The castle was silent and still. Outside snow lay heavy on the land, a white blanket smothering hill and vale, loch and forest.
He sat in the armory, one of his retreats. Head bent, he concentrated on cleaning the guns used earlier that day, when a break in the weather had allowed him and a small group of others to venture forth. They’d bagged enough fresh meat to keep the castle supplied for a week, maybe more. He’d taken some small satisfaction in that.
Meat, at least, he could provide.
The sound of determined footsteps reached him. All satisfaction fled. What replaced it. . he couldn’t put a name to the roiling mix of fury, frustration, and dread.
His mother stalked into the room.
He didn’t lift his head.
She came to a halt at the end of the central table at which he sat.
He felt her glare, but stoically continued to reassemble the gun he’d been cleaning.
She broke first. Slapping a hand on the table, she leaned forward to hiss, “Swear it! Swear that you’ll do it — that you’ll go south, seize one of the Cynster sisters, and bring her here so I can have my revenge.”
He took his time reacting. Clung to the slowness he habitually used to cloak his true nature and so better control others. However, in this instance, his mother had schemed well enough to put herself beyond his control, indeed to the extent that he now found himself in hers.
The what ifs still resounded in his head. If he’d paid more attention to her ramblings, might he have noticed some sign of her scheme earlier? Early enough to step in and put a stop to it? Yet she’d been thus for as long as he’d been old enough to notice, filled with black thoughts, with burning vengeance at her core.
His father had never seen her clearly; to him she’d always put on a sweet face, a mask impenetrable enough to cloak the bitterness beneath. For his part, he’d hoped his father’s death would drain the black bile from her heart. Instead, the poison had welled even more corrosively. He’d grown too accustomed to hearing her ravings; he’d stopped listening long ago.
To, it seemed, his and others’ cost now.
But it was too late for regrets, much less recriminations.
Raising his head enough to meet her eyes, letting nothing he felt show in his face, he held her gaze for a moment, then briefly nodded. “Aye, I’ll do it.” He forced himself to say the words she wanted to hear. “I’ll bring one of the Cynster sisters here, so you can have your revenge.”
Wadham Gardens, London
Heather Cynster knew her latest plan to find a suitable husband was doomed the instant she set foot in Lady Herford’s salon.
In a distant corner, a dark head, perfectly coiffed in the latest rakish style, rose. A pair of sharp hazel eyes pinned her where she stood.
“Damn!” Keeping a smile firmly fixed over her involuntarily clenching teeth, as if she hadn’t noticed the most startlingly handsome man in the room staring so intently at her, she let her gaze drift on.
Breckenridge was hemmed in by not one but three dashing ladies, all patently vying for his attention. She sincerely wished them every success and prayed he’d take the sensible course and pretend he hadn’t seen her.
She was certainly going to pretend that she hadn’t seen him.
Refocusing on the surprisingly large crowd Lady Herford had enticed to her soiree, Heather determinedly banished Breckenridge from her mind and considered her prospects.
Most of the guests were older than she — all the ladies at least. Some she recognized, others she did not, but it would be surprising if any other lady present wasn’t married. Or widowed. Or more definitively on the shelf than Heather. Soirees of the style of Lady Herford’s were primarily the province of the well-bred but bored matrons, those in search of more convivial company than that provided by their usually much older, more sedate husbands. Such ladies might not be precisely fast, yet neither were they innocent. However, as by common accord said ladies had already presented their husbands with an heir, if not two, the majority had more years in their dish than Heather’s twenty-five.
From her brief, initial, assessing sweep, she concluded that most of the gentlemen present were, encouragingly, older than she. Most were in their thirties, and by their style — fashionable, well-turned out, expensively garbed, and thoroughly polished — she’d chosen well in making Lady Herford’s soiree her first port of call on this, her first expedition outside the rarefied confines of the ballrooms, drawing rooms, and dining rooms of the upper echelon of the ton.
For years she’d searched through those more refined reception rooms for her hero — the man who would sweep her off her feet and into wedded bliss — only to conclude that he didn’t move in such circles. Many gentlemen of the ton, although perfectly eligible in every way, preferred to steer well clear of all the sweet young things, the young ladies paraded on the marriage mart. Instead, they spent their evenings at events such as Lady Herford’s, and their nights in various pursuits — gaming and womanizing to name but two.
Her hero — she had to believe he existed somewhere — was most likely a member of that more elusive group of males. Given he was therefore unlikely to come to her, she’d decided — after lengthy and animated discussions with her sisters, Elizabeth and Angelica — that it behooved her to come to him.
To locate him and, if necessary, hunt him down.
Smiling amiably, she descended the shallow steps to the floor of the salon. Lady Herford’s villa was a recently built, quite luxurious dwelling located to the north of Primrose Hill — close enough to Mayfair to be easily reached by carriage, a pertinent consideration given Heather had had to come alone. She would have preferred to attend with someone to bear her company, but her sister Eliza, just a year younger and similarly disgusted with the lack of hero-material within their restricted circle, was her most likely coconspirator and they couldn’t both develop a headache on the same evening without their mama seeing through the ploy. Eliza, therefore, was presently gracing Lady Montague’s ballroom, while Heather was supposedly laid upon her bed, safe and snug in Dover Street.
Giving every appearance of calm confidence, she glided into the crowd. She’d attracted considerable attention; although she pretended obliviousness, she could feel the assessing glances dwelling on the sleek, amber silk gown that clung lovingly to her curves. This particular creation sported a sweetheart neckline and tiny puffed sleeves; as the evening was unseasonably mild and her carriage stood outside, she’d elected to carry only a fine topaz-and-amber Norwich silk shawl, its fringe draping over her bare arms and flirting over the silk of the gown. Her advanced age allowed her greater freedom to wear gowns that, while definitely not as revealing as some others she could see, nevertheless drew male eyes.
One gentleman, suitably drawn and a touch bolder than his fellows, broke from the circle surrounding two ladies and languidly stepped into her path.
Halting, she haughtily arched a brow.
He smiled and bowed, fluidly graceful. “Miss Cynster, I believe?”
“Indeed, sir. And you are?”
“Miles Furlough, my dear.” His eyes met hers as he straightened. “Is this your first time here?”
“Yes.” She glanced around, determinedly projecting confident assurance. She intended to pick her man, not allow him or any other to pick her. “The company appears quite animated.” The noise of untold conversations was steadily rising. Returning her gaze to Miles Furlough, she asked, “Are her ladyship’s gatherings customarily so lively?”
Furlough’s lips curved in a smile Heather wasn’t sure she liked.
“I think you’ll discover—” Furlough broke off, his gaze going past her.
She had an instant’s warning — a primitive prickling over her nape — then long, steely fingers closed about her elbow.
Heat washed over her, emanating from the contact, supplanted almost instantly by a disorientating giddiness. She caught her breath. She didn’t need to look to know that Timothy Danvers, Viscount Breckenridge — her nemesis — had elected not to be sensible.
“Furlough.” The deep voice issuing from above her head and to the side had its usual disconcerting effect.
Ignoring the frisson of awareness streaking down her spine — a susceptibility she positively despised — she slowly turned her head and directed a reined glare at its cause. “Breckenridge.”
There was nothing in her tone to suggest she welcomed his arrival — quite the opposite.
He ignored her attempt to depress his pretensions; indeed, she wasn’t even sure he registered it. His gaze hadn’t shifted from Furlough.
“If you’ll excuse us, old man, there’s a matter I need to discuss with Miss Cynster.” Breckenridge held Furlough’s gaze. “I’m sure you understand.”
Furlough’s expression suggested that he did yet wished he didn’t feel obliged to give way. But in this milieu, Breckenridge — the hostesses’ and the ladies’ darling — was well nigh impossible to gainsay. Reluctantly, Furlough inclined his head. “Of course.”
Shifting his gaze to Heather, Furlough smiled — more sincerely, a tad ruefully. “Miss Cynster. Would we had met in less crowded surrounds. Perhaps next time.” With a parting nod, he sauntered off into the crowd.
Heather let free an exasperated huff. But before she could even gather her arguments and turn them on Breckenridge, he tightened his grip on her elbow and started propelling her through the crowd.
Startled, she tried to halt. “What—”
“If you have the slightest sense of self-preservation you will walk to the front door without any fuss.”
He was steering her, surreptitiously pushing her, in that direction, and it wasn’t all that far. “Let. Me. Go.” She uttered the command, low and delivered with considerable feeling, through clenched teeth.
He urged her up the salon steps. Used the moment when she was on the step above him to bend his head and breathe in her ear, “What the devil are you doing here?”
His clenched teeth trumped her clenched teeth. The words, his tone, slid through her, evoking — as he’d no doubt intended — a nebulous, purely instinctive fear.
By the time she shook free of it, he was smoothly, apparently unhurriedly, steering her through the guests thronging the foyer.
“No — don’t bother answering.” He didn’t look down; he had the open front door in his sights. “I don’t care what ninnyhammerish notion you’ve taken into your head. You’re leaving. Now.”
Hale, whole, virgin intacta. Breckenridge only just bit back the words.
“There is no reason whatever for you to interfere.” Her voice vibrated with barely suppressed fury.
He recognized her mood well enough — her customary one whenever he was near. Normally he would respond by giving her a wide berth, but here and now he had no choice. “Do you have any idea what your cousins would do to me — let alone your brothers — if they discovered I’d seen you in this den of iniquity and turned a blind eye?”
She snorted and tried, surreptitiously but unsuccessfully, to free her elbow. “You’re as large as any of them — and demonstrably just as much of a bully. You could see them off.”
“One, perhaps, but all six? I think not. Let alone Luc and Martin, and Gyles Chillingworth — and what about Michael? No, wait — what about Caro, and your aunts, and. . the list goes on. Flaying would be preferable — much less pain.”
“You’re overreacting. Lady Herford’s house hardly qualifies as a den of iniquity.” She glanced back. “There’s nothing the least objectionable going on in that salon.”
“Not in the salon, perhaps — at least, not yet. But you didn’t go further into the house — trust me, a den of iniquity it most definitely is.”
“No.” Reaching the front porch — thankfully deserted — he halted, released her, and finally let himself look down at her. Let himself look into her face, a perfect oval hosting delicate features and a pair of stormy gray-blue eyes lushly fringed with dark brown lashes. Despite those eyes having turned hard and flinty, even though her luscious lips were presently compressed into a thin line, that face was the sort that had launched armadas and incited wars since the dawn of time. It was a face full of life. Full of sensual promise and barely restrained vitality.
And that was before adding the effect of a slender figure, sleek rather than curvaceous, yet invested with such fluid grace that her every movement evoked thoughts that, at least in his case, were better left unexplored.
The only reason she hadn’t been mobbed in the salon was because none but Furlough had shaken free of the arrestation the first sight of her generally caused quickly enough to get to her before he had.
He felt his face harden, fought not to clench his fists and tower over her in a sure-to-be-vain attempt to intimidate her. “You’re going home, and that’s all there is to it.”
Her eyes narrowed to shards. “If you try to force me, I’ll scream.”
He lost the battle; his fists clenched at his sides. Holding her gaze, he evenly stated, “If you do, I’ll tap you under that pretty little chin, knock you unconscious, tell everyone you fainted, toss you in a carriage, and send you home.”
Her eyes widened. She considered him but didn’t back down. “You wouldn’t.”
He didn’t blink. “Try me.”
Heather inwardly dithered. This was the trouble with Breckenridge — one simply couldn’t tell what he was thinking. His face, that of a Greek god, all clean planes and sharp angles, lean cheeks below high cheekbones and a strong, square jaw, remained aristocratically impassive and utterly unreadable no matter what was going through his mind. Not even his heavy-lidded hazel eyes gave any clue; his expression was perennially that of an elegantly rakish gentleman who cared for little beyond his immediate pleasure.
Every element of his appearance, from his exquisitely understated attire, the severe cut of his clothes making the lean strength they concealed only more apparent, to the languid drawl he habitually affected, supported that image — one she was fairly certain was a comprehensive façade.
She searched his eyes — and detected not the smallest sign that he wouldn’t do precisely as he said. Which would be simply too embarrassing.
“How did you get here?”
Reluctantly, she waved at the line of carriages stretching along the curving pavement of Wadham Gardens as far as they could see. “My parents’ carriage — and before you lecture me on the impropriety of traveling across London alone at night, both the coachman and groom have been with my family for decades.”