Chapter 19

When, years later, Honoria looked back on the first months of her marriage, she wondered what benevolent fate had ordained they would marry on December 1. The season was perfect, fine-tuned to her needs-December and January, cold and snowy, kept society at bay; the week of Christmas, when the whole family descended, was a happy interlude. Those quiet winter months gave her time to find her feet, to assume the mantle of the duchess of St. Ives, to learn what she needed to go on.

Taking up the reins of the ducal household was of itself easy enough. The staff was excellent, well trained and well disposed; she faced few difficulties there. However, the decisions it fell to her to make were wide-ranging, from cows to flower beds to preserves to linens. Not just for the Place, but for the three other residences her husband maintained. The organizational logistics were absorbing. Within the family, she was expected to play the matriarch, a demanding yet satisfying role.

All this and more fell to her lot in that first December and January, yet throughout that time, the aspect of her life that commanded her deepest attention remained her interaction with Devil.

Quite what she’d expected, she couldn’t have said-she had come to her marriage with no firm view of what she wanted from it beyond the very fact of laying claim to the role, of being the mother of his children. Which left, as she discovered during those long quiet weeks, a great deal to be decided. By them both.

Time and again, as their wills crossed in daily life, their eyes would meet and she would see in his an expression of arrest, of calculation, consideration-and know the same emotions were visible in her eyes.

There were adjustments in other spheres, too. Like finding time to be alone, to be easy in each other’s company, to discuss the myriad matters affecting their now-mutual life, all within the framework of who they were and what they were and what they could both accept. Some adjustments came easily, without conscious effort; others required give-and-take on both sides.

And if their nights remained a constant, an arena where the lines had already been drawn, where they’d already made their decisions, even there, while their physical need of each other continued, a steady, unquenchable flame, with each night that passed, their involvement deepened, became more profound, more heavily invested with meaning.

By the time January waned and the thaws set in, they were both conscious of, not only change, but the creation of something new, some palpable entity, some subtle web within which they both now lived. They never discussed it, nor in any way alluded to it. Yet she was conscious of it every minute of the day-and knew he felt it, too.

“I’m for a ride.”

Seated at a table by one window, a pile of chandler’s accounts before her, Honoria looked up to see Devil strolling across the back parlor.

His gaze swept her, then returned to her face. “The going will be heavy-very slow. Do you care to chance it?”

The ice in the lanes and the general bad weather had vetoed riding for the past few weeks. But today the sun was shining-and if he was the one suggesting it, riding had to be safe once more. “I’ll need to change.” Forsaking her accounts without a second thought, Honoria rose.

Devil grinned. “I’ll bring the horses to the side door.”

They were away ten minutes later. In perfect amity, they rode across his fields, taking a roundabout route to a nearby rise. They returned by way of the village, stopping to chat with Mr. Postlethwaite, as ever in the vicarage garden. From there, their route home was via the track through the wood.

Gaining the straight at the top of the rise, they fell silent, slowing from a canter to a walk. They passed the spot where Tolly had fallen; reaching the track to the cottage, Devil drew rein.

He glanced at Honoria-halting beside him, she held his gaze. He searched her eyes, then, without a word, turned Sulieman down the narrow track.

In winter, both cottage and clearing appeared very different. The undergrowth was still dense, impenetrable, but the trees had lost their leaves. A dense carpet of mottled brown blanketed the earth, muffling hoofbeats. The cottage was neater, tidier, the stone before the door scrubbed; a wisp of smoke curled from the chimney.

“Keenan’s in residence.” Devil dismounted and tied his reins to a tree, then came to Honoria’s side.

As he lifted her down, she recalled how distracted she’d felt when he’d first closed his hands about her waist. Now his touch was reassuring, a warmly familiar contact. “Will he be inside?”

“Unlikely. In winter, he spends his days in the village.”

He secured her reins, and together they walked to the cottage. “Is it all right to go in?”

Devil nodded. “Keenan has no real home-he simply lives in the cottages I provide and keeps my woods in trim.”

Opening the door, he led the way in; Honoria followed. She watched as he crossed the small room, his ranging stride slowing as he neared the raised pallet on which Tolly had died. He came to a halt at its foot, looking down on the simple grey blanket, his face a stony mask.

It had been a long time since she’d seen his face that way-these days, he rarely hid his feelings from her. She hesitated, then walked forward, stopping by his side. That was where she belonged-sometimes he needed reminding. With that aim in mind, she slid her fingers across his palm. His hand remained slack, then closed, strongly, firmly.

When he continued to stare at the uninformative bed,

Honoria leaned against him. That did the trick-he glanced at her, hesitated, then lifted his arm and drew her against him. And looked frowningly back at the pallet. “It’s been six months, and we’ve not got him yet.”

Honoria rested her head against his shoulder. “I don’t imagine the Bar Cynster are the sort to accept defeat.”

“Never.”

“Well, then.” She glanced up and saw his frown deepen.

He met her gaze, the tortured frown darkening his eyes. “That something I’ve forgotten-it was something about how Tolly died. Something I noticed-something I should remember.” He looked back at the pallet. “I keep hoping it’ll come back to me.”

The intensity in his eyes, his words, precluded any light reassurance. A minute later, Honoria felt his chest swell, felt his arm tighten briefly about her, then he released her and gestured to the door. “Come-let’s go home.”

They rode slowly back through the gathering dusk. Devil did not mention Tolly’s killer again; they parted in the hall, he heading for the library, Honoria climbing the stairs, considering a bath before dinner.

Attuned as she now was to his moods, she knew immediately when he returned to the subject. They were in the library, he in a well-stuffed armchair, she on the chaise, her embroidery on her lap. The fire burned brightly, warming the room; the curtains were drawn against the night. Webster had supplied Devil with a glass of brandy, then retreated; the Dowager had gone up.

From beneath her lashes, Honoria saw Devil take a long sip of brandy, then he looked at her. “I should return to London.”

She looked up, studied his face, then calmly asked: “What information do you have regarding Tolly’s death that necessitates our going back now?”

His gaze locked on hers. She held it steadily, calmly, without challenge, even when the green eyes narrowed and his lips compressed. Then he grimaced and leaned back against the chair, his gaze shifting to the ceiling. Setting aside her needlework, Honoria waited.

Devil thought long and hard, then thought again, yet she was his duchess-and too intelligent and too stubborn to swallow any glib tale. He lowered his gaze to her face. “Viscount Bromley is currently working for me.”

Honoria frowned. “Do I know him?”

“He’s not the sort of gentleman you need to know.”

“Ah-that sort of gentleman.”

“Precisely. The Viscount is currently endeavoring to discover the truth of ‘Lucifer’s discreditable rumor.’ He’s due to report next week.”

“I see.” Frowning, Honoria looked at the fire, then, absentmindedly, gathered her silks. “We have no engagements here-I’ll speak to Mrs. Hull and Webster immediately.” She rose, then glanced back. “I assume we’ll be leaving tomorrow?”

Devil held her wide gaze for a pregnant moment, then, sighed and inclined his head. “Tomorrow. After lunch.”

With a nod, Honoria turned away; Devil watched her hips sway as she walked to the door. When it closed behind her, he drained his glass-and wondered, not for the first time, just what had come over him.

“How far beyond his limit did Bromley go?”

Vane asked the question as he eased into the chair before Devil’s desk. Viscount Bromley had left a bare minute before, looking decidedly green.

Locking the viscount’s notes of hand back in his desk drawer, Devil named a sum; eyes widening, Vane whistled. “You really did him up in style.”

Devil shrugged. “I like to be thorough.”

The door opened; glancing up, Devil deduced from the distracted expression in Honoria’s eyes that she’d overheard his last remark. His smile when he met her gaze was unambiguously rakish. “Good morning, my dear.”

Honoria blinked, then inclined her head regally.

He watched while she exchanged greetings with Vane; she was dressed to go out in a golden merino pelisse, a velvet bonnet with a niched rim dangling by its ribbons from her hand. The same hand, gloved in ivory kid, carried a muff of golden velvet lined with swansdown; the inner face of her pelisse’s upstanding collar was trimmed with the same expensive stuff. Her hair was swept up in a sleek knot-no longer the wild tangle it had been that morning when he’d left her in their bed. The memory raised a warm glow, which he knowingly allowed to infuse his smile.

Tucking the key to the desk drawer into his waistcoat pocket, he strolled, smugly satisfied, to her side. She turned as he approached-and raised her brows. “Did the viscount have the information you expected?”

Devil halted, his eyes steady on hers. He didn’t need to look to be aware of Vane’s surprise. “As it happens, no. Bromley needs more time.”

“And you gave it to him?”

After a fractional hesitation, Devil nodded.

Honoria raised her brows. “If his lordship’s so tardy, isn’t there someone else you could employ in his place?”

“It’s not that simple.” Forestalling the question he could see in her eyes, Devil went on: “Bromley has certain attributes that make him ideal for the job.”

Honoria looked even more surprised. “I only caught a brief glimpse, but he didn’t strike me as the sort to inspire any great confidence.” She paused, frowning slightly, looking up at Devil’s uninformative face. “Now we’re here, couldn’t you dispense with Bromley and investigate the matter yourself? There’s quite a crowd already in residence; if you tell me what it is you need to know, I might be able to learn something myself.”

Vane choked-and tried to disguise it as a cough.

Honoria stared at him; capturing Vane’s gaze, Devil frowned.

Witnessing that silent exchange, Honoria narrowed her eyes. “What, precisely, is Bromley investigating?”

The question brought both men’s gazes to her face; Honoria met their eyes, read their instinctive response and lifted her chin. Devil eyed the sight for a bare second, then flicked a loaded glance at Vane.

Suavely, Vane smiled at Honoria. “I’ll leave you to your questions.” She gave him her hand; he bowed over it, then, with a speaking look for Devil, he turned to the door.

As it closed behind him, Devil looked down, into Honoria’s eyes. Her expression spoke of unshakable resolve. “You don’t need to know the details of Bromley’s task.”

He would have shifted nearer, but her quiet dignity held him back. She searched his eyes-what she read there he couldn’t tell; despite all, he was conscious of admiration of a sort he’d never thought to feel for a woman-he fervently hoped it didn’t show.

Honoria straightened, her chin lifting fractionally. “I’m your wife-your duchess. If something threatens our family, I need to know of it.”

Devil noted her emphasis; she did not look away but continued to face him with unwavering resolution.

The moment stretched, charged, thick with unspoken argument. She was challenging his authority and she knew it-but she would not back down. Her eyes said so very clearly.

Devil narrowed his eyes. “You are an exceedingly stubborn woman.”

Haughtily, Honoria raised a brow. “You knew that before we wed.”

He nodded curtly. “Unfortunately, that trait was an integral part of the package.”

His clipped accents stung; Honoria tilted her chin. “You accepted me-for better or worse.”

Devil’s eyes flashed. “You did the same.”

Again, their gazes locked; after a moment’s fraught silence, Honoria, very slowly, lifted an imperious brow. Devil eyed the sight with undisguised irritation-then, with a low growl, gestured to the chaise. “The matter is hardly one fit for a lady’s ears.”

Hiding her triumph, Honoria obediently sat; Devil sat beside her. Briefly, concisely, he told her the essence of Lucifer’s rumor-how a number of contacts had reported that a Cynster had been frequenting the “palaces.”

“Palaces?” Honoria looked blank.

Devil’s jaw set. “Brothels-highly exclusive ones.”

Honoria looked him in the eye. “You don’t believe it’s one of the Bar Cynster.”

A statement, not a question; grimly, Devil shook his head. “I know it isn’t one of us. Not one of us would cross the threshold of such a place.” He saw no reason to edify Honoria with details of what transpired at the “palaces”-the worst excesses of prostitution was not something his wife needed to know. “It’s possible Tolly attended out of curiosity and, while there, saw or heard something that made him a threat to someone.” He met Honoria’s eyes. “Patrons of the ‘palaces’ are necessarily wealthy, most are powerful in the true sense of the word. The sort of men who have secrets to hide and the capability to silence those who learn them.”

Honoria studied his face. “Why do you need Bromley?”

Devil’s lips twisted. “Unfortunately, the opinions of the Bar Cynster on that particular topic are widely known. The proprietors are careful; none of us could get answers.”

After a moment, Honoria asked: “Do you really think it was Tolly?”

Devil met her gaze, and shook his head. “Which leaves…” He frowned, then grimaced. “But I believe that even less than that it was Tolly.”

They both frowned into space, then Honoria focused-and glanced at the clock. “Great heavens-I’ll be late.” Gathering her muff, she rose.

Devil rose, too. “Where are you going?”

“To call on Louise, then I’m due at Lady Colebourne’s for lunch.”

“Not a hint of any of this to Louise-or Maman.”

The glance Honoria sent him was fondly condescending. “Of course not.”

She turned to the door-Devil halted her with one finger beneath her chin, turning her back to face him, tilting her head up. He looked into her eyes, waited until he saw awareness blossom, then bent his head and touched his lips to hers.

As a kiss, it was a whisper, a tantalizing, feathering touch, too insubstantial to satisfy yet too real to ignore.

When he raised his head, Honoria blinked wildly, then she saw his smile and only just stopped her glare. She drew herself up and regally inclined her head. “I will bid you a good day, my lord.”

Devil smiled, slowly. “Enjoy your day, my lady.”

Throughout her afternoon, Honoria cursed her husband-and the lingering effects of his devilish kiss. Unable to explain the occasional shivers that racked her, she was forced to humor Louise’s supposition and drink a glass of ratafia to drive away her chill. Seated on the chaise in Louise’s drawing room, the twins on footstools at her feet, she grasped the opportunity to air the idea that had taken root in her mind. “I’m thinking of giving a ball.” She felt it imperative to publicly stamp her claim as the new duchess of St. Ives-an impromptu ball seemed the perfect solution.

“A ball?” Amanda’s eyes grew round. She swung to face her mother. “Will we be allowed to attend?”

Observing her daughters’ glowing faces, Louise struggled to hide a smile. “That would depend on whether you were invited and what sort of ball it was to be.”

Amanda and Amelia swung back to face Honoria; she pretended not to notice, and spoke to Louise. “I believe it should be an impromptu ball-just for family and friends.”

Louise nodded. “Not many of the ton are yet in residence-it would hardly do for the duchess of St. Ives to hold her first formal ball when fully half of society is still on the hunting field.”

“Indeed-tantamount to social indiscretion. A sure way of putting the grandes dames’ noses out of joint. Too many would be offended if I held my first formal ball now-but an impromptu ball should raise no ire.”

Louise sat back, gesturing magnanimously. “As business has necessitated your return to town, no one would question your right to a little informal entertainment. And, of course, Helena has yet to come up-you couldn’t hold your first formal ball without her.”

“Precisely.” Honoria nodded; the Dowager had gone to visit friends and was not expected to join them until the start of the Season proper. “And if it’s just for friends…”

“And family,” Louise added.

“Then,” Honoria mused, “it could be held quite soon.”

Amanda and Amelia looked from one distant expression to the other. “But will we be invited!” they wailed.

Honoria blinked and regarded them with apparent surprise. “Good heavens! You’ve put up your hair!”

Louise laughed; the twins pulled faces at Honoria, then leapt up from their footstools to flank her on the chaise.

“We promise to be models of decorum.”

“The most proper young ladies you ever did see.”

“And we’ve plenty of cousins to dance with, so you won’t need to be forever finding us partners.”

Honoria studied their bright eyes, and wondered how they would view their magnificant cousins once they saw them in their true colors, their true setting, prowling a ton ballroom. Her hesitation earned her two abjectly imploring looks; she laughed. “Of course you’ll be invited.” She glanced from one ecstatic face to the other. “But it will be up to your mama to decide if you should attend or not.”

They all looked at Louise; she smiled fondly but firmly at her daughters. “I’ll reserve my decision until I’ve spoken with your father but, given you’re to be presented this Season, an impromptu family ball, particularly one at St. Ives House, would be an excellent start to your year.”

Expectation took flight; the twins glowed with delight.

Leaving them in alt, already badgering Louise over their ball gowns, Honoria traveled on to Lady Colebourne’s town house, to partake of luncheon amidst a host of young matrons. Any lingering reservations over the need for her ball were swiftly laid to rest. Considering gleams appeared in too many eyes at the news that her husband had returned to town, a married gentleman now, far safer, in terms of dalliance, than the unattached rake he used to be.

Smiling serenely, Honoria considered stamping her claim on him, too. Perhaps with a tattoo?-on his forehead, and another relevant part of his anatomy. The ton’s bored matrons could look elsewhere for entertainment. Devil was hers-she had to fight an urge to declare the point publicly.

By the time she climbed into her carriage to return to Grosvenor Square, rampant possessiveness had taken firm hold. The strength of the feeling shocked her, but she knew well enough from whence it sprang. Within the ton, there was more than one way to lose a husband.

Not since the night of the storm, when she’d woken to find him in her room, had she thought again of losing him. Despite her fears, despite the fact Sligo and Devil’s head stableman had shared her suspicions, nothing further had occurred-it now seemed likely that Devil had been right, and the disintegration of his phaeton nothing more than freakish accident.

Staring at the streetscape, Honoria felt a totally unexpected determination well. She recognized it for what it was-it surprised her, but she did not fight it. Too many people had told her that it was her fate to be his bride.

Which meant he was hers-she intended keeping it that way.

*****

Devil lunched with friends, then dropped in at White’s. It was their third day back in the capital; despite the acquisition of a wife, the comfortable regime of former days was slowly settling into place. “The only difference,” he explained to Vane as they strolled into the reading room, “is that I no longer need to exert myself over the matter of warming my bed.”

Vane grinned. Nudging Devil’s elbow, he nodded to two vacant armchairs.

They settled companionably behind newssheets. Devil gazed at his, unseeing. His mind was full of his wife and her stubbornness. Quite how he had come to marry the one woman in all the millions impervious to intimidation, he did not know. Fate, he recalled, had arranged the matter-his only option seemed to be to hope fate would also provide him with the means to manage her without damaging the subtle something growing between them.

That was unique, at least in his experience. He couldn’t define it, could not even describe it-he only knew it was precious, too valuable to risk.

Honoria was also too valuable to risk, at any level, in any way.

He frowned at the newssheet-and wondered what she was doing.

Later that afternoon, having parted from Vane, Devil strolled home through the gathering dusk. He crossed Piccadilly and turned into Berkeley Street.

“Ho! Sylvester!”

Devil halted and turned, then waited until Charles joined him before strolling on. Charles fell into step; he had lodgings in Duke Street, just beyond Grosvenor Square.

“Back to your old haunts, I take it?”

Devil smiled. “As you say.”

“I’m surprised-I thought Leicestershire would hold you rather longer. They’ve had excellent sport, so I’ve heard.”

“I didn’t go to the Lodge this season.” Manor Lodge was the ducal hunting box. “I went out with the Somersham pack but the runs were hardly worth it.”

Charles looked puzzled. “Is Aunt Helena well?”

“Perfectly.” Devil shot him a sidelong glance; his lips twitched. “I’ve had other distractions to hand.”

“Oh?”

“I married recently, remember?”

Charles’s brows rose briefly. “I hadn’t imagined marriage would cause any change in your habits.”

Devil merely shrugged. They circumnavigated Berkeley Square, then turned down a alleyway that ran between two houses, connecting the square with Hays Mews.

“I take it Honoria remained at Somersham?”

Devil frowned. “No. She’s here-with me.”

“She is?” Charles blinked. After a moment, he murmured: “I must remember to pay my respects.”

Devil inclined his head, unwilling to commit Honoria to any transports of delight. He knew perfectly well how his other cousins viewed Charles; for his part, he’d always tried for tolerance. They strode on, eventually halting at the corner of Grosvenor Square. Duke Street lay ahead; Devil was but yards from his door.

Abruptly, Charles swung to face him. “I hesitate to allude to such a delicate matter, but I feel I must speak.”

Coolly, Devil raised his brows-and took a firm grip on his tolerance.

“Bringing Honoria to London, so early in her tenure, to require her to countenance your wider liaisons within months of your marriage, is unnecessarily cruel. She may not be experienced in tonnish behavior but her understanding is, I believe, superior. She will doubtless realize you’re bestowing your interest elsewhere. Women are sensitive to such matters-if you had left her at Somersham, she would not be exposed to such hurt.”

His expression blank, Devil looked down at Charles; he’d lost all touch with tolerance-instead, he was battling to keep the lid on his formidable temper. If Charles had not been family, he’d be choking on his teeth. It took concerted effort to keep a snarl from his face. “You mistake the matter, Charles. It was Honoria’s wish that she accompany me, a wish I saw no reason to deny.” His rigidly even tone had Charles stiffening; his gaze would have frozen hell. “Furthermore, you appear to be laboring under a misapprehension-at present, I have no intention of seeking any ‘wider liaison’-my wife holds my interest to the exclusion of all others.”

It was the truth, the literal truth, stated more clearly than he’d allowed his own mind to know it.

Charles blinked-he looked stunned.

Devil’s lips twisted in chilly self-deprecation. “Indeed-there’s more to marriage than even I foresaw. You should try it-I can recommend it as a challenging experience.”

With a curt nod, he strode for his door, leaving Charles, blank-faced, staring after him.

Contents

Обращение к пользователям