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Authors: Elizabeth Boyle

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Stealing the Bride

BOOK: Stealing the Bride
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ELIZABETH BOYLE
Stealing the Bride

To my ever delightful and loving aunt,
Darlene Green.
Thank you for your endless kindness and generosity.
You live in my heart as your spirit
will live always in these pages.

Contents

PROLOGUE

The Fates have a funny way of changing one’s life…

O
NE

It was, by all accounts, a rather typical night at…

T
WO

The fate of Lady Diana Fordham was hardly as dire…

T
HREE

They passed through three small villages before they came to…

F
OUR

Temple remained outside the inn, still in a daze from…

F
IVE

By the time Temple landed beside her, Diana was ready…

S
IX

They arrived in the bustling town of Nottingham late in…

S
EVEN

“Excuse me?” Temple sputtered.

E
IGHT

“Killed Cordell?” Temple shook his head. “I did no such…

N
INE

“According to Mr. Billingsworth, the waters of Buxton have been providing…

T
EN

Slowly he turned his head, glancing over his shoulder at…

E
LEVEN

The warm light of morning brought answers that the dark…

T
WELVE

“I know you love her,” Colin said, meeting his cousin’s…

T
HIRTEEN

The next morning, Colin’s voice rang out from his study,…

F
OURTEEN

Temple had been faced with many adversaries in his life,…

F
IFTEEN

By nightfall, Temple knew he should have stuck to his…

S
IXTEEN

They sat in silence long after Diana finished her story.

S
EVENTEEN

Temple sat in one of the dry, dark corners of…

E
IGHTEEN

“Temple! Temple!”

N
INETEEN

They made love in the overgrown grass of Lord Nettlestone’s…

T
WENTY

Diana had stumbled out of the inn into the brilliant…

EPILOGUE

The fast-riding messenger who arrived at the house was shown…

AUTHOR’S NOTE

While Louis XV, the Sun King, was known for his…

Prologue

London, 1799

T
he Fates have a funny way of changing one’s life in the blink of an eye, or in the case of Lady Diana Fordham, a moment spent pondering a bright blue bonnet in the window of Madame Renard’s millinery shop.

In truth, she’d only paused before the confection of lace and feathers, ducking her head just so, to avoid being seen by her betrothed’s cousin, the Marquis of Templeton, who happened to be strolling up the street, gold-tipped walking stick in one hand, his ever-present lorgnette in the other.

The pompous oaf was taking great pains to ensure that everyone noticed him as he paraded along the boulevard. Behind him staggered his ever present valet and driver, Elton, the poor beleaguered servant buried beneath a tower of packages from yet another of the marquis’ notorious shopping forays.

Now, it wasn’t that Lady Diana wanted to be impolite, for surely it made little sense to snub one’s almost relation, as well as the heir to the Setchfield dukedom, but the marquis had a way of mincing about that grated on Diana’s nerves.

Oh, there were Corinthians and gallants enough in London, their antics and exaggerated mannerisms hardly noteworthy, but Temple, as the marquis was known about town, made them all pale in comparison. While the
ton
awaited his pronouncements on fashions and seating arrangements with bated breath, Diana thought him nothing more than an arrogant, ridiculous waste of nobility.

For in her estimation, a true man, the type of man Diana admired, was one so honorable, so noble, he was only too willing to lay down his life for his King and country.

Just like her betrothed, Captain Colin Danvers.

Yes, she told herself, Colin was a true hero—not some frippery fellow who’d most likely faint at the first sign of an enemy flag—and probably from the mere fact that the colors weren’t adequately coordinated.

Besides, Colin was also a sensible, dependable man. Not the type who made you want to hurl a salver at his head, or bribe a hackney driver to run over him—well, maybe not run over—just graze him a bit or splash a good measure of mud on his new boots and buff trousers.

No, Diana decided, it was better to risk being rude to the socially preeminent marquis than to spend the rest of the afternoon in vexation over the witty and cutting reply that would come to her hours later and would have been perfect for sending Colin’s cousin packing.

But since this was an afternoon ordained by the Fates, Diana’s attempt at avoidance was for naught.

Even as she took another feigned gander at the bonnet, a tall shadow darkened the afternoon light, while an arm reached over her shoulder, a telltale lorgnette in hand. The silver-framed glasses tapped twice on the glass and its bearer made a
tsk tsk
noise that was nothing less than mocking disapproval.

Diana wanted to groan.

Temple
.

Dash it all, he’d spotted her.

“Oh, that shade of blue should be outlawed,” he said, shuddering as if he were about to be consumed by his death rails.

Diana wished he would. Draw his last breath, that was.

“Really, my dear, robin’s egg blue? Don’t you think it’s a tad youthful for someone of your advanced years, even if you are about to become a blushing bride?”

His voice, so full of affectation and superiority, rattled down Diana’s spine, through her limbs, leaving her fingers knotted into a tight fist around the strings of her reticule.

How very Templish of him to comment on the fact that she wasn’t the youngest bride of the Season, as if being nineteen and unmarried was a crime. Never mind that he was right, the shade would be terrible on her.

Was there nothing the man forgot?

Well, there were some things he had…

“You needn’t worry, my lord,” she began to say, “I didn’t intend—”

“No, no, don’t rush to thank me from saving you from such a disastrous choice,” he said, stepping back like a preening rooster, walking stick placed at a jaunty tilt and his other hand on his hip. “Why, I wouldn’t be able to look my cousin in the eye if I knew that he’d spent the last three years battling the Spanish or the Russians or whoever it is he’s been bedeviling with Lord Nelson, only to sail home to find you standing before the parson wearing that dreadful thing.”

Diana struggled to remind herself that she was the daughter of a highly respected nobleman, as well as an almost-graduate of Miss Emery’s Establishment for the Education of Genteel Young Ladies—and, as such, cursing at this oaf would not be to her credit.

Still, Diana found herself clenching her teeth to keep from sputtering a very unladylike oath.

Oh, botheration
, she thought instead as she gathered her best manners back into place.

Forcing a smile on her lips, she turned ever so slowly around and gave the marquis a polite nod.

“My lord, how lovely it has been to see you again. But alas, I see Mrs. Foston coming and I must—” she said, as she went to sidestep out of his shadow.

Temple stuck his arm out to block her escape, then with the handle of his walking stick, he tipped back his tall beaver hat so he could look her directly in the eye. “There now, Lady Diana, you needn’t try to bamboozle me with your fancy Bath manners. While I’m sure your father spent a fortune to see you well schooled, it is obvious his money was ill-spent. Why, I can see from your expression you’d like nothing more than to pluck the ribbons from that hat and strangle me with them. But then again, you’ve never been like the rest of these ordinary girls they try to pass off as Originals, now have you?”

Diana’s gaze flew up, fully expecting to find the marquis’ mocking glance staring down at her, but there was something altogether different glimmering behind his dark, mysterious eyes.

A light daring her to contradict him. To disprove his words, and just be ordinary.

Or even, she found herself thinking, an offer to be more than just a well-mannered miss.

An offer she’d accepted from him once before…

Yet whatever was alight there beneath the wicked tilt of his dark brows, it was hastily doused when, from behind him, Elton let out a low cough.

“Uh-hmm, milord,” the man said. He made a jerking nod toward a nondescript doorway tucked between two shops across the street, where an elegantly dressed young woman paced back and forth.

Despite the fact that her face was all but hidden in the depths of her bonnet, Diana instantly recognized the other woman as Mademoiselle Lucette de Vessay, the only child of the Comte and Comtesse Sandre. The girl’s émigré status and lack of funds had not diminished her good standing in the Marriage Mart. Having come out a year earlier, she’d taken the staid
ton
by storm with her coy French manners.

And much to the annoyance of the other young ladies seeking husbands, what Miss de Vessay lacked in dowry was more than made up for by her ravishing good looks and her lofty connections to the House of Bourbon. Her father had died at the Place de la Révolution on the same day as the King, serving his ruler to the bloody end. As for the comtesse and her daughter, it was rumored they’d been rescued from their tumbrel by a heroic, yet unnamed Englishman.

Not even London’s best gossips had been able to elicit their benefactor’s identity from the grateful ladies.

But why Miss de Vessay was on Bond Street, unescorted and hidden beneath such a poor disguise, Diana could only guess.

And from the look on Temple’s face, she suspected he knew the answer.

“Oh yes, how right you are, Elton,” the marquis was saying, slanting a haphazard glance across the street. “I’ll be late for my appointment with my, uh, tailor. I fear I must leave you to your own devices, Lady Diana,” he added hastily, reaching to take her hand and make a quick bow over her gloved fingers. He lingered for a moment longer than appropriate, his dark, fathomless eyes meeting her gaze with a flash of something that caught her breath in her throat.

Once again Diana felt that he had something else to say.

What surprised her even more was that she longed to hear it.

After all these years, damn the man, he still had the power to leave her heart trembling.

But all he said was, “To the tailor’s, it is. Lawk, if I don’t get there early for my fittings, he starts on his own and makes the most dreadful mistakes.” And with that, Temple took off in that great ambling stride of his that Diana would have recognized anywhere.

“Yes, go,” she said after him. “I would hate to keep you from such an important task.” And she would have left it at that and gone into Madame Renard’s just to buy the hideous bonnet, if only to prove Temple wrong that the shade wasn’t dreadful on her, when she heard a scuffle behind her.

She turned to discover Mademoiselle de Vessay caught in the arms of two ruffians. In a flash, they dragged the helpless girl through the now open door, plucking her from the street before anyone noticed.

That is, except Diana.

She spoke before she even thought about it. “Temple!” she cried out. “Temple, help! Miss de Vessay has been—” Diana stopped before she could even finish when she realized her pleas were falling on deaf ears.

Temple paused for a moment, glancing at the empty spot where the French lady had once stood, then with an apparent shrug of his shoulders, continued around the corner as if his only care in the world was whether to choose gold or green for his next waistcoat.

Why, of all the henhearted, inconsiderate…
Diana fumed.

She glanced around for her companion, but Mrs. Foston was still in the ribbon shop next door.

Not that the widow would be of much help. Diana glanced up and down Bond Street, only to find it deserted. Of all the times to be shopping, she’d chosen this unfashionable hour when there was no one else about except a few harried ladies’ maids.

And since Diana had taken a hired carriage, there was no capable and burly Lamden footman to call to action.

She drew a deep breath, and realized there was only one thing she could do.

Go to Miss de Vessay’s aid herself. Though she barely knew the girl, and what she did know, she didn’t overly care for, she couldn’t let her fall prey to this evil mischief.

Without glancing left or right, she dashed straight into the street and was almost run over by a fast-moving carriage. In a flash the gilded crest of the Setchfield duchy blazed past her eyes.

Temple, in his grandfather’s elegantly appointed carriage, was fleeing in the face of adversity.

Her hands went to her hips, her mouth set in a hard line. The strange fleeting feelings he’d ignited in her moments before vanished as she resolved herself to the truth about the marquis.

Not only was he a vapid fool, but an undeniable coward.

Diana was of half a mind to go after the useless nit and give him a thrashing herself.

But that would have to wait, she knew, as a hapless cry of protest came issuing out of the doorway ahead. She girded her resolve for battle and tried to open the door. She pulled and turned at the handle, but it held fast to her attempts. Somewhere beyond the portal, there was another cry for help and a great commotion erupting, and Diana knew she had little time to lose.

Ignoring the fact that she had on her best pelisse, she rammed her shoulder into the door again and again until it finally gave way. Without hesitating, she dashed inside.

Darkness greeted her, and she blinked and swiped at her eyes in hopes of gaining any sign of what was before her. Then she spied a bit of light coming from the end of the corridor, a beacon guiding her further into this fool’s folly.

She pressed on despite her better judgment.

When she got to the end of the hallway, there was a partially open doorway that led to the alleyway behind the shops. As she looked outside, the sight that met her eyes wasn’t the one she had prepared herself to witness.

On the ground lay one of Miss de Vessay’s assailants. His lifeless eyes stared directly at her, while a pool of blood bubbled around the hilt of a knife buried in his chest.

Diana’s throat went dry, her knees buckling despite her best efforts to remain stalwart. She dropped to the floor, her hand catching hold of the latch to steady herself. Beyond the dead man lay the crumpled form of Miss de Vessay, but to Diana’s relief, the lady still lived, for her shoulders shook with the ragged shudders of weeping.

And then to Diana’s shock and amazement, she realized there was a man standing over the dead villain. And not just any man.

Temple
.

His once jaunty beaver hat was gone, his immaculate and perfectly cut jacket torn. Blood poured from a split lip. His chest rose and fell in great heaving rails as he stared down at his vanquished foe.

Diana saw her entire world topple. Temple hadn’t fled from the scene, but raced around the corner and into the alley, with an uncanny intuition as to Miss de Vessay’s terrible fate.

Gone was the fop, the fussy Corinthian, the man of precise manners and witless jests. And standing in his place was a man transformed, a hero in its noblest definition.

Diana reeled back into the shadows, her heart hammering at the sight of him—the man she’d thought lost forever. The man she’d once loved with all her heart.

And even as she found him, he was almost lost anew. For the second assailant rose from a hiding spot amidst a pile of refuse, deep in the shadows, a pistol in one hand and a deadly gleam in his eye.

“Temple, behind you,” she shouted.

With instincts she didn’t know any man possessed, he dropped to the cobbles of the alley and rolled, even as the report of the pistol shattered the muffled silence around them.

The bullet meant for Temple’s heart ripped into the doorway above her, sending shards of wood showering down. Diana fell face first to the floor, her eyes screwed shut, her hands over her ears, as another pistol fired.

As quickly as the alleyway had exploded in violence, a deafening silence filled the void. It claimed every sound she thought possible, even the pounding of her terrified heart. Yet nothing could hold back the inevitable and unending sounds of London, which very soon started to reclaim their hold. After what felt like hours, but was most likely only a few moments, she willed herself to open at least one eye and see what had happened.

BOOK: Stealing the Bride
11.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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