The 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 laden with 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.
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,” Temple 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 wrong for 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.
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.
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 chere 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.
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 the 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. A Frothy Confection!
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.