Chapter 3

She was stranded in a cottage with a dying man and a man known to his intimates as Devil. Ensconced in the wing chair by the fire, Honoria sipped tea from a mug and considered her position. It was now night; the storm showed no sign of abating. She could not leave the cottage, even had that been her most ardent desire.

Glancing at her rescuer, still seated on the pallet, she grimaced; she did not wish to leave. She’d yet to learn his name, but he’d commanded her respect, and her sympathy.

Half an hour had passed since the youth had spoken; Devil-she had no other name for him-had not left his dying cousin’s side. His face remained impassive, showing no hint of emotion, yet emotion was there, behind the facade, shadowing the green of his eyes. Honoria knew of the shock and grief occasioned by sudden death, knew of the silent waiting and the vigils for the dead. Returning her gaze to the flames, she slowly sipped her tea.

Sometime later, she heard the bed creak; soft footfalls slowly neared. She sensed rather than saw him ease into the huge carved chair, smelled the dust that rose from the faded tapestry as he settled. The kettle softly hissed. Shifting forward, she poured boiling water into the mug she’d left ready; when the steam subsided, she picked up the mug and held it out.

He took it, long fingers brushing hers briefly, green eyes lifting to touch her face. “Thank you.”

He sipped in silence, eyes on the flames; Honoria did the same.

Minutes ticked by, then he straightened his long legs, crossing his booted ankles. Honoria felt his gaze on her face.

“What brings you to Somersham, Miss…?”

It was the opening she’d been waiting for. “Wetherby,” she supplied.

Instead of responding with his name-Mr. Something, Lord Someone-he narrowed his eyes. “Your full name?”

Honoria held back a frown. “Honoria Prudence Wetherby,” she recited, somewhat tartly.

One black brow rose; the disturbing green gaze did not waver. “Not Honoria Prudence Anstruther-Wetherby?”

Honoria stared. “How did you know?”

His lips quirked. “I’m acquainted with your grandfather.”

A disbelieving look was her reply. “I suppose you’re going to tell me I look like him?”

A short laugh, soft and deep, feathered across her senses. “Now you mention it, I believe there is a faint resemblance-about the chin, perhaps?”

Honoria glared.

“Now that,” her tormentor remarked, “is very like old Magnus.”

She frowned. “What is?”

He took a slow sip, his eyes holding hers. “Magnus Anstruther-Wetherby is an irascible old gentleman, atrociously high in the instep and as stubborn as bedamned.”

“You know him well?”

“Only to nod to-my father knew him better.”

Uncertain, Honoria watched him sip; her full name was no state secret-she simply didn’t care to use it, to claim relationship with that irascible, stubborn old gentleman in London.

“There was a second son, wasn’t there?” Her rescuer studied her musingly. “He defied Magnus over… I remember-he married against Magnus’s wishes. One of the Montgomery girls. You’re their daughter?”

Stiffly, Honoria inclined her head.

“Which brings us back to my question, Miss Anstruther

Wetherby. What the deuce are you doing here, gracing our quiet backwater?”

Honoria hesitated; there was a restlessness in the long limbs, a ripple of awareness-not of her, but of the body on the pallet behind them-that suggested conversation was his need. She lifted her chin. “I’m a finishing governess.”

“A finishing governess?”

She nodded. “I prepare girls for their come-out-I only remain with the families for the year before.”

He eyed her with fascinated incredulity. “What in all the heavens does old Magnus think of that?”

“I’ve no idea. I’ve never sought his opinion.” He laughed briefly-that same throaty, sensuous sound; Honoria suppressed an urge to wriggle her shoulders. Then he sobered. “What happened to your family?”

Inwardly, Honoria shrugged. It couldn’t hurt to tell her tale, and if it distracted him, well and good. “My parents died in an accident when I was sixteen. My brother was nineteen. We lived in Hampshire, but after the accident, I went to stay with my mother’s sister in Leicestershire.” He frowned. “I’m surprised Magnus didn’t intervene.”

“Michael informed him of the deaths, but he didn’t come down for the funeral.” Honoria shrugged. “We hadn’t expected him. After the falling-out between him and Papa, there’d been no contact.” Her lips lifted fleetingly. “Papa swore he’d never ask for quarter.”

“Stubbornness is clearly a family trait.” Honoria ignored the comment. “After a year in Leicestershire, I decided to try my hand at governessing.” She looked up, into far-too-perceptive green eyes. “Your aunt wasn’t exactly welcoming?” Honoria sighed. “No-she was very welcoming. She married beneath her-not the mild mesalliance the Anstruther-Wetherbys got so heated over but truly out of her class.” She paused, seeing again the rambling house filled with dogs and children. “But she was happy and her household was welcoming but…” She grimaced and glanced at the dark face watching her. “Not for me.”

“Fish out of water?”

“Precisely. Once I came out of mourning, I considered my options. Funds, of course, were never a problem. Michael wanted me to buy a small house in some safe country village and live quietly but…”

“Again, not for you?”

Honoria tilted her chin. “I couldn’t conceive of a life so tame. I think it unfair that women are forced to such mild existences and only gentlemen get to lead exciting lives.”

Both black brows rose. “Personally, I’ve always found it pays to share the excitement.”

Honoria opened her mouth to approve-then caught his eye. She blinked and looked again, but the salacious glint had disappeared. “In my case, I decided to take control of my life and work toward a more exciting existence.”

“As a governess?” His steady green gaze remained ingenuously interested.

“No. That’s only an intermediary stage. I decided eighteen was too young to go adventuring in Africa. I’ve decided to follow in Lady Stanhope’s footsteps.” “Good God!”

Honoria ignored his tone. “I have it all planned-my burning ambition is to ride a camel in the shadow of the Great Sphinx. One would be ill-advised to undertake such an expedition too young; governessing in a manner that requires spending only a year with each family seemed the ideal way to fill in the years. As I need provide nothing beyond my clothes, my capital grows while I visit various counties, staying in select households. That last, of course, eases Michael’s mind.”

“Ah, yes-your brother. What’s he doing while you fill in your years?”

Honoria eyed her inquisitor measuringly. “Michael is secretary to Lord Carlisle. Do you know him?”

“Carlisle? Yes. His secretary, no. I take it your brother has political ambitions?”

“Lord Carlisle was a friend of Papa’s-he’s agreed to stand as Michael’s sponsor.”

His brows rose fleetingly, then he drained his mug. “What made you decide on governessing as your temporary occupation?”

Honoria shrugged. “What else was there? I’d been well educated, prepared for presentation. Papa was adamant that I be presented to the ton, puffed off with all the trimmings-paraded beneath my grandfather’s nose. He hoped I’d make a wonderful match, just to show Grandfather no one else shared his antiquated notions.”

“But your parents were killed before you were brought out?”

Honoria nodded. “Lady Harwell, an old friend of Mama’s, had a daughter two years younger than I. After putting off black gloves, I broached my idea to her-I thought with my background, my preparation, I could teach other girls how to go on. Lady Harwell agreed to a trial. After I finished coaching Miranda, she landed an earl. After that, of course, I never wanted for positions.”

“The matchmaking mama’s delight.” An undercurrent of cynicism had crept into the deep voice. “And who are you coaching around Somersham?”

The question returned Honoria to reality with a thump. “Melissa Claypole.”

Her rescuer frowned. “Is she the dark one or the fair one?”

“The fair one.” Propping her chin in her hand, Honoria gazed into the flames. “An insipid miss with no conversation-God knows how I’m supposed to render her attractive. I was booked to go to Lady Oxley but her six-year old caught chicken pox, and then old Lady Oxley died. I’d declined all my other offers by then, but the Claypoles’ letter arrived late, and I hadn’t yet replied. So I accepted without doing my usual checks.”

“Checks?”

“I don’t work for just anyone.” Stifling a yawn, Honoria settled more comfortably. “I make sure the family is good ton, well connected enough to get the right invitations and sufficiently beforehand not to make a fuss over the milliner’s bills.”

“Not to mention those from the modistes.”

“Precisely. Well”-she gestured briefly-“no girl is going to snare a duke if she dresses like a dowd.”

“Indubitably. Am I to understand the Claypoles fail to meet your stringent requirements?”

Honoria frowned. “I’ve only been with them since Sunday, but I’ve a nasty suspicion…” She let her words trail away, then shrugged. “Luckily, it appears Melissa is all but spoken for-by a duke, no less.” A pause followed, then her rescuer prompted: “A duke?”

“So it seems. If you live about here you must know of him-sober, reserved, rather reclusive, I think. Already tangled in Lady Claypole’s web, if her ladyship speaks true.” Recollecting her burning question, Honoria twisted around. “Do you know him?”

Clear green eyes blinked back at her; slowly, her rescuer shook his head. “I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.”

“Humph!” Honoria sank back in her chair. “I’m beginning to think he’s a hermit. Are you sure-“

But he was no longer listening to her. Then she heard what had caught his attention-the rattly breathing of the wounded youth. The next instant, he was striding back to the bed. He sat on the edge, taking one of the youth’s hands in his. From the chair, Honoria listened as the youth’s breathing grew more ragged, more rasping. Fifteen painful minutes later, the dry rattle ceased. An unearthly silence filled the cottage; even the storm was still. Honoria closed her eyes and silently uttered a prayer. Then the wind rose, mournfully keening, nature’s chant for the dead.

Opening her eyes, Honoria watched as Devil laid his cousin’s hands across his chest. Then he sat on the pallet’s edge, eyes fixed on the pale features that would not move again. He was seeing his cousin alive and well, laughing, talking. Honoria knew how the mind dealt with death. Her heart twisted, but there was nothing she could do. Sinking back in the chair, she left him to his memories.

She must have dozed off. When next she opened her eyes, he was crouched before the hearth. The candle had guttered; the only light in the room was that thrown by the flames. Half-asleep, she watched as he laid logs on the blaze, banking it for the night.

During their earlier conversation, she’d kept her eyes on his face or the flames; now, with the firelight sculpting his arms and shoulders, she looked her fill. Something about all that tanned male skin had her battling a fierce urge to press her fingers to it, to spread her hands across the warm expanse, to curve her palms about hard muscle.

Arms crossed, hands safely clutching her elbows, she shivered.

In one fluid motion he rose and turned. And frowned. “Here.” Reaching past her, he lifted his soft jacket from the table and held it out.

Honoria stared at it, valiantly denying the almost overwhelming urge to focus, not on the jacket, but on the chest a yard behind it. She swallowed, shook her head, then dragged her gaze straight up to his face. “No-you keep it. It was just that I woke up-I’m not really cold.” That last was true enough; the fire was throwing steady heat into the room.

One black brow very slowly rose; the pale green eyes did not leave her face. Then the second brow joined the first, and he shrugged. “As you wish.” He resumed his seat in the old carved chair, glancing about the cottage, his gaze lingering on the blanket-shrouded figure on the bed. Then, settling back, he looked at her. “I suggest we get what sleep we can. The storm should have passed by morning.”

Honoria nodded, immensely relieved when he spread his jacket over his disturbing chest. He laid his head against the chairback, and closed his eyes. His lashes formed black crescents above his high cheekbones; light flickered over the austere planes of his face. A strong face, hard yet not insensitive. The sensuous line of his lips belied his rugged jaw; the fluid arch of his brows offset his wide forehead. Wild locks of midnight black framed the whole-Honoria smiled and closed her eyes. He should have been a pirate.

With sleep clouding her mind, her body soothed by the fire’s warmth, it wasn’t hard to drift back into her dreams.

Sylvester Sebastian Cynster, sixth Duke of St. Ives, known as That Devil Cynster to a select handful of retainers, as Devil Cynster to the ton at large and simply as Devil to his closest friends, watched his wife-to-be from beneath his long lashes. What, he wondered, would his mother, the Dowager

Duchess, make of Honoria Prudence Anstruther-Wetherby? The thought almost made him smile, but the dark pall that hung over his mind wouldn’t let his lips curve. For Tolly’s death there was only one answer; justice would be served, but vengeance would wield the sword. Nothing else would appease him or the other males of his clan. Despite their reckless propensities, Cynsters died in their beds.

But avenging Tolly’s death would merely be laying the past to rest. Today he had rounded the next bend in his own road; his companion for the next stretch shifted restlessly in the old wing chair opposite.

Devil watched her settle, and wondered what was disturbing her dreams. Him, he hoped. She was certainly disturbing him-and he was wide-awake.

He hadn’t realized when he’d left the Place that morning that he was searching for a wife; fate had known better. It had placed Honoria Prudence in his path in a manner that ensured he couldn’t pass her by. The restless dissatisfaction that had gripped him of late seemed all of a piece, part of fate’s scheme. Jaded by the importunities of his latest conquest, he’d come to the Place, sending word to Vane to meet him for a few days’ shooting. Vane had been due to join him that evening; with a whole day to kill, he’d thrown a saddle on Sulieman and ridden out to his fields.

The wide lands that were his never failed to soothe him, to refocus his mind on who he was, what he was. Then the storm had risen; he’d cut through the wood, heading for the back entrance to the Place. That had put him on track to find Tolly-and Honoria Prudence. Fate had all but waved a red flag; no one had ever suggested he was slow to see the light. Seizing opportunity was how he’d made his name-he’d already decided to seize Honoria Prudence. She would do very well as his wife. For a start, she was tall, with a well-rounded figure, neither svelte nor fleshy but very definitely feminine. Hair of chesnut brown glowed richly, tendrils escaping from the knot on the top of her head. Her face, heart-shaped, was particularly arresting, fine-boned and classical, with a small straight nose, delicately arched brown brows, and a wide forehead. Her lips were full, a soft blush pink; her eyes, her finest feature, large, wide-set and long-lashed, were a misty grey. He’d told true about her chin-it was the only feature that reminded him of her grandsire, not in shape but in the determination it managed to convey.

Physically, she was a particularly engaging proposition-she’d certainly engaged his notoriously fickle interest.

Equally important, she was uncommonly level-headed, not given to flaps or starts. That had been clear from the first, when she’d stood straight and tall, uncowering beneath the weight of the epithets he’d so freely heaped on her head. Then she’d favored him with a look his mother could not have bettered and directed him to the matter at hand.

He’d been impressed by her courage. Instead of indulging in a fit of hysterics-surely prescribed practice for a gentlewoman finding a man bleeding to death in her path?-she’d been resourceful and practical. Her struggle to subdue her fear of the storm hadn’t escaped him. He’d done what he could to distract her; her instantaneous response to his commands-he’d almost seen her hackles rising-had made distracting her easy enough. Taking his shirt off hadn’t hurt, either.

His lips twitched; ruthlessly he straightened them. That, of course, was yet another good reason he should follow fate’s advice.

For the past seventeen years, despite all the distractions the ton’s ladies had lined up to provide, his baser instincts had remained subject to his will, entirely and absolutely. Honoria Prudence, however, seemed to have established a direct link to that part of his mind which, as was the case with any male Cynster, was constantly on the lookout for likely prospects. It was the hunter in him; the activity did not usually distract him from whatever else he had in hand. Only when he was ready to attend to such matters, did he permit that side of his nature to show.

Today, he had stumbled-more than once-over his lustful appetites.

His question over underdrawers was one example, and while taking off his shirt had certainly distracted her, that fact, in turn, had also distracted him. He could feel her gaze-another sensitivity he hadn’t been prey to for a very long time. At thirty-two, he’d thought himself immune, hardened, too experienced to fall victim to his own desires.

Hopefully, once he’d had Honoria Prudence a few times-perhaps a few dozen times-the affliction would pass. The fact that she was Magnus Anstruther-Wetherby’s granddaughter, rebellious granddaughter at that, would be the icing on his wedding cake. Devil savored the thought.

He hadn’t, of course, told her his name. If he had, she wouldn’t have fallen asleep, restlessly or otherwise. He’d realized almost immediately that she didn’t know who he was. There was no reason she should recognize him. She would, however, recognize his name.

Her peculiar profession would make keeping up with ton gossip imperative; he had not a doubt that, had he favored her with his name, she would have made the connection and reacted accordingly. Which would have been trying for them both.

Convincing her that she had no reason to fret would have taken a great deal of effort, which he did not, at the moment, have to spare. He still had Tolly’s murder to contend with-he needed her calm and composed. He found her directness, her unfussy, almost wifely matter-of-factness, refreshing and strangely supportive.

The fire glowed, gilding her face. Devil studied the delicate curve of her cheek, noted the vulnerable softness of her lips. He would confess his identity in the morning-he wondered what she would say. The possibilities were, he judged, wide-ranging. He was mulling over the most likely when she whimpered and stiffened in her chair.

Devil opened his eyes fully. And simultaneously became aware of the renewed ferocity of the storm. Thunder rolled, rumbling ever nearer. The wind rose on a sudden shriek; a sharp crack echoed through the wood.

Honoria gasped and came to her feet. Eyes closed, hands reaching, she stepped forward.

Devil surged from his chair. Grabbing her about the waist, he lifted her away from the fire.

With a wrenching sob, she turned and flung herself against him. Her arms slipped about him; she clung tightly, pressing her cheek to his chest. Reflexively, Devil closed his arms about her and felt the sobs that racked her. Off-balance, he took a step back; the old chair caught him behind his knee.

He sat down; Honoria did not slacken her hold. She followed him down, drawing up her legs; she ended curled in his lap. Sobbing silently.

Tilting his head, Devil peered at her face. Her eyes were closed but not tightly. Tears coursed down her face. She was, in fact, still asleep.

Trapped in her nightmare, she shuddered. She gulped down a sob, only to have another rise in its place.

Watching her, Devil felt a sharp ache twist through his chest. The tears welled from beneath her lids, gathered, then rolled slowly, steadily, down her cheeks.

His gut clenched. Hard. Gently, he tipped up her face. She didn’t wake; the tears continued to fall.

He couldn’t stand it. Devil bent his head and set his lips to hers.

Engulfed in sorrow so black, so dense, not even lightning could pierce it, Honoria became aware of lips warm and firm pressed against her own. The unexpected sensation distracted her, breaking the hold of her dream. Blackness receded; she pulled back and caught her breath.

Strong fingers curved about her jaw; the distracting lips returned. Warmth seeped into her bones, her skin, driving out death’s chill. The lips held to hers, reassuringly alive, a link from one dream to the next. She made the transition from nightmare to a sense of peace, of rightness, reassured by the strength surrounding her and the steady beat of a heart not her own.

She was no longer alone in misery. Someone was here, keeping her warm, holding the memories at bay. The ice in her veins melted. Her lips softened; tentatively, she returned the kiss.

Devil caught his baser instincts an instant before they bolted. She was still asleep-the last thing he intended was to scare her awake. The battle to resist his demons, clamoring for him to deepen the caress into something far from innocent, was furious, as ferocious as the storm. He won-but the effort left him shaking.

She drew back. Lifting his head, he heard her sigh softly.

Then, lips curving in a distinctly feminine smile, she shifted, settling herself in his lap.

Devil caught his breath; he bit his lip.

Pressing her cheek once more to his chest, she slid into peaceful slumber.

At least he’d stopped her tears. Jaw clenched, Devil reminded himself that that-and only that-had been his aim. Thanks to fate, he’d have time and more to claim recompense for the pain she was causing him, to claim a suitable reward for his remarkable rectitude. His halo, for once, ought to be glowing.

It took half an hour of thinking of something else before he could risk relaxing. By then she was deeply asleep. Shifting carefully, he settled more comfortably, then noticed the fire was dying. Reaching down, he snagged his jacket, then draped it carefully over his wife-to-be.

Lips curving, he rested his head against the chairback and closed his eyes.

He woke with his cheek pillowed on her curls.

Devil blinked. Sunlight slanted through the shutters. Honoria was still asleep, snuggled against him, legs curled across his thighs. Then he heard the clop of hooves approaching. Vane, no doubt, come to seek him out.

Straightening, Devil winced as cramped muscles protested. His wife-to-be did not stir. Gathering her in his arms, he stood; Honoria mumbled, resettling her head against his shoulder. Devil gently deposited her in the wing chair, tucking his jacket about her. A frown fleetingly puckered her brows as her cheek touched the cold chintz, then her features eased and she slid deeper into sleep.

Devil stretched. Then, running his fingers across his chest, he headed for the door. Yawning, he opened it.

His breath hissed in through his teeth. “Hell and the devil!” Taking stock of the arrivals, he cursed beneath his breath. He’d been right about Vane-his cousin, mounted on a black hunter, had just pulled up. Another horseman halted alongside. Devil’s features blanked as he nodded to his only older cousin, Charles-Tolly’s half brother.

That, however, was not the worst. From the other bridle path, a party of four trotted forward-Lord Claypole, Lady Claypole, and two grooms.

“Your Grace! How surprising to come upon you here.” A sharp-featured woman with crimped hair, Lady Claypole barely glanced at Vane and Charles before returning her gaze to Devil, her protruberant blue eyes widening.

“I was stranded by the storm.” Bracing one forearm against the doorframe, Devil blocked the doorway.

“Indeed? Beastly night.” Lord Claypole, a short, rotund gentleman, wrestled his bay to a halt. “Might I inquire, Your Grace, if you’ve seen anything of our governess? Took the gig out to Somersham yesterday-gig came home without her-haven’t seen hide nor hair of her since.”

Devil looked blank. “The storm was quite wild.”

“Quite, quite.” His lordship nodded briskly. “Daresay the horse got loose and bolted home. Testy brute. Sure to find Miss Wetherby safe and sound at the vicarage, what?” His lordship looked at his wife, still absorbed with the view. “Don’t you think so, m’dear?”

Her ladyship shrugged. “Oh, I’m sure she’ll be all right. So terribly inconsiderate of her to put us to all this fuss.” Directing a weary smile at Devil, Lady Claypole gestured to the grooms. “We felt we should mount a search, but I daresay you’re right, my lord, and she’ll be sitting snug at the vicarage. Miss Wetherby,” her ladyship informed Devil archly, “comes with the highest recommendations.”

Devil’s brows rose. “Does she indeed?”

“I had it from Mrs. Acheson-Smythe. Of the highest calibre-quite exclusive. Naturally, when she learned of my Melissa, she set aside all other offers and-” Lady Claypole broke off, protruberant eyes starting. Her mouth slowly opened as she stared past Devil’s bare shoulder.

Heaving an inward sigh, Devil lowered his arm, half-turning to watch Honoria’s entrance. She came up beside him, blinking sleepily, one hand pressed to her back; with the other, she brushed errant curls from her face. Her eyes were heavy-lidded, her topknot loose, releasing wispy tendrils of gold-shot brown to wreathe auralike about her head. She looked deliciously tumbled, her cheeks lightly flushed, as if they had indeed been entertaining each other in the manner the Claypoles were imagining.

Honoria looked past him-momentarily, she froze. Then she straightened, cool grace dropping like a cloak about her. Not a glimmer of consternation showed in her face. Devil’s lips quirked-in approval, in appreciation.

Well, miss!”

Lady Claypole’s strident tones overflowed with indignant outrage. Devil fixed her with a clear, very direct glance that any sane person would have read as a warning.

Her ladyship was not so acute. “A fine broiling, indeed! Well, Miss Wetherby-if this is what you get up to when you say you’re visiting the vicar, you need not think to cross the Claypole Hall threshold again!”

“Ahem!” More observant than his lady, Lord Claypole plucked at her sleeve. “My dear-“

“To think that I’ve been so misled! Mrs. Acheson-Smythe will hear about-“

No! Really, Margery-” One eye on Devil’s face, Lord Claypole fought to restrain his wife from committing social suicide. “No need for any of that.”

“No need?” Lady Claypole stared at him as if he’d taken leave of his senses. Shaking off his hand, she drew herself up and haughtily declaimed: “If you will send word of your direction, we’ll send your boxes on.”

“How kind.” Devil’s purring murmur held sufficient steel to succeed where Lord Claypole had failed. “You may send Miss Anstruther-Wetherby’s boxes to the Place.”

A long silence greeted his edict.

Lady Claypole leaned forward. “Anstruther-Wetherby?”

“The Place?” The soft echo came from Charles Cynster; his horse shifted and stamped.

Abruptly, Lady Claypole switched her gaze to Honoria. “Is this true, miss? Or is it merely a piece of flummery you’ve succeeded in coaxing His Grace to swallow?”

His Grace? For one discrete instant, Honoria’s brain reeled. She glanced sideways at the devil beside her-his eyes, cool green, fleetingly met hers. In that moment, she would have given all she possessed to rid herself of everyone else and take to him as he deserved. Instead, she lifted her chin and calmly regarded Lady Claypole. “As His Grace,” she invested the title with subtle emphasis, “has seen fit to inform you, I am, indeed, one of the Anstruther-Wetherbys. I choose to make little of the connection, to avoid unwarranted, ill-bred interest.”

The comment failed to rout her ladyship. “I really don’t know how I’m going to explain this to my daughters.”

“I suggest, madam,”-his gaze on Lady Claypole’s face, Devil caught Honoria’s hand, squeezing her fingers warningly as he raised them to his lips-“that you inform your daughters that they’ve had the honor of being instructed, albeit for so short a time, by my duchess.”

“Your duchess!” The exclamation burst from three throats-of the gentry, only Vane Cynster remained silent.

Honoria’s brain reeled again; the grip on her fingers tightened. Her expression serene, her lips gently curved, she glanced affectionately at her supposed fiance’s face; only he could see the fell promise in her eyes.

Really, Your Grace! You can’t have considered.” Lady Claypole had paled. “This matter hardly warrants such a sacrifice-I’m sure Miss Wetherby will be only too happy to reach some agreement…”

Her voice trailed away, finally silenced by the expression on Devil’s face. For one, long minute, he held her paralyzed, then switched his chill gaze to Lord Claypole. “I had expected, my lord, that I could count on you and your lady to welcome my duchess.” The deep flat tones held a definite menace.

Lord Claypole swallowed. “Yes indeed! No doubt of it-none whatever. Er…” Gathering his reins, he reached for his wife’s. “Felicitations and all that-daresay we should get on. If you’ll excuse us, Your Grace? Come, m’dear.” With a yank, his lordship turned both his and his wife’s horses; with remarkable speed, his party quit the clearing.

Relieved, Honoria studied the remaining horsemen. One glance was enough to identify the one nearest as a relative of… the duke called Devil. Her mind tripped on the thought, but she couldn’t catch the connection. The horseman in question turned his head; hands negligently crossed on the pommel, he was strikingly handsome. His coloring-brown hair, brown brows-was less dramatic than Devil’s, but he seemed of similar height and nearly as large as the man beside her. They shared one, definitive characteristic-the simple act of turning his head had been invested with the same fluid elegance that characterized all Devil’s movements, a masculine grace that titillated the senses.

The horseman’s gaze traveled rapidly over her-one comprehensive glance-then, lips curving in a subtle smile, he looked at Devil. “I take it you don’t need rescuing?”

Voice and manner confirmed their relationship beyond question.

“Not rescuing-there’s been an accident. Come inside.”

The horseman’s gaze sharpened; Honoria could have sworn some unspoken communication passed between him and Devil. Without another word, the horseman swung down from his saddle.

Revealing his companion, still atop his horse. An older man with pale thinning hair, he was heavily built, his face round, his features more fleshy than the aquiline planes of the other two men. He, too, met Devil’s eye, then he hauled in a breath and dismounted. “Who are they?” Honoria whispered, as the first man, having secured his horse, started toward them.

“Two other cousins. The one approaching is Vane. At least, that’s what we call him. The other is Charles. Tolly’s brother.”

“Brother?” Honoria juggled the image of the heavyset man against that of the dead youth.

“Half brother,” Devil amended. Grasping her elbow, he stepped out of the cottage, drawing her with him.

It had been some time since anyone had physically compelled Honoria to do anything-it was certainly the first time any man had dared. His sheer presumption left her speechless; his sheer power rendered noncompliance impossible. Her heart, having finally slowed after the jolt he’d given it by kissing her fingers, started racing again.

Five paces from the door, he halted and, releasing her, faced her. “Wait over there-you can sit on that log. This might take a while.”

For one pregnant instant, Honoria hovered on the brink of open rebellion. There was something implacable behind the crystal green, something that issued commands in the absolute certainty of being obeyed. She ached to challenge it, to challenge him, to take exception to his peremptory dictates. But she knew what he faced in the cottage.

Lips compressed, she inclined her head. “Very well.”

She turned, skirts swirling; Devil watched as she started toward the log, set on stumps to one side of the clearing. Then she paused; without looking back, she inclined her head again. “Your Grace.”

His gaze fixed on her swaying hips, Devil watched as she continued on her way. His interest in her had just dramatically increased; no woman before had so much as thought of throwing his commands-he knew perfectly well they were autocratic-back in his teeth. She’d not only thought of it-she’d nearly done it. If it hadn’t been for Tolly’s body in the cottage, she would have.

She reached the log. Satisfied, Devil turned; Vane was waiting at the cottage door.

“What?”

Devil’s face hardened. “Tolly’s dead. Shot.”

Vane stilled, his eyes fixed on Devil’s. “Who by?”

“That,” Devil said softly, glancing at Charles as he neared, “I don’t yet know. Come inside.”

They stopped in a semicircle at the foot of the rude pallet, looking down on Tolly’s body. Vane had been Devil’s lieutenant at Waterloo; Charles had served as an adjutant. They’d seen death many times; familiarity didn’t soften the blow. In a voice devoid of emotion, Devil recounted all he knew. He related Tolly’s last words; Charles, his expression blank, hung on every syllable. Then came a long silence; in the bright light spilling through the open door, Tolly’s corpse looked even more obscenely wrong than it had the night before.

“My God. Tolly!” Charles’s words were broken. His features crumpled. Covering his face with one hand, he sank to the edge of the pallet.

Devil clenched his jaw, his fists. Death no longer possessed the power to shock him. Grief remained, but that he would handle privately. He was the head of his family-his first duty was to lead. They’d expect it of him-he expected it of himself. And he had Honoria Prudence to protect.

The thought anchored him, helping him pull free of the vortex of grief that dragged at his mind. He hauled in a deep breath, then quietly stepped back, retreating to the clear space before the hearth.

A few minutes later, Vane joined him; he glanced through the open door. “She found him?”

Devil nodded. “Thankfully, she’s not the hysterical sort.” They spoke quietly, their tones subdued. Glancing at the bed, Devil frowned. “What’s Charles doing here?”

“He was at the Place when I arrived. Says he chased Tolly up here over some business matter. He called at Tolly’s rooms-Old Mick told him Tolly had left for here.”

Devil grimaced. “I suppose it’s as well that he’s here.”

Vane was studying his bare chest. “Where’s your shirt?”

“It’s the bandage.” After a moment, Devil sighed and straightened. “I’ll take Miss Anstruther-Wetherby to the Place and send a cart.”

“And I’ll stay and watch over the body.” A fleeting smile touched Vane’s lips. “You always get the best roles.”

Devil’s answering smile was equally brief. “This one comes with a ball and chain.”

Vane’s eyes locked on his. “You’re serious?”

“Never more so.” Devil glanced at the pallet. “Keep an eye on Charles.”

Vane nodded.

The sunshine outside nearly blinded him. Devil blinked and squinted at the log. It was empty. He cursed and looked again-a terrible thought occurred. What if she’d tried to take Sulieman?

His reaction was instantaneous-the rush of blood, the sudden pounding of his heart. His muscles had already tensed to send him racing to the stable when a flicker of movement caught his eye.

She hadn’t gone to the stable. Eyes adjusting to the glare, Devil watched her pace back and forth, a few steps to the side of the log. Her dun-colored gown had blended with the boles of the trees, momentarily camouflaging her. His panic subsiding, he focused his gaze.

Honoria felt it-she looked up and saw him, bare-chested still, the very image of a buccaneer, watching her, unmoving, irritation in every line. Their gazes locked-a second later, she broke the contact. Nose in the air, she stepped gracefully to her right-and sat primly on the log.

He waited, sharp green gaze steady, then, apparently satisfied that she’d remain where she’d been put, he headed for the stable.

Honoria ground her teeth, and told herself that he didn’t matter. He was an expert in manipulation-and in intimidation-but why should that bother her? She would go to this Place of his, wait for her boxes, and then be on her way. She could spend the time meeting the Dowager Duchess.

At least she’d solved one part of the mystery plaguing her-she’d met her elusive duke. The image she’d carried for the past three days-the image Lady Claypole had painted-of a mild, unassuming, reclusive peer, rose in her mind. The image didn’t fit the reality-the duke called Devil was not mild or unassuming. He was a first-class tyrant. And as for Lady Claypole’s claim that he was caught in her coils, her ladyship was dreaming.

But at least she’d met her duke, even if she had yet to learn his name. She was, however, having increasing difficulty believing that the notion of introducing himself had not, at some point in the past fifteen hours, passed through his mind. Which was a thought to ponder.

Honoria wriggled, ruing the loss of her petticoat. The log was rough and wrinkly; it was making painful indentations in her flesh. She could see the stable entrance; from the shifting shadows, she surmised Devil was saddling his demon horse. Presumably he would ride to the Place and send conveyances for her and his cousin’s body.

With the end of her unexpected adventure in sight, she allowed herself a moment’s reflection. Somewhat to her surprise, it was filled with thoughts of Devil. He was overbearing, arrogant, domineering-the list went on. And on. But he was also strikingly handsome, could be charming when he wished and, she suspected, possessed a suitably devilish sense of humor. She’d seen enough of the duke to accord him her respect and enough of the man to feel an empathetic tug. Nevertheless, she had no desire to spend overmuch time in the company of a tyrant called Devil. Gentlemen such as he were all very well-as long as they weren’t related to you and kept a respectful distance.

She’d reached that firm conclusion when he reappeared, leading Sulieman. The stallion was skittish, the man somber. Honoria stood as he neared.

Stopping in front of her, he halted Sulieman beside him; with the log immediately behind her, Honoria couldn’t step back. Before she could execute a sideways sidle, Devil looped the reins about one fist-and reached for her.

By the time she realized his intention, she was perched precariously sidesaddle on Sulieman’s back. She gasped, and locked her hands about the pommel. “What on earth…?”

Unloosing the reins, Devil threw her an impatient frown. “I’m taking you home.”

Honoria blinked-he had a way with words she wasn’t sure she appreciated. “You’re taking me to your home-the Place?”

“Somersham Place.” The reins free, Devil reached for the pommel. With Honoria riding before him, he wasn’t intending to use the stirrups.

Honoria’s eyes widened. “Wait!”

The look Devil cast her could only be achieved by an impatient man. “What?”

“You’ve forgotten your jacket-it’s in the cottage.” Honoria fought to contain her panic, occasioned by the thought of his chest-bare-pressed against her back. Even within a foot of her back. Within a foot of any of her.

“Vane’ll bring it.”

No! Well-whoever heard of a duke riding about the countryside bare-chested? You might catch cold-I mean…” Aghast, Honoria realized she was looking into pale green eyes that saw far more than she’d thought.

Devil held her gaze steadily. “Get used to it,” he advised. Then he vaulted into the saddle behind her.

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