A Rake's Vow
The 2nd Cynster Novel
First published 1998
He vowed he'd never marry:;
Vane Cynster always knew which way the wind was blowing, and it was headed in a marrying direction. The other Cynster men might not mind stepping up to the altar, but Vane never wanted to be leg-shackled to any woman, no matter how comely. Bellamy Hall seemed like the perfect place to temporarily hide from London's husband hunters. But when he encountered irresistilbe Patience Debbington, Vane realized he'd met his match and soon he had more than seduction on his mind.
She vowed no man would catch her:
Patience wasn't about to succumb to Vane's sensuous propositions. Yes, his kisses left her dizzy; his caresses made her melt; but he was arrogant, presumptuous...and, despite his protests, bound to be unfaithful, just like every other man. Patience had promised herself that she'd never become vulnerable to a broken heart. But was this one vow that was meant to be broken?
2 weeks on the USA Today Bestsellers list!
"Readers will swear that the second 'Cynster' Regency romance, A RAKE'S VOW, is one of the sub-genre's top novels of the year. The storyline is whimsical yet filled with intrigue and romance. The lead protagonists are a delightfully daring duo who challenge much of propriety as they find love with one another. After reading this novel and its predecessor, DEVIL'S BRIDE, fans will be clamoring for more stories to quickly fall from the Bar Cynster family tree." Harriet Klausner, Coordinator of Romance Reviews, Affaire de Coeur (posted on Amazon.com)
"A true rake must be powerfully, dangerously attractive to women. That definitions doesn't begin to describe the allure of the unattached men of the Cynster family, one of the most charming, reckless bands of Regency rakes to grace the pages of recent romantic fiction." B.Dalton's Heart to Heart
"I loved this book! A RAKE'S VOW, like DEVIL'S BRIDE, is one of the very best reads of the year. Do yourself a favor -- don't miss it!" The Old Book Barn Gazette
"The Cynsters are back, and it's time for Vane Cynster to meet his match in a woman as independent and spirited as he. Here is another delightful, sensual, irresistible romance from one of the freshest voices of the genre. With plenty of excitement, romance and charming characters, A RAKE'S VOW is a certain keeper. 4½ stars Exceptional, A TOP PICK" Romantic Times
"To this second book in her Bar Cynster series, Stephanie Laurens brings a thorough command of Regency style as well as graphic uninhibited love scenes. Laurens is especially skillful at capturing Regency males, aristocrats whose refined restraint barely masks their powerful underlying urges. Appearances by others of the extended, devoted Cynster family ensures readers will become increasingly attached to this ongoing series." Amazon.com
"This scrumptious romance whets the appetite for more of these tasty and delicious Cynster men, and the equally appealing women who teach them about love." Rendezvous
"You want to get a move on. Looks like the Hounds of Hell are on our heels."
"What?" Jerked from uneasy contemplation, Vane Cynster lifted his gaze from his leader's ears and glanced around, bringing Duggan, his groom, into view--along with the bank of lowering thunderheads sweeping down on them from behind. "Blast!" Vane looked forward and flicked the reins. The pair of matched greys harnessed to his curricle stepped out powerfully. He glanced over his shoulder. "Think we can outrun it?"
Considering the storm clouds, Duggan shook his head. "We got three miles on it, maybe five. Not enough to turn back to Kettering, nor yet to make Northampton."
Vane swore. It wasn't the thought of a drenching that exercised his mind. Desperation dug in its spurs; his eyes on the road as the greys swept on, he searched for some option, some route of escape.
Only minutes before, he'd been thinking of Devil, Duke of St. Ives, his cousin, boyhood companion, and closest friend--and of the wife fate had handed him. Honoria, now Duchess of St. Ives. She who had ordered Vane and the other four as-yet-unmarried members of the Bar Cynster not only to pay for but attend the dedication service for the roof of the church in Somersham village, close by the ducal seat. Admittedly, the money she'd decreed they surrender had been ill-gotten gains, their winnings from a wager of which neither she nor their mothers had approved. The age-old adage that the only women Cynster males need be wary of were Cynster wives still held true for this generation as it had for those past. The reason why was not something any male Cynster liked to dwell on.
Which was why he felt such a driving need to get out of the path of the storm. Fate, in the guise of a storm, had arranged for Honoria and Devil to meet, in circumstances that had all but ensured their subsequent marriage. Vane wasn't about to take unnecessary chances.
"Bellamy Hall." He clung to the idea like a drowning man. "Minnie will give us shelter."
"That's a thought." Duggan sounded more hopeful. "The turnoff should be close."
It was around the next bend; Vane took the turn at speed, then cursed and slowed his cattle. The narrow lane was not as well surfaced as the road they'd left. Too fond of his high-stepping horses to risk injuring them, he concentrated, easing them along as fast as he dared, grimly conscious of the deepening gloom of an unnatural, too-early twilight and the rising whine of the wind.
He'd left Somersham Place, Devil's principal residence, soon after luncheon, having spent the morning at church, at the dedication service for the roof he and his cousins had paid for. Intending to visit friends near Leamington, he'd left Devil to enjoy his wife and son and headed west. He'd expected to reach Northampton and the comfort of the Blue Angel with ease. Instead, thanks to fate, he would be spending the night with Minnie and her inmates.
At least he would be safe.
Through the hedges to their left, Vane glimpsed distant water, leaden grey beneath the darkening sky. The River Nene, which meant Bellamy Hall was close; it stood on a long, sloping rise looking down on the river.
It had been years since he'd visited--he couldn't offhand remember how many, but of his welcome he had not a doubt. Araminta, Lady Bellamy, eccentric relict of a wealthy man, was his godmother. Unblessed with children, Minnie had never treated him as a child; over the years, she'd become a good friend. A sometimes too-shrewd friend uninhibited in her lectures, but a friend nonetheless.
Daughter of a viscount, Minnie had been born to a place in the ton. After her husband, Sir Humphrey Bellamy's death, she'd retired from socializing, preferring to remain at Bellamy Hall, presiding over a varying household of impecunious relatives and worthy charity cases.
Once, when he'd asked why she surrounded herself with such hangers-on, Minnie had replied that, at her age, human nature was her main source of entertainment. Sir Humphrey had left her wealthy enough to stand the nonsense, and Bellamy Hall, grotesquely gargantuan, was large enough to house her odd menage. As a sop to sanity, she and her companion, Mrs. Timms, indulged in the occasional bolt to the capital, leaving the rest of the household in Northamptonshire. Vane always called on Minnie whenever she was in town.
Gothic turrets rose out of the trees ahead, then brick gateposts appeared, the heavy wrought-iron gates left ajar. With a grimly satisfied smile, Vane turned his horses through; they'd beaten the storm--fate had not caught him napping. He set the greys trotting down the straight drive. Huge bushes crowded close, shivering in the wind; ancient trees shrouded the gravel in shifting shadows.
Dark and somber, its multitude of windows, dull in the encroaching gloom, watching like so many flat eyes, Bellamy Hall filled the end of the tunnel-like drive. A sprawling Gothic monstrosity, with countless architectural elements added cheek by jowl, all recently embellished with Georgian lavishness, it ought to have looked hideous, yet, in the overgrown park with the circular courtyard before it, the Hall managed to escape outright ugliness.
It was, Vane thought, as he swept about the courtyard and headed for the stables, a suitably esoteric dwelling for an eccentric old woman and her odd household. As he rounded the side of the house, he saw no sign of life.
There was, however, activity in the stables, grooms hurriedly settling horses in preparation for the storm. Leaving Duggan and Minnie's stableman, Grisham, to deal with the greys, Vane strode to the house, taking the path through the shrubbery. Although overgrown, it was navigable; the path debouched onto a stretch of poorly tended lawn which continued around the corner of one wing. Around that corner, Vane knew, stood the side door, facing a wide sweep of lawn hosting a small army of huge stones, remnants of the abbey upon which the Hall was partly built. The ruins stretched for some distance; the Hall itself had grown about the guesthall of the abbey, otherwise ransacked during the Dissolution.
As he neared the corner, the blocks of weathered sandstone came into view, scattered crazily over a thick green carpet. In the middle distance, a single arch, all that remained of the abbey's nave, rose against the darkening sky. Vane smiled; all was exactly as he remembered. Nothing about Bellamy Hall had changed in twenty years.
He rounded the corner--and discovered he was wrong.
He halted, then blinked. For a full minute, he stood stock-still, gaze riveted, his mind entirely focused. Then, gaze still transfixed, his mind fully occupied by the vision before him, he strolled forward, his footsteps muffled by the thick lawn. He halted opposite a large bow window, two paces from the semicircular flower bed before it.
Directly behind the lady, clothed in fine, wind-driven sprigged muslin, bent over, fossicking in the flowers.
"You could help." Patience Debbington blew aside the curls tangling with her eyelashes and frowned at Myst, her cat, sitting neatly in the weeds, an enigmatic expression on her inscrutable face. "It's got to be here somewhere."
Myst merely blinked her large blue eyes. With a sigh, Patience leaned as far forward as she dared and poked among the weeds and perennials. Bent over at the waist, reaching into the flower bed, gripping its soft edge with the toes of her soft-soled shoes, was hardly the most elegant, let alone stable, position.
Not that she need worry over anyone seeing her--everyone else was dressing for dinner. Which was precisely what she should be doing--would have been doing--if she hadn't noticed that the small silver vase which had adorned her windowsill had vanished. As she'd left the window open, and Myst often used that route to come and go, she'd reasoned that Myst must have toppled the vase in passing and it had rolled out, over the flat sill, and fallen into the flower bed below.
The fact that she had never known Myst unintentionally to knock over anything she'd pushed aside; it was better believing that Myst had been clumsy than that their mysterious thief had struck again.
"It's not here," Patience concluded. "At least, I can't see it." Still bent over, she looked at Myst. "Can you?"
Myst blinked again, and looked past her. Then the sleek grey cat rose and elegantly padded out of the flower bed.
"Wait!" Patience half turned, but immediately swung back, struggling to regain her awkward balance. "There's a storm coming--this is not the time to go mousing."
So saying, she managed to straighten--which left her facing the house, looking directly at the blank bow windows of the downstairs parlor. With the storm darkening the skies, the windows were reflective. They reflected the image of a man, standing directly behind her.
With a gasp, Patience whirled. Her gaze collided with the man's--his eyes were hard, crystalline grey, pale in the weak light. They were focused, intently, on her, their expression one she couldn't fathom. He stood no more than three feet away, large, elegant and oddly forbidding. In the instant her brain registered those facts, Patience felt her heels sink, and sink--into the soft soil of the flower bed.
The edge crumbled beneath her feet.
Her eyes flew wide--her lips formed a helpless "Oh." Arms flailing, she started to topple back--
The man reacted so swiftly his movement was a blur--he gripped her upper arms and hauled her forward.
She landed against him, breast to chest, hips to hard thighs. The breath was knocked out of her, leaving her gasping, mentally as well as physically. Hard hands held her upright, long fingers iron shackles about her arms. His chest was a wall of rock against her breasts; the rest of his body, the long thighs that held them braced, felt as resilient as tensile steel.
She was helpless. Utterly, completely, and absolutely helpless.
Patience looked up and met the stranger's hooded gaze. As she watched, his grey eyes darkened. The expression they contained--intensely concentrated--sent a most peculiar thrill through her.
She blinked; her gaze fell--to the man's lips. Long, thin yet beautifully proportioned, they'd been sculpted with a view to fascination. They certainly fascinated her; she couldn't drag her gaze away. The mesmerizing contours shifted, almost imperceptibly softening; her own lips tingled. She swallowed, and dragged in a desperately needed breath.
Her breasts rose, shifting against the stranger's coat, pressing more definitely against his chest. Sensation streaked through her, from unexpectedly tight nipples all the way to her toes. She caught another breath and tensed--but couldn't stop the quiver that raced through her.
The stranger's lips thinned; the austere planes of his face hardened. His fingers tightened about her arms. To Patience's stunned amazement, he lifted her--easily--and carefully set her down two feet away.
Then he stepped back and swept her a negligent bow.
"Vane Cynster." One brown brow arched; his eyes remained on hers. "I'm here to see Lady Bellamy."
Patience blinked. "Ah...yes." She hadn't known men could move like that--particularly not men like him. He was so tall, large, lean but well muscled, yet his coordination had been faultless, the smooth grace investing the languid courtesy rendering it compelling in some ill-defined way. His words, uttered in a voice so deep she could have mistaken it for the rumble of the storm, eventually impinged on her consciousness; struggling to harness her thoughts, she gestured to the door at her right. "The first gong's gone."
Vane met her wide gaze, and managed not to smile wolfishly--no need to frighten the prey. The view he now had--of delectable curves filling a gown of ivory sprigged muslin in a manner he fully approved--was every bit as enticing as the view that had first held him--the gorgeous curves of her derriere clearly delineated beneath taut fabric. When she'd shifted, so had those curves. He couldn't remember when a sight had so transfixed him, had so tantalized his rake's senses.
She was of average height, her forehead level with his throat. Her hair, rich brown, lustrously sheening, was confined in a sleek knot, bright tendrils escaping to wreathe about her ears and nape. Delicate brown brows framed large eyes of hazel brown, their expression difficult to discern in the gloom. Her nose was straight; her complexion creamy. Her pink lips simply begged to be kissed. He'd come within a whisker of kissing them, but tasting an unknown lady before the requisite introductions was simply not good form.
His silence had allowed her to steady her wits; he sensed her growing resistance, sensed the frown gathering in her eyes. Vane let his lips curve. He knew precisely what he wanted to do--to her, with her; the only questions remaining were where and when. "And you are...?"
Her eyes narrowed fractionally. She drew herself up, clasping her hands before her. "Patience Debbington."
The shock hit him, heavy as a cannonball, and left him winded. Vane stared at her; a chill bloomed in his chest. It quickly spread, locking muscle after muscle in reactive denial. Then disbelief welled. He glanced at her left hand. No band of any sort decorated her third finger.
She couldn't be unmarried--she was in her mid-twenties; no younger woman possessed curves as mature as hers. Of that, he was sure--he'd spent half his life studying feminine curves; in that sphere he was an expert. Perhaps she was a widow--potentially even better. She was studying him covertly, her gaze sliding over him.
Vane felt the touch of her gaze, felt the hunter within him rise in response to that artless glance; his wariness returned. "Miss Debbington?"
Looking up, she nodded--Vane almost groaned. Last chance--a spinster, impecunious, and without connections. He could set her up as his mistress.
She must have read his mind; before he could formulate the question, she answered it. "I'm Lady Bellamy's niece."
A crack of thunder all but drowned out her words; under cover of the noise, Vane swore beneath his breath, only just resisting the impulse to direct his ire heavenward.
Fate looked at him through clear hazel eyes.
Disapproving hazel eyes.
"If you'll come this way"--with a wave, she indicated the nearby door, then haughtily led the way--"I'll have Masters inform my aunt of your arrival."
Having assimmilated the style, and thus the standing, of Minnie's unexpected caller, Patience made no attempt to hide her opinion; dismissive contempt colored her tone. "Is my aunt expecting you?"
"No--but she'll be pleased to see me."
Was that subtle reproof she detected in his far-too-suave tones? Swallowing a hoity humph, Patience swept on. She felt his presence, large and intensely masculine, prowling in her wake. Her senses skittered; she clamped a firm hold on them and lifted her chin. "If you'll wait in the parlor--it's the first door on your right--Masters will fetch you when my aunt is ready to receive you. As I mentioned, the household is presently dressing for dinner."
The word, uttered softly, reached her as she halted before the side door; Patience felt a cool tingle slither down her spine. And felt the touch of his grey gaze on her cheek, on the sensitive skin of her throat. She stiffened, resisting the urge to wriggle. She looked down, determined not to turn and meet his eyes. Jaw firming, she reached for the door handle; he beat her to it.
Patience froze. He'd stopped directly behind her, and reached around her to grasp the handle; she watched his long fingers slowly close about it. And stop.
She could feel him behind her, mere inches away, could sense his strength surrounding her. For one definable instant, she felt trapped.
Then the long fingers twisted; with a flick, he set the door swinging wide.
Heart racing, Patience sucked in a breath and sailed into the dim passage. Without slowing her pace, she inclined her head in regal, over-the-shoulder dismissal. "I'll speak to Masters directly--I'm sure my aunt won't keep you long." With that, she swept on, down the passage and into the dark hallway beyond.
Poised on the threshold, Vane watched her retreat through narrowed eyes. He'd sensed the awareness that had flared at his touch, the quiver of consciousness she hadn't been able to hide. For gentlemen such as he, that was proof enough of what might be.
His gaze fell on the small grey cat which had hugged Patience Debbington's skirts; it now sat on the runner, considering him. As he watched, it rose, turned, and, tail high, started up the corridor--then stopped. Turning its head, it looked back at him. "Meeow!"
From its imperious tone, Vane deduced it was female.
Behind him, lightning flashed. He looked back at the darkened day. Thunder rolled--a second later, the heavens opened. Rain pelted down, sheets of heavy drops obliterating the landscape.
Fate's message couldn't have been clearer: escape was impossible.
His features grim, Vane closed the door--and followed the cat.
* * *
"Nothing could be more fortuitous!" Araminta, Lady Bellamy, beamed delightedly at Vane. "Of course you must stay. But the second gong will go any minute, so cut line. How is everyone?"
Propping his shoulders against the mantelpiece, Vane smiled. Wrapped in expensive shawls, her rotund figure encased in silk and lace, a frilled widow's cap atop sprightly white curls, Minnie watched him through eyes bright with intelligence, set in a soft, lined face. She sat enthroned in her chair before the fire in her bedchamber; in its mate sat Timms, a gentlewoman of indeterminate years, Minnie's devoted companion. "Everyone," Vane knew, meant the Cynsters. "The youngsters are thriving--Simon's starring at Eton. Amelia and Amanda are cutting a swath through the ton, scattering hearts right and left. The elders are all well and busy in town, but Devil and Honoria are still at the Place."
"Too taken with admiring his heir, I'll wager. Daresay that wife of his will keep him in line." Minnie grinned, then sobered. "Still no word of Charles?"
Vane's face hardened. "No. His disappearance remains a mystery."
Minnie shook her head. "Poor Arthur."
Minnie sighed, then slanted an assessing glance at Vane. "And what about you and those cousins of yours? Still keeping the ton's ladies on their toes?"
Her tone was all innocence; head bowed over her knitting, Timms snorted. "More like on their backs."
Vane smiled, suavely charming. "We do our poor best." Minnie's eyes twinkled. Still smiling, Vane looked down and smoothed his sleeve. "I'd better go and change, but tell me--who do you have staying at present?"
"A whole parcel of odds and ends," Timms offered.
Minnie chuckled and drew her hands free of her shawl. "Let's see." She counted on her fingers. "There's Edith Swithins--she's a distant Bellamy connection. Utterly vague, but quite harmless. Just don't express any interest in her tatting unless you've an hour to spare. Then there's Agatha Chadwick--she was married to that unfortunate character who insisted he could cross the Irish Sea in a coracle. He couldn't, of course. So Agatha and her son and daughter are with us."
Minnie's gaze lifted to Vane's face. "Angela. She's sixteen and already a confirmed wilter. She'll swoon away in your arms if you give her half a chance."
Vane grimaced. "Thank you for the warning."
"Henry Chadwick must be about your age," Minnie mused, "but not at all in the same mold." Her gaze ran appreciatively over Vane's elegant figure, long muscular legs displayed to advantage in tight buckskins and top boots, his superbly tailored coat of Bath superfine doing justice to his broad shoulders. "Just setting eyes on you should do him some good."
Vane merely raised his brows.
"Now, who else?" Minnie frowned at her fingers. "Edmond Montrose is our resident poet and dramatist. Needless to say, he fancies himself the next Byron. Then there's the General and Edgar, who you must remember."
Vane nodded. The General, a brusque, ex-military man, had lived at Bellamy Hall for years; his title was not a formal one, but a nickname earned by his emphatically regimental air. Edgar Polinbrooke, too, had been Minnie's pensioner for years--Vane placed Edgar in his fifties, a mild tippler who fancied himself a gamester, but who was, in reality, a simple and harmless soul.
"Don't forget Whitticombe," Timms put in.
"How could I forget Whitticombe?" Minnie sighed. "Or Alice."
Vane raised a questioning brow.
"Mr. Whitticombe Colby and his sister, Alice," Minnie supplied. "They're distant cousins of Humphrey's. Whitticombe trained as a deacon and has conceived the notion of compiling the History of Coldchurch Abbey." Coldchurch was the abbey on whose ruins the Hall stood.
"As for Alice--well, she's just Alice." Minnie grimaced. "She must be over forty and, though I hate to say it of one of my own sex, a colder, more intolerant, judgmental being it has never been my misfortune to meet."
Vane's brows rose high. "I suspect it would be wise if I steered clear of her."
"Do." Minnie nodded feelingly. "Get too close, and she'll probably have the vapors." She glanced at Vane. "Then again, she might just have hysterics anyway, the instant she sets eyes on you."
Vane cast her a jaundiced look.
"I think that's it. Oh, no--I forgot Patience and Gerrard." Minnie looked up. "My niece and nephew."
Studying Minnie's radiant face, Vane didn't need to ask if she was fond of her young relatives. "Patience and Gerrard?" He kept the question mild.
"My younger sister's children. They're orphans now. Gerrard's seventeen--he inherited the Grange, a nice little property in Derbyshire, from his father, Sir Reginald Debbington." Minnie frowned at Vane. "You might be too young to remember him. Reggie died eleven years ago."
Vane sifted through his memories. "Was he the one who broke his neck while out with the Cottesmore?"
Minnie nodded. "That's the one. Constance, m'sister, died two years ago. Patience has been holding the fort for Gerrard, pretty much since Reggie died." Minnie smiled. "Patience is my project for the coming year."
Vane studied that smile. "Oh?"
"Thinks she's on the shelf and couldn't care less. Says she'll think about marrying after Gerrard's settled."
Timms snorted. "Too single minded for her own good."
Minnie folded her hands in her lap. "I've decided to take Patience and Gerrard to London for the Season next year. She thinks we're going to give Gerrard a little town bronze."
Vane raised a cynical brow. "While in reality, you plan to play matchmaker."
"Precisely." Minnie beamed at him. "Patience has a tidy fortune invested in the Funds. As for the rest, you must give me your opinion once you've seen her. Tell me how high you think she can reach."
Vane inclined his head noncommittally.
A gong boomed in the distance.
"Damn!" Minnie clutched her slipping shawls. "They'll be waiting in the drawing room, wondering what on earth's going on." She waved Vane away. "Go pretty yourself up. You don't stop by that often. Now you're here, I want the full benefit of your company."
"Your wish is my command." Vane swept her an elegant bow; straightening, he slanted her an arrogantly rakish smile. "Cynsters never leave ladies unsatisfied."
Timms snorted so hard she choked.
Vane left the room to chortles, chuckles, and gleeful, anticipatory whispers.
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