A Conquest Impossible to Resist
An original Cynster Next Generation Novel
Available in print, ebook and audio formats
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-38-5
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-16-3
Release Date: March 14, 2019
#1New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens returns to the Cynsters’ next generation to bring you a thrilling tale of love, intrigue, and fabulous horses.
A notorious rakehell with a stable of fabulous Thoroughbreds and a lady on a quest to locate such horses must negotiate personal minefields to forge a greatly desired alliance—one someone is prepared to murder to prevent.
Prudence Cynster has turned her back on husband hunting in favor of horse hunting. As the head of the breeding program underpinning the success of the Cynster racing stables, she’s on a quest to acquire the necessary horses to refresh the stable’s breeding stock.
On his estranged father’s death, Deaglan Fitzgerald, now Earl of Glengarah, left London and the hedonistic life of a wealthy, wellborn rake and returned to Glengarah Castle determined to rectify the harm caused by his father’s neglect. Driven by guilt that he hadn’t been there to protect his people during the Great Famine, Deaglan holds against the lure of his father’s extensive collection of horses and, leaving the stable to the care of his brother, Felix, devotes himself to returning the estate to prosperity.
Deaglan had fallen out with his father and been exiled from Glengarah over his drive to have the horses pay their way. Knowing Deaglan’s wishes and that restoration of the estate is almost complete, Felix writes to the premier Thoroughbred breeding program in the British Isles to test their interest in the Glengarah horses.
On receiving a letter describing exactly the type of horses she’s seeking, Pru overrides her family’s reluctance and sets out for Ireland’s west coast to visit the now-reclusive wicked Earl of Glengarah. Yet her only interest is in his horses, which she cannot wait to see.
When Felix tells Deaglan that a P. H. Cynster is about to arrive to assess the horses with a view to a breeding arrangement, Deaglan can only be grateful. But then P. H. Cynster turns out to be a lady, one utterly unlike any other he’s ever met.
Yet they are who they are, and both understand their world. They battle their instincts and attempt to keep their interactions businesslike, but the sparks are incandescent and inevitably ignite a sexual blaze that consumes them both—and opens their eyes.
But before they can find their way to their now-desired goal, first one accident, then another distracts them. Someone, it seems, doesn’t want them to strike a deal. Who? Why?
They need to find out before whoever it is resorts to the ultimate sanction.
“Stephanie Laurens’ heroines are marvelous tributes to Georgette Heyer: feisty and strong.” Cathy Kelly
“Stephanie Laurens never fails to entertain and charm her readers with vibrant plots, snappy dialogue, and unforgettable characters.”Historical Romance Reviews.
“Stephanie Laurens plays into readers’ fantasies like a master and claims their hearts time and again.” Romantic Times Magazine
"A tale of horses, scoundrels, and a dazzling mix of romance and mystery. Prudence Cynster is another in a long line of shrewd and confident heroines, and Deaglan is a hero worthy of her. The sexual tension and evocative setting of the Irish countryside and castle create a compelling picturesque world for readers to get lost in. This is an absorbing mystery to curl up with on a rainy day and delight in." Fresh Fiction
March 24, 1851
“It looks like I’ve stumbled on a real prospect. Finally!” Prudence Cynster strode, skirts swishing, into her family’s breakfast parlor. Her gaze on the letter she held in her hands, she advanced on the table. “Or perhaps I should say”—she glanced again at the signature and title at the end of the second page—“a potential prospect has found their way to us.”
She halted by the head of the table, met her father’s blue eyes, and held out the letter. “What do you think, Papa?”
Her father, Demon Cynster, set down his knife and fork and took the two sheets.
Pru nodded a good morning to her mother, seated at the foot of the table, and to her aunt Patience, currently visiting, who occupied the chair on her mother’s right, then circled the table to her usual place on her father’s right, between her brother Nicholas and their father.
Nicholas nodded at the letter. “When did that arrive?”
“Just now.” Pru shook out her napkin, then reached for the teapot. “Gilbert was sorting the mail as I passed.”
“Who’s it from?” Toby, Pru’s younger brother, was, as usual, sitting opposite her.
“The Earl of Glengarah, of Glengarah Castle in County Sligo, Ireland.” Pru took a long sip of her tea and slanted a glance at her father’s face. A slight frown tangled his sandy brows. A good sign? Or the opposite?
While her father, now in his sixties, remained the titular head of the Cynster Stables, Pru, twenty-nine years old and his eldest child, ran the breeding program, while Nicholas, not even a year younger, managed the day-to-day affairs of the racing stable. Toby, now twenty-five, was an able second-in-command to them both, although his talents and interests aligned more closely with Pru’s.
“Glengarah writes,” her father rumbled, “that his late father had amassed a collection of horses purely for his private satisfaction. Apparently, the late earl’s guiding principle was to acquire horses that embodied the strongest and clearest features of the various bloodlines. The current earl wishes to inquire if we have any interest in examining the collection with a view to an arrangement of mutual benefit.” Her father humphed, then folded the letter and laid it beside Pru. “He’s included a short description of three horses as an indication of what the collection holds. However, he hasn’t mentioned the size of the collection beyond that it’s large, and he gives no specifics as to bloodlines.”
“True,” Pru conceded. “But given I’ve spent the last twenty and more months combing the length and breadth of the British Isles in an until-now largely fruitless search for horses that will allow us to reintroduce the features of the foundation bloodlines back into our bloodstock, thus reinvigorating the most desirable features, then I view the chance that Glengarah has in his stable at least one useful horse as a possibility too good to pass up.”
“Not fruitless,” Toby corrected. “You found that Barb stallion in Scotland last year.”
“Last June,” Pru admitted. “But that’s the only one, and we need a great deal more if we want to lift the quality of our horses.”
She’d journeyed all the way to Perthshire following a tenuous rumor of a beautiful bay horse owned by an eccentric Scottish lord. She’d tracked down the horse and, eventually, the lord. She’d bargained hard and had secured an exclusive license to breed from the stallion; that was her first and, to date, only success in her patently necessary quest.
Nicholas tapped Pru’s elbow and pointed at the letter. She handed it over.
While Nicholas read, Pru glanced at her father, who was frowning abstractedly and slowly tapping one finger on the tablecloth, then she looked down the table at her mother, whose dainty features wore an expression of faint frustration. “Do you know anything about the Glengarah horses?”
Her mother sighed. “All I ever heard were rumors that Glengarah—the late earl—had become a recluse obsessed with collecting particular horses. I never heard what sort of horses.”
“I’d heard the same.” Her father met her mother’s eyes. “And that Glengarah wasn’t interested in showing off his horses. I can’t recall hearing of a single person who’s managed to view his stable.”
“Do you mean to say that nobody actually knows what’s in the Glengarah stable?” Toby’s incredulous expression matched his tone.
Pru’s reaction mirrored Toby’s; those involved in horse breeding were notoriously proud, curious, and gossipy. She glanced at Nicholas and saw interest kindling in his eyes, too.
But caution was Nicholas’s middle name; he grunted and refolded the letter. “I thought you checked the Irish entries in the General Stud Book.”
Toby reached across the table, fingers waggling, and Nicholas surrendered the letter.
“I did,” Pru said, “but of course, I studied the most recent edition. If the late earl was reclusive to the point of maintaining isolation from the horse-breeding world, then what are the odds he never bothered reregistering the horses he acquired, and consequently, they’ve been written out of the active record?”
Toby was scanning the letter. “It sounds as if the late Earl of Glengarah has created something of a Pandora’s box—you won’t know what’s inside until you open it.” He met Pru’s eyes, grinned, and waved the letter. “The amazing thing is that you’ve received an invitation to visit and lift the lid.”
“Exactly!” Pru’s enthusiasm took flight. “I definitely have to go over and take a look.” She reached for the letter, and Toby handed it over.
From the end of the table came a long-suffering sigh. “I had hoped,” her mother said, “that you would come to town for one last Season.”
From where Pru sat, she couldn’t see her sister Margaret—Meg—who was seated on Nicholas’s other side. Meg was the only member of the family who was not horse mad; she rode well, but her opinion of horses was that they were beasts of transportation, possibly elegant accoutrements, but nothing more. Now twenty-four, Meg humored the rest of the family and their avid interest in horses with good-natured tolerance while steadily pursuing her own interests, which, to date, centered on enjoying as much of society and ton events as her birth, station, and parents allowed.
Pru smiled understandingly at her mother; despite Pru’s advanced age, her mother had never given up hope of her making a suitable match. “You’ll have Meg to show off, Mama, and you have to admit that having an older sister forever present at the same events will only hamper her chances.”
Meg leaned forward and flashed Pru an encouraging and grateful grin.
But her mother shook her head at Pru. “You can’t hide away from society forever.”
I can try.
Despite being born into a family deeply entrenched in the haut ton—the glittering world of the highest echelons of society—Pru had never been drawn to the balls and parties. The hunting, the riding, the horses, yes, but the rest she found intensely boring.
Galloping on a powerful horse and feeling the wind fresh in her face was her idea of pleasure.
“I’m not sure one would class a trip to Glengarah Castle as hiding from society.” All eyes swung to Patience, the wife of her father’s older brother Vane and a firm favorite of the family. She was also much more actively engaged with the ton, spending months at a time in London by the side of the family’s matriarch-in-the-making, Honoria, Duchess of St. Ives.
Patience met Pru’s gaze with a fond yet shrewdly understanding expression. “The current earl is Lord Deaglan Fitzgerald. That’s an Irish version of Declan.” Patience pronounced the name as Declan with a gin place of the c. “The story is that he had a falling-out with his father—the late horse-obsessed earl—and was banished and came to London… That must have been about five years ago.”
Pru frowned, trying to recall the man; surely she’d met him during one of the Seasons she’d been unable to avoid? Her mother, she noted, was frowning in similar fashion.
“I doubt you would have encountered him.” Patience looked from Pru to her mother. “In the main, Lord Deaglan Fitzgerald avoided ton events and, instead, set about raising hell. He’d inherited wealth from his mother and a great-aunt and, consequently, didn’t lack for funds. While to the ladies of the haut ton, his activities in London were cloaked in shadows, I understand he was widely known in less-elevated circles, and that his reputation, apparently well-earned, painted him as a licentious rake.”
Pru quickly pointed out, “Luckily, I’m only interested in viewing his horses. And if Lord Deaglan is in London, chances are I won’t even cross paths with him.”
Although he is the one who wrote…
Patience smiled, faintly smug. “Ah, but he’s no longer in London. The instant the news of his father’s death reached him, he returned to Ireland—to Glengarah Castle. Indeed, the speed with which he decamped left many of us speculating that his wild behavior had been in reaction, as it were, to his banishment. In support of that conclusion, he hasn’t subsequently ventured off his estate—at least not to any social engagement. Nor has he invited any of his erstwhile peers from London to join him. What word has filtered out suggests he’s devoting himself to rebuilding the estate in the wake of the famine.”
“That,” Toby said, “could be the reason he’s written. He might want the money from a breeding license to plow into the estate.”
Her father nodded. “From what I’ve heard of the situation in Ireland, that could well be the case.”
“Be that as it may,” Patience continued, “now Deaglan’s the earl and somewhere in his mid-thirties, his refusal to re-engage with society on a more appropriate level is—as one might expect—causing considerable angst among the matchmakers on both sides of the Irish Sea.”
Nicholas frowned. “I would have thought his reputation would see him crossed off the matchmakers’ lists.”
The affectionate look Patience bent on Nicholas was a touch condescending. “The Fitzgeralds are one of the older Anglo-Irish families. The earldom is ancient, the estate—while possibly under stress at the moment—is extensive, and Deaglan is known to have significant funds in his own right. All things considered, there are many in the ton willing to overlook an earl’s past in order to gain a foothold in his future.”
Pru heard Patience’s words, but distantly, too busy considering the logistics of traveling to western Ireland. “We need to act quickly. If Glengarah’s collection contains even one gem, we can’t afford to have the earl assume we’re uninterested and invite one of the other breeding stables to cast their eyes over his horses.” She glanced at the letter she’d set beside her plate; every word was already etched in her brain. “He didn’t say whether he was writing to others as well.”
“We’ve long been the pre-eminent name in Thoroughbred breeding,” her father said, not without pride. “Unsurprising if he thought to write to us first and test the waters.”
Nicholas nodded. “In his shoes, I’d do the same. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t later solicit interest from others.”
“We can’t risk that,” Pru stated. They were currently in a five-way tussle for the title of best Thoroughbred breeder, which was assessed on the racing successes of the offspring produced. The effectiveness of the breeding program underpinned the performance of the racing stable, which in turn was the cornerstone of the family’s prosperity. She picked up the letter. “I need to get over there and ensure that, if there are any diamonds to be found in the Glengarah stable, we get first chance to license them. I wouldn’t want the Cruickshanks or Dalgettys getting there first.”
She eased back her chair. “I’ll reply immediately. I should be able to leave the day after tomorrow. With any luck, I’ll be there in a week’s time.”
Her father’s expression had progressively darkened. Now, he growled, “Toby can go. Jauntering about the wilds of Ireland isn’t something a daughter of mine needs to do.”
Pru inwardly sighed; she’d hoped to avoid this argument—one they’d had regularly over the past years. “I’ll be perfectly safe. As usual, I’ll take Horricks and George, as well as Peebles and Suzie.” The four—her wily and experienced coachman, vigorous and intelligent footman-cum-groom, dragon of a lady’s maid, and quick-as-a-whip younger maid—made up what Toby called her entourage; with them around her, she would, indeed, be safe—even from licentious noblemen. “Not even you, Papa, can imagine any harm befalling me—it didn’t through all my journeys through Scotland, and that was through country far wilder and less populated. And on that occasion, I couldn’t even say where I was heading. This time, I have a definite destination.”
“And,” Toby said, meeting her gaze, “it has to be Pru, Papa. I’m not in her league in spotting bloodlines, and I can’t shoulder the responsibility at that level—not yet.”
Pru grinned with relief and in gratitude for what was a borderline lie. It was true she had the best eye in the family when it came to bloodstock, but although Toby was still learning, he wasn’t that far behind.
Nicholas, too, weighed in on her side. “We do need fresh bloodstock—none of us can argue that—and given how many hours Pru has already sunk into her search, and for only one stallion thus far, the Glengarah collection is an opportunity we can’t afford to let slip. And while going with Pru might help Toby learn more, with the spring races upon us, I need him here. At present, we’re all hands on deck.”
Her father grunted. The racing stable was his first love, professionally speaking; anything that threatened its success was unlikely to meet with his approval. “I still don’t like it.” He frowned at Pru. “You would be better employed going to London with your mother and sister, at least for a few months.” He looked down the table, transparently inviting the support of his wife and sister-in-law in forbidding Pru to venture so far afield as the west coast of Ireland.
Pru, Toby, and Nicholas looked at their mother and aunt, too, waiting to see which way their votes would go.
The ladies had had their heads together, whispering while Pru and the others had been talking of horses. Now, her mother and aunt sat back and exchanged a long, wordless—distinctly weighty and meaningful—look.
In her lap, Pru crossed her fingers; despite her mother’s wish to see her married, her mother had always supported her in her burning ambition to manage the Cynster breeding program. Although her mother had never been lauded as the premier horseman in all of England, as her father had been, in her day, Felicity—Flick as she was known—had been a superb rider, with a way with Thoroughbreds that Pru had inherited.
Pru prayed that both her mother and aunt would accept her disinterest in marriage. Heaven knew, after the recent spate of Cynster weddings—those of Pru’s second cousins, the Duke of St. Ives’s children, all three of whom had married in the space of four months, culminating with Louisa’s wedding to Lord Drake Varisey only a week ago—even the Cynster ladies’ legendary thirst for family nuptials ought to be assuaged, at least for a few months!
Focusing on her aunt’s face, Pru suspected that, as Patience knew something of the current earl, he with whom Pru would need to negotiate, in this instance, Patience’s view was likely to be the deciding factor.
Yet it was her mother who spoke first, her blue eyes resting with fond shrewdness on Pru. “This seems a situation too promising to pass up.” Her mother shifted her gaze to her husband. “I really don’t think Pru will be in any danger, and who knows? At Glengarah Castle, she might well find what she’s been searching for.”
“Indeed.” Patience nodded decisively. “I concur. On all counts, it seems advisable that Pru goes and as soon as possible.”
Pru looked at her father to see him frowning in a puzzled way. She knew he hadn’t given up hope of seeing her married to some suitable gentleman; he’d expected her mother and her aunt to support his stance.
In leaning forward to listen to her mother and aunt, Pru had noticed Meg, as usual sipping her tea and nibbling her toast and thinking faraway thoughts of balls and dresses and dancing while the rest of the family argued around her. With a clink that drew everyone’s attention, Meg set down her teacup and airily said, “I’m really looking forward to the Season this year.”
Pru could have hugged her sister. In Meg’s apparently artless way, she’d just reminded her father that he had two daughters, not just his firstborn.
Along with everyone else’s, her father’s gaze had gone to Meg. After a moment, he grunted, then he looked at Pru and sighed. “All right. I give in. You may leave for blasted Ireland as soon as you wish.”
Pru beamed, pushed to her feet, stepped to her father’s side, draped her arms about his shoulders, and hugged him. “Thank you, Papa. You won’t regret it.”
He patted her arm and gruffly barked, “Make sure I don’t.”
Pru dropped a kiss on his graying hair, then returned to her chair to rapidly finish her toast and drain her teacup.
The instant she had, she picked up the Earl of Glengarah’s letter, rose, and hurried off to write her reply, then make the necessary arrangements to travel to Glengarah Castle.
* * *
LordDeaglan Fitzgerald swung up to the back of his gray stallion, then looked around and whistled for his dogs. The red-and-white Irish setter, Molly, raised her head from the stony bed of a nearby brook, looked, and obediently came trotting, but Sam, the Kerry beagle, was more interested in some trail—most likely that of the wily old fox that hunted the area.
“Sam!” Deaglan didn’t wait to see if the dog followed—he could easily catch up; he wheeled Thor and tapped his heels to the horse’s flanks. Thor surged, happy to be moving again, even if it was in the direction of the castle stable.
Deaglan tried not to think of what awaited him at home. Yet more papers, information on investments, letters from his bank in London, and the never-ending scourge of invoices and accounts. Being the Earl of Glengarah was not the easy, idle life most in society would imagine. Not that, over the past five years, he’d entertained any illusions as to how hard he would have to work—to battle—to get the estate up to scratch once the title and its attendant responsibilities landed on his shoulders—once his father had died, bringing an end to the long period of his willful neglect.
Admittedly, Deaglan was doing exactly as he wished, but the constant, unexpected calls on his time—such as the summons to give his approval to the line of the new fence being erected across one of the horse paddocks—stretched the task before him until at times he felt as if he’d never see its end.
If it wasn’t a fence or similar issue, it was problems with foaling, lambing, or calving, or a rockslide that had blocked one of the main internal lanes—that was last week—or the damn fox taking someone’s chickens. All of which were preferable to having to evict the pine marten that had taken up residence in old Mrs. Comey’s shed.
Some things he could foist onto others, but Mrs. Comey had known him all his life—she’d been a nursemaid at the castle when he’d been born—and he never felt comfortable sending someone else in response to her latest complaint.
Still and all, he was slowly progressing in his self-appointed—also admittedly self-serving—task. Step by step, he was moving the estate onto a more stable financial footing while simultaneously reforming farming practices so that, in the years ahead, his farmers would reap the greatest rewards from their efforts.
His goal was to steer the Glengarah estate into smooth and secure financial waters and anchor it there, so that no matter what storms the future brought, the estate and its people would survive.
They’d weathered the recent famine only by the skin of their teeth—and by the blessing of him having established the kennels as a going concern before he’d left. If it hadn’t been for the income from the sale of the highly rated Glengarah gun and hunting dogs that, even from afar, he’d been able to direct to assist the families dependent on the earldom, the estate’s population would have been decimated, and as was now the case on so many Irish estates, Glengarah would have been left without the manpower to pull themselves back into shape now the famine had at long last eased its hold.
Sam had caught up, and he and Molly now flanked the cantering stallion. To the rhythm of Thor’s hooves thudding on the thick, emerald-green sward, Deaglan gave thanks that this corner of the country—the pocket including his home—had been spared the worst of Ireland’s national disaster. Despite his father’s depredations, he’d been able to ensure that the majority of those on the estate had survived and stayed. Now, he was working to ensure that everyone thrived.
Ahead, the castle came into view, its twin towers and crenellated battlements in dark-gray stone standing solid and tall above the surrounding greens of paddock and meadow and scattered pockets of woodland. The castle’s lead roofs added a deeper shade of gray, their slopes running this way and that, breaking the otherwise rigid lines and hinting at the multitude of extensions that had been added within the outer walls over the generations.
The holder of the title before his father—not Deaglan’s grandfather but a distant cousin of his father’s—had modernized the castle, at least to his time, an act for which Deaglan offered profound and frequent thanks. His father would never have bothered, too fixated on his obsession, but thanks to the previous earl, Deaglan and his younger brother, Felix, had grown up in a house that had been the epitome of comfortable.
To Deaglan, his home exuded comfort; it always had and always would. To him, the castle was simply home, a place steeped in every nuance that word could convey.
Thor carried him swiftly toward the gray walls. The big stallion needed no direction to veer for the archway in one towering wall that gave access to the side court and the stable yard beyond.
They cleared the arch, and Deaglan reined Thor to a walk. His gaze went to the stable, and as always, he felt the addictive tug—the siren-song lure of the horses inhabiting the stalls beyond those used by the hacks and carriage horses.
That very addiction—his father’s complete surrendering to it—had led to their falling out. Nothing else. It had been something shared, something Deaglan had innately understood—that passionate love of horses. But while Deaglan placed people higher in his scales, his father had seen only the horses.
Having set up the kennels and successfully developed them into a commercial concern, having confirmed the financial benefits as well as the satisfaction derived from such an endeavor, Deaglan had hoped to do the same with the horses.
His father had disagreed.
His sire hadn’t cared for anything beyond his horses, even in the face of the looming famine and the estate’s potentially dire need.
Furious at such blind intransigence—and frustrated by his helplessness to change it—Deaglan had left Glengarah. Since returning, other than to fetch Thor, he hadn’t ventured deeper into the stable, to the stalls in which his father’s prizes were housed.
Later, he’d told himself. Eventually.
Only once all else on the estate was fixed.
He trotted Thor into the stable yard, and a groom came running.
Deaglan glanced at the maw of the stable entrance and opted to rein in and dismount. He handed the reins to the groom with instructions to rub the horse down well and treat him to a small measure of oats. After bestowing a last pat on the stallion’s long nose, Deaglan turned toward the castle’s side door.
Crossing the cobbled side court, he ran through his mental list of the tasks he’d yet to complete in his program of rectification and, somewhat to his surprise, realized the list was considerably shorter than he’d thought.
He was halfway to the castle, the dogs trotting on either side, when the side door was hauled open, and Felix rushed out. His gaze locked on Deaglan, and relief visibly rolled through him, then he lowered his chin and determinedly strode to meet Deaglan.
Deaglan noted that Felix was carrying a letter in one hand and slowed. What now? He’d only just noticed his list of tasks shortening; how many were about to be added?
The first words out of Felix’s mouth, “I’ve a confession to make,” did nothing to ease Deaglan’s mind.
Deaglan waved his brother back toward the house. As Felix fell in beside him, Deaglan uttered a bland, unthreatening “Oh?”
Felix drew a deep breath, held it for a second, then said, “What we’ve been discussing about commercializing the stable… I know you intended putting it off until you’re ready to take up the reins again, so to speak. And God knows, I can understand that. You’re constantly busy, and you’ve resumed overseeing the kennels, too—sensible, given how critical they are to the estate’s coffers.”
During the years of Deaglan’s banishment, Felix had stepped in and overseen the kennels and, since their father’s death, had watched over the stable as well. Wondering whither his brother was leading, Deaglan cast him a measuring glance. “You did well enough with the kennels.”
“Only because you wrote and told me what to do.”
True, yet Felix had proved himself capable of acting in Deaglan’s stead—acting as Deaglan’s eyes, ears, and voice.
“But this is about the horses.” Felix waved the letter.
Deaglan quashed the urge to seize the missive and read it; whatever it contained was Felix’s to reveal. Despite the five years between them, he and Felix were close, and Deaglan saw no reason to step on his brother’s toes.
They reached the side door, and Deaglan pushed it wide and strode through, into the cool dimness of the corridor that led to the front hall.
From long experience, Deaglan knew there was no value in trying to rush Felix—he would only lose his train of thought, tortuous though it might be, and have to start at the beginning again. Calling on oft-used patience, Deaglan walked on and waited.
Felix came up beside him, displacing the dogs, who disgruntledly fell back. “We discussed the direction in which you were thinking of taking the stable—about our best bet being to form some sort of an alliance with one of the major English breeders so we get access to their expertise as well as a leg-up via the association. I know you wanted to hold back until you were free to re-immerse yourself in the collection, but I thought, as that time can’t be too far away, perhaps I could help by testing the waters.” Felix hauled in a huge breath, then let it out on the words, “So I wrote to the Cynsters.”
Deaglan blinked. They’d reached the front hall; he halted in the middle of the black-and-white tiled floor and stared at Felix as his brother swung to face him. “The Cynsters?” Felix had gone straight to the top of the tree. The implication of the letter Felix was carrying slammed into Deaglan. “And?”
“And”—unable to contain his delight, Felix brandished the letter—“they replied!”
Felix thrust the letter at Deaglan, and he all but snatched it. He read…then realized that the letter was addressed to him—to the earl.
“Ah…yes. That was the major part of my confession,” Felix said. “I thought it would be better if I wrote in your name.”
His eyes tracking the lines of the Cynsters’ reply, his mind scrambling to absorb their meaning, let alone its significance, Deaglan grunted. “No matter.”
He reached the end of the letter, then looked at Felix—and smiled. “This is wonderful!” He felt his smile widen to match Felix’s. “Well done!”
Deaglan returned his attention to the letter. “It seems this P. H. Cynster is definitely interested in casting his eyes over our horses.” Timing-wise, Felix might have jumped the gun a trifle, but not by much, and the result of his attempt to help couldn’t be better—eliciting the immediate interest of the Cynsters was nothing short of a coup.
Speaking of timing… Deaglan looked at Felix. “When did you write to them?”
“I posted the letter twelve days ago.”
Deaglan calculated the time for delivery, then checked the date of the letter in his hand. “They replied virtually as soon as your letter reached them.”
“Yes. They must be quite keen.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I kept it vague,” Felix assured him. “I told them of the principle the pater followed in creating the collection and gave them descriptions of three horses, but I didn’t mention anything specific regarding bloodlines—only that the pater purchased with an eye to that.”
“What about the number of horses in the collection? Did you tell them that?”
Felix grinned. “Just that there was a large number.”
Deaglan grinned back. “Good.”
He looked again at the letter, trying to read between the formal phrases via which P. H. Cynster had communicated the Cynsters’ interest and felt vindication for his stance against his father—for his people—flow through him; he’d been right in thinking there was a real future in breeding from his father’s collection.
Glancing again at the signature, Deaglan realized the hand was not the same as the one in which the letter was written. Apparently, P. H. Cynster was wealthy enough to command the services of a secretary. Then again, the man was a Cynster, and when it came to anything to do with horses, Deaglan had heard that they did not stint.
According to the words beneath the signature, P. H. Cynster was the head of the Cynster breeding program. For Deaglan’s ultimate purpose, there couldn’t be anyone better to be on their way to get a first look at his father’s horses—now his.
He looked again at Felix. His brother had yet to calm; indeed, Felix seemed to be growing progressively more agitated. “This”—Deaglan held up the letter—“is a hugely encouraging response.”
Felix stared at him, then jabbed a finger at the letter. “Did you read the last paragraph? It says he expects to reach here by this afternoon!”
“What?” Deaglan had skimmed over the date. He looked again. March 31st. “Good Lord.”
“Yes!” Felix all but shouted. “Cynster’s letter was delayed—look at the date it was sent. That storm in the Irish Sea a few days ago—remember? That’s why I came rushing to get you. He estimates arriving at Glengarah on the afternoon of March thirty-first, and that’s today, and it’s already after two o’clock!”
Deaglan stared at his brother and felt his head spin. He hauled in a steadying breath and straightened. “All right. Don’t panic.” He wasn’t sure whether that last was directed at Felix or himself. Possibly both.
“As soon as I read that,” Felix said, “before I came to find you, I sent a footman up to the tower to keep watch. I told him to come and find us the instant he spots any visitor bowling up the drive.”
Deaglan nodded. “Good. At least we’ll have a few minutes’ warning.” He thought, then said, “Let’s go to the library. In what time we have, you need to tell me everything you can about the current state of the stable.”
He led the way to and into the library, a large room he and Felix considered shared territory. Deaglan diverted to tug the bellpull, then dropped into the armchair he favored, while Felix made for the one opposite.
The butler, Bligh, a tall, stately individual perfectly turned out in butler’s black, duly arrived. “Yes, my lord?”
“Advance warning, Bligh—we’re due to receive a visitor, a gentleman from England here to view the horses. He could arrive at any moment. I suspect we should be prepared to put him up for the night.”
“Possibly for longer,” Felix said. He met Deaglan’s questioning gaze. “If he’s interested in the horses, from what I’ve been able to gather, assessing them might take several days.”
Deaglan looked at Bligh. “So. We’ll know after he gets here. But you might warn Mrs. Bligh and Mrs. Fletcher. Regardless of how long he remains, dinner is likely to be on the cards.”
Bligh’s eyebrows had risen. He pondered, then inquired, “If I might ask, my lord, of what station is this gentleman?”
“Haut ton, Bligh. Top of the tree.”
“I see, sir.” Bligh bowed. “In that case, please be assured we will be on our mettle. I will inform Mrs. Bligh and Mrs. Fletcher accordingly.”
“Oh,” Felix said as Bligh prepared to depart. “In case you’re wondering, I sent Henry up to the tower to keep watch.”
Bligh nodded. “An excellent thought, sir. I’ll away and speak with the staff, then return and keep vigil in the front hall.”
The instant the door shut behind Bligh, Deaglan leaned forward. Resting his forearms on his thighs, he fixed Felix with a commanding look. “Now, what do I need to know about how things stand in the stable?”
As Felix rattled through an equine inventory, refreshing Deaglan’s memories of the horses, memories he was relieved to discover remained clear and detailed, he found himself prey to the same rising excitement that had patently infected Felix.
The more that excitement built, the more completely he embraced what was occurring—set in train by Felix’s action, yet clearly meant to be—Deaglan felt forced to acknowledge that perhaps he’d hung back from resuming control of the stable for too long—that he’d allowed his vow to completely rebuild the estate first to override not just his inclination but also his better judgment.
Clearly—transparently—Fate had decided it was time for him to return to the stable, to face that siren-song lure and conquer it.
Eventually, Felix ran down. After a moment of silent pondering, he offered, “I can’t think of anything more you need to know.”
Deaglan nodded. “You’ve told me enough to be getting on with.” Neither he nor Felix had for one instant considered that Felix should be the one to deal with P. H. Cynster. Aside from all else, Felix had little experience of the ton; leaving him to deal with a Cynster would be the equivalent of throwing him to the wolves.
Deaglan had no doubt that, if after viewing the horses, P. H. Cynster was interested in a breeding arrangement, the man would ruthlessly push for a deal that favored the Cynsters. Luckily, the past eighteen months of having to deal with bankers and the like had left Deaglan with no qualms whatsoever over engaging in ruthless negotiations.
“I have to say,” Felix observed, “that the speed of Cynster’s reply is…well, heartening, don’t you think?”
Deaglan nodded. “Indeed.”
Both he and Felix froze as the sound of pounding footsteps, muted by the thick walls, reached them. Then the footsteps hit the hall tiles and headed their way.
An instant later, a tap fell on the door.
At Deaglan’s “Come,” Henry, the footman, out of breath and rosy of face, stumbled in and gasped, “Carriage bowling up the drive, my lord.” Despite his labored breathing, Henry’s eyes lit. “Prime turnout, my lord. Can’t say I’ve ever seen its like. And the horses! Top o’ the trees, they be—high-steppers an’ all. Beautiful, they are—just beautiful!”
Deaglan arched his brows and rose. He met Felix’s eyes as his brother sprang to his feet. “Clearly, given Henry’s gushing, this P. H. Cynster likes to travel in style. Those have to be his own horses.”
Felix was nodding. “He must have brought them over on the ferry.”
That wasn’t something many travelers did; relatively speaking, Irish jobbing horses were better than the average. Deaglan suspected that bringing his own horses and carriage said something of P. H. Cynster, but he couldn’t quite fathom what.
Deaglan sent Henry to warn Mrs. Bligh. They found Bligh himself standing tall close by the front door.
“I gather the gentleman’s arrival is imminent, my lord.”
“So it seems, Bligh.” Deaglan nodded at the door. “Mr. Felix and I will await our guest on the porch.”
Bligh swept to the massive double doors and drew one wide.
“Leave it open.” Deaglan walked past to take a position at the head of the steps leading up from the forecourt. First impressions were important in the ton.
Especially if, as seemed entirely possible, he was about to welcome his destiny.
As the carriage bowled into sight, he felt anticipation rise, sweet and heady. The equipage was every bit as eye-catching as Henry had reported, not because it was in any way showy but purely because of its perfect lines. Not even Deaglan had seen its like before; it had to be a recent design. And superbly well sprung; as the coachman drew on the reins, the body of the carriage smoothly responded. As for the four bays between the shafts, they were, indeed, a joy to behold.
Deaglan watched the horses’ actions as the coachman drew them to a halt with the sort of understated flourish only an experienced whip could achieve. Although aware of the people on the carriage and inside it—of the shadowed faces behind the gleaming windows—Deaglan couldn’t drag his eyes from the horses. Couldn’t pull his gaze away from tracing their lines.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Cynster’s groom—or was the man a footman? He was certainly tall enough—drop down from the rear of the carriage and go forward to open the door.
“Cynster’s even brought his own footman,” Felix unnecessarily muttered. “Who does that?”
“Indeed,” Deaglan replied, still focused on the horses.
Once the carriage door was opened and the steps folded down, the first to alight was a bright-eyed young maid. She stared up at Deaglan and Felix, then transferred her gaze to the castle rising behind and above them. Her eyes grew round in a satisfying way.
The next to alight was an older lady’s maid—more rightly termed a dresser—clad in black bombazine with her hair pulled tightly back from her face and an expression that remained set in forbidding lines even as she gazed at the castle.
Not so impressionable.
Deaglan was about to return his attention to the horses when the oddity struck him. Why was Cynster traveling with a lady’s maid? Let alone two maids?
Then the footman reached into the carriage, and Deaglan saw a gloved hand—a small, slender gloved hand—grasp the footman’s as, with all due solicitousness, he handed down a lady…
Golden curls framed an arresting face. A touch on the tallish side, with a curvaceously slender figure displayed to advantage in a stylishly cut traveling dress of bright sky-blue, she possessed a complexion the English termed peaches-and-cream.
From this distance, Deaglan couldn’t see the color of her eyes, but they were large and well-set beneath delicately arched brows. Her features were supremely feminine—the flutter of feathery brown lashes, a straight little nose, and generous lips the color of the palest pink roses.
His attention was captured, focused, and held in a way it hadn’t been for more than eighteen months.
The attraction was visceral and compelling—and very, very familiar.
For long seconds, all he could see was her—all he felt was a rising compulsion to smile seductively, walk down the steps, take her hand, and lead her somewhere private, preferably somewhere with a bed.
He swayed, about to step forward, and only just hauled himself back.
Instinctive alarm flared, and his mind belatedly caught up with events.
Deaglan stared down at the vision gracing his forecourt and tried to make sense of it. Of her.
Cynster had brought either his sister or his wife—his young and gloriously beautiful wife—to Glengarah Castle, to meet Lord Deaglan Fitzgerald, acknowledged rake of the ton, gazetted seducer of willing, usually married ladies.
Cynster had to know of his reputation. Why bring his dashingly attractive wife to Glengarah?
To distract Deaglan while Cynster looked over his horses and offered a deal?
That, Deaglan had to admit, would work, at least to some degree.
And if the lady was Cynster’s sister…
Deaglan had been told that now the title was his, many parents were willing to overlook his past misdemeanors in order to install their daughter as his countess.
He hadn’t invited any lady to the castle, not ever. Cynically, he wondered if the Cynsters thought this a way to break through his walls.
Avoiding the snares of a delectable young lady… That, too, would be a distraction.
All those thoughts streamed through his mind during the seconds the lady took to consult with her maids and footman, then the lady raised her gaze and, bold as brass, examined him and Felix as they stood shoulder to shoulder on the porch.
Finally, her gaze lifted to the castle behind them.
Freed of her spell, Deaglan stared at the carriage, waiting for P. H. Cynster to emerge. Was the man ailing that it was taking him so long?
Then the lady turned to the coachman and spoke, and the footman shut the carriage door.
The lady turned to face Deaglan and smiled—confident, bold, and assured.
Then she raised her skirts and started up the steps.
It was her confidence that opened his eyes—that sent realization jolting through him, shattering his thoughts and making his lungs seize, leaving him feeling as if his world was tilting sideways…
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