Chapter 21

Vane stared at Devil, unfeigned horror in his face. “Just how many attempts on your life have there been?”

Devil raised his brows. “If Honoria’s supposition is correct, three. There’s still nothing to suggest my phaeton was tampered with, but, given these other two episodes, I’m inclined to think she may be right.” They were in Vane’s parlor; seated at the table, Devil raised a tankard of ale and took a long sip.

Standing before the windows, Vane was still staring.”The phaeton, the poison-what was the third?”

“Someone took a shot at me in the park yesterday morning.”

“You were out early?”

Devil nodded. Vane’s gaze blanked; he turned to stare, unseeing, out of the window. Devil waited. After the dramatic events of the night, he felt deadly calm. In between making love to his wife, he’d spent the night thinking. Near death was a wonderful focuser-nearly losing Honoria had eradicated all pretense, exposed all the logical reasons he’d used to justify their marriage as the facade they actually were. What he felt for his wife had nothing to do with logic.

Abruptly, he shifted, and glanced at Vane-then inwardly, mockingly, shook his head. At himself. Whenever his thoughts even touched on that point-that emotion he could not, would not, define-he pulled back, edged away. That unnameable emotion left him feeling so vulnerable he found it near impossible to countenance, to even admit its existence. It opened up a gaping hole in his defenses; his instinctive response was to rebuild his walls with all speed.

But he would have to face it soon. Insecurity lay, a leaden weight in his gut; the uncertainty was driving him insane. Honoria cared for him-last night had proved that. She might even care in the way women sometimes did, at some different level from any sexual interest. On some other plane. He desperately needed to know.

Finding out without asking, without revealing his intense interest in the answer, was a challenge he intended to devote his entire attention to-just as soon as he’d dealt with his would-be murderer.

Who’d very nearly murdered his wife.

He looked up as Vane turned, fixing him with a worried look. “This is more than serious.” Vane started to pace. “Why only in London?” He shot a glance at Devil. “There weren’t any other suspicious happenings at the Place?”

Devil shook his head. “London because it’s safer-more people about. Cambridgeshire is open country, and my fields are rather full of my workers.”

“That didn’t help us locate Tolly’s killer.”

Devil looked down, swirling the ale in his tankard.

“To sabotage your phaeton, they had to get into your stables undetected, know which carriage, and how best to make it look like an accident, which presupposes some knowledge of your driving habits. Whoever shot at you in the park must have known you make a habit of riding that early. And whoever put the poison in the decanter”-his expression grim, Vane met Devil’s eye-“whoever did that had to know where the ducal appartments lie as well as your peculiar method of drinking.”

Devil nodded. “If they hadn’t known that, they’d have been far more circumspect in their dosage-there was enough in one mouthful to fell an ox, which was why Honoria detected it so easily.”

“So,” Vane said, “whoever it is knew all the above, but-” He broke off and looked at Devil.

Who grimaced. “But didn’t know that Honoria shares my brandy as well as my bed.”

Vane grimaced back. “Even I didn’t know that, so it doesn’t help us thin the ranks.” He paused, then asked: “So was Tolly killed because he was coming to warn you?”

Slowly, Devil nodded. “That scenario makes sense of what he said at the cottage as well as, if not better, than any other.”

Both fell silent, then Vane asked: “What will you do?”

“Do?” Devil raised his brows. “Precisely what I was planning before, only with both eyes fully open.”

And with me to cover your back.”

Devil grinned. “If you insist.”

It was a familiar sally between them; some of Vane’s tension eased. He sat in the chair opposite Devil’s. “So, has Bromley finally turned up trumps?”

“Not yet-but he thinks he’s laid his hand on a winning card. He came by yesterday with the offer of a meeting-the madam in question wanted certain guarantees. I told him what she could have-he’s gone off to negotiate time and date.”

“Place?”

“The palace itself.”

Vane frowned. “You’ll go?”

Devil shrugged. “I can see why she’d want it that way.”

“It could be a trap.”

“Unlikely-she’s got more to lose by siding against me rather than with me. And Bromley’s too enamored of his comforts to encourage any double-dealing.”

Vane didn’t look convinced. “I don’t like any of this.”

Draining his tankard, Devil shook his head. “No-but I’d rather not miss any clue for want of looking.” He glanced at Vane. “I still haven’t remembered that something I’ve forgotten about Tolly’s murder.”

“You’re still positive it’s something vital?”

“Oh, yes.” His expression grim, Devil rose. “It was something so vital I noticed it particularly, but Tolly dying wiped it from my mind.”

Vane grimaced. “It’ll come back.”

Devil met his eyes. “But will it come back in time?”

*****

Firm footsteps approached the morning room; Honoria left the window and sat on the chaise. She’d spent the day methodically analyzing the attempts on Devil’s life. And had reached the only logical conclusion. While her immediate impulse was to lay her findings before Devil, further consideration had suggested he might not, in this case, accept her conclusion readily. After considerable cogitation, she’d sent a message to the one person she knew he trusted without question.

Her “Come in” coincided with a peremptory knock. The door opened; Vane strolled in. His gaze found her; closing the door, he strolled forward, his gait reminiscent of Devil’s prowl. “How are you?”

Honoria grimaced. “Distracted.”

He nodded and sat in the chair facing her. “How can I help?” One brown brow rose. “Your note said the matter was urgent.”

Lips compressed, Honoria studied his face. “I’ve been thinking over all that’s happened. There has to be a reason someone’s trying to kill Devil.”

His gaze on her face, Vane nodded. “Go on.”

“There’s only one compelling reason I know of connecting Devil and a person who would know enough to tamper with his phaeton and put poison in his brandy. The inheritance-which, after all, is more than considerable. That might also explain why the attacks only started after it became obvious we would wed.”

Light dawned in Vane’s face. “Of course. I’ve been concentrating on Tolly-I didn’t think of that angle.”

“You agree?” Honoria leaned forward. “You agree it must be Richard?”

Vane stared in blank astonishment. “Richard?”

Honoria frowned. “Devil’s heir.”

“Ah.” Swiftly, Vane searched her face. “Honoria, your logic’s impeccable-unfortunately, Devil’s neglected to give you all the details necessary to arrive at the correct outcome.” He hesitated, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, but it’s not my place to explain-you’ll have to ask Devil.”

Honoria eyed him straitly. “Ask him what?”

Vane’s eyes turned hard. “Ask him who his heir is.”

“It’s not Richard?”

Lips compressed, Vane rose. “I must go-but promise me you’ll tell Devil your conclusions.”

Honoria’s eyes flashed. “I can give you an absolute assurrance on that point.”

“Good.” Vane met her gaze. “If it makes it any easier, I’d wager he’s already followed the same train of thought.”

“You think he knows?” Honoria held out her hand.

“He knows, but, as he does with such matters, he won’t say until he’s sure-until he has proof.” Vane released Honoria’s hand. “By your leave, I’ve an idea to pursue-the sooner we get your husband the proof he requires, the sooner we’ll be free of this murderer.”

Unwilling to do anything to delay that outcome, Honoria nodded and let him go. Long after the door had closed behind him, she sat staring at the panels, unable to make head or tail of what was going on.

Cynsters-a law unto themselves. With a disgusted humph, she stood and headed upstairs to change.

His Grace of St. Ives dined at home that evening. Honoria waited until they retired, then stripped off her gown, donned her nightgown, scurried like an eager chambermaid into the ducal chamber, dropped her peignoir, kicked off her slippers, and scrambled beneath the covers.

From the other side of the room, engaged in untying his cravat, Devil watched her performance with interest-an interest she ignored. Propped against the pillows, she fixed her gaze on his face. “I’ve been thinking.”

Devil’s hands stilled, then he drew the white linen from about his throat. Unbuttoning his waistcoat, he approached the bed. “What about?”

“About who would want you dead.”

He shrugged out of his waistcoat, then sat on the bed to pull off his boots. “Did you reach any conclusion?”

“Yes-but Vane told me my conclusion wasn’t right.”

Devil looked up. “Vane?”

Honoria explained. “Naturally, I thought your heir was Richard.”

“Ah.” Devil dropped his second boot. He stood, stripped off his shirt and trousers, then slid beneath the covers. Honoria tumbled against him; he settled her beside him. “I suppose I should have told you about that.”

Honoria squinted through the shadows; she was almost sure he was grinning. “I suspect you should have. What is it I don’t know?”

Devil lay back against the pillows. “You know Richard’s nickname?”

“Scandal?”

Devil nodded. “Like mine being a shortened form of ‘That Devil Cynster,’ Richard’s is also a truncation. His full sobriquet is ‘The Scandal That Never Was.'”

He’s a scandal?”

“Richard’s my brother, but he’s not my mother’s son.”

Honoria blinked. “Ah.” Then she frowned. “But you look so alike.”

“We look like my father-you’ve seen his portrait. Only our coloring, and in my case my eyes, come from our respective mothers-Richard’s was also dark-haired.”

This was scandal on a major scale-Richard was younger than Devil. Yet Honoria had detected not the slightest whiff of disapprobation in any of the ton’s dealings with Richard Cynster. “I don’t understand.” She looked up in time to see Devil’s teeth gleam.

“The truth of Richard’s birth has been an open secret for three decades-it’s very old news. Maman, of course, is the key.”

Honoria crossed her arms on his chest and fixed her gaze on his face. “Tell me.”

Devil settled his arms about her. “When I was three, my father was asked to undertake a diplomatic mission to the Highlands. There’d been an outbreak of dissaffection and the Court boffins wanted to rattle sabers without sending troops. Sending a Cynster was considered the next best thing. Maman decided not to accompany him. She was told at my birth that she wouldn’t be able to have more children, so she was hideously overprotective of me, much to my disgust. So m’father went north alone. The laird he was sent to…” He paused, searching for words.

“Intimidate?” Honoria suggested.

Devil nodded. “This laird, a redhead, had recently married-an arranged marriage with a lowlands beauty.”

“She would be a beauty,” Honoria muttered.

Devil glanced at her. “We Cynsters have standards, you know.”

Honoria humphed and poked his chest. “What happened next.”

“Strangely enough, we’re not entirely sure. We do know my father’s mission was a success; he was home within four weeks. Richard appeared twelve months later.”

Twelve months?”

“His mother died a few months after his birth. Whether she confessed or whether her husband simply assumed from his coloring that Richard was none of his, we don’t know. But there was no doubt, even then, that Richard was my father’s-he looked exactly like me at the same age, and there were enough about who remembered. Whatever, Richard’s fate was sealed when Webster picked him up from before the front door-a carriage had driven up, the wrapped bundle deposited, and the horses whipped up immediately. No message-just Richard. Webster carried him in and Richard immediately started squalling.”

“The sound was horrendous-I remember because I hadn’t heard it before. Maman was brushing my hair in the nursery-we heard it all the way up there. She dropped the brush and rushed downstairs. She beat me down. I reached the last landing to see her descend on Webster and my father, who were trying to hush Richard. Maman plucked him out of their arms-she cooed and Richard stopped crying. She just smiled-brilliantly-you know how she can.”

Her chin on his chest, Honoria nodded.

“I realized immediately that Richard was a godsend- Maman was so caught up with him she forgot about the knots in my hair. From that moment, Richard had my full support. My father came up-I think he was about to attempt an explanation-in retrospect I’m sorry I didn’t hear it, even if I wouldn’t have understood it then. But Maman immediately told him how immensely clever he was to have provided her with the one, truly most important thing she wanted-another son. Naturally, he kept quiet. From there on, Maman rolled over any objections-she’d been my father’s duchess for five years and was an eminent social power. She publicly decreed Richard was her son-none were game, then or now, to contradict her.” Honoria heard the smile in his voice.

“There’s no doubt that having Richard to rear really did make Maman happy. The matter caused no one any harm; my father acknowledged him and made provision for him in his will.” Devil drew a deep breath. “And that’s the story of the Scandal That Never Was.”

Honoria lay still; Devil’s hand stroked her hair. “So now you know Richard’s not my heir.” His hand slid to her nape. “He’s not the one trying to kill me.”

Honoria listened to the steady thud of his heart. She was glad it wasn’t Richard-she liked him, and knew Devil was fond of him. Without lifting her head, she murmured: “Your mother’s a fascinating woman.”

Devil rolled, rolling her under him; on his elbows, he brushed her hair from her face. “She certainly fascinated my father.” Honoria felt his eyes on her face, then his head dipped. His lips brushed hers. “Just as my duchess fascinates me.”

They were the last logical words said that night.

She needed to have a long, serious talk with her husband. Clad in a translucent ivory peignoir trimmed with feathers, Honoria paced the ducal bedchamber and waited for him to appear.

They’d met at breakfast and again at dinner, but she could hardly interrogate him in front of the servants. He was presently at White’s, meeting with Viscount Bromley. That much she knew, that much he’d told her. What he hadn’t told her was what he thought, who he suspected.

As Richard was illegitimate, he couldn’t inherit, not with so many legitimate males in the family. After learning how Scandal had come by his name, she hadn’t needed to ask who Devil’s heir was. In the weeks before their marriage, she’d questioned Horatia about Devil’s father-in passing, Horatia had mentioned that George, her husband, Vane’s father, was a bare year younger than Devil’s father. Which meant that, with Richard ineligible, George was Devil’s heir, with Vane next in line.

Not in her wildest dreams could she imagine George as the villain of the piece. Devil treated him as a surrogate father, an affection George openly returned. And Vane’s devotion to Devil was beyond question. So the killer wasn’t Devil’s heir, but as soon as she’d drawn Vane’s attention to the point, he’d seen a blinding light.

With a frustrated growl, Honoria kicked her feathered hem aside. “So what is it about the heir that makes all obvious?”

Devil knew; Vane was sure he’d followed the same reasoning and come up with an answer. Presumably, as it wasn’t the heir, some process of elimination illuminated the true killer. Who was…

Honoria glared at the clock. And tried not to think of the other reason she was pacing, eager to set eyes on her husband again. Someone was trying to kill him. This house was a safe haven; he was safe here. But outside…?

She wanted him here, safe in her arms.

Honoria shivered; she wrapped her arms about her and, frowning, looked at the clock again. Lips setting, she made for the door. Opening it, she listened; as the clock on the mantel had correctly foretold, the clock on the stairs whirred, then chimed. Twelve deep booms resonated through the house. Midnight-and Devil was still not back.

She was closing the door when the front knocker sounded-a curt, peremptory summons. Honoria paused, her frown deepening. Who would come calling at midnight? Devil had a latchkey, so…

The blood drained from her face. Her heart stuttered, then started to race. She was halfway down the corridor before she realized she’d moved. Then she picked up her skirts and flew.

She raced through the gallery to the top of the stairs. Breathless, she clutched the wide banister and looked down. Webster swung the door wide, revealing a shadowy figure. The figure stepped forward; the light from the hall lamps burnished Vane’s chestnut locks.

He handed his cane to Webster. “Where’s Devil?”

Accepting the cane, Webster shut the door. “His Grace has not yet returned, sir.”

“He hasn’t?”

Even from the top of the stairs, Honoria heard Vane’s surprise.

“I believe he went to White’s, sir.”

“Yes, I know.” Vane sounded vague. “I left before him-I had to call at a friend’s, but he intended leaving on my heels. I would have thought he’d be here by now.”

Her heart thumping, Honoria watched the men stare at each other-the black specter she’d held at bay all day suddenly swirled closer. She leaned over the banister. “Vane?”

He looked up, then blinked. Surprise leached from his face, leaving it curiously blank. Webster glanced up, too, but immediately lowered his gaze.

Vane cleared his throat, and tried not to focus. “Yes, Honoria?”

“Go and look for him. Please?” The last word was heavy with latent fear.

Vane tried an unfocused frown. “He probably fell in with some friends and was delayed.”

Honoria shook her head violently; inside, a familiar panic was rising. “No-something’s happened. I know it.” Her fingers tightened on the banister; her knuckles showed white. “Please-go now!”

Vane was reaching for his cane before her last words had died-the emotion investing her “please” was compelling. Infected by her concern, her fear overriding the logical excuses his mind freely concocted, he turned to the door.

Webster, reacting with similar speed, opened it. Swiftly, Vane descended the steps. His stride lengthening, he mentally retraced Devil’s habitual route home from his favorite club. Ten yards from the steps, Vane remembered the alleyway between Berkeley Square and Hays Mews. Cursing, he broke into a run.

Back inside St. Ives House, Honoria clutched the banister and fought down her panic.

Closing the door, Webster briefly glanced her way. “By your leave, ma’am, I’ll notify Sligo.”

Honoria nodded. “Please do.” She remembered she’d ordered Devil watched-with relief, she grasped that branch and hung on. Sligo, protective, watchful Sligo, would have made sure his “Cap’n” was well guarded.

Beneath her, the baize door was flung open, crashing against the wall. Sligo rushed into the hall, flung open the front door and raced down the steps. As he disappeared, Honoria felt the slim branch she’d clutched ripped from her grasp-and found herself facing the black pit of her fears again.

*****

Hah!” Devil didn’t waste breath putting much force into the shout-the alleyway was long and narrow; there were no windows in the tall brick walls. Swinging the thin blade of his swordstick in a wide arc, he grabbed the moment as his three attackers flinched back to reach down and tug the body slumped on the alley’s cobbles within his guard.

Leaving room for his feet, he straightened immediately, sword flicking back and forth, steel tip scenting blood. In his other hand, he held the empty scabbard, the rigid rod a foil against another weapon. With a feral grin, he gestured with the scabbard. “Well, gentlemen? Who’ll be first?”

His challenging glance swept the faces of the men sent to kill him. They’d waited until he was in the alley, striding along, thinking of other things. Two had followed him in, the third had closed from the other end. All three were brawny, hulking brutes-sailors from their ill-fitting garments. All three carried swords-not slim blades like the one keeping them at bay but long, straight, single-sided weapons.

His gaze steady, his expression taunting, Devil mentally searched for escape. And found none. Chance-in the form of two large barrels left in the usually empty alley, and a man who’d chased the sailors into the dimly lit passage-had kept him alive this far. With a yell, the man had thrown himself at the pair, alerting him to their presence. The man’s intervention had been more heroic than wise; after momentarily grappling with him, one sailor had raised his arm and, with his sword grip, struck him down.

But by then he’d had his back against the wall, unsheathed sword and scabbard in his hands, the barrels immediately to his left restricting the front he had to defend. “Come along,” he taunted, waving them forward. “No need to feel reticent about dying.”

Their eyes shifted one to the other, each waiting to see who’d be first. It was his only hope-to keep them hanging back in indecision. From the corners of his eyes, he kept watch on the ends of the alley, lit by the flares in the street and square beyond. If anyone passed, their shadows would be thrown in-he’d have to hold his attackers back until that happened, and he could call for help. Unfortunately, it was past midnight in an area of fashionable residences with the Season yet to start. There were few people abroad.

Feet shifted on the cobbles; the largest of the sailors, the one directly in front, tried a slashing thrust. Devil blocked, catching the blade on his scabbard, sword hissing forward to slice the man’s forearm. With a curse, the man jumped back, scowling, piggy eyes considering.

Devil prayed he wouldn’t consider too hard-one on one, he could win, or hold them off forever. They were all heavier, but he was taller and had a longer, more flexible reach. If they rushed him all at once, they’d have him. Indeed, he couldn’t understand why they hadn’t already overwhelmed him; despite his black coat, his snowy cravat and white cuffs marked him clearly. Then he saw all three exchange another wary glance; inspiration dawned. He smiled, devilishly. “Hell’s not such a bad place-take my word for it. Fiendishly hot, of course, and the pain never ends, but I can guarantee you’ll all be found a place.”

The three exchanged another glance, then the leader tried a less-than-successful sneer. “You may look like Satan, but you ain’t him. You’re just a man-your blood’ll run free enough. ‘Tisn’t us slated to die tonight.” He glanced at the others. “C’arn-let’s get this done.”

So saying, he raised his sword.

His warning, of course, was not wise. Devil met them, front and right; the man on his left, impeded by the barrels, predictably hung back. Sparks flew as one sword met the sweetly tempered steel of the swordstick and slid away; blocking the leader’s stroke with his scabbard, Devil followed up with a swift thrust that pierced flesh.

He disengaged, simultaneously blocking the leader’s second blow; the sword, wielded with force, sheered along the polished wood and struck his hand, clenched around it. The cut was not serious, he’d been pulling back at the time, but the scabbard quickly turned sticky beneath his fingers. Suppressing all reaction to the wound, Devil sent his thin blade reaching for the leader. The man jumped back as the fine point pricked his chest.

Devil cursed; the man to his left pressed closer, anxious to be in on the kill. The three assassins regrouped, all raising their weapons.

“Hi! Hold hard!”

A tall figure blocked out the light from Hays Mews. Running footsteps echoed from the walls; a second figure followed the first.

Devil grabbed the moment, striking cleanly at the leader.

The man yelped, then staggered back, clutching his right arm. His sword dropped from nerveless fingers. The clatter shocked his comrades-they looked around, then dropped their weapons. All three turned and fled.

Devil started in pursuit-and tripped over the slumped form of his would-be savior, still lying at his feet.

Vane, his own scabbard and unsheathed sword in his hands, skidded to a halt beside him. “Who the hell were they?”

Side by side, the cousins watched the three burly shadows disappear into the glare of Berkeley Square. Devil shrugged. “We didn’t exchange introductions.”

Vane looked down. “You got one.” Bending down, he turned the man onto his back.

“No.” Devil peered at his comatose good Samaritan. “He tried to help and got a clout over the ear for his pains. Strange to tell, I think he’s one of my undergrooms.”

Puffing, Sligo clattered up. His gaze swept Devil, then he slumped against the wall. “You all right?”

Devil raised his brows, then sheathed his swordstick, clicking the blade into place. Transferring the innocent-looking cane to his right hand, he examined his left. “Other than a cut, which doesn’t seem serious.”

“Thank Gawd for that.” Propped against the wall, Sligo closed his eyes. “The missus would never forgive me.”

Devil frowned-first at Sligo, then at Vane.

Vane was studying the three discarded swords. “Funny business.” Bending, he scooped them up. “Not your usual backstreet weapon.”

Devil took one of the swords and hefted it. “Odd indeed. They look like old cavalry issue.” After a moment, he added: “Presumably they knew I carry a swordstick and would use it.”

“They also knew they’d need three to get the job done.”

“If it hadn’t been for him,” Devil indicated the man on the ground, “they’d have succeeded.” He turned to Sligo. “Any idea what he’s doing here?”

The tone of the question was mild; Sligo clung to the shadows and shook his head. “Most likely out for the evening and on his way home. Saw you and the others-you’re easy enough to recognize.”

Devil humphed. “You’d better get him home and make sure he’s cared for. I’ll see him tomorrow-such timely devotion shouldn’t go unrewarded.”

Making a mental note to explain to the second undergroom that he’d had the night off, Sligo hefted the man over his shoulder. Wiry and used to such loads, he started off up the alley, plodding steadily.

Devil and Vane strolled in his wake. As they left the alley, Devil glanced at Vane. “Speaking of opportune events, what brought you two here?”

Vane met his look. “Your wife.”

Devil’s brows rose. “I should have guessed.”

“She was frantic when I left.” Vane glanced at him. “She worries about you.”

Devil grimaced; Vane shrugged. “She may jump to conclusions, but too often they’ve proved right. I decided not to argue. The alley was an obvious place for an ambush.”

Devil nodded. “Very obvious.”

Vane looked ahead; Sligo was making his way about Grosvenor Square. Vane slowed. “Did Honoria speak to you about your heir?”

Devil sent him a sidelong glance. “Yes.”

Eyes narrowing, Vane sent the glance right back. “How long have you known?”

Devil sighed. “I still don’t know-I suspect. I can’t say exactly when I realized-I just suddenly saw the possibility.”

“So?”

Devil’s features set. “So I want to find out what I can from this madam-tie up that loose end, if loose end it proves. Bromley confirmed the where and when of the meeting. After that-” He grimaced. “We’ve precious little evidence-we may need to draw him into the open.”

“A trap?”

Devil nodded.

Vane’s expression hardened. “With you as bait?”

They’d reached the steps of St. Ives House. Devil looked up at his door. “With me-and Honoria Prudence-as bait.”

The suggestion stunned Vane; when he refocused, Devil was climbing the steps. Webster opened the door as Sligo, lugging his burden, reached it. Setting the door wide, Webster called for assistance, then helped Sligo.

Pacing in the gallery, wringing her hands with frustrated impotence, Honoria heard the commotion. In a froth of silk and feathers, she rushed to the balustrade. The sight that met her eyes was not designed to reassure.

Webster and Sligo were carrying a body.

Honoria paled. For one instant, her heart stopped; her chest squeezed so tight, she couldn’t breathe. Then she realized the body wasn’t Devil’s-relief hit her in a dizzying wave. The next instant, her husband strolled over his threshold, ineffably elegant as always. Vane followed.

Vane was carrying three swords and his walking cane.

Devil was carrying his silver-topped cane. The cane was streaked with blood; the back of his left hand was bright red.

Honoria forgot everything and everyone else. In a whisper of silk, feathers scattering in her wake, she flew down the stairs.

Sligo and two footmen had the unconscious groom in charge; Webster was closing the door. It was Vane who saw her first; he jogged Devil’s elbow.

Devil looked up-and only just managed not to gape. His wife’s peignoir was not transparent but left little to the imagination; the soft, sheer silk clung to gently rounded contours and long sleek limbs. Abruptly, his face set; biting back a curse, he strode for the stairs. He only had time to toss his cane to Webster before Honoria flung herself against him.

“Where are you hurt? What happened?” Frantic, she ran her hands across his chest, searching for wounds. Then she tried to draw back and examine him.

“I’m fine.” With his right arm, Devil locked her to him. Lifting her, he continued up the stairs, his body shielding her from the hall below.

“But you’re bleedingl” Honoria wriggled, trying to pursue her investigation of his hurts.

“It’s just a scratch-you can tend it in our room.” Devil gave the last three words definite emphasis. Reaching the top of the stairs, he glanced down at Vane. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Vane met his gaze. “Tomorrow.”

“Is the wound on your hand or your arm?” Honoria half tipped in Devil’s hold, trying to see.

Devil swallowed a curse. “On my hand. Stay still.” Tightening his hold, he headed for their chamber. “If you’re going to work yourself into a frenzy waiting up for me, you’ll need to invest in more suitable nightwear.”

The terse comment didn’t even impinge on Honoria’s consciousness.

Resigned, Devil set her down in their room and surrendered to the inevitable. Obediently stripping off his shirt, he sat on the end of the bed and let her bathe his cut. He answered all her questions-truthfully; she’d hear the details from her maid tomorrow anyway.

Mrs. Hull appeared with a pot of salve and bandages. She joined Honoria in clucking over him. Together, they bandaged the cut, using twice as much bandage as he deemed necessary. However, he kept his tongue between his teeth and submitted meekly; Mrs. Hull cast him a suspicious glance as she left. Honoria rattled on, her voice brittle and breathless, her gaze skittish.

Swords! What sort of ruffians attack gentlemen with swords?” She gestured wildly. “It shouldn’t be allowed.”

Devil stood, caught her hand and towed her across the room. He stopped before the tallboy, poured two glasses of brandy, then, taking both in one hand, towed Honoria, her litany of exclamations gradually petering out, to the armchair before the fire. Dropping into the chair, he drew her down onto his lap, then handed her one glass.

Taking it, she fell silent. Then she shivered.

“Drink it.” Devil guided the glass to her lips.

Cradling the glass in both hands, Honoria took a sip, then another. Then she shuddered, closed her eyes and leaned against him.

His arm about her, Devil held her close. “I’m still here.” He pressed his lips to her temple. “I told you I won’t leave you.”

Dragging in a breath, Honoria snuggled closer, settling her head in the hollow of his shoulder.

Devil waited until she’d drained her glass, then carried her to their bed, divesting her of her peignoir before putting her between the sheets. Moments later, he joined her, drawing her into his arms. And set about demonstrating in the most convincing way he knew that he was still hale and whole, still very much alive.

Honoria slept late the next morning, yet when she awoke she felt far from refreshed. After tea and toast on a tray in her chamber, she headed for the morning room. Her head felt woolly, her wits still skittish. Settling on the chaise, she picked up her embroidery. Fifteen minutes later, she’d yet to set a stitch.

Sighing, she put the canvas aside. She felt as fragile as the delicate tracery she should have been creating. Her nerves were stretched taut; she was convinced a storm was brewing, roiling on her horizon, poised to sweep in and strike-and take Devil from her.

He meant so much to her. He was the center of her life-she couldn’t imagine living without him, arrogant tyrant though he was. They were growing together so well, yet someone was not content to let them be.

The thought made her frown. She might think of the murderer as a black cloud, billowing ever higher, yet he was only a man.

She’d woken early to find Devil sitting beside her on the bed, stroking her hair. “Rest,” he’d said. “There’s no reason you need be up and about.” He’d searched her face, then kissed her. “Take care. I won’t approve if I find you peaked and wan.” With a twisted smile, he’d stood.

“Will you be about?” she’d asked.

“I’ll be back for dinner.”

Which was all very well, but dinner was hours away.

Honoria stared at the door. Something was about to happen-she could feel it in her bones. A chill stole down her spine; she shivered, but didn’t let go of her disturbing thoughts. Yet she could identify no action, nothing she could do to avert the impending doom. She was impotent. Helpless.

A tap on the door interrupted her dismal reverie. Sligo entered, balancing a tray. “Mrs. Hull thought as you might like her special tea. Makes it up herself, she does.” He set the tray on the sidetable and deftly poured a cup.

Honoria’s instant reaction was a definite veto-her stomach felt as fragile as her mental state. The soothing aroma that rose with the steam changed her mind.

“Chamomile, it is.” Sligo handed her the cup.

Honoria took it and sipped, then remembered the groom. “How is Carter?”

“Better. Got a lump the size of an egg, but the Cap’n thanked him special this morning-Carter says as how he hardly feels it now.”

“Good. Please convey my thanks to him as well.” Honoria sipped. “Did Carter have any idea where the men who attacked His Grace hailed from?”

Sligo fiddled with the doily on the tray. “Not as such. He did say they looked like sailors.”

Honoria fixed her gaze on his face. “Sligo-did Carter overhear anything?”

Sligo shifted. “He heard the two he followed agree to meet up later at the Anchor’s Arms.”

“The Anchor’s Arms?”

“A tavern by the docks.”

A demon prodded Honoria to act; she ignored it. “Has His Grace been informed of Carter’s recollections?”

“No, ma’am. Carter only fully came to his wits an hour ago.”

Honoria chose the course of wisdom. “Inform His Grace immediately of Carter’s information.”

Sligo bit his lip and shifted his weight.

Honoria studied his unprepossessing features in dawning disbelief. “Sligo-where is he?”

Sligo straightened. “The Cap’n must’ve fallen to our plan. When the lads set out to follow ‘im this morning, he lost ’em. Neat as you please.”

Neat!” Honoria sat bolt upright. “There’s nothing neat about it.”

Here they were, with a potentially valuable avenue to explore, and her husband had taken himself off. Away from their watchful eyes. She handed Sligo her teacup, inwardly congratulating herself on not having thrown it. She wasn’t so lost to all sense as to wax hysterical over someone trying to kill Devil in the middle of London during the day. She did, however, want his would-be-murderer caught without delay. Narrow-eyed, she considered Sligo. “Where does His Grace normally lunch?”

“One of his clubs, ma’am-White’s, Waitier’s, or Boodles.”

“Send footmen to wait at all three. They are to inform His Grace immediately he arrives that I wish to speak with him as soon as may be.”

“Very good, ma’am.”

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