The Diamond Key
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by Barbara Metzger
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Wynn, Viscount Ingall, saved a young woman from a fire. Lady Victoria Keyes, in despair of her life, promised herself to marry any man who rescued her, whoever he might be. But Wynn was a social outcast and refused her hand. And the diamond key Torrie's father gave her at her come-out ball was a promise to give her heart and hand only to her true love? Regency Romance by Barbara Metzger; originally published by Signet
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 2003
eBookwise Release Date: October 2012
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [284 KB]
Reading time: 180-252 min.
First came the smoke. Then came the heat. Last were the screams from the front of Madame Michaela's dressmaking shop.
"Fire! Fire! Get out!"
"Lawks a'mercy," came from the mantua-maker herself, her fake French accent melting away with the silks and satins, ribbons and lace, "M'bloody shop! Help!"
Torrie, Lady Victoria Ann Keyes, stood frozen for a moment atop the pedestal in the fitting room where madame's assistant was measuring her against the sections of already cut green velvet. "Go," Lady Torrie told the wide-eyed young girl. "Tina, is it? Go find out what is happening. Quickly now."
Tina dropped her pins and her tape and pieces of what was to be Torrie's new riding habit, and fled the little back room.
The screams grew louder, the smoke thicker. Tina was not coming back, obviously, and Torrie could not wait another second. Unfortunately, she stood on the raised platform in her shift and stockings, while her gown and shoes were on a stool in a corner, obscured now by the billows of black. Torrie grabbed up a piece of green velvet--though what good a sleeve was going to do to protect her modesty, she frantically wondered--and headed barefooted toward Madame Michaela's shrieking voice. Then she remembered her maid.
Ruthie Cobb had been feeling poorly, likely with the same enervating ague affecting Torrie's mother, so Torrie had asked the modiste if Ruthie could rest somewhere during the fitting. Loath to offend one of her best clients, Madame Michaela had herself shown Ruthie to a cot in one of the rear storage rooms. What if the abigail were asleep, not hearing the cries to leave the building? Torrie changed direction and raced down the back hall, hopping on one foot when a pin pierced her heel.
The smoke was now coming from this end of the shop, too, but Torrie ran on, past a deserted cutting room, calling to her maid. She heard nothing back but the roar of a fire. But there! There was the storage room, fabrics piled to the ceiling, and the empty cot, thank goodness. Torrie could leave.
Smoke was pouring in from where the rear door should have been, though, and flames were already snaking from the front of the shop toward the cutting room, where the bits and pieces of fabric on the floor would ignite to an inferno. Trying not to let panic overcome her judgment, Torrie spun around and spotted a high window. There, if she could just reach it, she'd be through and in the alley before her situation became desperate. She dragged the wooden cot over and stood on it, able to reach the latch and push open the window, but she was simply not tall enough to hoist herself so high.
Bolts of fabric would do the trick. She pulled one, heavier than she thought it would be, off a shelf, then another, dragging them toward the bed, trying to keep them stacked securely. A third went on top. Gasping from the smoke and the effort and the rising fear, she climbed up--and the whole structure collapsed around her: the bolts, the bed, and the broken window frame. Falling, she grabbed for the nearest handhold, but only dislodged more fabric rolls from another pile. The entire mass came down, then the rack that was leaning on it, then two neighboring shelves. On Torrie.
With strength she did not know she possessed, ignoring the pain in her head where she must have hit it against the wall or the floor, Torrie started shoving the bolts off her, rolling them away until she could sit up. She could get no farther, though, for her foot was trapped beneath the broken bed, which was beneath a mound of now-unfurled fabrics that she could not reach to push aside.
She was going to die. Lady Victoria Ann Keyes, daughter of an earl, darling of society, diamond of the first water, was going to die amid unsold dress lengths. She was already coughing, her lungs straining for clean air. Tears flowed down her cheeks, and not just from the smoke irritating her eyes. She was too young to die. Why, at twenty years of age, she had barely begun to live!
Not ready to give up, Torrie twisted around until she could move one more bolt of brocade, one more length of linsey-woolsey, another spool of sarcenet. Then she heard the bells. No angels welcoming her to the hereafter, these were the fire bells, the whistles and shouts of the fire brigade. Madame Michaela had paid her insurance, thank goodness. Help was on its way. Torrie shouted, "Here! I am here in the back!"
Fires make a great deal of noise, she found. So did the firefighters, clearing the streets, dragging their hose, ordering bucket lines. It would be a miracle if anyone heard her in time.
Well, if a miracle was what it was going to take to get her out of this hell, Torrie decided, she'd start praying. The problem was, aside from the heat and the smoke and the mounds of material on top of her, Torrie did not know any but the prayers she recited every Sunday. This was not the time for rote words. Neither, it occurred to her, was it the time for asking for favors, when she had not been on such terms with the Almighty before. She had even missed church a few Sundays, after dancing until nearly dawn the evenings before. And she had definitely taken the Lord's name in vain--just before, when she'd stepped on that pin. She had never committed murder or stolen anything, of course, but she had frequently gossiped, and last week she had definitely coveted Lady Valentine's Italianate garden with its marble piazza. No, she had not been a very righteous, religious person, so why should anyone answer her prayers?
She was not a very good daughter, either, Torrie sadly reflected. Honor her parents? Why, they only wished her happiness in a secure future. Had she given them their dearest wish? No. After three Seasons she was still unwed, and Mama and Papa were still without grandchildren, still dragging themselves to London for the social rounds. Papa missed his sheep, and Mama missed her gardens, yet they persisted, so their beloved only child might find the man of her dreams.
Torrie clutched at the charm she wore on a gold chain around her neck, a gold key set with diamonds. Her father had presented it to her the evening of her come-out ball when she was seventeen.
"Now, go find the heart this key unlocks, poppet," Papa had said, beaming with pride between his beautiful young daughter and the beautiful countess who still held the key to his own heart.
Torrie had never found that matching piece of herself, although she'd had offers aplenty. Flowers were tossed at her feet, compliments were thrown at her head, rings were pressed on her fingers, but nary a heart was opened to her, at least none that made her own beat faster. Lord Skyler had no prospects but a rich wife's dowry, even if he would be a duke one day. Sir Stanley followed his own muse, spouting dreadful poetry, and Mr. Drosher drooled. Those were only the most recent offers for her hand--and for her father's wealth.
Look where her fussy, finicky heart had led her, though, to breathe her last in a burning building, alone and unloved. Torrie swore then and there to change her ways if her life was spared. She'd marry the next man her father dragged home from White's, someone stolid and stable, just like Papa. Only let her live, she vowed, and she'd wed the next man who asked, fop, fool, or fortune hunter.
No, she decided, she'd marry the man who rescued her. He might be a sausage-smelling, ale-swilling employee of the insurance company, but no matter. With her monies, he could buy his own fire protection agency. The beau monde would be closed to Lady Victoria Ann Keyes and her lowborn spouse, but Torrie had had her fill of balls and routs. She'd settle for a country cottage, a cradle to rock, and a caring husband. Just let him hurry, she prayed. Just in case no one was listening to silent prayers this horrible afternoon, Torrie yelled as loudly as she could. "Help! Please help!"
Wynn Ingram, Viscount Ingall, was walking down the street, deep in thought, letting his dog choose the way. He barely heard the commotion of the fire wagons and the rushing crowds, so lost was he in his dismal reflections. When someone shouted at him to get out of the way, he finally took note of his surroundings. Unwilling to join the spectators lined up to watch a building burn down--and peoples' lives put at risk--Wynn turned back the way he had come.
His damn fool of a dog, though, ran down the alley, barking his stupid head off, headed straight for the conflagration. The curly-coated terrier had adopted Wynn when the viscount's Bombay clipper had pulled into port, and no amount of curses or threats had discouraged the clunch. Since the mutton-headed mongrel was the only one to welcome Wynn back to England after six years, Lord Ingall had relented. The dog had not left his side since. Such loyalty counted for something to a man who had known so little of it, so Wynn followed the little dog down the alley.
"Help! Please help!" he heard over the babel and bells and barking.
"Bloody hell," he cursed, but ran farther down the alley, searching for a back entrance to the burning shop. A trash barrel was blocking the rear door, and he cursed again at the jackass who would leave it there, trapping those within. Then he saw that the barrel was on fire, too, with flames licking at the building's back wall. With no thought for himself, he shoved the barrel aside and crashed through the door, the dunderheaded dog on his heels. Wynn tried to shield his mouth and nose from the smoke as he stumbled through a workroom and down a dark corridor. The cries for help had stopped, damn it, but he followed the dog's high-pitched yips.
The terrier was frantically digging at a mound of fabric. No, Wynn could just distinguish a woman buried under the pile. He pushed the dog aside and started hurling bolts of fabric, then wood, until she was free. Wynn could not tell if she was still breathing, but he could see she was nearly naked. He cursed again. Coughing, he took his coat off to wrap her in, not to protect her modesty, but to protect the pale white skin that gleamed even through the near pitch-black smoke.
"Do not die now, damn you," he yelled, gathering her up and making a mad dash back the way he had come, through smoke and flames and finally oilskin-coated men with buckets and hoses. He kept running, ignoring her slight weight, intent only on finding fresh air and help for the poor woman.
He paused a moment, looking for a safe place to lay her down. Then he heard the most welcome sound of his life: a deep rasping breath. The female was alive, thank heaven. He carried her still farther from the fire.
The woman gasped and choked and gasped again. Then she managed to ask in a hoarse whisper, "Are you married?"
Wynn almost dropped her. "Hell, no."
"Good," she croaked. "Then you can marry me. I made a vow, you see, to wed my savior."
The viscount looked down to make sure his dog was still following. "It was Homer who saved your life, ma'am."
Just before she lost consciousness again, Torrie rasped out: "Oh, is he married?"