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Lord Philip Sandron was finding it harder to get Miss Thalia Temple into his bed than he had expected. Driven to desperation, he had finally astounded himself by telling that beautiful and thoroughly frustrating young female that he was going to marry her! He had announced it, in fact, in the presence of three witnesses, albeit not such as might be expected to hold him to it, being two children and one unimportant opportunist who was serving, at the moment of Milord's shattering announcement, as a courier for Lord Sandron's difficult little love.
If any of his wide acquaintance--his best friend, Mr. Drogo Trevelyan, for instance--had heard him telling Miss Temple that she was going to "make sure of him by marrying him," the aforesaid Mr. Trevelyan would not have believed his own ears. For the speaker of those self-dooming lines was that notorious rakehell, that top-o'-the-trees Corinthian, that out-and-outer, Philip, Lord Sandron, Baron Sandroval and Estes, a wily buck who had avoided the parson's mousetrap so adroitly for ten years that even the most determined of matchmaking mamas had long relinquished hope of snaring him, while the more conservative parents never permitted their ewe lambs to be caught in his dangerous vicinity.
Yet now, to his appalled astonishment, he heard himself saying that the tantalizing little creature who had successfully fended him off for months would have to marry him, since he could not guarantee to be faithful to her for fifty years under any lesser form of restraint!...
It says much about Milord's besotted state that he had felt, in that catastrophic moment, no tremor of horror, not even thefaintest reluctance, at the prospect of entering into a condition of servitude which would have him giving up all his normal pursuits and, in effect, changing the whole pattern of his life. As it happened, he was drunk upon such a sense of wanton passion and arrogant desire to possess this delightful, dazzling, difficult beauty that he had refused to consider anything but the luminous brown eyes, the tiny straight nose, the full, soft lips which tempted yet denied him. At that moment the world seemed well lost for love.
And so he swept her off her feet, both literally and metaphorically, and bullied her into agreeing to come with him that very day. And then--
And then it transpired that her father, Professor Temple, would have to be picked up from his haven with his clerical friend, the Reverend Tobbitt. The addition of a guardian-chaperon in the person of an elderly, absentminded scholar did not unduly depress Lord Philip; the old fellow could be counted upon to lose himself in the fine library at Sadron Place for days at a time. In the full flood of hubris, Milord told his difficult little love that it was as good as done. Then the little witch, shrewdly pressing her advantage, asked that John and Mary, the two waifs she had saved from bondage, might be provided for at Sandron Place. Again no shadow of common sense warned the infatuated baron of his danger. He even agreed to invite two little girls, whose governess Tally had briefly been, to visit her in her new home. To complete his capitulation, when Lord Philip urged her to demand something for herself, Tally had asked for--a kiss! At which point, if only temporarily, Lord Philip became Miss Tally Temple's slave.
Oddly enough, the feeling of joy and gratitude had persisted even when, at the vicarage, Milord came face-to-face with Tally's Papa. The silver-haired scholar, he found, had a strangely penetrating glance for one reputed to be completely unworldly. After Tally had performed the introductions, and the vicar was bustling over the sherry glasses, Lord Philip said firmly:
"I shall be taking Miss Temple and her two little charges with me this afternoon, sir. We shall send over a carriage for you within a day or so, when the arrangements for our marriage are completed."
Professor Temple accepted a glass of sherry from his host. "The Reverend Tobbitt will announce the banns," the gentle voice sounded. "Three weeks, isn't it, my friend?"
"Three times," concurred the cleric, beaming impartially upon the handsome buck, the beautiful young woman, the blue-eyed little John and Mary, and his scholarly houseguest. "And I shall be delighted to assist the happy project in any way I am able!" Scanning his guests' faces, the Reverend Tobbitt was struck by a sudden idea. "But of course! You must all stay here with me until the great day! Not you, of course, Milord." He smiled at the disconcerted nobleman. "You will wish to return to Sandron Place to set all in train for your new bride! But its is a big old house, empty--alas!--too long of the joyous hubble-bubble of guests. Here Miss Thalia may find leisure to prepare her trousseau, as the French have it, and make her plans for the ceremony. I do hope," he added anxiously, catching the inimical glance of Milord's ice-gray eyes, "I have not presumed too far!"
"But who could fault your excellent suggestion?" wondered Jocelyn Temple, mild-voiced. "It is undoubtedly the perfect solution, Ethelred. I accept with gratitude." His unexpectedly challenging glance at Milord was robbed of all aggression by his gentle smile as he continued. "This will suit you very well, will it not, Lord Philip?"
You old devil, seethed Lord Philip. That's checkmated me neatly! And then, meeting that clear, knowledgeable gaze, Milord was forced to grin wryly. Who would have thought the elderly scholar had so much nous? No chance for hocus-pocus with the little Temple! Lord Philip caught himself up. He had asked the girl to marry him! Not even the severest parent could object to that. He returned Mr. Temple's open scrutiny with one equally honest, thinking the while that old habits died hard. Because this time--for the first time in his life--Lord Philip intended to make an honest woman of his latest fancy.
And so, instead of bearing off the adorable Tally in his carriage, Lord Philip found himself returning to Sandron Place alone, with only the memory of a sweetly chaste kiss, taken under the eyes of her father, the vicar, and two small children, to comfort him. And he began to wonder just what he had let himself in for.
During the next three weeks he was too busy to indulge himself in the doubts and fears which might have been expected of a confirmed bachelor about to abandon his freedom. For one thing, he had to post off to London to arrange the marriage settlements. It rather amused the cynical worldling that his fiancée and her papa were too naïve to insist upon the kind of terms he would have had to agree to with the father of any of the season's beauties. In fact, so much did the unworldly innocence amuse Milord that he instructed his lawyers to make a settlement upon his bride that had their eyebrows lifting almost off their foreheads. He also chose a ring to celebrate the engagement, and a wedding band to match it, and then went browsing among his family jewels to find a suitable gift. Strangely enough, it was a rather modest little bijou that had belonged to his paternal grandmother which caught his interest. His father's mother had been something of an embarrassment to the noble family because other romantic tendencies. She'd insisted upon wearing, in season and out of season, the first gift her husband had ever given her. Since Lord Harold had been but eighteen years old at the time, the gem was a simple one--a pink tourmaline in the shape of a heart, set in white gold. Trumpery, actually, but something about the little pink jewel reminded Lord Philip of Tally's soft mouth. He put it in his pocket along with Harold's wedding band for Tally to give him.
The hardest part of the three-week wait was to endure the comments, questions, and open raillery of his acquaintances. No one had heard of Miss Thalia Temple or her father, with the exception of Drogo Trevelyan, of course. To Philip's considerable surprise, Drogo had nothing to say in company, and very little in private, about the marriage. Upon occasion, Philip caught his best friend looking rather searchingly at him, but his remarks were in better taste and his questions less demanding than Philip had expected.
His worst moment came from a childhood friend, Lady Mala Ridd. She was a notable figure in the ton, not quite a diamond, and certainly not a debutante, for she was Philip's own age, and had been out for a number of years. She had received a few good offers, but from some cause or other, and had accepted none of them. Her mama enjoyed frail health and her papa was a noted sportsman and dedicated womanizer. There was no one to dictate behavior to Lady Mala. Which did not prevent her from attempting to dictate to her acquaintances.
"What is this folly I hear of you, Sandron?" she challenged Philip in his own library, where he was preparing some papers for scrutiny by his man of law.
"Do sit down, Mala," Philip murmured, not best pleased to see her at this moment.
With the ease of long acquaintance, Mala ignored his rather waspish welcome and perched herself on the arm of a handsome chair. She did it deliberately, to exploit the length of her legs, as Philip was quite aware. "I hear from several sources that you have been trapped by a country nobody--a governess, in fact. I cannot believe it, Flip!"
"Believe it," Philip advised coldly.
Her incredulous laughter grated harshly upon sensibilities already exacerbated. Philip glared at his childhood friend, remembering numerous occasions upon which she had embarrassed, bored, or enraged him with her demanding presence. "If you have come to congratulate me, consider it done. I am quite busy at the moment," he said none too graciously.
"Arranging the marriage settlements?" Mala sneered.
"I shall have to speak to Grummidge," vowed Philip in a cold rage.
"Oh, your man of law didn't squeak," she assured him. "Lotty Belfont was driving past Lincoln's Inn and saw you emerging from the offices there with a glum face." She laughed again. "Lotty has a tendre for you, of course, as have most of our group. I can't quite see why you have to seek outside our own class for a bride." She stared at him speculatively. "Is the woman blackmailing you?"
For the first time during the conversation, Lord Philip smiled. It was a smile Mala had never seen upon his face before, and the warmth and sweetness of it on those normally well-controlled features shocked her more than the announcement had.
"Oh, yes, I believe you may safely say she is blackmailing me--the little witch!" he murmured so softly that Lady Mala could scarcely hear him.
Fear and a jealous anger gripped her so fiercely that for a moment she was unable to speak. Then she said with a shallow smile, "When am I to know the name of this nonpareille?"
"You mean to say that Lotty so far failed you? You must find yourself a more worthy intelligencer!" mocked Lord Philip.
"I know the woman's name," Lady Mala admitted. "But who has ever heard of a Thalia Temple?"
"Quite a few, by now, I would wager," retorted Lord Philip, grinning. He seemed restored to his usual handsome inperturbability. "What with Lotty opening her budget, and couriers like yourself spreading the word..." His smile mocked her.
Lady Mala rose. "I had intended offering to help you for old times' sake," she snapped. "If you have been stupid enough to get yourself caught in some provincial nobody's net, I had expected you would welcome assistance from a woman of the world."
"But then you have never managed to ... ah ... net yourself a parti, have you?" Lord Philip challenged nastily. "Perhaps you should take lessons from her?" He was annoyed at her taunt of stupidity and recalled a number of similarly insensitive comments she had made in public. It struck him sharply that Tally had not, in his hearing, ever unburdened herself of denigrating evaluations of anyone. That was not Tally's way, he thought with a grin. Decisive, yes (remembering the blow which had toppled his modish hat on their first meeting). But there had been good humor in Tally's set-down, and panache. His unconscious smile was warm.
The sight of it on his handsome face quite destroyed Lady Mala's poise. She whirled and strode toward the door, her lips set tight against the torrent of abuse she wanted to scream out at him. Still, her determined campaign, so long pursued, had trained her to be circumspect. Not for her to voice the spite and anger boiling within her, lest she lose her slight hold upon this maddening, desirable male. By the time she had the door open, she was once more the coolly controlled woman her associates knew--and some of them feared.
"I'll leave you to your fantasies, then, shall I, Flip? If ever--or should I say when--the bubble bursts, I shall be waiting with champagne. To celebrate your return to freedom, I mean."
She closed the door softly behind her.
Lord Philip shrugged and returned to his work.
The marriage itself was celebrated very quietly in the ancient Norman church in Upton Downs. The Reverend Ethelred Tobbitt performed the ceremony; Jocelyn Temple, distinguished in scholarly black and white, gave his daughter away. Charlotte and Maude Dade were Tally's attendants, shepherding a pleased but bewildered little Mary down the aisle with them. All three children wore springlike gowns of Tally's manufacturing. Six-year-old John, serious and manly in a suit provided by Lord Philip, carried the two wedding rings upon a velvet cushion. Drogo Trevelyan seconded his friend. His gaze, as that of most of the guests, was held by the quite remarkable beauty and sweetness of the bride. Then, stepping to one side as Tally joined her fiancé at the altar, Drogo caught a glimpse of his best friend's face, and looked again. He had never seen exactly that expression of besotted satisfaction upon Flip's countenance, not even after one of their evenings at a quietly elegant and very discreet house in a cul-de-sac off Regent's Park. Drogo scrutinized both the participants in this strange and unexpected match with keen, tawny eyes. Predator's eyes. He had never disguised from Flip that he would try, if he desired the same female his friend was stalking, to cut him out. It was an acknowledged and basically friendly rivalry--or had been. Drogo recalled the uncharacteristic testiness of Flip's reception of a certain rather blue remark Drogo had made anent the wedding, and the white, set look upon his friend's face as he'd said, in response to a question from Drogo about the girl: "She is beautiful, and sweet, and an innocent...."
And now Flip was marrying the girl. Who was beautiful and sweet without doubt. But an innocent? Could an innocent have succeeded in trapping Lord Philip Sandron, when so many wily, experienced, and fascinating women had failed? Drogo decided to investigate the possibilities of the situation. If his friend had indeed been tricked into this marriage ... Drogo subjected the two little children Tally had been lumbered with when Philip met her to a searching scrutiny. Were they Philip's? That would explain the hold the girl had on him.
He was forced to relinquish the idea. Tally had been most properly chaperoned and guarded at Miss Enderby's Select Seminary, and then had spent too little time before meeting Flip to have met a ravisher and conceived one, let alone two, children. The boy must be five or six, a sturdy, well-built little fellow, and Tally was not yet twenty. And then there were the bright blue eyes both children had, and the similar short Grecian noses, quite unlike Philip's strong aquiline proboscis! No, these were none of Flip's get, handsome though they undoubtedly were and not of mean birth. All signs pointed to the sort of charitable mawkishness to be expected of a scholar's unworldly child, rather than the wiles of a seductress.
Then if she were truly the innocent Flip had named her, it was most unlikely that the noted Corinthian would be content with her for long. Especially since she had somehow maneuvered him into offering her a ring. Patience, Drogo advised himself. Flip will weary of her soon enough, and resent her hold over him. And then, Tally, it will be Trevelyan's turn! He scanned the rest of the guests.
The little Dade girls, Charlotte and Maude, had come under the auspices of their mother, the wife of Squire Henry Dade, and her brother, James Kendale, now advantageously affianced to the only child of Lord Frampten. Against the gently dubious advice of Jocelyn Temple, Tally had insisted that the small girls she had so briefly but rewardingly tutored should share in her happy day. Mrs. Dade was secretly much impressed by the luster of the marriage her former governess had managed to pull off. How had she trapped such a prize? She sat very erect beside a rather sullen James Kendale and watched the principals in this amazing ceremony with beady, envious eyes. Still, it could do her daughters nothing but good to be associated thus publicly with the future wife of the Baron Sandroval and Estes. How she was going to enjoy describing this event to Lady Black, her bosom enemy!
The two principals in the ceremony were completely unaware of the disturbing cross currents which swept around them. Tally did not even see Lady Mala Ridd and her overbearing and quite disapproving parents. While they had no hesitation in attending the nuptials, they had even less in describing them as "unsuitable," or even, in the ear of special cronies, as "disastrous." Only Mala schooled her tongue, biding her time. Besides the principals, the children, Professor Temple, and the Reverend Tobbitt, the tiny church held the innkeeper Hedges and his good wife, Dr. Neville, and Miss Boniface, all of whom had helped the Temples in their flight from the Dades. At the rear of the church, Abbent kept surveillance over his master's nuptials.
Tally herself was in a daze of happiness. The hazards of her new estate had not yet been brought home to her, and her eyes and heart were filled with the virile male beauty of that noted member of the ton, Lord Philip Sandron. There was ample excuse for Tally's dazzled delight. Tall, of noble yet graceful bearing, crowned with a neat cap of shining black hair over features too masculine to be named beautiful, Philip's magnificence seemed to fill the little church. Tally never afterward remembered anything but the loving demand in those fine gray eyes, the deep huskiness of the voice which repeated the simple phrases after a smiling cleric.
As for his lordship, his own eyes were filled with the ardent sweetness of that lovely little face, and the warmth of promise in the huge brown eyes. For a single shining moment--indeed, for the first time in his life--Philip Sandron's heart and mind were swept up by the power of a completely new emotion--a desire to serve one small female and protect her from whatever hazards life might offer. It did not occur to the experienced young worldling that the emotion might be love.
Even when the knot was tied and the congratulatory speeches were finally concluded and the flower petals scattered by a very determined and weeping Charlotte Dade, even then his lordship was compelled to endure the lengthy trip in his superb carriage with a team of four matched bays. Philip stared at his bride, adorably garbed in the most demurely provocative of traveling costumes. Meeting her tender smile, he took her in his arms with surprising gentleness.
"It is fortunate that Sandron Place is only a few hours distant," he murmured against those soft pink lips which had obsessed his imagination so constantly during the last three weeks.
"Yes," Tally said with a sigh, putting one slender white hand against her husband's cheek.
Again, as it had happened when he'd kissed her at the inn, a sharp jolt of pleasure shot through his lordship's body. What was there about the girl that she should affect him so greatly, physically? He caught the hand and brought it to his lips. He noticed his grandmother Katherine's tourmaline heart upon her little finger. And kissed it. Then, trying for a recovery to his usual provocative masculinity, he teased, "What a little romantic you are, Tally my love! Just like my grandmama, who persisted in wearing this ring, in season and out, her whole life long!"
"She obviously adored your grandfather," Tally said quietly. "As I do you."
Philip caught his breath, a gasp of unexpected pleasure. "You do, Tally my love? You..." He could not say the words.
Tally said them for him, in a solemn little voice. "I adore you, Philip."
Her husband took her into his arms. Even at this supreme moment, his training and customary behavior held him from making a final commitment, in words, of his own deep feelings. But he told himself, with unaccustomed emotion, that he would protect this little innocent--even against himself.