Chapter 13

“I make it 334.” Honoria restacked the lists in her lap and started counting again.

His gaze on her profile, Devil raised his brows. They were in the morning room, Honoria at one end of the chaise while he sprawled elegantly at the other; she was adding up the acceptances for the grand ball his aunt Horatia was to host in Berkeley Square the next night, to declare the family out of mourning. Smiling, Devil retrieved a list from the floor. “That’s a goodly number for this time of year. The weather’s put back the shooting, so many have stayed in town. Like Chillingworth-it appears my aunt has seen fit to invite him.”

“He is an earl.” Honoria glanced up, frowned, then reached over and tugged at the list. “But I gather you’ve known him forever.”

“It certainly seems like forever. We were at Eton together.”

“Rivals from your earliest years?”

“I wouldn’t class Chillingworth as a rival-more like a nuisance.”

Honoria looked down, hiding her grin. Devil had taken to joining her in the morning room in the post-luncheon hour during which the Dowager habitually rested. He would stay for half an hour, long limbs disposed in the opposite corner of the chaise, his presence filling the room, dominating her senses. They would chat; if he had information from his cousins, he would tell her, simply and straightforwardly, without evasion.

From her own efforts, she’d learned nothing more. The Dowager had fulfilled her stated intention of introducing her to the ton; through a mind-numbing round of morning calls, “at-homes,” and afternoon teas, she had met all the major hostesses and been accepted as one of their circle. But in all the gossip and scandalmongering abounding amongst the female half of the ton, not a single scrap had she heard regarding Tolly.

She looked up. “Have you heard anything?”

“As it happens, I have.” Honoria opened her eyes wide; Devil’s lips quirked wryly. “Don’t get your hopes up, but Demon’s back.”

“Did he find Tolly’s man?”

“Yes. Mick remembered that last night clearly-Tolly, to use Mick’s words, was ‘in a right spate’ when he came in. Unfortunately, Tolly refused to tell him anything concerning the who, the why, or the what.”

Honoria frowned. “Refused?”

“Mick-being Mick-asked.”

“And?”

“Uncharacteristically got told, in no uncertain terms, to mind his own business.”

“That was odd?”

Devil nodded. “Mick had been with Tolly since Tolly was in shortcoats. If he was troubled over something, the most likely occurrence is that Tolly would have talked it over, without reservation, with Mick.”

“So.” Honoria considered. “What sort of secret would Tolly refuse to discuss with Mick?”

“That, indeed, is the question.” His gaze on her face, on the slight frown disturbing the sweeping arch of her brows, Devil added: “Along with the puzzle of the time.”

“The time?”

“That night, Tolly got in less than an hour after he left Mount Street.”

They’d assumed Tolly had been out half the night, at some function at which he’d learned the secret that led to his death. Honoria’s frown deepened. “Is Mick sure?”

“Positive-he remembers particularly as he hadn’t expected Tolly back so soon.”

Honoria nodded. “How far is it from Mount Street to Tolly’s lodgings?”

“His lodgings were in Wigmore Street-about twenty minutes from my uncle’s house.”

“Was there any particular house-of a friend, perhaps-where he might have stopped along the way?”

“Nothing directly in his path. And none close that we haven’t checked. None of his friends saw him that night.”

Honoria caught Devil’s eye. “How does such a short time fit with Lucifer’s discreditable rumor?”

“Not well.” Devil hesitated, then added, “It doesn’t rule it out, but it makes it unlikely. If Tolly had gone-” He broke off, then continued: “If what we thought had happened, then it most likely happened at some earlier date, which doesn’t explain why Tolly only got agitated after he left Mount Street.”

Studying his face, more revealing now that he didn’t guard his expression in her presence, Honoria inwardly frowned. He remained disturbed by the discreditable rumor, even though it might now be unlinked to Tolly’s death. “What is it?”

Devil looked up, then grimaced. “It’s merely that, as the head of the family, I don’t appreciate the idea of some skeleton not safely locked in a cupboard.”

Honoria’s lips softened; she looked away.

They sat silent for some minutes, Honoria puzzling over the questions Mick’s recollections had raised, Devil outwardly relaxed, his gaze, gently pensive, resting on her face. Then Honoria looked at Devil. “Have you told the others?”

“They were on the doorstep with Demon. While I wrestle with our discreditable rumor, they’re trying to shake information from any tree they can find. Richard and Demon have gone after the local jarveys; Gabriel, believe it or not, is hobnobbing with street sweepers. Vane and Lucifer are combing the likeliest taverns in the hope they might stumble upon some drunk who saw where Tolly went.”

“That seems a very long bow to draw.”

Devil sighed and leaned his head back against the chaise.

“It is.” After a moment of staring at the ceiling, he added: “I find it hard to credit but they seem as frustrated as I am.” Slowly, he turned his head and looked at Honoria.

She met his gaze levelly. “Matters won’t always fall into line just because you decree it.”

His eyes on hers, Devil raised his brows. “So I apprehend.” There was an undercurrent of subtle self-deprecation in his voice; it was followed almost immediately by a tangible ripple in the atmosphere about them. They stilled, then Devil smoothly reached out and lifted the topmost sheet from the piled lists. “I presume,” he said, ostensibly scanning the list, “that every last one of the grande dames will be present?”

“Naturally.” Equally smoothly, Honoria followed his lead, ruthlessly ignoring the breathlessness that had afflicted her. They spent the next five minutes trading inconsequential quips, while the restless hunger simmering between them subsided.

No matter how easy in each other’s company they became, that flame still smoldered, ready to flare at the slightest touch, the least unwary comment. Honoria was sorely tempted to confess that she’d reached her decision, finally and firmly, incontrovertibly. She’d thought long and hard; she could see all the difficulties. She could also see the benefits, and the possibilities; she’d decided to accept the challenge.

And what better way than to start as she meant to go on? She’d determined to use Horatia’s ball as the stage for her acceptance. Her speech was well rehearsed…

She blinked and returned to reality-and realized her voice had died in mid-sentence. Devil’s gaze was on her face, too perceptive, too knowing. Heat rose in her cheeks.

He smiled-wolfishly-and fluidly rose. “I’d better see Hobden-he’s come up from St. Ives with the tillage tallies.” He met Honoria’s eyes, then bowed elegantly. “I’ll wish you a good afternoon, my dear.”

“And I you, Your Grace.” Honoria graciously inclined her head. As Devil strolled to the door, the black armband he still wore caught her eye. Honoria frowned. The six weeks the family had decreed as full mourning ended that night; presumably, tomorrow, he’d leave off his black armband.

Her frown deepened. He had better leave it off tomorrow night.

For Honoria, the next evening started auspiciously. Nerves wound tight, she descended the stairs, gowned for conquest. As usual, Webster materialized in the hall before she reached the last step; he crossed to the drawing-room door and placed a hand on the knob before glancing her way.

His jaw dropped-only momentarily, but the sight did wonders for Honoria’s confidence. “Good evening, Webster. Is His Grace down?”

“Indeed, ma’am-I mean, miss.” Webster drew in a quick breath and relocated his usual mask. “His Grace is waiting.” With a deep bow, he set the door wide.

Smoothly, serenely, inwardly so tight she felt she might break, Honoria glided forward.

Standing before the fireplace, Devil swung around as she entered. As always, his gaze skimmed her, top to toe. Tonight, when he reached her silver sandals, peeking from beneath her hem, he stopped, then, excruciatingly slowly, traced his way back up her length, over the sweep of eau de Nil silk clinging sleekly to her long limbs. His eyes dwelled successively on each flatteringly draped curve, then rose higher, to caress her shoulders, concealed only where the simple, toga-style gown was anchored by a gold clasp on her left shoulder. The spangled silk shawl she carried over her elbows was flimsy; no real distraction. She wore no jewelry other than the gold comb in her hair, itself piled high, curl upon gleaming curl. Honoria felt the sudden intensity in his gaze.

Her breath caught.

With long, prowling stride, he crossed the room, his gaze steady on hers. As he neared, he held out one hand; without hesitation, she laid her fingers across his. Slowly, he turned her; dutifully, she twirled. She could feel the heat of his gaze as, at close quarters, it roamed her body, shielded only by gossamer silk. As she completed her revolution and faced him again, she saw his lips curve. His eyes met hers. “Celestine has my gratitude.”

His voice reverberated through her; Honoria arched one brow. “Celestine?” She let her gaze linger on his. “And what, pray tell, do I receive?”

“My attention.” On the words, Devil drew her closer. His gaze lifted to her curls, then dropped to her eyes, then fell to her lips. “Unreserved.”

Obedient to the pressure of his hand at her back, Honoria arched closer, lifting her lips to his. He met her halfway, yet she was sure she was floating as his lips settled, warm and firm, on hers.

It was the first kiss they’d shared since their confrontation in the morning room; beyond the fact their lips touched, this caress bore no relation to that previous embrace. This was all pleasure and warmth, delight spiced with enthralling fascination as lips melded and held, then firmed again.

Honoria’s restless hands came to rest on Devil’s lapels; his free hand curved possessively over one silk-clad hip. Beneath his palms, her skin burned, two layers of fine silk no real barrier to his touch. Willingly, she sank into his arms, yielding to the persuasion of his lips and her own flaring desire.

A form of magic held them fast; how many minutes they spent in that soul-stealing kiss neither could have said. The click of heels on the hall tiles brought it to an end.

Devil raised his head and looked at the door; Honoria waited, but he did not step away. His only concession as the door swung wide and his mother appeared in the doorway, was to remove his hand from her hip and, with the hand at her back, gently turn her to the door. Not by word nor, it was clear, even by deed, did he intend concealing the fact he’d been kissing her.

Honoria blinked. She was slow in following Devil’s lead; when the Dowager’s gaze reached them, she was still half-stretched on her toes, one hand lying on his chest. The Dowager, grande dame that she was, pretended not to notice. “If you are ready, my dears, I suggest we leave. There’s no point waiting in this drawing room.”

Inclining his head, Devil offered Honoria his arm; she placed her fingertips upon it. A great deal warmer than when she had entered, she left the room by his side.

The journey to Lord George Cynster’s house in Berkeley Square took a bare five minutes. Another five saw Honoria, with Devil by her side, surrounded by Cynsters. The drawing room was full of them; tall, commandingly arrogant gentlemen and briskly imperious ladies, they threw the other members of the haut ton invited to dinner into the proverbial shade.

Her gown caused a stir-she hadn’t been sure what to expect. What she received were wide smiles and nods of encouragement from the other Cynster ladies-and arrested looks from all the Cynster males. It was Lucifer who translated those looks into words. He shook his dark head at her. “You do realize, don’t you, that if Devil hadn’t snapped you up, you’d be facing a concerted siege?”

Honoria tried to look innocent.

Dinner had been moved forward to seven; the ball would start at nine. Across the sound of twenty conversations, Webster, borrowed for the occasion, announced that the meal was served.

Devil led his aunt into the dining room, leaving Honoria to be escorted thence by Vane. Remembering a like occasion, Tolly’s funeral, Honoria glanced at Vane. “Do you always stand in for him?”

The look he sent her was startled, then his lips lifted. “It would,” he murmured, with the cool hauteur that was his most notable characteristic, “be more accurate to say that we cover each other’s backs. Devil’s only a few months older than I am-we’ve known each other all our lives.”

Honoria heard the devotion beneath the smooth tones and inwardly approved. Vane led her to the chair next to Devil’s, taking the chair beside hers. Flanked by such partners, she looked forward to the dinner with unalloyed anticipation.

The conversation about her revolved about politics and the issues of the day; Honoria listened with an interest she hadn’t previously known, registering Devil’s views, reconciling them with what she knew of His Grace of St. Ives. While the second course was being served, she idly glanced around the table. And noticed the black strip about the arm of each of the Cynster cousins. Devil’s left arm was by her side; she turned her head-the black band, barely noticeable against his black coat, was level with her chin.

Looking down at her plate, she swallowed a curse.

She bided her time until they were strolling the huge ballroom, ostensibly admiring the decorative wreaths. They were sufficiently private; the ball guests were only just arriving in the hall below. As they neared the ballroom’s end, she slipped one finger beneath the black band and tugged. Devil looked down-and raised a brow.

“Why are you still wearing this?”

He met her gaze; she sensed his hesitation. Then he sighed and looked forward. “Because we haven’t yet caught Tolly’s murderer.”

Given the dearth of clues, they might never catch Tolly’s murderer; Honoria kept that thought to herself. “Is it really necessary?” She glanced at his stern profile. “Surely one little waltz won’t addle your wits?”

His lips twisted as he glanced down, but he shook his head. “I just feel…” His words trailed away; frowning, he looked ahead. “I’m sure I’ve forgotten something-some key-some vital clue.”

His tone made it clear he’d changed tack; Honoria followed without quibble. She could understand that he felt guilty over his inability to bring Tolly’s killer to justice; she didn’t need to hear him admit it. “Do you remember anything about this clue?”

“No-it’s the most damnable thing. I’m sure there’s something I’ve seen, something I’ve already learned, but I simply can’t fasten on it. It’s like a phantom at the edge of my vision-I keep turning my head to look but can never bring it into view.”

Frustration rang clearly in his tone; Honoria decided to change the subject. “Tell me, is Lady Osbaldestone a Cynster connection?”

Devil glanced to where her ladyship, gimlet gaze fixed on them, sat ensconced in one corner of a nearby chaise. “An exceedingly distant one.” He shrugged. “But that description covers half the ton.”

They strolled, chatting with those they came upon, their perambulation slowing as the ton rolled up, all eager to be seen at the only Cynster ball of the season. In a short half hour, the ballroom was awash with silks and satins; perfume hung heavy on the air. The sheen of curls was fractured by the sparkle and glint of jewels; hundreds of tongues contributed to the polite hum. Being on Devil’s arm guaranteed Honoria space enough to breathe; none were game to crowd her. There were, however, a definite number who, sighting her, were impelled to pay their compliments. Some, indeed, looked set to worship at her feet, even in the teeth of the very real threat of receiving a swift and well-aimed kick from her escort.

Fixed by Honoria’s side, compelled to witness her effect on other males, Devil set his jaw, and tried not to let it show. His mood was steadily turning black-not a good sign, given what he had yet to endure. He’d toyed with the idea of asking her not to dance, but she was not yet his wife. He’d transgressed once; she had, by some benign stroke of fate, consented to forgive him. He was not about to try for twice.

And she liked to dance. He knew that without asking; her attention to the music was proof enough. How he would force himself to let her waltz with some other gentleman, he did not know. He’d planned to get his cousins to stand in his place; instead, like him, they’d held to their resolution. Which left him wrestling with a rampant possessiveness he didn’t at all wish to tame.

To his disgust, the musicians appeared early. Through the inevitable squeaks and plunks, Lord Ainsworth declaimed: “My dear Miss Anstruther-Wetherby, I would be most honored, indeed, overcome with gratification, should you consent to favor me with your hand and allow me to partner you in this measure.” His lordship capped his period with a flourishing bow, then looked earnestly, with almost reverent devotion, at Honoria.

Devil tensed, ruthlessly denying the urge to plant his fist in Ainsworth’s vacuous face. Tightening his hold on every wayward impulse, he steeled himself to hear Honoria’s acceptance-and to let her go without causing a scene. Honoria held out her hand; Devil felt his control quake.

“Thank you, my lord.” Her smile serene, Honoria barely touched fingers with Ainsworth. “But I won’t be dancing tonight.”

“My dear Miss Anstruther-Wetherby, your actions bear testimony to your exquisite sensibilities. Forgive me, dear lady, for being so gauche as to even suggest…”

Lord Ainsworth spouted on; Devil hardly heard him. When it finally dawned that the woman on his arm was in all likelihood not listening either, he cut his lordship’s performance short. “Sorry, Ainsworth, but we must catch up with Lady Jersey.”

As Sally Jersey had a well-developed dislike of the pompous Ainsworth, his lordship did not offer to accompany them. Crestfallen, he took his leave of them; the others in their circle smiled and dispersed, many taking to the floor as the strains of a waltz filled the room.

Devil placed his hand over Honoria’s and ruthlessly drew her away. As they strolled the edge of the dance floor, their pace enough to discourage idle encounters, he searched for words, finally settling for: “There’s no reason you can’t dance.”

His tone was dark; his delivery flat. He looked down; Honoria looked up. She studied his eyes; the smile that slowly curved her lips held understanding spiced with feminine satisfaction. “Yes, there is.”

Her eyes challenged him to deny it; when he said nothing, her smile deepened and she looked ahead. “I think we should stop by Lady Osbaldestone, don’t you?”

Devil didn’t; the old tartar was guaranteed deliberately to bait him. On the other hand, he needed a major distraction. Dragging in a deep breath, he nodded, and set course for her ladyship’s chaise.

*****

“If there was ever any doubt, that-” with a nod, Vane indicated the group about the chaise on the opposite side of the ballroom, “settles it.”

Standing beside Vane, one shoulder propped against the wall, Gabriel nodded. “Indubitably. Lady Osbaldestone hardly qualifies as a desirable interlocutor.”

Vane’s gaze was fixed on Devil’s broad back. “I wonder what Honoria said to get him there?”

“Whatever,” Gabriel said, pausing to drain his glass, “it looks like we’ve lost our leader.”

“Have we?” Vane narrowed his eyes. “Or is he, as usual, leading the way?”

Gabriel shuddered. “What a hideous prospect.” He wriggled his broad shoulders. “That felt like someone walked over my grave.”

Vane laughed. “No point in running from fate-as our esteemed leader is wont to say. Which raises the intriguing subject of his fate. When do you think?”

Considering the tableau opposite, Gabriel pursed his lips. “Before Christmas?”

Vane’s snort was eloquent. “It damn well better be before Christmas.”

What had better be before Christmas?”

The question had them turning; instantly, restraint entered both their expressions. “Good evening, Charles.” Gabriel nodded to his cousin, then looked away.

“We were,” Vane said, his tone mild, “discussing impending nuptials.”

“Indeed?” Charles looked politely intrigued. “Whose?”

Gabriel stared; Vane blinked. After an instant’s pause, Vane replied: “Devil’s, of course.”

“Sylvester’s?” Brow furrowing, Charles looked across the room, then his features relaxed. “Oh-you mean that old business about him marrying Miss Anstruther-Wetherby.”

Old business?”

“Good heavens, yes.” His expression fastidious, Charles smoothed his sleeve. Looking up, he saw his cousins’ blank faces-and sighed. “If you must know, I spoke to Miss Anstruther-Wetherby at some length on the matter. She’s definitely not marrying Sylvester.”

Vane looked at Gabriel; Gabriel looked at Vane. Then Vane turned back to Charles. “When did you speak to Honoria Prudence?”

Charles lifted a supercilious brow. “At Somersham, after the funeral. And I spoke with her shortly after she came up to town.”

“Uh-huh.” Vane exchanged another look with Gabriel.

Gabriel sighed. “Charles, has anyone ever pointed out to you that ladies are prone to change their minds?”

Charles’s answering glance was contemptuous. “Miss Anstruther-Wetherby is an exceedingly well-educated lady of superior sensibilities.”

“Who also happens to be exceedingly well-structured and as such is an exceedingly likely target for Devil’s attentions, in this case, honorable.” Gabriel gestured to the distant chaise. “And if you won’t believe us, just open your eyes.”

Following his gesture, Charles frowned. Honoria, her hand on Devil’s arm, leaned close to say something; Devil bent his head the better to hear her. Their stance spoke eloquently of intimacy, of closeness; Charles’s frown deepened.

Vane glanced at Charles. “Our money’s on Devil-unfortunately, we haven’t found any takers.”

“Mmm.” Gabriel straightened. “A wedding before Christmas,” he slanted a questioning glance at Vane, “and an heir before St.Valentine’s Day?”

“Now that,” Vane said, “might find us some action.”

“Yes, but which way should we jump?” Gabriel headed into the crowd.

Vane followed. “Fie on you-don’t you have any faith in our leader?”

“I’ve plenty of faith in him, but you have to admit there’s rather more to producing an heir than his sire’s performance. Come and talk to Demon. He’ll tell you…”

Their words faded. Left behind, Charles continued to frown, staring fixedly at the couple before Lady Osbaldestone’s chaise.

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