The next morning, as soon as he was free of his most urgent business, Devil climbed the stairs to the morning room.
Honoria looked up as he entered; she smiled warmly. “I thought you’d be busy for hours.”
“Hobden’s on his way back to the Place.” Devil strolled to the
She peeked. “That’s the connections. These are the friends.”
Devil took the lists and scanned them. They’d discussed her notion of an impromptu ball the evening before. Reasoning that the exercise would keep her occupied-distracted from Bromley and his doings-he’d readily concurred. “There are a few names you might add.”
Honoria picked up a pencil and dutifully scribbled as he reeled off a short list of his own. When he said “Chillingworth” she looked up in surprise. “I thought the earl was no favorite of yours?”
“On the contrary-he’s a prime favorite.” Devil smiled, one of his Prince of Darkness smiles. “Who would I taunt if I didn’t have Chillingworth by?”
Honoria looked her reply but left the earl on the list. Chillingworth could look after himself.
“I had wondered,” Devil said, studying her profile, “if you were free to come for a drive?”
Honoria looked up, her arm brushing his thigh. Her eyes touched his, then she grimaced. “I can’t.” She gestured to the writing materials on the table. “If the ball’s to be next Friday, I need to send the invitations out today.”
Devil had never written a ball invitation in his life. He was about to suggest he might learn, when Honoria continued: “Louise is bringing the twins by to help.”
With a swift smile, Devil uncoiled his long legs. “In that case, I’ll leave you to your endeavors.”
His fingers trailed against her cheek as he stood, then he grinned and strolled to the door; Honoria watched it close behind him. She stared at the panels, her expression wistful, then she grimaced and went back to her lists.
The next morning, when the morning room door opened, Honoria looked up with an eager smile. Only to discover it was Vane who sought an audience.
“Devil said I’d find you here.” Smiling charmingly, he strolled forward. “I’ve a request to make.”
The gleam in his eye suggested just what that request might be; Honoria eyed it with matriarchal disapproval. “Who?” she asked.
“Lady Canterton. And Harry suggested Lady Pinney.”
Honoria held his gaze for a pregnant moment, then reached for her pencil. “I’ll send the invitations today.”
“With one proviso.” She looked up in time to see wariness creep into his eyes.
There was a hint of steel in the question; Honoria ignored it. “You will each dance one dance with each of the twins.”
“Seventeen. They’ll be presented this year-Friday will be their first ball.”
Honoria raised a brow. “Well?”
He looked at her, grim resignation in his eyes. “Very well-one dance each. I’ll tell Harry.”
Honoria nodded. “Do.”
Her next visitors followed in quick succession, all on the same errand. Gabriel succeded Vane; Lucifer followed. The last through the morning-room door was Richard. “I know,” Honoria said, reaching for her much-amended list. “Lady Grey.”
“Lady Grey?” Richard blinked. “Why Lady Grey?”
Honoria blinked back. She’d seen him slip away from Horatia’s ball with the dark-haired, alabaster-skinned beauty. “Isn’t she…?” She gestured with her pencil.
“Ah, no.” Richard’s grin was reminiscent of Devil at his worst. “That was last year. I was going to ask for Lady Walton.”
Ask for-like a treat. And, like a treat, Lady Walton would doubtless fall, a ripe plum into his lap. Honoria decided it was useless disapproving; she added Lady Walton to her list.
“And I dutifully promise to stand up with both Amanda and Amelia.”
“Good.” Honoria looked up in time to witness Richard’s insouciant bow.
“A very good idea, this ball of yours.” He paused at the door, a Cynster smile on his lips. “We were all looking for a way to get the Season rolling. Nothing could be better than an
Honoria shot him a warning look; chuckling, he left.
She went on with her planning, trying not to listen for footsteps beyond the door, trying not to wonder whether Devil would drop by to hear of his cousins’ selections, to ask her what she was doing, to offer his views.
When she entered the breakfast parlor the next morning, she was pleased to find Devil still present, sipping coffee and scanning
Devil returned the gesture, the expression more evident in his eyes than on his lips. Folding
Although he’d dined at home the previous night, he’d been preoccupied with business; he had come to bed late, conversation very far from his mind. Between sipping tea and nibbling toast, Honoria filled him in.
He listened attentively, interpolating comments, ending with: “You’re setting a new fashion, you know. I’ve already heard of two other hostesses who are planning early,
Smiling radiantly, Honoria shrugged. “Where St. Ives leads, the others will follow.”
He grinned appreciatively, then his eyes locked on hers. “I’ve had the horses brought up from the Place. It’s fine outside-I wondered if you’d care to ride?”
Honoria’s heart leapt-she sorely missed their private hours. “I-“
“Your pardon, Your Grace.”
Turning, Honoria watched as Mrs. Hull bobbed a curtsy to Devil, then faced her. “The caterers have arrived, ma’am. I’ve put them in the parlor.”
“Oh-yes.” Happiness deflating like a pricked balloon, Honoria smiled weakly. “I’ll join them shortly.” The florists were also due that morning, as were the musicians.
Mrs. Hull withdrew; Honoria turned back to meet Devil’s eyes. “I’d forgotten. The supper menu needs to be decided today. I won’t have time to ride this morning.”
With a suave smile, Devil waved dismissively. “It’s of no account.”
Honoria held back a frown-that smile did not reach his eyes. But she could think of nothing appropriate to say; with an apologetic smile, she stood. “By your leave.”
Devil inclined his head, his superficial smile still in place. He watched Honoria leave, then set down his cup and stood. Slowly, a frown replaced his smile. He walked into the hall; behind him, Webster gave orders for the parlor to be cleared. An instant later, he appeared at his elbow.
“Shall I send for your horse, Your Grace?”
Devil focused, and found his gaze resting on the stairs up which Honoria had gone. “No.” When he rode alone, he rode early, before others were about. His features hardening, he turned to the library. “I’ll be busy for the rest of the morning.”
The day of the duchess of St. Ives’s impromptu ball dawned crisp and clear. In the park, wispy mist wreathed beneath the trees; shrill birdcalls echoed in the stillness.
Devil rode along the deserted tan track, the heavy thud of his horse’s hooves drumming in his ears. He rode with single-minded abandon, fast yet in absolute control, his body and his mount’s in fluid concert as they flew through the chill morning. At the end of the track, he hauled the snorting chestnut’s head about-and rode back even faster.
Nearing the end of the tan, he eased back, pulling up before a stand of oak. The deep-chested horse, built for endurance, blew hard, and dropped his head. Devil loosened the reins, chest swelling as he drew the air deep.
There was no one in sight, nothing but trees and well-tended lawns. The tang of damp grass rose as the chestnut shifted, then settled to crop. Devil filled his chest again, and felt the cold reach his brain. And, as often happened in this solitude, his unease, the nagging disquiet that had gnawed at him for days, crystallized, clarified. The insight was not encouraging.
The idea that he was irritated because his wife was so busy organizing her ball that she had no time for him did not sit well-yet denying his jealousy, the waiting, the wanting to be with her, was pointless. Even now, he could feel the black emotion roiling inside. Yet he had no justifiable cause for complaint. Duchesses were supposed to give balls. Honoria was behaving precisely as a wife should-she’d made no awkward demands, no requests for attention he didn’t wish to give. She hadn’t even accepted the attention he’d been only too willing to bestow.
That fact rankled. Deeply.
Frowning, Devil shook his shoulders. He was being unreasonable-he’d no right to expect his wife to be different, to comport herself by some different code-one he couldn’t, even now, define. Yet that was precisely what he did want, the desire at the heart of his dissatisfaction.
Unbidden, his mind conjured up that moment when, in his woodsman’s cottage, she’d leaned against him. He’d looked down, seen the warmth and understanding in her eyes, and felt her weight, soft and womanly, against him. And realized just how much he now had that Tolly would never have, never have a chance to experience.
He drew a deep breath; the crisp cold sang through his veins. He wanted Honoria-had wanted her from the first-but his want was not quite what he’d thought it. The physical want, the possessive want, the protective want, the need for her loyalty, her commitment-all these he’d fulfilled. What remained?
Something, certainly-something strong enough, powerful enough, to unsettle him, to obsess him, to undermine effortlessly his normally unassailable control. Something beyond his experience.
Brows quirking, he examined that conclusion and could not fault it. Lips firming, he took up his reins. He wasn’t going to get any real peace until he fulfilled this want, too.
Both he and the chestnut had cooled. Leaning forward, he patted the horse’s sleek neck and dug in his heels. The chestnut obediently stepped out, shifting fluidly into a loping canter.
The bark of the tree before which they’d stood splintered. The sound reached Devil; glancing back, he saw the fresh lesion in the trunk, level with his chest. In the same instant, a telltale “cough” reached his ears.
He didn’t stop to investigate; he didn’t rein in until he reached the park gate where others were now gathering for their morning ride.
Devil halted to let the chestnut settle. Guns were not permitted in the park. The keepers were exempt, but what would they shoot at-squirrels?
The chestnut had calmed; deadly calm himself, Devil headed back to Grosvenor Square.
The duchess of St. Ives’s impromptu ball was an extravagant success. Held, not in the large ballroom, but in the relative intimacy of the music room, the evening overflowed with laughter, dancing, and an easy gaiety not often encountered within the rigid confines of the
Many present, of course, were related; the rest were longstanding acquaintances. The tone was set from the first, when the duke and duchess led the company in a vigorous, breathless waltz. All hundred guests took the hint, setting themselves to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, the champagne that flowed freely, the excellent supper and the similarly excellent company. Some five hours after the first had arrived, the last guests, weary but smiling, took their leave. Webster shut the front door, then set the bolts.
In the center of the hall, Devil looked down at Honoria, leaning on his arm. Lights still danced in her eyes. He smiled. “A signal success, my dear.”
Honoria smiled back, resting her head against his arm. “It went very well, I think.”
“Indeed.” His hand over hers where it lay on his sleeve, Devil turned her toward the library. It had become their habit to end their evenings there, sipping brandy, exchanging comments. They halted on the threshold; footmen and maids were clearing glasses and straightening furniture. Devil glanced at Honoria. “Perhaps, tonight, we should take our drinks upstairs.”
Honoria nodded. Devil accepted a lighted candelabrum from Webster; together they started up the stairs.
“Amelia and Amanda were exhausted.”
“For quite the first time in their lives.”
Honoria smiled fondly. “They danced every dance bar the waltzes. And they would have danced those if they could have.” Glancing up, she noted the slight frown marring her husband’s handsome countenance; looking forward, she inwardly grinned. The twins’ presence had triggered an intriguing reaction in their male cousins-repressive looks had been
The thought reminded her of another interesting scene, one in which she’d participated. “Incidentally, I give you fair warning, I will not again invite Chillingworth if you behave as you did tonight.”
Honoria frowned. “I meant both of you-
“I could hardly let him get away with casting a slur on my ability to satisfy you.”
“That was what he meant.”
“Be that as it may, you didn’t have to inform him that I-” Honoria broke off, cheeks flaming-again. She caught the gleam in Devil’s green eyes. Pulling her hand from under his, she pushed him away; he didn’t even stagger. “You’re
“Humph!” Honoria kept her chin high.
“I did let him waltz with you.”
“Only because I made it impossible for you to do otherwise.” She’d used the waltz to separate the two dueling reprobates-unsuccessfully as it transpired.
“Honoria, if I do not wish you to waltz with a particular gentleman, you won’t.”
She looked up, a protest on her lips. The undercurrent beneath his words registered, she met his eye-and decided it was safer simply to humph again.
When she looked forward, Devil grinned. He’d enjoyed the evening without reservation; even the emergence of the twins as budding Aphrodites couldn’t tarnish his mellow mood. As they turned toward the ducal apartments, he slid his arm about Honoria and drew her against him.
Honoria let him, enjoying his nearness. She remained puzzled by his relationship with Chillingworth. While waltzing with Vane, she’d asked his opinion; he’d smiled. “If they weren’t so busy being rivals, they’d be friends.” Their rivalry, now she’d viewed it at close quarters, was not entirely facetious, yet neither was it serious. From any distance, however, they appeared deadly rivals.
“Is Charles always so subdued?” She’d noticed him watching as she waltzed with Chillingworth; his expression had been oddly blank.
“Charles? Now there’s one who won’t approve your innovation-unfettered gaiety was never his strong suit.”
“Your other cousins reveled in ‘unfettered gaiety.’ ” Honoria cast him a pointed glance. “
Devil grinned. “Gabriel tendered his felicitations along with the firm hope that you’ll make your impromptu ball a yearly event.”
Honoria opened her eyes wide. “Are there really that many accommodating ladies within the ton?”
“You’d be surprised,” Devil held his door wide.
Honoria threw him a speaking glance, then, nose high, swept over the threshold. But she was smiling as she glided deeper into the room, lit by a fire burning cheerily in the grate. The candelabra held high, dispelling the shadows, Devil crossed to the tallboy, setting the candlestick beside a silver tray holding a crystal decanter and two glasses.
Pouring brandy into one glass, he handed it to Honoria. Warming the glass between her hands, she waltzed to the armchair by the hearth and sank onto its well-stuffed arm. Raising the glass, she breathed in the fumes.
And froze. She blinked. Across the rim of her glass, she saw Devil grasp the second glass, half-full of amber liquid. He raised it.
Her breathless shout made him turn. But the glass still rose-any second, he’d swallow his usual first gulp.
Honoria dropped her glass; it fell, amber liquid splashing across the jewel-hued rug. Vocal cords paralyzed, she flung herself at Devil, striking the glass from his grasp. It shattered against the tallboy.
“What-?” Devil lifted her, swinging her clear of the shards raining down. White-faced, Honoria clung to him, her gaze fixed on the liquid dripping down the tallboy.
“What’s wrong?” Devil stared at her; when she didn’t answer, he looked around, then, grasping her arms, set her from him and looked into her face. “What?”
She drew a shaky breath, then looked into his face. She gulped. “The brandy.” Her voice was weak, quavery; she hauled in another breath. “Bitter almonds.”
Devil froze-literally. The cold started at his feet and spread upward, claiming muscle after muscle until he was chilled through. His hands fell from Honoria as she pressed close, sliding her arms around him, clinging so tight he could barely breathe. Breathing, indeed, was an effort. For one instant, he stopped altogether-the instant when he realized he’d handed her a glass of poison. His gut clenched tight. He closed his eyes, resting his cheek against her curls, closing his arms about her. Her perfume reached him; he tightened his hold, feeling her body, warm and alive, against his.
Suddenly, Honoria looked up, nearly hitting his chin with her head. “You were nearly
A conclusion he could hardly argue. “They didn’t succeed. Thanks to you.” Devil tried to draw her back into his arms. Honoria resisted.
“You were one gulp away from death-I
Her eyes were fever-bright, her cheeks flushed. Devil bit back a curse-not at her, but at his would-be murderer. “I’m not dead.”
“But you nearly
Devil recognized shock when he heard it. “We’re both alive.”
His calming words fell on deaf ears; Honoria swung away and started to pace. “I can’t believe it!” She threw out one hand. “This is utterly
Devil followed as she paced toward the bed.
“I won’t allow it-
“I’m here-you won’t ever lose me.” Devil slid his arms about her; she was so tense she was quivering. “Trust me.”
She searched his eyes; tears spangled her lashes.
“Hold me,” he commanded.
She hesitated, then obeyed, slowly unclenching her fists, sliding her arms about him. She rested her head against his shoulder but remained tense, taut-determined.
Framing her jaw, Devil lifted her face, looked down on pale cheeks, at eyes awash with tears, then he bent his head and kissed her set lips. “You’ll never lose me,” he whispered. “I’ll
A shudder rippled through her. Damp lashes lowered, Honoria lifted her face, offering her lips. Devil took them, then took her mouth. The caress lengthened, deepened, slowly, inexorably spiraling into passion. He needed her-she needed him-an affirmation of life to chase away death’s specter.
Honoria drew back only long enough to wrap her arms about his neck. She clung to him, to the vibrant life enshrined in their kiss. His arms locked about her, his chest hard against her breasts, his heartbeat a heavy, repetitive thud reverberating through her. Her defensive tension shifted, transmuted; she pressed herself to him. She answered his kiss and desire rose, not in passionate frenzy, but as a swelling presence impossible to deny. Like rivers unleashed, it welled from them both, merging to a torrent, carrying all thought, all conscious will before it, impelling, compelling, not with need but with the need to give.
Neither questioned its rightness, neither attempted to fight it-a force more than strong enough to deny the deaths they’d faced. Surrendering, to it, to each other, they stripped, barely aware of the clothes they left strewn across the floor. The touch of skin against warm skin, of hands searching, of lips and tongues caressing, played on their senses, feeding the swelling crescendo.
Naked, aroused, they took to their bed, limbs twining, then parting, only to close intimately again. Soft murmurs rose, Devil’s deep rumble beneath Honoria’s breathless gasps. Time stretched; with freshly opened eyes and heightened senses, they learned each other anew. Devil revisted every soft curve, every square inch of Honoria’s ivory skin, every fluttering pulse point, each and every erogenous zone. No less ensorcelled, Honoria rediscovered his hard body, his strength, his perception, his unfailing expertise. His commitment to her fulfilment-matched only by hers to his.
Time suspended as they explored, lavishing pleasure on each other, their murmurs transmuting to soft cries and half-suppressed groans. Only when there was no more left to give did Devil lie back, lifting Honoria over him. Straddling him, she arched and took him in, sinking slowly down, savoring every second, until he was buried deep.
Time fractured. A crystal moment, it hung between them, quivering, invested with sensation. Gazes locked, they both held still, then Honoria let her lids fall. Heart thundering, hearing-feeling-his heartbeat deep within her, she savored the strength that had invaded her, silently acknowledging the power that held her in its coils. Beneath her, Devil closed his eyes, his mind awash with the softness that had accepted him, that now held him so powerfully he could never break free.
Then they moved, their bodies in perfect communion, their souls committed beyond will or thought. Too experienced to rush, they savored each step down the lengthy road, until the gates of paradise opened before them. Together, they entered in.
“Under no circumstances is Her Grace to be left unattended at any time.” Devil reinforced that edict with a flat look, trained impartially on the three retainers ranged before him on the library rug.
All three-Webster, poker-straight, his expression more impassive than ever, Mrs. Hull, rigidly upright, lips pinched with concern, and Sligo, his face more mournful than ever-looked uncertain.
Grudgingly, Devil amended: “Other than in our apartments.”
That was where Honoria presently was and, if experience was any guide, where she’d remain for a good few hours yet. She’d been deeply asleep when he’d left her-after fully sating his senses and hers; the exercise had left him feeling more vulnerable than he’d ever felt before. But she was safe in their rooms, given the burly footman stationed within sight of the door.
“When I’m absent from the house, Webster, you’ll admit no one other than one of my aunts or Vane. If any call, Her Grace is indisposed. We will not be entertaining in the immediate future-not until this matter is resolved.”
“Indeed, Your Grace.”
“Both you and Mrs. Hull will ensure no one has any chance to tamper with any food or provisions. Incidentally,” Devil’s gaze fixed on Webster’s face, “did you check the rest of that brandy?”
“Yes, Your Grace. The rest of the bottle was uncontaminated.” Webster straightened. “I can assure Your Grace I did not fill that decanter with poisoned spirits.”
Devil met his gaze directly. “So I had assumed. I take it we’ve hired no new staff lately?”
Webster’s stiffness eased. “No, Your Grace. As is our habit, we brought up more of our people from Somersham to assist last night, hands already familiar with our ways. There were no strangers amongst the staff, m’lord.” Fixing his gaze on a point above Devil’s head, Webster continued: “Last night, every member of the staff had some prescribed activity they had to perform at virtually any given time.” Webster let his gaze drop to meet Devil’s eyes. “The long and the short of it is that none of our staff were missing from their duties long enough to have reached your apartments and returned undetected. We must assume, I believe, that some guest aware of the location of the ducal apartments introduced the poison, my lord.”
“Quite.” Devil had already thought through that point, that and a great deal more; he shifted his gaze to Sligo. “You, Sligo, will accompany Her Grace wherever she goes. If she should decide to walk in public, you will be by her side-not behind her.” He met Sligo’s gaze levelly. “You’re to guard her with your life.”
Sligo nodded; he owed Devil his life several times over and saw nothing odd in the request. “I’ll make sure no one gets to her. But…” He frowned. “If I’m to be with Her Grace, who’s to be with you?”
“I’ve faced death before-this is no different.”
“If I could suggest, Your Grace,” Webster intervened. “At least a footman-“
“No.” The single word cut off all protest. Devil eyed his servitors straitly. “I’m more than capable of protecting myself.” His tone dared them to contradict him; naturally, none of them did. He nodded a dismissal. “You may go.”
He stood as they filed to the door; Webster and Sligo left, but Mrs. Hull hung back. When, tight-lipped, she looked at him, Devil, resigned, lifted a brow.
“You’re not really invincible, you know.”
Devil’s lips twisted wryly. “I know, Hully, I know. But for God’s sake, don’t tell Her Grace.”
Mollified by his use of his childhood name for her, Mrs. Hull sniffed. “As if I would. You just busy yourself finding whoever was so lost to all proper feeling as to put poison in that decanter-
Devil watched her leave, and wondered if any of the three had any idea how much he was entrusting to their care. He’d told them true-he’d faced death many times. Honoria’s death he couldn’t face at all.
“I’m putting my trust in you to ensure that no harm comes to His Grace.” Pacing before the morning-room windows, Honoria sent a raking glance over the three servitors lined up on the rug-Webster, Mrs. Hull, and Sligo. “I assume he’s already spoken to you regarding the incident last night?”
All three nodded; Webster acted as spokesman. “His Grace gave us orders to ensure no repetition of the incident, ma’am.”
“I’m sure he did.” Devil had left the house before she’d awoken, an occurrence delayed by him. He’d kept her awake into the small hours-she’d never known him so demanding. When he’d stirred her awake at dawn, she’d applied herself wholeheartedly to appeasing his considerable appetite, assuming, with what little wit she’d been able to command, that it was some long-overdue realization of his mortality that made him so hungry for life.
She’d expected to discuss the shocking incident of the poison with him over breakfast-instead, she’d missed breakfast altogether.
“It is not my intention to counteract any of His Grace’s orders-whatever he has decreed must be done.
Webster grimaced. “We did make the suggestion, ma’am-unfortunately, His Grace vetoed the idea.”
“Flat,” Sligo corroborated, his tone making it clear what he thought of that decision.
Mrs. Hull’s lips thinned to a prim line. “He always was exceedingly stubborn.”
“Indeed.” From the way all three were watching her, Honoria knew she had only to say the word. The context, however, was somewhat delicate-she could not, in all conscience, contradict her husband’s edicts. She looked at Webster. “What was the suggestion His Grace vetoed?”
“I suggested a footman as a guard, ma’am.”
Honoria raised her brows. “We have other suitable men in our employ, do we not-men who are not footmen?”
Webster blinked only once. “Indeed, ma’am. From underbutlers to scullery boys.”
“And there’s the grooms and stablelads, too,” Sligo added.
Honoria nodded. “Very well.” She met each pair of eyes. “To preserve my peace of mind, you will ensure you are always in a position to tell me where His Grace is at any time while he is absent from this house. Nothing, however, must be done against His Grace’s expressed wishes. I trust that’s clear?”
Webster bowed. “Indeed, ma’am. I’m sure His Grace would expect us to do all possible to keep you from fretting.”
“Precisely. Now, do you have any idea where he is at present?”
Webster and Mrs. Hull shook their heads. Sligo looked at the ceiling. “I believe” he said”-he rocked slightly on his toes-“that the Cap’n’s with Mister Vane.” Lowering his gaze, he met Honoria’s eyes. “At his lodgings in Jermyn Street, ma’am.” When Honoria, along with both his peers, looked their question, Sligo opened his eyes wide. “A lad from the stables had to go that way with a message, ma’am.”
“I see.” For the first time since smelling bitter almonds, Honoria felt a touch of relief. She had allies. “Do you think this stablelad might still be about his business when His Grace leaves his cousin?”
Sligo nodded. “Very likely, ma’am.”
Honoria nodded back, decisively, dismissively. “You have your orders, from both myself and His Grace. I’m sure you will carry them out diligently.”
Sligo nodded; Mrs. Hull curtsied. Webster bowed low. “You may rely on us, Your Grace.”