THE BRIDE'S GAMBIT by Sandra Sookoo
A Scandal in Surrey Novel
Opportunity threw them together but circumstances might tear them apart.
She wants a dashing, courageous man…Vanessa Underhill is on the run from her fifth would-be groom. She doesn't care for any of the men her father has picked--none engaged her mentally or physically. Hunger for a man who will stir her imagination fires her virginal fantasies.
He wants understanding… When he's bored with his role as Viscount Blackpool, Collin Northington becomes a highwayman to gain anonymity and solace. With his face scarred fulfilling his military duty in India, he hides behind the brigand mask and persona. What he really desires is a woman who will look beyond outward appearances and take a chance.
If only for one night… In lieu of payment, Collin kidnaps Vanessa from the northern-bound stage. The more time they spend together—and in each other's arms—the more they find they have in common beyond heated desire. When Collin delivers an impromptu marriage proposal, Vanessa unmasks more than his scarred face, but will his true identity and her penchant for fleeing grooms ruin what could very well be love?
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Vanessa refused to glance—or even hold conversation with—the young couple in the coach with her. Why should she when, again, she’d embroiled herself in yet another scandal, traveling without a companion. Well, it cannot be helped, and I don’t much care besides.
Instead, she kept her gaze focused out the window at her right, and had been doing so since the coach started off not long after she fled the church. What else could she have done? She’d been more or less imprisoned in the vehicle for three hours, with no money and no luggage, but at least she wasn’t wed to a man she didn’t love or respect. She’d had just enough money in her reticule for a stage ticket to London and perhaps lodging at a posting inn midway through the journey. What she’d do once they arrived in London, she had no idea, but that wasn’t her immediate concern. Something would come about to settle her. It always did.
Settling against the worn squabbed bench, she rested her head against the wall and closed her eyes. Perhaps if she feigned sleep, the exuberant chatting between the young couple—newly married apparently—would cease. She stifled a sigh. Not that she begrudged them their happiness. The two were obviously in love if their significant glances and constant hand-holding were an indication. What she did resent was their blissful attitude. It mocked her, reminded her that she couldn’t go through a nuptial ceremony or do her parents proud.
Perhaps next time she should really make an effort to like the groom. A tear slid down her cheek. The sad fact was there wouldn’t be a next time. Papa had all but told her Mr. Abernathy was his last hope as all the other, more respectable bachelors were leery of her reputation now.
Her chin wobbled. Her married life was over before it could begin. The carriage jerked to a halt. Vanessa popped her eyes open and braced herself against the seat to keep from toppling to the floor. "Why are we stopping?" It was too early in the evening to consider taking a light supper, not that the coachman had said they would, and they wouldn’t gain the posting inn for another three hours yet.
She removed the strings of her reticule from her wrist and laid it on the seat beside her. Not that I have enough coin to pay for supper in addition to a room. She fingered the crushed velvet and stifled a sigh. Useless frippery, much like me.
"I have no idea." The young gentleman’s tone was decidedly clipped, as if the driver had purposefully inconvenienced him. "However, I will inquire if it will set your mind at ease and prevent female hysterics."
Vanessa and the younger woman exchanged looks. "Pardon me for wondering." Silently, she wished the woman luck with her husband’s personality. "That would be lovely, thank you."
Her stomach clenched. What if someone had witnessed her entering the coach at the station? What if Papa had dispatched a rider to retrieve her? She plucked at the edge of a glove. Would she go back? She set her chin. I won’t. I cannot.
No sooner had the gentleman stood and pushed open the door than a gruff order rang through the silence of the evening. "Stand and deliver. Throw your valuables into the road, and no one will be hurt."
A chill raced down Vanessa’s spine. "Good Lord, a highwayman!" She leaned into the aisle, straining to see around the man but the tails of his coat and his arms blocked her view. She’d heard stories of mounted brigands in the area between Surrey and London but had never known anyone who’d been accosted by the thieves. Her heartbeat quickened. How lovely to have an adventure after such a disappointing day. "Should we do what he asks?"
A shadow filled the doorway. The rogue rapped gloved knuckles on the frame. "If you value your life, I would." The bandit slammed the door against the side of the carriage. "On second thought, everyone out. I’ll inspect you myself to move this along. I rarely trust a person’s word."
His smooth, smoky request caused her heart to palpitate. Why couldn’t her father ever pick this sort of commanding man to meet her at the altar?
The younger woman whimpered and shrank against her seat. "Henry, do something."
The husband stood immobile. "What would you have me do? I have no pistol."
Vanessa huffed at the general lack of bravery in today’s men. She sidled closer to the door—and the robber—while her curiosity ran amok. The brigand ordered them out again, and she sighed. Finally, a bit of excitement in Surrey, and it was here, staring her in the face. What better way to lift her mood and distract her from the dismal reality of her own life? She cleared her throat and put any scattered thoughts of potential danger from her mind. "Excuse me, sir, but have you a weapon? If so, perhaps showing it would persuade my travel companions to move more quickly."
"I beg your pardon?" His question rang with incredulity.
She stifled the urge to shiver with pleasure. Did the highwayman’s voice affect the other woman in the same manner? Vanessa slid a glance to the other woman. No, she still cowered against the seat. Is it the thrill of being robbed that plays havoc with my insides?
"While I dearly want to follow your order, I cannot access the doorway until this gentleman moves, and obviously, he’s not prepossessed of any sort of gumption to do so without incentive." She only wanted out of the vehicle so she could get a look at the ruffian. Did his physical appearance match the authority in his voice? Her face heated.
A rich chuckle came from the highwayman. "I do indeed possess a pistol as well as a dagger. If need be, I throw a tight right hook." He stuck his head into the coach, but the gathering twilight as well as his mask and a worn, low-crowned hat hid his face from view. "Which of you spoke?"
The words echoed with culture not in keeping with the picture she’d envisioned from such a criminal. What sort of man chose thievery as a profession? What drove him to such desperation? Vanessa waved a hand. "I did, but if you’re hoping to gain valuable trinkets from me, I’m afraid I have none. I… I left rather suddenly." She cursed her lack of preparedness as she traced her pitifully thin reticule on the seat.
"That is quite all right. There are other things of value you might possess. Fortunately, I know exactly how to make such an assessment."
What did he mean? What secret wealth could she possess? Surely she had nothing of value a highwayman could want. Flutters tickled her belly. No man of her acquaintance had provoked such a reaction, so why now, did an unknown one, and a criminal at that, make her want to discover his secrets and hers?
He jutted a strong chin toward the man who still stood in the aisle. "This is your lucky day, sir. I’m letting you and your ladybird go without molestation."
The man reclaimed the seat next to his wife. "What of her?" He pointed to Vanessa.
She shot him a glare, though she doubted he saw it, and her estimation of men sank another notch. Whatever happened to standing up for a woman’s honor on principle?
"That is not for you to know, but if I were you, I’d thank her until your dying day that I spared your life." The highwayman extended a hand. "Let me help you out, miss."
The next moments ticked by in pregnant silence. She could remain inside and stay safe for a while, or she could go outside into unknown danger and ruin. This washer choice, a step onto a new path. A slow smile parted her lips. It was time to live for herself, to discover who she was outside of her parents’ wishes and home, and damn the consequences. If Papa couldn’t choose a decent man for her, and she’d already proclaimed most dim-witted and uninteresting, maybe she needed an indecent one. She suspected the highwayman could do nicely.
"Thank you, sir." She slipped her hand into his. The instant his gloved fingers closed around hers, warmth slid upward to her elbow. Heat continued to bloom when she moved to the door and he placed his hands on her waist before lifting her out. For one breath-stealing moment, she was crushed against the hard wall of his chest. "Oh my." She slid her hands over the wide breadth of his shoulders and past a scarlet waistcoat decorated with black embroidery then her feet found purchase on the road and he released her.
The highwayman secured the door to the carriage. He strode, with a slight limp, to the driver. Not once did he look back at her. In black breeches that hugged every lean line of his thighs and calves and a billowing white shirt, he appeared the consummate mystery villain—and a man who would haunt her womanly dreams. He tossed the coachman a coin and touched the brim of his black hat. "Be sure you take those two straight on to your destination. Don’t return until they disembark, and tell no one what transpired on this road."
"As you wish, gov’ner." The driver flicked a glance at Vanessa then just as quickly snapped it back to the road. He slapped leather reins against the horses’ backs and the coach rumbled into motion. A cloud of dust trailed behind it, leaving her with the rogue.
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