Cynssyr glared at the door to number twenty-four Portman Square. "Blast it," he said to the groom who held two other horses. "What the devil is taking them so long?" He sat his horse with authority, a man in command of himself and his world. His buckskins fit close over lean thighs, and the exacting cut of his jacket declared a tailor of some talent. A Pink of the Ton, he seemed, but for eyes that observed more than they revealed.
"The Baron’s a family man now, sir." The groom stamped his feet and tucked his hands under his armpits.
"What has that to do with anything?"
A handbill abandoned by some reveler from one of last night’s fetes skimmed over the cobbles and spooked the other two horses, a charcoal gelding by the name of Poor Boy on account of the loss of his equine manhood; and a muscular dun. The groom had a dicey moment what with the cold having numbed his fingers but managed to send the sheet skittering to freedom.
"Man with a family can’t leave anywhere spot on the dot," the groom said.
"I don’t see why."
The door to number twenty-four flew open with a ringing crack of wood against stone. Of the two men who came out, the taller was Benjamin Dunbartin, Baron Aldreth, the owner of the house. He moved down the stairs at a rapid clip, clapping his hat onto his blond head as if he meant to cement it in place. The other man gripped his hat in one hand and descended at a more leisurely pace. The wind whipped a mass of inky curls over his sharp cheekbones.
"My lord." The groom handed Benjamin the reins to the dun. Before the groom could so much as offer a leg up, Ben launched himself into the saddle without a word of greeting or acknowledgment. Most everyone liked Benjamin. With his good looks and boyish smile, it was practically impossible not to. At the moment, however, Cynssyr thought Ben did not look like a man who cared for the family life.
"Come along, Devon," Benjamin said to his companion. He spoke with such force his dun tossed its head and pranced in nearly a full circle before Ben had him under control again.
Cynssyr’s green eyes widened. "Have you quarreled with Mary?"
"Certainly not," said Ben.
"Well, you look like you’ve been hit by lightening from on high and still hear the angels singing. What’s put you in such a state?"
"None of your damned business." The dun stamped hard on the cobbles, and Ben swore under his breath.
Cynssyr’s bay snorted, and he reached to soothe the animal. "I should say it is, if I’m to endure such behavior from you."
"Is this, by any chance, about Devon’s letter?"
Ben’s neck fairly snapped, he turned so quickly. "What do you know about that damned letter?"
"He wouldn’t let me read it, but it must have succeeded. Camilla Fairchild is too young to be looking at a man that way." Cynssyr’s mouth quirked and with the slight smile his austere features softened. When he smiled, he was about as handsome as a man could get, a fact not lost on him. He knew quite well the effect of his smile on the fairer sex.
Devon reached the curb in time to overhear the last remark. Coal-black eyes, at the moment completely without humor, slid from Ben to Cynssyr. "Disgraceful, ain’t it? Her mother ought to set the girl a better example." He, too, accepted the reins of his gelding from the groom. He glanced at the stairs.
"Do you think she will?" Cynssyr managed, quite deliberately, to sound as though he hoped she wouldn’t. Christ, he hoped not. He fully expected to soon discover what Mrs. Fairchild’s backside felt like under his hands. Soft, he imagined. Energetic, he hoped.
"You ought to know better, Cyn," Devon said. "Even Mary said so."
"You will be relieved to know that at lord Sather’s rout Miss Fairchild’s passion was as yet untempered by experience. I merely provided her some." His smile reappeared. "A regrettably small amount, to be sure."
"You know, Cyn," Ben said, "one of these days you’re going to miscalculate and find yourself married to some featherbrained female who’ll bore you to tears."
"What else have you done, Devon, that’s made him such wretched company?" Cynssyr kept one eye on Benjamin.
"Not one word," Ben said, glaring not at Cynssyr but at Devon.
Devon stopped with one foot in the stirrup to gift the world with affronted innocence. "All I did was—"
"Not one!" Ben turned a warning glance on him, too. "Not a word from you, either, Cyn."
Dev shook his head and mounted, exchanging a glance with Cynssyr who shrugged and found himself still mystified.
Only when the three were long out of earshot of the groom and riding toward Hyde Park did Ben speak. "How dare you?" He took a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket and thrust it at Devon. "How dare you!"
"My personal correspondence is none of your affair." Devon, who had never expected to come into his title, could nevertheless exude more condescension than ever his father had managed, and the previous earl had been a master.
"Give me one reason I oughtn’t call you out."
"Now see here," Cynssyr said, more than a little alarmed.
"Frankly, Cyn, if you knew about the letter, I ought to have satisfaction from you, too." Ben turned back to Devon. "Well?"
"I asked permission to court her when we were at Rosefeld for your wedding. But I had not the proper credentials then." Devon laughed bleakly. "I am Bracebridge now."
"Four years ago," Cynssyr said, "Camilla Fairchild all of what, twelve or thirteen?"
"Good God," said Benjamin. "Not Miss Fairchild."
Devon snatched the crumpled paper from Ben’s hand. "I won’t lose her a second time."
"Lose whom?" Cynssyr drew even with Devon. "What are you two talking about? Devon, I thought your letter was for Miss Fairchild." Two women out for a morning walk stopped their stroll to stare at the men riding by. Out of pure habit, Cynssyr gave them an assessing glance, which made Devon laugh.
"Have you declared yourself?" Ben waved at the paper in Devon’s hand. "Besides in that note of yours, I mean."
"If not Miss Fairchild, then whom?" Cynssyr said, by now more than a little annoyed. "Miss George?" When that got no reply, he said, "Not Miss Willowby. Oh, please, no. If it’s Miss Willowby, I forbid it."
Devon slid the note into his pocket. "She has not the slightest idea of my feelings."
"Now that she is here in London," Devon said, "I mean to change that." He pulled back on his black, waiting for Ben’s dun to draw alongside. Once again, Cynssyr found himself maddeningly excluded. "With your permission, of course."
"It isn’t my permission you need be concerned with," Ben said. "It’s her father’s."
"The old man can bugger himself for all I care." The black-as-the-depths-of-hell eyes that even Cynssyr, who knew better, sometimes thought devoid of life flashed with a violent fire.
They were at the Park now, off the streets and onto the riding paths. "Would one of you," said Cynssyr, "please tell me what the devil you’re talking about?"
"Dev thinks he’s in love."
"That much I gathered." He looked over at Devon. "In love with whom?"
"My sister-in-law," Ben said, throwing up one hand. "That’s who."
Cynssyr gave Devon a look. "Which one?" He moved out of the path of a fat gentleman on a white mare. To the best of his recollection, there were four Sinclair sisters and Benjamin had married one of them. That left three. And, if memory served, the Sinclair sisters deserved their reputation for beauty. Ben’s wife, Mary, was among the most beautiful women of Cynssyr’s rather vast acquaintance. He almost didn’t blame Ben for marrying her.
"I don’t think I’m in love."
"The youngest? Miss Emily?" His green eyes flickered with interest. "If she turns out half as beautiful as she promised, she’ll cause a riot at her debut."
"No. And stay the hell away from Emily, Cyn."
"Then it must be the brunette. Lucy." The name rolled off his tongue replete with his recollection of ebony hair and features of heartbreaking perfection.
"You mean the eldest?" He could not for the life of him summon an image of the eldest Sinclair sister. "That’s impossible. I don’t even remember her."
"Blonde? Gray-blue eyes. Yay tall." Ben indicated an inch or so below his chin which meant a tall woman, perhaps even an ungainly one. "You’ll meet her tonight at the ball. Meet her again, that is."
"Why don’t I recall her?" Cynssyr glanced at Devon.
"And by the way," Ben said. "Stay away from Lucy, too."
"Because when it comes to women, damn you, Cynssyr, you’re a rogue, that’s why."
"Mama begins to despair. Perhaps I ought put to rest her doubts of a succession."
Ben snorted. "I’d not curse any of my sisters-in-law with you for a husband."
"Now that," Cynssyr said, "wounds me deeply. When at last I marry, I expect I’ll make a most excellent husband."
"Hah," said Devon.
"Et tu, Brute?"
"You can’t even settle on what woman to seduce tonight."
"If not for Napoleon, I’d likely be years married. A positive dullard, like Ben here." But Napoleon there was, so Cynssyr wasn’t married at all. Love, naturally, would have but a limited role in any marriage he contracted. The war had burned out his capacity, if ever he’d possessed it, for such saving emotion.
"A dullard?" said Ben, spoiling his attempt to appear insulted by breaking into laughter. Devon rolled his eyes.
"Whatever you two think, I’m quite aware I need a wife. A man of my station requires a wife, as my desperate mother so often reminds me."
"God help the woman fool enough to marry you," Ben said.
"Why not one of your sisters-in-law, Ben? It seems an excellent idea." Dozens of suitable candidates were thrown his way every season, this one being no different from any other since the war. But he’d not been able to bring himself to the sticking point with any of them.
"I’ll reform." He grinned. "I promise."
"You’ll reform when hell freezes over."
A faint memory tickled at the back of his mind. He tapped his temple. "You mean the spinster, don’t you, Devon? The eldest. The one with the spectacles."
"Blond hair, gray-blue eyes. Yay tall," Benjamin repeated.
"What was her name?"
Ben’s blue eyes chilled another degree. "Anne."
"Gad. I still don’t remember her. Except for the spectacles." He looked askance at Dev. "I have never understood his taste in women."
"You truly want to marry Anne?" Ben asked Devon. Curiosity and relief lingered at the edges of the question, but hearing him, no one could doubt the seriousness of the matter. No doting father could have sounded more cautious.
"I meant to introduce her to Declan McHenry," said Ben, looking thoughtfully at Devon. "Or Phillip Lovejoy."
"I’d be obliged if you didn’t."
"Good God, you are serious, aren’t you?"
"It’s been four years. I am done waiting." Amusement brightened Devon’s brooding eyes and made his severe mouth curve in a surprisingly warm smile. It did interesting things to his face, the way severity gave way to warmth. At times like this, when he saw Devon smile, Cynssyr understood exactly why women went so eagerly to his bed.
If Devon had really decided the Sinclair spinster was the woman he wanted, then the matter was done. He would have his way. The why of it mystified him. Even as plain Devon Carlisle, he could do far better than some dried-up female who wasn’t even pretty enough to bother taking off her spectacles. As matrimonial material, the earl of Bracebridge was nearly as sought after as he himself. Nearly. But, not quite.
"Enough. No more blather about love and marriage, you two," Cynssyr said. With a flick of the reins, he steered his horse past a fallen branch then cantered to the edge of a meadow where he waited for Ben and Devon.
"Jade," Ben accused when he reached the meadow.
Cynssyr flashed a brilliantly arrogant smile. "The trouble with you, my lord Baron Aldreth, is you love your wife. And you, Devon. For shame. You disappoint me. You disappoint all our sex, falling for this Miss Sinclair."
"Love," said Dev with one of his wry grins. "A most heinous crime."
"Love." Cynssyr lifted one brow in the supercilious disdain he usually reserved for certain rebuttals in the Lords. "You mean a man’s delusion he’s not been robbed of his freedom and a woman’s that she’s gained hers?"
"Exactly," Devon said.
"How can you trust your judgment now?" He lifted his riding whip, but brought it down on his boot leg, not his horse. "Fools the both of you." So saying, he urged his horse to a gallop. "Anne Sinclair," he muttered. He heard Devon and Ben thunder after him and gave his horse its head. They had no chance of catching him now. Only the best horseflesh found its way into his stables. He had the best of everything. Wine. Horses. Women. Friends.
He wanted to roar with disgust and dismay. Devon married. What was he to do with himself then? To the devil with spinsters who set their caps on marriage, he thought as the chill wind whipped past him. "To the very devil with her." Thus did the duke of Cynssyr, so deservedly referred to as Lord Ruin, dismiss the woman with whom he would soon be desperately in love.