Read The Gallows Bride Online

Authors: Rebecca King

Tags: #romance, #thriller, #literature, #suspense, #adventure, #intrigue, #mysteries, #romanticsuspense, #historicalromance, #general mysteries, #regencyromance, #romanticmysteries

The Gallows Bride (4 page)

His
voice was contemptuous as he considered the brutality of the
judicial system, and the unfairness of it if you were innocent.
Although he initially had doubts about Jemima’s innocence, after
the night’s events, he knew with certainty that she had done
nothing wrong other than be in the wrong place at the wrong
time.


So do you want to stay and watch her die?” Sebastian’s voice
was incredulous as he studied his older brother. There were lines
on his face that Sebastian could have sworn weren’t there earlier
that day, or was that yesterday? He couldn’t be sure. He felt as
though he had been in the hellhole for a lifetime.

Dawn was
already fast approaching and, if they didn’t move soon, they would
be hemmed in by the public who were already arriving to get the
best views to see the spectacle.


Gruesome bastards,” Edward spat, shooting a look of contempt
at two women who were carrying their knitting and a basket of
food.


Of course not,” Dominic snapped. “I’m just saying that one of
us has to stay here with a cart to collect her afterwards. I’ll do
it.”


No,” Edward shook his head and threw Dominic a look of dread.
“I’ll do it. It’s the least I can do for Eliza. You are right;
nothing can go wrong. It’s too important.”

As they
rode away from the gaol, they quietly came to the agreement that
they would take Peter to a tavern on the outskirts of the town
while he was still unconscious, far enough away that - even if he
rode flat-out - he would not be able to get back in time to see the
woman he loved swing from the gallows. Meanwhile, Edward would
secure a horse and cart, and the necessary items they would need to
move a body to Havistock Hall without being a public spectacle and
would go to the gaol to wait at the back doors. When it was over,
and her body was released by the authorities, they would take her
to Havistock Hall via the Golden Fleece where Sebastian and Dominic
would be waiting with an undoubtedly bitter and very angry
Peter.

 

Jemima
spent that same hour in a haze of dejected misery so stark, so
hopeless, that she wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all.
She never spoke, despite the quiet whispers demanding to know what
the gaoler had wanted, and instead curled up tightly in a futile
attempt to close the world out.

Despite
the shattered remnants of her heart, she knew she had made the
right decision. Peter would undoubtedly hate her for her
callousness, but she also knew that he wasn’t an unfair man. As
soon as the fog of grief lifted, he would see the wisdom of her
decision and, she hoped, not hate her too much.

Although
she knew it was coming, she still jumped when the lock slid back on
the cell door, heralding the arrival of the new day.


Up,” the gaoler ordered, dragging the man closest to the door
onto his feet and out of the room. Five of the men were manacled to
him, and had no choice but to lurch awkwardly to their feet and
shuffle after him.

Jemima
waited her turn and followed. She wasn’t manacled to the others,
most probably because they knew she would hardly be able to move
under the weight of the heavy ironwork around her hands and
wrists.

As she
stepped out into the long corridor, she knew she wouldn’t be
returning to the condemned cell. Given the fate that awaited her,
the claustrophobic darkness suddenly didn’t seem all that bad. She
had the wild urge to run back into the gloomy depths and stay
there.

Squaring
her shoulders, she ignored the tracks of tears on her grimy face
and stared stoically at the back of the man’s head before her as
they shuffled down the corridor to a side room. Inside, a single
table laden with nine plates of steaming food sat waiting for them.
The aroma of cooked vegetables, the only decent food they had been
given since their arrival several days ago, teased their
nostrils.

Despite
her hunger, Jemima couldn’t swallow any of it. She tore off a piece
of the chunk of stale bread beside her plate and chewed absently,
watching the faces of the men around her. She didn’t know if they
were fully aware of what lay in store for them. Throughout the
ordeal they had been a reticent bunch. Briefly she wondered if they
all knew Scraggan. They had all been there on that night. They had
all looked as shocked and horrified as she had when they had been
carted off to gaol. During their trial, each man had repeatedly
declared they had been innocent, and set up.

Even if
she did learn the truth about that night, there was nothing she
could do about her own fate, let alone theirs. It was too
late.

Unable
to force any of the food down, she simply sat and waited. When they
were finished, they were visited by the vicar who prayed with those
who wished to pray for forgiveness. Some of the men began to weep
as the realisation of their situation rose before them.

Having
lost her faith some time ago, Jemima simply remained quiet,
strangely detached from everything. When the gaolers ordered them
to move again, she shuffled after the line of men. As she left the
room, her eyes met and held those of the gaoler who had been
present in Mr Simpson’s office earlier. There was something strange
about the way he always seem to be watching her, ever present,
silent and watchful.

While
standing in line to have her manacles removed, she could feel his
eyes boring into her back. She knew if she looked over her
shoulder, he would be there; waiting. She shivered and fought off
the strange feeling of unease that swept through her.

Whatever he was doing didn’t really matter
anymore
, she thought, shuffling forward a
couple of steps. Even over the clanging of the ironmonger’s hammer,
they could hear the rumble of the chattering crowds gathering
around the gallows. It was a special occasion, and some people had
taken a rare day off specially to watch the hangings.

Small
shafts of sunlight valiantly attempted to penetrate the cloying
gloom within the dank building, as the men had their iron manacles
hammered off before their hands were tied behind their
backs.

Jemima
glanced down in horror at the small black piece of cloth that was
held out to her when her manacles had been taken off. She carefully
did as she was instructed and tied her hair up, before having her
wrists tied behind her back.

A fine
tremor of horror settled over her, and she knew she was beyond
weeping; beyond feeling anything other than a sense of loss so
deep, she knew her only chance of finding peace was through death.
If she remained alive now, she would be forever changed.

Silently
she sent a prayer heavenwards that Dominic and his brothers had
been true to their word and taken Peter far away. She wouldn’t look
for him in the crowd. She couldn’t.

With the
formalities over, they were ushered into a long, dark corridor that
was very similar to the one that led to the condemned cell, but
with a door at the opposite end that led outside to the front of
the gaol.

At first
Jemima was at the front of the queue and was quickly held back by
the gaoler who had been watching her. Fear had locked in her throat
and she was unable to voice the questions she wanted to ask as she
turned to him, her eyes full of questions he refused to answer. She
stood back and waited as the men shuffled one by one before her and
then it dawned on her why she was being kept until last. Obviously
the sight of a woman being hanged held far more importance than she
had realised, and they wanted to make the crowds wait for the
spectacle.

On legs
that trembled violently with fear, Jemima waited at the end of the
queue. Somewhere in front of her, one of the men began to weep and
plead for his life. They all jumped as the door at the end suddenly
opened, and the small space was suddenly filled with a cacophony of
shouts and screams of the crowd.

The
first man was dragged unceremoniously outside, his vociferous
protests ignored as the door was slammed closed behind him,
encasing the corridor in darkness once more.

Jemima
closed her eyes and tried not to listen, but with silence inside
the gaol, it was impossible to block out the raucous calls, crude
suggestions and cries of horror. The loud slamming of wood,
followed by the cheers of the crowd, were impossible to
ignore.

Tears
gathered in her eyes and for a moment she had to lean against the
wall, or else fall to the floor in a wailing heap.


Are you all right?” The gentle question came from the
ever-watchful gaoler. Jemima stared at him blankly, unable to
answer.

Alright? Alright? She would never be alright again.
Silently she shook her head and returned her gaze
to the floor. It seemed to take an age before the door opened again
and the corridor was flooded with daylight once more.

How long
she stood in the corridor, waiting for her turn to be put to death,
she couldn’t be sure, but she was certain she had aged a thousand
years before there was just her and the man before her left in the
confined space. The crowd outside were baying louder than ever. The
slamming of the gallows floor echoed menacingly time and again as
the Crown meted out its justice. Cries and screams were accompanied
by suggestions and shouts of denial from family members who had
come to the hangings to hang on to their loved ones’ legs, and ease
their suffering.


Pull the other leg,” was shouted over and over, until Jemima
couldn’t stand it any longer and began to weep openly.

Suddenly
the door opened, and the man before her was dragged out into the
morning sunshine. The heavy thud of the wooden planks only a few
feet from her face made her cry out in horror. Her stomach flipped
as she began to shake. She was so intent on keeping herself under
control that she missed the silent motion of the gaoler toward the
shadows.


Move up,” he ordered, nudging her toward the door.

Slowly
Jemima did as she was told. She had learned on her arrival at the
gaol that if she didn’t follow orders, she would be dragged through
them anyway. It was far less painful simply to obey.

She was
about to turn back to the gaoler and ask for some water, when a
foul smell assaulted her nostrils. It was so cloyingly sweet that
she immediately felt sick, and her head began to swim alarmingly.
Fighting the wave of dizziness, she sucked in a deep breath.
Turning, she tried to peer through the gloom for the source of the
stench.

She
didn’t even have time to cry out before the world went
black.

 

 

C
HAPTER ONE


God, you bastards,” Peter spat. “I’ll never forgive you for
this.” He rubbed the fresh drops of blood off his nose and glared
balefully at Dominic. In that moment he could have pounded his best
friend to within an inch of his life, without regret. If only he
could stand without being sick.


Where is she now?” Peter’s stomach clenched as a look of
bitter regret settled over his friend’s face, and knew without
hearing the words that it was already too late.

He
quickly glanced out of the window at the brilliant golden sunshine
streaming through the window, and felt the heavy weight of grief
settle over him that was so strong that he wanted to cry aloud in
denial. He knew in that moment that she was gone; snatched from him
in the cruellest way possible.

He
stared blankly down at his hands, hanging uselessly between his
knees. He had lost. Failed. He had made promises he hadn’t been
able to keep and, as a result, Jemima, the only woman he had ever
loved, had died. She had died trying to protect him, and
Eliza.


I’m sorry, Peter,” Dominic offered, wondering if their
friendship would ever be the same again. He couldn’t be perturbed
by Peter’s anger at him. After all, being knocked out had rendered
him useless to do anything to help Jemima. Even though they had
already been too late by the time they had arrived at the gaol, it
was inevitable that there would be recriminations and accusations
when they had to leave empty-handed. If being angry at Dominic
helped Peter to deal with his grief, then Dominic was more than
willing to take whatever Peter threw at him, fists and
all.

It was
the desolate calmness about his friend that disturbed him most.
Instead of the wild shouting and pleading they had all witnessed in
the Mr Simpson’s office, his calm defeat was almost
worse.

Throughout their friendship, Peter had always been a warrior,
willing to go into skirmishes with a recklessness that at the time
had made him one of the best soldiers in the British army. It was
disturbing to see him so defeated. It was as though something
inside him had simply given up, and it disturbed Dominic
greatly.

Peter
glared at the man he had considered his friend. He knew it wasn’t
Dominic’s fault. The man had, after all, eschewed the warmth of his
bed and breakfast in order to accompany him in his desperate quest
to save Jemima, but it didn’t ease the thick fog of anger and grief
that burned in his veins.


I won’t say it’s all right,” he growled, his voice as cold
and emotionless as the green eyes that glared across the small
tavern table at Dominic. “God, I hate you,” Peter snarled,
snatching the brandy from the table and downing it in one huge
gulp. He gestured to a serving wench, demanding the bottle, as he
slammed his goblet down on the table.

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