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Authors: Elizabeth Boyle

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BOOK: Stealing the Bride
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She didn’t know if she dared. Having seen the face of death on a stranger was one thing, but seeing Temple thusly, she didn’t know if she could bear it.

Yet she had to look.

Peering through the smoke and haze, she spied the other man still standing in the rubble, smoldering pistol in hand.

The curse that she’d held back earlier, the one meant for the marquis, sprang from her lips, followed by an anguished “
Temple
.”

As she said his name, it was as if the wind carried her cry forth, the heart-wrenching grief behind it sending his dangerous foe teetering and wavering, until he toppled over. He hit the ground with the kind of thud that left Diana no doubts that he was dead.

Still she couldn’t see Temple.

She scrambled to her hands and knees.

As she was about to call for him again, Miss de Vessay found both her feet and her voice.

“Monsieur! Oh,
mon chèr
Temple!”

The girl’s dress was torn in two places and spattered in mud. But her dirty gown hardly mattered. Her hood had fallen back, and her hair fell free in a halo of tangled dark curls. Her face paled by her experience, still claimed a delicate rose hue which colored her cheeks and lips. She looked like an angel rising to take him to heaven.

Diana wondered how a woman, any woman, could look so beautiful in such a state of dishabille? She took one look down at her own dirty and ruined costume and knew she resembled a tattered scarecrow in comparison.

“Oh, monsieur, are you well?” Miss de Vessay asked, taking a few measured, yet tentative steps forward.

It was then that Diana spied him rising from the ground, holding a small pistol, his jaw set in a line of fierce determination.

He lived.

Her heart lurched into a wild tattoo of celebration. Temple was alive.

And Diana realized something else.

He’d lied. He’d lied to the
ton
with his pandering masquerade, his light quips, and his foolhardy antics as the town fool. Yet of all his sins, the one that scorched her short-lived happiness into a livid anger was that he’d lied to
her
.

Temple shot a brief glance at one opponent, then the other, before turning his attention to Mademoiselle de Vessay. “Are you hurt? Have you been harmed, Lucette?”

Lucette?
He was on such intimate terms with the lady that he called her by her given name?

Diana’s anger started to boil over.


Non. Oh! Chic alors
, you have saved me yet again, Temple.” She reached up, a lacy handkerchief in her hand, and dabbed ever so gently at his mouth, her gaze locked on the curve of his lips.

Diana had the urge to reach out and give the flirtatious French girl a good shaking. Why, the saucy minx was all but begging Temple to kiss her!

Something Diana knew a little bit about.

“And now you have saved me,” he said softly, his fingers twining around Lucette’s hand before he took the handkerchief from her and finished the task of cleaning his bloodied face without her overly attentive assistance. “Thank you, mademoiselle, for your warning. If you hadn’t cried out, I fear I would not be here.”

Lucette shook her dark head. “Monsieur, it was not—” Then she glanced up where Diana stood hidden in the shadows of the doorway and stopped, her eyes widening. If she saw Diana, she gave no indication to Temple, for she quickly returned her adoring gaze to him. “It was really nothing, monsieur, considering all you have done for me and my mother. You have saved my life twice now, and my small act today is nothing in comparison to your endless and selfless bravery.” She paused, so utterly poignant in her emotion, as only the French could be before she finished with a simpering, tear-laden declaration, “I will remain forever in your debt.”

Diana’s hand covered her mouth to stifle a gasp. The de Vessays’ savior was Temple? Temple in Paris? During the Reign of Terror?
Impossible.

And yet…perhaps not. From what she had seen today, it was possible to believe that Temple was capable of anything.

Including deceiving her into thinking he wasn’t the man she’d loved.

Temple began straightening his waistcoat, then smoothed back his hair into some semblance of order, the fop starting to replace the hero. “Lucette, I have never thought of our past as a debt to be repaid. I did what was necessary—what any honorable man would have done that day.”

They stared at each other for a moment, as if both reliving an experience that neither of them was likely ever to forget, and Diana felt a pang of jealousy run through her.

That Temple had shared so much of his life with this…this…other woman, while she had been led to believe otherwise about him, left out of his life, his secrets…well it stung Diana to her very core.

“You have taken your last assignment, Lucette,” Temple was saying. “Now that the French are aware of your work for Pymm and the Foreign Office, you will no longer be safe in London.”

“But
mon cher
—”

Her words ended as he put his forefinger to her lips. “No protests. I shall not hear them. You can no longer be a part of this dangerous work.” He nodded toward the end of the alley. “There is Elton with the carriage. He will see you safely to your apartment. Then you and your mother are to leave town. At once.”

The lady took one glance down the alley, and then shook her head. “
Non, non
. I cannot do this thing you ask.”

Diana was of a mind to offer to help the girl pack.

“Lucette, do not try your wiles with me,” Temple said. “I know them too well.”

I just bet you do
, Diana seethed.

“Go to Lord Seaton,” he said, continuing his instructions. “Tell him you have changed your mind. Marry him, Lucette. He will keep you safe.”

“In Scotland,” she pouted.

“Yes, in Scotland. But never fear, one day you’ll convince him to bring you back to London. He loves you too much not to fall prey to your requests. Besides, I suspect you have more than just a fond regard for him as well.”

Some regard
, Diana thought, as she watched the girl practically throwing herself at Temple. If she were Lord Seaton, she’d toss the flirtatious baggage into the nearest loch and let her drown.

To his credit, Temple disengaged himself from his enthusiastic admirer, then escorted her down the alleyway to his waiting carriage.

Diana tried to breathe in and out in an even keel, as she sorted through the upheaval in her heart.

Temple hadn’t deserted her three years earlier. He’d just joined the desperate struggle to save England from French tyranny. What had he said to Mademoiselle de Vessay?

It is too dangerous.

He probably thought he was saving her from a life of worry and heartache.

“Wretched fool,” she muttered.

She would have waited for him—for a dozen years if that was what it would take. She wrung her hands together until she stopped at the recognition of one thing she’d forgotten in all the confusion.

The emerald and pearl betrothal ring on her finger.

The horror of her realization sent her bolting down the hall, fleeing back to the civilized world of Bond Street until she stood once again in front of Madame Renard’s millinery shop as if the last ten minutes had never happened. The crunch of carriage wheels caught her attention, and in a blinding flash, the Setchfield carriage sped past her, leaving her alone with the realization that she was engaged to the wrong man.

“Oh, Temple, why did you do this to us?” she whispered after his departing carriage.

Too dangerous…too dangerous…

Damn him, she thought. Damn his foolish sense of honor.

Well, if Temple could forsake her because his honor and nobility demanded as much, she would do what she suspected women had done since time immemorial. Find a way to persuade him otherwise…no matter how long it took or how many betrothals she had to break.

Chapter 1

London, 1809

I
t was, by all accounts, a rather typical night at White’s. The men of London’s social elite had gathered together for another evening of drinking and gambling and bragging to their hearts’ content.

Who would have guessed that these rarefied members of the
ton
were about to witness the scandal of the Season?

As usual, the most crowded spot in the great room was around the Marquis of Templeton, or as most people called him, Temple. Not exactly the proper address for a man who by chance, or rather by birth, was the Duke of Setchfield’s heir, but Temple he was, and, many suspected, Temple he would always be.

Cut off by his imperious grandfather from any family funds because of his wastrel ways and because he wouldn’t bend to the duke’s constant demands, he made do as he could, by being the perfect houseguest, the best of company. In short, he was invited everywhere.

There were advantages to having the marquis as a part of one’s social event. He knew all the gossip. He could spot an ill-tied cravat across a shadowy room faster than a Bow Street runner could collar a pickpocket. With the aid of his trusty lorgnette, he could tell whether a man’s coat had been stitched by Weston or by a country tradesman copying the master tailor’s latest trends for half the price.

If you needed to know what color was best to wear to Lady Brickton’s fête, which young miss had the plumpest dowry, or from whom to obtain the finest, fittest, and best polished Hessians, then Temple was your most capable confidant.

So it was that the marquis moved through the
ton
like a blithe and welcome breeze, invited everywhere—for it would never do to snub a future duke—and laughed at for the follies, foibles, and bill collectors following in his wake. He lived his life without an apparent care in the world, as long as one discounted his agonizing search for a tailor who would overlook his continual lack of funds.

In truth, he was a man to be envied.

In truth, he was a man living a singularly calculated lie.

So while he stood in White’s, the living example of all that was wastrel and foolish about the
ton
, his mind was far away on more pressing matters. Problems so urgent that few would have thought they’d find anyplace to lodge amongst all the wool and lint that most believed made up the interior workings behind the marquis’ engaging smile.

Especially considering his current subject of discussion—a lecture to young Lord Harry Penham on how to select the perfect valet.

The jest lay in the fact that Penham, on his first Season in town and a greenling in every definition of the word, obviously knew nothing of the fact that Temple had never hired a valet, let alone that he couldn’t afford the services of one.

Temple’s only servant was a disreputable one-eyed man who drove the marquis’ carriage and ran his errands. Elton was recognized by one and all, and most held him in fearful regard, for it was rumored that Temple had bought the man off a scaffold—if only to have a loyal servant who wouldn’t mind an infrequent salary.

But obviously Penham knew none of this, for he hung on Temple’s every word as if he were receiving Holy Scriptures.

“What agency are you using?” the marquis asked, his lorgnette tapping at his chin. “For you’ll never find the right fellow without the help of a good agency.” He eyed the disgraceful state of the younger man’s cravat and made a
tut tut
noise that signaled his wholehearted disapproval. “Let me guess, you’ve retained Fogelmann’s?”

When Penham nodded, Temple shuddered and clutched at his heart. “Upon my horror, you’ll be sporting some Oriental tied piece of silk before the end of the week.” He glanced at the gathering crowd. “Which I daresay might be an improvement on this.” Temple took his lorgnette and swirled it through the mess of lace and silk that made up Penham’s woeful attempt at a waterfall.

Several in the crowd began to chuckle.

“Well, I-I-I-” Penham sputtered, quite flustered at being put in the spotlight by the infamous marquis. “I-I-I didn’t know.”

“Obviously.” Temple sighed again and eyed the man from head to toe. “A Cambridge man, I suppose.”

Penham nodded again, this time a little more warily.

“Whatever are they teaching there these days?” Temple stalked around the young man, tapping his lorgnette in his palm like a riding crop. “A gentleman must be prepared for all sorts of calamities. Why, you never know when your valet may take ill,” he advised. “Or for that matter, run off complaining about lack of wages or some other nonsense.” This comment brought a hearty round of laughter. Temple winked at his audience over Penham’s head. “It is imperative that you are able to do a respectable job yourself or you’ll never catch the eye of that certain lady.”

This brought Penham’s attention up in an instant. “But I didn’t think anyone knew that I—”

“Tut tut,” Temple said. “Read the betting book, my good man. Or better yet, read the
Morning Post
. You and Nettlestone have caused quite a sensation with your competition for that lady’s hand.”

“My intentions toward her are quite honorable,” Penham asserted. “Not that the same can be said for my rival.” He nodded toward Aloysius, the seventeenth Baron of Nettlestone, who sat across the room playing
vingt-et-un
.

“Yes,” Temple drawled, sparing a glance first at one man, then the other. “I daresay your heart and estate in Dorset could use the improvements her fortune will bring more so than that drafty pile of rocks Nettlestone calls home.”

Penham tried to stammer out a response, but Temple stopped him with a shake of his head. “Now back to the matter at hand. The state of your cravat. One cannot call on such a discerning chit without displaying the utmost sense of fashion. Why, I can assure you, the lady in question will never respect you if you show up looking like a dustman.” He tipped his head back to give everyone a better view of his own meticulously tied silk. “Penham, let this be your first lesson in courting. A correctly tied noose. It will prepare you for marriage better than anything else.”

This brought another tide of laughter.

“Now, I’ve always said that a good heiress and her fortune are a terrible thing to let lie fallow, so let me be of assistance in your quest for her three thousand a year.” Temple began removing his coat and nodded at the young man to serve as his valet. Penham bounded up from his seat, only too willing to give the marquis the assistance he needed. “This shall be a lesson to all of you on how to tie a proper cravat without the aid of a valet,” he said, beginning to unwind the length of cloth from around his neck.

A ripple of awed whispers sped through the room. Some left their card games with a pile of markers in front of winning hands. Others left good friends mid-sentence, while some of the older dandies, who liked to ape the younger set, rattled and wheezed away from their brandies and boasts of past conquests to hear the marquis’ secrets.

“Say here, Temple,” Lord Nettlestone called out, barging across the room and pushing his way through the crowd. “The lady is very likely to be
my
wife. I’ll not let Penham have such an obvious advantage.”

“My dear Lord Nettlesome—” Temple began.

“Nettlestone,” the man corrected.

“Right, right. Nettlestone. However do I always get that wrong?” He slanted a glance at his audience, his brows arched in wide-eyed innocence.

Most had the decency to stifle their laughter as best they could manage.

“Now there, Nettlesome,” Temple said. “Take a seat next to young Penham here, and may the better man win the lady’s favors.”

The two rivals glared at each other.

Temple tapped his lorgnette against his chin. “Now, where was I? Ah, yes. How to tie one’s cravat without the aid of a valet.”

The baron waved over a waiter and haughtily demanded pen, ink, and paper be brought immediately—lest any detail of Temple’s lesson be missed.

Once the writing implements arrived, Temple held up his neck cloth, about to begin his demonstration, when at that moment the door to White’s opened.

An unusual chill, especially for June, rifled through the room, rustling newspapers and wigs alike, bringing a shiver down more than one spine.

There wasn’t a pair of eyes in the room that didn’t turn toward the entrance.

“She has been taken!” a frantic voice cried out. “Kidnapped by the veriest of scoundrels!”

The patrons of White’s were well rewarded with the spectacle of the Earl of Lamden making a blustering and blazing entrance, brandishing his silver-tipped walking stick like a broadsword. He might have appeared like a fierce, mighty clansman of old, one of his Scottish forebears, if it hadn’t been for his gaunt and yellowish features, giving evidence to the rumors that he was indeed ill and dying.

His frenzied lament, tinged as it was with a shocking madness, brought a stunned silence to White’s. The London club had seen many an undignified display in its more than one hundred years of catering to the privileged males of England—angry curses over lost fortunes, or the drunken ramblings of a lovelorn young buck, but not this, this mindless, almost feral rage.

Lamden pressed farther into the room. “She is taken, I tell you! Can’t any of you nitwits hear me? She has been stolen away!”

Penham stood up. For all his provincial manners, he was a decent sort. “Who, my lord? Who has been taken?”

“Diana, of course! She’s been carried off to Gretna Green.”

It took a moment for everyone in the room to digest the fact that Lamden was discussing his eccentric spinster of a daughter, Lady Diana Fordham. And once they realized the extent of what he was saying, that she had been spirited away like some lithesome and innocent beauty in the dewy blush of her first Season, most couldn’t conceal their amusement.

The room pealed with a hilarious refrain of guffaws and hearty bellows.

But not so Temple. If the chilling breeze that had made its eerie way through the room had gone anywhere, it seemed to have settled in his gut.

Diana? Stolen away? It couldn’t be
, Temple told himself, before he even realized his heart had taken an unnatural skip at the shocking news.

Likewise, Penham and Nettlestone did not join the others’ levity, for they stood watching the scene before them unfold, mirror images of disbelief etched across their faces.

For up until a few moments earlier, each had been of the opinion that Lady Diana would soon be his wife.

The rollicking laughter from the rest of White’s patrons had yet to subside, but it did so with the utmost urgency when Lamden began pounding the floor with his walking stick.

Thump! Thump! Thump!
The silver tip dug into the oaken floors with the same authority as a schoolmaster’s switch.

“Enough of your disrespect! I have heard enough!” Lamden bellowed.

The earl, mad or not, was not one to be gainsaid for long. His English lineage was far too hallowed, going back, some said, to Arthur, while his Scottish titles were of royal blood. Besides, he was an elderly man who had served his King and country well, and if his daughter was indeed in peril, it was the duty of every respectable Englishman in the room to see that she was brought back safely to the bosom of her family.

It could, after all, be their own sister or daughter who was about to be the subject of one of the Season’s best
on dits
.

Temple stepped forward, hauling a chair for the wavering old man, but stopped himself. It was one of the hardest things about posing as an idiot, one couldn’t do the decent thing when it was so very necessary.

Fortunately, Penham took the cue and guided the earl into the comfortable confines of the richly appointed leather seat in the center of the room. “Tell us, sir, what has happened to Lady Diana?”

“Taken away, I tell you. By a most scurrilous fellow.” Lamden bowed his head into his hands and let out a sigh that should have tugged at the hearts of all who heard it.

Instead, before Penham could ask who this knave might be, bets began circling the room as to this daring fellow’s identity. It never took much to convince the patrons of White’s to start tossing down wagers, and this was too rich an opportunity to allow it to pass without joining into the rampant speculation—propriety and respect aside.

Temple caught one of the waiters by the arm and whispered to him. “Go fetch the earl some whiskey. Glen Adich, if you have it.” He slipped the man a coin, one he could ill-afford.

Moments later, the efficient servant returned, glass and bottle in hand, and served the earl a fortifying measure.

Lamden absently muttered his thanks, and then glanced at Penham. “I’d resigned myself that she would marry either you or Nettlestone. I wouldn’t have been pleased, you being only a second son, and Nettlestone, well…” He fluttered his hand dismissively toward the man as one might wave off an errant fly. “Well, he’s Nettlestone.”

Many around the room nodded in understanding.

The earl’s lament continued. “But this…this is kidnapping! A deed most foul!”

“Who, my lord?” Penham asked. “Who has done this to your daughter?”

Lamden held out his glass, and Nettlestone, who had also moved forward, poured another measure. The earl drank, wiped his mouth, and then closed his eyes.

White’s hadn’t been this silent since the time the Duke of Northrup had waged his best Kent properties on the single turn of a card. Every ear strained to hear the earl’s next words.

“Cordell. She has been taken by Viscount Cordell.”

The silence erupted into a collective gasp. Lady Diana might have run off with the devil himself and been in better company. A reckless gambler, caused in no small measure by his excessive drinking, Cordell had recently been involved in some shady mishap in the stews. He hadn’t been seen around town of late, and there had been whispered conjecture that he’d gone to escape not only his creditors, but also the magistrate.

Obviously, he’d been around enough to convince Lady Diana to run off with him. In this gamble, he’d certainly cast his die into a rich pot. She was Lamden’s only child and heiress. Money enough to keep even Cordell dicing and whoring for years.

BOOK: Stealing the Bride
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