The High Toby
The Harding household included five females, four servants, three horses, two mortgages and one male. And no money. It did not make for a happy household, at least not when any of the females wanted something.
"Tobias!" The dowager would rap her cane loudly on the mostly-uncarpeted floors and call for her grandson. "We are getting sadly low on marmalade."
"No one in the kitchens has a clue as to how it is made?" Sir Tobias would ask in disbelief.
"Possibly, but I like mine from Fortnum & Mason."
Claudia Harding, the eldest of Tobias' three younger sisters, would soothe their grandmother with a few words and then head out to the orangery, a Harding estate feature since the time of Elizabeth I, and make marmalade for the old lady. And swear, bless her, that it came from London.
The current Lady Harding, Tobias' mother, would come next, insisting that she needed a new gown for a dinner party at Lady Mortimer's house. That one was easier on him, if not his sister. Claudia, his only ally in the family, would unearth trim from somewhere (picked off one of her own gowns, most likely) and offer to make over her mother's clothes.
Anne, a studious 20-year-old, wanted books and Tobias would direct her to the musty old library that no one else used. Imogen, a horse-mad 18, could not understand why even their horses must be pressed into farm work. Tobias had countered that by taking her around the estate -- on foot -- and showing her how the horses were being used. That she caught a glimpse of the poverty of their people at the same time did not hurt either.
All of this did not stop the complaining completely, but there was food on the table and clothing on their backs and Tobias refused to take blame for their penury. He had only been in charge of the estate for two years: the year before his wastrel father had died, and this past year of mourning. He was a serious young man of twenty-five who had spent his formative years taking firsts at school and then living it up in London until his father had fallen and injured his spine. Then it was time to come home.
That had been a surprise. Never lacking for funds, he discovered that the money he was spending had literally been taken from the family's dwindling finances. The tenants were either moving off the estate or living hand to mouth.
He had immediately taken charge, performing the work himself to rebuild cottages, shear sheep and plow fields. He enlisted the farmers as tutors and managed to help bring in the harvest, although the earnings were far less than was owed. After his father died, he worked even more aggressively to bring everything in line. Though he might not become fabulously wealthy, his measures could bring some prosperity back to Harwood.
Or so he thought. On a crisp November morning, he was in his office going over the profits from his second harvest when a letter arrived.
Claudia, bringing him a cup of tea and some of her homemade biscuits (also copied to mimic those from Fortnum and Mason), almost dropped her tray.
"Toby! Such language!"
"Cut line, Claudia," he grumbled, still staring in disbelief at his letter. "You have heard worse."
"Yes, but not from you."
"I beg your pardon, then, but I have just received some bad news."
Claudia set her tray on the desk and handed over his cup. "Can you tell me?"
"You more than anyone. It seems our dearly departed father had mortgaged the estate yet again and the note has come due."
"Will the harvest cover it?"
"I am proud to say we did make a bit of a profit this year, but it is not enough to cover this." He handed his sister the letter and was rewarded with a gasp.
"Eight thousand pounds?"
"Some of which, judging by the date of the note, financed much of my life in London," he bitterly replied.
"You must not let that bother you," Claudia insisted. "You had no inkling..."
"No, I did not. But now I must pay for my pleasure."
"Eight thousand..." Claudia repeated. "Lady Porter has a necklace worth at least that much, or so she claims. If we could steal it..."
She chuckled. "I am not serious. Besides, where would we sell such a thing? It is a one-of-a-kind piece, and rather ugly at that."
"There are places where one can sell stolen goods. And have paste copies made..." he mused.
It was Claudia's turn to be shocked. "Toby!"
He shrugged. "It would be easier, anyway, to hold up a few carriages on the main road. Nick a few purses and watch fobs, and a payment could be made, at least."
"Toby on the High Toby," Claudia teased. She reached over and patted his hand. "I know you will find a way. You always do."
In the end, however, he did not. He made arrangements to pay the note in installments, but even the first payment had to be one thousand pounds. A month before that was due, he still found himself nowhere near that amount. The thought of supplementing his income, however, was not far from his mind. It was coming up on Christmas and there would be plenty of road travel for the holidays.
He thought about it long and hard and finally decided, one night, to put it to the test. If he could pull off a robbery, he would seriously consider it as a short-term career. If he could not manage it, or got shot, he would take that as a sign to give it up before it had begun.
He had to fashion his own mask, not daring to take even Claudia into his confidence. A pair of black satin knee breeches -- ones he disliked -- were sacrificed to cover both his eyes and, upon reflection, his fair hair.
Dark clothing and his black cape completed the ensemble and he slipped downstairs to his father's old study, a room Tobias rarely entered. The man's dueling pistols were there, however, and tucked one into his pants without loading it. He had no wish to harm, only threaten.
Sneaking out a study window, he went out to the stables and took Maximus from his stall. There was no need to saddle him, and no one he could call to help. The stable hands were all in their beds and they could stay there. Toby did not want to have to explain... He realized he was going to have to tend to his horse afterwards, too.
Damn! How did highwaymen do it?
Desperate and determined, he vaulted onto Max and headed out the back of the stables, through the grass. How was he going to keep all the particulars straight? No ride down the gravel drive (too noisy), no saddle (too much time), rub down the horse (no grooms)... And what if there was a next time and there were grooms about in the stables?
Everything was forgotten twenty minutes later as he reached the main road to Salisbury. It was still busy, although it was getting on in the evening. (Another consideration: When were highwayman work hours?)
He and Max waited behind a tree until there was only one lone carriage coming down the road at a brisk pace. He coaxed his mount out onto the road to block the way and then wondered why bloody highwaymen wore black -- it made them nigh invisible! The carriage did not even stop! They were forced to back out of the way and Toby cursed fluently when he realized he should have given chase. This was not going at all as planned.
They kept an eye out for any more likely conveyances for more than an hour, to no avail, and were about to head home when a young man, singing at the top of his lungs, came riding slowly down the road. A trifle bosky, it took him some time to reach Toby and Max, until even the horse became impatient.
"Steady, lad," Toby soothed. To his surprise, the lone rider stopped in front of him and peered at them in the darkness.
"I say -- do you always lurk about waiting for unsuspecting people?"
Toby blinked. "No, actually, this is my first time," he admitted.
"Novice," the man said under his breath. "No wonder I've never seen you out here before. Too bad I have to do this, old chap..."
Toby suddenly found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol.
"Give me all you've got and I'll go away," the man declared.
Toby did not dare risk his life, but his pockets also were to let, so he had to do something. "I have not held up anyone yet, actually, but you may have my horse."
"And a mighty prime bit of blood it is, too. But no thanks. You speak like a toff and I'd be a fool to take your cattle off your hands. I'd be in the suds before long, for sure." He put down the pistol and turned back to face forward on the road. "Good luck to you, Gov. You're gonna need it!" He spurred his own horse onward and they were soon lost in the dark.
It was a good fifteen minutes later before Toby could catch his breath.
But he only got in a few short ones before he heard a carriage, and this time he was ready. Waving a white handkerchief, he came out and planted himself in the middle of the road. Brandishing the unloaded pistol in his right hand, he shouted, "Stand and deliver!"
The carriage stopped, money was collected, a silver flask and a fancy snuffbox were contributed to the cause and he let them go with their jewelry intact. The fact that his victims were acquaintances of his coming home from a late party was not lost on him. Not that he felt guilty, of course. The Wolfes were as rich as Golden Ball and Mr. Wolfe had, only the week before, turned Toby down for a loan.
Toby had remembered to change his voice, too, when he relieved them of some of their earthly possessions. He left with Mrs. Wolfe's thanks for letting her keep her jewels ringing in his ears.
It gave him the encouragement he needed to continue down the road to sure perdition.
"It was the most extraordinary thing, really," an excited Mrs. Wolfe said over tea the next afternoon to the Harding ladies. "Tres romantique!"
"You think being held up at gunpoint by a common thief is glamorous?" the dowager asked.
"Your ladyship cannot imagine how it feels to be left with one's jewels still on one's person..."
Claudia stiffened at the obvious insult to her grandmother. She disliked Mrs. Wolfe, but she was even more unhappy with that lady's news - that there was a highwayman on the loose and he only wanted gold and silver.
"But why would a thief not take your jewels?" the younger Lady Harding queried. Claudia knew her mother coveted Mrs. Wolfe's ever-changing kaleidoscope of glittering baubles. Not only did Claudia find them lacking in good taste, but she also suspected them of being either heavily insured and no great loss, or else paste. Besides, it would be more difficult for Toby to get money for jewels. There was no doubt in her mind that her brother had resorted to a life of crime.
She tracked him down in his office an hour later.
"I thought you were not going to do this!" she exclaimed, slamming her palms down sharply on the desk.
Toby jumped. He seemed to know exactly what she meant.
"I have no choice. Do you want us to lose our home?"
"No, but highway robbery? Surely there is some other way?"
"We have been through this before. Father sold off all the unentailed land ages ago. Some of the local farmers have more wealth than we do and not one of our neighbors will loan me the funds. I will be damned before I approach the cent per centers in London, especially when the mortgage had been made by one of them in the first place!"
She could see he was fast losing his patience, but she felt a need to press on. "But..."
"There is nothing more to discuss," he said coldly in an obvious dismissal.
"Just answer me this. How much money did you make last night?"
Toby flushed. "Forty pounds, six silver flasks and five snuff boxes. Oh, and one silver thimble," he bitterly replied. "At this rate, we should be able to make the first payment only six months after the estate is sold at auction."
Claudia groaned. "Then I shall have to join you. If we take two roads, we could cover more ground."
"No! It is bad enough I have become a criminal!"
"Then I shall have to marry the squire," she told him.
They both knew old Squire Wooten, who was fifty if he was a day, carried a torch for Claudia. He had plenty of the ready and if she said her family was in need, they could gain a portion of what they needed that way.
"You are too much my favorite sister for me ever to agree to such a horrid thing. I will not have you sacrificing yourself for the family."
"Then that leaves only one other option. Will you still visit me when I am Lord Parkington's mistress?"
Toby laughed, as she meant him
to. The lord in question was eighty-six and not expected to live into the next
"Aye, for you will be little more than a lonely nursemaid, my dear."
She chuckled. "Then we shall have to work together. I could be your lookout at the stables. It could not have been easy to sneak in and out of there last night."
"I could have used someone at my back," he confessed. "How am I going to explain myself if they catch me?"
"Smuggling?" They were well inland, but it had been known to happen in the area. Stonehenge, in particular, was said to often conceal stolen goods, as many of the locals would not go near it at night.
"That is good. Especially if I take out two horses. I will get them both tonight and meet you at the crossroads. You can bring the pistols."
"You use pistols?" Claudia's eyes grew wide.
"They are not loaded. But do not let on!"
"I think that secret is safe with me."
Miss Rachel Burns, twenty-one, was demure and subservient, exactly the way Lady Porter liked her nieces. She was also extremely wealthy and in control of her own fortune, something Lady Porter did not approve of at all. She had hoped her brother would have died the year before, leaving his elder sister in charge of her poor, grieving niece.
Rachel was so sweet, she never would have denied her aunt a thing, and she could have lived with the girl in her modishly-situated town house in London. That way, Lady Porter would not have been required to put out much in the way of expenses.
It was only now that her brother had finally died of the wasting illness that had taken so long to kill him off, and she had invited Rachel to stay with her. After the girl was settled, she would talk her into contributing a hefty amount of blunt for her upkeep. The girl was so eager to please, she would pass over the funds without a murmur. Or so Lady Porter thought.
Miss Rachel Burns was neither demure nor pliable, except when it suited her. It suited her now, because she despised her grasping aunt. Leading her about by the nose was entertaining for the moment and had gotten her out of London, which had been her only reason for accepting that miser's invitation. The longer she stayed in London, the more she was reminded of her father, whom she had loved dearly.
A change of scenery had been required, even if it meant riding in a death-trap of an elderly carriage and pretending that she was shy and sweet. Her aunt was going to be in for a surprise when she began asking for money. All her life, Rachel had been forced to watch that harridan beg her father for financial assistance, even though everyone knew Lady Porter had been left a wealthy widow at an early age.
Even worse, her father had always given his sister whatever she asked. Well, he might have gone to his grave with an easy conscience, but Rachel was hanged if she would!
"'Tis harder than it looks!" Claudia exclaimed as she sat on a dark horse trying to balance a pistol, a lantern and herself. She was not much of a horsewoman.
"You will do just fine," her brother assured her. "Just flash the lantern in my direction once you hear a carriage approach and I will do the rest."
The system worked well for an hour or so. Claudia would size up the approaching vehicle, and if she gave the signal, Toby would confront it up the road, keeping her well away from any danger. The gun was to make it appear as if she were protected. It was not loaded, not that she would know how to use it if it were.
When Claudia saw a familiar carriage approach from the road to London, she knew it was useless to flag down her brother. Lady Porter was a clutch-fisted woman who never carried anything of real value. The necklace she boasted of so readily was only worn to impress shabby-genteel neighbors such as the Hardings. Besides, she had gone to London to visit her niece and Claudia doubted she had taken her jewel case.
Her horse, however, sensing her inattention and lack of riding ability, took that moment to rear up, causing her to yelp in surprise. Her lantern waved about madly as she scrambled to gain control.
The carriage passed, Claudia dropped the pistol and lantern into a puddle and the horse bolted, not stopping until he reached the stables. It never occurred to her that the lantern had alerted her brother.
Tobias saw the signal and spurred Max into action. He could have sworn the old boy was getting into the spirit of things when he reared menacingly up in front of a team of... Good Lord! Was that Lady Porter's conveyance? Why in the world did Claudia think they were going to get blood out of that turnip? Too late now.
"Stand and deliver!" he cried. The coachman cringed and stopped the carriage. Indignant squawks could be heard from the lady inside and then, to his surprise, a pretty little miss dressed in black emerged from the coach.
"Please, sir," she said in a cultured voice, "here are my valuables." She offered up her reticule for inspection. "You will not get anything from her," she added, indicating the carriage, where Lady Porter was still carrying on.
Toby just sat on Max, entranced by the petite lady, her heart-shaped face wreathed in dark curls beneath her hood.
"If you have any knowledge of the neighborhood, I cannot imagine what possessed you to hold up this coach."
"Neither can I," he murmured. Her perfect pink lips formed words, but he was barely listening. "Keep your money, miss," he surprised himself by saying.
"But I would give you something, sir," she insisted.
Forward little minx! "If you insist." He leaned down, pulled her up to him and kissed her full on those pouty pink lips. Then he released her and began to spur Max to flight.
Tobias paused and the girl dug about in her reticule before producing a heavy gold signet ring. Heedless of Max, she pressed it into his hand.
"Until we meet again." She slipped into the carriage and rapped on the window to alert the old driver, who had been a rapt audience up to that point.
Toby was left in the middle of the road to choke on its dust as it took its leave.
What had possessed him to kiss her like that? Toby had never accosted a female before in his life! But she had looked so adorable, coming out to confront him even though he held a pistol. What a brave chit!
He had stopped the robberies after that, but not before searching unsuccessfully for Claudia and her mount. He had found the lantern and pistol, however, and was relieved when he returned home and found the other horse in its stall.
He had not had a chance to speak privately with Claudia that day, either. As soon as his mother announced her intention to call on Lady Porter and her young houseguest, he had shocked his family by asking to accompany her. Disbelief soon gave way to speculation on all sides.
"I hear tell the chit has enough ready to renovate even this old pile," his grandmother remarked at breakfast.
"And the dower house, as well," Claudia playfully remarked, earning a scowl from the old lady and a smirk from Imogen.
"We would have so many luxuries once more," his mother said blissfully.
"Mother! Grandmama! I have not yet met the young lady." Not formally. "Is this not premature?"
"A mere trifle, lad," the dowager insisted. "You are the most handsome young buck in the county and many a girl would gladly have you if you were not so poor."
"Thank you," Toby replied, his voice laden with sarcasm, a tone which was lost on his grandmother.
"If you were just more like your father," the younger Lady Harding said with a sigh.
"Then we should be in the workhouse, Mama," Claudia said.
"Nonsense! We are just below hatches at the moment," the dowager insisted, her use of a cant expression bringing a giggle out of serious Anne.
"You will come with us, Claudia," his mother insisted. "Tobias is not the only one in need of a spouse. Anne..." Lady Harding looked at her middle daughter and sighed. "Anne may stay home."
"Thank you, Mama." Mother and daughter both seemed relieved.
"Imogen is going to need a season," Lady Harding said later as they took the gig (the gig!) to call on their neighbors. Tobias rode Maximus. "Of all of you, she is the most vivacious and she should take rather well. You are too plain, Claudia," she rambled on callously, "and Anne is too much of a bluestocking."
"Then why is not Imogen here in my place?" Toby heard his sister ask.
"Because Squire Wooten might call on Lady Porter today," their mother teased.
"If you are so set on Squire Wooten, Mama, I wonder you do not set your own cap at the gentleman!"
"Because he requires an heir, miss!" Lady Harding snapped.
Toby saw his mother's flushed face and angry expression and wondered if she harbored a secret tendre for the old goat. Better Mama than Claudia, he thought, but realized his mother was not the only one smitten with a person once they sat politely in Lady Porter's drawing room. He was as much taken with Miss Burns that day as he had been the evening before.
What had possessed her to give up her Papa's ring? Rachel asked herself that question a hundred times that night and all the next morning. It was not as if she had anything else to do anyway, but she was curious.
Could it be the little blonde hairs that gleamed in the moonlight from underneath the black silk head wrap? Or perhaps it was the light eyes she saw filled with admiration. Rachel was not so green that she did not recognize a man's appreciation of her self.
But to give away her father's ring? It must have been the cultured voice and finely boned hands that had convinced her he was of her class and that they were bound to meet again. Once she determined who her highwayman was, she was going to ask for the ring back. And another kiss. She had enjoyed that very much.
That afternoon, at tea, she had a chance to consider three young men who might be her midnight thief. She did not even have to steer the conversation about to gauge their reactions. Aunt Porter did that just nicely.
"You were attacked by brigands?" Lady Harding, a helpless blonde, exclaimed once the topic had been broached. "Merciful heavens! What if we are next?" The hand not holding a cup of weak tea fluttered helplessly.
"Do not distress yourself, Mama," Miss Harding assured her parent. "You rarely go about at night."
"I shall be glad to alert the magistrate," a Mr. George said pompously, preening a bit and no doubt hoping Rachel would be impressed by his ability to do the right thing in such a circumstance. She did not want him to do the right thing, but she did not say so, only crossed the arrogant ass of her list.
But neither of the other two gentlemen, Sir Tobias Harding or Mr. Parmenter, said a word and she was forced to keep them both under consideration.
"Please tell us what happened!" Miss Parmenter begged.
"Well, we were on our way here, and it was late," Rachel began, suddenly struck by the fate that had brought her to that point. They would not have been out there at all if her aunt had not refused to pay for an inn. "The next thing I knew, we had stopped."
"Was it the highwayman?" the other young lady asked with a gasp.
"No, it was a two-headed elephant," Miss Harding said sarcastically.
Miss Parmenter giggled. "You are so amusing!"
Rachel gave Miss Harding a smile and continued. "It was the highwayman!"
"Did he say ‘Stand and deliver'?" Miss Parmenter interrupted once more.
"I do not recall. But he demanded payment..." Rachel's voice dropped to a whisper. "...And I knew my aunt should not be robbed." Because she did not have anything on her to steal, actually.
"How brave you were," Miss Harding said. Rachel was not certain if it was more of the young lady's sarcasm or not.
"I thought so, but there was no need for alarm, as it turns out. He let us go, unmolested." Well, almost...
"How exciting!" Miss Parmenter exclaimed.
"Yes, very," Rachel agreed, wearing a dreamy expression even as Miss Parmenter insisted her brother allow her to be held up by the neighborhood bandit.
"I like your neighbors very much, Aunt," Rachel ventured at dinner that evening. "Two gentlemen, especially."
"Harding and Parmenter, I suppose," Lady Porter said with a sniff. "One is a damned libertine and the other is a pauper. Neither one is acceptable, in my opinion."
"But which one is which?" Rachel persisted.
The older lady cackled. "You would not believe me if I told."
"Let me just say that the one with the countenance of an archangel is not an angel and one who appears outwardly prosperous is not wealthy."
Rachel, who had not seen the Harding gig, sighed. In truth, she had no clue, as both gentlemen were handsome, perhaps Parmenter a bit more so, and both seemed well dressed.
Still bent on discovery, she grilled Susan, the maid her aunt had assigned her, that evening.
"Tell me about Sir Tobias Harding," she commanded, cutting right to the chase.
"Sir Tobias?" The girl had been caught unawares.
"Handsome devil, isn't he?" Rachel prodded.
"Without a feather to fly with," Susan replied as she plaited the young lady's hair.
"His father was a wastrel. Ran everything into the ground."
"The family seems prosperous enough."
"Sir Tobias has spent the last couple of years improving everything, miss. My mother is a pensioner on his estate - she has nothing but praise for him. He patched her roof hisself."
"Did he now..."
"Yes, miss. Does a lot of his own work and never complains in front of the tenants, either. Nor in front of his family, I wager. His granny is a right old Tartar who thinks he will provide whatever she asks."
"Word has it that whenever she wants fancy foodstuffs from town, he agrees, period Miss Harding makes them and they don't tell the old lady."
"Very sensible of them. That would be Miss Claudia?"
"Yes, miss. She's a good one, miss. You wouldn't go wrong with her as a friend, if you'll beg my pardon for sayin' so."
"Of course. I appreciate your honesty, Susan. I found Miss Harding to be an interesting person to know. Perhaps I shall call on her on the morrow. To further the acquaintance..."
Claudia had not been certain the day before if she liked Miss Burns. Now she was sure she did not.
The young lady had driven herself over in Lady Porter's decrepit old dog cart hitched to an equally elderly pony. Claudia could find no fault with that. The young lady even refrained from saying something rude, such as how she was going to trade in the old cart for something new the first chance she got.
Nor could Claudia complain about Miss Burns' attitude. She appeared neither superior nor dismayed at the shabby environs of Harding Hall, unlike some of their neighbors. The young lady treated the elder Harding women with respect and she was nothing if not friendly to Claudia.
It was the friendliness to which Claudia took exception. The girl was too kind and too nosy above half.
"How are you today?" the dowager queried after introductions had been made. "I understand you met our highwayman."
Our highwayman? Claudia bit her tongue.
"It was quite an adventure," Miss Burns said with a laugh.
Claudia, who was sitting next to their guest, wanted to get up and move to another seat, but the only one available was next to Squire Wooten.
"The squire was just telling us how that bandit made off with his purse last night," Claudia's mother said.
"Truly?" Miss Burns was suddenly on the edge of her seat. "What did he look like? Was he all in black, with a mask?"
The squire, who enjoyed attention of any sort, gave Miss Burns as many details as she wished, and Claudia was rather alarmed that the man had paid such close attention to detail whilst being robbed. On the other hand, she felt rather smug that his purse had contained more than one hundred pounds. What idiot carried around that much blunt when there was a highwayman purported to be in the area? He deserved to have it stolen.
The best part, of course, was that Squire Wooten was the local magistrate and so far had failed to do anything about the situation except crow that he, too, had been tapped by the bandit.
Claudia plastered a polite smile on her face and listened to Miss Burns' inquisition. It was obvious she and Toby were going to have to move their operations a bit further from the immediate neighborhood. And they were going to have to hold up themselves. There was no two ways around that.
In the meantime, alerted as to their visitors, Toby made an appearance.
"Tobias!" their grandmother commanded. "You and Claudia will take Miss Burns on a tour of the conservatory! Show off your mother's plants."
Instead of politely declining, Miss Burns (much to Claudia's chagrin), proclaimed her pleasure at such a prospect and Claudia had the privilege of playing gooseberry while her brother escorted the lady out of the room. It was obvious to her that he did not mind at all.
Toby's mind was reeling, actually, as he led Miss Burns to the conservatory. Not for reasons Claudia would approve of, either. Did Miss Burns recognize him? Had she liked the kiss?
He could not help but stare at their guest, and was so lost in a daze, he never even noticed when Claudia stepped up and began a running monologue on the plants they grew.
It had to be a monologue, he hazily realized, because Miss Burns was staring back at him and not attending his sister at all.
"Perhaps I should leave you two alone," he vaguely heard Claudia say.
"No!" he cried in alarm. If Claudia left, propriety would force him to escort Miss Burns back to the drawing room. "That is ... She has not yet seen the..."
"Stables!" Miss Burns inserted for him. "What is a tour if it does not include the stables?"
Toby could not account for Claudia's glare at the lady. If she wanted to see stables, then she would see stables. What harm could there be in showing them off, except for the lack of horses therein?
Rachel's guesses were confirmed when she came face to face with Maximus. There could not be two horses with the same white patch just above the eye. Sir Tobias had to be her highwayman!
She was pleased with the knowledge. He was handsome, he was daring and he kissed divinely. Rachel was not so green that she did not recognize a great kiss when she received one.
Now all she had to do was get her ring back and convince Sir Tobias Harding that they belonged together. Then she could give him the ring to wear for the rest of his life.
Squire Wooten called again the next day, but this time he came in his finest clothes and carried a bouquet of flowers.
Claudia was looking out the window as he approached the house and, in a panic, she went to find Toby. He was in his office.
"Toby! The squire is here!"
He looked up from where he had no doubt been daydreaming about Miss Burns instead of keeping the accounts, and smiled. "The squire is often here."
"Yes, but today he brought flowers!"
"Oh!" That woke him from his little reverie right enough, she thought smugly. The squire never brought flowers.
"Yes, oh! This changes everything."
"This changes nothing!" he insisted. "You will attend him, if he wishes to speak to you privately, and you will answer how you wish."
"My dearest Claudia." Toby put down his pen, rose from the desk and embraced her. "There is no penalty for refusing him."
"But Mama ... And Grandmama..." She smiled under her brother's determined gaze. "If you are certain..."
"I am certain. Now, go. We cannot show a lack of manners, even though it is obvious we lack a great many other things."
Claudia kissed his cheek. "There is no lack of compassion in you, dearest of brothers." She was grateful that neither her father nor her mother were the ones who had control of her fate.
Yes, the squire did require a private audience with Claudia, and he did propose. It was not quite the romantic, heartfelt offer she could have wished for.
First of all, he thrust the flowers into her hands and began to pace. He did not kneel in front of her.
"You are well aware of my regard for you, Miss Harding." It was not a question.
"How could you not be?"
"It is of no moment. I am here today to offer you my protection."
To Claudia's knowledge, that meant only one thing, and her jaw dropped. Once she overcame her shock, however, she began to enjoy the situation.
"I am supposed to be flattered that you wish me to be your mistress?"
"Merciful heavens, no! What gave you that idea? I wish you to be my wife! You need protection, Miss Harding, from that highwayman!"
"The one who has already robbed you?" she asked sweetly.
"Yes! And you require protection from your family!"
"My family is going to hold me up?" she asked, pretending to be alarmed.
"From its financial situation!"
She snorted. Could the man be any more thick-witted than he already was?
"Everyone knows your brother is below hatches! He has asked everyone for miles for a loan! I could bail him out, you know."
"When you already refused?"
"I could loan him the money he requires -- at a modest interest rate, of course -- if you will give me your hand in marriage."
"A loan? With interest?" Claudia drew herself up to her full, not inconsiderable height. "I think not. First of all, I do not desert my family like a rat on a sinking ship! If we go down, we go down together, and if marriage to you means only I should be saved, I would rather drown!"
"If you wish to loan my brother money, then do so. You have already had the opportunity. But do not make it contingent on our marriage. I will be wed only to a man who makes no such deals."
"Then you will never marry."
She flinched at such cruel words. "I am hardly past my last prayers, sir, and I may be plain, but there is a gentleman out there somewhere willing to overlook such a thing. Obviously, you are not he." She threw the flowers in his face and stormed out of the room.
Not heeding where she went, and ignoring the startled expression on her mother's face, for Lady Harding had been hanging about the hall, she ran to the orangery.
Toby found her there an hour later, after she was past tears and had settled into sullen anger.
"I hate him!" was the first thing she said to her brother. "Mama had better not have accepted for me!"
"She did not." Toby was wearing a smirk.
"However, she did accept for herself." The smirk became a smile.
"Yes! Apparently, you wounded the squire's pride."
"I wounded nothing! There is nothing to wound! Especially not between the ears!"
"As I said, you wounded his pride." The smirk had returned. "Mama went in to help him pick up the flowers strangely scattered about the room, they commiserated over what an idiotic girl you were and before I knew it, the squire was asking me for her hand."
"No strings attached?" She had to know.
"Well, there was mention of a loan, with modest interest, but Mama insisted it not be a loan at all, but payment for the privilege of her hand."
Claudia shook her head in wonder. "Why did I not think of that?"
"Because you do not love the squire like Mama does, and he is putty in her hands."
"How did she know to ask for the money?"
"She did not. It stung her that she was collateral for a loan, so to speak, and she put her foot down."
"If she had to do so one time in her life, I am glad it was now. We are saved!"
"Not quite. It will cover enough loan for now, certainly, and Mama wants Anne and Imogen to come live with her, which will be three less to feed and clothe, but long term?"
"I fear so. Shall we go out tonight?"
Claudia grinned. They were both becoming just a bit too addicted to this illegal venture. "Yes, let's! We can celebrate Mama's engagement in style!"
"And if we get caught and hauled in front of the magistrate?"
Claudia dimpled. "Do you think the squire will prosecute his own darling stepchildren?"
That evening's pillaging did not go quite as planned.
Toby had garnered a good deal of money and was in the process of relieving a wealthy merchant of his silver accoutrements when he heard a noise. The merchant goggled at whatever was behind him, but Toby did not turn around.
"Did you already say ‘stand and deliver'?" Miss Burns whispered in his ear. Toby almost dropped the pistol in surprise.
"Miss Burns!" he hissed. "Go home! This is no place for you!" The merchant rolled his eyes and Toby motioned for him to move along.
Once they were alone, Toby backed Miss Burns and Max into the underbrush and confronted the lady.
"Now, what the devil are you doing here?" he demanded.
She laughed. "Watching you work, Sir Tobias."
"How did you..."
"Because she is too nosy above half!" Claudia, who had been worried when Toby forgot to give the all clear, emerged from the bushes with her own horse.
"But I figured it out!" Miss Burns said smugly and without any remorse.
"So you have discovered us. How wonderful for you," Claudia said sarcastically. "Now go home like a good girl and do not tell anyone you know."
"But I cannot leave!" Miss Burns hotly replied. "Not yet. I want two things that were taken from me."
"Oh?" Claudia was getting curious and Toby blushed under their combined scrutiny.
"My father's ring, for one, and a kiss."
"A kiss!" Claudia began to laugh. "It must have been from the horse, because surely..." She gave her brother a disgusted look. "Say you did not," she begged of him.
"If I say I did not, I should be lying."
"Toby!" Claudia wailed. "You are not supposed to kiss your victims, nodcock! Next you will be telling me you fell in love with her, too!"
Toby was silent long enough to elicit another wail from his sister and a radiant smile from Miss Burns. That forward little minx wasted no time in launching herself into his arms.
"Does this mean you reciprocate my feelings?" he asked, his arms wrapping around her.
"What feelings? I have heard no declarations, although one was surely implied."
"How about, ‘I love you, Miss Burns'?"
"I love you, Rachel. I believe I fell in love with you the first time we met."
"I love you, too, my Toby of the High Toby."
"Oh, brother," Claudia groaned. "Come on, Farley," she said to her mount. "No kisses for you or Max tonight, not from either of this pair." She picked up the reins and began the walk home.
Toby ignored her and fished about in a pocket with one hand while he still held Rachel with the other.
"Why is this ring so important?" he wondered, pressing it into her hand.
"It was my late father's, but do not worry. I plan to give it back to you some day."
"On our wedding day."
There was nothing to be done after that except to kiss the lady once more.
In due time the highwayman married his minx in a quiet ceremony in deference to her state of mourning, and the settlements were very generous. They provided for the payment of the loan in full, a few other outstanding bills and some creature comforts for the baronet and his lady.
Claudia was asked to stay with them, and she agreed, even though she teased them unmercifully for their affection towards one another, and in spite of the fact that they promised her a London season once Rachel was out of mourning.
The elder Lady Harding was removed to the dower house and a paid companion was provided for her, not to mention a few choice hampers a year from Fortnum and Mason.
The younger Lady Harding became Lady Wooten and happily moved herself, Anne and Imogen to the squire's house. The squire agreed to provide a season for his new stepdaughters in two years' time, after Rachel insisted Claudia make her debut first.
Lady Porter was an angry bystander in all this, and purposely told everyone who would listen that Sir Tobias was the highwayman, because his household, of all the ones in the neighborhood, had yet to be robbed.
So one night, when the moon was full, Toby went for a ride on Maximus. He was on the main road between Salisbury and London when a figure in black strode out of the woods, pistol in hand.
"Stand and deliver!" a familiar voice rang out.
"I have nothing of value," he said.
"You do to me," Rachel said lovingly, pulling the mask from her head and climbing up behind her husband. "And don't forget to tell the servants that you were robbed," she reminded him.
"I was. The highwayman stole my heart."
© 2005, 2006 Copyright held by the author.