: