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Authors: Elizabeth Boyle

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BOOK: Stealing the Bride
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“Perhaps romance isn’t as important to me as it once was.”

It was almost on Temple’s lips to argue the point, but what right did he have to decide the lady’s heart?

Or the loss of one.

“I wouldn’t think you cared a whit whom I married,” she said, pulling herself free of his grasp and setting off once again.

“Well, certainly not Cordell,” he argued, following her. “Come now, if you insist on being married, surely Penham wouldn’t have been a bad choice.” He paused for a moment, watching her. “A bit young for you—”

She swung around, her brow arched sharply.

Temple was a man familiar with war, which meant he knew when to beat a hasty retreat. “Not that young,” he offered, then changed his mind and waded into the bloody field. “Well, yes, demmit, he is too young for you. He’s a veritable pup. And you are…you are…a woman grown.”

“Thank you for noticing.” She sauntered away.

Noticing?
How could he help but notice? No man in his right mind wouldn’t be tempted by the delicate curve of her hips, her lithe form, the soft swell of her breasts. And those blue eyes that sparkled with a mixture of mischief and something else…enticement and innocence.

Gads, she was a walking minx. One he studiously avoided for just those reasons.

And to his chagrin, she’d stopped her tourist’s ramble, and he nearly bumped into her. She glanced over her shoulder and right into his eyes. “Tell me, Temple, would you truly let me marry Cordell? Let the viscount take me as his wife?”

This close to her, he could smell the rosewater she favored, drown in the depths of her blue eyes, nearly touch the silk of her skin.

She turned ever so slowly, until they were face-to-face. “You’d let Cordell take me to his bed?”

While his breath seemed to have left his lungs, one vehement thought came erupting out of his gut so hard it was all he could do not to say it out loud.

Over my dead body.

She smiled at him again, as if she could see the conflict in his eyes. “I thought not.” With that, she stepped down from the base of the monument and started walking across the square.

Damn you, Lady Diana Fordham
, he wanted to curse, as she poked her nose back into her book, pretending she didn’t care that he stood there gaping after her like the village idiot.

“You should be inside,” he called after her. “It will be dark soon and it wouldn’t be safe for you to be wandering about.”

“Oh aye,” she said, looking at the upstanding townspeople who were taking advantage of the late light and pleasant evening by strolling about the town. “I suppose there are villains lurking about those woods yonder just waiting for a likely lady.”

“There may be,” he said, feeling hard-pressed to find anyone looking slightly villainous or even mildly odd. In truth, the only people in Geddington who fit that bill were seated at a table in The Queen’s Respite playing vingt-et-un. “Why don’t you just go inside. Mrs. Foston is probably worried about you.”

“I doubt it,” Diana said. “She was asleep on my bed when I left. I’ll probably end up in her room tonight, for she’s terribly difficult to wake. Not that I relish spending the night in a room above the stable yard.” She paused and smiled at him. “No, I prefer to stay out here for a bit longer.”

Temple came to stand before her. “Do you ever do what you are told?”

“Never. Do you?”

He wished he’d said no to Pymm back at White’s. Then he certainly wouldn’t be in this tangle. “You’d be amazed,” he told her.

“I would be,” she said. “Besides, I have my reasons for not going in just yet. I’m waiting for something.”

“And what pray tell might that be?”

She nodded up at the sky, already dimming. “The first star.”

“The first star?”

“Yes.” She scanned the darkening dome overhead. “I always like to watch for the first star of the evening. You can rarely see them in London, but when I am in the countryside, I always look for it.”

He knew he shouldn’t, but he had to ask, “And why do you do that?”

“To make a wish, of course.” She looked at him as if he had just grown another head. “Oh, Temple, sometimes you can be such an old wigsby. You weren’t always such a curmudgeon, you know.” She nudged him in the ribs and went back to gazing up at the sky.

He rubbed his side and wished she were a little more conventional. A little more missish. A little less Diana. “Once you’ve seen this star, you’ll go inside?”

“If that is what you wish.”

They stood there for some time in the quiet of the dusk.

He couldn’t take the silence for very long. It jangled at his nerves. “What are you going to wish for?”

“I can’t tell you that. It would spoil the wish.”

“I doubt that telling me your wish is going to jeopardize its likelihood one jot.”

She didn’t appear convinced.

“If you won’t tell me, then I will guess.” He tapped his chin with his finger. “I believe your wish will run something like this: I wish that Cordell will not find my emergency funds.”

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t waste such a precious commodity on something like that.” She paused. “Besides, he’ll not find my money.”

The way she said it with such finality made Temple smile. Perhaps he would have no need for Pymm’s writ. He could just wait and let Cordell squander Diana’s stashed coins, and then she’d be the one answering challenges over the viscount’s murdered body.

“Any other guesses?” she asked.

Around them, the birds were offering their final songs before heading to their nests. The soft sweet trills, the light wind ruffling through the town, and the glorious sky overhead offered more romance. Something Temple hardly needed in Diana’s company.

She looked first up at the sky, and then at him, her head tipped just so, her lips parted, her eyes glittering with a beguiling challenge.

As he looked into her eyes, watched her tongue moisten her lips, he knew exactly what her wish was.

The demmed little minx was trying to seduce him.

“Diana—” he started to say in warning, but even to his own ears he didn’t hear the refrain that needed to be said.

Don’t do this, Temple. Remember Constantinople. Remember your vow not to marry. Remember her betrothed just across the street…

It couldn’t have been staged better in Haymarket. All of it. The damned statue and its romantic past. The lanterns offering their flickering challenge to the coming darkness. The birds lulling them together.

And Diana. She was made for kissing. Her lush mouth, the fair silk of her skin, those glorious blue eyes.

She could lure a man halfway across the world with those eyes.

Perhaps she already has
, an impish voice whispered in his ear.

Try as he might to remember she was nothing but troublesome baggage, he found himself bending his head to hers.

The moment he made this tiny movement, gave her any inclination that he was wavering, she melded into him.

No, he shouldn’t be doing this, he told himself, even as his arms pulled her close. He knew only too well what mayhem those lips could wield, what trouble lay in their wake.

For this wasn’t the first time he’d ever kissed Lady Diana Fordham.

But as his mouth crashed down over hers, claiming her lips in a kiss he couldn’t resist, he swore, by God, it would be his last.

 

Temple could deny all he wanted that he hadn’t come after her, but Diana knew the truth the moment he kissed her.

Until then, she’d had her fair share of doubts.

It wasn’t every day that a woman went to such great lengths to stage an elopement scandalous enough to catch the man she really loved.

Whatever his excuse, Temple was here now, and he was kissing her.

Kissing her exactly as she remembered.

His lips pressed against hers, demanding them to open beneath his touch. She did so only too willingly, inviting him to invade her with a teasing whisper of her tongue.

Come back to me, Temple
, she wished, as the first star sparkled its magic overhead. Rising up on her toes, she threw herself against him in a wanton embrace.

As if he heard her silent wish, he answered her entreaty. His tongue swept inside her, daring her to follow him onto the path of scandal and ruin, as he had so many years ago.

If his kiss had almost ruined her then, it was undoing her now.

He groaned and pressed against her, his arms wound around her, pulling her so close she could feel the pounding of his heart, the heat of his body, the length and hardness of his…

Diana knew she should be shocked by the intimacy of his embrace, but it only made her purr in contentment, in satisfaction, in a desire to know more.

Feel more.

His tongue still teased hers, and she grew bolder, teasing him back, reveling in the heated glory of being in his arms.

“Oh dear God, Diana,” he murmured into her ear. “What you do to me.”

She tried to keep from grinning. She failed utterly. With her head on his chest, she said, “Temple, I knew you would come for me. Come back to me.”

The moment the words tumbled from her lips, her world tilted. She heard the skip in his heart, his chest tightening beneath her cheek, felt that horrible wall of indifference start cutting her off from him.

“No, Diana,” he said, his voice full of a resolute determination she knew only too well. “You’re mistaken. I haven’t come back. And you know I never will.”

Chapter 4

T
emple remained outside the inn, still in a daze from Diana’s kiss and the stinging retort she’d flung at him when he’d told her that he would never come back to her.

He didn’t know what was worse, the way his body still thrummed to her tempting passion, or that she considered him a heartless old goat.

Of course, Diana had chosen a more cutting phrase.

Never one to mince words, he supposed she was right. He was nothing more than a heartless bastard. Give him another few years and he’d put his grandfather’s stodgy reputation to shame.

I am not Setchfield
, he told himself. But in truth, he knew one day he would be, in name and deed…and stony heart.

Yet what could he do? Offer for Diana? Let her live in his impoverished state? Leave her for months on end, unprotected and in a state of uncertainty, while he trotted off on another dangerous mission for Pymm?

No, it was too much to ask of her. He’d been right to disavow her all those years ago, and he was still right to do so now.

Yet in the back of his mind, the part untouched by his grandfather’s scorn and wrath, he knew those were a coward’s answers, obvious and safe. For if he was of a mind to delve deeper into his soul, he knew he’d find the real reasons he’d refused Diana tonight.

And it was a place he would not go. Not even for her.

Indeed, if he was half the man he should be, he would not have stopped at that kiss. No, if he had a heart, if he was willing to ignore every bit of common sense he possessed, he’d have tossed her in the back of the Setchfield berline, ordered Elton to drive like the devil to the border, and started their wedding night before the horses hit their stride.

Leaning against the wall of the inn, he let the cool stone invade his heated body while his mind drifted over what Lady Diana’s reaction might be to such a wild ride. That is, until he spied Cordell come out the door.

Out of blunt, eh, old man?

The viscount looked one way and then the other across the inn’s small yard. Satisfied that no one else was about, he tucked his hat low on his brow before reaching up and snatching down the lantern hanging in the eaves. With the light in hand, he strode quickly across the yard, turning down the street and out of sight.

As the other man rounded the corner, Temple spied something else that brought him out of his shadows.

Cordell carried a saddlebag.

The man was leaving. Abandoning Diana.

At first glance, Temple considered this a boon bit of business. Certainly it would make the morning easier, not having to face Diana as the magistrate hauled her betrothed off to jail. And despite the fact that Temple was glad to see such a welcome event, suspicion filled his mind as he watched the other man flee like a criminal.

Why the devil would Cordell leave in the dead of night? In a matter of days he could have an heiress bride, and possess more money than whatever he’d probably stolen from the inn.

Temple hadn’t been in Pymm’s employ all these years not to have his every instinct stand on edge, and before he knew what he was doing, he started after Cordell.

Even as he pushed off the stone wall, he let out an exasperated sigh. What the hell was he going to say to the fellow when he did catch up with him?

Oh say there, Cordell, lost your way? One usually travels to Gretna with his bride.

Temple shook his head.

This entire errand was so far beneath him. Pymm had better been telling the truth about the assignment to the sultan’s court. Then he could get far away from London, his grandfather, and especially Diana and her wishful kisses.

As it was, Temple had no problem following Cordell through the sleepy village. Actually it was quite boring, for Cordell had no idea how to skulk about, his saddlebag slapping against his leg and the lantern rattling like a church bell as he traveled across the city’s famed medieval bridge and out into the darkness.

Temple had to do little more than follow the glow of the lantern and listen to his fumbling gait.

Where the devil is he going?
he thought, about the same time he heard the viscount come to a faltering stop, cursing and complaining.

Ducking behind a tree, Temple waited for the man to get his bearings.

“Not worth it,” Cordell muttered to himself, leaning heavily against a tree as he caught his breath. “Steady there, old man. You’re holding a handful of aces.”

If he was trying to be discreet, he was doing a wretched job of it. At this rate they would end up being shot by the magistrate’s pimpled clerk.

After a few more mumbled complaints, Cordell set off again, leading Temple across a clearing and tramping through a patch of thick hedges.

The man finally headed into a meadow and Temple came to a stop, still concealed in the thick trees ringing the glen.

The moment Cordell got to the middle, out of the shadows came a trio of riders. The viscount squawked in protest, nearly dropping his lantern.

“What the—” Temple muttered beneath his breath as he reached for his pistol, the one concealed in his coat, thinking he was about to have to save Diana’s worthless betrothed from a robbery. But as he patted his empty pocket, he realized his weapon was still back in the berline.

But it was no matter. Apparently the viscount didn’t need his assistance.

Cordell’s protests ended with a telling question.

“Where the devil is my money?”

 

Diana closed the door to her room, leaning against it as if she could bar the world from intruding on her thoughts.

Oh dearest heavens, how could she have forgotten what it was like to kiss Temple?

Her hand went to her lips, still tingling from where his mouth had covered hers in a kiss that had nothing to do with chivalry and everything to do with passion.

Passion.
The very word left her knees trembling with the notion that he hadn’t wanted to stop kissing her, that he would have…

“Oh, botheration,” she muttered. At this rate she’d die a spinster.

It wasn’t as if Temple hadn’t been tempted. Oh, he could make every denial he wanted to, but his kiss told her everything she needed to know.

Temple still held feelings for her. At least his body did.

She smiled at this, taking a deep breath as she recalled the way he’d claimed her—with his lips, with his arms, with his hands—and with a steely determination that belied the foppish man most took him for. She sighed.

How could the
ton
not see the hero beneath the fool?

For to touch Temple was to feel the strength of his will, the depth his honor, even if it was buried beneath a charade, languished in the forgotten part of his soul.

She’d suspected as much, that the man she’d fallen in love with still resided inside the foppish lace and fine tailoring encasing his masculine form. Oh, he hid it well, Temple did, he’d even fooled her long enough to almost see her wed to Colin.

Luckily she’d learned the truth before she’d made that disastrous mistake. Not that there hadn’t been times since her broken betrothal when even she’d wondered at her own sanity, languishing in her Mayfair tower for Temple like some sad medieval heroine.

Then just when she’d find herself on the verge of giving up her lonely vigil, something always happened to renew her faith, replenish the vow she’d made.

From across a crowded room, she’d catch Temple watching her, a dark, smoldering passion burning in his gaze, like a silent plea to her heart not to forsake him.

Not to forget what they once shared.

The heart-wrenching flash would be there for only an instant, but it was enough to ignite her hope for months.

And then there were the rumors that floated about the
ton
amidst the flotsam and jetsam of gossip—of a hero who’d stolen plans from Napoleon’s couriers and saved an entire brigade…of a man who’d stopped foreign agents from infiltrating Whitehall…of a gentleman spy who crisscrossed the Continent carrying English interests far and wide, braving all manner of personal dangers.

Those whispered tales had warmed her heart, thrilled her spirit, for she knew with a certainty who that man was and why he’d disavowed her.

Tonight, his kiss had revealed something he could never hide from her again—that Temple,
her Temple
, still lived. Especially when she’d dared him to let her marry Cordell, let the viscount take her to his bed.

Why, he’d looked positively capable of murder. Hardly the town fool or the
ton
’s able jester, but a man of deep passion and a determined heart.

So now it was up to her to set that man free, the man of strength and masculine power who sent her heart racing, her blood afire.

A hero to save her from her own folly before his penchant for heroics destroyed him.

Diana knew now that it was only a matter of chipping away at the thick walls he’d built around himself—his indifference, his Corinthian manners, his whimsical antics.

At least she’d gotten rid of that accursed lorgnette. At this Diana grinned. That was a first step, a chink in his fortress, a handhold to start tearing it down.

But would that be enough? she wondered. What if she broke through his stony façade and he still denied her? Denied them a chance at happiness. At all the starry wishes they could discover in a lifetime together.

Diana sighed and crossed the room to her lonely, narrow bed.

Something held Temple in check, and until she discovered the truth behind his denials, she wouldn’t rest. She’d been a fool to lose him all those years ago. But all these years of watching and waiting had taught her patience and perseverance.

And she was done with patience.

 

Temple drew as close as he dared to Cordell’s meeting place.

“My money,” Cordell whined, his hand outstretched. “I will have my money. And it had better be in gold. I was promised gold if I brought
her
here.”

Her?
This caught Temple’s attention. Diana?

One of the riders nudged his horse forward, until it stood eye to eye with Cordell. “We have your gold, monsieur.”

“You came a long way to get the chit, and you’re welcome to her,” the viscount said, obviously more inclined to be friendly now that he was about to gain payment for his services. “Mind me asking what you want to take her to Paris for?”

The leader sat up straight in his saddle. “
Oui,
I do mind. It is none of your business.”

Cordell shrugged. Apparently his curiosity could be quelled with gold.

But not so Temple’s. If he didn’t know better, the man speaking was none other than Jean-Marc Marden. One of Napoleon’s most trusted agents.

Temple shook his head. French agents in Geddington? Doing business with Cordell?

Marden held a heavy-looking purse over Cordell’s head. “You will be paid when we have the bride. Not before. Those were the agreed upon terms. The bride, Monsieur Cordell, then your money.”

The bride?
What was going on here? Cordell was selling Diana to a pack of French agents? Temple didn’t know what was more unbelievable—that Cordell was working with the French or that the French were willing to pay gold for that muslin-draped bit of trouble.

And gold, for that matter.

For one scandalous moment, Temple thought perhaps he should have brokered a better deal with Pymm.

Obviously there was more to this than Pymm’s false assurances that it was a mere favor for one of the King’s most loyal subjects.

Why that cagey, lying son of a—

The rattle of coins as the pouch hit the ground at Cordell’s feet yanked Temple’s attention back to the matter at hand. The pouch had split and the tempting sparkle of gold spilled out at the viscount’s feet.

“How do I know it is all there?” Cordell complained. “I’ll not be cheated after all the trouble I’ve gone to.”

Temple cringed. He had always considered Cordell a bit of a lobcock, but now he revised that assessment. The man was an outright idiot. To practically call three mounted, and most likely well-armed men thieves was as close to getting one’s throat cut as one should ever dare.

“Your gold is all there, monsieur. I am a man of my word.”

The thick, oily sneer behind Marden’s words ran down Temple’s spine.

“You’d better be,” Cordell replied, sounding all the more like the arrogant and overbearing lout that he was.

The Frenchman appeared unimpressed. He straightened in his saddle, a tall, imposing figure cloaked in black. His words were filled with deadly calm. “Then we are all well satisfied. You have enough to settle your debts with some left over. And we have our bride.”

Temple watched the exchange but couldn’t see the sense of it. Why would Cordell be willing to take this small fortune in gold when back at the inn his bride-to-be offered him riches that would put this French offering to shame?

Cordell’s avaricious gaze had yet to waver from the pouch. “And the girl? She will be silenced? I won’t have that little bitch showing up and yapping a pack of lies at the inquiry. It would be demmed inconvenient.”

“That problem is well in hand.” Marden nodded to one of his cohorts. “She will not be available to testify for quite some time. If ever, that is.” The three men laughed.

“Hmm. Glad to hear it,” Cordell said, adding his own chuckle to their coarse laughter. “I never did anything wrong, mind you, but that gel thought she could get a fine bit of blunt from her lies about how that whore died. It was all just a misunderstanding gone afoul. If you know what I mean.”

His stomach churning at this revelation, Temple realized he’d found his answer. So the rumors about Cordell’s run-in at a Seven Dials brothel hadn’t been just malicious gossip.

From what Temple knew, the viscount, well in his cups, had badly beaten one of the girls. Bad enough that the poor chit had died the next day from her injuries. Of course he’d denied being with her, but apparently the girl had a partner who’d witnessed his violence—and been too frightened to stop the viscount’s vicious attack.

Her testimony was said to be the basis for murder charges to be filed against Cordell.

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