March 1st, 1820.
Unfettered freedom! He’d escaped.
With an arrogant smile, Harold Henry Cynster—Demon to everyone, even his mother in her weaker moments—drew his curricle to a flourishing halt in the yard behind his Newmarket stable. Tossing the reins to his groom, Gillies, who leaped from the back of the elegant equipage to catch them, Demon stepped down to the cobbles.
In buoyant mood, he ran a loving hand over the glossy bay hide of his leader, and scanned the yard with a proprietorial eye.
There was not a scheming mama nor disapproving, gimlet-eyed dowager in sight.
Bestowing a last fond pat on his horse’s shoulder, Demon headed for the open rear door of the stable. He’d left London at midday, unexpectedly content to have the breeze blow the cloying perfume of a certain lascivious countess from his brain. More than content to leave behind the ballrooms, the parties, and the myriad traps the matchmaking mamas laid for gentlemen such as he. Not that he found any difficulty in evading such snares but, these days, there was a certain scent on the breeze, a presentiment of danger he was too experienced to ignore.
First his cousin Devil, then his own brother Vane, and now his closest cousin, Richard—who of their select band of six, the Bar Cynster as they were called, would fate next cause to trip into the arms of a loving wife?
Whoever it was, it wouldn’t be him.
Pausing before the open doors of the stable, he swung around; eyes squinting in the slanting sunlight, he scanned the flat paddocks nearby and the open Heath beyond. Some of his horses were ambling in the paddocks with their lads in close attendance. On the Heath, other stables’ strings were exercising under the eyes of owners and trainers.
The scene was an exclusively male one—not a female in sight. The fact that he felt entirely at home, indeed, could feel himself relaxing, was ironic. He could hardly claim he didn’t like women, didn’t enjoy their company. Hadn’t—didn’t—devote considerable time to their conquest.
He couldn’t deny he took pleasure in, and derived considerable satisfaction from, those conquests. He was, after all, a Cynster.
His lips kicked up at the ends. All that was true. However....
While the other members of the Bar Cynster, as wealthy, well-born gentlemen, had accepted they would marry and establish families in the time-honored tradition, he had vowed to be different. He’d vowed never to marry, never to tempt the fate with which his brother and cousins had fenced and lost. Marriage was all very well, but to marry a lady one loved—that had been the baneful fate of all male Cynsters to date.
A baneful fate indeed for a warrior breed—to be forever at the mercy of a woman. A woman who held one’s heart, soul and future in her small, delicate hands.
It was enough to make the strongest warrior blanch.
He was having none of it.
Casting a last glance around the neat yard, approving the swept cobbles, the fences in good repair, Demon turned and entered the main stable housing his racing string. Afternoon stables had already commenced—he would view his exercising horses alongside his trainer, Carruthers. Not that he had any doubt of Carruthers’ skill—he was merely indulging himself by stopping to watch his horses.
He was on his way to his stud farm, located three miles farther south of the racecourse in the gently undulating countryside bordering the Heath. As he had every intention of avoiding marriage for the term of his natural life, and the current atmosphere in London had turned fraught with the Season about to start and his aunts, let alone his mother, fired with the excitement of weddings, wives and the consequent babies, he’d elected to lie low and see out the Season from the safe distance of his stud farm and the unthreatening society of Newmarket.
Fate would have no chance to sneak up on him here.
Looking down to avoid the inevitable detritus left by his favored darlings, he strolled unhurriedly up the long central alley. Boxes loomed to his left and right, all presently empty. At the other end of the building, another pair of doors stood open to the Heath. The day was fine, with a light breeze lifting manes and flicking long tails—his horses were out, doing what they did best. Running.
After spending the last hours with the sun warming his shoulders, the stable’s shadows were cool. A chill unexpectedly washed over the back of his shoulders, then coalesced into an icy tingle and slithered all the way down his spine.
Demon frowned and wriggled his shoulders. Reaching the point where the alley widened into the mounting area, he stopped and looked up.
A familiar sight met his eyes—a lad or work rider swinging a leg over the sleek back of one of his champions. The horse was facing away, wide bay rump to him; Demon recognized one of his current favorites, an Irish gelding sure to run well in the coming season. That, however, was not what transfixed him, rooting his boots to the floor.
He could see nothing of the rider bar his back and one leg. The lad wore a cloth cap pulled low on his head, a shabby hacking jacket and baggy corduroy breeches. Baggy except in one area—where they pulled tight over the rider’s rear as he swung his leg over the saddle.
Carruthers stood beside the horse, issuing instructions. The lad dropped into the saddle, then stood in the stirrups to adjust his position. Again, corduroy strained and shifted.
Demon sucked in a breath. Eyes narrowing, jaw firming, he strode forward.
Carruthers slapped the horse’s rump. Nodding, the rider trotted the horse, The Mighty Flynn, out into the sunshine.
Carruthers swung around, squinting as Demon came up. "Oh, it’s you." Despite the abrupt greeting and the dour tone, there was a wealth of affection in Carruthers’ old eyes. "Come to see how they’re shaping, have ye?"
His gaze locked on the rider atop The Mighty Flynn, Demon nodded. "Indeed."
With Carruthers, he strolled in the wake of The Flynn, the last of his horses to go out on the Heath.
In silence, Demon watched his horses go through their paces. The Mighty Flynn was given a light workout, walking, trotting, then walking again. Although he noted how his other horses performed, Demon’s attention never strayed far from The Flynn.
Beside him, Carruthers was watching his charges avidly. Demon glanced his way, noting his old face, much lined, weathered like well-worn leather, faded brown eyes wide as he weighed every stride, considered every turn. Carruthers never took notes, never needed any reminder of which horse had done what. When his charges came in, he would know precisely how each was faring, and what more was needed to bring them to their best. The most experienced trainer in Newmarket, Carruthers knew his horses better than his children, which was why Demon had pestered and persevered until he’d agreed to train for him, to devote his time exclusively to training Demon’s string.
His gaze fastening once more on the big bay, Demon murmured: "The lad on The Flynn—he’s new, isn’t he?"
"Aye." Carruthers replied, his gaze never leaving the horses. "Lad from down Lidgate way. Ickley did a runner—leastways, I assume he did. He didn’t turn up one morning and we haven’t seen him since. ‘Bout a week later, young Flick turned up, looking for a ride, so I had him up on one of the tetchy ones." Carruthers nodded to where The Flynn was trotting along, pacing neatly with the rest of the string, the small figure on his back managing him with startling ease. "Rode the brute easily. So I put him up on The Flynn." Carruthers paused, watching as the horses wheeled, then slowed to a walk. "Never seen the horse give his heart so willingly. The lad’s got the touch, no doubt about that. Excellent hands, and good bottom."
Demon inwardly admitted he couldn’t argue. "Good" however, was not the adjective he’d have used. But he must have been mistaken. Carruthers was a staunch member of the fraternity, quite the last man to let a female on one of his charges, let alone trust her with The Flynn.
There was a niggle, a persistent whisper in his mind, something stronger than suspicion flitting through his brain. And at one level—the one where his senses ruled—he knew he wasn’t wrong.
No lad had ever had a bottom like that.
The thought reconjured the vision; Demon shifted and inwardly cursed. He’d left the countess only a few hours ago; his lustful demons had no business being awake, much less raising their collective head. "This Flick..." Saying the name triggered something—a memory? If the lad was local, he might have stumbled across him before. "How long’s he been with us?"
Carruthers was still absorbed with the horses, now cooling before walking in. "Be two weeks, now."
"And he pulls his full load?"
"I’ve only got him on half-pay—didn’t really need another hand with the stablework. Only needed him for riding—exercising and the gallops. Turned out that suited him well enough. His mum’s not well, so he rides up here, does morning stables, then rides back to Lidgate to keep her company, then comes up again for afternoon stables."
"Hmm." The first horses were returning; Demon drew back into the stable, standing with Carruthers to the side of the mounting area as the stable lads walked their charges in. Most of the lads were known to him. While exchanging greetings, and the occasional piece of news, and running knowledgeable eyes over his string, Demon never lost sight of The Flynn.
Flick ambled at the rear of the string. He’d exchanged no more than brief nods and occasional words with the other lads; amid the general camaraderie, Flick appeared a loner. But the other lads seemed to see nothing odd in Flick; they passed him as he walked the huge bay, patting the silky neck and, from the horse’s twitching ears, murmuring sweet nothings with absolute acceptance. Demon inwardly cursed and wondered, yet again, if he could possibly be wrong.
The Flynn was the last in; Demon stood, hands on hips, to one side of Carruthers in the shadows, shadows rendered even deeper by the sudden brilliance of the westering sun. Flick let the bay have a last prance before settling him and guiding him into the stable. As the first heavy hoof clopped hollowly on the flags, Flick looked up.
Eyes used to the sunshine blinked wide, finding Carruthers, then quickly passed on to fix on Demon. On his face.
Flick reined in, eyes widening even more.
For one, tense instant, rider and owner simply stared.
Flick tightened the reins and wheeled The Flynn, sending Carruthers a startled glance. "He’s still restless—I’ll take him for a quick run." With that, she and The Flynn were gone, leaving only a rush of wind behind them.
"What the—!" Carruthers started forward, then stopped as the futility of any chase registered. Bemused, he turned to Demon. "He’s never done anything like that before."
A curse was Demon’s only answer; he was already striding along the alley. He stopped at the first open box—a lad was easing the girth strap on one of his heavier horses.
"Leave that." Demon shouldered the startled lad aside. With one tug and a well-placed knee, he recinched the girth. He vaulted into the saddle, and backed the horse, fumbling with the stirrup straps.
"Here—I can send one of the lads after him." Carruthers stepped back as Demon trotted the horse past.
"No—leave it to me. I’ll straighten the lad out."
Demon doubted Carruthers caught the emphasis; he wasn’t about to stop and explain. Muttering imprecations, he set out in hot pursuit.
The instant his mount cleared the stable door, he dug in his heels; the horse lengthened his stride from trot to canter to gallop. By then, Demon had located his prey. In the far distance, disappearing into the shadows thrown by a stand of trees. Another minute and he’d have lost her.
Jaw setting, he struggled with the stirrups as he pounded along. Curses and oaths colored the wind of his passage. Finally, the stirrups were lengthened enough; he settled properly into the saddle, and the chase began in earnest.
The bobbing figure on the back of The Flynn shot a glance behind, then looked forward. A second later, The Flynn swerved and lengthened his stride.
Demon tacked, trying to close the gap by cutting diagonally across—only to find himself careening toward a stretch of rough. Forced to slow and turn aside, he glanced up—and discovered that Flick had abruptly swung the other way and was making off in a different direction. Instead of shortening, the distance between them had grown.
Jaw clenched, eyes narrowed, Demon forgot about swearing and concentrated on riding. Within two minutes, he’d altered his initial plan—to ride Flick down and demand an explanation—to simply keeping the damned female in sight.
She rode like a demon—even better than he. It didn’t seem possible, but...
He was a superlative rider, quite possibly the most accomplished of his day. He could ride anything with four legs, mane and tail anywhere, over any terrain. But Flick was leading him a merry dance. And it wasn’t simply the fact that his horse was already tired or that he rode much heavier than she. The Flynn was tired, too, and was being ridden harder; Flick was fleeing; he was only following. But she seemed to merge with her mount in that way only other expert riders could understand.
He understood it, and couldn’t help grudgingly admiring it, even while acknowledging he had not a hope in hell of catching her.
Her. There was no doubt of that now. Lads did not have delicate shoulders and collarbones, swanlike necks, and hands that, even encased in leather gloves, looked small and fine-boned. As for her face, the little he’d glimpsed above the woollen muffler wound about her nose and chin had been more madonnalike than manlike.
A female called Flick. In the distant recesses of his brain, a memory stirred, too insubstantial to catch and hold. He tried to coax it further into the light, and failed. He was sure he’d never called any female Flick.
She was still a good two furlongs ahead of him, maintaining the distance with ease. They were riding directly west, out onto the less frequented stretches of the Heath. They’d sped past a number of strings out exercising; heads had come up to watch them in surprise. He saw her glance around again; an instant later, she swerved. Grimly determined, Demon squinted into the setting sun, and followed in her tracks.
He might not be able to ride her down, but he’d be damned if he’d lose her.
His resolution had, by now, communicated itself quite effectively to Flick. Making a few choice observations on normally London-bound rakes who came up to their stud farms with not a moment’s notice, and then proceeded, as one might have guessed, to get in her way, she irritatedly, and not a little frantically, reviewed her options.
There weren’t many. While she could easily ride for another hour, The Flynn couldn’t. And the horse Demon was on would fare even worse. And there wasn’t any point fleeing, anyway.
She would, one way or another, either now or only marginally later, have to face Demon. She didn’t know if he’d recognized her, but in that frozen instant in the stable when his blue gaze had raked her, she’d got the distinct impression he’d seen through her disguise.
In fact, the impression she’d got was that he’d seen right through her clothes—a distinctly unnerving sensation.
Yet even if he hadn’t realized she was female, her impulsive reaction had made a confrontation unavoidable. She’d run—and she couldn’t possibly explain that, not without giving him, and his memories, far too many hints as to her identify.
With a sigh, Flick glanced back; he was still there, doggedly following. Turning forward, she noted their location. She’d led him west, then south, skirting the stables and paddocks edging the racecourse, then heading farther onto the open Heath. She glanced at the sun—they had at least an hour before twilight. This part of the Heath was now deserted, with all the others back at the stables, settling horses for the night. If she found a spot where they were reasonably screened it would be as good a place as any for the meeting that, it now seemed, had to be.
Honesty was her only option. In truth, she would prefer it—lies and evasion had never been her style.
A hundred yards ahead, a hedge beckoned. Her memory provided a picture of what lay beyond. The Flynn was tiring; she leaned forward and stroked the glossy neck, and whispered words of praise, encouragement and outright flattery into his ear. Then she set him for the hedge.
He soared over it, landing easily. Flick absorbed the jolt and wheeled left, into the long shadows thrown by a copse. In the space between the hedge and the copse, screened on three sides, she reined in, and waited.
After five minutes, she started to wonder if Demon had looked away at the crucial moment and not seen where she’d gone. When another minute passed, and she sensed no ground-shaking thuds, she frowned and straightened in her saddle. She was about to gather her reins and move out—to search for her pursuer—when she saw him.
He hadn’t jumped the hedge. Despite his wish to catch her, wisdom—care for his horse—had prevailed; he’d gone along the hedge until he’d found a gap. Now he cantered up through the late afternoon, broad shoulders square, long limbs relaxed, head up, the sun striking gold from his burnished curls, his face a grim mask as he scanned the fields ahead, trying to catch sight of her.
Flick froze. It was tempting—so tempting—to sit still. To look her fill, and let him pass by. If she made no sound, it was unlikely he would see her. But...there were too many hurdles along that road. Stiffening her spine, she lifted her chin. "Demon!"
His head snapped around; he wheeled aggressively, then saw her. Even at that distance, his gaze pinned her, then he scanned her surroundings. Apparently satisfied, he set his grey trotting toward her, slowing to a walk as he neared.
He was wearing an elegant morning coat of a blue that matched his eyes; his long thighs, gripping the saddle skirts, were encased in tight buckskin. Ivory shirt, ivory cravat and gleaming Hessians completed the picture. He looked what he was—the very epitome of a London rake.
Flick kept her gaze fixed on his face, and wished, very much, that she was taller. The closer he came, the smaller she felt—the more childlike. She was no longer a child, but she’d known him since she had been—it was hard to feel assured. With her cap shading her face, her muffler over her nose and chin, she couldn’t imagine how he might see her—as a brat with pigtails, as a girl—still with pigtails—or as the young lady who’d trenchantly avoided him. She’d been all three, but she was none of them now. What she was now was on a crusade. A crusade in which she could use his help. If he consented to give it.
Lips firming beneath her muffler, she tilted her chin and met his hard stare.
Demon’s memories churned as he walked his horse into the copse’s shadow. She’d called him "Demon"—only someone who knew him would do that. Images from the past jumbled and tumbled, glimpses through the years of a child, a girl, who would without a blush call him Demon. Of a girl who could ride—oh, yes, she’d always ridden, but when had she become a maestro?—of a girl he had long ago pegged as having that quality Carruthers described as "good bottom"—that open-hearted courage that bordered on the reckless, but wasn’t.
When he stopped his horse, nose to tail with The Flynn, he had her well and truly placed. Not Flick—Felicity.
Eyes like slits, he held her trapped; reaching out, he tugged the concealing muffler from her face.
And found himself looking down at a Botticelli angel.
Found himself drowning in limpid blue eyes paler than his own. Found his gaze irresistibly drawn to lips perfectly formed and tinged the most delicate rose pink he’d ever seen.
He was sinking. Fast. And he wasn’t resisting.
Sucking in a breath, he drew back, inwardly shocked at how far under he’d gone. Shaking free of the lingering spell, he scowled at its source. "What the damn hell do you think you’re about?"