Chapter 14

In the days and evenings that followed, Amanda increasingly felt like an antelope cut out from the herd by a lion. A lionized lion-even worse. That fact dealt him far too many aces, which he was never slow to use.

She’d taken to urging her mother and sister to arrive early at every major event so she could assemble a useful circle of gentlemen to serve as a screen. She accepted that she had to deal with Martin, that she could do nothing other than to wait him out, holding steadfast in her requirement for “something more.”

If he was the rock, she was the tide, and so on.

If she understood Lady Osbaldestone correctly, then the nature of their future hinged on her stubbornness.

Lady Musselford’s ball was certain to be a crush. The Mussleford girls were ravishing and both were making their formal bow to the ton that night. Amanda prayed one or other would do something to keep the ton’s collective eye on them-away from her and her determined would-be consort.

She was growing rather tired of having her every move remarked.

“Miss Cynster! I had great hopes you would attend tonight.”

Amanda started; she blinked as Percival Lytton-Smythe bowed before her. “Ah… good evening, sir.”

“I daresay”-Percival beamed delightedly at her-“that you’ve been wondering where I’ve been these past two weeks.”

She hadn’t even noticed his absence. “Have you been in the country?” She continued to watch for Martin’s arrival.

“I travelled to Shropshire-one of my maternal aunts is aging. She wished to make her will, confirming me as her heir.”

Amanda caught a glimpse of burnished locks at the far end of the ballroom. “How fortunate.”

“Fortunate, indeed! Miss Cynster-my dear Amanda, if I might make so bold-“

Percival grasped her hand, jerking her attention from approaching danger. “Mr. Lytton-Smythe!” She tried to pull free, but he stubbornly held on.

“No, no-my apologies, dear lady. The violence of my feelings has startled you, but you must make allowances for my natural enthusiasm at the prospect that, courtesy of my aunt’s generosity, now lies before us.”

“Us?” Aghast, Amanda stared.

Percival patted her hand. “My dearest Amanda, only the disparity of our fortunes, the idea that some might consider our match too uneven in standing, has prevented me from speaking ‘ere now, yet you cannot be unaware that a match between us will confer great benefits upon us both.”

“Benefits?” Her temper rose; she fought to suppress it. The ballroom was fast filling.

“But of course. Innocent as you are, your parents have doubtless deemed it unnecessary to burden your mind with the more businesslike aspects of matrimony. No need, indeed, for your father and I will ensure that you are well looked after, you may be sure.”

That last was delivered with a paternalistic smirk; before she could erupt, Percival released her and continued, “Regardless of the recent deplorable tendency to invest the institution of marriage with heated emotions, it is absurd to base a serious union on any but sound considerations of wealth and consequence. On the furtherance of the age-old ideals.”

“Precisely which ‘age-old ideals’ do you imagine a union between us would serve?” The belief that she had to stop Percival in his tracks was the only reason she asked.

“Why, it will be obvious to all that marriage to me will stem your regrettable levity, the same levity that has kept you from marriage for the last several years. It’s clear you require a firm hand on your reins, and I am just the man to supply it.”

Percival beamed at the surrounding crowd. “And, of course, merging your fortune with mine will create a nice estate, one I will manage to our advantage. The connection with St. Ives will benefit my standing, and all that I undertake. Indeed, an alliance between us will be of inestimable value, as I’m sure, even innocent as you are of such matters, you will agree.”

Smugly triumphant, he smiled at her.

Eyes narrowed, she trapped his gaze. “You err.” His smile faded; he opened his lips-she silenced him with an upraised hand. “You are wrong. First, in imagining I value the ‘age-old ideals’ you worship-wealth and status are mine regardless of whom I wed. You also insult my family in believing that any consideration beyond my own happiness will weigh with them.”

Her gaze was caught by the tall, commanding figure purposefully heading their way. “While my family will discourage any alliance they believe would not be in my best interests, I assure you they will equally discourage any suitor who does not find favor in my eyes.”

“Pish-posh!”

Percival’s contemptuous tone had her returning her gaze to him; she raised her brows haughtily. “I believe our discussion is at an end, sir. I bid you a good evening.”

She turned to sweep away, to slip into the crowd and gather a circle of protective admirers before Martin caught up with her-

Percival grabbed her wrist. “Nonsense! It’s past time you gave up such flighty, affected behavior. It may pass well enough in the schoolroom-“

“Unhand me!”

Her furious yet glacial tones struck Percival like a whip.

He jerked upright, tried to look down his nose at her, noticed the spray of orchids she held in her trapped hand. She tugged; Percival held on. His face a study in astonishment, he forced her hand up, examining the exotic spray.

In the tone of a schoolmaster discovering a pupil in severe transgression, he asked, “What is this?”

“Sensual beauty personified,” came the deep, drawled reply.

Percival started, looked around.

Martin halted beside him; his gaze touched the orchids, then moved on to Amanda. “Don’t you agree?”

The question was clearly addressed to Percival, its object equally clearly not the orchids.

Shocked, Percival relaxed his grip. Amanda twisted her wrist free.

And smiled, delightedly, at Martin. “Dexter-how fortunate. Do let me make you known to Mr. Lytton-Smythe.” “Sir.” Martin bowed easily.

Percival’s eyes widened; after an instant’s hesitation, he bowed stiffly. “My lord.”

“Why fortunate?” Martin’s gaze met Amanda’s. “Because I was just bidding Mr. Lytton-Smythe farewell before continuing around the ballroom. Now I need not do so alone.”

She offered her hand.

Percival stuck out his arm, positively huffed, “I will be more than happy to escort you, my dear.”

Martin smiled. “Ah, but I’m before you, you see.” One long finger pointed to the orchids. There was a fractional pause as his gaze met Percival’s, then, with his usual ineffable grace, Martin offered her his arm.

Ruthlessly ignoring the undercurrents-all of them-Amanda laid her fingers on Martin’s sleeve. With a regal nod to Percival, she coolly stated, “Good-bye, sir,” then let Martin lead her away.

She was unsurprised when, after less than ten feet, Martin murmured, “Who, exactly, is Mr. Lytton-Smythe?” “Not who-what. He’s a pest.”

“Ah. In that case, we must trust he’s taken the hint.”

“Indeed.” Which hint-Martin’s or hers-she didn’t bother to ask; either would do. Unfortunately… she inwardly grimaced, and wished she’d been more explicit in refusing what had all but amounted to Percival’s declaration.

Martin watched the irritation, the annoyance, fade from Amanda’s eyes, and needed no further assurance of what Lytton-Smythe meant to her. But a faint frown remained, clouding the cornflower blue, lightly furrowing her forehead; the sight didn’t meet with his approval.

They’d been ambling around the growing crowd filing into her ladyship’s rooms. An alcove containing a bust of some long dead general lay just ahead. Closing his fingers about Amanda’s hand, Martin slowed.

Pausing by the alcove, he raised her hand, still holding his orchids; he examined not the flowers, but her wrist, fine-boned, veins showing blue beneath her porcelain skin. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

Possessiveness rippled beneath the drawled words; he made no effort to disguise it. He met her wide eyes, held her gaze as he slid his fingers over her wrist in a featherlight caress to close, gently, over the spot where her pulse beat, then leapt beneath his fingertips.

He sensed the catch in her breathing, saw her pupils dilate, saw her make the decision to boldly continue to meet his eyes, to let desire rise briefly between them-the warm, beckoning promise of passion-before, of necessity, they let it ebb.

Only then, when they could both breathe easily again, did she incline her head and murmur, “Thank you for rescuing me.”

His lips lifted briefly; eyes still on hers, he raised her hand. “The pleasure,” he murmured, “was all mine.” His last words brushed the sensitive skin of her wrist an instant before his lips touched, pressed.

He returned her hand to his sleeve. In perfect accord, they strolled on.

On the other side of the ballroom, Vane Cynster frowned. He watched his golden-haired cousin and her escort until the crowd blocked his view.

“There you are!” Vane’s wife, Patience, swept up and linked her arm with his. “Lady Osbadlestone wishes to speak with you.”

“Just as long as she keeps her cane to herself.” Vane let Patience tug him into motion, then the crowd parted and he saw Amanda and her escort again. Vane stopped; of necessity, Patience stopped, too. She looked inquiringly up at him.

“Who the devil is that?” Vane nodded across the room. “The fellow with Amanda.”

Patience looked, then smiled. “Dexter.” She tugged Vane on. “I would have thought you’d have heard-his return to the ton has been a major topic in the drawing rooms.”

“You know perfectly well that I and all the others avoid drawing rooms wherever possible.” Vane studied his wife’s expression, the smile that curved her lips. “What’s the speculation?”

“Current speculation concerns just what has lured Dexter out of that huge house in Park Lane and back into the ton.”

Vane halted-swung Patience around to face him. “Not Amanda?”

Horrified comprehension filled his eyes; Patience laughed. Twining her arm through his, she patted it reassuringly and urged him on. “Yes, Amanda, but there’s no need to worry. She’s managing perfectly well, and although there is that old scandal which will have to be addressed, there’s no reason whatever for you or any of the others to interfere.”

Vane said nothing; if she’d looked into his face, Patience would have detected a grimness in his grey eyes that boded ill for her last injunction, but distracted by the greetings of another lady, she simply towed him along. “Now come and do the pretty-and don’t growl.”

On the subject of Amanda, Martin’s feelings were not that dissimilar from Vane’s. As he now considered her indisputably his, the nights spent in the ballrooms watching over her-establishing his right to her by deed rather than decree-were the ultimate in frustration, a token bow to tonnish expectations.

His own expectations were growing more definite by the,day, increasingly more difficult to subdue. He wanted her his, recognized as his. Now. Today. Yesterday.

Watching as she danced a cotillion with Lord Wittingham, Martin ignored the irritation-the abrasion of his temper caused by seeing her in another man’s arms-and turned his mind to his most urgent question: when could he end this charade?

His sole purpose in rejoining the ton had been to establish the bona fides of his suit-his pursuit-of Amanda. He’d spent nearly two weeks projecting a patience he didn’t possess, his well-honed instincts insisting that establishing the link between them as accepted fact in the ton’s collective mind was the surest road to victory.

The Season was rushing on, building to its height, to the weeks when there would be three or more major balls to attend every night. The very thought made him weary; balls, even those spent by Amanda’s side, did not offer what he needed to engage and soothe his restless senses.

Amanda by herself, alone, preferably naked, did.

Two weeks had passed since he’d seen her like that-his, all his. How much longer would he need to wait? More specifically, did he need to wait any longer?

The incident with Lytton-Smythe nagged. Not that he imagined Amanda being captivated by another and stolen away-more a case of a primitive reaction against any man casting covetous eyes at her.

While she twirled and linked hands in the dance, he scanned the company. The crowd had swelled to a certified crush; everyone was here, even her cousins. He’d glimpsed two, had heard the St. Iveses announced, but he hadn’t come up with any male Cynsters in the crowd. Over the last weeks, he’d been introduced to all their wives, who’d conveyed without words just what the score was-what their familial verdict would be.

They approved of him, but

He knew the cause of their reservation. He would deal with it once he’d secured Amanda. From her earlier “investigations” on his behalf and all she’d subsequently said, he,knew she cared not a jot, but her family would, a stance he understood.

The old scandal would need to be tackled, but… he couldn’t in all conscience lift the lid on that pot, not unless he had to, not until she was willing to marry him and the scandal was the last hurdle in his path.

Countess Lieven glided past; she nodded regally. Lady Esterhazy had earlier smiled her approbation. As for Sally Jersey-every time she saw him, she looked for Amanda.

His gaze returned to Amanda, smiling at Lord Wittingham as the dance ended and she curtsied. Then she rose, looked about-for him.

Martin pushed away from the wall. Everyone was watching, waiting… the next move was his.

Amanda saw him approaching through the crowd; confident, assured, she remained where she was, waiting for him to reach her. In this arena, she had nothing to fear; he couldn’t pounce in a ballroom.

The worst he could do he’d already done-convinced the entire ton, certainly all those who mattered, that a match between them was appropriate, even desirable. That whatever obstacles remained would be overcome, so fated was their union.

He’d managed that, but social opinion wasn’t powerful enough to make her accept the cake he was offering without the icing. Until he offered all she wished, she was perfectly prepared to stroll the ballrooms at his side, to let propinquity abrade his senses as well as hers.

Her senses were more accustomed to frustration than his.

As he neared, she thanked Lord Wittingham and turned, her smile deepening. To do the lion justice, he’d made no attempt to use society’s views to pressure her. He was too expert a player to make such a mistake.

She gave him her hand; he took it, fingers caressing hers as he settled them on his sleeve. They strolled, stopping to chat here and there. The music for the first waltz sounded; one shared look, and they headed for the floor. As they revolved, she noticed he was studying her; she raised her brows.

Releasing her hand, he caught a stray curl bobbing by her ear, set it back, lightly stroked her cheek.

She caught his gaze as he retook her hand. What? her look asked.

“You’ve stopped worrying that I’ll bite.”

She let mock haughtiness infuse her expression; the observation was accurate, but he didn’t need to state it.

His moss-agatey eyes remained sober. “Why do you trust me?”

That was not a question she’d expected to be asked. She searched, but could find only one answer: “Because you’re you.”

His lips quirked, then he looked ahead, negotiating the turn.

Should she be more wary? The only message her senses sent her was one of unequivocal satisfaction; being in his arms felt right, totally safe. Difficult to feel nervous.

The music ended; they resumed their perambulation around the room, spending time with the many who had decided to cultivate the Earl of Dexter. If she’d thought him naive, she’d have worried, but the looks they exchanged left her in no doubt that he knew how to value such acquaintances.

However, quite aside from the shared glances, she was aware of his eyes returning again and again to her face; he was trying to read her thoughts.

Her court had dispersed-his never-failing presence at her side had made his intention clear. No other gentleman could match his attractions; the rest had given up vying for her hand. Unchallenged, he led her in to supper. Seating her at a table by the wall, he fetched two plates piled with delicacies.

They’d barely settled to their feast when another gentleman and lady approached. Amanda glanced up-and blinked.

“Mind if we join you?” Luc Ashford, as ever the epitome of a heartbreaking rake, raised a fashionably weary brow. Balancing two plates, he favored Amanda with an abbreviated bow.

Beside him, Amelia smiled her thanks as Martin rose and drew up a chair for her. “We spotted you from across the room. We’ve hardly had a chance to exchange two words.”

Luc set down their plates, then drew up another chair,,placing it beside Amanda, diagonally opposite Martin. “I had thought the ton held no interest for you, coz.”

“So had I.” Martin’s smile was easy, but his gaze had grown sharp. “There are some parts I could still do without, but”-he shrugged-“needs must.”

Amelia laughed. “You’ve certainly caused a stir. Why-“

Letting her twin’s light chatter flow past her, Amanda inwardly frowned. She knew Martin well, but she’d known Luc forever. If she thought of Martin as a lion, Luc had always been a black leopard, sleek and lethal.

Right now, Luc’s hackles were up, but he was wary, not aggressive. Yet. Why, she couldn’t fathom, but as she contributed her share to keep the conversation rolling, she grew increasingly certain the lion and the leopard were assessing each other, and communicating, too, on some male-cousin animalistic plane. Lady Osbaldestone’s recollection that they knew each other well-had grown up together-was patently true. Martin showed no sign of feeling threatened, but he was watching Luc closely, trying to see past Luc’s guard.

For his part, Luc was projecting… a warning. For the life of her, she couldn’t understand why. Luc and she had never got on; he was one of the few males whose tongues she respected. He could use it like a saber, and frequently had-on her. While they appreciated each other’s strengths, there was little love lost between them; she couldn’t imagine why he would suddenly ride like a knight to her aid, against his own cousin. If that’s what he was doing.

Opposite Luc, sprawled in his chair, Martin was wondering the same thing. He and Luc had been closer than brothers, once. Ten years of absolutely no contact had gouged a chasm between them, yet he could still read Luc well. Knew Luc could guess better than most what he was thinking, how he would react. They’d rubbed shoulders on only a few occasions since he’d returned to England, exchanged no more than a few stilted words. Yet…

Amelia paused to sip her champagne. Luc seized the moment; he looked at Martin. “Have you decided to open up Fulbridge House?”

Martin met Luc’s dark eyes. “That depends.” He let his,gaze flick to Amanda, noted the hardness that infused Luc’s face, the face of a fallen angel.

There was challenge and warning in the look Luc sent him; Martin was sorely tempted to ask what the devil he meant. There was nothing between Luc and Amanda; he was perfectly sure of that. Yet his well-exercised instincts recognized Luc’s motives; he wanted to protect-

Amelia smiled brightly. “Tell me, is it really true-“

Martin saw the light-caught the fractional softening in his cousin’s eyes, so dark a blue they were almost black and therefore difficult to read-in the instant before he followed Luc’s gaze-to Amelia’s delicate face.

Luc was protecting not Amanda, but her twin. Knew anything that harmed Amanda would impinge on Amelia.

The discovery fascinated, but there was little he could do to ease his cousin’s suspicions. Close to the Cynsters as the Ash-fords were, Luc would hear the latest soon enough, and realize that Amanda, and therefore, Amelia, were safe from him.

With supper disposed of, they rose as a group and strolled back to the ballroom. Amelia fell silent; Amanda glibly took up the conversational reins, questioning Luc about his sisters. He answered with increasing asperity; when the musicians started up, he turned to Amelia and requested the dance.

She gave him her hand; with nods, the four parted. As Amanda turned into his arms, Martin caught the last glimmer of her satisfied smirk.

“I was right.” He steered her into the sea of swirling couples. “There’s some understanding between Luc and your sister.”

Amanda frowned, then admitted, “I don’t actually know, but I think they would suit.” She looked into his face. “What do you think? You know Luc well.”

As they revolved, he considered it. “It might work.” He caught her gaze. “Your sister is not entirely like you.”

Her lips quirked. “No-she’s more stubborn.”

Martin wished Luc luck, if that were true. His choice-the current bane of his life-was bad enough.

She was watching those around them with an easy smile,,unperturbed, content in his arms. He wanted her like that, always, yet to secure that…

She trusted him completely, without reserve. How would she react when he took the next step, made the move everyone was waiting on, played the card he’d held back, up his sleeve? She hadn’t realized; she was so much at ease in this sphere, so confident as she swanned through the ballrooms, so assured at every turn, that she hadn’t stepped back and considered, hadn’t seen the option he had.

He had to exercise it, take the next step, yet…

Lifting his gaze, he looked across the room, and saw a tall, dark-haired gentleman strolling about the floor stop, arrested, his gaze locking on them. St. Ives-Martin recognized the height, the dominant stance, the arrogant features. Their gazes barely touched before the duchess bustled up and distracted her husband.

Martin felt his aggression subside; recognized the fact. Recalled Luc’s attitude. He had to act, or risk a clash with her cousins.

As was common with most married gentlemen of their station, the male Cynsters had not appeared at the early balls. Their wives had clearly seen no reason to apprise them of his pursuit of Amanda, else he’d have heard from them-most likely sustained a private visit-long before now.

The Cynster ladies had given him time to draw Amanda as far as he could along the road they’d both chosen. That time had just run out. He had to play his next card.

“What is it?”

He glanced down to find Amanda searching his face.

“You’ve been behaving strangely all night.”

He could have smiled charmingly, turned the accusation aside; instead, he held her gaze as the music slowed, then ceased. “I need to talk with you.” He glanced around. “Somewhere private.”

At the nearby end of the ballroom, a bay window overlooked the gardens. The area before it was empty. Martin led her to it. Reaching the bay, Amanda stepped into its shadows and faced him, brows rising, yet still assured.

Still certain he couldn’t take her by surprise.

He stopped before her, screening her from the company. No one could hear them or see their faces, yet they were in full view of half the ton.

“I intend, tomorrow, to ask for your hand.”

“You already have…” Her words trailed away, her eyes grew round, then flared wide. “You can’t…”

“Ask for your hand formally? Believe me, I can.”

“But…” She frowned, then shook her head, as if to shake aside his suggestion. “There’s no point. Until I agree, they won’t.”

She still hadn’t seen it.

“That point is understood-your agreement to our wedding has yet to be gained. However, that’s not the purpose of a formal request. I’ll be applying for your family’s permission to address you.”

She continued to frown, imagining… then horror poured into her eyes. She grabbed his sleeve, looked into his face. “Good God-you can’t!” She shook his arm. “Promise me you won’t-that you absolutely will not mention…” She gestured wildly.

“I assure you no mention of our recent intimacies will pass my lips.”

She drew back, drew her hand from his sleeve, finally took the long step back she should have taken weeks ago. Horrified, she stared at him. “You won’t have to say a word! They’ll look at you-and guess!”

He raised his brows fleetingly. “Be that as it may, it’s not possible to continue as we are without some declaration of intent on my part. Your cousins, if not your father, will demand that much.”

He’d seen her defiant before, but now militance flamed in her eyes.

“No! Once they guess, once they know, they’ll-“

She broke off, following some line of thought he couldn’t for the life of him see. Eyes narrowing, she smiled, thin lipped. “It won’t work.”

Refocusing on him, she nodded. “Very well. You may take that tack if you wish, if you deem it necessary. However”-head high, she stepped past him, her eyes holding his-“my father has left London. He’ll be traveling through the west country on business for the next week.”

With a regal nod, she glided out of the bay. Frowning, Martin watched as she disappeared into the at-last-thinning crowd.

Six yards away, one hand resting on the back of the chaise on which his wife, Catriona, sat talking to Lady Forsythe, Richard Cynster, his expression impassive, watched Martin.

“We should string him up by his-“

“I’m not sure that’s warranted.”

Cut off in mid-tirade, Demon stared at Richard. “Not warranted? You say he was pressuring her-“

“Yes.” From the armchair facing Devil’s desk, Richard continued, “But not in the way you’re imagining.”

Demon frowned, then sank into a straightbacked chair facing the large desk. “What the hell’s going on?”

All six of them exchanged glances. Sitting behind his desk, Devil sighed. “Knowing Amanda, it won’t be straightforward.”

“As far as I could see,” Richard put in, “it wasn’t.”

“Their…”-shoulders propped against the bookshelves behind Devil, Vane gestured-“interaction is apparently the talk of the ton.”

From his place on the chaise before the fireplace, Gabriel asked, “Tell us-what exactly did you see?”

“I saw them first,” Vane said. “They were strolling, then stopped a little apart from the crowd. They spoke, then he kissed her wrist-not innocently. It looked like he’d have been perfectly happy to devour her on the spot, and she, silly nitwit, would have urged him on. Then they moved on.” He shifted. “Patience said Amanda’s managing perfectly well, and although that old scandal needs to be addressed, there’s no reason for us to interfere.”

The others looked at Vane, then, as one, they all turned to Richard.

“I saw them briefly, during the last waltz,” Devil said. “I’m fairly certain Dexter saw me.”

“But did he recognize you?” Richard raised his brows, then continued, “What I saw occurred shortly after, more or less on the heels of that waltz.” He described all he’d seen. “In short, it appeared Dexter was calmly talking-it was Amanda who was more forceful. And given the way she swanned off at the end, nose in the air, and the way he watched her go, as if he was trying to figure it all out…” Richard sighed, “Truth to tell, I felt sympathetic.”

Demon humphed. “The man’s a certified wolf of the worst sort.”

“Just as we once were,” Devil murmured.

“Which is precisely my point. We know what he’s thinking…” Demon let his words die.

“And that’s my point,” Richard stated. “Do you remember when you stood there, in a ballroom or wherever, and watched her stalk off-and wondered what the hell was going on?”

Devil’s lips twitched. “I don’t have to exercise my memory for that.”

There were smiles and grins all around, then Devil sobered. “All right. Let’s accept the fact that Dexter appears, on the face of it, to be wooing Amanda. I can’t see any reason he’d go to the lengths he has to seduce her. For whatever reason, he’s playing by society’s rules. So, what do we know of him? I don’t remember him personally.” Devil glanced at Vane, who shook his head. “He was much younger than us.”

“Younger than me, too,” Demon said, “but I remember he was a hellion. But he was only on the town for a brief time.”

“Up until the scandal.” Briefly, Richard filled in all he knew of that, ending with, “The grandes dames and many others felt it was an overreaction on his father’s part-basically, few believed Dexter, the present earl, could be guilty, but no one was asked for their opinion. The thing was done, decided by his father up north, and he was hustled out of England before anyone knew.”

Devil asked, “What’s the current feeling?”

Richard shrugged. “Innocent until known to be guilty, but still in the dock.”

“I’ve dealt with him once.” Gabriel leaned forward. “In the City, he’s a legend among the nabobs. He led a syndicate we took an interest in, and he knew his business. We made a nice profit from that venture. The areas he deals in are exotic, occasionally esoteric, but always, always highly profitable. His reputation is formidable; he’s known as a man of his word, a trader who deals squarely and straightforwardly, and who does not suffer either fools or rogues gladly.”

“He’s also a legend in collecting circles.” Beside his brother on the chaise, Lucifer stretched out his long legs. “I’d pay to get into that old tomb on Park Lane. Hardly anyone has, but those who have set eyes on his library have come away with stars in their eyes. Absolutely lost for words. It’s not the books alone, although they’re apparently amazing, but all the oriental art he’s collected over the years. Seems he has a real eye for beauty.”

Demon softly snorted.

Devil tapped his blotter with his pen. “So… there’s no reason to oppose a match, provided that old scandal is laid to rest.”

“And provided he’s thinking in such terms.” Vane pushed away from the bookshelves.

“Indeed.” Devil’s face hardened. “Regardless of our ladies’ fond imaginings, I believe I should demand some straight answers from the earl.”

“I’ll come with you,” came from five other throats.

A tap on the door had them all glancing that way. The door opened; Sligo, Devil’s majordomo, slipped in. “The Earl of Dexter has called, Your Grace. He’s asked to speak with you privately.”

Devil stared. “Dexter?”

Sligo proffered his salver on which a card lay. Devil took it, studied it, then asked, “Where is he?”

“I left him in the drawing room.”

“Where’s Her Grace?”

“Out.”

Devil’s lips curved. “Very good. Show his lordship in.”

Martin stepped into His Grace of St. Ives’ study-every self-protective instinct he possessed immediately snapped to full alert. Six pairs of eyes had locked on him; no prizes for guessing the most recent topic of conversation.

Strolling into the large room, he seized the moment to study the other occupants-far more than he’d expected, yet he wasn’t all that surprised. He’d heard they operated as a pack.

Led by the man who came slowly to his feet behind the desk and nodded. “Dexter.” He held out a hand.

Martin returned the nod. “St. Ives.” He gripped the proffered hand.

“Do you have any reservations over speaking before my cousins?”

Martin let his gaze briefly touch the stony faces. “None.”

“In that case…” Devil introduced them, using their nicknames, then waved to a straightbacked chair before the desk. “Sit down.”

Martin looked at the chair, then picked it up and set it down to one side of the desk, so he wouldn’t be sitting with four Cynsters at his back.

Demon scowled as he sat. Martin looked at Devil, without preamble stated, “I’ve just come from Upper Brook Street where I learned that your uncle, Lord Arthur Cynster, is presently from home and not expected to return for a week. I’d wished to apply for permission to pay my addresses to his daughter Amanda. In the circumstances, as you’re the head of the family and currently in town, I’m here to apply to you in Lord Arthur’s stead.”

Absolute silence greeted his pronouncement, confirming his supposition of what they’d been discussing before he’d walked in.

His pale green gaze steady on Martin’s face, Devil murmured, “A week isn’t a long time.”

Martin returned that unwavering regard; he was not prepared to endure another week of inaction. “Much could occur in a week, as I’m sure you’ll agree.”

Two of the others stirred at his deliberate words; Martin didn’t shift his gaze from Devil.

Who sat back, eyes narrowing. “Why?”

Martin didn’t bother to misunderstand. “Because it’s time.” He paused, selecting his words, then continued, “In my view, matters have progressed to a point where a wedding is in order. Hence… here I am.”

There wasn’t one of them who didn’t immediately comprehend what particular matters had progressed, and to where; muffled oaths and none-too-thinly veiled threats, including one to hang him by a sensitive part of his anatomy, rose around him.

Devil waved the others to silence, his gaze locked on Martin’s face. “You’ve only recently returned to the ton-stalking Amanda. I take it that was after those matters had progressed. Where did you meet her in the first place?”

Martin held Devil’s gaze. “At Mellors.”

“What?”

“That den?” and various other mutterings came from the sidelines.

Martin glanced down, straightened his cuff. “She’d just accepted a wager to play whist. Against Connor. She didn’t have a partner.”

The silence that greeted that was one of abject-positively scandalized-disbelief.

“The second time I saw her was in Helen Hennessy’s salon.”

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