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Authors: Elizabeth Boyle

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BOOK: Stealing the Bride
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“I have no intention of getting married. To Lady Diana or otherwise.”

Elton just shrugged. “Seems a shame to see a good fortune go to waste. Either way, let’s hope Lord Cordell sticks to his guns and stays on this road so we can find them right quick.”

“Why wouldn’t he?”

“Given what I’ve heard about Lady Diana, she’s as likely to take the ribbons herself if she doesn’t fancy his choice of route.”

Temple glanced over at the man. He didn’t realize Elton was so familiar with the lady. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, it being Lady Diana and all. Everyone knows she’s a brassy bit of baggage. Got more gall than my aunt’s tabby cat.”

Temple couldn’t argue with that. Diana had sent quite a few suitors packing through the years and wasn’t known to do it with any measure of female delicacy or care.

Elton shrugged. “If you ask me, she’s lived too long without a man. Makes a woman short a sheet, as me mum likes to say.”

“Ah, your mother’s fabled eloquence,” Temple said. “And what would her remedy be for the lady’s malady?”

“Marriage.” Elton nodded with an alarming assurance. “That’ll set her back on the straight and narrow. Once she’s wedded and well bedded, she’ll be right as rain. You mark my words.”

First grumbles about his infrequent salary and now this ode to wedded bliss.

“What do you know about marriage?” Temple crossed his arms over his chest and eyed his fellow crabbed bachelor.

“I know enough that the right woman only comes once…hmm…mayhap twice in yer life. Only a fool lets her go.” Elton spit over the side of carriage.

“I highly doubt marriage to the likes of Cordell will improve Lady Diana’s mental capacity.”

Elton shrugged, a sort of time-will-tell gesture that left Temple all the more uncomfortable with Diana’s most recent escapade.

To be honest, he’d always felt some measure of responsibility whenever he heard Diana’s name bandied about. It was foolish, truly, for he hadn’t been the cause of her broken engagement to Colin.

So she was known to be a little eccentric, but dash it all, it wasn’t like she was a traitor to her country.

Just a bit headstrong
.

Make that far too headstrong.

He took a deep breath. Really, Diana’s problems weren’t anything that couldn’t be brought in line by the—

Right man.

Temple shifted in his seat, not at all comfortable with the direction of his thoughts. He was starting to sound like his cousin Colin. And Elton.

Or worse yet, Elton’s harridan mother.

“I just don’t know why she’d run off with the likes of Cordell,” he said aloud, without even thinking.

The carriage rounded a curve, and Elton nodded at the sight before them.

A coach sat haphazardly beside the road. A broken wheel lay to one side, and the horses were unhitched.

“Looks like you can ask her yerself, my lord.”

For just then, out from the shade of the carriage stepped a woman, her blond hair glinting in the sunshine like the golden hue of the cowslip blooming alongside the roadway.

Diana
.

Lithe and lovely, she stepped into their path, a chip bonnet in her hand, the blue ribbons fluttering in the breeze. The London wits could laugh at her spinster state, but the sight of her sent an odd thrill racing through Temple’s blood.

Gad’s sakes, she was a tempting minx. The rest of Society could have their mincing, fresh-faced, and doe-eyed beauties. In his estimation, there was something all too very tempting about Lady Diana Fordham, and even more so at nine-and-twenty than when she’d been one of those impressionable young ladies standing in the wings at Almack’s.

Seeing her again, for the first time in months he reckoned, he didn’t know whether to celebrate at finding her safe and apparently unharmed, or to offer to stand as Cordell’s best man in the wedding—just to see her wed and out of his life.

And most importantly, out of his heart.

 

Diana peered down the road at the carriage headed toward her, being driven along at a perilous pace. And here she’d been about to give up on their ever gaining help.

She looked again and recognized the one-eyed driver.
Elton
. Which meant they’d sent Temple to fetch her home.

Well, she’d expected no less.

But as Elton continued to drive the horses along, he did so without any indication of slowing them down.

And then it hit her.

Temple had no intention of stopping.

The wretched man was going to leave her on the side of the road with the likes of…She took a glance over at Lord Cordell, who lay on the carriage’s only blanket, on the only grassy spot, a moistened handkerchief draped over his face.

She took a deep breath and reminded herself that this man was her fiancé.

Her beloved intended
, she thought with a barely repressed shudder.

Now Temple meant to leave her with the likes of Cordell?

“Not likely,” she muttered, as she stepped out into the middle of the road in front of Temple’s speeding horses.

It was all Elton could do to stop the carriage from cartwheeling into the same state of disrepair as Cordell’s.

But Diana hadn’t come this far to balk at a few thousand pounds of horseflesh, metal, leather, and wood hurtling at her with the same deadly intent that spinsterhood carried.

 

“Lord Templeton. We won’t be interfered with,” Diana said, her hands now set on her hips as Temple climbed down from his still shuddering berline. “We are on the path of true love and intend to marry.”

Cordell rose from his shady patch and eyed Temple with a mixture of disgust and amusement. His lemon-yellow coat nearly matched the color of his hair, which lay curled about his head à la Brutus. But for his penchant for dissolute living he might have been handsome; however, drink and wild company had left him with the florid features and droopy eyes of a much older man.

The marquis laughed. “La! Milady, aren’t you droll. Who said anything about a rescue? And my dear Lord Cordell, stop contemplating a second, for I’m hardly the bride-stealing type.” He nodded toward Elton, who was even now consulting with Cordell’s driver over the state of the viscount’s carriage. “This is all my jarvey’s doing. Elton has a soft spot for true love.”

Cordell took one more bemused glance at Temple, then settled back down to his game of flipping cards into his overturned hat.

As much as he would like to smash his fist into the man’s face, as Temple,
ton
fool and Society darling, he could hardly behave like a hero from some French novel.

Though what Diana saw in this dissolute excuse for a man, he couldn’t fathom. Women! Perhaps Pymm had the right idea. The fairer sex was an unfathomable, untrustworthy lot.

Elton returned and with a shake of his head, announced that the other carriage was useless.

“Then I insist you all ride with us,” Temple said, opening the door of the duke’s roomy berline. “We were on our way to a house party, but I would be remiss if I didn’t lend you a hand to the next town where you can find the assistance you need.”

“Right kind of you, Templeton,” Cordell said, getting into the berline without a glance back at his bride-to-be, her companion, or their luggage.

Temple smiled at Lady Diana as she stomped past him, her traveling case in hand. He took her hand to help her up, and for a moment their gazes met.

How had he forgotten how blue her eyes were on a summer day? Or the way they sparkled in the sunshine…

And how they made him forget to breathe
.

She looked at him, almost expectantly, as if she wanted him to decry her actions, demand an explanation. Claim her for himself.

Words he wouldn’t utter. Words she, of all people, knew he’d never say.

The spell broke as Cordell called from inside. “Got anything to drink in here, Templeton? It’s nigh on past noon and I’m parched.”

“Sorry, sir,” Temple said. “I never partake before evening.”

“Some help this,” Cordell grumbled.

“My hand, my lord?” she said, plucking her fingers free from Temple’s grasp and getting into the carriage without his help.

He let her go and, ignoring Cordell’s complaints, went to assist the final passenger, Mrs. Foston, Diana’s ever-patient hired companion, who was pointing her cane at which bags she wanted Elton to tie onto the Setchfield berline.

“Madame,” he said. “A moment of your time.”

“Yes?” Mrs. Foston was a tall, angular woman whose sharp gaze missed nothing. The perfect hired companion for a willful young lady. Perfect, that is, until she’d let such a travesty befall her charge.

“Why didn’t you prevent this?” Temple asked. “How could you let Diana run away with the likes of that sot?”

She shook her head. “What would you have me do, my lord? Let her run off alone? She was quite determined. No, I thought it best that at least she have me along.”

Temple ran a hand through his hair. This was hardly the answer he’d been seeking. “I would have thought you, madame, would have had more sense than to allow this.”

Mrs. Foston drew herself up to her full height. “And what about you, my lord?” she asked. “Some might say the same about you.” With that, the lady stomped over to the carriage and got in beside Diana, wielding her cane like a veritable staff.

Temple stood there openmouthed. Why did the entire world think Diana was his obligation?

“Not for very much longer,” he muttered under his breath.

And somewhere in the back of his mind a quirky little voice chanted back at him.

You doth protest too much
.

 

After an hour or so on the road, Temple glanced up from the book he was reading. “Is something wrong, sir?” he asked, holding up his lorgnette to send a speculative glance in Cordell’s direction.

The other man sat slumped heavily against the wall of the carriage, his face a ghastly shade of gray.

“Why, you look positively ill,” Temple said.

“I am fine,” Cordell responded through clenched teeth.

“No, I think not. You have all the appearances of a man about to cast up his accounts.”

“Traveling doesn’t agree with him,” Diana said irritably. “Just leave him be.” She snapped her book shut and glared at Temple.

“Perhaps it’s the company he’s been keeping,” Temple noted, returning his gaze to his studies and ignoring the way Diana’s eyes blazed with a murderous intent.

He could just see her mind awhirl as she considered and rejected one perfectly blistering rebuttal after another. He was saved from her tongue lashing by her companion.

“What is that you are reading, my lord?” Mrs. Foston asked, trying to return the party to some semblance of well-bred order.

He held the book up. “I am studying Persian.”

“Is that Sir John’s work?” Diana asked.

Temple nodded. “Yes, Sir John Sutton.”

“Sutton?” Cordell asked. “Sutton, you say? Isn’t he the fellow who turned traitor and hanged himself?”

Mrs. Foston gasped.

“Yes, ’tis the same man. But despite his dishonorable end his work remains highly regarded.”

“Harrumph,” Cordell snorted. “Seems to me you like the company of traitors, Templeton. This here Sutton fellow and that turncoat cousin of yours, Danvers. Cowardly ilk, I say.”

Diana coughed at the mention of her former fiancé.

Cordell snorted. “Oh, right. You were betrothed to Danvers, weren’t you? Sorry business, that. Well rid of him, I’d say.”

Temple thought she’d be better rid of her latest choice of groom.

“Still,” Cordell was saying, “what nonsense is this, Templeton? Learning Persian. Turning into a bluestocking, are you?” The man chuckled.

Temple shook his head. “Me? I think not. But Elton is getting on in years, and I’m thinking of hiring a Persian servant to replace him. I hear they are quite loyal. Thought I’d get a head start on learning how to tell the poor fellow that his wages will be late.”

Cordell chortled, then went back to staring at the scenery.

Temple glanced at Diana. “And what of you, my lady? What are you reading?”

The viscount groaned. “You’ll regret asking her that one.”

Diana ignored her betrothed. “This is a book my father had commissioned.
Antiquities of England: A Traveler’s Guide.
It’s by Mr. Theonius T. Billingsworth, a historian of some renown. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”

“Can’t say that I have,” Temple admitted.

“Deuced lucky on that account,” Cordell muttered, crossing his arms over his chest and laying his head against the side of the carriage before closing his eyes.

Even Mrs. Foston didn’t look overly enthusiastic.

Diana ignored them. “He’s quite witty, and he lists all the perfectly interesting monuments and sights along the various roads in England. Why, he even lists your grandfather’s grand estate in Sussex as well as smaller estates…” She paused for a moment, thumbing through the little book. “Ah, yes, here it is, even Lord Nettlestone’s castle merits a mention.”

Temple tapped his lorgnette against the window on which Cordell’s head rested. The
rat-a-tat-tat
set the viscount’s mouth into a pained frown.

“Funny you should mention Nettlestone,” Temple said. “I saw him the other night at White’s. Along with your father, my lady.”

“My father?” Diana asked.

At this, Cordell opened one eye, his florid color paling.

“The earl created quite a stir,” Temple said, continuing to tap his lorgnette against the window.

“He did?” The question that should have come from Diana actually came from her intended. Now both eyes were open and Cordell sat up a little straighter. “Was he overly distraught? Angry, perhaps? Didn’t make any threats, did he?”

And this was Diana’s choice for a husband? Temple mused. Perhaps she was as addled as the old London cats liked to speculate.

“There was so much commotion, I couldn’t quite tell,” Temple said, glancing down at his fingernails and examining them as if suddenly they were the most important things he’d ever observed.

This didn’t set well with Cordell. “What was his remedy, sir? That is, if you recall. I need to know.” The man’s left eye started to tic with a nervous flutter.

BOOK: Stealing the Bride
13.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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