Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire
If anyone had asked Mr. Giles Templeton, third son of the Earl of Wexford, if he believed in love at first sight, he would have laughed himself silly. Then he would have waxed poetically about the nonsense of love and how such an imagined state was a condition invented by ladies to trap unwilling gentlemen into marriage. Then he would go on his merry way, chuckling to himself, having set straight whoever it was that had entertained his day with such a ridiculous question.
That is, until he met Miss Suzanna Blake.
The day had started as any other. He’d ridden to Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire for the wedding of his close friend Alex, the Eighth Duke of Bedford, and his betrothed, Lady Patience. The couple had been dancing around each other ever since Alex had returned from America to take up his deceased brother’s title. Finally, they would speak their vows.
After refreshing himself in his assigned bedchamber, Giles descended the stairs to join the group in the drawing room, awaiting a summons to the pre-wedding-day dinner. He spotted Alex the minute he entered the room. Lady Patience stood next to him, conversing with a woman to her left.
His attention was immediately and forcibly caught by the vision of loveliness. The unknown woman chatted gaily with Lady Patience, holding a glass of champagne in her delicate hand, taking an occasional sip. Her peach-colored gown dipped low enough in the neckline to inspire interest, but not too low to garner criticism from the stalwarts of ton virtue. Her lush honey blond hair had been swept away from her heart-shaped face, with a few misbehaving tendrils wafting down her cheeks.
As he drew near, drawn like a bee to a flower, he noted her eyes were as blue as a crystal-clear lake in summer, her lips red and plump, and her skin as fresh as new-fallen snow. By the time he reached Alex, Lady Patience, and the unknown woman, Giles was struck dumb—something that had never happened to him in his entire twenty-nine years of life.
He wasn’t foolish enough to actually believe he had fallen in love, but he certainly felt as though someone had smacked him over the head with a heavy board.
He quickly looked at her finger for a wedding band—which would have sent him outside to howl at the moon—and saw a lovely ring, but nothing that appeared to announce to the world she was taken.
“Bedford.” He bowed in Alex’s direction. “Lady Patience, you are looking stunning, as always.”
“Templeton.” Alex smiled. “Glad you could make it.”
Lady Patience offered a curtsy and turned to her companion. “Miss Blake, may I present to you Mr. Giles Templeton, a close friend of His Grace.”
Miss Blake? Wonderful. She was not taken. He restrained himself from dancing a jig.
“Mr. Templeton, Miss Suzanna Blake is my cousin and has graciously accepted my request to stand as witness for our wedding.”
He took her extended hand and bowed over it. “Miss Blake, your servant.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Templeton.” He had no idea what to expect from her, but when she opened her enticing mouth and greeted him, he was captivated all over again, this time by her voice. Perfect.
“Ah, but the pleasure is all mine, I assure you.”
He accepted a glass of champagne from a passing footman and turned to Miss Blake. “Are you from London, Miss Blake?”
“Occasionally, but recently I have been living at my family’s estate in Dorchester. After the wedding, I will be traveling on to London for the Season.”
“With your parents?”
She shook her head. “No. I’m afraid my mother is recovering from the ague and did not wish to travel. I will be staying with Lady Patience’s parents until my cousins Lord and Lady Montford arrive in London and open their house. Lady Montford will be acting as my chaperone.”
“I must be sure to respond to the invitations that pile up in my study.”
She grinned and took a sip of champagne. “You are so very popular, then?”
Ah, so the lovely Miss Blake enjoys banter. “No more popular than any other gentlemen of the ton during the Season.”
“I suppose that is true, since the marriage-minded mamas are out in full force once the Season begins.”
“And we try like the devil to avoid them.” Giles faked a shudder.
Miss Blake laughed softly. “So, no marriage for you? No setting up your nursery?”
’Twas way too soon to tell her he would love to set up a nursery with her. If he said something so outrageous he would be rewarded with a well-deserved slap in the face. After she decorated his clothing with her glass of champagne.
He usually did not accept the many invitations that arrived at his London residence during the Season, since most of them were events to lure unsuspecting gentlemen into marriage. But he would be sure to change that practice to sway Miss Blake to accept his attentions.
“Do you enjoy the theater and museums, Miss Blake?”
“Most definitely. I read that the first systematic collection of Asante artifacts, including a pair of gold disc pendants and three gold beads, donated by Thomas Edward Bowdich, now appears in the museum, and I am anxious to view them.”
“Indeed?” To say he was surprised and impressed was an understatement. The draw toward Lady Patience’s cousin was strong, and much more than lust, which he didn’t deny. But something about her countenance, her wit, and the intelligence he saw in her eyes captivated him. Yes, the attraction was powerful, resulting in a pull he’d never felt before.
“I hope to see a great deal of you this Season, then, and possibly escort you to the museum.”
She gave him a nebulous smile, which was certainly proper, considering they’d just met. “Perhaps we will run into each other.”
Oh, no, my dear Miss Blake. We will not just run into each other.
Although he did not possess a title, as a handsome, wealthy son of an earl, he received enough attention from the daughters and their mamas on the Marriage Mart. His rakish ways, gleefully gossiped about, had not been enough to cause the mamas to keep their daughters away when he presented himself. If Miss Blake was everything he hoped for, he was confident the coming Season would be quite an intriguing one.
Two other friends, Lord Hawkins, known as Hawk, and Lord Campbell, Cam as he was called, entered the room together and made a beeline for their small group. By the lines of fatigue on their faces, the two had no doubt spent the prior night enjoying the entertainments so close to the hearts of London bachelors. Giles would have ordinarily joined them but, since he’d been dealing with issues at his estate, which bordered the Abbey, he’d come directly from there to the wedding.
Hawk slapped Alex on his back. “So, you finally decided to plague Lady Patience with your presence on a permanent basis?” He grinned at Lady Patience. “My sympathy, my lady.”
A butler arrived at the door to the drawing room to announce dinner. Since Alex was new to his title, and not impressed with it, the group did not form the usual formal line to proceed to the dining room, with the highest title leading the group.
Giles turned to her. “May I escort you, Miss Blake?”
She hesitated for only a second. “Of course.”
He took her half-empty glass from her hand and placed it on a tray, then extended his arm. She smelled of something sweet but in no way cloying. Her small hand on his arm warmed the spot she touched.
As her cousin’s bridesmaid, Miss Blake sat next to Lady Patience, while Giles was relegated several seats down, thankfully across from her, though, so he could, at the very least, study her as the meal progressed.
The woman to his right, who had been introduced as Lady Natalie, took up quite a bit of his attention with stories about hair ribbons, balls, gowns, and the problems with her lady’s maid. After she’d talked those subjects to death, she continued about how she was so looking forward to the Season, and she was quite certain they would see much of each other.
He nodded, frowned, and tsked at what he hoped were all the appropriate places while keeping his attention on Miss Blake. Most times she was engaged in conversation with Lady Patience or Alex. She was quite lively, waving her hands about as she talked. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
For the first time ever, he looked forward to the London Season. Since he’d spent so much time dodging the mamas of the ton, he had no idea how to court a lady. However, he didn’t think it would take much time or effort, based on his conquests in the past.
The meal dragged on interminably, and his dinner partner seemed to never run out of complaints. She batted her eyelashes so vigorously he was at the point of suggesting she retire to her bedchamber and have her maid remove whatever was bothering her eyes.
Lady Natalie was exactly the type of woman he’d been avoiding for years. Self-centered, spoiled and demanding, and not too bright—or pretending so. Certain to drive the unfortunate man she married to seek his comforts elsewhere and make him miserable his entire life.
Thankfully, the dinner came to an end, and in deference to the ladies, Alex announced the men would not partake of port in the dining room but would join the ladies in the drawing room for tea.
Giles escorted Lady Natalie from the dining room and gladly plopped her into a seat near the fireplace, and across from the Dowager Duchess of Bedford. Bowing in the young girl’s direction, he said, “Thank you for a lovely time, my lady. If you will excuse me, Lord Hawkins is requesting my presence.” He bowed to the Dowager. “Your Grace.”
Lady Natalie’s frown and tight lips made his escape even more welcome. He turned on his heels and strode across the room to where Miss Blake, Lady Patience, and two other women had just poured tea. “Ladies, may I join you?”
Lady Patience raised her eyebrows. “Of course, you may join us, but wouldn’t you prefer port and conversation with Bedford and the others?”
“What, my lady? Spend time with those miscreants when I could be honored by such gracious and beautiful ladies’ attention?”
“Oh, dear.” Lady Patience turned to Miss Blake. “Alex did tell me Mr. Templeton was a bit of a rake.” She grinned at him. “It seems he was correct.”
Damn. He didn’t want Miss Blake to think of him as a libertine. Even though his reputation was well-earned, it was not something he wanted to drag out before the group. “Not to dispute your intended, Lady Patience, but I fear he has painted me with too wide a brush.”
Suzanna studied Mr. Templeton as he sipped his tea and conversed with the ladies. Yes, Lord Bedford was correct, and Mr. Templeton was indeed a rake. Words of flattery flowed from his lips as easy as smooth honey. The way he held his body and the riveted attention paid to whichever woman he spoke with were all telling signs.
She’d been taken with him when he’d first entered the room. He was tall and handsome, with light brown eyes, and a devilish smile. Her heart had beaten an extra thump as he’d closed the distance between them to join their group. However, she’d been quite disappointed when he’d been introduced as Mr. Templeton. She sighed inwardly. Mother would never approve, and Father would go along with whatever Mother wanted.
And her mother wanted a title for her only daughter.
A title. She’d heard those words practically ever since she’d been out of nappies. Her mother had never quite gotten over the fact that her parents had arranged the marriage between her and Father. Her papa was the third son of a viscount, and to Suzanna’s way of thinking, a wonderful man. He adored her mother and was a doting father.
However, if Suzanna wanted something of which Mother did not approve, Father’s indulgence toward his daughter ended. Since a title was what Mother wanted, it did not serve Suzanna well to encourage any man without one. She dismissed Mr. Templeton from her mind.
“Miss Blake, may I interest you in a walk around the room?” Mr. Templeton might have a rake’s reputation, but he knew propriety. Patience had told her, at her inquiry, that Mr. Templeton was the son of the Earl of Wexford—unfortunately, not his first son—and therefore, would be familiar with propriety, and the unseemliness of asking a young lady to stroll outside in the gardens. ’Twas better to keep them in view of the entire group.
She really should not encourage him, but what harm could come from a stroll around the room? There was nothing scandalous about that, and she certainly found him attractive and charming. “Yes, I do believe after that lovely dinner, I could use a bit of exercise.” She stood, smoothed her gown, and accepted his arm.
His nearness did something strange to her insides. Warmth, along with the scent of starched linen and bergamot, radiated from him as they began their stroll. Their steps matched perfectly as they left the murmurs of conversation behind to the quietness of the outer part of the room.
“I am quite surprised I have not met you before, Miss Blake. Although I haven’t attended a great many Society’s events, I am sure I would have remembered meeting you.”
“Perhaps not. I have had only one Season, since my debut was delayed due to the death of a close friend.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” His voice was gentle, caring.
She dipped her head in acknowledgment. “Thank you.” She stared straight ahead, still not able to speak of Edward’s death without the oh-so-familiar knot forming in her chest. He’d been her best friend as a child, and she’d never been as close to anyone in her life as she’d been to him. His drowning had devastated her, and she had gladly forfeited the Season to mourn his loss. It had been the only time she’d stood up to her mother, who had insisted on her having a Season anyway.
“Are you quite close to Lady Patience?”
“There was a time when we were almost like sisters. We spent our summers together at my late grandparents’ country home. Her mother and my father are siblings.” She nodded an acknowledgment to the dowager duchess as they made their way past her. “We had lovely summers together. We did many of the things girls were not supposed to do.”
“Ah, I sense a bit of rebel in you.”
She grinned. “Yes. We climbed trees, scaled—in our minds, at least—hills, rode bareback, and swam in the pond. Grandmama wanted us to have the freedom our parents denied us. Patience had a rather strict upbringing. Aunt Harriet was such a stickler for proper comportment and accomplishments that Patience was plagued with lessons for hours each day. My mother was also quite rigid. The list of things I could and could not do was as long as your arm. I’m afraid when we were at Grandmama and Grandpapa’s house we were quite the devils.”
“Two little girls creating havoc across the countryside. I would have loved to witness it.” They wandered past the settee where Patience spoke with Alex, their heads bent together.
“What of you, Mr. Templeton? You mentioned before that Alex painted you with a too-wide brush. Are you not the rake that the ton credits you?”
He regarded her with mock horror, his eyebrows raised, his hand plastered against his chest. “Me, Miss Blake? Surely, I have done no more than any other young man about town.”
Suzanna was truly enjoying Mr. Templeton’s company. He was charming, and she experienced a certain unfamiliar excitement in his presence. But it mattered not, because nothing could come of this brief interlude at Patience and Alex’s wedding. Once the ceremony and wedding breakfast ended, they would go their separate ways, and if she saw him again at a ton event, they would greet each other, perhaps share a dance, and nothing more.
During her one Season, no gentleman had caught her interest. Mother had spent a great deal of time pushing various lords in her direction, but none of them had suited. The ones interested in her had bored her to tears. All they had talked about was their money, their consequence, their hounds and horses, and their tailors.
Were it not for her lingering ague, Mother would be with her right now, glowering in her direction, constantly reminding her that she should encourage only men with titles. She understood her parents’ desire for her to make a splendid match. However, she wanted more than a title. Her fondest wish was to marry for love, something Mother did not understand, or would never admit to understanding, anyway.
After making two rounds about the room, they joined Alex, Patience, Lord Hawkins, and Lord Campbell gathered in a grouping of chairs and a settee. The men held drinks, and Patience sipped from a teacup. She smiled as they joined them. “Would you care for tea, Mr. Templeton?”
“Tea?” Alex chortled. “Give the man a glass of brandy.” He motioned to a footman and asked for the bottle of brandy to be brought.
“Sit next to me, Suzanna.” Patience scooted over to make room.
Mr. Templeton turned his attention to the duke. The four men hovered together, but occasionally, Mr. Templeton glanced in her direction.
“You seem to have acquired an admirer.” Patience smiled at her over her teacup rim. “Mr. Templeton hasn’t taken his eyes off you since he entered the room.”
“I know.” Suzanna sighed. “He is really a very nice gentleman.” She continued speaking as her eyes once more drifted to the group of men. “Even before Alex mentioned it, I’d heard about Mr. Templeton’s reputation with the ladies.”
“Exaggerated, I am sure. I have spent some time with Alex’s three friends, and they all impress me as solid, responsible men.” She tilted her head sideways as she regarded them and smiled. “Although every one of them turns heads when they enter a ballroom.”
Patience placed her teacup on the table in front of her, stood, and shook out her skirts. “I believe I will retire for the evening. Would you care to join me for a few minutes in my sitting room before we go to bed?”
“I would love to. It’s been ages since we had a nice long visit.” Arms linked, they moved toward the group of men.
“Your Grace, I find myself a bit fatigued, so I will be retiring.”
Her betrothed broke away from the group and took Patience’s hand, moving her away from Suzanna. They bent their heads in conversation.
“I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, Miss Blake.” Mr. Templeton smiled down at her, and once more his near presence took her breath away. His eyes mesmerized her, and she had the silly urge to push back a lock of chestnut brown hair that had fallen on his forehead.
Instead, she backed up a bit lest Patience’s mother, Aunt Harriet, notice the attention Mr. Templeton was paying her. Her aunt was fully aware of Suzanna’s mother’s edict about not encouraging any man without a title.
The last thing Suzanna needed was for Aunt Harriet to take it upon herself to pen a note to Mother. Despite her ague, her mother would surely rise from her sick bed and descend upon Suzanna at Lord and Lady Montford’s townhouse. “Thank you, Mr. Templeton.” She gave him a slight curtsy and took Patience’s arm as they headed upstairs to the future duchess’s sitting room.
Tomorrow would be an interesting day, and not just because her beloved cousin was marrying her true love.