June 1, 1829
Cavendish House, London
"Oh. My. God." Angelica Rosalind Cynster, standing to one side of Lady Cavendish's salon with the bulk of her ladyship's chattering guests at her back, stared at the long windows giving onto the unlit terrace and the dark gardens beyond, at the reflection of the gentleman who was staring at her from the opposite side of the room.
She'd first felt his disconcerting gaze some thirty minutes before; he'd watched her waltz, watched her laugh and chat with others, but no matter how discreetly she'd looked for him, he'd refused to show himself. Irritated, with the musicians resting she'd worked her way around the room, moving from group to group, exchanging greetings and comments, smoothly shifting until she had him in her sights.
Eyes wide, barely daring to believe, she whispered, "It's him!"
Her ill-suppressed excitement drew a glance from her cousin, Henrietta, presently standing beside her. Angelica shook her head, and someone in the group to the side of which she stood reclaimed Henrietta's attention, leaving Angelica with her gaze locked on the most riveting man she'd ever beheld.
She considered herself an expert in the art of assessing gentlemen. From her earliest years she'd been aware of them as "other," and years of observation had left her with a sound understanding of their features and foibles. When it came to gentlemen, she had very high standards.
Visually, the gentleman across the room trumped every one.
He was standing with six others, all of whom she could name, but she didn't know him. She'd never met him, had never even set eyes on him before. If she had, she'd have known, as she now did, that he was her one, the gentleman she had been waiting to meet.
She'd always been unshakably convinced that she would know her hero, the gentleman fated to be her husband, the instant she saw him. She hadn't expected that first sighting to be via a reflection across a crowded room, but the result was the same-she knew it was him.
The talisman The Lady, a Scottish deity, had gifted to the Cynster girls to assist them in finding their true loves had passed from Angelica's eldest sister, Heather, to her middle sister Eliza, who on her recent return to London with her new fiancé had handed the necklace to Angelica, the next in line. Composed of old gold links and amethyst beads from which a rose-quartz pendant hung, ancient and mysterious the talisman now lay beneath Angelica's fichu, the links and beads against her skin, the crystal pendant nestling in her décolletage.
Three nights ago, deeming her time, her turn, had come, armed with the necklace, her instincts, and her innate determination, she had embarked on an intensive campaign to find her hero. She'd come to the Cavendish soirée, at which a select slice of the upper echelon of the ton had gathered to mingle and converse, intent on examining any and all prospective males Lady Cavendish, a lady with an extensive circle of acquaintance, had inveigled to attend.
The talisman had worked for Heather, now engaged to Breckenridge, and had brought Eliza and Jeremy Carling together; Angelica had hoped that it would help her, too, but hadn't expected such a rapid result.
Regardless, now she had her hero in sight, she wasn't inclined to waste another minute.
He hadn't noticed, from his position on the opposite side of the room possibly couldn't see, that she was studying him. Her gaze locked on his reflection, she visually devoured him.
He was stunningly impressive, towering half a head taller than the men around him, none of whom were short. Elegantly attired in a black evening coat, pristine white shirt and cravat, and black trousers, everything about him from the breadth of his shoulders to the length of his long legs seemed in perfect proportion to his height.
His hair appeared solidly black, straight, rather long, but fashionably styled with windblown, slightly ruffled locks. She tried to study his features, but the reflection defeated her; she couldn't make out any details beyond the sharply defined, austere planes of his face. Nevertheless, his broad forehead, bladelike nose, and squared chin stamped him as the scion of some aristocratic house; only they possessed such hard, chiseled, coldly beautiful faces.
Her heart was thumping distinctly faster. In anticipation.
Now she'd found him, what next?
If it had been in any way acceptable, she would have swung on her heel, marched across the room and introduced herself, but that would be too forward, even for her. Yet if after thirty and more minutes of watching her, he hadn't made any move to approach her, then he wasn't going to, at least not there, not that night.
Which didn't suit her at all.
Shifting her gaze, she scanned the gentlemen in the loose circle in which he stood. He'd been listening to the conversations, but rarely contributing, merely using the interaction to cloak his interest in her.
Even as she looked, one of the other men saluted the group and moved away.
Angelica smiled. Without a word, she quit Henrietta's side and glided into the crowd thronging the salon's center.
She caught the Honorable Theodore Curtis's sleeve just before he joined a group of young ladies and gentlemen. He looked around, and smiled. "Angelica! Where have you been hiding?"
She waved to the windows. "Over there. Theo, who is that gentleman in the group you just left? The very tall man I've never met."
Theo, a friend of her family who knew her far too well to entertain thoughts of her himself, chuckled. "I told him it wouldn't be long before the young ladies noticed him and came swanning around."
Angelica played the game and pouted. "Don't tease. Him who?"
Theo grinned. "Debenham. He's Viscount Debenham."
"Who is?" She gestured for more.
"A capital fellow. I've known him for years--same age as me, came on the town at the same time, similar interests, you know how it goes. His estate's somewhere near Peterborough, but he's been away from the ton for…must be four years. Left because of family and estate business, and has only just returned to the drawing rooms and ballrooms."
"Hmm. So there's no reason you shouldn't introduce him to me."
Still grinning, Theo shrugged. "If you like."
"I would." Angelica took his arm and turned him to where her hero, Debenham, still stood. "I promise to return the favor next time you want to steal a march with some new sweet young thing."
Theo laughed. "I'll hold you to that." Anchoring her hand on his arm, he led her through the crowd.
While they tacked past various groups, nodding and smiling, pausing only when they couldn't avoid it, Angelica conducted a rapid inventory of her appearance, checking that her pale teal silk gown was hanging straight, that the lacy fichu that partially filled in the scooped neckline was sitting properly and adequately concealing the necklace. At one point, she paused to re-drape her teal-and-silver silk shawl more elegantly over her elbows; she'd elected to make do without a reticule or fan, so she didn't have those to fuss over.
Her hair she didn't dare touch. The slithering red-gold tresses were swept up in a complicated knot on the top of her head, anchored by innumerable pins and a pearl-encrusted comb; from experience she knew that even a little jiggling could bring the entire mass cascading down. While no gentleman had ever minded her transformation to a clothed version of Venus rising from the waves, that wasn't how she wished to appear before her hero for the first time.
He knew she was coming; she caught a glimpse of his face through the crowd. His gaze still rested on her, but even though she was now closer, she couldn't read anything in his expression.
Then Theo pushed past the last pair of shoulders, drew her to the group, and presented her with a flourish. "Heigh-ho! See who I found."
"Miss Cynster!" came from several throats in tones of pleased surprise.
"I say, delightful fashionable ladies always welcome, don't you know." Millingham swept her a bow, as did all the other men in the group, bar one.
After acknowledging the greetings, Angelica turned to Debenham; Theo had helpfully inserted her into the group by Debenham's side. She raised her gaze to his face, eager to see, to study, to know…
From her other side Theo said, "Debenham, old son, allow me to introduce the Honorable Angelica Cynster. Miss Cynster-Viscount Debenham."
Angelica barely registered the words, captured by, trapped in, a pair of large, well-set, heavy-lidded eyes of a stormy, pale-greenish-gray. Those eyes held her entranced; the expression, not in them so much as behind them, spoke of shrewdness, assessment, and cool, clear-headed cynicism.
Her hero was still watching her, coolly studying, examining, and assessing her, and she couldn't tell whether he was impressed with what he saw or not.
That last snapped her back to the moment. Lips curving lightly, her eyes still on his, she inclined her head. "I don't believe we've previously met, my lord." She extended her hand.
His lips barely relaxing from their noncommittally straight line, he raised a hand from where both rested, folded over the silver head of a cane-something she hadn't seen from across the room-and clasped her fingers.
His grip was cool, yet not impersonal, too definite, too firm to shrug off as the usual. She inwardly wobbled, some inner axis tilting as, still locked in his eyes, she absorbed the unexpected sensation-and the subtle but undeniable impression that he was in two minds over letting her go. Lungs suddenly tight, she curtsied.
Those disconcerting eyes remained on hers as he bowed with a fluid grace unimpaired by the cane. "Miss Cynster. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
His voice was so deep his tones sank into her and wrapped sensuous fingers around her spine.
Combining with the effect of the cool fingers still clasping hers, that voice sent warmth sliding beneath her skin, set sultry heat unfurling in her belly. Close to, her hero was a sensual force, as if he exuded some elemental male temptation that was directed at her and her alone…
Good Lord. She quashed an impulse to fan her face. She was tempted to give thanks to The Lady there and then, but instead corralled her wits and retrieved her hand, sliding her fingers from between his. He allowed it--but she was intensely aware that he'd made the decision. Certain alarms rang in her head, but she would be damned if she acknowledged, even to herself, that she might be out of her depth with him; he was her hero, ergo she could go forward with confidence. Drawing in a tight breath, she said, "I understand you've only recently returned to London, my lord."
As she spoke, she turned toward him, away from the group, compelling him to reciprocate; the adjustment left them still attached to the group, but able to converse more privately, leaving the others to their own amusements. Theo took the hint and stepped in to ask Millingham about his newly acquired acres.
Debenham, meanwhile, continued to look down at her, his heavy lids and lush black lashes largely veiling his gaze. After a fractional pause, he replied, "I returned a week ago. Debenham Hall is no further than Cambridgeshire, but business has kept me away from the ton for some years."
Tilting her head, she openly studied his face, and let the questions that were crowding her tongue--impertinent and unaskable--show in her eyes…
His lips curved-not a real smile but an unequivocal sign of understanding. "I've been managing my acres. I take the responsibilities that are mine very seriously."
Despite the lightness in expression and drawling tone, she felt certain he was speaking the absolute truth. "Am I to assume that your estates are now prospering sufficiently that you no longer feel the need to monitor them constantly, and so have returned to the diversions of town?"
Again he considered her, as if his strange eyes could see straight through her confident, sophisticated social mask. Devil Cynster, Angelica's cousin, and his mother, Helena, both had pale green eyes, and they, too, had penetrating gazes. Debenham's eyes were paler, more changeable, more gray mixed in with the pale green, and for Angelica's money, his gaze was even more incisive.
"You might say that," he eventually conceded, "but the unvarnished truth is that I've returned to London for the same purpose that drives most gentlemen of my age and class to haunt the ton's ballrooms."
She opened her eyes wide. "You're looking for a wife?" It was utterly shocking of her to ask, but she absolutely had to know.
His lips curved again, a touch deeper this time. "Indeed." His gaze held hers. "As I said, the most common reason of all for returning to the capital and the ton."
Because of the press of bodies, they were standing only inches apart; due to his height and her lack of it, she was looking up into his face, and he was looking down, into hers. Despite the proximity of the other men, their stance was peculiarly close, private…almost intimate.
His largeness, the sheer power of his body, albeit disguised in elegant evening clothes, impinged on her senses; a tempting warmth, his nearness reached for her, wrapped insidiously around her, tempting her closer yet.
The longer she stared into his eyes…
"Angelica--I thought I spotted you through the crush."
She blinked and turned to see Millicent Attenwell smiling at her from across the group, as Millicent's sister, Claire, insinuated herself on Debenham's other side.
"I declare, even though it's June these events are still unmitigated crushes, don't you think?" Claire angled an inquiring gaze upward at Debenham, then smiled coyly. "I don't believe we've met, sir."
Theo glanced at Angelica, then stepped into the breach. He introduced Millicent and Claire, then had to perform the same service for Julia Quigley and Serena Mills, who, seeing the Attenwell girls had found a devastatingly handsome new gentleman, hurried to join the expanding circle.
Although not pleased with the interruption, Angelica seized the moment to cool her overheating senses and reclaim her wits, suborned by Debenham's too-handsome face, mesmerizing eyes, and disconcertingly tempting body--a novel occurrence for her.
She'd never suffered such an enthrallment before. She'd certainly never got lost in a man's eyes before.
Admittedly, he was her hero, which presumably explained his marked effect on her. Nevertheless, that he could so effortlessly capture her senses and steal away her wits left her wary.
Millicent, Claire, Julia, and Serena had claimed the conversation, animatedly performing, their bright gazes flicking again and again to Debenham, clearly hoping to engage him, yet while he paid polite attention, he made no response.
Angelica slanted a glance at his face. The instant she did, he looked down and their gazes touched…locked.
A heartbeat passed.
She caught her breath and looked away--at Julia, presently relating some thrilling story.
Debenham's gaze lingered on her face for a moment more, then he, too, looked at Julia--and shifted fractionally closer to Angelica.
Her heart leapt, then thumped heavily.
He felt it, too. He was as intrigued by the link between them as she was.
Well and good. Now how to capitalize, how to gain them an opportunity in which to explore further?
A hidden violinist tested his strings.
"At last!" Millicent all but jigged. "The dancing's starting again." Her shining eyes shamelessly implored Debenham to ask her to dance.
Before Angelica could react, he brought his cane forward and leaned more heavily on it.
Millicent saw, realized she shouldn't force him to explain an injury that prevented him from dancing; enthusiasm undimmed, she turned her encouraging gaze on Millingham.
Who accepted the cue and solicited her hand.
The other gentlemen stepped up to do their duty by asking the ladies beside them to dance; accepting that Debenham wouldn't be swirling about the space clearing in the salon's center, Claire, Julia, and Serena accepted with alacrity, and the group dispersed.
Leaving Angelica standing between Debenham and Theo, and facing Giles Ribbenthorpe. Theo met her eyes, smiled and saluted her, nodded to Debenham and Ribbenthorpe, and moved away into the crowd.
Ribbenthorpe, who could read the signs as well as any man, nevertheless arched a brow at her and, lips curving, inquired, "Will you dance, Miss Cynster?"
"Thank you for the invitation, Ribbenthorpe, but I believe I'll stand out from this set. However, Lady Cavendish will be thrilled to see you on her floor and Jennifer Selkirk"--she tipped her head toward a young brunette standing alongside her dragon of a mother--"could do with rescuing. I suggest you play St. George."
Ribbenthorpe turned to survey the Selkirks, then laughed, bowed and, still smiling, walked off. Angelica was pleased that he acted on her suggestion and drew Jennifer onto the floor.
Finally alone with Debenham, she dropped all pretence of acceptable social distance and pointedly directed her gaze at his cane.
He hesitated, but then obliged. "An old injury from before I first came to town. I can walk, but can't risk dancing--my knee might well collapse under me."
Raising her head, she studied his face. "So you've never waltzed?" She loved to waltz, but if he was her hero…
"Not never. I was old enough to have learned and indulged at country balls prior to the accident, but I haven't waltzed since."
"I see." Leaving that disappointment aside, she turned to more immediate concerns. "So if you haven't been circling the floors at Almack's or anywhere else, what avenues have you been pursuing in your quest to find your bride? You're not easy to overlook--given that I, and Millicent and company, too, were unaware of your existence until this evening, I would own myself surprised if you'd attended any of the major events this past week."
His eyes again held hers, as if gauging what would be acceptable to tell her.
She tipped up her chin. "Don't tell me--you've been haunting some gaming hell, or carousing with friends."
His lips curved in wry amusement. "Sadly, no. If you must know, I spent several days organizing to have some rooms in my London house refurbished, after which my first social forays were, unsurprisingly, into the clubs. Given I've been absent from town for so long, it was…unexpected, but gratifying to find so many still remember me." He paused, then added, "Then Lady Cavendish's invitation arrived, and I thought it time to test the waters."
"So I've caught you at your first ton event."
"Indeed." He heard her satisfaction. His eyes searched her face.
"Why are you preening?"
"Because, in ton parlance, that means I've stolen a march on all the other young, and not-so-young, ladies."
He looked down at her as if inwardly shaking his head. "As much as I find your candor refreshing, are you always this forthright?"
"Generally, yes. Creating unnecessary complications through overnice adherence to the social strictures has always struck me as a waste of time."
"Is that so? Then perhaps you'll tell me-in all candor and without any overnice adherence to the social strictures--why you inveigled Curtis to introduce us."
She opened her eyes wide. "You were hunting me."
He held her gaze. "So?"
She'd expected him to deny it; the look in his eyes, an expression she associated with an intent and focused predator, made her breath tangle in her throat, but she evenly replied, "So now I'm hunting you."
"Ah. I see. That must be some new twist in the customary matchmaking dance." He glanced briefly around, then returned his gaze to her face. "Although I confess I haven't noticed any other young ladies being quite so bold."
She arched her brows. "They're not me."
"Clearly." He looked into her eyes for a moment more, then said, "So tell me about Angelica Cynster."
His voice had lowered; along with his changeable, mesmerizing eyes, it lured her on, as if reeling her in. She decided it wouldn't hurt to let him think he was succeeding. "Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm twenty-one going on twenty-five, and am commonly held to be the most confident, stubborn, and willful of all the Cynster girls, and none of us could be described as wilting flowers."
"You sound like a handful."
She arched a challenging brow at him and didn't deny it.
The musicians launched into a second waltz. He hesitated, then said, "If you would like to dance, please don't feel obliged-"
"I don't want to dance." She glanced around. The attention of all those not waltzing was focused on the dance floor, on the couples now whirling. "Actually…" She looked up and caught his gaze. "I'm finding it rather warm in here. Perhaps we might stroll on the terrace and get some air."
He hesitated; again she got the impression that he was inwardly shaking his head at her, and not in an approving way. However… "If that's what you wish, by all means." Gracefully, he offered her his arm.
She put her hand on his sleeve, felt steel beneath the fabric, and smiled delightedly, as much at herself as at him. Her pursuit of her hero was underway.
His cane in his other hand, he very correctly escorted her to the open French doors that gave access to the terrace and the gardens beyond. Stepping over the threshold onto the terrace flags, she breathed in, savoring the near-balmy night. A wafting breeze caressed her nape, her throat.
The Cavendish House gardens were old, the trees large and mature, their thick canopies shading the steps at either end of the long terrace and deepening the general darkness of the night. She looked around, noted several other couples strolling in the faint light of the quarter moon, and steered Debenham in the opposite direction.
He noticed; although he obliged, when she glanced up, into his eyes, despite the shadows she sensed his disapproval, underscored by the set of his chiseled lips.
She widened her eyes. "What?"
"Are you always this…for want of a better term, forward?"
She tried to look offended, but her lips wouldn't oblige. Regardless of any disapproval, he'd fallen in with her suggestion; they were slowly strolling further down the terrace that ran the full length of the salon. "I realize that gentlemen like to lead, but I'm impatient by nature, and also direct. I want to get to know you better, and you want to get to know me, and that requires being able to converse in private, so"--she waved at the expanse of deserted terrace before them--"here we are."
"We've only just been introduced, and you've engineered a private interlude." His tone held more resignation than complaint.
"I see no point in wasting time, and"--she glanced pointedly at the salon's wide windows--"trust me, there's nothing the least illicit about this. We're in plain sight of the entire room."
"All the occupants of which are facing the dance floor." He shook his head. "You're as bold as brass." His gaze rose to her hair. "Just like your curls. Your brothers have my sympathies. You have two of them, I believe."
"Indeed. Rupert and Alasdair--or Gabriel and Lucifer, depending on whether you're within hearing of our mother or aunts."
"I'm surprised neither of them is here, lurking in the shadows, ready to step in and ride rein on you."
"I grant you they would try were they here, however, happily, these days they have better things to do--wives to attend, children to dote over."
"Nevertheless, you strike me as the sort of mettlesome female who requires a permanent keeper."
"Strange though you may think it, not many would agree with you. I'm generally held to be remarkably sane and thoroughly practical-not the sort of female any perspicacious gentleman would attempt to take advantage of."
"Ah--so that's why no one seems to be keeping any close eye on you."
"Indeed. It's an outcome of being viewed as twenty-five, rather than twenty-one."
He glanced back along the terrace; she did, too, noting the two other couples still strolling near the door.
When she looked back at him, he said, "You said you wanted to talk. About what?"
She studied his face, taking in the telltale features, the clean, strong lines that unequivocally placed him in her social class. "I'm puzzled that I can't place you, that I can't recall ever having seen you. When were you last in London? Theo thought it was four years ago."
"It was five. I first came to town in '20, and the last time I graced London's ballrooms was in June of '24. I've visited the city on business over the intervening years, but had no time for socializing."
"Well, that explains it-I wasn't presented until '25. But perhaps you remember my sisters?"
He nodded. "Yes, I remember them, but in those days I wasn't interested in young ladies. I spent more time avoiding them than chatting with them, and I don't believe I ever spoke with your sisters. We were never introduced."
"Hmm…so your return to the ballrooms in search of young ladies is something of a novel endeavor for you."
"You might say that. But tell me, what of you?"
They'd reached the end of the terrace; halting at the top of the steps leading down to a gravel path, she glanced out into the gloom of the garden. The light thrown by the salon's windows ended several yards back; the spot where they now stood was enveloped in dense shadows cast by nearby trees.
Drawing her hand from his sleeve and turning to face him, putting her back to the garden, she met his gaze and arched a brow. "What do you want to know?"
"You're clearly very much at home in this sphere. Do you spend all your time in London?"
Looking into his shadowed face, she smiled. "As a Cynster, I've been a part of the ton for all my life, so it's hardly surprising that I'm at home within its circles. That said, I spend only the months of the Season in town, and perhaps a month during the Little Season. For the rest of the year I'm in the country, either in Somerset, where I was born, or visiting family and friends."
"Do you prefer the country, or town?"
She paused to think.
He glanced back along the terrace.
Idly following his gaze, she saw the last of the other strolling couples returning inside.
Then he looked at her again, and she refocused on his eyes. "Whether I prefer town or country is not easy to answer. I enjoy being in town with all the associated amusements and entertainments, but if, in the country, I had other things to occupy my time, my energies--other challenges to satisfy me--then I suspect I could be entirely content remaining far from London."
He looked into her eyes for a long moment, then glanced down and propped his cane against the balustrade. "I have to admit"--straightening, he met her gaze--"that that's something of a relief."
"A relief?" She wanted to know, so she asked. "Why?"
He looked into her eyes, and she looked into his. Time seemed, oddly, unexpectedly, to suspend, to thin and stretch. Slowly, gradually, puzzlement rose and grew; she let it show in her eyes.
"My apologies." The words fell from his lips, soft and low, so deep they were almost a caress.
She frowned. "What for?"