"Madam, you must excuse me."
Darcy bowed to his dance partner, turned on his heel and strode away, pulling at his cravat as his did so. His guests thronged back into the ballroom where music still played. The wine and card tables would keep them occupied whilst he was absent.
Darcy reached the top of the stairs, his coat and cravat already off and in his hand. He called to his valet for the dark clothes he wore at these times. "Quick, man! The family needs help at this instant!" He pulled on an enveloping dark shirt: no touch of brass or gold thread to catch a lantern's light, no darts or vents to
give away his form. "Good. My horse is saddled?"
In the stables he patted his horse reassuringly before mounting. The animal always picked up on his adrenaline and it was best to remain calm, unhurried. Haste cost lives.
They reached the crossroads swiftly. The robber had fled, and the family were still in their carriage, sobbing. Darcy briskly enquired about injuries – none – and sought the direction in which the thief had gone. Remounting he nudged the
horse to a gallop through the trees.
He caught up with the robber in a clearing, counting his gold, and springing from the horse overpowered him with a practised tackle. "You dog. Hand over that gold."
"Stop, both of you." A gruff voice sounded and Darcy looked up to see a pistol at his head. A figure draped in black, even as he was, stood squarely in his way. "Do even thieves rob each other now? I will shoot you both."
"I'm no thief! I return this gold to its owners in the carriage." Darcy darted forward and swiped the pistol aside, sending the veiled figure staggering. "Save your weapons for this scoundrel whom I have already apprehended."
Together he and the newcomer bound the robber to a tree to await the sheriff. Darcy went to retrieve his skittish horse.
As he held the animal's reins, comforting it, he looked more closely at the slender figure beside him. "Your voice... you are no man. Can a woman be patrolling these forest roads even as I do?"
The figure shook its head and began to move away, but Darcy grasped the veil and pulled it aside.
They stood staring at each other, gasping for breath.
"No," breathed Darcy. "It cannot be...Elizabeth?"