Ever since being presented to Society, it had been Diana's custom to avoid rakes.
In truth this did not present much difficulty, for poverty-stricken Lord Bisselthwaite's plain, bluestocking sister was greeted and then forgotten by most who met her. However, when the first rake she had encountered kissed her hand delicately and then looked immediately at another girl nearby, Diana had made the worrying discovery that, in the presence of a handsome face, she lost most of her ability to think. For a girl who knew she had nothing to recommend her but her mind, this was mortifying indeed.
In the three seasons since, she had encountered rakes a further ten times, and the effect had not softened. It was, she reasoned, a result of being totally ignored by all other men. Rakes paid attention to anything in a dress on principle, and she, Diana, was unused to it. Therefore, it turned her head. This rational explanation failed to appease, though, because it failed to enable her to shake off the effect.
This was a particular nuisance, as her brother had lately become friends with a rake quite newly arrived in town. They had bonded over a mutual interest in the Egyptian pyramids. Who would have thought a rake could care about such stuff? Diana had taken to listening at doors in the house before entering, just in case she accidentally came across her brother and Lord Tyre in discussion over books or artifacts. Lord Tyre had the most fascinating eyes, and always pressed a kiss to her hand. And he talked so intelligently with Bissy about archaeology that one might think him a normal, sensible man – except that on Diana’s appearance in a room, he focused all his attention on her and she began to melt inside.
“Good morning, Diana,” said Bissy one morning as she joined him at the breakfast table. “Tyre will be with us for dinner.”
Diana’s hand paused over her coffee cup, and she looked at her brother with utter horror. “What?”
“Tyre, you know. Pretty fellow. Ladies like him.”
Diana considered rapidly, and couldn’t think of a single party she could claim as a prior engagement. Very well, she would have an unfortunate migraine this evening. “Yes, Bissy, “ she said. “I’ll talk to Cook.”
“That’s a good girl,” said Bissy, and returned to his newspaper.
Diana slid away unnoticed from the breakfast table, appetite gone, and spent the morning recovering the tone of her mind in the library with a little Aristotle.
Bissy, as usual, lived up to his reputation as the most unreliable gentleman in London. When Diana entered the luncheon room, Tyre was there, standing up politely as she entered. She froze, and then tried to disguise that reaction by moving forward quickly, and nearly tripped over her own feet.
“Miss Bisselthwaite,” said Lord Tyre, in his light, musical voice.
“Lord Tyre.” Her voice emerged in at least three octaves at once. She coughed.
“Hullo, Diana,” said Bissy. “Luncheon, dinner. Both food, y’know. Have you seen this new article about Belzoni’s exploits, Edward?”
Tyre ignored Bissy and smiled at Diana. She thought her knees might buckle. It was monstrously unfair of God to have bestowed not just wealth, status and intelligence on Lord Tyre, but also beauty beyond belief. The sharp shape of his chin and cheekbones rivalled a statue from the classical world. His black hair, faintly wavy and very glossy, made her fingers twitch to touch it. His tailor had no need to cut his coat either to disguise a weak chest or over-large shoulders. He was all lithe muscle. At present he was holding a chair for her to take a seat, and she could hardly look away from the long, narrow white fingers curled around the dark wood.
Oh. She should probably sit down. She did so, and thus came within inches of his body, and of course she couldn’t really feel the heat of his body against her skin like the glow from a hearth, so why did her body insist she was feeling it?
“I hope I find you well today, Miss Bisselthwaite?” Lord Tyre said, looking her in the eyes as he sat down. His own eyes were a riveting shade between blue and grey.
Diana swallowed convulsively. “Thank you … yes.”
“May I carve you a little of this chicken?” Innocuous though the comment was (and cutting straight through Bissy’s mumbling about statues, but Bissy did not appear to notice), Diana felt herself hardly able to confirm her own name if asked. She nodded, despairing. With just shy of six foot of absolute desire sitting at her side, she would be unable to choke down a thing to eat. Could she just say she had a headache now?
“Your brother tells me your interest lie not in Egyptology, but in ancient Greek philosophy.” He smiled. Oh no – she was close enough now to see that he had a dimple, a little curve in his right cheek. She really, really wanted to touch it.
Or taste it.
Heavens, this could not go on.
“I am afraid - “ she began, lifting a hand towards her forehead.
“No, don’t disclaim, I beg you,” Lord Tyre said, propping his chin on his hand and his smile uncurling further. A second dimple peeped out. “I know ladies are often shy of admitting to intellectual interests, but will you believe me if I say that I find it an exceptionally attractive quality?”
No, thought Diana, even as her heart said, oh, please. Female intellectualism was not considered an attractive quality by anyone, and anyway, nothing could render her attractive, whatever Lord Tyre implied. She was short and round and Bissy still sometimes forgot her strictures and called her “Bun” in public.
And even though she knew all these things, the light in Lord Tyre’s eyes still … Her heart fluttered.
“I should dearly like to discuss Aristotle with you. Would you permit me to drive you tomorrow in the park?”
Diana’s throat closed up completely, and it was just as well that Bissy interrupted just then with a question about a new artifact dealer in town that forced Lord Tyre to turn his gaze away from Diana. She rose and rudely fled the room.
“Miss … Bisselthwaite, isn’t it?” said Lady Rosemary Culworth uncertainly the next night. Diana nodded with resignation (she’d only been to Lady Rosemary’s parties three times) and waited while her hostess bestowed a more confident welcome on Bissy, who was a friend of her husband’s from university. Diana clung to Bissy’s arm at they moved deeper into the crowded ballroom. Her brother had a tendency to go sit with the dowagers and read a book until the end of the dancing, under the impression he was doing Diana an enormous favour. He apparently had yet to realise that Diana was never asked to dance, and simply spent the evening with some other wallflowers, out of his line of sight just in case he looked up and was distressed.
“Ah, Miss Bisselthwaite,” said a honeyed voice which definitely was sure it was talking to the right person.
Diana turned around and beheld Tyre emerging from the crowd like sunlight from a cloud, looking even more sensational than in the daytime. She had never realised how devastatingly attractive evening wear could be. “Lord Tyre,” she managed.
“Hello, Tyre,” said Bissy. “Are you going to dance with Bun? Splendid. I’ve got a new book I want to - ”
“What a marvellous idea,” said Tyre, while Diana was busy trying to get the earth to engulf her. There was a mischievous smile on Tyre’s perfectly-curved mouth. “The music is just starting, Miss Bisselthwaite.”
Perforce she took his warm hand, and blessed her stars it a was a country dance and they were frequently separated. She could hardly focus on her steps while he looked at her with that look in his eyes and murmured things to her about how sultry it was indoors, how fortunate ladies were to only wear such light attire, how much he would like to take off his cravat and pour water over his head. The thought of glistening waterdrops sliding down his cheeks and neck and even lower made her swallow, hard.
Afterwards he did not release her immediately, as she was used to from the habits of everyone who had previously danced with her. Instead he continued to clasp her hand lightly, and led her to get a glass of ratafia in the refreshments room. She was conscious of being stared at as they moved – with surprise by some, with palpable resentment by others.
“Are you not - “ She gulped some of her ratafia uncertainly. “Are you not ... embarrassed to be seen with me?”
“Why should I be embarrassed?” He studied her intently.
She thought about her rounded shape, garbed in a dress a year old, with fake pearls at her neck and wrists. She thought about her mind, most at home in books.
“Why should I be embarrassed?” he repeated.
It was impossible to say more on that head. She finished off the ratafia in a big gulp. There was a very pretty black-haired girl nearby, dripping with amethysts. Her glare was blazing into Diana’s skin. “You’ve been very kind,” Diana said weakly, “asking your friend’s sister to dance. I’m sure you want to dance with other women now.”
“Not until I am refreshed.” He sipped at his own wine.
Diana had no idea what to do. Even if he had been just a normal gentleman, she had to admit to herself, she wouldn’t have known what to do. Men never took her for refreshments after a dance. They deposited her with her brother or the wallflowers with a faintly accomplished air – someone dusting their hands of a slightly dull but necessary task. This stage, so normal to others, was alien to her. And she’d never been able to do smalltalk. But she couldn’t continue to stand here in silence, burning up under jealous stares and more aware every second of her own inadequacy next to his.
“Why the interest in Egyptology, sir?” Her voice was a bit weak, but she suddenly felt very proud. An actual conversational gambit!
“I had the good fortune to spend a few years there as a youth with my grandfather,” he responded promptly. “I found the country fascinating, and its ancient remains truly remarkable. Even more extraordinary than the other remnants of ancient civilisations around the Mediterranean, I think – perhaps that’s because I was largely raised in Italy and Greece, though, and was overly-accustomed to those wondrous sights.”
Diana sighed wistfully. Bissy would never have money to take them abroad. She longed to see all the places mentioned in the ancient texts she read. “You must find England most dull by contrast,” she said.
And out came that smile again. “Miss Bisselthwaite! How could it be dull when it is filled with such charming and attractive ladies?”
Her insides turned to mush. She tried to drink more ratafia to hide her confusion, only she’d forgotten her glass was empty. Tyre laughed and took it gently from her. “Let me get you another of these,” he suggested, “and we’ll sit in that little corner there, and talk of the ancient world.”
She wanted to say yes. She could feel the word hovering on her tongue. This was dangerously close to certain cherished, idiotic fantasies – a gorgeous, tender, intellectual admirer. Letting herself believe the fantasy was real was too dangerous. She could already feel her brief attempt at conversation drying up in her mouth under the glow of his smile. “I think my brother is expecting me, sir,” she lied, and, curtseying, fled for safety.
Lord Tyre sought her out again, a mere two nights later, this time at Almacks. Diana was only there because her godmother Mrs Chisley continued to hold out hopes that, despite no money and no beauty, Diana might actually get married. “It’s the least I owe to the memory of your poor parents,” Mrs Chisley liked to say. Diana didn’t really agree, remembering how her parents had planned never to bring her out because they thought there was no point. But that wasn’t the sort of thing one could say to one’s godmother.
Hence, Almacks, otherwise known as the Marriage Mart. And hence, Lord Tyre, bowing before her, while Mrs Chisley muffled a squeak behind her lacy fan and Diana, with resignation, felt her entire body turning the familiar scarlet. “Will you honour me with this waltz, Miss Bisselthwaite?”
A waltz. Oh. Oh. He’d be holding her. One of his hands around one of her hands. His other hand at her waist. It was the stuff of her most secret, magical dreams. She would die. She would die of shock and longing right there. She’d barely coped with the country dance without going up in flames.
She stared up at him mutely, which was her undoing, because Mrs Chisley burst out: “I know she is not engaged for this dance yet, sir! Diana will be very happy to step out with you. So kind! So very gentlemanlike! Go with the nice gentleman, Diana.”
And his hands took hers and gently pulled her upright, and she was lost. It was just as well he was holding onto her, and guiding her forward. She wasn’t sure she had the strength to stay upright on her own, or the ability to find the dance floor. He was just so close. She had never thought about scent before as being attractive, but now she could smell him, and it must only be whatever his man used to keep his linen fresh, but still she just wanted to burrow her nose into his shirt and inhale -
His arm slid around her waist. She struggled to breathe. She had only ever danced the waltz before with one man, and that had been the late Mr Chisley, during her first season. This was very, very different. Had Mr Chisley held her unusually far away? Or was Lord Tyre holding her particularly close? She suspected the latter. Well, it was more than suspicion.
“Aristotelian ethics,” he murmured as they began to revolve around the floor. “I would be most interested to discuss the matter with you, Miss Bisselthwaite. I am a sadly ignorant soul.”
Oh dear. She tried to swallow, licked her lips. She didn’t think she could even attempt talking while also trying to keep her feet from stepping on his. But what would he think of her if she said nothing at all? “Aristotle wrote… “ She managed a deep breath. “Aristotle’s view of ethics was based not on rules, but on the idea of good character.”
“Indeed?” he said. “So goodness is not found in obeying laws, but in striving to do the right thing at all times.”
It took a moment to parse his response, due to the intoxicating effect of his presence, but when she had, Diana frowned. Suddenly she found the strength to look him full in the eyes, and despite her hammering heart she spoke. “You rephrased that very neatly and promptly, sir, for someone who claims ignorance of the topic.”
“Miss Bisselthwaite, I am wounded by your implied accusation.” His eyes laughed, though the delicious dimple made no appearance. “Tell me more about good character.”
She had a sudden strong urge to be cheeky. It was like the tug of a current. She had no idea why she was so sure he wouldn’t mind, and anyway, even if he did, that would be good because she hated being in the presence of rakes - “Good character,” she said, “is what rakes lack. But if you begin by exploring rule-following ethics, perhaps you will come by it someday.”
Those dimples, that smile. She gulped. “I am rather afraid,” he said, “that I do not like rules. They are too inflexible. For example, the rules of polite society say that I cannot kiss you right now.” Accompanying this phrase was a far from unpleasant tightening of his grip at her waist.
Diana glued her gaze to his cravat, trembling. She only had to endure until the end of the dance.
“That sweet, plump, charming mouth,” breathed Lord Tyre pensively, “formed around entrancing syllables like ethics, Aristotle and rake. Extremely kissable, I assure y - “
“Please, don’t,” Diana burst out, no longer caring that she was going to appear a complete fool. Longing and desire curdled into self-disgust for her weakness. “It is very unkind of you, sir. Please release me.” She tugged against his grip, and felt herself released – but only so he could escort her from the dance.
“I am sorry to have distressed you,” he said, all brightness gone from his face, replaced by a serious expression that somehow still managed to flip her heart over. “It is never my intention to distress a lady.”
Diana bobbed her head uncertainly. She was horribly aware of being stared at by a lot of people, and fled for the haven of Mrs Chisley, who began to interrogate her about what had happened (“did you stand on his feet, dear?”). This was just too unfair. Lord Tyre was a thousand times more attractive to her than any other rake had been. He made his habitual, practiced attentions feel real, and to a lonely young woman that was an irresistible poison. She tried not to be obvious with her glares as he proceeded to dance the evening away with a new young lady for every dance, whispering in their ears and holding them close.
“Here’s Tyre come to drive out with you,” said dear, oblivious Bissy when she came down late the next morning, a little dry-eyed from a bad night.
“I have the headache,” said Diana, regarding Tyre with a jaded eye.
Her tormentor smiled at her with great tenderness. “May I venture to suggest that fresh air will soon put you to rights?”
“Splendid,” said Bissy, and the matter was settled, because Diana could never bear to upset her brother.
She should have indulged in prolonged exposure to a rake before now, she reflected as Tyre helped her up into the carriage, his grip strangely tender around her hand. She was learning how to ignore her attraction and focus on being bitter and sad about being targeted by fake attentions she wished had been real. Even when he did not leave the usual inches between them and sat so close that only the fabric of breeches and skirt separated his warm thigh from hers. The moment the curricle was in motion, she went on the attack. “I don’t know why you have chosen to amuse yourself with me,” she said, “but I would request you to desist.”
“As I said last night, Miss Bisselthwaite, I am truly sorry that I’ve caused you distress.” He sounded sincere. “Flirtation is meant to be enjoyed by both parties and I promise to be extremely proper from now on. I would not have asked you to drive out - ”
“Compelled me to drive out,” Diana corrected.
“Compelled you,” he agreed with a meekness that unexpectedly made her lips twitch. “Except that I have a need for you. A, er, practical need.”
“An interesting consignment of artifacts has just arrived in London from Cairo,” he said. “They belong to a widow, Mrs Anderson. Mr Anderson died in Egypt while gathering his collection. I’m interested in purchasing some of the objects, but am still a veritable novice - ”
“You want my brother, not me,” said Diana. “Egypt is his area of interest.”
“Ah, but though they came via Cairo, there are said to be many ancient scrolls and papyri from all over the ancient Mediterranean world.”
That got her attention. Cautiously, she said, “You may hire any scholar in the country to assist you, I daresay. The Tyre fortune, if you will forgive my vulgarity, is known to be large.”
“You’re the only female scholar I know,” said Lord Tyre. “Mrs Anderson is said to be a noted bluestocking herself, and to give preference to any potential purchaser who is a woman. Or accompanied by a woman. According to hearsay,” he added, as Diana wrestled in silence between temptation and practicality, “there are several very finely preserved scrolls out of Athens.”
Diana’s fingers twitched in their gloves. Just to look! Just to touch! She was too poor to afford any originals herself, and she so longed to get nearer the ancient world than just what her father’s limited library and the circulating library could provide.
“Mrs Anderson is available to callers this morning,” Lord Tyre remarked gently.
“Very well, sir,” she said, with what she hoped was chilling hauteur.
He grinned. How was it possible for a person to look delicious? “Excellent,” he said, and the horses picked up their pace.
It did not take them long to reach Mrs Anderson’s residence, a very smart town house in the most fashionable area. Upon entering, it proved stuffed with statues, art and ancient artifacts. Egyptian jars jostled for space with Roman amphorae; sagging mediaeval tapestries hung on the walls, half-obscuring masterpieces of Renaissance art. Lord Tyre towed her upstairs faster than she would have liked (was that a bowl full of ancient Greek coins?), and moments later she made her curtsey to Mrs Anderson, a thin hunched woman who looked her up and down with a very deliberate sort of rudeness. They were not the only visitors, and, to her surprise, Tyre had been telling the truth. Of around twenty people present, circulating slowly through a long gallery where all the objects for sale were displayed, half were indeed women.
“If I examine the Egyptian wares, are you happy to entertain yourself with Greece, Miss Bisselthwaite?” Lord Tyre actually looked hesitant. It was charming, like everything he did. “I am a cad to leave you on your own.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “but I shall do very well.” The sight of various old manuscripts on a table, along with some black-figure Grecian pottery, was making her heart flutter nearly as much as hand-kisses from a rake. “Goodbye for now,” she added, and headed for the table like a compass point to the north.
She had been happily involved with some Byzantine palimpsests for some time when she suddenly realised Mrs Anderson was at her side. “I beg your pardon!” she said, startled. “I was absorbed.”
That lady gave her a thin smile. “Bisselthwaite,” she said with no preamble. “I’ve placed you now. Your family haven’t a penny for my wares. Tyre used you to get in here.”
And how was one supposed to reply to that? Diana widened her eyes a trifle, hoping to suggest an offended feminine sensibility – not far from reality.
“Don’t hold out your hopes for Tyre,” Mrs Anderson added. “That’s a good bit of advice for you, miss, though you may not think it. Even were you a beauty, or an heiress, you wouldn’t get lucky there. He isn’t the marrying type.”
“I assure you, I have no such thoughts in mind.”
“Hmm. Don’t try to steal anything. I’ve got my eye on you.” Before Diana could find words for her outrage, the woman was gone.
She was so upset by the rude encounter that she could hardly focus on the palimpsest. All her enjoyment in it was washed away by the sting of tears in her eyes. With slack hands she placed it on the table, and turned to look for her companion. She wanted to go home. But Tyre was nowhere to be seen. A door ajar at the gallery’s far end suggested another room full of objects to be viewed, though, so she blinked hard a few times, and set off in that direction.
The next room was decidedly a private chamber, with empty tables and an unlit fireplace. A servant must have left the door open in error. Diana was about to retreat when she saw Tyre sitting on a chair in a far, shadowy corner. “My lord, I hope your business here is concluded because I would like to return – my lord?”
His face had turned toward hers. Always pale, it now seemed to have a ghastly pallor that stood out in the dimness. “My lord?” she repeated uncertainly.
“Miss Bisselthwaite,” he said. His breathing was hoarse. “Oh, no. I am simultaneously … enchanted and horrified to see you. Go away this instant.”
“I have been stabbed with a paralysing drug of some kind,” said Lord Tyre. Diana’s jaw dropped. “The man who did it will be back in a moment. He went to arrange for transport to take me somewhere. The river, probably.” The rake’s voice was coming faster. “You need to distance yourself from me immediately. I should hate to think of your life ending in the river, too.”
“What is this ridiculous jest?” Diana demanded. “Are you intoxicated, sir?”
“By you, yes. Otherwise ... no.” He slid sideways off the chair and thumped into a far from elegant position on the floor. For a moment she thought he was playing some scene to amuse himself by shocking her. But there was an awkward quality to his position that suggested otherwise. Diana flew across to him and dropped to her knees. A thin trickle of blood emerged from his cuff. She grabbed his hand and pushed his coat-sleeve up a little. A narrow wound in his forearm became visible. It did not seem enough to cause such an effect, until she saw a strange green oily slick at the edge of the injury.
“Paltry, isn’t it,” said Tyre. His voice was becoming higher and more slurred. “To think my illustrious career ends like this. Go away.”
“I’ll call one of the servants. Mrs Anderson must know of a doctor nearby - “
“Sweet bluestocking, this was doubtless done at Mrs Anderson’s behest.”
Now was not the proper time for her heart to flutter and swoon over endearments. Diana wrapped her handkerchief around the injury and said, “You are not rational. Your mind is obviously addled.”
“You addle it. Dearest. Brightest. Miss Bisselthwaite. What’s your Christian name? I shouldn’t ask. Go away immediately. You’re most decidedly de trop.”
She put a hand against his neck. His pulse was erratic and his skin intriguingly silky. “I’ll fetch Mrs Anderson,” she said, and rose.
“No need,” drawled a voice behind her. “Mrs Anderson is already here.” The door clicked shut firmly behind their gaunt hostess, and she leaned against it.
“Will you have the goodness to call a doctor immediately?” asked Diana, gazing worriedly at Tyre. His eyelids were drooping, long lashes fluttering against pallid cheeks. “My lord is unwell. I think he may have scratched himself on some ancient artifact, and been infected by some malignant ancient substance - “
“No, one of my servants did it,” said Mrs Anderson. “Not the ideal circumstances, but opportunities must be taken as they come. It’s unfortunate you should have found her before we could move her, but – there. You’re not going to be missed by many. It would have been worse if Tyre had brought one of her usual sort – pretty, popular, silly as a lap dog. I’ve seen her in action all over Egypt and the East.”
Diana looked down at the rake sprawled on the carpet, and then up at Mrs Anderson, not quite sure what to focus on first. Admission of criminal acts? Threats of murder? Wrong pronouns?
Another door, which she hadn’t previously noticed, opened to reveal two huge, burly men in rough labourer’s attire. “To the river, ma’am?” one asked.
Mrs Anderson nodded. “Both of them, please.”
“How dare you!” Diana cried, as one of the men advanced on her. She backed away and wondered what her odds were of knocking Mrs Anderson aside and getting back into the main gallery - “I am the sister of a baron, and Lord Tyre is an earl – you can’t just make us disappear – why, I haven’t done a thing to you!”
“You’ve seen Tyre. I would that I could wipe memories, but I can’t. Give her some laudanum, Jack, before you drop her in the river. Make a more peaceful end. I do swear I feel sorry for the poor girl.”
Big arms picked her up. “If you feel sorry, you could not do this!” Belatedly it occurred to Diana to scream, but one hand - how was this man so large – smothered the sound. She kicked, but her skirts made the motion ineffective, and she was conveyed like a sack of flour out of the room, out through the basement and into a windowless carriage waiting in the mews. Tyre was cast into it unbound, but the men paused to truss Diana up – wrists, ankles and a really foul-tasting cloth gag in her mouth – before throwing her roughly in afterwards. She landed on top of Tyre and then darkness fell as the carriage door was locked behind them.
As the carriage jolted into motion, she did not endeavour to roll off Tyre. Instead, she wiggled against his form. Her form? She was trying to discern something about the shape of the rake’s chest. As he breathed steadily, was that a faint suggestion of - ? pressing against hers - ? She couldn’t quite be sure, and yet -
Mrs Anderson’s peculiar remarks echoed in her mind. In the darkness, she summoned memories of Tyre. The sharp shape of the rake’s face suddenly seemed delicate, the form supple and slender instead muscular. Other details sprang to mind – the chin she’d observed when checking his pulse now seemed too smooth for a man’s, and his throat too straight. But it was astonishing. Ludicrous. How could such an act be carried off? With what art could a woman show herself to be a man so successfully? And for what motive? It was evidently (Diana remembered certain ardent looks and overly-intimate touches) not done reluctantly.
She suddenly imagined lying in such close contact while Tyre was awake, and felt herself turn hot and trembly all over. Succumbing to the motion of the carriage she slid sideways until she lay beside the rake, and tried to force her mind into a different course. They were being taken somewhere to be drowned. Well. She hadn’t swum since she was very small, but still she thought she might be able to keep her head above water. There seemed scant chance of doing so while holding Tyre’s head above water, too.
And there scattered her thoughts again: what had she, dull little Diana Bisselthwaite, become mixed up in? Tyre was going to get a terrible scolding. He – Tyre – no, the more Diana thought about it, the more convinced she was of Mrs Anderson’s truthfulness. She, Tyre, had spoken of an “illustrious career”. Stabbing hadn’t seemed a surprise so much as an inconvenience. Diana knew Tyre had lived largely abroad until a couple of years ago. Had she been mixed up in foreign affairs? Mr Anderson used to be of the Foreign Office. Could that be the connection?
But what could Tyre have done, that Mrs Anderson chose to murder her? Diana would indeed vanish easily. Only Bissy would be anxious and devastated. But a rakish earl who knew all of London would not slip out of public consciousness so swiftly. Surely?
Trembling, she pressed herself close to Tyre’s warm body, listening to the rake’s breath for comfort.
Quite some time later the carriage stopped. Tyre was still motionless and Diana had cried a little. It was a hideous, ignominious way to end her life – and she hated leaving questions unanswered. For example, she wanted to sit down with Tyre, alone, in a private room, and ask why she had flirted with Diana (not to mention hundred of other girls across London). Had it just been an act to preserve her cover? But why would a woman acting the part of a man use such a very masculine role that enforced admiration of the feminine? She could have pretended to be a prim, religious soul.
Diana was hauled, still pontificating, from the carriage. The sudden brightness made her blink. They had come some way into the country and she had no idea where they were, or if the river rushing a few yards away, at the base of a steep incline, was even the Thames. There was certainly no other human being in sight. No sign even of any buildings, just a rough track stretching off through woodland. The men dumped her casually in the grass and then Tyre beside her. Then they began to methodically rifle their two captives’ possessions, making a pile in the grass. Diana’s locket was snapped away from her neck, her reticule pulled from her wrist. Tyre’s card case, handkerchiefs, and signet ring were also removed, along with two thin knives from his boots. “So nobody can identify the bodies,” Jack explained cheerfully.
Then they tossed Tyre over the bank. There was an almighty splash followed by silence.
Diana screamed into her gag and then burst into tears of shock and terror, shaking.
“There, now, lass,” said Jack. “I’m sorry to do this to a nice girl, but orders are orders.” He nudged his companion, who silently produced a dark bottle. “Laudanum will make it nice and quiet.” He squatted and removed her gag. Diana flailed her head from side to side, trying to scream, trying to avoid the bottle. Quite a lot was splashed on her chin, but a little bit got in her mouth.
Then, like Poseidon arising from the waters, Tyre hove into view over the bank at a dead run, shedding water droplets like diamonds.
The two men had their back to her. Diana gaped through their legs for one stunned moment, and then brought up her knees in a sharp, desperate flail. She managed to hit a key masculine area. Jack doubled over, gasping. “Excellent distraction!” crowed Tyre, and leapt onto the back of the other man, winding her arms around his neck.
Jack, recovering from the blow, tried to stagger to his companion’s aid. Diana flailed her legs sideways and he tripped over them. Tyre forced her purpling, wheezing man down on top of Jack and began to bang the two men’s heads together until they were quite definitely unconscious.
“Miss Bisselthwaite!” said Tyre, spinning and dropping to her knees at Diana’s side. “Are you unharmed? My dear bluestocking – I did tell you to go away!” Her fingers worked urgently at the knots around Diana’s wrists.
Diana, faintly woozy now from laudanum, said, “I thought you were dead!”
“I acquired a tolerance for that particular paralysing agent years ago. It’s nasty and weakens me for a few hours, that’s all.” She moved onto the ropes at Diana’s ankles.
Diana shook her wrists to get the blood moving again. “Tolerance,” she said, focusing her thoughts. “Lord Tyre, were you awake in that carriage?”
“Yes,” said the rake, a wicked smile flirting across her damp, beautiful face.
“Oh, dear,” said Diana, vividly remembering the press of their bodies. She shut her eyes and wished the earth would swallow her then and there.
An arm slid tenderly around her shoulders and lifted her to seated position. “I expect you have a lot of questions. Can they wait? We need to take these fellows back to town and I need to – er – inform my associates that Mrs Anderson has taken up her husband’s business.”
Diana allowed herself to be raised to her feet, pretending not very successfully to herself that she wasn’t enjoying the solicitous, muscular attention. That she wasn’t watching the shapes Tyre’s perfectly-formed mouth made as she spoke. It was all incredibly disconcerting. “What business is that?” she asked, leaning on Tyre’s arm as they went towards the carriage.
“Smuggling under the guise of antiquities trading. Selling state secrets to whatever country will buy them. Assorted unpleasant little practices. I was a thorn in Anderson’s side for years during my work abroad; his wife couldn’t resist, I daresay.”
“You’re a spy?”
“I’m meant to be retired, now I’ve inherited the title. I’m very sorry, Miss Bisselthwaite.” She helped Diana into the carriage. “I thought I’d merely look around Mrs Anderson’s house to see if I could see anything interesting or concerning. I had no idea either of us would be in danger. For myself I care nothing, anyway. To put you in harm’s way was unconscionable, though.”
“Yes,” agreed Diana faintly, and watched as Tyre tied the two thugs up and put them onto the carriage floor. Muscles flexed visibly against the wet fabric of the rake’s clothes. She reclaimed both their belongings. Diana took possession of her locket and reticule, and then held out her hand again. Tyre silently placed her signet ring in it. Tilting it towards the cloudy sunlight, Diana read the inscription inside: To my dear granddaughter Elizabeth, with all my love..
She handed it back, wondering, and took a seat in the carriage.
Tyre had to drive, of course, so when the two thugs awoke and began to struggle against their bonds, it was just Diana there, watching them. After a few minutes, she bent and took the gag from Jack’s mouth.
“Please, miss, I’m really sorry,” he gasped. “Please don’t put me in gaol. I’ve got a wife and daughter. They need me.”
“I expect they’ll be better off without your bad influence,” said Diana.
“They think I’m a hackney driver! The shame’ll be too much. The neighbours will have their heads.”
“Tell me their names and direction, and I’ll help them move to somewhere new.” Diana thought this was a very proper, kind offer, but Jack began to fling disgusting remarks in her direction so she put his gag back in, and removed the other man’s instead. He had a very similar story, only it was a grandmother and eight young brothers.
“Why are you not really a hackney driver?” Diana asked. “Isn’t less money worth it for the peace of mind that comes from being a better person?”
Evidently not, judging by his comments. Diana stuffed that gag back in too, and embarked on a discussion of Aristotelian ethics and the importance of virtue-based ethics. Possibly she was not being completely Aristotelian in that hour, as she revelled in a sense of malicious revenge watching the men growling on the floor of the carriage, as unable to escape as if they had been paralysed.
However, all the ancient philosophers had strongly stressed the importance of education and enlightenment. So in a way, she was not being malicious at all.
As she moved onto discussing Book III of the Nichomachean Ethics, she found she was grinning.
Bissy hadn’t even noticed she had been gone unusually long. Diana went straight to her room as evening’s shadows fell, dismissed her maid who tried to have hysterics over her muddy clothes, and sat down on her bed staring at nothing in particular. She remembered the feel of the gag in her mouth; that moment of terror like a bolt of lightning when Tyre had gone over the bank; Tyre’s tenderness as she supported Diana upright.
The absolute outrage of the whole situation. The very long list of questions she had.
She passed a restless night, rolling around in her hot sheets till they were tangled, scowling at the ceiling. Then she passed a restless morning, waiting for a visit. But the scoundrel didn’t appear. An enormous bouquet of flowers appeared. It was so enormous that the butler staggered under its weight. Diana couldn’t help but notice that all the servants who saw it looked frankly incredulous, and this served only to exacerbate her mood. Diana damned the proprieties and dashed off a note to Lord Tyre. It brought her to the Bisselthwaite door mid-afternoon, looking annoyingly fresh and smart. No shadows under her eyes.
“Bissy,” said Diana, “is visiting a friend. And I don’t care what the servants think. Sit there - “ She pointed at a chair. “And do not rise until I give you permission to do so.”
Tyre disposed herself elegantly in the chair, resting one ankle on the opposite knee and smiling warmly at Diana. “What an Amazon!”
“I imagine you know what questions I want answered.”
“I lacked the strength to overcome two such huge men without the element of surprise,” Tyre said promptly. “Thank you for your brave aid in that cause. I had meant to surprise them once they opened the carriage door, for I was quite recovered at that point. But - “ She tugged at her cravat, then quickly laid her hand down. “My dear Miss Bisselthwaite, I was distracted by my enjoyment of your proximity. It was most ungentlemanly.”
I distracted her by snuggling against her. Diana tilted her chin, trying to pretend she wasn’t turning red. “Gentlemanly,” she said. “That’s a relevant word here ... Lord Tyre.”
There was a long pause, and then, very simply, the other woman began to speak. “I was raised by my grandfather, both parents having come to early ends. He travelled widely and it was safer for me to be presented as a boy, especially after he made me join the family business of spying. As a child I hardly cared. As I aged, I was happy in the behaviours of men, but wished I didn’t have to treat my body as a secret. It all became rather confusing when my grandfather died within a month of a housefire claiming the life of three of his male cousins. Suddenly, the lawyers were after me. They knew there was an Edward Lindsay racketing around in the Ottoman Empire, and they had an entry in the parish register which everyone agreed said E Lindsay. And there I was. The Earl of Tyre.”
Diana considered this for a while, and then finally sat down herself, opposite him on the sofa. “Are you happy?”
Tyre hesitated, then nodded. “For the most part.” She ran a hand absently through her dark hair. “I love these clothes, I love women, I love the opportunities of business and politics available to who I am perceived to be. But do you know – I was delighted to know that Mrs Anderson had spilled my secret to you. Even my – er – colleagues involved with the Foreign Office don’t know the truth. It is very relieving to be known by someone I’m coming to respect.”
Diana felt her heart get a bit bigger and swallowed hard. “Yes, and how did she know it?” she asked, trying to focus on the topic at hand.
“Anderson was spying on me and found out despite my most careful efforts. He must have told her.”
“You didn’t kill him, did you? For finding out?”
“My bloodthirsty bluestocking!”
Diana frowned. “It’s a rational question.”
“Yes, it is. I didn’t.”
She had a thousand other questions about Tyre’s interesting career prior to entering the nobility, but a more pressing question had to be asked. “You’re a woman – and you sincerely flirt with other women?”
One of those stomach-fluttering, knee-weakening smiles spread across Tyre’s face. “It’s what rakes do.” In a flash of an eye she had moved from his chair to her sofa. She was big and warm and smelled delicious again. Diana swallowed hard. “And whatever I was raised to be … I was born to be a rake.”
“Are you being a rake right now?” asked Diana. “I mean, are you flirting with me just because I’m a woman? Or because I am me?”
A slight hesitation. Then Tyre said, “When I first met you, Miss Bisselthwaite, I must admit it was the former. I’ve always liked to pay attention to the ladies that men ignore. But that was only at first. Now? - dear bluestocking, I am most decidedly interested in you.” She was inches away, infusing every sense Diana possessed, but she didn’t press closer. “You intrigue me. Brave. Virtuous. Brilliant.”
She saw herself as she was described, and countered weakly, “I’m fat. I’m poor. I prefer books to fashion.”
“I’m rich. You’re so delectable that I would like to do very impolite things to you.” Her gaze skimmed longingly over Diana’s body. “I also would like to buy you every one of those old parchments I noticed you ogling at Mrs Anderson’s house, so you can explain them to me.”
Suddenly Diana didn’t feel like “Bun” Bisselthwaite anymore. She stared into the middle distance for a while, thinking about what she wanted to do right now (which would have been unthinkable only a few days ago), and what might perhaps come in the future.
Then she stood, went to the door, and shoved a chair under its handle. After that, she came and sat down next to Tyre again, who had not moved a jot, whose eyes were fixed on her like a cat on a mouse.
“You may call me Diana,” Diana said seriously. “And I have some ideas about the proper treatment of a rake.”
Leaning upwards a little, she kissed her rake.