Wadham Gardens, London
Heather Cynster knew her latest plan to find a suitable husband was doomed the instant she set foot in Lady Herford's salon.
In a distant corner, a dark head, perfectly coiffed in the latest rakish style, rose. A pair of sharp hazel eyes pinned her where she stood.
"Damn!" Keeping a smile firmly fixed over her involuntarily clenching teeth, as if she hadn't noticed the most startlingly handsome man in the room staring so intently at her she let her gaze drift on.
Breckenridge was hemmed in by not one but three dashing ladies, all patently vying for his attention. She sincerely wished them every success, and prayed he'd take the sensible course and pretend he hadn't seen her.
She was certainly going to pretend that she hadn't seen him.
Refocusing on the surprisingly large crowd Lady Herford had enticed to her soiree, Heather determinedly banished Breckenridge from her mind and considered her prospects.
Most of the guests were older than she-all the ladies at least. Some she recognized, others she did not, but it would be surprising if any other lady present wasn't married. Or widowed. Or more definitively on the shelf than Heather. Soirees of the style of Lady Herford's were primarily the province of the well-bred but bored matrons, those in search of more convivial company than that provided by their usually much older, more sedate husbands. Such ladies might not be precisely fast, yet neither were they innocent. However, as by common accord said ladies had already presented their husbands with an heir, if not two, the majority had more years in their dish than Heather's twenty-five.
From her brief, initial, assessing sweep, she concluded that most of the gentlemen present were, encouragingly, older than she. Most were in their thirties, and by their style - fashionable, well-turned out, expensively garbed, and thoroughly polished - she'd chosen well in making Lady Herford's soiree her first port of call on this, her first expedition outside the rarefied confines of the ballrooms, drawing rooms, and dining rooms of the upper echelon of the ton.
For years she'd searched through those more refined reception rooms for her hero - the man who would sweep her off her feet and into wedded bliss - only to conclude that he didn't move in such circles. Many gentlemen of the ton, although perfectly eligible in every way, preferred to steer well clear of all the sweet young things, the young ladies paraded on the marriage mart. Instead, they spent their evenings at events such as Lady Herford's, and their nights in various pursuits - gaming and womanizing to name but two.
Her hero - she had to believe he existed somewhere - was most likely a member of that more elusive group of males. Given he was therefore unlikely to come to her, she'd decided - after lengthy and animated discussions with her sisters, Elizabeth and Angelica - that it behooved her to come to him.
To locate him and, if necessary, hunt him down.
Smiling amiably, she descended the shallow steps to the floor of the salon. Lady Herford's villa was a recently built, quite luxurious dwelling located to the north of Primrose Hill - close enough to Mayfair to be easily reached by carriage, a pertinent consideration given Heather had had to come alone. She would have preferred to attend with someone to bear her company, but her sister Eliza, just a year younger and similarly disgusted with the lack of hero-material within their restricted circle, was her most likely co-conspirator and they couldn't both develop a headache on the same evening without their mama seeing through the ploy. Eliza, therefore, was presently gracing Lady Montague's ballroom, while Heather was supposedly laid upon her bed, safe and snug in Dover Street.
Giving every appearance of calm confidence, she glided into the crowd. She'd attracted considerable attention; although she pretended obliviousness, she could feel the assessing glances dwelling on the sleek, amber silk gown that clung lovingly to her curves. This particular creation sported a sweetheart neckline and tiny puffed sleeves; as the evening was unseasonably mild and her carriage stood outside, she'd elected to carry only a fine topaz-and-amber Norwich silk shawl, its fringe draping over her bare arms and flirting over the silk of the gown. Her advanced age allowed her greater freedom to wear gowns that, while definitely not as revealing as some others she could see, nevertheless drew male eyes.
One gentleman, suitably drawn and a touch bolder than his fellows, broke from the circle surrounding two ladies, and languidly stepped into her path.
Halting, she haughtily arched a brow.
He smiled and bowed, fluidly graceful. "Miss Cynster, I believe?"
"Indeed, sir. And you are?"
"Miles Furlough, my dear." His eyes met hers as he straightened. "Is this your first time here?"
"Yes." She glanced around, determinedly projecting confident assurance. She intended to pick her man, not allow him or any other to pick her. "The company appears quite animated." The noise of untold conversations was steadily rising. Returning her gaze to Miles Furlough, she asked, "Are her ladyship's gatherings customarily so lively?"
Furlough's lips curved in a smile Heather wasn't sure she liked.
"I think you'll discover-" Furlough broke off, his gaze going past her.
She had an instant's warning - a primitive prickling over her nape - then long steely fingers closed about her elbow.
Heat washed over her, emanating from the contact, supplanted almost instantly by a disorientating giddiness. She caught her breath. She didn't need to look to know that Timothy Danvers, Viscount Breckenridge - her nemesis - had elected not to be sensible.
"Furlough." The deep voice issuing from above her head and to the side had its usual, disconcerting effect.
Ignoring the frisson of awareness streaking down her spine - a susceptibility she positively despised - she slowly turned her head and directed a reined glare at its cause. "Breckenridge."
There was nothing in her tone to suggest she welcomed his arrival-quite the opposite.
He ignored her attempt to depress his pretensions; indeed, she wasn't even sure he registered it. His gaze hadn't shifted from Furlough.
"If you'll excuse us, old man, there's a matter I need to discuss with Miss Cynster." Breckenridge held Furlough's gaze. "I'm sure you understand."
Furlough's expression suggested he did, yet wished that he didn't feel obliged to give way. But in this milieu, Breckenridge - the hostesses' and the ladies' darling - was well nigh impossible to gainsay. Reluctantly, Furlough inclined his head. "Of course."
Shifting his gaze to Heather, Furlough smiled - more sincerely, a tad ruefully. "Miss Cynster. Would we had met in less crowded surrounds. Perhaps next time." With a parting nod, he sauntered off into the crowd.
Heather let free an exasperated huff. But before she could even gather her arguments and turn them on Breckenridge, he tightened his grip on her elbow and started propelling her through the crowd.
Startled, she tried to halt. "What-"
"If you have the slightest sense of self-preservation you will walk to the front door without any fuss."
He was steering her, surreptitiously pushing her, in that direction, and it wasn't all that far. "Let. Me. Go." She uttered the command, low and delivered with considerable feeling, through clenched teeth.
He urged her up the salon steps. Used the moment when she was on the step above him to bend his head and breathe in her ear, "What the devil are you doing here?"
His clenched teeth trumped her clenched teeth. The words, his tone, slid through her, evoking - as he'd no doubt intended - a nebulous, purely instinctive fear.
By the time she shook free of it, he was smoothly, apparently unhurriedly, steering her through the guests thronging the foyer.
"No - don't bother answering." He didn't look down; he had the open front door in his sights. "I don't care what ninnyhammerish notion you've taken into your head. You're leaving. Now."
Hale, whole, virgin intacta. Breckenridge only just bit back the words.
"There is no reason whatever for you to interfere." Her voice vibrated with barely suppressed fury.
He recognized her mood well enough - her customary one whenever he was near. Normally he would respond by giving her a wide berth, but here and now he had no choice. "Do you have any idea what your cousins would do to me-let alone your brothers-if they discovered I'd seen you in this den of iniquity and turned a blind eye?"
She snorted and tried, surreptitiously but unsuccessfully, to free her elbow. "You're as large as any of them - and demonstrably just as much of a bully. You could see them off."
"One, perhaps, but all six? I think not. Let alone Luc and Martin, and Gyles Chillingworth - and what about Michael? No, wait - what about Caro, and your aunts, andthe list goes on. Flaying would be preferable-much less pain."
"You're overreacting. Lady Herford's house hardly qualifies as a den of iniquity." She glanced back. "There's nothing the least objectionable going on in that salon."
"Not in the salon, perhaps - at least, not yet. But you didn't go further into the house - trust me, a den of iniquity it most definitely is."
"No." Reaching the front porch - thankfully deserted - he halted, released her, and finally let himself look down at her. Let himself look into her face, a perfect oval hosting delicate features and a pair of stormy gray-blue eyes lushly fringed with dark brown lashes. Despite those eyes having turned hard and flinty, even though her luscious lips were presently compressed into a thin line, that face was the sort that had launched armadas and incited wars since the dawn of time. It was a face full of life. Full of sensual promise and barely restrained vitality.
And that was before adding the effect of a slender figure, sleek rather than curvaceous, yet invested with such fluid grace that her every movement evoked thoughts that, at least in his case, were better left unexplored.
The only reason she hadn't been mobbed in the salon was because none but Furlough had shaken free of the arrestation the first sight of her generally caused quickly enough to get to her before he had.
He felt his face harden, fought not to clench his fists and tower over her in a sure-to-be-vain attempt to intimidate her. "You're going home, and that's all there is to it."
Her eyes narrowed to shards. "If you try to force me, I'll scream."
He lost the battle; his fists clenched at his sides. Holding her gaze, he evenly stated, "If you do, I'll tap you under that pretty little chin, knock you unconscious, tell everyone you fainted, toss you in a carriage, and send you home."
Her eyes widened. She considered him, but didn't back down. "You wouldn't."
He didn't blink. "Try me."
Heather inwardly dithered. This was the trouble with Breckenridge - one simply couldn't tell what he was thinking. His face, that of a Greek god, all clean planes and sharp angles, lean cheeks below high cheekbones and a strong, square jaw, remained aristocratically impassive and utterly unreadable no matter what was going through his mind. Not even his heavy-lidded hazel eyes gave any clue; his expression was perennially that of an elegantly rakish gentleman who cared for little beyond his immediate pleasure.
Every element of his appearance, from his exquisitely understated attire, the severe cut of his clothes making the lean strength they concealed only more apparent, to the languid drawl he habitually affected, supported that image - one she was fairly certain was a comprehensive faade.
She searched his eyes - and detected not the smallest sign that he wouldn't do precisely as he said. Which would be simply too embarrassing.
"How did you get here?"
Reluctantly, she waved at the line of carriages stretching along the curving pavement of Wadham Gardens as far as they could see. "My parents' carriage - and before you lecture me on the impropriety of traveling across London alone at night, both the coachman and groom have been with my family for decades."
Tight lipped, he nodded. "I'll walk you to it."
He reached for her elbow again.
She whisked back. "Don't bother." Frustration erupted; she felt sure he would inform her brothers that he'd found her at Lady Herford's, which would spell an end to her plan - one which, until he'd interfered, had held real promise. She gave vent to her temper with an infuriated glare. "I can walk twenty yards by myself."
Even to her ears her words sounded petulant. In reaction, she capped them with, "Just leave me alone!"
Lifting her chin, she swung on her heel and marched down the steps. Head determinedly high, she turned right along the pavement toward where her parents' town carriage waited in the line.
Inside she was shaking. She felt childish and furious-and helpless. Just as she always felt when she and Breckenridge crossed swords.
Blinking back tears of stifled rage, knowing he was watching, she stiffened her spine and marched steadily on.
From the shadows of Lady Herford's front porch, Breckenridge watched the bane of his life stalk back to safety. Why of all the ladies in the ton it had to be Heather Cynster who so tied him in knots he didn't know; what he did know was that there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it. She was twenty-five, and he was ten years and a million nights older; he was certain she viewed him at best as an interfering much older cousin, at worst as an interfering uncle.
"Wonderful," he muttered as he watched her stride fearlessly along. Once he saw her safely awayhe was going to walk home. The night air might clear his head of the distraction, of the unsettled, restless feeling dealing with her always left him prey to - a sense of loneliness, and emptiness, and time slipping away.
Of life - his life - being somehow worthless, or rather, worth less-less than it should.
He didn't, truly didn't, want to think about her. There were ladies among the crowd inside who would fight to provide him with diversion, but he'd long ago learned the value of their smiles, their pleasured sighs.
Fleeting, meaningless, illusory connections.
Increasingly they left him feeling cheapened, used. Unfulfilled.
He watched the moonlight glint in Heather's wheat gold hair. He'd first met her four years ago at the wedding of his biological stepmother Caroline to Michael Anstruther-Wetherby, brother of Honoria, Duchess of St. Ives and queen of the Cynster clan. Honoria's husband, Devil Cynster, was Heather's oldest cousin.
Although Breckenridge had first met Heather on that day in sunny Hampshire, he'd known the male Cynster cousins for more than a decade - they moved in the same circles, and before the cousins had married, had shared much the same interests.
A carriage to the left of the house pulled out of the line. Breckenridge glanced that way, saw the coachman set his horses plodding, then looked right again to where Heather was still gliding along.
"Twenty yards, my arse." More like fifty. "Where the damn hell is her carriage?"
The words had barely left his lips when the other carriage, a traveling coach, drew level with Heather.
The coach's door swung open and a man shot out. Another leapt down from beside the driver.
Before Breckenridge could haul in a breath, the pair had slipped past the carriages lining the pavement and grabbed Heather. Smothering her shocked cry, they hoisted her up, carried her to the coach, and bundled her inside.
"Hey!" Breckenridge's shout was echoed by a coachman a few carriages down the line.
But the pair of men were already tumbling through the coach door as the coachman whipped up his horses.
Breckenridge was down the steps and racing along the pavement before he'd even formed the thought of giving chase.
The traveling coach disappeared around the curve of the crescent that was Wadham Gardens. From the rattle of the wheels, the coach turned right up the first connecting street.
Reaching the carriage on the box of which the coachman who'd yelled sat stunned and staring after the kidnappers' coach, Breckenridge climbed up and grabbed the reins. "Let me. I'm a friend of the family. We're going after her."
The coachman swallowed his surprise and released the reins.
Breckenridge swiftly tacked and, cursing at the tightness, swung the town carriage into the road. The instant the conveyance was free of the line, he whipped up the horses. "Keep your eyes peeled-I have no idea which way they might go."
"Aye, sir - my lord."
Briefly meeting the coachman's sideways glance, Breckenridge stated, "Viscount Breckenridge. I know Devil and Gabriel." And the others, but those names would do.
The coachman nodded. "Aye, my lord." Turning, he called back to the groom, hanging on behind. "James - you watch left and I'll watch right. If we miss seeing them, you'll need to hop down at the next corner and look."
Breckenridge concentrated on the horses. Luckily there was little other traffic. He made the turn into the same street the coach had taken. All three of them immediately looked ahead. Light from numerous street flares garishly illuminated an odd-angled four-way intersection ahead.
"There!" came a call from behind. "That's them-turning left into the bigger street."
Breckenridge gave thanks for James's sharp eyes; he'd only just glimpsed the back of the coach himself. Urging the horses on as quickly as he dared, they reached the intersection and made the turn-just in time to see the coach turn right at the next intersection.
"Oh," the coachman said.
Breckenridge flicked a glance his way. "What?"
"That's Avenue Road they've just turned into - it merges into Finchley Road just a bit along."
And Finchley Road became the Great North Road, and the coach was heading north. "They might be heading for some house out that way." Breckenridge told himself that could be the casebut they were following a traveling coach, not a town carriage.
He steered the pair of blacks he was managing into Avenue Road. Both the coachman and James peered ahead.
"Yep - that's them," the coachman said. "But they're a way ahead of us now."
Given the blacks were Cynster horses, Breckenridge wasn't worried about how far ahead their quarry got. "Just as long as we keep them in sight."
As it transpired, that was easier said than done. It wasn't the blacks that slowed them, but the plodding beasts drawing the seven conveyances that got between them and the traveling coach. While rolling along the narrow carriageways through the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis, past Cricklewood through to Golders Green there was nowhere Breckenridge could pass. They managed to keep the coach in sight long enough to feel certain that it was, indeed, heading up the Great North Road, but by the time they reached High Barnet with the long stretch of Barnet Hill beyond, they'd lost sight of it.
Inwardly cursing, Breckenridge turned into the yard of the Barnet Arms, a major posting inn and one at which he was well known. Halting the carriage, to the coachman and James he said, "Ask up and down the road-see if you can find anyone who saw the coach, if they changed horses, any information."
Both men scrambled down and went. Breckenridge turned to the ostlers who'd come hurrying to hold the horses' heads. "I need a curricle and your best pair-where's your master?'
Half an hour later, he parted from the coachman and James. They'd found several people who'd seen the coach, which had stopped briefly to change horses at the Scepter and Crown. The coach had continued north along the highway.
"Here." Breckenridge handed the coachman a note he'd scribbled while he'd waited for them to return. "Give that to Lord Martin as soon as you can." Lord Martin Cynster was Heather's father. "If for any reason he's not available, get it to one of Miss Cynster's brothers, or failing them, to St. Ives." Breckenridge knew Devil was in town, but was less certain of the others' whereabouts.
"Aye, my lord." The coachman took the note, raised a hand in salute.
"And good luck to you, sir. Hope you catch up with those blackguards right quick."
Breckenridge hoped so, too. He watched the pair climb up to the box seat of the town carriage. The instant they'd turned it out of the yard, heading back to London, he strode to the sleek phaeton waiting to one side. A pair of grays the innkeeper rarely allowed to be hired by anyone danced between the shafts. Two nervous ostlers held the horses' heads.
"Right frisky, they are, m'lord." The head ostler followed him over.
"They haven't been out in an age. Keep telling the boss he'd be better off letting them out for a run now and then."
"I'll manage." Breckenridge swung up to the phaeton's high box seat. He needed speed, and the combination of phaeton and high-bred horses promised that. Taking the reins, he tensioned them, tested the horses' mouths, then nodded to the ostlers. "Let 'em go."
The ostlers did, leaping back as the horses surged.
Breckenridge reined the pair in only enough to take the turn out of the yard, then he let them have their heads up Barnet Hill and on along the Great North Road.
For a while, managing the horses absorbed all of his attention, but once they'd settled and were bowling along, the steady rhythm of their hooves eating the miles with little other traffic to get in their way, he could spare sufficient attention to think.
To give thanks the night wasn't freezing given he was still in his evening clothes.
To grapple with the realization that if he hadn't insisted Heather leave Lady Herford's villa - hadn't allowed her to walk the twenty-cum-fifty yards along the pavement to her carriage alone - she wouldn't be in the hands of unknown assailants, wouldn't have been subjected to whatever indignities they'd already visited on her.
They would pay, of course; he'd ensure that. But that in no way mitigated the sense of horror and overwhelming guilt that it was due to his actions that she was now in danger.
He'd intended to protect her. Instead.
Jaw clenched, teeth gritted, he kept his eyes on the road and raced on.