WLW Book Extract: Mask of The Highwaywoman

I’m Niamh Murphy, author of adventure fiction with lesbian main characters, and I love lesbian historical romances!

I love adventure fiction, the kind of books where you heart skips a beat when our heroine gets into trouble! I especially love historical adventure books and if they have a touch of romance between two ass-kicking women; even better! That’s why my first novel was an adventure set in the 1700’s following the aristocratic Evelyn, who learns she is braver than she ever knew when she meets the dashing masked Highwaywoman, Bess.

Follow the aristocratic Evelyn, who learns she is braver than she ever knew when she meets the dashing Bess in Niamh Murphy's 'Mask of the Highwaywoman'. Click To Tweet


She grabbed the poker and turned to face her attacker. The window was thrown open. A cold wind made the fire dance as the highwaywoman clambered through the small frame into the bedroom and carefully sealed the window behind her.

Evelyn stared at her, speechless.

The highwaywoman stepped forward.

“Don’t come any closer!” Evelyn warned, brandishing the poker. She was astonished that the woman had returned, that she had the temerity to chase down her victims in order to wreak further havoc upon them. Evelyn was livid but also frightened. She had considered her ordeal to be over and now here it was again, looming in the shadows. “You’ve taken everything I have, and if you touch anything else I swear I’ll—”

“I’m not here to take,” said the woman, softly cutting Evelyn off and raising her hand, as if to a spooked mare. “I’m here to give back.” She reached into her waistcoat and pulled out the locket, holding it up for Evelyn to see the little gold heart twinkling in the firelight.

She didn’t know what to say, or how to react. She stared at the woman, open-mouthed. Wondering why she had come back to return the locket, why she had stepped in to try to stop them taking it in the first place. Evelyn realised it must have been the woman following her earlier, tracking her and waiting for the ideal moment to corner her, only to return what had been stolen.

“That’s all I wanted to do,” said the woman as she placed the locket on the small chest of drawers and backed off.

“No, wait!” Evelyn couldn’t let her go. Not after this. She had to know why. She had to understand her and understand why she had come. Nothing about this woman made sense. From the clothes she wore to the way she spoke and the actions she took. Everything was a contradiction, nothing made sense, and yet… she was akin to a magnet, drawing Evelyn closer and forcing her to want to know more. “Why did you come here?”

The woman glanced back at the necklace and then to Evelyn. Her chestnut brown eyes were soft in the firelight. She took a while to answer, and when she did her voice was slow and gentle.

“I could tell it was important to you.”

Evelyn relaxed a little in her presence and then cursed herself for it. She tried to remind herself that this woman had also compromised her security, threatened her with pistols, stolen from her and stood idly by as she was struck across the face; the force of that blow was still stinging her left cheek. She wasn’t going to give the woman the satisfaction of appearing grateful, especially when she knew there was no doubt her privacy had been violated.

“Did you read it?” she asked, waving the poker in an attempt to appear menacing.

The woman didn’t answer.

“You did, didn’t you?”  For all her attempts to appear gallant, the woman was still willing to open and read the contents of a locket never meant for her eyes. It only confirmed Evelyn’s opinion of her as a dishonourable harlot.

“Evelyn, I—”

“So, it’s ‘Evelyn’ now, is it?” She could hardly comprehend the audacity needed to utter a name acquired through such base means. She felt violated and trespassed upon, this woman had indeed invaded her privacy—she had stolen from her, threatened her, read her locket, followed her through the streets and broken into her room. Evelyn wanted to challenge the woman, to take back any victory she had gained through wrongdoing.

“How do you know the name in the locket refers to me?” Evelyn wasn’t quite sure what effect she’d imagined having with this question: shame, confusion, embarrassment. Whatever reaction she’d expected it hadn’t been relief.

“You mean you’re not ‘Evelyn’?” the woman said, with a trace of hope on her voice.

Evelyn wasn’t sure what to say. She’d wanted to disconcert the woman, to throw her off balance and regain some authority. She wanted to take back control and show the woman what was really meant by the term ‘betters’. Instead, it was she who was wrong-footed.

Even outside of her own surroundings and faced with someone wielding a weapon, the highwaywoman seemed naturally in command. Evelyn felt envious of the woman’s power, envious but also enamoured by it.

“Well I… I do happen to be called Evelyn, yes. But that isn’t the point,” she managed to stammer. She couldn’t bring herself to lie, not even now.

“What is the point?” The woman looked at her, clearly puzzled by the turn their conversation was taking.

Evelyn wasn’t used to confrontation or having authority. Even when dealing with the servants she had trouble coping with errors or mistakes and would usually leave that sort of thing to the housekeeper to resolve. But she didn’t want this woman to depart thinking that she had somehow alleviated her guilt: she had still stolen from Evelyn, and bringing back the locket wasn’t nearly enough to absolve her.

“Did you bring my playing cards back as well?” Evelyn said, trying to regain her authoritative tone.

“No. I’m afraid I couldn’t.” She looked away. The woman seemed genuinely pained at her failure, and Evelyn felt a sudden pang of guilt for having caused the pain. “But I did bring some of your money back!” she said as if just remembering. The woman removed a small purse from her coat and threw it on to the chest of drawers next to the locket.

Evelyn stared at it for a moment as she lowered her poker. She hadn’t considered that she would bring money back. The woman must have known how much trouble she was in; that must be why she had been following her, not to cause more trouble, but to ensure she was safe, to make sure that she would have a place for the night and complete her journey. Then when she discovered she was in trouble she came to help, came to give back what was stolen.

Perhaps the stories hadn’t been exaggerated; perhaps there really were chivalrous outlaws, ready to protect the weak, ready to leap in and rescue those in need. She would be able to get home, she would be able to pay for her night’s rest; she had been saved from humiliation, saved from destitution.

“Get the first carriage out in the morning.” The woman’s voice was tinged with anxiety and Evelyn was surprised at her tone as well as the order. She hadn’t intended to do anything but get the first carriage out; she wanted to be free from this town and as far away from this mess as possible.

“Thank you,” she said, stepping forward and picking up the purse, wanting to confirm that it was real.

Suddenly the woman was no longer the villain that had robbed her in the woods; she had become a heroine that had leapt through the window to rescue her. Evelyn looked at her as she smiled, a beautiful honest smile, with soft reddish lips and her deep, dark eyes, almost infinite, behind her mask. Again, she felt the urge to see her without it, to know what lay behind the mask of the highwaywoman, she wanted to reach up and pull it from her face.

“I should go,” the woman said, turning, “I’m sure there are search parties on the lookout for me this evening.”

She couldn’t go. Not now. Not when Evelyn was so close to understanding her, finding out who she was, and seeing behind that mask. She couldn’t let her disappear into the night, to become an ethereal, half-remembered dream.

“Why did you do that?” Evelyn still held the poker and hoped that the threat of the weapon would keep the woman here long enough to answer her questions, to reveal what kind of a woman she was, and to answer for her actions. The woman turned back and Evelyn felt her heart leap slightly as their eyes locked.

“I told you,” she said. Her voice was slow, soft, enchanting. Evelyn was drawn in by her words. The highwaywoman moved closer and Evelyn didn’t back away, she yielded to the desire. As their bodies moved closer she felt herself wanting to sink into the woman and be held by her once more. “I could see that your locket was important,” she said, “and I was sorry.” Her hand drifted up towards Evelyn’s cheek, she stroked the skin delicately with her fingers, sending a thrill of excitement through Evelyn. It shocked her.

She snapped her cheek away and backed off.

“I meant why did you rob me in the first place?”

Evelyn didn’t understand what was happening to her. She didn’t understand why this woman was having such an effect. She looked at her with confusion and distrust. She felt a desire she’d never had before and knew this woman was responsible for it, had somehow tempted her.

She knew about temptresses, of course, she did, but she’d never believed such a power was real, that such a desire could be caused. She was determined to ignore it, to overcome it, to defeat it.

But the woman didn’t look evil. She looked surprised, hurt even. This only served to enrage Evelyn further, making her even angrier at this woman’s ability to pull, so easily, on her heartstrings.

“You scared all those helpless people?” she said, her voice rising in anger, anger at the woman and anger at herself for being so easily hoodwinked by a thief. “That child could have died of the cold and that poor old man…”

“Oh,” she said. “That.”

“Yes, that! As if it isn’t hard enough getting by in this world without people like you riding in and taking from those who can barely afford—”

“That isn’t true,” she said.

Evelyn rounded on her, furious that she should dare to deny what was so obviously true.

“So, it wasn’t you gallivanting in the woods with your band of merry men?!”

“Keep it down!” The woman said, glancing at the door nervously.

“Keep it down? Keep it down? I have a good mind to hand you in myself!” she shouted. “There is likely fifty pounds on your head and I know some people that could do with the money!”

“You won’t hand me in,” said the woman, still calm and in control despite being shouted at and threatened with a poker.

Evelyn hated her at that moment. She hated her for not being afraid, hated her for not believing the threats to hand her in and, most of all, she hated her for being right.

“Won’t I?” Evelyn asked, haughtily. But she knew she had no authority in her voice, and she was embarrassed and ashamed that not only did this woman have complete control over her, but she knew it.

“No. And I do not take from those who can’t afford it. Only those who travel in the luxury of a stagecoach.”

“You wouldn’t call it ‘luxury’ if you had to travel in one.”

The woman laughed.

It was sudden, unexpected, Evelyn hadn’t seen her laugh before, it lit up her face, it was a beautiful, untainted laugh. It cut through Evelyn’s anger and she realised how absurd she must look, angrily waving her poker in the air.

This woman had stepped into help her, had brought back a sentimental necklace and returned the stolen money when she needn’t have done either. At each step, she had helped, and Evelyn had thanked her by shouting at her and threatening her.

“Possibly not,” the highwaywoman said, “but I am sorry you were hurt.”

Evelyn lowered the poker. The woman did seem genuinely upset, genuinely sorry that she was hurt and Evelyn realised that she wasn’t a harlot or a temptress, or a callous rogue, she was just someone that had come to say sorry. But seeing this new side made Evelyn even more curious, how could one woman be so many different things, so many contradictions. She was an outlaw, a thief, a highwaywoman and yet she wasn’t any of those things at all.

“Who are you?” she asked at last.

The woman smiled, but it wasn’t a smug or self-satisfied smile, it was sad. She shook her head slowly.

“I can’t tell you.”

Evelyn couldn’t let it drop that easily, she couldn’t let this mystery slide away from her. She had to know who this woman was—she couldn’t let her go without knowing.

“Why not?” she asked indignantly. “You know my name, why can’t I know yours? Or see your face for that matter?”

She shouldn’t have asked to see her face, she’d pushed too far. She could have pushed for a name, but removing the mask was too much, now the woman would leave, she’d leave and Evelyn would never see her again, never know who she was, never know why she made her feel this way.

But suddenly she took off her coat and hat.

Her clothes were tailored and hugged her figure. Evelyn noticed she wore her pistols in holsters on either side of her waist, as well as a short sword at her side, and felt stupid for having believed the poker was any kind of a weapon against her.

Slowly the highwaywoman untied her mask.

Evelyn held her breath, her whole body waiting for this revelation.

Then the mask was gone.

Evelyn stepped forward impulsively, seeing the full picture for the first time. The soft angles of her cheekbones, the way her dark hair framed her face, the arch of her brows above those deep, dark eyes.

She had expected a slightly older woman, older than herself at least. But instead, she was greeted with a young girl. Not a crook, not a villain, not a temptress, just a girl, a beautiful, innocent, vulnerable girl.

“All is revealed,” the girl whispered.

“Not quite all,” said Evelyn. Spurred on by her success and seeing that the highwaywoman was younger than she thought, Evelyn had the confidence to push for more.

The girl raised her eyebrow: she clearly wasn’t sure what was being asked of her.

“I want your name,” Evelyn repeated.

“Oh…” The girl shook her head. “I really can’t. I mean I shouldn’t even be here, I—”

There was a trace of fear and panic in her voice, a nervousness that Evelyn hadn’t detected before and she realised that she was in control of the situation now, she was the one with the authority and she was going to make damned sure she got what she wanted. She held up the poker again.

“Give me your name or I shall not let you leave.” She used a firm, even tone; she wanted this girl to know that she meant what she said, she was not going to let her leave without the information she wanted. She had every right to demand to know the name of the thief that had stolen from her, regardless of whether they returned the items or not.

But the girl just smiled.

She smiled at Evelyn and then looked away quickly, as her cheeks blushed slightly.

“Then I should never speak again.” The girl said the words in barely a whisper; Evelyn had to strain to hear and even then, she wasn’t sure she had heard correctly. She looked at her, struggling to fathom what she was thinking, what thoughts were swimming behind those dark eyes, what hidden meaning was saturated within those words.

Evelyn knew the girl must be toying with her, manipulating her, delaying the inevitable with tricks and tactics. But then the thought struck her that maybe she wasn’t, maybe she just wanted to stay, to stay there, in that room, at that moment, with Evelyn, for as long as possible. Maybe the girl didn’t want to leave as much as Evelyn didn’t want her to go.

But she dismissed the thought, throwing it aside as quickly as it had entered her head. She would have no more ploys.

“Don’t be daft,” she said, as flippantly as she could muster. “I won’t tell anyone.” It was the only weapon she had left. It was the only thing she could think of to say to make sure the girl knew she was on her side. She just wanted to know, had to know, who she was. If she knew that then maybe she would know why she wanted her to stay.

“Bess,” the girl said, quietly. “Call me Bess.”

“Bess,” repeated Evelyn, backing off and replacing the poker by the fire.

She had taken what she wanted from her. She had her name. She felt as though she owned a tiny part of her, possessed a small fraction of her. She would never have to give back that name. She could hold it, keep it, form the word with her lips, whisper it, think it. No one could take it away from her, and no one would know what it meant to her. It was a part of this girl that had now become hers.

She couldn’t help but feel that they had formed a bond, that they had become closer, and she was surprised at the way it made her feel. She relaxed, and it felt warm and calm as if the anger she’d felt at being kept in the dark had now dissipated and she could really start to find out who this girl was.

“I should go,” said Bess, picking up her hat and coat.

“Wait!” said Evelyn, catching her arm as she reached for the window latch. Bess looked back.

Evelyn hadn’t meant to sound so desperate, so panicked, but she couldn’t help it, couldn’t stop it. The word had come out before she was even aware she was saying it.

They stared at one another. Evelyn realised how mad she must look, how crazed, and, slowly, she released Bess’ arm, fully aware that she was going to lose her, that she was letting this girl leave. But she couldn’t understand why this mattered, why the girl meant so much. All Evelyn knew was she was losing a part of herself she’d only just discovered. And it hurt.

But they couldn’t stay like that, held in that moment. They had to go their separate ways. But Evelyn wanted Bess to take a part of that moment with her, so she would know that Bess held a part of her, possessed something of her, always.

“Take this.” She held out the locket.

Bess looked at it but shook her head.

“I can’t take it. It’s yours.”

“Take it to remember me by.” Evelyn held it out to her; she needed Bess to take it, she needed to know that the connection they’d formed would continue, that it wouldn’t be severed the moment they parted.

“I don’t need a locket to remember you.”

Bess reached out and placed her hand firmly over Evelyn’s. As their hands touched, she felt that same thrill of excitement rush through her that she had felt just moments before. But this time she didn’t pull away. She couldn’t pull away.

Bess leaned forward and gently kissed Evelyn. It was a brief, fleeting brush of lips. But it swelled Evelyn’s chest, it filled her with a desire that she hadn’t fully acknowledged, and when Bess pulled away, Evelyn reached out and pulled her back.

She reached her hand around Bess’ neck and pulled her close. Their lips sank into one another; their kiss was deep and hungry. She wrapped her hand around Bess’ back, holding her tight, refusing to let her go, as she felt the sweet taste of Bess’ lips against her tongue. Bess’ hands ran along her body—she wanted to sink into her, fall into her, be held and touched by her.

But then it was over. Bess pulled away.

“I have to go,” she said, but she didn’t look at Evelyn as she turned and opened the window. She was gone in an instant.

Evelyn stood, the cold rush of air from the window snapping her out of the heat of the moment. She couldn’t quite believe what had happened, that she had just shared such an intimate moment with a girl, a girl she barely knew. She hadn’t even believed that such a desire could exist, that such a passion could be inflamed within her and yet…

Then suddenly she doubted herself, doubted that it had happened, doubted it was real and not just a dream, a phantom in the dark. She rushed to the window and looked out in time to see a mounted figure riding into the darkness.

She knew that would be the last she saw of her, the last memory she would have of her. Perhaps that was best, perhaps it was right that it should end that way, to just become no more than a memory, a half-remembered dream, or a forgotten moment from her past that would be gone forever.

Slowly she closed the window and went to put the locket down, and then she noticed it, there on the side table, just as she had left it, the mask of the highwaywoman.


What starts out as a light-hearted battle of wits soon becomes a desperate quest for survival.

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Niamh Murphy is the best-selling author of 'Escape to Pirate Island' and other adventure books with lesbian main characters. Read more here.

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