The only benefit Honoria could discover in her position on Sulieman’s back was that her tormentor, behind her, could not see her face. Unfortunately, he could see the blush staining not only her cheeks but her neck. He could also feel the rigidity that had gripped her-hardly surprising-the instant he’d landed in the saddle behind her, he’d wrapped a muscled arm about her and pulled her against him.
She’d shut her eyes the instant he’d touched her; panic had cut off her shriek. For the first time in her life she thought she might actually faint. The steely strength surrounding her was overwhelming; by the time she subdued her flaring reactions and could function rationally again, they were turning from the bridle path into the lane.
Glancing about, she looked down-and clutched at the arm about her waist. It tightened.
“Sit still-you won’t fall.”
Honoria’s eyes widened. She could
“It’s home. My mother remains there most of the year.”
There was no duke of Somersham. As they rounded the curve, Honoria decided she had had enough. Her hips, her bottom, were wedged firmly between his rock-hard thighs.
They were exceedingly close, yet she didn’t even know his name. “What
“Titles.” The stallion tried to veer to the side of the lane but was ruthlessly held on course. “Duke of St. Ives, Marquess of Earith, Earl of Strathfield, Viscount Wellsborough, Viscount Moreland…”
The recital continued; Honoria leaned back against his arm so she could see his face. By the time names ceased to fall from his lips, they’d passed the place of yesterday’s tragedy and rounded the next bend. He looked down; she narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you quite finished?”
“Actually, no. That’s the litany they drummed into me when I was in shortcoats. There are more recent additions, but I’ve never learned where they fit.”
He glanced down again-Honoria stared blankly back at him. She’d finally caught the elusive connection.
His eyes met hers; when she continued to stare in dumbfounded accusation, one black brow arrogantly rose. “You want proof?”
Added to that, whether by fate or sheer luck, their heroism under arms was matched by an uncanny ability to survive. In the aftermath of Waterloo, when so many noble families were counting the cost, a saying had gone the rounds, born of grudging awe. The Cynsters, so it went, were invincible; seven had taken the field and all seven returned, hale and whole, with barely a scratch.
They were also invincibly arrogant, a characteristic fueled by the fact that they were, by and large, as talented as they thought themselves, a situation which engendered in less-favored mortals a certain reluctant respect.
Not that Cynsters demanded respect-they simply took it as their due.
If even half the tales told were true, the current generation were as wild, hedonistic, and unpredictable as any Cynsters ever were. And the current head of the clan was the wildest, most hedonistic, and unpredictable of them all. The present duke of St. Ives-he who had tossed her up to his saddle and declared he was taking her home. The same man who’d told her to get used to his bare chest. The piratical autocrat who had, without a blink, decreed she was to be his duchess.
It suddenly occurred to Honoria that she might be assuming too much. Matters might not be proceeding quite as she’d thought. Not that it mattered-she knew where life was taking her. Africa. She cleared her throat. “When next you meet them, the Claypole girls might prove trying-they are, I’m sorry to say, their mother’s daughters.”
She felt him shrug. “I’ll leave you to deal with them.”
“I won’t be here.” She made the statement firmly.
“We’ll be here often enough-we’ll spend some of the year in London and on my other estates, but the Place will always be home. But you needn’t worry over me-I’m not fool enough to face the disappointed local aspirants without availing myself of your skirts.”
“I beg your pardon?” Turning, Honoria stared at him.
He met her gaze briefly; his lips quirked. “To hide behind.”
The temptation was too great-Honoria lifted an arrogant brow. “I thought Cynsters were invincible.”
His smile flashed. “The trick is not to expose oneself unnecessarily to the enemy’s fire.”
Struck by the force of that fleeting smile, Honoria blinked-and abruptly faced forward. There was, after all, no reason she should face
“I hesitate to contradict you,” came in a purring murmur just above her left ear, “but we’re getting married. You are, therefore, not going anywhere.”
Honoria gritted her teeth against the shivery tingles that coursed down her spine. Turning her head, she looked directly into his mesmerizing eyes. “You only said that to spike Lady Claypole’s guns.” When he didn’t respond, just met her gaze levelly, she looked forward, shrugging haughtily. “You’re no gentleman to tease me so.”
The silence that followed was precisely gauged to stretch her nerves taut. She knew that when he spoke, his voice deep, low, velvet dark. “I never tease-at least not verbally. And I’m not a gentleman, I’m a nobleman, a distinction I suspect you understand very well.”
Honoria knew what she was meant to understand-her insides were quaking in a thoroughly distracting way-but she was not about to surrender. “I am not marrying you.”
“If you think that, my dear Miss Anstruther-Wetherby, I fear you’ve overlooked a number of pertinent points.”
“Such as the past night, which we spent under the same roof, in the same room, unchaperoned.”
“Except by a dead man, your cousin, who everyone must know you were fond of. With his body laid out upon the bed, no one will imagine anything untoward occurred.” Convinced she’d played a winning card, Honoria wasn’t surprised by the silence which followed.
They emerged from the trees into the brightness of a late-summer morning. It was early; the crisp chill of the night had yet to fade. The track followed a water-filled ditch. Ahead, a line of gnarled trees lay across their path.
“I had intended to ask you not to mention how we found Tolly. Except, of course, to the family and the magistrate.”
Honoria frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I’d rather it was thought that we found him this morning, already dead.”
Honoria pursed her lips, and saw her defense evaporate. But she could hardly deny the request, particularly as it really mattered not at all. “Very well. But why?”
“The sensationalism will be bad enough when it becomes known he was killed by a highwayman. I’d rather spare my aunt, and you, as much of the consequent questioning as possible. If it’s known he lived afterward and we found him before he died, you’ll be subjected to an inquisition every time you appear in public.”
She could hardly deny it-the
“Because if we do, it’s rather difficult to explain why I didn’t simply leave you with the body and ride home, relieving you of my dangerous presence.”
“Given you appear impervious to the elements, why didn’t you leave after he died?”
“It was too late by then.”
Because the damage to her reputation had already been done? Honoria swallowed an impatient humph. Between the trees, she could see a stone wall, presumably enclosing the park. Beyond, she glimpsed a large house, the roof and the highest windows visible above tall hedges. “Anyway,” she stated, “on one point Lady Claypole was entirely correct-there’s no need for any great fuss.”
“It’s a simple matter-as Lady Claypole will not give me a recommendation, perhaps your mother could do so?”
“I think that’s unlikely.”
“Why?” Honoria twisted around. “She’ll know who I am just as you did.”
Pale green eyes met hers. “That’s why.”
She wished narrowing her eyes at him had some effect-she tried it anyway. “In the circumstances, I would have thought your mother would do all she can to help me.”
“I’m sure she will-which is precisely why she won’t lift a finger to help you to another position as governess.”
Stifling a snort, Honoria turned forward. “She can’t be that stuffy.”
“I can’t recall her ever being described as such.”
“I rather think somewhere to the north might be wise-the Lake District perhaps?”
He sighed-Honoria felt it all the way to her toes. “My dear Miss Anstruther-Wetherby, let me clarify a few details. Firstly, the tale of us spending the night alone in my woodsman’s cottage will out-nothing is more certain. Regardless of all injunctions delivered by her put-upon spouse, Lady Claypole will not be able to resist telling her dearest friends the latest scandal involving the duke of St. Ives. All in absolute confidence, of course, which will ensure the story circulates to every corner of the
Honoria scowled at the trees, drawing ever nearer. “I take leave to inform you, Your Grace, that I’m hardly a green girl. I’m a mature woman of reasonable experience-no easy mark.”
“Unfortunately, my dear, you have your cause and effect confused. If you had, indeed, been a fresh-faced chit just out of the schoolroom, few would imagine I’d done anything other than sleep last night. As it is…” He paused, slowing Sulieman as they neared the trees. “It’s well-known I prefer more challenging game.”
Disgusted, Honoria humphed. “It’s ridiculous-there wasn’t even a bed.”
The chest behind her quaked, then was still. “Trust me-there’s no requirement for a bed.”
Honoria pressed her lips shut and glared at the trees. The path wended through the stand; beyond stood the stone wall, two feet thick and eight feet high. An archway gave onto an avenue lined with poplars. Through the shifting leaves, she sighted the house, still some way to the left. It was huge-a long central block with perpendicular wings at each end, like an E without the middle stroke. Directly ahead lay a sprawling stable complex.
The proximity of the stables prompted her to speech. “I suggest, Your Grace, that we agree to disagree over the likely outcome of last night. I acknowledge your concern but see no reason to tie myself up in matrimony to avoid a few months’ whispers. Given your reputation, you can hardly argue.” That, she felt, was a nicely telling touch.
“My dear Miss Anstruther-Wetherby.” His gentle, perfectly lethal purr sounded in her left ear; tingles streaked down her spine. “Let me make one point perfectly clear. I don’t intend to argue. You, an Anstruther-Wetherby, have been compromised, however innocently, by me, a Cynster. There is, therefore, no question over the outcome; hence, there can be no argument.”
Honoria gritted her teeth so tightly her jaw ached. The struggle to suppress the shudder that purring murmur of his evoked distracted her all the way to the stable arch. They rode beneath it, Sulieman’s hooves clattering on the cobbles. Two grooms came running but pulled up short of where Devil reined in his black steed.
“Not yet about, Y’r Grace.”
Honoria heard her rescuer-or was that captor?-curse beneath his breath. Entirely without warning, he dismounted-by bringing his leg over the pommel, taking her to the ground with him. She didn’t have time to shriek.
Catching her breath, she realized her feet had yet to reach earth-he was holding her still, firmly caught against him; another shudder threatened. She drew breath to protest-on the instant, he gently set her down.
Lips compressed, Honoria haughtily brushed down her skirts. Straightening, she turned toward him-he caught her hand, grabbed the reins, and headed for the stable block, towing her and his black demon behind him.
Honoria swallowed her protest; she’d rather go with him than cool her heels in the stable yard, a prey to his grooms’ curiosity. Gloom, filled with the familiar smells of hay and horses, engulfed her. “Why can’t your grooms brush him down?”
“They’re too frightened of him-only old Melton can handle him.”
Honoria looked at Sulieman-the horse looked steadily back.
His master stopped before a large stall. Released, Honoria leaned against the stall door. Arms crossed, she pondered her predicament while watching her captor-she was increasingly certain that was a more accurate description of him-rub down his fearsome steed.
Muscles bunched and relaxed; the sight was positively mesmerizing. He’d told her to get used to it; she doubted she ever could. He bent, then fluidly straightened and shifted to the horse’s other side; his chest came into view. Honoria drew in a slow breath-then he caught her eye.
For one instant, their gazes held-then Honoria looked away, first at the tack hanging along the stable wall, then up at the rafters, inwardly berating herself for her reaction, simultaneously wishing she had a fan to hand.
It was never wise to tangle with autocrats, but, given she had no choice, she needed to remember that it was positively fatal to acknowledge he had any power over her.
Determined to hold her own, she ordered her mind to business. If he believed honor demanded he marry her, she’d need to try a different tack. She frowned. “I do not see that it’s fair that, purely because I was stranded by a storm and took shelter in the same cottage as you, I should have to redirect my life. I am not a passive spectator waiting for the next occurrence to happen-I have plans!”
Devil glanced up. “Riding in the shadow of the Great Sphinx?” He could just imagine her on a camel-along with a hovering horde of Berber chieftains who looked remarkably like him and thought like him, too.
“Precisely. And I plan to explore the Ivory Coast as well-another exciting place so I’ve heard.”
Barbary pirates and slave traders. Devil tossed aside the currying brush and dusted his hands on his breeches. “You’ll just have to make do with becoming a Cynster-no one’s ever suggested it’s a mundane existence.”
“I am not going to marry you.”
Her flashing eyes and the set of her chin declared her Anstruther-Wetherby mind was made up; Devil knew he was going to seriously enjoy every minute it took to make her change it. He walked toward her.
Predictably, she backed not an inch, although he saw her muscles lock against the impulse. Without breaking stride, he closed his hands about her waist and lifted her, setting her down with her back against the stall wall. With commendable restraint, he removed his hands, locking one on the top of the half-closed door, bracing the other, palm flat, on the wall by her shoulder.
Caged, she glared at him; he tried not to notice how her breasts rose as she drew in a deep breath. He spoke before she could. “What have you got against the proposition?”
Honoria kept her eyes locked on his-standing as he was, her entire field of vision was filled with bare male. Once her heart had ceased to thud quite so loudly, she raised her brows haughtily. “I have no desire whatever to marry purely because of some antiquated social stricture.”
“That’s the sum of your objections?”
“Well, there’s Africa, of course.”
“Forget Africa. Is there any reason other than my motives in offering for you that in your opinion constitutes an impediment to our marriage?”
His arrogance, his high-handedness, his unrelenting authority-his chest. Honoria was tempted to start at the top of her list and work her way down. But not one of her caveats posed any serious impediment to their marriage. She searched his eyes for some clue as to her best answer, fascinated anew by their remarkable clarity. They were like crystal clear pools of pale green water, emotions, thoughts, flashing like quicksilver fish in their depths. “No.”
She glimpsed some emotion-was it relief?-flash through his eyes before his heavy lids hid them from view. Straightening, he caught her hand and headed for the stable door. Stifling a curse, she grabbed up her skirts and lengthened her stride. He made for the main archway; beyond lay his house, peaceful in the morning sunshine.
“You may set your mind at rest, Miss Anstruther-Wetherby.” He glanced down, the planes of his face granite-hard. “I’m not marrying you because of any social stricture. That, if you consider it, is a nonsensical idea. Cynsters, as you well know, do not give a damn about social strictures. Society, as far as we’re concerned, can think what it pleases-
“But… if that’s the case-and given your reputation I can readily believe it is-why insist on marrying me?”
“Because I want to.”
The words were delivered as the most patently obvious answer to a simple question. Honoria held on to her temper. “Because you
“That’s it? Just because you want to?”
The look he sent her was calculated to quell. “For a Cynster, that’s a perfectly adequate reason. In fact, for a Cynster, there is no better reason.”
He looked ahead again; Honoria glared at his profile. “
Again he nodded.
The glance he shot her was too brief for her to read. “It so happens I need a wife, and you’re the perfect candidate.” With that, he altered their direction and lengthened his stride even more.
His lips thinned, but he slowed-just enough so she didn’t have to run. They’d gained the graveled walk that circled the house. It took her a moment to replay his words, another to see their weakness. “That’s still ridiculous. You must have half the female population of the
He didn’t even glance her way. “At least half.”
“So why me?”
Devil considered telling her-in graphic detail. Instead, he gritted his teeth and growled: “Because you’re unique.”
Unique in that she was arguing. He halted, raised his eyes to the heavens in an appeal for sufficient strength to deal with an Anstruther-Wetherby, then looked down and trapped her gaze. “Let me put it this way-
The stunned shock in her eyes was balm to his soul. The grey orbs, locked on his, widened-then widened even more. He knew what she was seeing-the sheer lust that blazed through him had to be lighting his eyes.
He fully expected her to dissolve into incoherent, ineffectual, disjointed gibberings-instead, she suddenly snapped free of his visual hold, blinked, drew a quick breath-and narrowed her eyes at him.
Devil watched the telltale color rise in her cheeks. Grimly, he nodded. “Fine.” Tightening his grip on her hand, he turned and stalked on.
All the way from the cottage, she’d shifted and wriggled against him; by the time they’d reached the stable, he’d been agonizingly aroused. How he’d managed not to throw her down in the straw and ease his pain, he had no idea. But he now had a roaring headache, and if he didn’t keep moving-keep her moving-temptation might yet get the upper hand. “You,” he stated, as they rounded the corner of the house, “can marry me for a host of sensible, socially acceptable reasons.
He felt her dagger glance. “That is-
Honoria stopped; stock-still, she stared. Somersham Place lay spread before her, basking in the morning sunshine. Immense, built of honey-colored stone at least a century before, it sprawled elegantly before her, a mature and gracious residence overlooking a wide lawn. She was dimly aware of the lake at the bottom of the lawn, of the oaks flanking the curving drive, of the stone wall over which a white rose cascaded, dew sparkling on the perfumed blooms. The clack of ducks drifted up from the lake; the air was fresh with the tang of clipped grass. But it was the house that held her. Durable, inviting, there was grandeur in every line, yet the sharp edges were muted, softened by the years. Sunbeams glinted on row upon row of lead-paned windows; huge double oak doors were framed by a portico of classic design. Like a lovely woman mellowed by experience, his home beckoned, enticed.
He was proposing to make her mistress of all this.
The thought flitted through her mind; even though she knew he was watching, she allowed herself a moment to imagine, to dwell on what might be. For this had she been born, reared, trained. What should have been her destiny lay before her. But becoming his duchess would mean risking…
Mentally shutting her eyes to the house, the temptation, she drew a steadying breath, and saw the crest blazoned in stone on the portico’s facade, a shield sporting a stag rampant on a ground of fleur-de-lis. Beneath the shield ran a wide stone ribbon bearing a carved inscription. The words were Latin-it took her a moment to translate. “To have… and to hold?”
Hard fingers closed about hers. “The Cynster family motto.”
Honoria raised her eyes heavenward. An irresistible force, he drew her toward the steps. “Where are you taking me?” A vision of silk cushions and gauze curtains-a pirate’s private lair-flashed into her mind.
“To my mother. Incidentally, she prefers to be addressed as the Dowager.”
Honoria frowned. “But you’re not married.”
“Yet. It’s her subtle way of reminding me of my duty.”
Subtle. Honoria wondered what the Dowager-his mother, after all-would do if she wished to make a point forcefully. Whatever, it was time and past to make a stand. It would be unwise to cross his threshold-beyond which, she had not the slightest doubt, he ruled like a king-without coming to some agreement as to their future relationship, or lack thereof.
They reached the porch; he halted before the doors and released her. Facing him, Honoria straightened. “Your Grace, we must-“
The doors swung inward, held majestically wide by a butler, one of the more imposing of the species. Cheated of her moment, Honoria only just managed not to glare.
The butler’s eyes had gone to his master; his smile was genuinely fond. “Good morning, Your Grace.”
His master nodded. “Webster.”
Honoria stood her ground. She was not going to cross his threshold until he acknowledged her right to ignore-as he did whenever it suited him-society’s dictates.
He shifted to stand beside her, gesturing for her to precede him. Simultaneously, Honoria felt his hand at the back of her waist. Without her petticoat, only a single layer of fabric separated her skin from his hard palm. He didn’t exert any great pressure; instead, seductively questing, his hand traveled slowly, very slowly, down. When it reached the curve of her bottom, Honoria sucked in a quick breath-and stepped quickly over the threshold.
He followed. “This is Miss Anstruther-Wetherby, Webster.” He looked her way; Honoria glimpsed triumph in his eyes. “She’ll be staying-her boxes should arrive this morning.”
Webster bowed low. “I’ll have your things taken to your room, miss.”
Stiffly, Honoria inclined her head-her heart was still fluttering in her throat; her skin felt hot and cold in the strangest places. She couldn’t fault the butler’s demeanor; he seemed unsurprised by his master’s lack of attire. Was she the only one who found his bare chest at all remarkable? Stifling an urge to sniff disbelievingly, she elevated her nose another inch and looked about the hall.
The impression created by the exterior extended within doors. A sense of graciousness pervaded the high-ceilinged hall, lit by sunlight pouring through the fanlight and the windows flanking the front doors. The walls were papered-blue fleur-de-lis on an ivory ground; the paneling, all light oak, glowed softly. Together with the blue-and-white tiles, the decor imparted an airy, uncluttered atmosphere. Stairs of polished oak, their baluster ornately carved, led upward in a long, straight sweep, then divided into two, both arms leading to the gallery above.
Webster had been informing his master of the presence of his cousins. Devil nodded curtly. “Where’s the Dowager?”
“In the morning room, Your Grace.”
“I’ll take Miss Anstruther-Wetherby to her. Wait for me.”
The devil glanced down at her. With a languid grace that set her nerves on end, he gestured for her to accompany him. She was still quivering inside-she told herself it was due to indignation. Head high, she swept down the hall.
His instruction to his butler to wait had recalled what their sparring had driven from her mind. As they neared the morning-room door, it occurred to Honoria that she might have been arguing for no real reason. Devil reached for the doorknob, his fingers closing about hers-she tugged. He looked up, incipient impatience in his eyes.
She smiled understandingly. “I’m sorry-I’d forgotten. You must be quite distracted by your cousin’s death.” She spoke softly, soothingly. “We can discuss all this later, but there’s really no reason for us to wed. I daresay, once the trauma has passed, you’ll see things as I do.”
He held her gaze, his eyes as blank as his expression. Then his features hardened. “Don’t count on it.” With that, he set the door wide and handed her through. He followed, closing the door behind him.
A petite woman, black hair streaked with grey, was seated in a chair before the hearth, a hoop filled with embroidery on her lap. She looked up, then smiled-the most gloriously welcoming smile Honoria had ever seen-and held out her hand. “There you are, Sylvester. I’d wondered where you’d got to. And who is this?”
His mother’s French background rang clearly in her accent; it also showed in her coloring, in the hair that had once been as black as her son’s combined with an alabaster complexion, in the quick, graceful movements of her hands, her animated features and the candid, appraising glance that swept Honoria.
Inwardly ruing her hideously creased skirts, Honoria kept her head high as she was towed across the room. The Dowager hadn’t so much as blinked at her son’s bare chest.
With the briefest of nods, he proceeded to do just that, closing the door firmly behind him. Stunned, Honoria glanced at the Dowager, and was pleased to see she wasn’t the only one left staring.
Then the Dowager looked up and smiled-warmly, welcomingly, much as she had smiled at her son. Honoria felt the glow touch her heart. The Dowager’s expression was understanding, encouraging. “Come, my dear. Sit down.” The Dowager waved to the
Resisting the temptation to agree emphatically, Honoria sank onto the chintz.
“You must excuse my son. He is somewhat…” The Dowager paused, clearly searching for the right word. She grimaced. “
“I believe he has a number of matters on his mind.”
The Dowager’s fine brows rose. “His mind?” Then she smiled, eyes twinkling as they rested once more on Honoria’s face. “But now, my dear, as my
Her name became ” ‘Onoria”-the Dowager couldn’t manage the “H.” Honoria returned her smile, and sidestepped the leading question. “If you wish it, ma’am.”
The Dowager’s smile grew radiant. “My dear, I wish it with all my heart.”