"He's the one you've set your sights on?"
Mary Alice Cynster jumped a foot into the air - or so it felt. As her jarred senses reestablished contact with terra firma, fury seared through her. Swinging around, she glared - at her irritating, infuriating, utterly irrepressible nemesis. Quite why Ryder Cavanaugh had elected himself to the role she had no idea, but since a brief encounter at her sister Henrietta's engagement ball two nights ago he'd been dogging her heels, assiduously transforming himself into a hideously distracting pest.
Before them, the Felsham House ballroom was awash with the creme de la creme of the ton, the silks and satins of ladies' gowns bright splashes of color against the black of gentlemen's evening coats. Coiffed heads gleamed, jewels glittered, and hundreds of well-modulated voices rose in polite cacophony.
She'd retreated into the shadows beneath the minstrels' gallery the better to consider her target. She'd been so absorbed studying him, she hadn't noticed Ryder drawing near; despite his size, he moved smoothly and silently. As usual, his impeccable, severely styled evening clothes only served to emphasize the fluid strength harnessed within his long, muscled frame. With one broad, elegantly-clad shoulder negligently propped against the wall alongside her, he regarded her with his customary, hooded, lazy lion gaze.
Others were often fooled by Ryder's amiable, gentle giant, lackadaisical air; she never had been. Behind those brilliant hazel eyes lurked a mind as incisive, decisive, and ruthlessly capable as her own.
Yet despite the deflective glamour of his normally impenetrable languid sophistication, from his tone and the fact his lids had briefly risen, his eyes momentarily widening, identifying the object of her interest - by surreptitiously looking over her shoulder - had genuinely surprised him.
Uttering a mental damn! - he was the very last person she would have chosen to share that information with - she fixed her gaze basilisk-like on his green and gold eyes. "Go. Away."
Predictably, the order had no effect; she might as well have saved her breath. Ryder - correctly styled the fifth Marquess of Raventhorne, a title he'd inherited on his father's death six years before - was widely acknowledged as a law unto himself. There were few gentlemen society's grandes dames recognized as such - noblemen with sufficient personal power that it was deemed wiser to allow them to stalk through the ton's ballrooms, drawing rooms, and dining rooms without let or hindrance, as long as they abided by society's rules, at least well enough to pass. It was one of those unvoiced social accommodations.
Even as she held her ground - and her glare - Mary was well aware of all the aspects of Ryder's personal power.
At such close quarters, it was impossible not to be.
As if contemplating a curious, potentially succulent morsel, he looked down at her; as she was not only the youngest of the current generation of Cynster girls but also the shortest, and he stood well over six feet tall, that degree of down should have been intimidating, yet she'd never felt intimidated by him. Distracted, thrown off-balance, even mentally tripped to the point of feeling she was somehow falling, yes, but threatened in even the smallest way, no.
Then again, she'd known him in passing for as long as she could remember; their families were among the oldest in the ton, and so knew each other in the way such families did.
His lushly lashed hazel eyes had remained unwaveringly fixed on her face, on her eyes. "You can't seriously imagine Rand will be a suitable husband for you."
She tipped up her chin, but looking down her nose at him was beyond even her. "I should think it patently obvious that that is a determination I will make for myself."
"Don't bother. You won't suit."
"Indeed?" She hesitated, but if anyone would know his half-brother's aspirations, Ryder would. She arched her brows and infused sufficient disbelieving hauteur into her tone to, she hoped, tempt him to share. "And why is that?"
While he considered obliging, and she waited, she wondered if perhaps denying having any particular interest in Randolph-Lord Randolph Cavanaugh, one of Ryder's half-brothers and the nearest to him in age-might have been the wiser course…but when at Henrietta and James's engagement ball she'd summarily dismissed Ryder - declining an invitation most ladies of the ton, young, middle-aged, or ancient, would kill to receive - she'd unintentionally piqued his curiosity, and just like any feline he'd been, albeit it apparently idly, stalking her ever since.
Even though tonight was only the second evening since the engagement ball, Ryder was more than intelligent enough to have divined her purpose. So no, there really was no point attempting to mislead him on that score - he would only grow more diabolical.
As his lips gently curved and he drew breath to speak, she fully expected him to be diabolical anyway.
"Permit me to list the ways." His voice was so deep it was a rumbling purr. "First, allow me to point out that, as the last unmarried Cynster female of your generation, you are regarded as a matrimonial prize."
She frowned. "That's the last thing I need, but" - she searched his eyes - "I don't see why I should be considered so. I'm the youngest, and while admittedly my dowry is nothing to be sneezed at, I'm certainly not a diamond-of-the-first-water or a major heiress." As, apparently, she had to put up with him, she saw no reason not to pick his well-connected and well-informed brain.
Inclining his head, Ryder bit his tongue against the impulse to inform her that while she was correct in stating that she did not qualify as a diamond-of-the-first-water, that failure stemmed more from an excess of personality than any lack of beauty; she was more than attractive enough - vibrantly and vividly attractive enough - to turn male heads and engage male imaginations, something he'd grown exceedingly aware of over the few days during which he'd been shadowing her, driven by curiosity, pricked pride, and some less identifiable fascination. "You have, however, missed the critical point. You are the last chance for any of the major families to ally themselves with the Cynsters in this generation. It'll be a decade or more before your cousins' children, the next generation, come on the marriage mart. Consequently, no matter what you might wish, you are, indeed, a prize in that regard. And, of course, Rand will inherit neither title nor estate." Unlike him. His eyes locked on hers, he dismissively arched his brows. "Ask any of the grandes dames and they'll tell you the same. Everyone expects you to marry well."
She made a sound suspiciously like a snort. A smile tugged at his lips; he understood the sentiment.
But then she shook her head. "No. If that were the case, I would have been besieged."
"Not yet." He saw no reason not to share the news. "But next Season you will be. You're only twenty-two, and this year there's Henrietta's engagement and her upcoming wedding-major distractions for your family. Matrimonially speaking, no one is looking at you at the moment." Only him. And he was now intent on stealing a march on all his potential competitors.
Her lips - rosebud pink and unexpectedly lush in such a youthful face - firmed. "Be that as it may, that's all about what others think, while in the matter of whom I wed, it's what I think that counts." Her expression grew even more belligerent. "And in all other respects -"
"Rand will not suit. He's six years younger than I am, only two years older than you." As he stated those facts, he realized what one of the reasons she'd chosen Rand as her potential husband was. "And in case it's escaped your notice - although I'd wager a significant sum it hasn't - while at twenty-four a gentleman might be mature in body, he's rarely mature in mind." The smile he allowed to curve his lips was entirely genuine. "Give Rand time and, trust me, he'll be just like me."
Which was precisely the transformation Mary intended to ensure did not occur. Turning away, she resumed her scrutiny of the gentleman in question; he was standing in a group toward the middle of the long ballroom. "In my estimation, Randolph will be the perfect husband for me."
Aside from all else, Randolph was a significantly milder version of Ryder; if she married Randolph, she was perfectly certain she would be able to influence him to the point of ensuring that he did not evolve into a nobleman anywhere near as lethally dangerous to the entire female sex as Ryder was. Indeed, marrying Randolph could be viewed as doing her gender a signal service; the female half of the population definitely did not need another Ryder. In addition to his physical impact, he was utterly unmanageable.
Fixing her gaze on Randolph, she reviewed his attractions. Unlike Ryder's golden-brown mane, Randolph's hair was dark brown, more like his mother Lavinia's brown locks. While Ryder wore his hair slightly longer so that it fell in intriguingly tousled, windswept locks-a potent inducement to women to run their fingers through the unruly mass-Randolph's hair was cut in a fashionable crop, neither long nor short, similar to many men present.
Randolph's shoulders were broad, although not as strikingly broad as Ryder's, and his frame was long and tended more to the lean than Ryder's did, but then Ryder was taller by several inches so the impressive breadth of his chest was in proportion. Randolph was entirely in proportion, too - just on a more mundane, less godlike scale.
That, Mary inwardly admitted, more or less summed up the difference between the half-brothers. Not just between Ryder and Randolph, but also Randolph's younger brothers, Christopher - Kit - and Godfrey. Ryder was the only child from his father's first marriage; Randolph, Kit, and Godfrey were the sons of the late marquess's second wife, Lavinia. There was a sister, too - Eustacia, known as Stacie. Mary knew them all socially, but not well; she had yet to learn all she wished given she intended to marry into the family.
She was impatient to get on, to move forward with her campaign to convince Randolph to offer for her hand. She'd spent the earlier months of this Season determinedly examining all the potential gentlemen; once she'd realized Randolph matched her requirements perfectly, she'd turned her attention to poking and prodding her older sister Henrietta into wearing the necklace a Scottish deity known as The Lady had gifted to the Cynster sisters. The Lady was connected to the family via Mary's cousin Richard's wife, Catriona, who was a principal, and apparently well-favored, priestess of the deity. Through Catriona, The Lady had decreed that successive Cynster female cousins should wear the necklace to assist them in finding their true heroes. As a group, they'd long ago defined their "one true hero" as the man who would sweep them off their feet into love and wedded bliss. Although initially all had been skeptical of the necklace's power, it had wrought its magic, first for Heather, then Eliza, then Angelica, and even though she'd persisted in not believing in it at all, most recently for Henrietta.
The necklace of amethyst beads and gold links from which a tapered rose quartz pendant hung had been passed on to Mary; it now circled her neck, the crystal pendant warm between her breasts.
And she believed-with all her heart and considerable will believed-that it would work for her.
But to help matters along, she'd already done her homework, studied the field, and identified Randolph Cavanaugh as her one - the perfect husband for her. All she really needed the necklace to do was to confirm her choice.
She'd received the necklace two nights ago, just before Henrietta's engagement ball; Henrietta had clasped it about her throat and she'd been wearing it ever since. The previous evening had been the first opportunity she'd had to speak with Randolph while wearing the necklace; they'd both attended Lady Cornwallis's soiree, but while she'd spent more than half an hour in the same circle as Randolph, chatting and conversing, she, at least, had sensed…nothing specific.
She wasn't sure what she'd expected, but from all she'd absorbed from her cousins and Henrietta the necklace didn't actively do anything. It was more in the nature of a catalyst; wearing it would ensure her true hero appeared before her, but she couldn't count on more help than that. Couldn't count on any definite sign.
So she was going to have to spend more time with Randolph. If he was indeed her true hero, her undisputed one, then…something should happen. Something should ignite.
She shifted, casting her gaze wider, evaluating the ways of approaching him. "How best to do it?" she whispered.
Instantly, she was aware of Ryder leaning closer, trying to catch her words. She ruthlessly stifled the impulse-the nearly overwhelming urge-to glance his way; he was now so close, if she did she would almost certainly find herself staring into his mesmerizing green and gold eyes, with his wicked lips and sinful smile only inches away….
She could feel him as a warmth, a temptingly seductive sensation, all down her right side. Alluring, sensual, wickedly so, his presence held an indefinable promise that effortlessly attracted the female of the species; she'd long been of the opinion he'd been born with that particular brand of sensual charm oozing from his pores.
It wasn't that she didn't feel the effect, didn't recognize the tug for what it was - didn't react - but rather that she'd realized long ago that permitting her reaction to any male to show - whatever that reaction was - left them in charge, not her.
She'd long ago decided to forever remain in charge, most especially of herself.
With all the handsome and innately domineering males in her family, she'd had a lifetime of lessons into how such men behaved, how they reacted to signs of susceptibility on a lady's part, and what those telltale signs were.
She'd worked to eradicate them from her repertoire of instinctive reactions.
So while she felt Ryder's attraction as intensely as any lady, she gave him no reason to think he'd made any impression on her at all.
It wasn't his attention she wanted, but Randolph's, and tonight she was determined to get it. She'd donned a new cornflower-blue silk gown which matched her eyes and also brought out the deep purple-blue of the amethyst beads.
Randolph. She focused on him. But while she could fix her gaze on him easily enough, the rest of her senses were slow to follow suit.
Damn Ryder. With him so close, no matter how she hid it, her wayward senses remained much more interested in him than in Randolph. Sensually-speaking, while handsome, well-built, and in all physical respects highly attractive, Randolph nevertheless paled into insignificance when compared to his older half-brother. There was not a woman in the ton - or out of it - who would not cede Ryder his own pedestal in the Hall of Superbly Handsome, Outrageously Attractive Men.
But handsome was as handsome did and, put simply, Ryder was too handsome, more, too attractive on all levels and in all ways, for his own or anyone else's good.
Especially not for hers. She held no illusions regarding her own strength; Ryder possessed a will stronger than hers. She would never be able to manage him; no woman ever would.
Randolph, on the other hand, was entirely within her scope; he would suit her very well.
"At the risk of having you bite off my head," Ryder murmured from beside her, "just how do you envision convincing Rand that you are the lady for him?"
Ryder could hear movement in the gallery above their heads; with any luck, the musicians had arrived and would soon be putting bow to string. All he had to do to further his present cause was to keep Mary with him until they did.
Slowly she turned her head, just enough to bend on him what she no doubt imagined was a blackly discouraging gaze. She had a lot to learn; he would have been more discouraged if she'd smiled sweetly. Her resistance lured him as little else might; to one with an appetite as jaded as his, novelty was enthralling. However, in keeping with his aim to delay her departure from his side, he said nothing more, but waited for her response with the infinite patience of the experienced hunter he was.
Her darkling gaze converted to a black frown. "I cannot imagine why that should be any concern of yours."
He opened his eyes wide. "I would have thought that was obvious-Rand is my younger brother, after all."
"Half-brother." Tipping up her nose, she looked across the room at Rand again. "Admittedly, he's nothing like you, but I can't see why you should imagine he needs his older brother to shield him from such as I."
His lips twitched. "Impertinent chit." But she'd hit the nail very much on the head; she'd set her sights on his innocent younger brother and he did, indeed, feel protective. A lady like her would scare the breeches off Rand, at least at his current age.
That Ryder's protective impulses were presently aligned with his personal agenda was pure luck. Or, as most often occurred with him, a helpful twist of fate.
Eyes still on Rand, Mary lifted one delicate shoulder. "I am as I am, and what I am can hardly be construed as any threat to Randolph."
"That depends very much on one's point of view."
She shot him another dagger glance, but before she could speak, a raucous screech from above was promptly followed by the teasing lilt of the introduction to a waltz.
Before she had time to react, let alone escape, Ryder stepped out of the shadow of the overhang into the bright lights of Lady Felsham's crystal chandeliers, and swept Mary a bow he made damn sure was magnificent. Extending his hand, he met her widening eyes. "Permit me to beg the honor of this dance."
Her gaze grew a touch wild and - yes - faintly horrified. He was watching intently so knew when she realized what would happen when he had her in his arms; she wouldn't be able to smother her response to him - the instinctive, innate response he knew-simply knew - she'd been suppressing.
Her gaze fell to his hand, then rose to his eyes. "No."
He smiled. Intently. "I'm sure you can see the sense in not causing a scene and focusing the attention of every last grande dame present on us. After all" - he arched one brow - "what possible excuse could you have for refusing to dance with me?"
Her eyes, locked with his, slowly narrowed. Her lips, those luscious lips he'd started to fantasize about, firmed, then compressed to a thin line. A second more and she nodded. Once. "All right." She raised her hand, reached out-but froze with an inch separating her fingers and his palm.
Resisting the impulse to grab, to seize, he recaptured her gaze and arched a brow.
Indomitable will glimmered like steel in her blue eyes. "One dance. And then you'll take me to join Randolph's circle."
He didn't hesitate. "Done." Fingers closing around hers, he drew her nearer and turned toward the middle of the room, to where guests were drawing back, clearing a space for the dancers.
As he led Mary forward, his lips spontaneously curved. From the way she moved, light on her feet and almost eager by his side, he knew she thought she'd won, or at least had gained equal ground from the exchange.
But she was fencing with a master. He'd forgotten more than she would ever know about this particular game; he was entirely content to fall in with her plans.
But first came his price - the waltz. The first of many, regardless of her present inclination.
Reaching the dance floor, he turned and smoothly drew her into his arms, unsurprised when she stepped forward fluidly, raising one small hand to his shoulder, without a heartbeat's hesitation letting him settle the fingers of her other hand within his clasp, but rather than rising to his face, her gaze went to his right, to where Randolph had elected to remain chatting with his cronies.
Almost as if, despite being in his arms, her mind was elsewhere…
He set his hand to the delicate planes of her back - and yes, there it was. The telltale quiver of reaction that shivered through her, no matter that she fought to damp it down.
Lips curving in anticipatory delight, he stepped out and swept her into the dance, and reveled in her instant, impossible to conceal response. The way her eyes flared as her gaze snapped to his face. The way her luscious lips parted just a fraction, the way her breath hitched.
From that instant on, her attention was his.
He didn't intend to ever let it go, let it wander.
Capturing her blue eyes, the color of cornflowers under a stormy sky, he whirled her down the floor, focusing on the swoop and sway, the sweeping dance of their senses, feeding the power, ruthlessly heightening the intensity of their effortless, near perfect grace.
If he was an expert on the dance floor, she was a svelte goddess. She matched him - not intentionally but instinctively stepping up to his mark.
Even while, her gaze locked with his, she held fast, denying any and all susceptibility.
Him to her, and her to him.
Like an invisible gauntlet, as they swirled around the floor they tossed intent and defiance back and forth between them, relying not on words but on the sheer power of what both of them could say with their eyes, communicate with their gazes.
All any observer would see was a couple absorbed with the dance, locked in each other's eyes.
No one else could see the tussle - the elemental battle - they waged.
A private war that, he suspected, would very soon advance to a siege.
His inner predator delighted, encouraged and enticed. He hadn't made any conscious decision; that wasn't how he operated. He'd long ago learned that, for him, success in life most frequently came through following his instincts.
That was what he was doing now - his instincts had led him to Mary Cynster, and now he was intent on capturing her.
She would be his, and he knew that outcome would be right. The right outcome to lead him forward, to getting what he wanted and needed from his life.
To making his life into what he wanted it to be.
And that was all he needed to know.
That, and that the battle was his to win. No matter her dismissiveness, his innate talents hadn't failed him. She might not want him now, but she would.
Mary could barely breathe. Her lungs felt tight, constricted, and then Ryder's lips slowly curved, and the intent in his gaze grew only more heated. More definite, more acute, more pronounced.
She couldn't pretend she didn't understand. She didn't waste time attempting to do so; he, damn him, had seen through her shields, if not from the first, then certainly in the moment when she'd glanced at Randolph and had temporarily forgotten that the far larger danger, in every conceivable way, had been standing directly before her.
That instant when Ryder's hand, large and so strong, had touched her silk-clad back-
She cut off the thought, the memory; that alone was enough to make her shiver. Again. And she didn't need to throw the lion whirling her down the floor any further bait.
What she did need to do was to regain control. If she'd learned anything tonight it was that Ryder - for whatever incomprehensible reason - had taken it into his head to hunt her, and he was one of the few within the ton with sufficient wit, talent, and skill to manage her. To inveigle and steer and, most irritating of all to admit, manipulate her-witness this waltz. Just the thought of being managed by anyone made her set her teeth, metaphorically dig in her heels and refuse…but she knew very well that, in this case, the course of wisdom was not to fight but to flee.
Wise ladies never took on more than they could handle-and she couldn't handle Ryder. No lady could.
Worse, an instant's consideration was enough to confirm that there was no sphere in her world in which he wouldn't dominate; he was, she judged, as adept at twisting the social conventions to his advantage as she.
So yes, she needed to run - to put as much space between them as possible and keep him at a distance, at least until he gave up the chase and turned to more willing prey.
Assuming, of course, that he was merely amusing himself in his customary way…
A worrying thought intruded, worming its way into her brain. There was no denying that she - young, unmarried, of extremely good family - didn't in any way match the specifics of his customary partners in dalliance…
She allowed the frown in her mind to manifest in her eyes. The fraught silence they'd maintained - a silence full of pressure and weight, and the tense clash of their characters, of two dominant personalities neither of whom would yield - still held.
Without thinking further, she broke it. "Why are you doing this?" She was perfectly certain she didn't need to be more specific.
A second ticked past, then he arched one tawny brow. "Why do you think?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't ask-and in your case, I wouldn't presume to know your mind."
His lips quirked, then, apparently reluctantly, curved in an appreciative smile. "Very wise."
She opened her mouth to pursue her point - and he drew her closer.
Close enough that the warmth of his body reached her through their clothes; close enough that she - all her senses - were abruptly submerged in a sea of sensation, in the blatant physicality of being surrounded by him, by a male body so much larger and harder, heavier and more muscled, infinitely more powerful than hers.
Alien, so different, and yet so viscerally attractive.
Her lungs seized. Her thoughts scrambled. Her wits whirled faster than her feet.
As he whisked her through the turn-one unexpectedly constrained by the press of couples around them - she lost all ability to breathe. She couldn't even mentally blame him when he urged her closer still, the arm at her back tensing and tucking her protectively against him for that fraction of a second at the point of the curve, his hard thigh parting hers as he swirled them around…
And then they were free, out of the melee, and she fought to get her lungs working again.
The instant she did… "Ryder -"
The music slowed, then ceased. Lips curving, he quirked a brow at her, but very correctly released her and bowed.
Compressing her lips, she curtsied, then let him raise her.
Before she could speak and try to get an answer - any answer - from him, he raised his head, scanning the guests. "Now - where's Rand?" Ryder glanced down at her, a question - utterly mild and almost innocent - in his eyes. "If you're still keen to have me pave your way?"
She stared into his hazel eyes and didn't know what to think. She was suspicious - of course, she was - but…she inclined her head. "Yes, please."
His eyes on hers, he waited, then arched a brow. "And…?"
She knew what he wanted, but let the moment stretch before yielding. "Thank you for the waltz."
He smiled - and that really wasn't fair. His smile was utterly heart-stopping. With a flourish, he offered his arm. As she placed her hand on his sleeve, he dipped his head to hers and softly murmured, "It was entirely my pleasure."
The undiluted sensuality in his tone sent another frisson of awareness streaking down her spine. Fighting the impulse to meet his eyes, she raised her head, breathed in, and looked around. "There's Randolph over there."
Without meeting Ryder's eyes, she tipped her head to where his half-brother stood in a group of other guests, both male and female.
Ryder hesitated for only a second, then, as he'd agreed, escorted her to Randolph's side.
After insinuating Mary into Rand's circle at his brother's side - and earning a suspicious glance from his intended for his pains - Ryder exchanged a few polite words, then retreated. Although he knew all the males - all friends of Rand's - and was distantly acquainted with the young ladies in the group, he was sufficiently older to qualify as of a different generation; other than the young ladies' unwarranted interest in him, there was little real connection either way.
Idly drifting toward the refreshment room, he reviewed the evening's advances and owned himself satisfied with what he'd achieved. Having decided to marry sooner rather than later-later being when the grandes dames decided to take a hand in scripting his life-he'd thought to take advantage of having to attend Henrietta Cynster and James Glossup's engagement ball to further his aim. His eye had alighted on Mary, and instantly appreciating her potential he'd attempted to waylay her with nothing more definite than assessment in mind, only to be summarily dismissed.
That, of course, had been startling enough to focus him more definitely on her, which had resulted in him overhearing her admit that she was embarking on a search for "her hero" - the gentleman she intended to wed. She'd declared she'd already identified the lucky man, but until this evening he hadn't known which gentleman she'd singled out.
Learning that it was Rand she'd set her blue eyes on might have made him pause and step back, allowing his brother to make his own decision, except he knew very well that Rand had no interest in marrying yet-he was only twenty-four. The only reason he attended events such as this was because his mother, Lavinia, Ryder's stepmother, was trying her hand at matchmaking, and Rand was still of an age when he would rather acquiesce to his mother's insistence than face the alternative confrontation. Regardless, Mary and Rand would be a match made in hell, at least for Rand; Mary was far too…independent. Willfully strong. Single-minded, ruthless, and manipulative.
She would tie poor Rand in knots, then set him dancing to her tune.
She would, of course, try to do the same with Ryder, but not only was he more than a match for her he was quite looking forward to that battle. That tussle.
He knew himself well enough to admit that the prospect held significant appeal, along with the related fact that unlike most young ladies or even those more mature, Mary met his eyes constantly. When they conversed, she concentrated on their interaction, person to person, her and him, and as with all she did, her focus was absolute. Her attention didn't waver, nor was she readily distracted. When they spoke, her attention was all his.
His inner self had a great deal in common with the beast he was most frequently compared with; Mary's particular brand of focused attention was like a long stroke to his leonine ego and made his inner lion purr.
Reaching the refreshment table, he lifted a glass of brandy from a tray, sipped, then turned and, over the heads, surveyed her ladyship's guests. He let his gaze linger on Rand and Mary. They stood side by side, both listening, Rand avidly, Mary with barely restrained impatience, to one of Rand's friends who, from his gestures, appeared to be relating some story involving riding.
Even from this distance, Ryder could see that while Rand was absorbed, Mary was disengaged. Well on the way to growing bored.
Which was precisely why he'd left her there, beside Rand, surrounded by the younger set and therefore bereft of stimulating interaction of any stripe. Or, specifically, any interaction that would engage her. All the better as contrast to the waltz immediately before.
Even better, Rand and his friends would find her a trifle overwhelming and would treat her warily - which, more likely than not, would exasperate her.
Smiling, Ryder sipped again; Lady Felsham had provided a decently palatable brandy for her guests.
A stir alongside had him glancing down - into his stepmother's painted face. Brown-haired, dark-eyed, with the remnants of the beauty of her earlier years still visible in her face, now in her mid-forties and growing sadly dumpy, Lavinia, Marchioness of Raventhorne, had little to do with him-as little as he could manage. Moving with calculated slowness, he inclined his head. "Lavinia."
She flicked an irritated gaze up and down his figure, her gaze lingering on the large diamond he wore in his cravat; it had been his father's and was part of the family jewels, none of which she'd been permitted to appropriate after his father's death.
Alongside Lavinia, one of her bosom-bows, Lady Carmody, smiled obsequiously and bobbed a curtsy to which he responded with an abbreviated bow. He'd long ago learned that implacable, icy civility worked most effectively in keeping Lavinia and her cronies at a distance.
"I have to say I'm surprised to discover you here." Lavinia fixed her slightly protuberant eyes on his face, as if searching for some hint of his agenda in his features.
"Really?" Meeting her eyes, Ryder slowly arched his brows. "I thought you knew this is my usual hunting ground. At present, I'm lacking succor, so decided to cast my eye over the herd."
Lavinia blushed. "Really, Ryder! There's no need to be explicit." She waved with exaggerated hauteur. "I'm sure I don't care where you search for your paramours."
Lady Carmody chuckled. When Lavinia and Ryder looked at her, she explained, "Well, Lavinia, the poor boy needs must find lovers somewhere, and I'm sure you would rather he find them here, in this crowd, than at some theater, or so I would think."
Ryder had never previously had reason to like Lady Carmody, but in return for that comment he stepped in to deflect Lavinia's burgeoning ire, about to break in a wave over her ladyship. "I spoke with Rand a little while ago. He's in that group over there." Ryder paused to allow Lavinia to follow the direction of his nod and locate her firstborn. "As to anyone's presence here…am I to take it that the interest that brings Rand here is similar to mine?"
Lavinia literally swelled with indignation. "Don't be silly!" But she continued to examine the group. "Unlike you, Randolph has no interest in dalliance. He's very correctly looking for the right lady with whom to settle down and continue the Cavanaugh line." Lavinia glanced at Ryder. "Someone needs to-it's what your father would have wanted."
Which was undeniably true, but it had been Ryder his father had asked for a promise to marry and continue the line. But rather than inform Lavinia of that, Ryder seized on the contemptuous dismissal in her tone to murmur, "And on that note I believe I'll take my leave." He inclined his head. "Lavinia. Lady Carmody."
Lavinia barely acknowledged him, but Lady Carmody shot him a conspiratorial grin.
Turning away, he set down the brandy glass and moved into the crowd.
Ryder was barely out of earshot when Lavinia gripped Lady Carmody's sleeve. "Look!" Lavinia breathed. "I hardly dared hope, but it appears my oh-so-delicate scheme has borne fruit."
Lady Carmody followed Lavinia's rapt gaze. "Well, well." After a moment of studying the group in which Randolph stood, her ladyship continued, "I have to admit, dear, that I really didn't believe that anyone could influence a chit like Mary Cynster, but there, indeed, she is, chatting quite determinedly to your Randolph."
"Yes!" Lavinia drank in the sight. "I told you - one just has to understand that suggesting anything to the likes of Miss Cynster requires an excessively delicate touch. I've never once spoken to the girl myself, and I made sure none of the messages I seeded said anything specific about Randolph - the entire thrust was to very gently raise her awareness of him." Hauling in a deeply satisfied breath, Lavinia straightened. "And, clearly, my strategy has worked!" She glanced at Lady Carmody and beamed. "Now, I believe, we can leave nature to take its course. Randolph is no fool, and Miss Cynster will quickly discover she will find no better gentleman in the ton."
"Hmm." Lady Carmody was still studying the pair in question. "I assume that you've…ah, seeded the thought that Mary Cynster is the last Cynster girl unwed, and therefore the last chance for any family to secure a connection with her family, into your dear son's head?"
"Of course!" Lavinia linked her arm in Lady Carmody's. "But very gently, you see. Gentlemen of that age are so prickly about taking advice from their mamas, after all. But trust me." With a last glance across the ballroom at Randolph and Mary, Lavinia turned her friend to stroll in the opposite direction. "My seeds are well-planted and all looks set to bloom as it should." Raising her head, Lavinia smiled. "Which, I must say, I find immensely gratifying. I can't wait to inform Ryder once the engagement is made."
"Well, darling, how was your evening?"
Mary glanced at her mother, Louise, seated next to her in the family's town carriage as it rolled sedately over the cobbles, taking them home. "Useful." She grimaced. "But, sadly, nothing more."
Louise smiled, her face lit by a street flare. Reaching out, she patted Mary's wrist. "Don't be in such a rush, darling. Your hero will come for you in good time."
Mary smothered a humph. Glancing down through the gloom, she considered the necklace, specifically the rose quartz pendant that lay nestled between her breasts. Stupid thing. She'd stood beside Randolph for over half an hour and once again…nothing. No real connection of any sort, and all he and his friends had wanted to talk about was horses!
There'd been a dearth of frissons of delicious expectation, and an absolute absence of any tightening of her nerves.
And certainly nothing even remotely like the sensations she'd experienced during that exquisite waltz with Ryder.
But she wasn't so stupid as to imagine that Ryder - he who could so effortlessly evoke said sensations - was her one. He couldn't possibly be; no female deity would ever pair a lady such as she, who valued being in charge so highly, with a nobleman who, beneath his lazy lion pelt, was nothing less than a lordly dictator.
And that Ryder did incite such feelings in her was neither here nor there; he elicited the same feelings in at least half the female population, if not more.
It was simply his way, his gift as it were, an intrinsic part of him he didn't even have to think to use.
"Incidentally, I was speaking with your aunts about the final arrangements for the wedding. Amazingly, everything seems to be falling into place perfectly, sufficiently so that the others and I have decided that a few days of peace in the country would be an excellent tonic to set us up to weather the stresses of the big day." Head back on the squabs, Louise continued, "We've decided to seize this moment of relative calm, so we'll be leaving for Somersham tomorrow and will return three days later. Just enough time to refresh ourselves."
Turning her head, Louise studied Mary. "You are, of course, welcome to come, but it is the height of the Season and your married sisters and sister-in-law are in town, so if you wish to stay…?"
Mary frowned. She hadn't got anywhere with Randolph yet. She wasn't ready to even contemplate that she might be wrong and he might not be her one-perhaps she needed to spend time with him alone, or at least not in a group? "I'd rather stay." She shifted to face Louise. "And Amanda and Amelia, and Portia, too, attend all the balls I would wish to go to."
Louise nodded. "I'll send all three notes when we reach home. Provided they're willing to act as chaperons, I see no reason you can't remain and attend all the balls on our calendar."
"Good." Facing forward again, Mary turned her mind to evaluating the sort of situations into which she could draw Randolph Cavanaugh in order to reveal his hero-like nature. His true nature with respect to her.