Read Stealing the Bride Online

Authors: Elizabeth Boyle

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

Stealing the Bride (4 page)

BOOK: Stealing the Bride
4.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

This caught Colin’s attention. “You knew about Lady Diana’s kidnapping?”

Pymm shot him a withering stare, and it was enough to settle Colin back in his seat and keep his questions to himself.

“Since when did you meddle in the affairs of ladies?” Temple dared, winking at his cousin. “Perhaps Pymm here thought to court the heiress himself.”

But Colin didn’t appear to share in his amusement over the situation. “Oh, do shut up, Temple. You of all people should be as upset about this as Lamden.”

Temple’s gaze cast upward and he shook his head.
Not again.

“What’s all this about?” Pymm asked.

Before Colin could explain, Temple jumped in. “My brine-soaked cousin here is of the opinion that the lady holds some secret tendre for me, and I for her.” He shot Colin a withering glance. “Which I do not.”

Colin snorted, but said nothing further.


Tendre
or not,” Pymm said, “what is of importance here is that the lady be returned to London posthaste. Or if it can be arranged, given over to Nettlestone or Penham so she can be married. Immediately.”

Temple tapped the side of his head. “Did I hear you correctly, Pymm? You advocating marriage? Why, the world must be coming to an end.” He laughed loud and hard.

His superior was not amused. “Stifle it, Templeton. You’re in deep enough as it is. Best not add to your problems by casting your ill-timed humor on the situation.” Thus said, Pymm sat up straight in his seat. “I’ll remind you that the Lamden earldom was loyally serving this country long before your orange-selling ancestress started her ignoble rise into the peerage.”

Temple had the audacity to smirk. He was one of few members of his family who found it highly amusing that the family’s elevation was the result of a saucy redheaded chit who’d got her start selling a variety of wares to London’s groundlings, before by chance she caught Charles Stuart’s roving eye.

His eye and other things…

Yet Pymm was right. The Lamden lineage was royal in far more impressive ways and with far more noble service than the descendants of some upstart, enterprising little wench from Dover. And the current earl was no exception to his family’s illustrious past.

Lamden did deserve a hefty measure of respect, and his daughter the same consideration. Even if she was a bit of an eccentric and slightly long in the tooth.

Yet despite his own convictions that the lady could very well take care of herself, no small measure of guilt tugged at Temple’s heart. He told himself it was simply a matter of honor, for King and country, a feeling he would have had over any honorable lady led astray.

Certainly not for the reasons Colin continued to put forth.

That Diana cared for him. An unlikely tale. Not after…Temple shook away the memory. No, there was no doubt in his mind she despised him. Why, the spiteful little minx’s carriage had nearly run him down in Mayfair not a fortnight earlier. Oh, she’d apologized profusely and very prettily for her driver’s wayward course, then sighed just so, that really she didn’t see any need for a fuss since he was merely grazed and not truly run over.

No, Lady Diana did not carry any devoted regard for him. Not in the least.

As for him, carrying a
tendre
for her? Indeed! He’d as soon take Elton’s toothless mother to bride.

“So what would you have me do, Pymm?” Temple asked. “Fetch Diana home for you?” He laughed at such a notion. He who had slipped in and out of Paris prisons, had infiltrated Napoleon’s court. As if he even had the time. He knew full well he was about to be sent on a mission to the Ottoman Empire, a posting he’d been nagging and plaguing Pymm to secure for him for years.

Pymm removed his spectacles and wiped them with what once might have been a white handkerchief. “Actually, that is exactly what I want you to do,” he said as he put his eyeglasses back on. “And not just me. This comes directly from the Secretary.”

Temple’s smug levity deflated. “You can’t be serious. You said not a fortnight ago to keep a bag at the ready, for I was going to Constantinople.”

“Your assignment to the Ottoman Empire is being delayed.”

“Delayed? Because some chit had the effrontery, and dare I say it, poor judgment to run off with the likes of Cordell? Why, just last week you were ranting and complaining about your need for an agent at the sultan’s court.”

“You are not going.” The finality of Pymm’s words hit Temple like a slap in the face.

“Not going?” He’d spent twelve years angling for this assignment. “You know damned well finding Diana is an errand for some greenling recruit,” he argued. “Send that smug, wet-behind-the-ears Denby. I hear he’s itching to go about on some great task. Trotting up to the border and back after Lamden’s daughter will be a good start for him.” Temple leaned forward. “I’m your best agent, Pymm, not some lad to be sent on errands. I should be where I am needed most—and you know that is at the sultan’s court.”

Pymm took another swallow from his glass, probably a little too hastily, for Temple’s sharp gaze became wary in an instant.

“You’ve already sent someone to Constantinople,” the marquis said, pointing an accusing finger. “Oh, don’t tell me, you sent Denby?”

“Now, I hardly think whom I sent matters at this point,” Pymm began.

“You did! You sent Denby. He’s a veritable child. He’ll be discovered before he’s been there outside of a week, that is if he can find his way across the bloody Channel.”

Pymm smirked, cupping his drink in his hands. “You could take some lessons from him. He doesn’t take unnecessary risks.”

“Dammit, Pymm, this is the final straw,” Temple said, rising to his feet. “You promised me that assignment, and now you’ve gone and sent some…some…”

“I believe the words you are looking for are ‘promising young replacement.’”

At this Colin grinned.

Temple knew damned well what his cousin was thinking, and he didn’t like it one bit. “If you think I am going to be replaced by—”

Pymm rocked forward, and any sign of amusement on his features disappeared. “By a better man, if you must know. Now sit down and not another word, sir, or this interview is over, and there will be no more assignments. Not to Constantinople, not even to Scotland.” He sighed and shook his head. “You know as well as I do, this isn’t of my making. But you’ve become reckless, Temple. You’ve taken too many risks over the last year. And to say there are those who are greatly displeased would be an understatement.”

“Risks?” Temple retook his seat, then shook his head as if he were dismissing some idle report in the
Post
. “What risks?”

“Need I mention Hapsburg?”

Temple shifted.

“Or the countess in Vienna?”

The marquis almost smiled at that one, but Pymm’s serious expression canceled such a notion.

“I’m still trying to write a report that won’t have my head being posted outside the Tower regarding your exploits in Paris this past winter. Passing yourself off as Josephine’s cousin. Why not just march yourself into an audience with Napoleon and offer him your services?”

Temple glanced down at his fingernails with an air of disinterest.

Pymm groaned. “I had hoped
that
rumor was just another Banbury tale made up by the clerks at Whitehall, but I can see it is not.”

He shrugged. “Boney had need of a Persian interpreter and I thought I might be of assistance.” He leaned forward, his eyes alight with mischief and delight. “The conceited fool nearly hired me. Can you imagine if I had gotten the post? I would have had access to information not even you could presume.”

Pymm’s eyes narrowed, momentarily enticed by the idea of such a treasure trove. Yet even as Temple could see that man’s mind began to whirl with the possibilities of having an agent on Napoleon’s personal staff, he shook it off.

“Enough!” Pymm said. “Did it ever occur to you that Napoleon might have wanted you to actually perform the job of a translator? Dammit, man, you don’t even speak Persian.”

Temple dismissed this accusation with a nonchalant shake of his head. “A minor inconvenience. I could have mastered the language quickly enough. In fact, I’ve taken that into consideration.” He dug around in his jacket and pulled out a small slim volume, which he laid down in front of Pymm.

The Persian Language and Dialects,
by Sir John Sutton.

“You are the most arrogant, irresponsible agent I have, and I won’t tolerate your antics anymore.” Pymm pushed aside the primer, his voice lowering to a deadly whisper. “Temple, I cannot make excuses for you any longer. Time is running out. The Secretary wants your resignation. And he has support from the King. I don’t think I need tell you who is pressuring His Majesty.”

His Grace.
Only the Duke of Setchfield would be so shameless.

Even in the face of these odds, Temple was, by no means, about to give up. “You can’t mean this, Pymm. Not my resignation.”

“I fear it is so. If you don’t take some steps to temper your recklessness, I won’t be able to get you an assignment checking rumors in Bath.”

Temple let out a long sigh. “Do I have any choice?”

Pymm shook his head. Then began fishing around in his coat. In moments he handed two pieces of paper to Temple. “These should smooth any problems you encounter.”

Temple glanced at the documents, shocked at what he held.
“A special license
! You don’t expect me to wed her?” He immediately shot a glance at Colin. “Not one word from you.”

Pymm shook his head. “If you cannot get her back to London without any mishaps, find one of her bumbleheaded suitors and press him into duty.”

Temple glanced again at the document. It was signed by the Archbishop of England himself, and allowed for every irregularity that Diana’s hasty marriage might necessitate.

He could only guess what dark secret Pymm held over that dignified and proper man’s head to obtain such unprecedented carte blanche.

And the second document was just as bad. “A writ for Cordell’s arrest?”

“In case the viscount proves reluctant to hand her over.” Pymm took the papers, folded them back up, and pressed them once again into Temple’s unwilling grasp. “Give that writ to any magistrate or constable and he’ll hold Cordell for at least thirty days. That ought to be enough time to see all this undone.”

“You want me to have a man arrested for running off with a spinster? Oh, that’s rather shady, even for you, Pymm.”

Pymm’s weaselly eyes gleamed with unabashed pride.

Temple rose and stuffed the papers into his jacket pocket.

“Anything else you aren’t telling me?” Temple asked, his years of experience dealing with Pymm leaving him suspicious when the man started extending a helping hand to a friend. Pymm had gone to great lengths in a short period of time just to see Lady Diana’s reputation saved—something about the entire situation didn’t add up. “This seems like quite a bit of bother for a runaway spinster.”

Pymm’s brow furrowed. “Whatever do you mean? There is nothing more to this than a favor to one of the King’s most loyal subjects.” His flinty gaze held firm, not a flicker of deception, not a waver to be found.

“And there is no other way?”

The man shook his head.

Temple shrugged, then leaned down and fetched his Persian lesson book. “I am going to Constantinople.”

“Fetch that gel home, Temple, and you will be well rewarded.”

Colin rose as well. “Temple, wait. I think you should—”

“Not one word,” he replied, “I don’t want to hear another word from you on this subject. The matter is closed. Mark my words, gentlemen, I’ll be back by the morrow with Lamden’s errant daughter.” His gaze locked with Pymm’s. “Then I’ll hold you to your word, sir.” With that said, he caught up his hat and coat and stalked out of White’s as if he were on a mission for the devil.

Pymm hastily gathered up his own shabby belongings, catching up the bottle of port, and started for the door, but Colin snagged him by the arm and held him fast. “There is more to this than just a simple favor to Lord Lamden, isn’t there?”

“There is nothing of the sort,” Pymm ruffled, trying to shake loose Colin’s iron grasp. “You are getting as suspicious as that wife of yours.”

At this, Colin smiled. “If Georgie were here, she’d have your head for not telling Temple the truth.” Colin released him.

Pymm staggered free, paling at the notion of Georgie’s wrath, but only momentarily. He brushed Colin’s warning aside by smoothing his rumpled coat with all the air of a wounded dandy. “You’ve been at sea too long, Danvers. You’re seeing mermaids where there are none.”

“No, sir, I have made enough runs of late between England and France to know there are rumors aplenty afloat.”

“And what would they have to do with Lamden’s foolish chit of a daughter?” When Colin had no response, Pymm harrumphed, and caught up his hat and walking stick. “You know better than to listen to idle gossip and fish tales. Good day, my lord.”

Colin stood for a few moments and tried to make the connections between the reports he’d heard of late and Lady Diana.

But it was as Pymm said, all an unlikely tangle. Not that Colin was ready to give up. He served his country with the same determination as Pymm and Temple, and what he suspected could mean tyranny and more war for all of them.

As he started for the door, one of the young bucks called out, “Eh, Danvers. Where is your cousin off to in a pig’s whisker?” The man glanced to his friends and grinned. “He isn’t considering joining Penham and Nettlesome, is he? Perhaps thinking of stealing the bride for himself?”

This question was followed by a round of hearty laughter, as if there had never been such a joke.

“Temple? Leg-shackled to Lamden’s daughter?” Lord Oxham said. “Never.”

Heads nodded sagely from Temple’s brethren of confirmed bachelors and rakes.

Colin paused only for a second before he asked, “Would you care to wager on that?”

Chapter 2

T
he fate of Lady Diana Fordham was hardly as dire as her father would have had the patrons of White’s believe. She hadn’t been kidnapped or taken against her will, or carted away in the dead of night.

For earlier that same day, at precisely half past noon, she and her companion, Mrs. Foston, met Viscount Cordell in front of Madame Renard’s millinery shop and got into his hired coach to begin their journey north.

She knew what she was doing was going to once again cast her name into the scandal pot, but she had no other choice.

If anything, her earlier brushes with dishonor, when she’d thrown over Lord Danvers at the time of his court-martial, the Almack’s debacle, and the foolishness over her early morning appearances in the park, would be nothing to the tempest she was currently embarking upon.

She wouldn’t have even been in this muddle if it hadn’t been for…

Shaking her head, she let that thought fall away. Ten long years of waiting. Well, she was done with waiting for the suitor who never arrived.

Oh, there had been men who’d called, men seeking her fortune, but she’d sent them packing, their ears ringing with the peal she’d rung over their greedy heads.

Then after all these years of waiting and hoping for the one man she’d marry, something else had happened. Diana found herself cast amongst those poor oddities who sit against the walls at dances. Hapless ladies who have their hostess desperately searching for an escort to guide them to the supper table.

She didn’t even want to say the word.

Yet on the day that Lord Nettlestone came to call, she saw only too clearly in the drawing room mirror what the rest of London already knew: she’d become a spinster.

At nine-and-twenty, she could hardly be counted as one of the dewy-eyed, properly innocent debutantes who flooded the city each spring.

Instead, she was just another curiosity to be pitied—and most definitely not emulated.

If that wasn’t bad enough, it was well known that Nettlestone had vowed to marry before the end of the Season and had spent the entire spring courting every eligible daughter and young lady in London in search of his baroness. Thus far, he’d been refused thirty-two times. By every miss, lady, and even a few widows. It had taken him to mid-June to find his way to the front door of Lamden House.

Diana knew all this because Mrs. Foston, her companion for the last thirteen years, had a remarkable skill at uncovering every bit of gossip pattering its way through the London drawing rooms. According to the widowed lady, even Miss Tilden had refused him. And that lady had always been London’s premier old maid, an eccentric of the first order.

Why, she wore breeches and had named her six pugs after the Royal Dukes!

So if Lord Nettlestone had called on Miss Tilden
before
he’d considered calling on Diana, that could mean only one thing.

Diana had become a spinster. The last spinster.

Oh, the very notion was too terrible even to consider.

Though not as terrible as being the next Lady Nettlesome, a proposition her father had suddenly taken great interest in.

It was as if he had finally looked up from his newspapers and endless correspondence and decided to take an immediate course of action to deal with the problem of her unmarried state. And so he had amended his promise of years earlier that she could pick her own bridegroom.

Now she could choose between Nettlestone and Penham.

Choose between Needles and Pins? She’d rather start collecting pugs with royal names.

Diana shuddered and glanced across at the seat where the viscount lounged, a deck of cards in his hands. He was playing a game of chance with only himself—and losing.

So much for knights in shining armor and her girlhood dreams of valor.

But sometimes, just sometimes, things could work out the way they should, she told herself, as Lord Cordell’s hired carriage rolled past the last of London’s gray scenery and out into the countryside. The green hills and valleys brought her a measure of comfort—for she knew only too well that back at Lamden House, her disappearance would be causing no end of havoc.

I’m so sorry, Papa. But this
is
the only way,
she thought, clinging to her conviction that her elopement with Lord Cordell was the right decision. It was the only one she could make to secure the future she wanted so desperately.

And the one she would do anything to avoid.

 

Finding Diana wasn’t as easy as Temple had boasted. He and Elton followed the lovebirds’ trail along the Manchester road as far as Broughton, but then it was as if they had disappeared.

“I wonder if…” Elton muttered as yet another innkeeper swore not to have seen them.

“Wonder what?” Temple asked, willing to try anything to find the errant bride and her worthless groom. Seated beside his driver atop the Duke of Setchfield’s second-best berline—one liberated from the Setchfield liveries during the dead of night—Temple scanned the empty countryside hoping to catch a glimpse of his quarry. The duke would be livid that Temple had taken such a liberty without his express permission, but they’d needed a vehicle large enough to carry Diana and Mrs. Foston back to town.

As for Cordell, Temple intended to let him rot in the nearest gaol.

“Well, if I were heading north,” Elton was saying, “and weren’t looking to be caught, I might take a less conspicuous route.”

“Such as?” Temple prodded, glad for the day he’d hired Elton.

Flipping the ribbons and steering the horses out of the inn’s yard and onto the road, Elton said, “I wouldn’t be taking the Manchester road, like those two young fools from White’s were headed.”

“Wouldn’t that be the best route?” Temple asked. “More posting houses and better road, I’d think.”

“The Manchester road is the obvious choice,” Elton said, with a smug smile and his one eye glittering. “With the right driver and fresh changes of horses, you could make Gretna Green in about two and a half days.” He made the pronouncement as if traveling such a distance was but a hop across a lane. “But the shortest road ain’t always the best route, milord. Especially if you don’t want to be caught by an irate father or a pack of fortune hunters bent on stealing the bride for themselves.”

Temple nodded. “So which way would you go?”

“This way,” Elton said, nodding at the road onto which they were turning.

“And this way is?”

Elton grinned. “Running parallel to the main road. The towns are little more spread out, but there’s change enough of horses along the way to make the journey in good time.”

“How can you be certain?”

“I know.”

When Elton used that tone, Temple didn’t bother questioning him. He knew a good deal about Elton’s past, but there were some unaccounted years in the man’s history. The few things he had said over the years left Temple with the suspicion that his manservant had been on more than his fair share of country roads and lonely highways…and not always with the best of intentions.

Still, Elton’s instincts—ill-gained or not—served them well. They got lucky about ten miles up the road.

The innkeeper glanced down at his shoes and shuffled his feet as they made their inquiries concerning Lord Cordell and Lady Diana. From the man’s wary expression, Temple knew the innkeeper had seen them, though it might take some convincing to get the man to be a bit forthcoming.

Temple pulled out his money pouch and gave it a jangle. As he’d suspected, it was just the right incentive to unhinge the man’s memory. The fellow didn’t need to know it contained only a collection of nails, since Temple never had enough money to make up a good bribe.

Still, the deception worked, as it had for years.

“Now that you mention it, there was a coach came by here some hours ago that might be who you are looking for.”

“And they went…?” Temple continued to prod. Lawd, it was like getting an extra hundred pounds out of his grandfather.

The man scratched his chin and gave Temple a long, long look. “Are you the aggrieved
parti
?” The man winked and leaned over to nudge Elton. “That’s French you know. I’ve always wanted to say that, ever since I read it in one of those lovey-dovey novels my wife likes to read. She was a vicar’s daughter, learnt all her letters and more.”

“How lucky for you, sir,” Elton said, as if that was the most interesting thing he’d heard all day.

Temple wasn’t so patient. “Yes, yes, that’s very nice, but which way did this coach go?”

“Hmm,” the man said. “You never did say, are you the aggrieved
parti
or not?” he repeated, mangling the poor French language enough that it should have been a crime.

In France, it most likely was.

“No, I’m not.”

The innkeeper tipped his head and studied Temple. “Don’t see why you care then.”

“I don’t care. The lady is of no interest to me.”

“I think he doth protest too much,” the man joked, nudging Elton once again. “That’s from some famous playwright. Me wife likes to say it when I tell her I haven’t been drinking too much ale. Which I usually have been.” He glanced once again at Temple. “So you protest all you doth, milord. But I’m thinking a man doesn’t come all this way to fetch back a wayward lady unless he’s got a stake in the matter.”

Demmit if Elton didn’t smirk at the innkeeper’s assessment. If it hadn’t been for his years of immeasurable loyalty, Temple would have strangled his servant.

“I assure you, sir, I am not the aggrieved
parti
.”

The man chuckled. “Turned you down flat, did she? Oh, women, they do like to put us men in a lather, don’t they? I daresay you know that, milord, coming all this way to set her straight.”

Instead Temple took a deep breath and tapped down the urge to issue another denial concerning Diana. “Does it truly matter, sir?” he said through gritted teeth. “Her father is an honorable man and would like her returned. I have been asked to see the task done in his stead.”

The innkeeper’s jaw worked back and forth. “Hate to see a young couple thwarted in love.” He glanced over at Elton. “Thwarted—that means they’d get caught.”

“Is that so?” Elton replied.

“Right it does,” the innkeeper said, slanting a glance over at Temple. “So, milord, are you of a mind to thwart young love?”

“Hardly, sir, if I thought the couple was in love. I can assure you that is not the case.”

“Actually it does rather surprise me to see anyone chasing after the likes of
her
.”

So he had seen Diana. Anyone who referred to her in that tone had most definitely met the lady.

“If you don’t mind me saying,” the innkeeper said, leaning forward, “you being the rejected one and all, she’s got a right sharp tongue.” He glanced over at Elton and shuddered ever so slightly.

Elton, disreputable fellow that he was, nodded in sympathetic agreement.

“Like one of them London fishwives you hear tell about,” the innkeeper said. “Arguing with him over which way to go and the like. She had this map and a book she was reading from, telling him they were off course.” He paused again, wiping his meaty hands on his apron. “Right she was, this isn’t the quickest of routes to the border, but who likes to tell them that?”

Temple didn’t need to hear another word. They’d found Diana. He turned on one heel and started striding back to his carriage.

“Mind my advice, never marry a smart one,” the innkeeper called after him. “You’ll never know peace in your house if they’ve got a head stuffed with ideas.”

“Jonas? Are they staying to eat or just wasting your time with a lot of gossip?” The shrill voice pierced the dark common room of the inn, stopping Temple in his tracks and sending the horses into a nervous prance in their traces.

“Ah, there she is, gentlemen. The fair flower of my life.” The man grinned as his wife came barreling out the door, a rolling pin in one hand and her other balled up in a tight fist.

“She was a rare find, I imagine,” Temple said, meaning every word of it.

“Aye, that she was,” the man agreed, beaming with pride. “Still quite a sight to look at, wouldn’t you agree?”

Temple and Elton had the good sense just to nod.

“I had quite a devilish bit of competition when I went courting her. But I won her heart with my fine prospects.” The innkeeper jerked his thumb back at his ramshackle establishment. “Prospects, sir, will win you a bride every time.”

“Well, are they eating or not?” his particular bride called out, sending the horses to whinnying and stomping their feet at her strident notes.

“Not, my good lady,” Temple told her, bowing low, before he continued his hasty retreat toward the carriage.

Elton was already in his perch and calling to the horses, when Temple climbed up beside him.

For a time, they rode in silence, Temple ignoring the way Elton was still chuckling about the innkeeper’s assertion that he was after Diana for himself.

Instead he enjoyed the warmth of the sun on his face and the sight of England in the summertime. There was no other place like it. The smell of the new grass, flowers bursting up from the corners of hedges, fruit trees blowsy with flowers. It was heaven.

And he knew with a certainty that was born from the experience of seeing hell.

The Terror in France. The battles for the Peninsula. The treacherous murder of his young cousin Orlando. He’d spent so many years walking amid death that being surrounded by the ripe, lush landscape of England, his beloved country, comforted him like a mother’s arms, her summer breezes like a tender kiss on his forehead, welcoming him home.

They rounded another curve, and before them the old Roman road lay straight and seemingly endless…and empty.

Temple let out an exasperated sigh.

“Why are we going after this gel?” Elton asked, breaking the silence between them.

“As a favor to Pymm,” Temple told him.

“Harrumph,” Elton said, settling into his seat. “Don’t see why you don’t just marry her yerself. It’s not like you couldn’t use the money. Be nice to be paid regular-like.”

Temple stared openmouthed at the man. All the years they’d traveled together, he’d never heard Elton utter a word about their lack of funds or the dangerous paths they trod.

BOOK: Stealing the Bride
4.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Poor Little Dead Girls by Lizzie Friend
The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly
Fain the Sorcerer by Steve Aylett
To Dream of Love by M. C. Beaton
The Emerald Talisman by Pandos, Brenda
Jem by Frederik Pohl
INFECTED by Sig
The Dragon Circle by Irene Radford
On Leave by Daniel Anselme
The Cowboy and the Lady by Diana Palmer