Patricia Frances Rowell

A Treacherous Proposition

From Chapter Three

               

At last Wynmond Corby was in the ground and, Diana prayed, at peace. Vincent Ingleton had taken care of the obsequies, and his stepmother had taken care of her. All of Wyn's friends had paid their respects, to him and to her, and gone on their way. Now Diana could only wonder at the huge void within her, empty of any emotion at all with respect to Wyn.

Its very absence made her heart ache. When had she stopped loving him? When had she sustained that loss without even knowing it? She could only hope that in the few day's respite while waiting to hear from her father's cousin, a modicum of peace would also find her.

Bytham had been clamoring for a trip to the park since Vincent had promised it to him, but the funeral had intervened. Alice offered her services, but Diana had cared for the children herself for many years. She just could not put them in the hands of someone else.

They were all she had in the world.

Society decreed that she should remain in seclusion, mourning her loss, but that seemed redundant. She had long ago mourned the loss of the man she thought she had married--the laughing, golden-haired boy, the shining young man of promise. Now she just wished to learn what her life was to be. And to feel a few days of freedom lest she learn that it would be a new sort of prison.

Helen did not chide her when she donned a black pelisse and gloves. Suitable clothes for the children had also appeared as if by magic. Where Helen had found those, Diana had no idea, but she told herself that she did not have too much pride to accept used clothes.

She lied.

She did have too much pride. She just had little choice.

She was a Bytham of Bytham House, the daughter of an earl, and by God, she would hold her head up, come what may. She hated seeing her babies swathed in someone else's black, their brightness dimmed, but she would not forget who they were. Who she was.

The three of them set out for the park afoot, enjoying the easy walk in the summer sunshine. As they strolled through the patterns of shade along the park walks, Selena picked dandelions out of the grass, and Bytham tugged on Diana's arm.

"Look, Mama, a butterfly. Look, Mama, a bee. Look, Mama. . ." Everything was wonderful to him. Before, they had lived too far away to come to the park often, the price of a hackney too dear. Diana found herself laughing with him. How long had it been since she laughed? Had taken time to feel the breeze on her face?

When they came to a bench beside a green lawn, Diana released her son's hand and sat. "You may play here for a while, Bytham, but do not go far from Mama. Selena, stay close by."

The automatic chorus of, "Yes, Mama," greeted these instructions, and the children raced off onto the lawn. Selena soon abandoned her flowers in favor of helping her little brother chase the fleet butterflies. She was such a lively child. Someday she would have to learn the manners of a demure young miss, but Diana hoped to put that off as long as possible. Why trammel such a free spirit?

After several minutes she saw that the children had moved across the grass and were nearing one of the carriage roads. She stood and strolled after them. "Selena, come back now. Bring your brother with you."

"Yes, Mama." Selena caught Bytham's hand, but he snatched it away from her. "Come, Bytham."

"No! I want the yellow one. I can catch it!" He raced off after his latest quarry, Selena in hot pursuit.

"Bytham!" Diana looked at the road and saw a dark, closed carriage approaching. She started toward them, almost running. "Come back."

The coach was getting nearer, and Diana felt a strange sense of panic. That was not the kind of carriage that one used for the park. Perhaps it was just passing through, but. . . She lifted her skirts and ran in good earnest. "Bytham! Obey Mama at once!"

Hearing the urgency in her voice, Bytham stopped uncertainly and looked in her direction. The carriage pulled to a stop opposite them. The door opened and two rough-looking men got out. Bytham, who had been confronted with far too many strangers for his comfort of late, ran toward Diana. The men started toward the children.

"Selena, run!"

Selena ran, dragging Bytham along with her. Fear put wings to Diana's feet, but she could see that the men would likely reach her children before she did. Oh, God. Help. She must have help. She began to scream.

At that moment she heard the hoof beats of a horse in full career. Glancing up she beheld Vincent Ingleton astride a sleek black horse, bearing down on them at a dead run.

"Vincent! Vincent!" Diana reached Selena and Bytham at the same time as the men from the coach. She tried to scoop both children into her arms, but one of the ruffians shoved her away. She tripped over the train of her skirt and sprawled backwards on the ground.

"Vincent!"

Diana came to her hands and knees, struggling with the encumbering fabric. As one of the men grasped Selena, Diana abandoned the attempt to rise and flung herself at his ankle. He stumbled and, turning, kicked her grasping hands. She fell to the ground again, this time on her face. He picked up a shrieking Selena and ran for the coach. By now the other man had seized Bytham. Diana finally made it to her feet and ran after them. Dear heaven! She would never catch them.

Vincent came thundering down on them like a stooping eagle. The man holding Selena dropped her unceremoniously and sprinted for the coach. Bytham's captor, better supplied with determination, tucked the kicking boy under one arm and followed. Vincent turned his mount to intercept him.

Diana heard the rattle of wheels and another set of hooves coming toward herself and Selena. She pushed the child behind her and turned defiantly, only to see Justinian Sudbury in a whiskey pulled by a sturdy chestnut, cutting across the lawn, also in pursuit of the kidnappers.

"Bytham, Bytham." The whisper came out on a sob. They were taking him away! Diana knelt and locked her arms around Selena. They would have to kill her to get her daughter!

As she watched, the men angled away from Vincent and Sudbury, and the coach pulled forward to meet them. The man without a burden dived into the coach, the one carrying Bytham running not far behind.

For a heart-stopping second, Diana thought her son would be thrust into the coach, but as she watched, Sudbury pulled his tiny, open vehicle into the road to block the way. The driver of the coach hauled on the reins and dragged his pair around in the other direction. Vincent swooped in and, leaning precariously from the saddle as he passed, plucked the boy out of his captor's arms.

Vincent swung his riding crop with all his strength. The kidnapper howled and sprawled on the ground. Vincent turned his horse and started back. The man scrambled to his feet and made a desperate bid for the coach, but Vincent's mount quickly closed the distance. Just as his fingers were reaching for the would be abductor's collar, an arm clothed in blue superfine emerged from the window of the coach with something in its hand.

A pistol!

Vincent jerked the reins sharply, and his black reared in protest while Vincent leaned his body across Bytham's. A shot rang out. The running kidnapper went down, rolling heels over head. The arm withdrew into the coach, and the vehicle thundered off around a curve and out of sight.

For a moment Sudbury seemed about to give chase, but pulled in his horse as Vincent drew up beside him.

"Let them go." Vincent settled the weeping child on the saddle in front of him and patted his shoulder awkwardly. " I need you to help me get Diana and the children home."

"Bytham!" Diana's all but hysterical voice sounded at his stirrup. Vincent looked down to see her clutching Selena with one hand and reaching for her son with the other. The boy leaned down, and Vincent lowered him by one arm to his mother. She fell to her knees and clasped her children to her, all three of them sobbing.

Vincent drew the horse-pistol from his saddle and dismounted. Standing over them, he called to Sudbury. "May I make use of the whiskey?"

"Certainly. May have to squeeze. Nice bit of riding, Lonsdale." Sudbury moved his small carriage nearer. "What the devil was that all about?"

"I wish I knew." Vincent scowled in the direction the escaping coach had taken. "Lady Diana, you and Selena need. . ." He paused when he realized she had not moved. "My lady?" When he still received no response, he went down on one knee beside her. "Diana?"

At last she lifted her head and looked in his direction, her eyes glazed with shock and a large area of skin scraped from her cheek. "My lord?"

Fury welled up in Vincent. They had hurt her. They had marred that perfect face. Let him but get his hands on them. . . But now he must get her safely away. Vincent clenched his teeth and forced his anger down. "Can you stand?"

She nodded, but did not get up. Placing an arm around her he stood, bringing her with him. Selena and Bytham clung to her, their heads buried in her skirt. He took the boy into his own arms, and nudged Diana toward the carriage. "Can you and Selena climb in?"

"I. . . I. . ." The vague expression in her eyes cleared. "Yes. Of course." Never letting go of the girl, she managed with Sudbury's help to get them both into the whiskey. Vincent mounted again before handing Bytham down to her.

It would not do to be on foot if his supposed ally proved false. He barely knew Justinian Sudbury. For all Vincent could say, the man might have been on the scene to supervise the abduction, never expecting help to appear. In fact, when Sudbury first came bowling across the lawn, Vincent had feared he intended to reinforce the kidnappers.

Damn! He did not want Diana and the children in the man's carriage. But he could not carry all four of them on his horse.

He could ride behind with a pistol discreetly trained on the back of Sudbury's head.

And he did.