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
"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
"Perhaps not, but he certainly
holds you in some affection."
"Certainly not enough to
"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."
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
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
"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."
"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 do not want a betrothal
"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
"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
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
* * * * * * *
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
* * * * * *
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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In Over His Head
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A Sure Thing?
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