Late July, 1835.
Near Glossup Hall, by Ashmore, Dorset.
and the devil!" Simon Cynster reined in his bays, his eyes narrowing
on the ridge high above Ashmore village. The village proper lay just behind
him; he was headed for Glossup Hall, a mile further along the leafy country
At the rear of the village cottages, the land rose steeply; a woman was
following the path winding up the berm of what Simon knew to be ancient
earthworks. The views from the top reached as far as the Solent, and on
clear days even to the Isle of Wight.
It was hardly a surprise to see someone heading up there.
"No surprise she hasn't anyone with her, either." Irritation
mounting, he watched the dark-haired, willowy, ineffably graceful figure
steadily ascend the rise, a long-legged figure that inevitably drew the
eye of any man with blood in his veins. He'd recognized her instantly
- Portia Ashford, his sister Amelia's sister-in-law.
Portia must be attending the Glossup Hall house party; the Hall was the
only major house near enough from which to walk.
A sense of being put-upon burgeoned and grew.
"Damn!" He'd yielded to the entreaties of his longtime friend
James Glossup and agreed to stop by on his way to Somerset to support
James through the trials of the house party. But if Portia was going to
be present, he'd have trials enough of his own.
She reached the crest of the earthworks and paused, one slender hand rising
to hold back the fall of her jet black hair; lifting her face to the breeze,
she stared into the distance, then, letting her hand fall, gracefully
walked on, following the path to the lookout, gradually descending until
she disappeared from sight.
She's no business of mine.
The words echoed in his head; God knew she'd stated the sentiment often
enough, in various phrasings, most far more emphatic. Portia was not his
sister, not his cousin, indeed, she shared no blood at all.
Jaw firming, he looked to his horses, took up the slack in the reins-
And inwardly cursed.
"Wilks - wake, up man!" Simon tossed the reins at his groom,
until then dozing behind him. Pulling on the brake, he stepped down to
the road. "Just hold them - I'll be back."
Thrusting his hands into his greatcoat pockets, he strode for the narrow
path that led upward, ultimately joining the path from the Hall that Portia
had followed up the rise.
He was only buying himself trouble - a sniping match at the very least
- yet leaving her alone, unprotected from any wastrel who might happen
along, was simply not possible, not for him. If he'd driven on, he wouldn't
have had a moment's peace, not until she returned safe and sound to the
Given her propensity for rambling walks, that might not happen for hours.
He wouldn't be thanked for his concern. If he survived without having
his ego prodded in a dozen uncomfortable places, he'd count himself lucky.
Portia had a tongue like a double-edged razor-no way one could escape
being nicked. He knew perfectly well what her attitude would be when he
caught up with her - precisely the same as it had been for the past decade,
ever since he'd realized she truly had no idea of the prize she was, the
temptation she posed, and was therefore in need of constant protection
from the situations into which she blithely sailed.
While she remained out of his sight, out of his orbit, she was not his
responsibility; if she came within it, unprotected, he felt obliged to
watch over her, to keep her safe - he should have known better than to
try to fight the urge.
Of all the females he knew, she was unquestionably the most difficult,
not least because she was also the most intelligent, yet here he was,
trudging after her despite his certain reception; he wasn't at all sure
what that said of his intelligence.
Women! He'd spent the entire drive west considering them. His Great Aunt
Clara had recently died and left him her house in Somerset. The inheritance
had served as a catalyst, forcing him to review his life, to rethink his
direction, yet his unsettled state had a more fundamental genesis; he'd
finally realized what it was that gave his older cousins and his sisters'
husbands their purpose in life.
The purpose he lacked.
Family - their own branch of it, their own children - their own wife.
Such things had never seemed critical before; now they loomed as vital
to his life, to his satisfaction with his lot.
A scion of a wealthy, well-born family, his lot was a comfortable one,
yet what worth comfort against the lack of achievement he now felt so
acutely? It wasn't his ability to achieve that was in question - not in
his mind, nor, he'd warrant, in any other - but the goal, the need, the
reason; these were the necessities he lacked.
Crucial necessities for a satisfying life for such as he.
Great Aunt Clara's legacy had been the final prod; what was he to do with
a rambling country house if not live in it? He needed to get himself a
wife and start building the family he required to give his life its true
He hadn't accepted the notion meekly. For the past ten years, his life
had been well-run, well-ordered, with females intruding in only two arenas,
both entirely under his control. With countless discreet liaisons behind
him, he was a past master at managing - seducing, enjoying and ultimately
disengaging from - the well-born matrons with whom he habitually dallied.
Other than that, the only females he consorted with were those of his
own family. Admittedly, within the family, they ruled, but as that had
always been the case, he'd never felt constrained or challenged by the
fact - one simply dealt with it as necessary.
With his active interest in the Cynster investment business together with
the distractions of tonnish society, with his sexual conquests and the
customary family gatherings to season the whole, his life had been pleasantly
full. He'd never seen the need to linger at those balls and parties graced
by marriageable young ladies.
Which now left him in the unenviable position of wanting a wife, and not
having any useful avenue through which to acquire one, not without setting
off alarm bells that would resonate throughout the ton. If he was foolish
enough to start attending the balls and parties, the fond mamas would
instantly perceive he was on the lookout for a bride - and lay siege.
He was the last unmarried male Cynster of his generation.
Stepping up to the top of the earthworks' outer wall, he paused. The land
fell away in a shallow sweep; the path continued to the left, leading
to a squat, covered lookout set into the earth wall some fifty yards on.
The view was magnificent. Sunshine winked on the distant sea; the silhouette
of the Isle of Wight was distinguishable through a soft summer haze.
He'd seen the view before. He turned to the lookout, and the female presently
in it. She was standing at the railing, gazing out to sea. From her stance
and stillness, he assumed she hadn't seen him.
Lips setting, he walked on. He wouldn't need to give any reason for joining
her. For the past decade, he'd treated her with the same insistent protectiveness
he applied to all the females of his family; doubtless it was her relationship
- the fact she was his brother-in-law Luc's sister - that dictated how
he felt about her despite the lack of bloodties.
To his mind, Portia Ashford was family, his to protect. That much, at
least, was unarguable.
* * *
What tortuous logic had prompted the gods to decree that a woman needed
a man to conceive?
Portia stifled a disgusted humph. That was the crux of the dilemma now
facing her. Unfortunately, there was no point debating the issue - the
gods had so decreed and there was nothing she could do about it now.
Other than find a way around the problem.
The thought increased her irritation, largely self-directed. She had never
wanted a husband, never imagined the usual path of a nice, neat, socially
approved marriage with all its attendant constraints was for her. Never
had she seen her future in such terms.
But there was no other way.
Stiffening her spine, she faced the fact squarely: If she wanted children
of her own, she would have to find a husband.
The breeze sidled up, whispering, coolly caressing her cheeks, lightly
fingering the heavy waves of her hair. The realization that children -
her own children, her own family - were what in her heart she truly yearned
for, the challenge she'd been raised, like her mother, to accept and conquer,
had come just like the breeze, stealing up on her. For the past five years,
she'd worked with her sisters Penelope and Anne in caring for foundlings
in London. She'd plunged into the project with her usual zeal, convinced
their ideals were both proper and right, only to discover her own destiny
lay in a direction in which she'd never thought to look.
So now she needed a husband.
Given her birth, her family's status and connections, and her dowry, gaining
such an encumbrance would be easy, even though she was already twenty-four.
She wasn't, however, fool enough to imagine any gentleman would do. Given
her character, her temperament, her trenchant independence, it was imperative
she choose wisely.
She wrinkled her nose, her gaze fixed unseeing on the distant prospect.
Never had she imagined would come to this - to desiring a husband. Courtesy
of their brother Luc's disinterest in pushing her and her sisters into
marriage, they'd been allowed to go their own way; her way had eschewed
the ballrooms and salons, Almack's and similar gatherings of the ton at
which marriageable young ladies found their spouses.
Learning how to find a husband had seemed beneath her - an enterprise
well below the more meaty challenges her intellect demanded...
Recollections of past arrogance - of all the chances to learn the hows
and wherefors of husband selection and subsequent snaring at which she'd
turned up her nose - fed her aggravation. How galling to discover her
intellect, widely accepted as superior, had not forseen her present state.
The damning truth was she could recite Horace and quote Virgil by the
page, yet she had no real idea how to acquire a husband.
Let alone the right one.
She refocused on the distant sea, on the sunlight winking off the waves,
constantly vacillating. Just as she was, had been for the past month.
That was so unlike her, so at odds with her character - always decisive,
never weak or shy - her indecision grated on her temper. Her character
wanted, nay demanded a decision, a firm goal, a plan of action. Her emotions
- a side of herself she'd rarely been swayed by - were far less sure.
Far less inclined to jump into this latest project with her customary
She'd revisted the arguments ad infinitum; there were no further aspects
to be explored. She'd walked here today determined to use the few hours
before the other guests arrived and the house party got underway to formulate
Lips setting, she narrowed her eyes at the horizon, aware of resistance
welling inside, of a shying away from the moment-so aggravating yet so
instinctive, so powerful she had to fight to override it and push ahead...but
she was not going to leave without a firm commitment.
Grasping the lookout's railing, she tipped her chin high and firmly stated,
"I will use every opportunity the house party provides to learn all
I can and make up my mind once and for all." That was nowhere near
decisive enough; determinedly, she added, "Whoever is present of
suitable age and station, I swear I will seriously consider them."
There - at last! She'd put her next step into words. Into a solemn vow.
The positive uplifting feeling that always followed on the heels of decision
welled within her-
"Well that's heartening, I must say, although of suitable age and
station for what?"
With a gasp, she whirled. For one instant, her mind boggled. Not with
fear - despite the shadows in which he stood and the brightness of the
day behind him, she'd recognized his voice, knew whose shoulders blocked
the entrance arch.
But what in all Hades was he doing here?
His gaze sharpened - a disconcertingly acute blue gaze far too direct
"And what haven't you made up your mind about? That usually takes
you all of two seconds."
Calmness, decisiveness - fearlessness - returned in a rush. She narrowed
her eyes back. "That is none of your affair."
He moved, deliberately slowly, taking three prowling steps to join her
by the railing. She tensed. The muscles framing her spine grew rigid;
her lungs locked as something within her reacted. She knew him so well,
yet here, alone in the silence of the fields and sky, he seemed larger,
More dangerous in some indefinable way.
Stopping with two feet between them, he gestured to the view. "You
seemed to be declaring it to the world at large."
He met her gaze; amusement at catching her out lurked in the blue, along
with watchfulness and a certain disapproval.
His features remained expressionless. "I suppose it's too much to
hope there's a groom or footman waiting nearby?"
That was a subject she wasn't about to debate, especially not with him.
Facing the view, she coolly inclined her head. "Good afternoon. The
views are quite magnificent." She paused for only an instant. "I
hadn't imagined you an admirer of nature."
She felt his gaze slide over her profile, then he looked at the view.
"On the contrary." He slid his hands into his pockets; he seemed
to relax. "There are some creations of nature I'm addicted to worshipping."
It required no thought at all to divine to what he was alluding. In the
past, she would have made some tart remark...now, all she heard in her
mind were the words of her vow... "You're here for the Glossups'
It wasn't a question; he answered with an elegant shrug. "What else?"
He turned as she drew herself up. Their eyes met; he'd heard her vow and
was unlikely to forget...
She was suddenly sure she needed more space between them.
"I came here for the solitude," she baldly informed him. "Now
you've arrived, I may as well start back."
She swung toward the exit. He was in her way. Her heartbeat accelerating,
she glanced at his face.
In time to see his features harden, to sense him bite back some retort.
His gaze touched hers; his restraint was almost palpable. With a calm
so deliberate it was itself a warning, he stepped aside and waved her
to the door. "As you wish."
Her senses remained trained on him as she swept past; her skin prickled
as if in truth he posed some potential danger. Once past him, head high,
she glided out of the archway; with a calm more apparent than real, she
set off along the path.
Jaw setting, Simon ruthlessly quelled the urge to stop her, to reach out,
catch her hand, reel her back - to what end he wasn't sure. This, he reminded
himself, was what he needed, her on her haughty way back to Glossup Hall.
Drawing a long breath, he held it, then followed her out into the sunshine.
And on down the path. The sooner she got back to civilization and safety,
the sooner his own journey would end. He'd driven straight down from London
- he was thirsty; a glass of ale would not go astray.
With his longer strides he could easily overtake her; instead, he ambled
in her wake, content enough with the view. The current fashion for gowns
with waists that actually fell at a woman's waist suited her, emphasizing
the svelte lines of her figure, the slender curves, the very long lines
of her legs. The purply-blue hue of the light summer walking dress suited
her dramatic coloring - raven black hair, midnight blue eyes and pale,
almost translucent skin. She was taller than the average; her forehead
would brush his chin - if they ever got that close.
The thought of that happening made him inwardly, grimly, laugh.
Reaching the crest of the rise, she continued over and on - and only then
realized he was following her. She threw him a black glance, then stopped
and waited, swinging to face him as he halted before her.
Her eyes like shards of dark flint, she glared at him. "You are not
going to follow me all the way back to the Hall."
Portia didn't ask what he thought he was doing; they both knew. They'd
last seen each other at Christmas, seven months before, but only distantly,
surrounded by the combined hordes of their families. He hadn't had a chance
then to get on her nerves, something that, ever since she'd turned fourteen,
he'd seemed absolutely devoted to doing, if possible every time they met.
His gaze locked on hers. Something - temper? decision? - flashed behind
the deceptively soft blue of his eyes. Then his lips firmed; he stepped
around her with his usual fluid grace, unnerving in a man so large, and
continued on down the path.
She whirled, watched. He didn't go far but stopped a step beyond the fork
where the footpath to the village led down to the lane below.
Turning, he met her gaze. "You're right. I'm not." He waved
down the path.
She looked in that direction. A curricle - his curricle - stood in the
"Your carriage awaits."
Lifting her gaze, she met his. Directly. He was blocking the path to the
Hall - quite deliberately.
"I was intending to walk back."
His gaze didn't waver. "Change your mind."
His tone - sheer male arrogance laced with a challenge she hadn't previously
encountered and couldn't place - sent a peculiar shiver through her. There
was no overt aggression in his stance, yet she didn't for a moment doubt
he could, and would, stop her if she tried to get past him.
Temper, wild willfulness - her customary response to intimidatory tactics,
especially from him - flooded her, yet this time there were other, powerful
and distracting emotions in the mix. She stood perfectly still, her gaze
level and locked in silent combat with his, the familiar struggle for
Something had changed.
And in her.
Was it simply age - how long had it been since they'd last crossed wills
like this? Three years? More? Regardless, the field had altered; the battle
was no longer the same. Something was fundamentally different; she sensed
in him a bolder, more blatantly predatory streak, a flash of steel beneath
his elegance, as if with the years his mask was wearing thin.
She'd always known him for what he was...
Her vow echoed in her head. She mentally shook aside the distraction,
yet still she heard...recognized the challenge.
Head rising, she walked forward, every bit as deliberate as he.
The watchfulness in his eyes condensed, until his attention was focused
exclusively on her. Another tingle of sensation slithered down her spine.
Halting before him, she held his gaze.
What did he see? Now she was looking, trying to see past his guard only
to discover she could not - odd, for they'd never sought to hide their
mutual dismissiveness - what was it he was hiding? What was the reason
behind the veiled threat emanating from him?
To her surprise, she wanted to know.
She drew a deliberate breath, evenly stated, "Very well."
Surprise lit his eyes, swiftly superceded by suspicion; she pivoted and
looked down, stepping onto the path to the village, hiding her smile.
Just so he wouldn't imagine he'd won, she coolly added, "As it happens,
one of my shoes is pinching."
She'd taken only one more step when she sensed him shift, then he was
sweeping down on her, moving far too fast.
Her senses leapt. Uncertain, she slowed -
He didn't halt; he bent, and scooped her up in his arms.
Without breaking his stride, he juggled her until he had her cradled,
carrying her as if she weighed no more than a child.
Her lungs had seized, along with her senses; it took serious effort to
draw breath. "What do you think you're doing?"
Her total incomprehension invested every word. Never before had he shown
the slightest sign of reacting to her jibes in any physical way.
She was...what? Shocked? Or...?
Thrusting her confusion side, she met his gaze as he briefly glanced her
"Your shoe's pinching - we wouldn't want your delicate little foot
to suffer unnecessary damage."
His tone was bland, his expression guileless; the look in his eyes would
even pass for innocent.
She blinked. They both looked ahead. She considered protesting - and discarded
the notion in the next thought. He was perfectly capable of arguing until
they reached the curricle.
As for struggling...she was intensely aware - far more than she liked
to be - that she was physically much weaker than he. The arms supporting
her felt like steel; his stride never faltered, powerful and assured.
The hand clasping her thigh just above her knee - decently protected by
her full skirts - grasped like a vise; the width of his chest and its
muscled hardness locked her in. She'd never regarded his strength as anything
she needed to consider or weigh, yet if he was going to bring physical
contact into their equation, she would need to think again.
And not just on the basis of strength.
Being this close, trapped in his arms, made her feel...among other things,
He slowed; she refocused.
With a flourish, he set her on the curricle's seat.
Startled, she grasped the railings, out of habit drawing her skirts close
so he could sit beside her - noting the equally startled face of Wilks,
"Ah...afternoon, Miss Portia." Wide-eyed, Wilks bobbed as he
handed the reins to Simon.
Wilks had to have witnessed the entire performance; he was waiting for
her to explode, or at least say something cutting.
And he wasn't the only one.
She smiled with perfect equanimity. "Good afternoon, Wilks."
Wilks blinked, nodded warily, then hurried back to his place.
Simon glanced at her as he climbed up beside her. As if expecting her
to bite. Or at the very least snarl.
He wouldn't have believed a sweet smile so she faced forward, serenely
composed, as if her joining him in the curricle had been her idea. His
suspicious glance was worth every tithe of the effort such sunny compliance
The curricle jerked, then rolled forward. The instant he had his bays
bowling along, she asked, "How are your parents?"
A pause greeted that, but then he replied.
She nodded and launched into an account of her family, all of whom he
knew, describing their health, their whereabouts, their latest interests.
As if he'd asked, she continued, "I came down with Lady O."
For years, that had been their shorthand for Lady Osbaldestone, a connection
of the Cynsters and an old friend of her family's, an ancient beldame
who terrorized half the ton. "She spent the last weeks at the Chase,
and then had to travel down here. She's an old friend of Lord Netherfield,
did you know?" Viscount Netherfield was Lord Glossup's father and
was presently visiting at Glossup Hall.
Simon was frowning. "No."
Portia smiled quite genuinely; she was fond of Lady O but Simon, in company
with most gentlemen of his ilk, found her perspicaciousness somewhat scarifying.
"Luc insisted she shouldn't cross half the country alone, so I offered
to come, too. The others who've arrived so far..." She rattled on,
acquainting him with those present and those yet to arrive, precisely
as any friendly, well-bred young lady might.
The suspicion in his eyes grew more and more pronounced.
Then the gates of Glossup Hall appeared, set wide in welcome. Simon turned
the bays in and set them pacing up the drive.
The Hall was a sprawling country house built in Elizabethan times. Its
typical red brick facade faced south and boasted three storeys with east
and west wings set perpendicular to it. The central wing housing the ballroom
and conservatory made up the middle stroke of the E. As they neared, sunlight
glanced off the rows of mullioned windows and glowed on the tall chimneys
with their ornate pots.
By the time he swung the bays into the circular forecourt, Simon felt
thoroughly disconcerted. Not a common feeling, not for him; there wasn't
much in tonnish life that could throw him off balance.
Other than Portia.
If she'd railed at him, used her sharp tongue to its usual effect, all
would have been normal. He wouldn't have enjoyed the encounter, but neither
would he have felt this sudden disorientation.
Rack his brains though he might, he couldn't recall her ever behaving
toward him with such...feminine softness was the description that sprang
to mind. She was usually well armored and prickly; today, she'd apparently
left her shield and spears behind.
The result was...
He reined in the bays, pulled on the brake, tossed the ribbons to Wilks
and stepped down.
Portia waited for him to come around the carriage and hand her down; he
watched, expecting her to leap down in her usual, independent, don't-need-you
way. Instead, when he offered his hand, she placed her slim fingers across
his palm and let him assist her to alight with stunning grace.
She looked up and smiled when he released her. "Thank you."
Her smile deepened; her eyes held his. "You were right. My foot is
in an unquestionably better state than it otherwise would have been."
Her expression one of ineffable sweetness, she inclined her head and turned
away. Her eyes were so dark he hadn't been able to tell if the twinkle
he'd thought he'd seen in them was real, or merely a trick of the light.
He stood in the forecourt, grooms and footmen darting around him, and
watched as she glided into the house. Without a single glance back, she
disappeared into the shadows beyond the open front door.
The sound of gravel crunching as his curricle and pair were led away jerked
him out of his abstraction. Outwardly impassive, inwardly a trifle grim,
he strode to the door of Glossup Hall. And followed her in.
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