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Authors: Jerrica Knight-Catania

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency

The Robber Bride

BOOK: The Robber Bride
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The Robber Bride

 

Jerrica
Knight-Catania

 

This book is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, locations and events are either a product of the

author’s
imagination, fictitious or used fictitiously.

Any resemblance to any event, locale or person,

living
or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

The Robber Bride

Copyright 2011 by
Jerrica
Knight-Catania

 

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or part in any format.

Cover design by
Jerrica
Knight-Catania

 

 

For my husband—

I wouldn’t know a thing about romance if it weren’t for you!

Acknowledgements

 

Because I dedicate all my books to my husband, I decided I should put in an acknowledgements page to say thank you to some important people who have been so instrumental in my writing and publishing journey. First and foremost, I must thank my amazing critique partners—you all know who you are, and you know I’d be lost without you! A huge thank you to my editors: Linda
Uzelac
,
Didi
Charney
and Mindy Moore. I don’t know what I would do without your expert eyes and sage advice. And to my friends and family who have always been incredibly supportive of my writing career—your support means the world to me!

Prologue

 

In the third month of her eighth year, Victoria Barclay climbed aboard her family carriage and took a seat opposite her mother. Mother sat with her gloved hands neatly folded in her lap, her expression unreadable. She was never one to display a great deal of emotion. Rather, her countenance always lingered somewhere between perturbed and content. Her blue velvet traveling gown stretched across the tufted seat and cascaded onto the floor.

Being so young, Victoria sought to emulate her mother, the Lady Grantham, and therefore mimicked her stance. She folded her hands in her lap, straightened her spine to the best of her ability and tried to set her features in a passive stare. It felt somewhat foreign, though. She wished to relax against the squabs, tuck her feet underneath her, and stare out the window at the passing scenery. Of course, that was never allowed. Mother and Father insisted that Victoria be shielded from the less savory aspects of London life, and therefore the shades were drawn tight anytime they traveled beyond the Marylebone borders.

But how bored she became sitting in that dim carriage with nothing to look at but Mother!

“Stop
your
fidgeting, Victoria,” her mother admonished.

Immediately, she clasped her hands together and stilled her feet. She had not even noticed that she'd begun to fidget, but sure as the king was mad, her fingers had crushed the velvet of her cloak and her feet swung in time to the horses' hooves.

“Sorry, Mother,” Victoria replied, making sure to keep her voice even.

Mother sighed and opened her reticule without another word. She pulled out a small piece of folded parchment and unfolded it carefully. As Mother read the missive to herself, Victoria took the opportunity to pull back the shade an inch or two, just enough to get a glimpse of what she considered
the real London
.

Though she had not been exposed to the sights of
the real London
, she knew that the London she lived in could not go by such a name. Victoria was quite aware that she lived a privileged life, though just how privileged she did not know until that very morning.

Pulling back the shade was the single most important moment of her entire life—it was the day she learned how the
others
lived. Dilapidated buildings lined the streets, which were muddy from last night’s rain. Livestock ran rampant amongst the people and carriages, and street urchins crowded the passersby, their hands outstretched, desperate for a
ha’penny
.

Victoria had never witnessed such a scene. This place seemed a million miles away from the refinement of Marylebone.
Her
London was quiet and clean. The paved streets were overrun with fine ladies and dandies and crested carriages, not mud and excrement.

Somehow she could not turn from the sight. Though it disturbed her to her core, she was helpless to turn away. And then something else happened as the carriage slowed in traffic—something so profound she would never forget it for as long as she lived. A young girl, of her approximate age, emerged from an alleyway. Her mousy brown hair was mussed and dangled limply around her face. Tears streaked her cheeks and her lip trembled, but she did her best to keep her chin high as her eyes locked with Victoria's.

She wondered why the girl cried so. Maybe she was hungry. It did not occur to Victoria until many years later that her crying
may
have had something to do with the man who emerged from the alley behind her.

Guilt stabbed Victoria in the heart, sharp and heavy, as she stared into the girl’s large, misty eyes.
Deep down, she knew she had no reason to truly feel guilty. It was not her fault she'd been
high-born
or the other girl low-born, but she couldn’t shake the feeling. Why was she waited on hand and foot, given every imaginable luxury and sheltered from even the sight of such a life, while this girl must go hungry every night?

“Victoria!”

With a start, Victoria snapped the curtain shut and returned her hands to their position on her lap. Her heart fluttered at having been caught doing something her mother had forbidden.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” she offered, her voice barely above a whisper.

“You have been instructed, young lady, to keep those curtains shut when we are traveling through the city. Look at me!”

She raised her head and looked into her mother’s fiery blue gaze, and a sense of defiance she had never before felt came over her.

“You are far too headstrong for your own good, Victoria, and I know not what to do with you anymore. Have you any idea what would happen if those
degenerates
realized who was traveling in this coach?”

“They are not degenerates,” Victoria mumbled, knowing full well she would be punished for speaking out of turn.

“I beg your pardon?” came her mother’s icy tone.

Victoria sat up straighter and met Mother’s gaze full on. “They are not degenerates.”

“And what, pray tell, has brought you to such a conclusion? In your moment of staring out the window, did you find some redeeming quality to the dregs? To the thieves and whores who walk these filthy streets?”

Victoria started at her mother's bluntness. Though she’d overheard the word spoken before by men in her father’s study, she had certainly never heard a lady refer to another woman in such a way.
 

“There were children.
Many of them.
One of them was my age.”

With an exasperated sigh, Mother said, “
Future
thieves and whores. Now, come away from the window and do not ever speak back to me in that manner again or I will leave you at the mercy of your father.”

Mother always believed that leaving her at Father’s mercy was the worst threat she could offer. What she did not know was that he didn’t care. Her mother’s temper indicated that she was far more likely to inflict more pain—either physical or emotional—than her indifferent father.

As they rode on, headed for their country estate, Victoria’s mind churned with thoughts of the little girl in the alley. Who she was, where did she come from and what was her life like? When she fell asleep, she dreamt about her. And by the time they reached the family seat in Derbyshire, she had determined that something in the balance was wrong—drastically wrong. Though she was young and virtually powerless, Victoria vowed in that moment she would one day make a difference.

One

 

Victoria stood at the edge of the ballroom, her gaze intent on the gaggle of silly debutantes who stood just a few feet away. Or, more specifically, on the one girl who clearly did not belong in their clique, but so desperately wanted to be accepted.

Victoria turned away. Thank heavens she didn’t have to pretend anymore. After five seasons and no husband, she was officially on the shelf, which meant she could do almost anything she damn well pleased. Like use words like
damn,
if only in her mind. Such words certainly never even crossed the minds of those pinheaded girls, she was certain.

She scanned the ballroom, looking for more suitable company, when she spotted just the person she didn’t want to see. Her oldest and dearest friend sauntered into the ballroom, and Victoria could have sworn the entire party gave an audible and synchronized gasp of delight.
Phineas
Dartwell
, the third Earl of
Leyburn
, might have made a startling impression on her had she not known him since birth. As it was, he was a good friend, but sometimes, a damned nuisance. Finny was more like a brother to her than . . . well, than her own brother, Thomas. He was next in line for the
viscountcy
, but until their father met his demise (which probably wouldn’t happen anytime soon), Thomas was doing the same thing Victoria was doing: whatever he damn well pleased. And what pleased him was traveling. The last time Victoria had seen Thomas was two years earlier as he climbed aboard a carriage bound for Dover. His last letter came months ago and indicated he was sweltering on a friend’s plantation in Jamaica.

Needless to say, Thomas had shirked his brotherly duties years ago when Victoria made it perfectly clear she did not need a hovering brother at social events because she had no interest in marriage.

“I’m here because Mother forces me to be,” she’d said to him. “But you needn’t worry, Tom, you won’t find me roped into some dandy’s scheme to get me alone on the balcony.” Not that Victoria ever considered herself the type of woman that men might lure onto the balcony for an illicit tryst, but her dowry was the kind that would prompt a desperate man to try to compromise her.

After much arguing with Mother and Father, Tom had finally gotten his way, along with the money he needed to set sail. As soon as he was gone, Finny had stepped in and taken over as her older brother. He showed up everywhere Victoria
was,
no matter how well she kept her social calendar a secret.

It drove her mad.

“How on earth did you know I’d be here?” she asked once he was within earshot.

“A great magician never reveals his secrets.” He gave her the grin that had irked her since they were children

the one he’d used when he’d put a snake in her bonnet while she wasn’t looking. Victoria had known he was up to something, she just didn’t know what.
Until she’d put her bonnet back on, of course.

“Secrets. Hah! It’s hardly a secret that you can charm the curls right out of my mother’s hair. Or soften up Father with your expensive brandy. Which one was it this time? No—” she held up her hand, “—if I know, I’ll just get angry with my parents, and I’d rather stay angry with you.”

“Come now, Vickie. My company’s not all that bad, is it?”

“Worse. I was just leaving, anyhow, so I’m afraid you’re a bit too late to save me from the fortune hunters.”

“It’s never too late for that.”

Victoria followed
Finny’s
gaze to another damned nuisance striding their way. Why couldn’t they all just leave her alone? She had far more important things she needed to get to now that she’d made her appearance here.

“Miss Barclay, I wondered if I might claim you for a waltz later on this evening?” Albert
Higgenbottom
stared at her with his eager, beady eyes.

“How kind of you to think of me, Mr.
Higgenbottom
, but I’m afraid my dance card is full. Perhaps next time.”

Dejected, Mr.
Higgenbottom
turned away with a slight nod and moved on to the next wallflower.

“Let me see it.” Finny stretched out his hand beside her.

“Not on your life.”

“Vickie, Albert is one of the few men not after you for your money. You should at least give him a chance.”

“I told you already, I was just getting ready to leave.”
“Then I’ll escort you home.”

Victoria wasn’t about to let Finny escort her home. Her prey had already left and she’d never be able to catch him if she went home first.

“Fine. I’ll meet you in the front hall. First, I need to visit the ladies’ retiring room.”

***

Victoria left Finny in the entrance hall waiting for his carriage while she headed in the direction of the retiring room. However, she walked right past that door and made a beeline for the ballroom. She entered at the far end and then slipped out the open doors to the terrace.
 
She felt horrible about leaving Finny without an explanation, but what on earth would she say?
Sorry, Finny, but I have to go rob the Duke of Culver.
Somehow, she didn’t think that would go over very well.

With a quick glance to her right, then her left, she took off down the stairs that led to the garden. She wove her way through the shrubs and flowers, and eventually found the side gate to the street. She put her fingers into her mouth and whistled loudly. It wasn’t her most ladylike maneuver, but it was the only way to get her driver’s attention

her driver who was a fervent supporter of her work. Within the span of thirty seconds, her carriage stood before her.

“That was fast,” she remarked to Gil as he jumped from the seat to help her inside.

“I saw your old friend, Lord
Leyburn
, entering the party. I thought you might attempt a different escape route.”

“Well done, Gil. Always keeping your eyes open. I’ll have to make sure Father gives you a raise.”

Gil smiled and bobbed his head. “Thanks, miss. ‘
Tis
my pleasure to serve.”

With that, he shut the carriage door, leaving Victoria in total darkness. But she didn’t need any light. She’d done this nearly a hundred times now. Her dress had been altered to unbutton down the side rather than the back, and her corset strings were loose enough she could untie them herself and slip the contraption over her head. Beside her on the seat sat her uniform: black trousers, shirt, boots, hat, and, of course, a black mask. It took her only a couple of minutes to outfit herself for her next job, and when she was ready, she opened the small window that allowed her to communicate with Gil.

“Where are we?” she asked.

“Almost to the Great North Road, miss. Shall I?”
“Go right ahead.”

At her word, Gil slapped the reins and sent the horses into a full gallop. They had to make up for lost ground, and they certainly wouldn’t do it if they remained at an acceptable speed. Thankfully, the late hour allowed them the pace they required.

Victoria kept her face at the little window so she would know when they approached her victim.

“Coach up ahead,
miss
. I think it’s the one.”

Victoria removed her opera glasses from her reticule and peered through the window. It was the one.

“Slow down. It’s him.”

Gil slowed the carriage so they were going only just faster than the carriage ahead. As he’d done a hundred times before, he passed the slow-moving conveyance, moved in front of it, and then came to a complete stop. They waited. Only moments passed before the other coachman called out to ask what the hold up was.

“Apologies, sir!” Gil called back. “I fear I may have a broken axel. Might I solicit your help?”

Victoria waited in silence while Gil took care of the coachman. Then she calmly dismounted and made her way to the other carriage. It really had become too easy. Why didn’t other highwaymen—
real
highwaymen—operate in this way? There would have been a lot less men hanging from
Newgate
if they did.

Her victim, Lord Culver, stuck his head out the carriage door just as Victoria approached. “What the devil is going on, John?” he yelled.

Of course, John couldn’t answer, being otherwise engaged at the moment, so Victoria decided to indulge him.

“Perhaps you should ask that question of someone who is more knowledgeable of the situation,” Victoria suggested, pitching her voice low to sound more like a young man.

“Who are you?” His voice trembled.

“Who I am is not nearly as important as what I want.” Victoria cocked her pistol and pointed it at the fat man’s head. “Your money or your life.”

There was a pause as the cowardly man did what she assumed most men did in this situation: pissed his trousers.

“Please, sir, I’ve nothing on me.”

“Liar.” Victoria stepped an inch closer.

“Please, don’t shoot. I’ve a family, and . . . and . . .”

“Your money,” Victoria said slowly, lifting a brow, “or your life.”

It was no surprise when the man finally produced a purse filled with coin enough to feed a family of five for several months.

“Ah, I see you’ve found something,” she said with more than a hint of sarcasm. “I should shoot you anyway, just for lying to me.” The man whimpered, and Victoria took pity on him before he did more than piss his pants. “But I shall spare your life . . . this time. You will remain in your carriage for five minutes after I depart, is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Victoria cocked her head sideways. “You’re
lying
again, my lord.”
“I swear! I won’t move a muscle for five minutes.”

With that, Victoria turned abruptly and walked briskly back to the carriage. Gil was already sitting back on his box, and John was sufficiently tied up on the side of the road. Even after five minutes, Culver wouldn’t be able to follow them for a good while. Gil’s knots were masterful and took the average man a half hour to figure out. Such was the benefit of having a sailor’s son for a driver.

The unmarked conveyance lurched and set into motion at a more modest pace this time. Racing along at top speed would draw unwanted attention now.
 
They went back in the direction from which they had come, towards Victoria’s home in the Marylebone district. Her parents would surely be asleep by now, which suited her just fine. That way she wouldn’t have to change back into her gown—it was a bit trickier than getting out of it. Besides, she needed to head to bed herself. She had a very important appointment in the morning.

BOOK: The Robber Bride
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