Redeeming the Lady – Lana Williams

Lady Samantha Brown drew a deep breath, hoping to ease the disquiet that had been her constant companion of late. The view out the coach window revealed rolling green fields still visible in the fading twilight. The noise and congestion of London had long ago disappeared as they traveled southwest into Hampshire, where the landscape gave way to tidy rows of wheat and pastures dotted by bleating sheep with their distinctive dark faces and legs. “Be sure to watch the duchess and do as she does.” Countess Brown tapped Samantha’s leg with a fan. “Are you listening, dear?” “Yes, Mother.” The reply was automatic, one she’d uttered many times before. “This house party is your chance to shine.” Samantha had never felt less like a star than she did now. The past few months had left her unsettled, doubting everything she thought she knew and believed she wanted. The woman who stared at her in the mirror had become a stranger, someone of whom she wasn’t proud. The question was what should she do about it? The invitation to the Duke and Duchess of Rushford’s house party should’ve been a coup. Another step toward her goal of becoming their heir’s wife. The Marquess of Dallen was handsome enough, wealthy, and would make a fine husband. Wouldn’t he? Of course he would.

This was what she wanted. What she’d worked toward for years but even more so in recent months. Her broken engagement to the Earl of Adair nearly two years ago had been a blow to her reputation from which she nearly hadn’t recovered, even though she’d been the one to call it off. At least, that’s what everyone had been told. Since then, she’d withstood enough questioning stares and pitying glances to last a lifetime. Her uncle had been furious, as had her mother. Samantha realized she’d handled it poorly, seeking revenge which had nearly gotten her into trouble. But that was all behind her now. At the beginning of the current Season, she’d decided to take her future into her own hands, changing from ordinary to extraordinary, a prize no marriage-minded man—or his mama—could ignore. She’d joined the right charities, made the right friends, and been seen at the right balls—all to gain Dallen’s notice.

Yet everything felt wrong. Marrying well had been her goal since her debut four years ago. Her mother and uncle had made that need clear since she’d been old enough to understand. They’d placed an inordinate amount of pressure on her to make the best possible match for both financial and prestige reasons. Not that she was the only one in such a position. Many ladies were faced with a similar challenge. But she’d expected it to be easier. Now that she was faced with a fourth Season, she knew she had to do things differently. “Samantha, are you paying attention?” She pulled her gaze from the passing scenery to look at her mother. “I’m sorry.

You were saying?” Though she tried to believe her mother meant well and wanted the best for her, Samantha didn’t always appreciate the way she went about it. “Honestly, dear. What has gotten into you? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you didn’t care.” Lady Brown’s hand fluttered in the air, one of many dramatic gestures that had started to irritate Samantha. “Of course, I care.” How could she not when, according to her uncle, their future depended on her marrying well? Who she was didn’t matter, only who her husband was did, she reminded herself, ignoring the bitterness she felt at the thought. No, that wasn’t completely true. She, Lady Samantha Brown, mattered because as an only child, she was the last person indirectly descended from a long-forgotten royal through her father’s side. That fact had been her excuse for her poor behavior since she’d entered Society. After all, her mother had insisted the connection would gain her everything she wanted and more.

But with each year that passed, she’d slowly learned it wasn’t enough. Desperation had since struck. Their financial situation was rapidly declining and she still wasn’t married. She liked to think she’d grown wiser of late, having learned a few harsh lessons about reality. “Leave the girl alone, Mildred.” Uncle Tobias, her mother’s older brother and their sole source of support since Samantha’s father had died some fifteen years ago, shifted on the opposite bench where his plump form took up nearly half the tufted seat. “She knows what’s expected of her.” The veiled reprimand had Samantha clenching her teeth. Why did the burden of their future fall solely to her? Why hadn’t he done something to prevent their slide into genteel poverty? “We left London much later than we should’ve yesterday,” her mother said after a moment’s silence as she turned up the lantern inside the coach. “It will be dark soon.

How much farther is it?” “We’ll arrive within the hour.” Her uncle pulled his pocket watch from his waistcoat and studied it as if to check his calculation. Samantha closed her eyes. That meant she had less than an hour to gather her resolve to play the part of a snooty lady who would eventually make a perfect duchess. The point in time when it had become a role and not who she was remained a mystery, but the shift was disconcerting all the same. She might not have liked the person she’d been in the past, but life had been much simpler then. Shouts rent the air, causing her to pop open her eyes as the coach swayed alarmingly. She shared a frightened look with her mother before both their gazes swung to Uncle Tobias. “Humph. Must be something amiss,” he offered as he straightened and tugged on the bottom of his suit coat.

Annoyance swept through her. Even she had already determined that. At times, she wished for a more decisive and commanding man in her life. One who would take charge and investigate the situation. Not a man who controlled her but one who was in control. Baron Tobias Crockett was not that man. Samantha reached for the curtain to look as the coach lurched to a halt, nearly dumping them onto the floor. After bracing herself and steadying her mother, Samantha peeked out the window to see two men on horses nearby. Masks covered most of their faces, leaving only their mouths visible. “We’re being robbed,” Samantha murmured as she stared in disbelief at the riders, her pulse thrumming wildly.

“What?” Her mother’s question came out as a shriek. “Shh.” Uncle Tobias glared at his sister. “No need to announce our presence.” Samantha shook her head and very nearly rolled her eyes at her uncle’s obtuse comment. Who did he think they intended to rob? Their driver and footman certainly had no valuables. She risked another look out only to find her view filled with a man. The coach door flew open, providing a closer look at the masked thief. “Good evening.” The man’s deep voice sent shivers along her spine that had nothing to do with the cool evening air.

Or perhaps the mask he wore caused the sensation. “Hand over your jewels and money.” “We will not.” Lady Brown stiffened in outrage. “Shame on you for stopping our coach. We’re on the way to the Duke of Rushford’s estate.” “Perfect,” the thief responded with a smile, revealing even white teeth. “Then you’ll have brought your best things to wear.” Thank heavens that wasn’t true. The heirloom ruby and diamond necklace that had once belonged to a queen was safely locked away in her bedroom drawer.

Though her mother had wanted her to bring the elegant necklace, Samantha had decided against it. “The duke will not be pleased when he hears about this,” Tobias said as he sat forward in his seat. “And believe me, he will.” “Odd, but that’s exactly what the other people driving toward his party said. Be sure to give him my best.” “Who are you?” Samantha didn’t mean to ask, but the words slipped past her lips. His attention swung to her and her breath caught in her throat at the glittering blue eyes behind the mask. “Someone who will put your donations to good use. Trust me.” “We’re not donating anything.

You—you thief. A common highwayman.” Her mother’s outrage couldn’t be missed. “Please, no name-calling. I only steal on behalf of those in desperate need.” “We are in need as well,” her mother argued. “You don’t even have a weapon,” Tobias added. “My companion does.” The thief turned his head toward the other man, the lantern inside the door revealing a small mole below the base of his ear. “Would you prefer he point it at you, or will your coachman suffice?” “Dear heavens!” Her mother slumped against the seat as if she’d fainted, though Samantha was certain she pretended.

Samantha reached for her mother’s arm to offer comfort. “Please, sir. Let us continue our journey unharmed.” “That is my wish as well, but first I need your valuables.” “We have nothing for you to steal.” Tobias frowned, his bushy brows low over his eyes, his tone harsh. “I’m afraid I can’t accept your word. You leave me no choice but to search your persons.” His attention once again shifted to Samantha. “Why don’t I start with you?” Her heart nearly hammered out of her chest at the threat—or promise—as his gaze held hers.

She darted a look at her uncle but knew better than to expect protection from him. Sure enough, he didn’t so much as protest the thief’s suggestion. “Step out of the coach. All of you,” the man ordered, his tone more serious now. Surely their best hope was to cooperate. Samantha tugged her mother’s arm to encourage her to follow then rose to alight, surprised when the thief offered his gloved hand to aid her. A gentleman thief? Then again, his educated tone and word choice matched his manners. She took his hand and stepped down onto the side of the road beside him. He was tall, the top of her head barely meeting his chin. In the dusky light, she noted how well his black suit fit, revealing broad shoulders and a muscular build—far more muscular than most gentlemen.

This was no ordinary thief. As he’d stated, his still-mounted companion pointed a pistol at Thomas, the coachman, as well as George, the footman. Both servants held up their hands. The sight of the weapon clearly visible against the horizon brought home the seriousness of the situation. “Are you both well?” she called up to them. “Yes, my lady,” Thomas answered, not taking his eyes off the gun. She glared at the highwayman who held the weapon then brushed aside the one at the coach door so she could aid her mother herself. Lady Brown descended the stairs, her breath coming in quick gasps as she gripped Samantha’s hand. Samantha drew her to the side and continued to hold her arm, leaving her uncle to emerge of his own accord. “Do hurry along, sir.

We don’t have all evening.” The thief gestured for Tobias to move quicker. After much grumbling, her uncle stood beside them. The thief held out his gloved hand. “Empty your pockets, including your watch.” “What makes you think I have one?” Tobias asked. “Don’t all gentlemen?” The corner of the man’s lips quirked upward, making Samantha wonder what he looked like beneath the mask. Tobias practically growled his displeasure as he took a folded bunch of notes from his waistcoat pocket along with his watch and thrust them into the man’s hand. “Your cufflinks and signet ring as well.” “Those are family heirlooms.

” “I’ll ask the poor that I’m helping to treat them with care.” Next, the thief asked her mother to remove the strand of pearls she wore. Luckily, she only had on one of her rings and pulled that off at the man’s order. When the thief stood before Samantha, she couldn’t help the tremor of fear that went through her. “I don’t have anything of value on my person.” “Let’s start with you pulling the jewelry from your baggage.” “The bags already arrived with our servants in another conveyance.” She hoped they hadn’t been robbed as well. His obvious disappointment and frustration as he checked the empty boot of the coach surprised her. He returned to stand before her and studied her from head to toe.

“Your ring. I’ll take that.” “No.” She curled her hand into a fist. The black onyx set in silver was one she always wore and held a special place in her heart. “This was my grandmother’s. It holds only sentimental value.” “Have no doubt that your ring’s going to a good cause.” He held out his hand. “Give him the ring, Samantha,” her uncle ordered.

Part of her wanted to refuse. To hold her hand behind her back like a child so the thief couldn’t take it. But when his companion raised the pistol pointed at the servants, she relented. Her heart ached as she removed it. The ring symbolized memories, but most of all, it represented the love of someone who’d believed in her. “What else are you going to take?” she demanded, anger making her bold. “Just one thing.” He leaned in and kissed her, sending a shock wave clear to her toes. ~*~ Gabriel Sloane didn’t know what possessed him to kiss the lady. He didn’t normally take liberties with strangers.

But the defiance in her eyes demanded a response. Nothing was going according to plan today. Why should this stop be any different? While he’d nearly dismissed her at first glance as her sharp features weren’t traditionally beautiful, something about her made him look again. Anger glimmered in her dark eyes. Though obviously frightened, she’d done her best to comfort her mother. He had a soft spot for mothers, though hers appeared to have a brittleness about her that he didn’t appreciate. As he drew back, the scent of gardenias drifted in the night air, tempting him to take another kiss. He half expected her to strike him for his boldness, but her shock appeared to have made her motionless. “How dare you,” she managed at last, her chest heaving. “This is outrageous,” her mother added.

Gabriel stepped away and gave a mock bow. “I bid you a good evening. Give the duke my best. Enjoy the house party, knowing your donation serves a greater purpose.” He strode toward his horse to stuff the meager goods into his saddlebag, eager to be away. With a nod at Patrick Murphy, his friend and partner, he mounted then turned his steed to gallop for the trees, the sound of pounding hooves behind him reassuring him that Murphy followed. Once they’d reached the safety of the woods, well out of view of the road, Gabriel pulled up and ripped the mask from his face. He detested this business, but what else could he do? The fire at the tea factory near the London docks had been a terrible tragedy, leaving some dead, many injured, and all without jobs. He knew most of them as he’d grown up on the same streets where they still lived, though he’d managed to escape. With blood half blue, Gabriel had done all he could to help not only his mother but others in their neighborhood.

Even as a boy, he’d worked hard to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Quick fingers and a charming smile had made him a good pickpocket in his youth, but his mother insisted he find his livelihood some other way. No doubt she was turning over in her grave at his activities on this day. “Damn it.” Gabriel glared at his friend who was also his partner in the gentlemen’s club they’d started nearly five years ago. “I detest this. If only there was another way.” “Sloane, we’ve been over this.” Murphy shook his head. “What else can we do? The families need money now, and we don’t have any more to spare.

But your father and his guests do.” “I’ve asked you not to call him that.” Gabriel scowled as he watched the coach lanterns move down the road as if carried by a ghostly hand, the vehicle now hidden by darkness. “He’s no father to me.” The Duke of Rushford might have gotten his mother with child, but their association had ended with that. Gabriel’s mother had been a housemaid then. She told him that she’d loved the duke, having admired him for months before the night he’d taken her innocence. Gabriel would never know if she’d sugar-coated the truth. He knew many lords took advantage of their servants—some in the worst way possible. He could only hope his conception had been the consensual encounter she claimed, though he knew she would’ve thought nothing of telling a lie to protect him.

She’d eventually worked up the courage to tell the duke of her pregnancy and had been dismissed the following day. A few months after Gabriel’s birth, she made another attempt to contact him to tell him of their son. But by then, the duke and duchess had a legitimate heir. A small payment had followed each year until Gabriel turned eighteen, the duke’s only acknowledgement of his birth. He hadn’t known about the payments or that his mother had saved each one. The money he’d received upon her death had been bittersweet. It had provided enough for him to make a few investments, and soon, he and Murphy had started The Walthorpe Club. The gentlemen’s club provided a gathering place for others like themselves, who lingered on the edges of polite society by choice, birth, or the limited size of their pocketbook. The business had grown steadily over the years, but most of their profits went toward improvements or back to the community where they both had been raised. “You should’ve addressed him as Father in the letter you wrote asking for a donation for the fire victims,” Murphy said wryly.

“Maybe that would’ve gotten his attention.” Gabriel shook his head. “I refuse to call him that under any circumstances, even when I’m begging for money.” “I can’t believe not one of those damned charities we wrote to offered assistance. What’s the point of calling an organization a charity if they’re not willing to help those in need?” “I couldn’t agree more.” Murphy’s reminder of their attempt to raise money by fair means acted as a balm to Gabriel’s guilt. “Apparently a fire that burns a building to the ground, kills, and leaves injuries as well as unemployment doesn’t constitute a need.” “I won’t lose any sleep tonight because of what we did,” Murphy insisted. “The people we’ve taken from have plenty to spare. Think of it as a forced donation.

” They’d robbed two other coaches that were on their way to the duke’s before the last one. A chance remark from a customer at the club about the upcoming house party had given them the idea. “I’m not sure this will be enough to make a true difference.” Gabriel fingered the ring the lady had reluctantly given him, which he’d placed in his waistcoat pocket to examine more closely later when he had enough light to see. He’d nearly allowed her to keep it. Her heartfelt plea had sounded sincere. “Every little bit helps, but we need a significant amount in order to rebuild the factory and replace the equipment.” Murphy patted his horse’s neck as he leveled a pointed stare at Gabriel. “Are you going to explain what that was all about?” “What?” Gabriel knew to what his friend referred but had no explanation. He didn’t understand it himself.

“That kiss. Did you think her that pretty?” Yes and no, he nearly said. “I only took the liberty to distract her.” Samantha, the older man had called her. He appreciated having her name. No doubt the title of Lady came before it if she’d been invited to the duke’s residence. “Hmm.” Murphy’s murmur was loaded with judgment. Of that, Gabriel had no doubt. “Next time,” Murphy said after a long pause, “you point the weapon, and I’ll steal from the ladies.

” “Be my guest, though neither of our jobs is appealing.” “Should we wait to see if another coach passes by?” “Most of them probably arrived earlier to avoid being robbed.” Gabriel reached for his reins. “Let’s call an end to it for now. We’ll return to the club and examine the items to determine how much they might bring.” He hoped it was enough. Otherwise, he didn’t know where they’d find more money. An image of little Anna’s tear-streaked face came to mind. At age nine, she shouldn’t have been working at the factory, but she’d accompanied her mother during her shifts. Her nimble fingers were perfect for packing the carefully blended and weighed tea into tins, putting on the labels then sealing them.

And her family needed the money. The sight of the burns along her arms and neck were something he’d never forget. Gabriel would gladly put aside his conscience to aid her and her family and others like them. Even if it meant stealing a ring from an intriguing lady

.

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