"You want to get a move on. Looks like the Hounds of Hell are on
"What?" Jerked from uneasy contemplation, Vane Cynster lifted
his gaze from his leader's ears and glanced around, bringing Duggan, his
groom, into view--along with the bank of lowering thunderheads sweeping
down on them from behind. "Blast!" Vane looked forward and flicked
the reins. The pair of matched greys harnessed to his curricle stepped
out powerfully. He glanced over his shoulder. "Think we can outrun
Considering the storm clouds, Duggan shook his head. "We got three
miles on it, maybe five. Not enough to turn back to Kettering, nor yet
to make Northampton."
Vane swore. It wasn't the thought of a drenching that exercised his mind.
Desperation dug in its spurs; his eyes on the road as the greys swept
on, he searched for some option, some route of escape.
Only minutes before, he'd been thinking of Devil, Duke of St. Ives, his
cousin, boyhood companion, and closest friend--and of the wife fate had
handed him. Honoria, now Duchess of St. Ives. She who had ordered Vane
and the other four as-yet-unmarried members of the Bar Cynster not only
to pay for but attend the dedication service for the roof of the church
in Somersham village, close by the ducal seat. Admittedly, the money she'd
decreed they surrender had been ill-gotten gains, their winnings from
a wager of which neither she nor their mothers had approved. The age-old
adage that the only women Cynster males need be wary of were Cynster wives
still held true for this generation as it had for those past. The reason
why was not something any male Cynster liked to dwell on.
Which was why he felt such a driving need to get out of the path of the
storm. Fate, in the guise of a storm, had arranged for Honoria and Devil
to meet, in circumstances that had all but ensured their subsequent marriage.
Vane wasn't about to take unnecessary chances.
"Bellamy Hall." He clung to the idea like a drowning man. "Minnie
will give us shelter."
"That's a thought." Duggan sounded more hopeful. "The turnoff
should be close."
It was around the next bend; Vane took the turn at speed, then cursed
and slowed his cattle. The narrow lane was not as well surfaced as the
road they'd left. Too fond of his high-stepping horses to risk injuring
them, he concentrated, easing them along as fast as he dared, grimly conscious
of the deepening gloom of an unnatural, too-early twilight and the rising
whine of the wind.
He'd left Somersham Place, Devil's principal residence, soon after luncheon,
having spent the morning at church, at the dedication service for the
roof he and his cousins had paid for. Intending to visit friends near
Leamington, he'd left Devil to enjoy his wife and son and headed west.
He'd expected to reach Northampton and the comfort of the Blue Angel with
ease. Instead, thanks to fate, he would be spending the night with Minnie
and her inmates.
At least he would be safe.
Through the hedges to their left, Vane glimpsed distant water, leaden
grey beneath the darkening sky. The River Nene, which meant Bellamy Hall
was close; it stood on a long, sloping rise looking down on the river.
It had been years since he'd visited--he couldn't offhand remember how
many, but of his welcome he had not a doubt. Araminta, Lady Bellamy, eccentric
relict of a wealthy man, was his godmother. Unblessed with children, Minnie
had never treated him as a child; over the years, she'd become a good
friend. A sometimes too-shrewd friend uninhibited in her lectures, but
a friend nonetheless.
Daughter of a viscount, Minnie had been born to a place in the ton.
After her husband, Sir Humphrey Bellamy's death, she'd retired from socializing,
preferring to remain at Bellamy Hall, presiding over a varying household
of impecunious relatives and worthy charity cases.
Once, when he'd asked why she surrounded herself with such hangers-on,
Minnie had replied that, at her age, human nature was her main source
of entertainment. Sir Humphrey had left her wealthy enough to stand the
nonsense, and Bellamy Hall, grotesquely gargantuan, was large enough to
house her odd menage. As a sop to sanity, she and her companion,
Mrs. Timms, indulged in the occasional bolt to the capital, leaving the
rest of the household in Northamptonshire. Vane always called on Minnie
whenever she was in town.
Gothic turrets rose out of the trees ahead, then brick gateposts appeared,
the heavy wrought-iron gates left ajar. With a grimly satisfied smile,
Vane turned his horses through; they'd beaten the storm--fate had not
caught him napping. He set the greys trotting down the straight drive.
Huge bushes crowded close, shivering in the wind; ancient trees shrouded
the gravel in shifting shadows.
Dark and somber, its multitude of windows, dull in the encroaching gloom,
watching like so many flat eyes, Bellamy Hall filled the end of the tunnel-like
drive. A sprawling Gothic monstrosity, with countless architectural elements
added cheek by jowl, all recently embellished with Georgian lavishness,
it ought to have looked hideous, yet, in the overgrown park with the circular
courtyard before it, the Hall managed to escape outright ugliness.
It was, Vane thought, as he swept about the courtyard and headed for the
stables, a suitably esoteric dwelling for an eccentric old woman and her
odd household. As he rounded the side of the house, he saw no sign of
There was, however, activity in the stables, grooms hurriedly settling
horses in preparation for the storm. Leaving Duggan and Minnie's stableman,
Grisham, to deal with the greys, Vane strode to the house, taking the
path through the shrubbery. Although overgrown, it was navigable; the
path debouched onto a stretch of poorly tended lawn which continued around
the corner of one wing. Around that corner, Vane knew, stood the side
door, facing a wide sweep of lawn hosting a small army of huge stones,
remnants of the abbey upon which the Hall was partly built. The ruins
stretched for some distance; the Hall itself had grown about the guesthall
of the abbey, otherwise ransacked during the Dissolution.
As he neared the corner, the blocks of weathered sandstone came into view,
scattered crazily over a thick green carpet. In the middle distance, a
single arch, all that remained of the abbey's nave, rose against the darkening
sky. Vane smiled; all was exactly as he remembered. Nothing about Bellamy
Hall had changed in twenty years.
He rounded the corner--and discovered he was wrong.
He halted, then blinked. For a full minute, he stood stock-still, gaze
riveted, his mind entirely focused. Then, gaze still transfixed, his mind
fully occupied by the vision before him, he strolled forward, his footsteps
muffled by the thick lawn. He halted opposite a large bow window, two
paces from the semicircular flower bed before it.
Directly behind the lady, clothed in fine, wind-driven sprigged muslin,
bent over, fossicking in the flowers.
"You could help." Patience Debbington blew aside the curls tangling
with her eyelashes and frowned at Myst, her cat, sitting neatly in the
weeds, an enigmatic expression on her inscrutable face. "It's got
to be here somewhere."
Myst merely blinked her large blue eyes. With a sigh, Patience leaned
as far forward as she dared and poked among the weeds and perennials.
Bent over at the waist, reaching into the flower bed, gripping its soft
edge with the toes of her soft-soled shoes, was hardly the most elegant,
let alone stable, position.
Not that she need worry over anyone seeing her--everyone else was dressing
for dinner. Which was precisely what she should be doing--would have been
doing--if she hadn't noticed that the small silver vase which had adorned
her windowsill had vanished. As she'd left the window open, and Myst often
used that route to come and go, she'd reasoned that Myst must have toppled
the vase in passing and it had rolled out, over the flat sill, and fallen
into the flower bed below.
The fact that she had never known Myst unintentionally to knock over anything
she'd pushed aside; it was better believing that Myst had been clumsy
than that their mysterious thief had struck again.
"It's not here," Patience concluded. "At least, I can't
see it." Still bent over, she looked at Myst. "Can you?"
Myst blinked again, and looked past her. Then the sleek grey cat rose
and elegantly padded out of the flower bed.
"Wait!" Patience half turned, but immediately swung back, struggling
to regain her awkward balance. "There's a storm coming--this is not
the time to go mousing."
So saying, she managed to straighten--which left her facing the house,
looking directly at the blank bow windows of the downstairs parlor. With
the storm darkening the skies, the windows were reflective. They reflected
the image of a man, standing directly behind her.
With a gasp, Patience whirled. Her gaze collided with the man's--his eyes
were hard, crystalline grey, pale in the weak light. They were focused,
intently, on her, their expression one she couldn't fathom. He stood no
more than three feet away, large, elegant and oddly forbidding. In the
instant her brain registered those facts, Patience felt her heels sink,
and sink--into the soft soil of the flower bed.
The edge crumbled beneath her feet.
Her eyes flew wide--her lips formed a helpless "Oh." Arms flailing,
she started to topple back--
The man reacted so swiftly his movement was a blur--he gripped her upper
arms and hauled her forward.
She landed against him, breast to chest, hips to hard thighs. The breath
was knocked out of her, leaving her gasping, mentally as well as physically.
Hard hands held her upright, long fingers iron shackles about her arms.
His chest was a wall of rock against her breasts; the rest of his body,
the long thighs that held them braced, felt as resilient as tensile steel.
She was helpless. Utterly, completely, and absolutely helpless.
Patience looked up and met the stranger's hooded gaze. As she watched,
his grey eyes darkened. The expression they contained--intensely concentrated--sent
a most peculiar thrill through her.
She blinked; her gaze fell--to the man's lips. Long, thin yet beautifully
proportioned, they'd been sculpted with a view to fascination. They certainly
fascinated her; she couldn't drag her gaze away. The mesmerizing contours
shifted, almost imperceptibly softening; her own lips tingled. She swallowed,
and dragged in a desperately needed breath.
Her breasts rose, shifting against the stranger's coat, pressing more
definitely against his chest. Sensation streaked through her, from unexpectedly
tight nipples all the way to her toes. She caught another breath and tensed--but
couldn't stop the quiver that raced through her.
The stranger's lips thinned; the austere planes of his face hardened.
His fingers tightened about her arms. To Patience's stunned amazement,
he lifted her--easily--and carefully set her down two feet away.
Then he stepped back and swept her a negligent bow.
"Vane Cynster." One brown brow arched; his eyes remained on
hers. "I'm here to see Lady Bellamy."
Patience blinked. "Ah...yes." She hadn't known men could move
like that--particularly not men like him. He was so tall, large, lean
but well muscled, yet his coordination had been faultless, the smooth
grace investing the languid courtesy rendering it compelling in some ill-defined
way. His words, uttered in a voice so deep she could have mistaken it
for the rumble of the storm, eventually impinged on her consciousness;
struggling to harness her thoughts, she gestured to the door at her right.
"The first gong's gone."
Vane met her wide gaze, and managed not to smile wolfishly--no need to
frighten the prey. The view he now had--of delectable curves filling a
gown of ivory sprigged muslin in a manner he fully approved--was every
bit as enticing as the view that had first held him--the gorgeous curves
of her derriere clearly delineated beneath taut fabric. When she'd shifted,
so had those curves. He couldn't remember when a sight had so transfixed
him, had so tantalized his rake's senses.
She was of average height, her forehead level with his throat. Her hair,
rich brown, lustrously sheening, was confined in a sleek knot, bright
tendrils escaping to wreathe about her ears and nape. Delicate brown brows
framed large eyes of hazel brown, their expression difficult to discern
in the gloom. Her nose was straight; her complexion creamy. Her pink lips
simply begged to be kissed. He'd come within a whisker of kissing them,
but tasting an unknown lady before the requisite introductions was simply
not good form.
His silence had allowed her to steady her wits; he sensed her growing
resistance, sensed the frown gathering in her eyes. Vane let his lips
curve. He knew precisely what he wanted to do--to her, with her; the only
questions remaining were where and when. "And you are...?"
Her eyes narrowed fractionally. She drew herself up, clasping her hands
before her. "Patience Debbington."
The shock hit him, heavy as a cannonball, and left him winded. Vane stared
at her; a chill bloomed in his chest. It quickly spread, locking muscle
after muscle in reactive denial. Then disbelief welled. He glanced at
her left hand. No band of any sort decorated her third finger.
She couldn't be unmarried--she was in her mid-twenties; no younger
woman possessed curves as mature as hers. Of that, he was sure--he'd spent
half his life studying feminine curves; in that sphere he was an expert.
Perhaps she was a widow--potentially even better. She was studying him
covertly, her gaze sliding over him.
Vane felt the touch of her gaze, felt the hunter within him rise in response
to that artless glance; his wariness returned. "Miss Debbington?"
Looking up, she nodded--Vane almost groaned. Last chance--a spinster,
impecunious, and without connections. He could set her up as his mistress.
She must have read his mind; before he could formulate the question, she
answered it. "I'm Lady Bellamy's niece."
A crack of thunder all but drowned out her words; under cover of the noise,
Vane swore beneath his breath, only just resisting the impulse to direct
his ire heavenward.
Fate looked at him through clear hazel eyes.
Disapproving hazel eyes.
"If you'll come this way"--with a wave, she indicated the nearby
door, then haughtily led the way--"I'll have Masters inform my aunt
of your arrival."
Having assimmilated the style, and thus the standing, of Minnie's unexpected
caller, Patience made no attempt to hide her opinion; dismissive contempt
colored her tone. "Is my aunt expecting you?"
"No--but she'll be pleased to see me."
Was that subtle reproof she detected in his far-too-suave tones? Swallowing
a hoity humph, Patience swept on. She felt his presence, large and intensely
masculine, prowling in her wake. Her senses skittered; she clamped a firm
hold on them and lifted her chin. "If you'll wait in the parlor--it's
the first door on your right--Masters will fetch you when my aunt is ready
to receive you. As I mentioned, the household is presently dressing for
The word, uttered softly, reached her as she halted before the side door;
Patience felt a cool tingle slither down her spine. And felt the touch
of his grey gaze on her cheek, on the sensitive skin of her throat. She
stiffened, resisting the urge to wriggle. She looked down, determined
not to turn and meet his eyes. Jaw firming, she reached for the door handle;
he beat her to it.
Patience froze. He'd stopped directly behind her, and reached around her
to grasp the handle; she watched his long fingers slowly close about it.
She could feel him behind her, mere inches away, could sense his strength
surrounding her. For one definable instant, she felt trapped.
Then the long fingers twisted; with a flick, he set the door swinging
Heart racing, Patience sucked in a breath and sailed into the dim passage.
Without slowing her pace, she inclined her head in regal, over-the-shoulder
dismissal. "I'll speak to Masters directly--I'm sure my aunt won't
keep you long." With that, she swept on, down the passage and into
the dark hallway beyond.
Poised on the threshold, Vane watched her retreat through narrowed eyes.
He'd sensed the awareness that had flared at his touch, the quiver of
consciousness she hadn't been able to hide. For gentlemen such as he,
that was proof enough of what might be.
His gaze fell on the small grey cat which had hugged Patience Debbington's
skirts; it now sat on the runner, considering him. As he watched, it rose,
turned, and, tail high, started up the corridor--then stopped. Turning
its head, it looked back at him. "Meeow!"
From its imperious tone, Vane deduced it was female.
Behind him, lightning flashed. He looked back at the darkened day. Thunder
rolled--a second later, the heavens opened. Rain pelted down, sheets of
heavy drops obliterating the landscape.
Fate's message couldn't have been clearer: escape was impossible.
His features grim, Vane closed the door--and followed the cat.
* * *
"Nothing could be more fortuitous!" Araminta, Lady Bellamy,
beamed delightedly at Vane. "Of course you must stay. But the second
gong will go any minute, so cut line. How is everyone?"
Propping his shoulders against the mantelpiece, Vane smiled. Wrapped in
expensive shawls, her rotund figure encased in silk and lace, a frilled
widow's cap atop sprightly white curls, Minnie watched him through eyes
bright with intelligence, set in a soft, lined face. She sat enthroned
in her chair before the fire in her bedchamber; in its mate sat Timms,
a gentlewoman of indeterminate years, Minnie's devoted companion. "Everyone,"
Vane knew, meant the Cynsters. "The youngsters are thriving--Simon's
starring at Eton. Amelia and Amanda are cutting a swath through the ton,
scattering hearts right and left. The elders are all well and busy in
town, but Devil and Honoria are still at the Place."
"Too taken with admiring his heir, I'll wager. Daresay that wife
of his will keep him in line." Minnie grinned, then sobered. "Still
no word of Charles?"
Vane's face hardened. "No. His disappearance remains a mystery."
Minnie shook her head. "Poor Arthur."
Minnie sighed, then slanted an assessing glance at Vane. "And what
about you and those cousins of yours? Still keeping the ton's ladies
on their toes?"
Her tone was all innocence; head bowed over her knitting, Timms snorted.
"More like on their backs."
Vane smiled, suavely charming. "We do our poor best." Minnie's
eyes twinkled. Still smiling, Vane looked down and smoothed his sleeve.
"I'd better go and change, but tell me--who do you have staying at
"A whole parcel of odds and ends," Timms offered.
Minnie chuckled and drew her hands free of her shawl. "Let's see."
She counted on her fingers. "There's Edith Swithins--she's a distant
Bellamy connection. Utterly vague, but quite harmless. Just don't express
any interest in her tatting unless you've an hour to spare. Then there's
Agatha Chadwick--she was married to that unfortunate character who insisted
he could cross the Irish Sea in a coracle. He couldn't, of course. So
Agatha and her son and daughter are with us."
Minnie's gaze lifted to Vane's face. "Angela. She's sixteen and already
a confirmed wilter. She'll swoon away in your arms if you give her half
Vane grimaced. "Thank you for the warning."
"Henry Chadwick must be about your age," Minnie mused, "but
not at all in the same mold." Her gaze ran appreciatively over Vane's
elegant figure, long muscular legs displayed to advantage in tight buckskins
and top boots, his superbly tailored coat of Bath superfine doing justice
to his broad shoulders. "Just setting eyes on you should do him some
Vane merely raised his brows.
"Now, who else?" Minnie frowned at her fingers. "Edmond
Montrose is our resident poet and dramatist. Needless to say, he fancies
himself the next Byron. Then there's the General and Edgar, who you must
Vane nodded. The General, a brusque, ex-military man, had lived at Bellamy
Hall for years; his title was not a formal one, but a nickname earned
by his emphatically regimental air. Edgar Polinbrooke, too, had been Minnie's
pensioner for years--Vane placed Edgar in his fifties, a mild tippler
who fancied himself a gamester, but who was, in reality, a simple and
"Don't forget Whitticombe," Timms put in.
"How could I forget Whitticombe?" Minnie sighed. "Or Alice."
Vane raised a questioning brow.
"Mr. Whitticombe Colby and his sister, Alice," Minnie supplied.
"They're distant cousins of Humphrey's. Whitticombe trained as a
deacon and has conceived the notion of compiling the History of Coldchurch
Abbey." Coldchurch was the abbey on whose ruins the Hall stood.
"As for Alice--well, she's just Alice." Minnie grimaced. "She
must be over forty and, though I hate to say it of one of my own sex,
a colder, more intolerant, judgmental being it has never been my misfortune
Vane's brows rose high. "I suspect it would be wise if I steered
clear of her."
"Do." Minnie nodded feelingly. "Get too close, and she'll
probably have the vapors." She glanced at Vane. "Then again,
she might just have hysterics anyway, the instant she sets eyes on you."
Vane cast her a jaundiced look.
"I think that's it. Oh, no--I forgot Patience and Gerrard."
Minnie looked up. "My niece and nephew."
Studying Minnie's radiant face, Vane didn't need to ask if she was fond
of her young relatives. "Patience and Gerrard?" He kept the
"My younger sister's children. They're orphans now. Gerrard's seventeen--he
inherited the Grange, a nice little property in Derbyshire, from his father,
Sir Reginald Debbington." Minnie frowned at Vane. "You might
be too young to remember him. Reggie died eleven years ago."
Vane sifted through his memories. "Was he the one who broke his neck
while out with the Cottesmore?"
Minnie nodded. "That's the one. Constance, m'sister, died two years
ago. Patience has been holding the fort for Gerrard, pretty much since
Reggie died." Minnie smiled. "Patience is my project for the
Vane studied that smile. "Oh?"
"Thinks she's on the shelf and couldn't care less. Says she'll think
about marrying after Gerrard's settled."
Timms snorted. "Too single minded for her own good."
Minnie folded her hands in her lap. "I've decided to take Patience
and Gerrard to London for the Season next year. She thinks we're going
to give Gerrard a little town bronze."
Vane raised a cynical brow. "While in reality, you plan to play matchmaker."
"Precisely." Minnie beamed at him. "Patience has a tidy
fortune invested in the Funds. As for the rest, you must give me your
opinion once you've seen her. Tell me how high you think she can reach."
Vane inclined his head noncommittally.
A gong boomed in the distance.
"Damn!" Minnie clutched her slipping shawls. "They'll be
waiting in the drawing room, wondering what on earth's going on."
She waved Vane away. "Go pretty yourself up. You don't stop by that
often. Now you're here, I want the full benefit of your company."
"Your wish is my command." Vane swept her an elegant bow; straightening,
he slanted her an arrogantly rakish smile. "Cynsters never leave
Timms snorted so hard she choked.
Vane left the room to chortles, chuckles, and gleeful, anticipatory whispers.
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