Chapter 1 - June 21, 1882 ~ London, England
One foot dangled inside the windowsill in the relative safety of the bedroom. The other desperately searched for a foothold on the lattice that climbed the house as Victoria Brighton precariously straddled the ledge.
Cursing as her skirts snagged on a nail, Victoria looked below her. It was a pretty view, the ivy-strewn lattice climbing the red brick house. But she would be much happier looking at it from over her shoulder.
“Blast,” she muttered, trying to keep her voice down to avoid being heard by anyone who happened to be outside.
Her foot found the lattice and she began inching her way down from her second story window. It was fortunate she didn’t sleep on the third floor, she thought.
Her fingers dug into the crisscrossed wood and her foot slipped a few times on the tangle of vines as she made the slow climb down. Her gloves scratched against the rough brick wall as her fingers slid through the lattice holes and hit the cold surface. There was still a chill to the air in the late hours of spring, but nevertheless Victoria could feel anxious perspiration dripping down her spine.
What she lacked in coordination, she made up for with determination. By the time she reached the ground her arms were beginning to ache from the weight of what she felt was a very average sized frame.
As she reached down to retrieve the valise that she’d sent flying out the window minutes earlier, Victoria heard the din of voices around the corner. Laughter floated through the air, as the voices of her wedding guests were full of gossip and excitement, lips loosened by too many glasses of champagne and punch.
The wedding in question was one that Victoria was determined would never take place. It would be not a fairy tale of her choosing, but one that would mean a happy ending for her stepfather and groom to be. She was seen as a bank account more than a bride and she refused to spend the rest of her life married to a man who made her skin crawl in all varieties of unpleasant ways.
She didn’t think any of the guests would be disappointed. Rather, this would provide fodder for their gossip for months. How a girl from a common family – though an heiress to a formidable fortune, mind you – could leave the Duke of Lansingberg practically at the altar! Never mind that he had nothing to his name, had destroyed his estate with his greedy ways and his wife had suspiciously died – he was a duke.
Victoria would not be wife number two, and would certainly not be making the Duke a widower twice over.
She was, as always, running late. She didn’t know how it had happened, as she thought she had timed everything perfectly. Feigning a stomach illness, she had blamed the richness of the food and her nervousness for the day at hand. No one had questioned her, nor had cared really. The sky was just beginning to darken, and she knew she had to get moving if she was going to make the last train to Liverpool.
Victoria had made a schedule for herself in order to time everything just right – enough time to reach the train station, arrive in Liverpool, and make her way to the docks to board the Parisian. Her hope was that once the others realized she was gone in the morning, there wouldn’t be enough time to catch her before the ship launched. She had told her maid, Mary, not to wake her until late as she needed the beauty rest before her wedding day. It pained Victoria that Mary, as sweet and gentle as she was, might be blamed, but Victoria consoled herself with the thought that she was also saving Mary from a life serving in the household of the Duke of Lansingberg. Victoria had left her with a note outlining what to say to the Duke, including information on where she had arranged another placement for her.
Victoria crept around the back of the house to find the alley clear. Dark tendrils had slipped out of their pins and were tumbling down the side of her face after her foray out the window. She tried to shove the pins back in before heading to the streets to find a hackney. The streets were fairly quiet at this hour, the streetlamps not yet lit but guiding the way to the main road.
Victoria could move at a fairly quick pace in her simple gown but didn’t want to attract much attention. She was hoping she had luck on her side.
A few turns later, she finally saw a gentleman disembarking from a hackney up ahead, and she raced to catch it before it continued on. Any questions the driver had about a lone female out at this hour were forgotten when she pulled out her purse, and they were soon on their way to the train station, where Victoria would board for Liverpool.
She had matched an unadorned hat to her plain dress, and had tucked her hair up in pins underneath it, hoping she would look forgettable enough that no one would remember seeing her if questioned later on.
While Victoria had been short-sighted in imagining how far her stepfather would go to achieve his own political goals, her aunt had not been. Her father’s sister, Sarah, had a better sense of a person upon first impression. Months before, soon after the death of Victoria’s mother, Aunt Sarah’s letters became urgent. She sent them through Victoria’s friend Marian, as Victoria’s stepfather made sure to review all of her correspondence. Victoria anticipated their monthly arrival, eager for her aunt’s news of adventure in the western wilds on the other side of the Atlantic, as well as for her comforting words. Victoria had at first disregarded Sarah’s claims, ignoring her aunt’s suggestion that Victoria begin planning a way to escape her stepfather and his conniving ways. While she didn’t necessarily enjoy living under his roof, she knew she only had to wait a few months more before claiming her inheritance and her freedom.
Until the night she had overheard a conversation between her stepfather, Edward Travers III, and the Duke of Lansingberg.
She had been in her stepfather’s office, looking for a letter opener to reveal Aunt Sarah’s latest correspondence. As Marian was one of London’s librarians, and Victoria was no stranger to the institution, it was easy to meet up with Marian to receive the letters.
Victoria didn’t enjoy spending time in this office. Its polished wood and brass accents were cold, and the lack of decoration on the dark walls left an austere feeling to the hollow room. The window overlooked the unkempt gardens, left unattended by her stepfather’s dwindling staff.
After finally locating the opener in Edward's massive desk, Victoria was in the middle of slicing through the seal when she heard his footsteps in the hall.
A terrible liar even with preparation, Victoria wanted to avoid any questions regarding her whereabouts in the office or the content of the envelope. Without thinking, she followed through on her first instinct, diving behind the settee in the corner of the office, narrowly missing landing on the letter opener that flew from her hand. She tucked it under her skirts as she folded herself into the cramped corner.
When Edward entered the office, he wasn’t alone, but accompanied by the Duke of Lansingberg, his new bosom buddy. Victoria didn’t know why they had aligned themselves together so often as of late, but she figured there was a reason. Perhaps it was because their respective London societies had spurned them from social gatherings.
“Travers, this had best happen quickly.” The Duke addressed Edward with disdain in his voice. The Travers family had quickly become rich through ownership of a popular London newspaper. His father, Edward Travers II, was a strong advocate against the Scottish protests, and his paper was widely read throughout England. When his father passed and Edward the III took over, the paper began to fall apart. Edward published stories that the bureaucracy would enjoy, not taking into account that the vast majority of readers were common folk. The newspaper was dying a slow death. As readers fell, so did Edward’s fortunes. He tried to keep up appearances, but it was becoming difficult. The dust that currently tickled Victoria’s nose reminded her of the shortage of household staff.
“Be patient Lansingberg,” Edward responded in his gravelly voice. “We have to time it right. We can’t spook the girl. She’s of age, so can leave anytime. But she hasn’t the funds until she turns 21 or until she marries, and we need to be able to take advantage of that.”
Hasn’t the funds. This was about her and her fortune. Victoria was also eagerly awaiting her 21st birthday. If only she could access the fortune that was left to her, she would have been out of this house months ago. She was now counting down the days until that time.
“That time is coming up.” The Duke’s flat voice sent shivers up and down Victoria’s spine. If the villain from one of her novels could have walked off the pages, it would be in the Duke’s image, she could swear it. She and Marian had laughed about it. From the tone of this conversation, however, it was no laughing matter.
“Let’s set a date,” he continued. “June 21st? We can begin inviting guests two weeks before. You’ll just have to keep her here until that time. Do you think you can handle a 20-year-old girl?”
“Of course I can handle her,” Edward snappily responded. “I’ll have the staff keep an eye on her and lock her door at night. I don’t know why the silly twit doesn’t realize she needs to be married. I’ve tried to broach the subject with her before and she continues to adamantly refuse. So there will be no talking her around to it. The girl doesn’t have any sense in her brain. If she did, she’d realize that a title would take her places. We are doing what’s best. Her mother would have agreed. In the meantime, I’ve had my lawyer draw up the documents stating the funds I’ll receive upon your marriage — half of the inheritance. And my introduction to society.”
“Why Edward, your trust in my word is so flattering,” the Duke responded, sarcasm dripping off every word. Victoria could just picture him looking down his pinched nose, which was accented by hollow cheekbones. “Very well. Let me take them to my attorney and we shall be on our way to mutual success.”
With that his footsteps clipped out of the room and the door snapped shut behind him.
Edward Travers III spent another hour in his office. The time ticked by slowly for Victoria, who remained hidden but wide-eyed behind the sofa. Her mind worked furiously as she digested what she had heard and began making plans to find a way to escape before it was too late. June 21st was a month away. It didn’t give her much time, but she was determined that come that day, she would be far away from a wedding altar.
She had tried to find a way to escape from her stepfather’s home, but he had been vigilant, and there was never an opportune time, despite her best plans and intentions. When she arrived at the Duke’s estate, she’d found her opportunity, and had completed the plan that had begun that moment behind the settee.
As the horse’s hooves clipped down the street, Victoria swayed side-to-side. She unclenched her fists, which were tightly bunched in the folds of her skirts. She took a deep breath and began to seriously contemplate her future. Up to this point her plans had focused on getting away. She still had anxiety, but now there was more to it. There was also the yearning excitement of the unknown.
She had heard stories of the untamed, rugged wilderness of the west. Her aunt Sarah had sent letters describing wide open spaces, with prairie and skies stretching as far as into the horizon as one could see. She had also described dry hot summers, bitterly cold winters, and hard work from sunrise to sunset. That effort, however, was purposeful, which made it worthwhile. Victoria read adventure in these descriptions. How much more fun it sounded than walks through Hyde Park, reading in the gardens, or worrying if her hair was in place.
Victoria paid the driver and hauled her valise off the back. She navigated her way through the crowds to find the train to Liverpool. She let out a sigh of relief to see it still sitting at the station. She felt that every eye was on her, but knew she was being overly cautious due to the circumstances. The night air was crisp, and it focused her on the event at hand. She had luckily been to the station just the past week to see Marian off to visit her mother in Bath. It had been the perfect opportunity to learn the layout so she wouldn’t be scrambling on her arrival today.
Victoria ascended the steps onto the platform and boarded the train, taking one of the last seats in the second class carriage. She smiled to the woman beside her, and settled in beside the window. Scant minutes later, the train rocked and began to move. Victoria gazed out the dirty window, at the crowded, bustling early morning streets with the knowledge that this may be the last time she would ever see London.
Good riddance, she thought, as the city whipped by the windows of the train. London had never held anything for her. The Thames was dirty, the people rude, and the memories rotten.
Her best days had been lived at her family’s country home. She and her father, John Brighton, had spent hours together in his massive library, where they shared their love of knowledge and history in the shelves full of multi-colored book spines and on the comfortable, well-worn sofas that lined the room.
Victoria’s first memories were of pictures and letters jumping off the page. She had many childhood friends nearby, but no siblings as a child. She instead grew up with the Swiss Family Robinson, Alice in Wonderland and Princess Irene. When she was older, she became fascinated by Cosette, yearned for the adventure of the novels of Jules Verne, and related to the search for love and happiness with Emma -- her favorite of all of the Jane Austen novels, despite the popularity of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
Victoria’s father, John, was bumbling yet loving, nurturing, and vastly intelligent. His world was his daughter. Victoria never understood her playmates’ relationships with their fathers, as they saw them only briefly before dinner, when their fathers were actually in the household and not in London. Her father was everything — her teacher, her father and mother, and her best friend. Her mother, born Maxine Worthington, spent most of her time in London and had little use for her husband’s and daughter’s adventures in imagination.
Their favorite books were those about explorers or adventurers, whether they be real or fiction. John was like Aunt Sarah, always with a wish for something beyond what he knew. Victoria smiled at the memory of her father pacing the room, making her laugh as he brought words to life with accents, charades, and even, at times, costumes. His desk would be piled high, paperwork interspersed with his favorite writings.
When Victoria was six years old, her father fell from his horse, and when he died he took with him Victoria’s childhood. John’s death devastated Victoria. Her mother sold the country home, including most of John’s possessions and all the precious books, and she brought Victoria with her to London.
While Maxine almost immediately married Edward Travers III, Victoria barely spoke, as a string of strict, dull governesses failed to engage her in any of her studies. Maxine’s wedding was arranged swiftly, before Edward came to understand that John had very specifically left the Brighton family fortune to Victoria, and not to Maxine. Seven months after the austere event, Edward and Maxine welcomed Victoria’s step-brother Michael into the world. The thought of a brother thrilled Victoria, and brought light back into her eyes. Her fascination with the baby persisted, but as Michael grew older, he took after his parents, and soon he treated Victoria with the same disdain and coldness as did the rest of the family. There was no love in the home, and Victoria found herself pouring her heart out in letters to Sarah, who had left a few years prior to make a new life with her husband, a doctor, in the prairie town of Fort Qu’Appelle.
At the age of 14, Michael had joined the British Army at the urging of his father. He was serving in South Africa when his unit was attacked by a group of Boers. Michael died in the quick battle, and Maxine, devastated, soon followed him, with no will to fight the cholera that overtook her. Victoria was left with her stepfather. They had an uneasy, uncomfortable relationship. For the past year they had managed to mainly avoid one another. With a dwindling household staff and the ghost where Maxine had once been, the house was colder and emptier than ever before. Maxine hadn’t been loving or kind to Victoria, but she had certainly been a presence.
Edward’s first concern had always been for his status in society, and his second in keeping the newspaper afloat. To him, his 20-year-old stepdaughter was a pawn to achieve both.
His newspaper was floundering, and he saw all the funds he needed sitting in a bank account in the name of his stepdaughter, who was in his home, living off of him. He could not currently spend her fortune, but he was determined to find a way to access it.
It was a wonder that Victoria had managed to fend off the hungry suitors this long. Typically when one began showing interest, she would pull out her worst manners and repel any respected family, no matter how much wealth she brought with her.
But the Duke of Lansingberg was different. He and Edward had met at a gambling house and soon he was coming by frequently. He would call on Victoria but then barely speak a word to her. At social events, he was like a leech, clinging onto her, sucking the life out of all her fun. He didn’t care what type of manners she used with him. He barely spoke to her, and obviously a marriage to him would be a sham. Or short.
So here she was, escaping. Victoria’s heart began to beat faster in anticipation of freedom. She rolled her shoulders, which were tensely stiff. She tried to calm herself, but knew she would not feel safe until the ship pulled away from the harbour. A little girl, ringlets framing her chubby round face, looked over the back of a seat ahead of her and grinned. Victoria stuck her tongue out at her, making her laugh, until the girl’s mother shushed her and pulled her back down.
Victoria pulled a book out of her bag. Marian had given her a copy of a new book from North America — The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain. It was the third book of his she had read and was quite enjoying it. Her one small bag was probably half-filled with books. She knew it was silly, but she needed entertainment for the days of sailing. Dresses could be re-worn, but books re-read only so many times in one crossing of the Atlantic and half a continent.
Her book was engaging but her lack of sleep from the previous week soon caught up with Victoria and she drifted off as the train rumbled down the tracks. Her head lolled against her chest as she dreamed of the sea and the sky, of fields of grass and sunshine on her face.
The train whistle sounded, pulling Victoria from her daydreams. “Liverpool!” the conductor called through the cabin. Victoria looked out the window. The sky was just beginning to lighten, welcoming the morning. The Parisian was set to leave shortly after the train’s arrival. Passengers were supposed to have boarded the night before, but Victoria hadn’t been able to risk it.
Victoria jumped up with a “pardon me,” to the open-mouthed woman next to her. She found her valise and was halfway down the aisle when she realized she’d left The Prince and the Pauper on her seat. She ran back, grabbed the book, and finally made her way through the aisles with sweet smiles and more pardons, and was off the train amongst the spill of people. She pulled up short at the crush of bodies moving quickly in front of her. It was a musical of smells and sights, people calling to one another, ship horns blasting, and seagulls cawing. The salt water filled the air, children weaved in and out of adults loaded down with goods and luggage, and ships loomed over everything. Victoria asked the conductor on the platform where to find the Parisian.
“Across the road,” he answered, pointing at one of the larger ships as he stared into her violet eyes. “You better hurry, miss. The ship is set to sail any minute.”
Victoria took off running as she heard the blast of the ship’s horn. “Please,” she prayed aloud, “don’t let me get this close and not make it.”
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