Somersham Place, Cambridgeshire

September 1819

The Bar Cynster was in session. They were all there, lounging about the library, languorously at ease like so many well-fed predators. Devil had pushed the chair back from his desk and propped one boot on his knee to make a makeshift cradle for his heir. Sebastian Sylvester Jeremy Bartholomew Cynster. The star attraction of the present gathering of the clan had been baptized several hours before; he was now getting his head wet in a different temple.

Vane was in the armchair by the desk; Gabriel and Harry occupied the chaise. Lucifer lay sprawled in one armchair by the hearth, Richard a mirror image in its mate. Each held a brandy balloon well filled with His Grace of St. Ives’s best; a somnolent air of deep male satisfaction permeated the room.

The staccato click of feminine heels in the hall was the first intimation of impending fate. Then the door flew open; Honoria swept in. One look at her face, one glance at her flashing eyes, was enough to inform them that someone was in deep trouble.

Secure in the knowledge that, whatever was exciting her ire, he had to be innocent, Devil gave her a vague smile. Honoria returned it with a brief, ominously serious nod; when the others made to rise, she waved them back to their seats. Skirts swishing, she marched across the room, then whirled before Devil’s desk. Crossing her arms, she faced them, her gaze impartially distributing her ire. Only Devil was safe.

“It has come to my notice,” Honoria intoned, her words clipped and precise, “that a set of wagers-I believe the term is a book?-was run on the question of, not the date of Sebastian’s birth, which would have been bad enough, but on the date of his conception.” Her gaze settled on Gabriel; she raised her brows. “Is that correct?”

Gabriel eyed her warily; a tinge of color crept into his lean cheeks. He flicked a glance at Devil, who merely raised his brows back. Frowning, Gabriel looked at Honoria. “Your information is accurate.”

“Indeed?” Honoria’s eyes flashed pure steel. “And exactly how much did you-all of you-win?”

Gabriel blinked. To his left, Sebastian gurgled-there was no point looking to Devil for help; His Grace of St. Ives was besotted with his son as well as his wife. At the edge of his vision, Gabriel saw colors gathering in a phalanx by the door-Honoria’s supporters, their mothers. Nearer to hand, he sensed Harry’s tension. Vane shifted, uncrossing his legs; Richard and Lucifer both slowly sat up. Gabriel had no difficulty interpreting their silent message.

Which was all very well-they weren’t the ones facing Her Grace of St. Ives’s fire.

“Seven thousand, six hundred and forty-three pounds.” Honoria’s brows flew. Then she smiled. “Mr. Postlethwaite will be pleased.”

“Postlethwaite?” Richard’s tone reflected their escalating unease. “What’s he got to do with it?”

Honoria opened her eyes wide. “The village church needs a new roof. Mr. Postlethwaite’s been at his wit’s end-good lead is becoming so costly. And, of course, as we endow the chapel here, he didn’t like to approach us.”

Gabriel glanced at Vane; Vane looked to Richard, who was looking at Harry. Lucifer bent a look of disbelief on his brother. Jaws aching, Devil kept his head down, his gaze locked on his son’s cherubic countenance.

It was Vane who stepped into the breach. “So?” The single syllable was steeped in unchallengeable superiority; with any other woman, it might have worked.

Honoria merely turned her head, looked Vane in the eye, then turned back to Gabriel. “You will donate the entire proceeds from your enterprise, with any interest accrued, to Mr. Postlethwaite, to use as he sees fit. As you were in charge of this infamous book, I will hold you responsible for collecting the funds and conveying them to the vicar.” Her tone was that of a magistrate pronouncing sentence-it left no room for argument. “Furthermore, as a final penance, you will all attend the dedication.” She paused; her gaze swept the gathering. “I trust I’ve made myself clear?”

Her eyes challenged them to gainsay her; each considered it-none did.

Briskly, Honoria nodded.

Sebastian cried, an eloquent warning of impending hunger. Honoria immediately lost interest in wagers, lead roofs, and indelicate speculation. Turning, she held out her arms commandingly; Devil handed his son over, an unholy smile lighting his eyes, lifting the corners of his lips.

With Sebastian at her shoulder, Honoria headed for the door, utterly ignoring the five large males she passed. She swept straight out of the room, the ladies closing ranks behind her.

Six males watched her go-one with glowing pride, the other five with uneasy trepidation.

They paid up without a whimper. Mr. Postlethwaite was delighted.

One month later, they attended the dedication; each uttered a prayer that fate wouldn’t, just yet, turn her attention their way.

Unfortunately for them, fate wasn’t listening.

Обращение к пользователям