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The Bride Thief
Chapter One

Kent, 1820
 
     Samantha Briggeham turned from the opened window where the cool, night breeze drifted into the drawing room and faced her beloved, but clearly addle-brained father.  "I cannot believe you're suggesting this, Papa.  Why would you think I'd consider marrying Major Wilshire?  I barely know him."
     "Pshaw.  He's been a family friend for years," Charles Briggeham said, crossing the drawing room to join her near the window.
     "Yes, but most of those years have been spent in the army," she pointed out, striving to keep her voice calm and suppress a shudder.  She couldn't imagine any woman entertaining romantic thoughts of the dour Major Wilshire.  Heavens, the man sported such a puckered frown, he always looked as if he'd just tasted a lemon.  She strongly suspected this conversation was the result of Mama's well-intentioned, but unwelcome matchmaking machinations.
     Papa stroked his chin.  "You're nearly six and twenty, Sammie.  'Tis time you married."
     Sammie fought a strong urge to look heavenward.  Papa was the dearest, sweetest man alive, but in spite of having a wife and four daughters, he was as thick as a plank when it came to understanding females--especially her.
     "Papa, I'm well beyond marriageable age.  I’m perfectly content as I am."
     "Nonsense.  All girls wish to marry.  Your mother told me so."
     His words confirmed her suspicions that Mama was at the root of this mess.  "Not all girls, Papa."  The shudder she could no longer suppress edged down her spine at the thought of being leg-shackled to any of the men with whom she was acquainted.  They were either tiresome dolts, or they simply stared at her with a mixture of pity, confusion, and in several cases downright horror, when she dared discuss mathematical equations or scientific matters with them.  Most of them regarded her as "eccentric Sammie", a nom de plume she philosophically accepted as she knew she was eccentric--at least in the eyes of her peers.
     "Of course all girls wish to marry," Papa said, jerking her attention back to the matter at hand. "Look at your sisters."
     "I have looked at them.  Every day of my life.  I love them dearly, but Papa, you know I'm nothing like them.  They're beautiful and sweet and feminine--perfectly suited to be wives.  For the past decade we've all but tripped upon their constant stream of suitors.  But just because Lucille, Hermoine, and Emily are now all married doesn't mean I must marry."
     "Don't you wish to have a family of your own, my dear?"
     A long pause filled the air, and Samantha ignored the twinge of longing that tugged her insides.  She'd buried such unrealistic fantasies long ago.  "Papa, we both know that I am not the sort of woman to attract a man to marriage.  Not in appearance or temperament.  And besides, I’m much too old--"
     "Stuff and nonsense.  You're prettier than you think, Sammie.  And there's nothing wrong with a woman being intelligent--so long as you don't let anyone know.”  He shot her a pointed look that clearly said unfortunately everyone already knows how smart you are.  "Luckily Major Wilshire finds neither your advanced age nor your keen intellect overly offputting."
     Sammie pursed her lips.  "How incredibly kind of him."
     Her sarcasm floated over Papa's head.  Stroking his chin, he continued, "Indeed. In fact, the major prefers the idea of a more mature bride.  Of course, helping Hubert with his experiments, gathering insects and toads and all that, will have to stop.  Quite undignified for a married lady to be crawling about in the dirt, you know.  Your brother will simply have to carry on without your assistance."
     This situation had gone quite far enough.  Sammie cleared her throat and pushed her spectacles higher on her nose. "Papa.  I love working with Hubert in his laboratory and have no intention of stopping, especially now as my own experiments show promise of a breakthrough.  And I am perfectly happy at the prospect of being a doting aunt to my future nieces and nephews. I have no desire to become Major Wilshire's wife, and frankly, I'm stunned that you would even suggest such a thing."
     "Major Wilshire is a fine man."
     "Yes, he is.  He is also old enough to be my father."
     "He is only three and forty--"
     "Provided he had children when he was quite young," she continued smoothly, as if her father hadn't spoken.  "But more importantly, I don't love him, and he does not love me."
     "Perhaps not, but he certainly holds you in some affection."
     "Certainly not enough to marry me."
     "On the contrary, he quite readily agreed to the match."
     A heavy silence filled the air as the significance of his words settled upon her like a thick fog.  "What do you mean, he agreed to the match?" she asked when she finally located her voice.  "Papa, please tell me you haven't already discussed this with Major Wilshire."
     "Well, of course I have.  Everything is settled.  The major couldn't be happier.  Nor your mother and I.  Congratulations, my dear.  You're officially betrothed."
     "Betrothed!"  Samantha's stunned, explosive reply rang through the air like a pistol shot.  She squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to draw deep, calming breaths.  Although Mama had tried--completely unsuccessfully--in the past to find suitors for her, her mother had finally abandoned the effort in favor of focusing her attention on her three younger daughters, all beauties of the first water.
     But ever since Emily’s wedding three months ago, Mama’s matchmaking eye had once again focused on her one remaining unmarried daughter--a turn of events Sammie should have anticipated, but hadn’t.  Clearly Mama had not given up such ridiculous hopes.  Still, she’d shrugged off Mama's efforts, knowing full well that there wasn't a man amongst her acquaintances who would consider marrying a plain, bespeckled, outspoken, socially inept, firmly on-the-shelf, intelligent bookworm.
     Except, apparently, Major Wilshire, whom Sammie could only conclude had taken leave of his senses.
     Papa fitted his monocle over his left eye and peered at her.  "I must say, Sammie, you don't look quite as ecstatic as your mother assured me you would be."  He looked truly perplexed.
     "I have no desire to marry Major Wilshire, Papa."  She cleared her throat then added very clearly, "And I will not do so."
     "Pshaw.  Of course you will.  Everything is already arranged, my dear."
     "Arranged?"
     "Why, yes.  The banns will appear this Sunday.  The wedding will take place next month."
     "Next month!  Papa, this is madness.  I cannot--"
     "Now don't worry, Samantha."  He reached out and patted her hand.  "I'm sure you'll be happy once you and the major get to know each other a bit better."  His voice dropped to a conspiratorial level.  "He's planning to call on you later this week and present you with a betrothal ring.  A sapphire, I believe."
     "I do not want a betrothal ring--"
     "Of course you do.  All girls do.  Your mother told me so.  Now, it's terribly late and I'm exhausted.  All this marriage arranging is quite wearying, and I wish to retire.  Your dear mother harangued me for hours, and I'm quite incapable of talking anymore.  We'll discuss the plans further tomorrow."
     "There are no plans to discuss, Papa.  I will not marry him."
     "Of course you will.  Your mother told me so.  Good night, my dear."
     "I will not marry him," Samantha shouted to his retreating back.  In response, he merely closed the door behind him.  An exasperated oohh! escaped her, and she massaged her temples where a thumping headache was rapidly forming.
     Good heavens, what had brought on this madness?  And how on earth could she fix this tangle?
     Hellfires scorched her cheeks when she imagined what Mama must have said to convince Major Wilshire he wanted to marry her. She knew all too well how determined her mother could be when she'd made up her mind about something.  One often left Cordelia Briggeham's company accompanied by the sensation that they'd been smacked in the head with a cast iron skillet.
     Yes, Mama's good intentions were unfortunately not always tempered with tact, but Sammie couldn't help but admire, occasionally in a horrified way, how her mother could outmaneuver anyone.  She had no doubt that if Mama had been allowed to serve in the Army, Napoleon would have met his Waterloo years earlier than he had.
     The knowledge edged a chilling unease down her spine.  Twisting her fingers together, she paced the floor, her footsteps muffled by the thick Axminster rug.  What on earth was she going to do?  The thought of spending the rest of her life with Major Wilshire, listening to him recount his every military maneuver in excruciating detail, sent a shiver akin to panic shuddering through her.  And he would certainly demand that she cease her scientific work--something she most certainly would not do.
     Surely she could bring Papa around.  But the finality in his voice when he'd said everything is all arranged echoed through her mind.  She could usually bend Papa around to her way of thinking, but there was no swaying him once Mama embedded an idea in his head.  And her marrying Major Wilshire was clearly embedded in his head.
     Humiliation burned her cheeks.  God in heaven, this was just like her coming-out eight years past.  She’d begged not to endure the pomp of it all--the parties where she knew people whispered about her behind their hands, pitying her because she possessed none of the beauty or grace of her younger sisters.  The frilly dresses that made her feel conspicuous and awkward.  Yet Mama had insisted, and Papa had fallen meekly into line.  So with her head held high, she’d endured the whispering and the pitying glances that were made away from Mama’s sharp eyes and ears, and buried her hurt behind countless false smiles.
     She pressed her hands to her churning stomach, recalling how Mama had arranged Hermoine's marriage with a tactical brilliance that would have rendered Wellington breathless.  True, Hermie was happy, but the poor dear had barely known Reginald when they'd wed.  She just as easily could be miserable, although Sammie couldn't imagine sweet-natured Hermie being anything but content. And Reginald worshipped the ground his beautiful wife's petite slippers tread upon.
     Sammie could not imagine Major Wilshire so much as noticing whether she even wore slippers unless he could somehow relate them to military strategy.
     Flopping down on the chintz-covered settee, she huffed out a frustrated breath.  If she refused to honor the arrangements Papa made, her family would suffer from the ensuing gossip and scandal.  She couldn't disgrace her parents, sisters, and Hubert. But neither could she marry Major Wilshire.
     Heaving a tired sigh, she rose and closed the window.  After extinguishing the candles burning on the mantle, she left the room, closing the door behind her.
     Dear God, what was she going to do?
                                                                      * * * * * * *
     In the flowerbed, Arthur Timstone heard the window click shut and drew his first deep breath since he'd first heard the voices above him.  He slowly rose from his crouched position, his knees creaking in protest, then stifled a yelp when his backside found the rose hedges.
     Glaring at the offending bush, he muttered, "I'm too bloody old fer this sneakin' about in the bushes in the middle o’ the night.  Unseemly, that's wot it is."
     Stubble it, a man approaching his fiftieth year shouldn't be gallivanting about after midnight like a randy lad.  Ah, but that's what love did to a bloke, made him act like a slow-witted, puppy-eyed fool.
     If anyone had suggested that he'd take one look at the new cook at the Briggeham house and fall instantly in love, Arthur would have called them daft, then laughed himself into a seizure. But fall instantly in love he had.  And because of it, he'd just spent the last half hour trapped beneath the Briggeham's drawing room window, afraid to move lest Miz Sammie or her Pa should hear him, trying his best not to long for his warm bed which was still an hour's ride away.  If he'd left Sarah's quarters only a few minutes earlier...ah, but that would have been impossible.
     Leaning back against the house's rough stone exterior, he paused to rub his stiff joints before dashing across the darkened lawn where he'd tethered Viking at the edge of the woods.  Poor Miz Sammie.  Clearly she didn't want to marry Major Wilshire, and Arthur didn't blame her for one moment.  While the major wasn't a bad sort, his nonstop talk of the war, and his important role in it, could bore the feathers from a chicken.  Why, he'd drive Miz Sammie straight to Bedlam.  And salt of the earth Miz Sammie was. Always a kind word and a smile for him, always asking after his mother and brother in Brighton.
     Emerging from the bushes, Arthur set off across the lawn at a brisk trot.  Determination stiffened his spine.  Something had to be done to help poor Miz Sammie.
     Arthur knew only one man who could help her...the mysterious man whose name hovered on everyone's lips from London to Cornwall.  The man eagerly sought after by the magistrate for his daring exploits.
     The notorious, legendary Bride Thief.
                                                                          * * * * * *
     Through the window of his private study, Eric Landsdowne, Earl of Wesley, watched Arthur Timstone cross the terrace lawns on his way back to the stables.
     The stableman's words rang in his ears.  'Tis a terrible situation, my lord.  Poor Miz Sammie wants not a thing to do with that stuffy Major Wilshire, but her Pa's insistin’.  Bein’ forced to marry this way, why it'll just break Miz Sammie's heart, and a kinder heart I've yet to meet.
     Eric had sat behind his desk, listening to his faithful servant, neither one acknowledging by so much as a flicker of an eyelash why Arthur would bring this news to him, but both knowing exactly why.  The secret they shared bound them together tighter than a vice, although they rarely discussed it during the day, when the servants were awake, for fear of being inadvertently overheard.
     Such a mistake could cost Eric his life.
     But simply knowing that Arthur shared his secret, that he wasn't completely alone in the dangerous life he'd chosen, afforded Eric a strong measure of comfort.  He loved Arthur like a father; indeed, the servant had spent more time with him during his formative years than his own father ever had.
     Now, watching Arthur striding across the perfectly manicured lawns, the early morning sun glinting on his graying hair, Eric noted the man's slight limp, and his heart pinched.  Arthur was no longer a young man, and although he never complained, Eric knew his aging joints were often stiff and painful.  He'd offered him a well-appointed bedchamber in the manor house, but the servant had refused.  Tears had glistened in Arthur's pale blue eyes at the generous offer, but he chose to remain in his rooms above the stables, close to the horses he loved and cared for.
     A smile tugged at Eric's lips for he knew Arthur had also refused his offer so as not to risk sneaking into the main house in the middle of the night after returning from seeing his lady love.  Even though there were no secrets between them, they rarely discussed their respective love lives.  Arthur would be mortified if he suspected Eric knew of his late night trysts, but Eric was happy for the man.
     "Perhaps that wasn't a limp at all, but rather a spring in his step," Eric mused out loud.
     Shifting his gaze, he looked toward the woods in the distance, his thoughts returning to the matter at hand.
     Samantha Briggeham.  Being forced into an unwanted marriage.
     He shared only a casual acquaintance with the Briggehams, as he did with most of the families in the area.  He spent most of his time in London, keeping in close contact with his solicitor and man of affairs, spending only several weeks during the summer here at Wesley Manor.  During those few short weeks every year, he expertly dodged the matchmaking eye of the village mamas, one of the most notable of whom was Mrs. Cordelia Briggeham.  Of course Mrs. Briggeham would know, along with every other mother in Tunbridge Wells, his longstanding aversion to marriage, although they were not privy to all his reasons.  Unfortunately, that aversion only served as a challenge to the intrepid daughter-ridden matchmakers.
     He had to admit that the three youngest Briggeham daughters were rare beauties.  One of them, he couldn't recall which, had recently married Baron Whitestead.  He had only a vague recollection of Samantha.  Frowning, he tried to remember what she looked like, but could only conjure up a shadowy image of chestnut hair and thick spectacles.  He knew via the gossip mill that she was considered an eccentric bluestocking and sadly lacked feminine appeal, a fact rendered all the more glaring by the extreme beauty of her sisters.
     In contrast, he had no trouble calling to mind Major Wilshire--a large, blustery, arrogant man with a ramrod stiff military bearing.  Eric found him tolerable only in small doses. As far as Eric knew, the major never smiled, and laughter was out of the question.  He sported thick, graying side whiskers, a quizzing glass, and tended to bark out orders in a booming voice as if he still commanded a battlefield.
     Still, the major was intelligent and reportedly not unkind. Why didn't Miss Briggeham wish to marry him?  She was well beyond the first blush of youth, and if she were as dowdy as he'd heard, she couldn’t possibly attract many suitors.  Arthur had reported that she'd claimed not to love the man.  A snort escaped Eric's lips, and he shook his head.  He'd be hard pressed to name even one marriage among his acquaintances that had been based on love. Certainly not his parents' marriage, and God knows not Margaret's...
     Turning from the window, he strode across the Axminster rug to his desk.  Reaching across the mahogany surface, he picked up the miniature of his sister.  She’d had it painted for him just before he entered the Army.  “Keep it with you, Eric,” Margaret had said, her encouraging smile not masking the deep concern in her dark eyes.  “That way I’ll be with you.  Keeping you safe.”
     A lump tightened his throat.  Her lovely face had accompanied him to places he chose to forget.  She’d been the one spot of beauty in an existence of ugliness.  Yes, she had kept him safe.  Yet he had failed to keep her safe in return.
     He stared at her image resting in his palm, and a vivid memory rose in his mind’s eye.  The day she’d been born.  His father’s disgust with his wife for presenting him with a girl.  His exhausted mother’s sadness.  Creeping into the nursery that night, staring at the tiny, cooing bundle.  “It doesn’t matter that Father doesn’t like you,” he’d whispered, his five-year-old heart filled with resolve.  “He doesn’t like me either. I’ll watch over you.” She’d wrapped her miniscule fist around his finger and that, quite simply, had been that.
     A myriad of images flashed through his mind.  Teaching Margaret to ride, helping her rescue a bird with a broken wing, then holding her while she cried when the creature died.  Patching up the scrapes she’d sustained when she fell from a tree limb so their father wouldn’t scold her.  Escaping to the quiet of the forest to evade the constant strain and arguing in the house.  Teaching her to fish, then rarely ever catching more fish than she.  Acting out Shakepeare’s plays.  Laughing, sharing.  Watching her grow from an impish child into a beautiful young woman had filled him deep pride.  We were all we had in this unhappy family, weren’t we, Margaret?  We made it bearable for each other.  What would I have done without you?
     And then he’d failed her.
     His fingers closed around the miniature.  Like Samantha Briggeham, Margaret had been forced to wed, a fact Eric hadn't forgiven his father for, even when he lay on his deathbed.  He had bargained innocent, beautiful Margaret away like a piece of jewelry to elderly Viscount Darvin who wanted an heir.  Rumors of Darvin's debauchery had circulated through the ton for years, but he had possessed the attributes Eric's father had sought when making the match--money and several unentailed estates.  In spite of his own substantial holdings, Marcus Landsdowne had greedily wanted more.  He'd thought nothing of Margaret's feelings, and the marriage had devastated her.  Eric had been fighting on the Peninsula at the time and had been unaware of her situation.
     He'd been too late to rescue Margaret.
     But he'd vowed upon his return to help others like her and bring attention to their plight.  How many poor young women were forced into unwanted marriages each year?  He shuddered to consider the number.  He’d tried to convince Margaret to leave Darvin, promising he’d help her, but she’d refused to dishonor her marriage vows, and he had reluctantly honored her decision.
     Since first donning his costume five years ago, he'd helped more than a dozen young women escape.  And by doing it this way, as a masked crusader, rather than simply by quiet financial means, he'd succeeded in bringing the problem to national attention.
     He'd accomplished his goal, perhaps too well.  Several months ago a reporter for The Times had dubbed him the Bride Thief, and now it seemed as if everyone in England hankered for information about him--most especially the magistrate who was determined to unmask the Bride Thief and put an end to what he called the kidnappings.
     A substantial reward was offered for his capture, igniting the interest in his activities even further.  Arthur had recently reported a rumor that several irate fathers of “stolen” brides had banded together with the common goal of capturing the Bride Thief.   Eric rubbed his fingers over his throat.  The magistrate, not to mention the fathers, wouldn't be satisfied until the Thief hanged for his crimes.
     But Eric had no intention of dying.
     Still, the search for the Bride Thief's identity had now escalated to the point that each time Eric donned his costume he risked his life.  But knowing he would free another poor woman from the untenable fate that had robbed Margaret of her happiness made the risk worth the possible price.  And helped ease his guilt over failing to aid Margaret.
     He would not allow the heartache and despair that ruled his sister's life to destroy Miss Samantha Briggeham.
     He would free her.
                                                                            * * * * * * * *
     Samantha sat in the family coach, staring out the window at the fading light.  Bright orange and purple streaks fanned across the sky, marking the beginning of twilight, her favorite time of day.  Cyril slowed the vehicle as they started through the heavily wooded path leading toward home, and Sammie inwardly smiled, mentally picturing the coachman pursing his lips and pulling on the reins.
     Adjusting her spectacles, Sammie breathed deeply and tried to calm her jittery stomach.  When she arrived home, she faced speaking with Mama and Papa, not a welcome prospect as she suspected they would not be pleased by the errand she'd just run.
     Looking out the window, she observed a tiny flash of color in the waning light.  Heavens, could that have been a firefly?  If so, Hubert would be ecstatic.  He'd been trying to breed the rare insects for months, both in the woods and in his laboratory, from larva he'd had shipped from the colonies.  Could his experiments be bearing fruit?
     She quickly signaled Cyril to stop and pulled a small bag from her reticule.  Her inner voice told her she was only delaying the inevitable argument with her parents, but she had to capture the insects for Hubert if they'd hatched.  His fourteen-year-old mind was fascinated by the soft intermittent light the bugs exuded, and she fully shared his interest in the creatures.      Exiting the coach, she inhaled the cool evening air.  The heavy scent of damp earth and decaying leaves tickled her nostrils, and she sneezed, sending her spectacles sliding downward until they halted on the upturned end of her nose.  She pushed the glasses back into place with a practiced gesture and scanned the area, searching for the fireflies while Cyril settled back on his perch atop the coach to wait.  He was well used to these unplanned stops in the woods.
     Sammie walked down the path toward where she'd seen the flashing glow.  Warmth spread through her as she imagined Hubert's thin, serious face wreathed in smiles should she return with such a treasure.  She loved the boy with all her heart--his brilliant, sharp mind, and his tall, gangly frame with large, awkward feet he hadn't yet grown into.
     Yes, she and Hubert were cut from the same cloth.  They wore similar spectacles and possessed the same blue eyes and thick, unruly chestnut hair.  They both enjoyed swimming, fishing, and searching the forest for flora and fauna specimens--activities that had more than once driven Mama to the vapors.  In fact, Samantha and Hubert's secret name for Mama was Cricket because she emitted a series of high pitched chirps just before she "fainted," always artistically, onto one of the many settees scattered about the Briggeham home for the express purpose of catching her before she dropped to the floor and rendered herself unconscious.
     Mama will most definitely chirp when she discovers where I've just been.  And what I've done.
     A tiny flash of yellow light caught her eye and her heart jumped with excitement.  It was indeed fireflies!  Several hovered near the ground at the base of an oak a short distance away.
     "No running off now, Miz Sammie," Cyril called as she moved toward the oak.  "'Tis gittin' dark and me eyes ain't what they used to be."
     "Don't worry, Cyril.  There's still plenty of light and I'll not go farther than this."  Dropping to her knees, she gently captured the rare insect in her hand and placed it in her pouch.
     She'd just slipped another in the bag when a sound, coming from the dense forest, caught her attention.  A horse's faint whinny?  Lifting her head, she listened for several seconds but heard nothing other than the rustling of leaves from the breeze.      "Did you hear something, Cyril?"
     Cyril shook his head.  "Nay, but then, me ears ain't what they used to be."
     With a shrug, Sammie returned her attention to her task.  Clearly she'd been mistaken.
     After all, who would be riding on her family's property?  And with darkness swiftly approaching?
                                                                           * * * * * * *
     Sitting astride Champion, he silently observed her through the trees.  Pale streaks of moonlight glimmered down, and his heart clenched as he noted her posture.
     Bloody hell, the distraught chit was praying.  On her knees, bent at the waist so far her nose was nearly skimming the ground. Anger and frustration heated his blood.  Damn it, he would save her from such misery.
     Champion shifted beneath him and let out a soft whinny.  Placing a comforting hand on the beast's sleek neck to quiet him, he watched Miss Briggeham.  She clearly heard the sound for she looked up.  A shaft of waning light glinted off her spectacles as she glanced around.  Then with what appeared to be a shrug, she lowered her head and resumed her prayers.
    He'd followed her through the woods, waiting while she was inside Major Wilshire's home, wondering why she'd visited him.  Clearly their time together hadn't gone well, for now she was kneeling on the ground, praying in the woods as darkness approached.  Pity tugged at his heart.
    He glanced at her coachman and noted the man was dozing in his perch.  Excellent.  The time had come.
    With quiet concentration, he slipped on his tight-fitting black mask, adjusting it until he knew his entire head was covered except for his eyes and mouth.  He tugged the material to settle two small openings over his nostrils.  His long black cloak draped on the saddle behind him, and snug black leather gloves encased his hands.  His black shirt, breeches and boots rendered him all but invisible in the growing darkness.
     His gaze settled on the distressed girl kneeling at the base of the oak tree.
     Never fear, Miss Samantha Briggeham.  Freedom awaits you.
 

 
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