The Inevitable Fall of Christoper Cynster

An original Cynster Next Generation Novel
Volume 8
Available in print, ebook and audio formats
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-33-0
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-22-4
Release Date: March 19, 2020

#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens returns to the Cynsters’ next generation with a rollicking tale of smugglers, counterfeit banknotes, and two people falling in love.

A gentleman hoping to avoid falling in love and a lady who believes love has passed her by are flung together in a race to unravel a plot to undermine the realm.

Christopher Cynster has finally accepted that to have the life he wants, he needs a wife, but before he can even think of searching for the right lady, he’s drawn into an investigation into the distribution of counterfeit banknotes.

London born and bred, Ellen Martingale is battling to preserve the fiction that her much-loved uncle, Christopher’s neighbor, still has his wits about him, but Christopher’s questions regarding nearby Goffard Hall trigger her suspicions. As her younger brother attends card parties at the Hall, she feels compelled to investigate.

While Ellen appears to be the sort of frippery female Christopher abhors, he quickly learns that, in her case, appearances are deceiving. And through the twists and turns in an investigation that grows ever more serious and urgent, he discovers how easy it is to fall in love, while Ellen learns that love hasn’t, after all, passed her by.

But then the villain steps from the shadows, and love’s strengths and vulnerabilities are put to the test—just as Christopher has always feared. Will he pass muster? Can they triumph? Or will they lose all they’ve so recently found?

“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

"THE INEVITABLE FALL OF CHRISTOPHER CYNSTER has a well- matched couple drawn together by mystery who inevitably, and enchantingly, fall in love. The “good guy” supporting characters make wonderful and entertaining allies for this couple, and the miscellaneous villains are fascinating foils for the heroes. The crimes in THE INEVITABLE FALL OF CHRISTOPHER CYNSTER vary and range from the less violent yet insidious to the more depraved and diabolical. I look forward to the next Stephanie Laurens book." Miranda Owen, Fresh Fiction

August 12, 1851

Walkhurst Manor, Kent

Seated behind the desk in the manor’s library-cum-study, Christopher Cynster leaned back, raised his hands, and ran his fingers through his thick locks in frustrated resignation. After a moment of staring unseeing at the desktop, he lowered his hands and muttered, “Apparently, I require a wife.”

There was no one else present to hear the admission—a lowering one given how long it had taken him to reach it, to jettison all self-deception and face that sobering reality.

About him, the large house lay quiet, basking in the warmth of the summer afternoon. The windows to either side of the desk stood open; he could hear bees humming and birds twittering in the bushes and borders surrounding the old stone walls. Other than the staff, evidenced by the occasional sound from the rear of the house or outside, there was no one else in residence; Christopher’s parents were gadding about the Americas, his younger brother, Gregory, was visiting friends in the Peak District, and his sister, Therese, was busily managing her husband, her children, and her own household in Lincolnshire.

Christopher fixed his gaze on the various reports arrayed before him. He picked up a pencil and tapped the end on the corner of the leather-bound blotter.

If Gregory and Therese could see him now…

If they learned of his reluctant conclusion, they would laugh themselves into stitches, then Therese would set about arranging a wife for him, while Gregory would grin and look on.

He spent a moment tendering heartfelt thanks that both his siblings were far away.

That would allow him to work out a strategy to rectify the issue on his own—without interference.

As Vane and Patience Cynster’s eldest son, while his parents were away, he had stepped into the role he’d been trained all his life to fill; he’d sat and stood at his father’s right hand for so many years that managing the estate was all but instinctive.

Being the eldest son, he would, eventually, inherit the manor estate; from his earliest years, he’d understood that it would be his responsibility to ensure the continuing prosperity of all his grandfather and father had amassed and brought into being, not only in Kent but also through investments elsewhere. Vane Cynster had a flair for managing crops of all kinds, and Christopher had inherited the knack; he was confident in his ability to continue in his father’s footsteps.

Yet being the eldest son and therefore the senior representative of his branch of the family presently in England had also meant he hadn’t been able to slide out of attending the family’s annual summer gathering at Somersham Place, the principal residence of the Duke of St. Ives. The current duke, known as Devil, was his father’s cousin and closest friend, and Devil’s duchess, Honoria, was Christopher’s mother’s bosom-bow. Although this year—for the first time in his life—Christopher would have preferred not to attend, Honoria’s invitation-cum-summons had been couched in such a way as to make not appearing impossible.

Aside from all else, his grandmother, Horatia, his grandfather, George, and his great-aunt, Helena, would have been shocked if he hadn’t shown his face.

So he’d gone and whiled away the day in the bosom of the wider Cynster clan and, as usual, had spent most of his time consorting with his cousinly peers—with Sebastian, Michael, Marcus, Lucilla, Prudence, and their spouses. This year, that group had also included Louisa and her husband, Drake Varisey.

Other than a few of the recently added spouses, Christopher had known the members of that group literally all of their lives. He’d even known Drake and Antonia, Sebastian’s wife, from their earliest years. Yet now…he was very definitely the odd man out.

The only one unwed.

Not that the others had so much as alluded to that, for which he’d been grateful, but their elders hadn’t been anywhere near as reticent; virtually every one of them had arched a brow and inquired when he was going to bestir himself and find a wife.

He’d smiled and avoided answering the question. Previously, he would have concocted some faintly jocular reply, gently suggesting they should lay aside any expectation of seeing him front the altar, but this year, all such glib assertiveness had deserted him.

Something had changed. Over the past year, some part of his psyche he hadn’t known he possessed had awakened, stirred, and stretched and now actively wanted the sort of future his peers had secured—one with a spouse by his side and a family of his own.

Until now, he’d assumed he wouldn’t marry—that, along with Pru, he would be one of the two in their group who would happily face the future unwed. He’d seen himself as the bachelor uncle to his siblings’ children—the one overseeing the family finances, to be ultimately succeeded by his brother’s son.

To his mind, there had been no reason for him to marry—no need to risk love and the complications it brought, the emotional vulnerabilities it entailed.

With her adamantine refusal to consider marrying, Pru had been, he’d thought, of the same mind, and if she, a female, could hold firm against the inevitable pressures brought to bear by their parents, aunts, and grandparents, then so could he.

But then Pru had traveled to Ireland and changed her mind. Or Deaglan Fitzgerald, Earl of Glengarah, had changed it for her… No; Christopher knew that not even Glengarah had the power to sway Pru once she’d made up her mind.

Pru had met her fate in Glengarah—she’d accepted that and, with what had appeared to be clear-sighted alacrity, had embraced the future Fate had placed before her.

Christopher had danced at Pru’s wedding and had left feeling just a little betrayed.

Not by Pru but by Fate—by Fate’s intervention that had led to Pru finding happiness and what was patently her true place and, by contrast, throwing into stark relief the restless, dissatisfied yearning that had, by then, sunk its claws into his soul.

On returning from Ireland, he’d attempted to reclaim the life he’d once found satisfying. He’d thrown himself into socializing with his friends and had attended several early-summer shooting parties in the north.

Nothing he’d done had eased the yawning emptiness inside him; if anything, it had grown.

Grown more distracting. More compelling.

In late July, he’d returned to London to celebrate his birthday with his parents and siblings, then had waved his parents off on their journey to America before coming down to Kent to take up the reins at the manor. After settling into the familiar rhythms of summer in the country, he’d reluctantly headed to Somersham.

He’d returned late last night. Now, brooding over his hours at the Place, on all he’d seen and felt, he had to admit that the spur that had finally punctured his resistance to matrimony had come in the form of very small people.

He’d watched Thomas, Lucilla’s husband, chasing their twin daughters, Chloe and Christina, both squealing and shrieking, around the lawns. The laughter in Thomas’s eyes and the sheer joy in his face as he’d caught one, then the other, lifting them high to yet more ear-splitting squeals, had clutched at and squeezed Christopher’s heart.

Meanwhile, Lucilla had stood proudly rocking her and Thomas’s weeks-old son, Manachan. She’d been chatting to Niniver, Marcus’s wife, who had been holding their son, Richard—until the proud papa had relieved her of the burden of the sturdy six-month-old boy. Yet given they’d been at the ducal estate, pride of place in the baby stakes had gone to Sylvester Gyles Cynster, born a few weeks before Manachan to Antonia and Sebastian and therefore destined, eventually, to inherit the dukedom.

Antonia had been radiant, while Sebastian had never—ever—looked and acted so besotted over any other being, not even his beautiful wife.

Christopher knew that last for a fact; among their group, he and Sebastian had spent the most time together throughout their lives. They’d seen less of each other in recent years as their involvement in managing their respective fathers’ estates had increased, but prior to that, they’d moved in the same exclusive circles and, having similar interests and attitudes, had been largely inseparable.

As for the rest of the group, Michael and his wife, Cleo, were expecting their first child in a month or so, while Louisa, pregnant with her and Drake’s first child—very possibly Drake’s heir and therefore another future duke—had been trying her best to downplay her condition, difficult given she’d started to swell about the middle and had Drake hovering constantly at her side.

While Pru’s state was not as far advanced, the glow in her cheeks had left little doubt of her condition, but Deaglan—a wise man even if he was Irish—was doing his level best not to hover like Drake.

In multiple ways, Christopher’s visit to Somersham Place and the Cynster Summer Celebration had proved the last straw. The joy and happiness that had radiated from his peers…

 I want that.

Consequently, after dealing with estate business that morning, after lunch, he’d settled in the comfortable surrounds of the library-cum-study to confront his need to acquire a wife and embark on what, therefore, loomed as his most urgent personal task.

Finding the  rightwife.

The concept remained nebulous; he accepted that much of his difficulty in defining what he wished for in a wife stemmed from his refusal, until now, to even think about the future he had, so belatedly, realized he actually wanted. He hadn’t made any reasoned decision to remain a bachelor; he’d simply assumed that was what he would prefer and had fallen into that rut, which, until recently, had suited him well enough.

It no longer did, so…

“What sort of wife do I want?” He narrowed his eyes. What manner of wife did he need?

He thought of the ladies with whom he’d dallied over the last decade and more; as with other gentlemen of his ilk—of his wealth, social status, and age—their number was not insignificant. Yet virtually all had been married ladies of the haut ton with whom he’d enjoyed short-lived affairs; he’d never envisioned marrying any of them—he’d never assessed their attributes in that light.

Likewise, his belief that he had no reason to consider the numerous young ladies paraded before him by society’s hostesses had led him metaphorically to turn his back on the entire genus of marriageable females; consequently, he had no yardstick—no frame of reference or list of qualities—to guide his choice.

It was easier to list the traits and characteristics he could not abide, such as silly, frivolous females, those ninnyhammers with more hair than wit who, these days, bedecked themselves with ribbons, bows, feathers, frills, and furbelows. The ton was currently littered with such females, and their tittering and vapid conversations never failed to abrade his nerves.

He needed a wife with whom he could share an intelligent conversation. Beyond that…?

 I really have no clue.

Where to look for her, his ideal wife?

At present, the ton were dispersed throughout the country. In mid-September, the major families would return to London for the autumn session of Parliament and the concurrent social round; the balls and parties of the haut ton held through those weeks would, he suspected, be the most useful hunting ground…

He shied at the vision that thought evoked. The instant he appeared at more than two events, the hostesses would realize what he was about, the matchmakers would descend, and his life would become well-nigh unbearable.

He locked his jaw and forced himself to consider the prospect; he felt as he imagined a horse might in refusing a fence.

And it wasn’t just his dislike of the inevitable brouhaha that was holding him back.

It was galling to admit that cowardice played a large part in fueling his antipathy toward marriage. Family lore stated that for a Cynster, with no exceptions, falling in love was a requirement for a successful marriage. From all he’d seen, that rule held true, no matter the resistance of the male or female involved.

Falling a victim to love wasn’t an outcome he had wished to embrace. Being in love meant being close to another, sharing thoughts, hopes, and dreams, and most pertinently, leaving oneself open to hurt. To betrayal and rejection, loss and grief.

He had never been in love, so couldn’t speak from experience, yet he could see how it would be. He could imagine the pain. He’d seen it in non-Cynster friends.

Other acquaintances had avoided the snare by marrying, but not for love. Those marriages seemed to rattle along well enough, but Fate had decreed that particular path was not one he would be allowed to take.

The Cynster curse, as he thought of it, was inviolable and unavoidable; as a Cynster, if he wished to marry—as he now accepted he did—he would have to embrace love and risk the consequences.

He tapped the pencil he held on the blotter once, twice, then nodded. He would slip back to London in September and see whether any of the current crop of unmarried ladies would suit. Or more specifically, if Fate deigned to steer him toward one; when it came to it, he had no idea how Fate and love might strike.

With his way forward decided, he refixed his gaze and his attention on the accounts spread before him.

The restlessness inside him swirled and seethed, unappeased; his inner self wanted to forge ahead, find the right lady, marry her, and get on with building his desired future. He’d never been the sort to overthink things; he much preferred action, yet in reality, what else could he do?

“Wait until September,” he muttered, then forced his mind to concentrate on the plan for the next round of crop rotations.

The clock on the mantelpiece ticked on. It had just whirred and chimed for the half hour when Christopher heard firm footsteps rapidly nearing.

A sharp rap fell on the door.

He looked up. “Come.”

The door opened, and George Radley, the estate manager, looked in.

At the sight of Radley’s tight-lipped face, Christopher dropped the pencil and pushed back his chair. “What?”

“Goats. The Bigfield House herd have got into one of our hop fields.”

Christopher cursed, rose, and strode for the door. He waved Radley ahead of him. “I take it you mean the field bordering the lane?”

Grimly, Radley nodded. “And the plants there are just coming into flower.”

“Naturally!” Equally grim, Christopher strode with Radley for the stable.

* * *

Ellen Martingale sat behind the desk in the study of Bigfield House and stared at the sheets of figures spread before her. She felt like tearing out her hair. Hopper, the estate manager, had left her to wrestle with the projected harvests from the estate’s grain fields; it had taken her a good half hour to realize she needed to know which grains were grown in which fields to make any use of the information.

“Argh!” She tossed down the pencil she’d been using in an attempt to estimate the crops’ total worth. She glared at Hopper’s sheets. “Who would imagine that managing a ‘straightforward farming estate’ would be so complicated?”

A “straightforward farming estate” was how the family solicitor, Mr. Vickers, and Hopper referred to the Bigfield House lands. Ellen absolved Hopper of being deliberately difficult in not noting down which grain grew in each field; the man was trying his best, just as everyone involved was. But sadly, Hopper was an unimaginative sort; a local man, country bred, he consistently failed to allow for Ellen’s lack of local knowledge—indeed, her complete lack of knowledge of farming.

She sighed, closed her eyes, and massaged her temples. A faint headache threatened, and she really couldn’t afford to have it develop further.

The truth was she harbored zero ambition to manage the many enterprises of the Bigfield House estate; she was sitting there, being slowly driven insane, only because there was no one else willing and able to shoulder the burden—and there were so many people dependent on the estate functioning as it should, she couldn’t just allow the farming to bumble along without any oversight.

Of all those under the Bigfield House roof, she was the best qualified to manage the reins her poor uncle could no longer grasp. Her younger brother, Robbie, her aunt Emma, the staff of the large house, all the estate workers, and even Mr. Vickers were counting on her to keep the estate’s wheels rolling, however slowly, in the right direction.

That, Mr. Vickers had assured her, was really all she needed to do.

A pity the good solicitor knew nothing about farming himself!

After a further minute of indulgence—of closed eyes and blessed peace—Ellen drew in a calming breath, lowered her hands, opened her eyes, and studied the sheets before her. Then she looked around the small study. “Perhaps there’s a map that shows what crops are grown where?”

She was about to push back her chair and go hunting when a tap fell on the door. “Yes?”

Partridge, the butler, a tall man with a rotund belly and spindly legs—in his butler’s garb, he forcibly reminded her of his namesake—poked his head around the door, spotted her, and came quickly in and shut the door behind him.

Alerted by his furtive movements, she stared at him, her  “What is it now?”conveyed without words.

Partridge cleared his throat and announced, “Mr. Christopher Cynster has called, miss, and is asking to see Sir Humphrey.”

“Well, he can’t.”

Partridge inclined his head in a careful way that suggested there was some doubt about that. “Mr. Christopher is the eldest son of the Cynsters of Walkhurst Manor, miss. You’ve met the elder Mr. Cynster and Mrs. Cynster—Mr. Christopher’s parents—several times.”

Unease welling, Ellen said, “I thought they’d gone traveling to America.”

Partridge dipped his head. “Indeed, miss. And Mr. Christopher—being the eldest son—has come home to manage the estate.”

 And is doubtless making a much better fist of it than I am here.

She rose. “Be that as it may—”

“Mr. Cynster has called because there’s been an incident with the goats, miss.”

She’d asked Robbie to move the goats into a field while the ornery animals’ pen was being repaired. With growing trepidation, she asked, “What incident?”

“I believe the herd somehow found its way into one of the manor’s hop fields. One where the hops are just coming into flower.”

She didn’t need to be told that was not a good thing; she’d already discovered goats ate just about anything. Quashing the urge to close her eyes and groan, she stepped smartly out from behind the desk. “I’ll speak with Mr. Cynster.” She’d weathered his parents’ visits; one way or another, she’d manage the son’s. “Sir Humphrey doesn’t need to be disturbed.”

Mr. Cynster certainly didn’t need to exchange words with her uncle.

She swept past Partridge on her way to the door. “Where did you leave Mr. Cynster?”

Partridge swiveled to follow. “In the front hall, miss.”

 Thank heaven for small mercies. She opened the door, stepped into the corridor, swung right—and ran into a wall.

One of solid muscle.

 “Oh!”She would have staggered, but hard hands grasped her forearms and steadied her.

Her senses fizzed; her nerves leapt. The skin on her arms, under the firm grip, flushed hot.

She stilled and looked up—into a pair of agate-brown eyes. Mid-brown flecked with mossy green and caramel and set beneath almost-straight dark-brown eyebrows, those alluring eyes widened, then captured her gaze and held it…

Time seemed to suspend. She realized she wasn’t breathing—that her lungs had seized in a most peculiar way.

And she couldn’t stop gawping.

Yet as she studied those fascinating eyes, the expression in them hardened, sharpened; even as she stared, something like suspicion rose and swirled in the moss-and-caramel depths.

 No—no suspicions allowed.

She swallowed and forced her lungs to operate at least enough to hold giddiness at bay, then scrambled to locate her wits and harry them into order.

Christopher found it impossible not to stare—and stare—at the vision before him. He’d felt the jolt of pure sensation when they’d collided, and the startling frisson of awareness that had streaked through them both when he’d seized her arms had put the implication beyond doubt.

His every sense had locked on her. When it came to women, he was an experienced wolf, and every instinct he possessed had focused, unrelentingly and unwaveringly, on her.

He saw her eyes widen, her pupils flare. Saw telltale tension afflict her, constricting her breathing, while the seconds ticked past and he held her—because he hadn’t yet managed to force his fingers to ease and let her go.

He knew—to his soul knew—what those signs plus those afflicting him portended, but…


She looked like a doll, one some young girl had dressed in her most gaudy finery. Hair the color of ripening wheat formed a corona of large curls about her head. Someone had attempted to scoop the silky mass high, into a knot, but numerous curls had slipped free to bounce about her face and shoulders—competing with the trailing ends of a mass of ribbons wound about the knot.

The face thus framed was a sculpted oval, perfect in every delicate line and sheathed in a milk-and-roses complexion that was so unmarred and pristine it looked painted, as if the lady truly was a doll come to life.

Large green-flecked hazel eyes, presently wide and fringed by long brown lashes, plus lush, full lips tinted a pale rose did nothing to counter the unnerving illusion. The lady’s slender neck led down to delicate collarbones and a figure that, courtesy of their collision, he now knew well enough to describe as nicely curvaceous. Yet the doll-like theme rolled on, with her curves clad in a dress that, had he not seen it with his own eyes, he would never have imagined adorning a flesh-and-blood female.

In some lightweight material suitable for summer days, the gown—although in a pretty shade of teal—sported multiple frilled layers about the modest neckline, with more below the waist and about the hem. The skirt was fashionably full, but the combination of narrow white lace and darker-teal ribbon that edged every frill made a mockery of any claim to elegance.

Yet despite what his eyes could see—every evidence that this young lady was the worst sort of frivolous female—his senses continued to insist that she was a pearl beyond price.

He almost shook his head to dispel his confusion. No matter what his obviously scrambled instincts were screaming, there was no way in hell he would ever pursue a lady such as she.

That resolution had him easing his grip and releasing her. Lowering his arms, he ensured his face was devoid of expression and bestowed a curt nod. “Good morning. My apologies. I’m looking for Sir Humphrey.”

He went to step past, but she shifted and blocked him.

“Um…” She hauled in a breath and tipped up her chin. “I regret Sir Humphrey is not receiving.”

 What the devil is going on?Christopher frowned at the irritating female. He hadn’t called at Bigfield House for quite some time, and what little he’d seen while returning the goats suggested all was not running as smoothly as it should. He’d wondered if Sir Humphrey had simply overlooked things.

He opened his mouth to insist on seeing his neighbor, but the lady—who the devil is she?—insinuated herself more definitely between him and the study door and suggested, “Perhaps I can assist you.”

The look he bent on her stated very clearly:  I seriously doubt it.

Holding fast to her rising temper, Ellen kept her gaze on Christopher Cynster’s handsome face and fought to keep her expression mild. Chiseled planes and aristocratic features, broad shoulders, narrow waist, and long legs garbed in typical gentleman’s country attire of well-cut hacking jacket, buckskin breeches, and top boots, all cloaked in an aura of rigidly controlled physical power wielded with arrogant confidence, unquestionably constituted a potent distraction, but regardless of her silly reaction to his touch, she, he would discover, was made of sterner stuff.

She should have guessed that the Cynsters’ eldest son would be a London rake—a wolf of the first order was her experienced assessment.

She tipped her chin a notch higher and calmly inquired, “Was there some specific issue you wished to address with my uncle?”

The agate-y eyes narrowed. His head tipped as he studied her. “Your uncle?”

She arched an eyebrow. “Indeed. I am Sir Humphrey’s niece—Miss Ellen Martingale.”

He held her gaze for a second, the set of his features giving nothing away, then he smoothly inclined his head. “Miss Martingale.” He seemed to come to some decision and went on, “I’m here because of Sir Humphrey’s goats. I’m aware they are his pride and joy, but somehow, the herd got loose, crossed the lane, and pushed their way into one of the manor’s hop fields. As you’re no doubt aware, the hops in this area are just beginning to flower, a critical stage when, unfortunately, goats are especially attracted to the crop.”

His eyes searched hers as if to gauge how much she’d understood.

She returned his stare levelly while her mind raced.

His lips thinned, and he went on, “I’ve just spent the past hour with my men, rounding up the goats and returning them to Bigfield House.”

She blinked. “Ah. The goat pen is being repaired—that’s why the wretched animals weren’t in it.” Looking past his broad shoulder, she frowned. “I thought my brother had shut the goats into the front field—the one on our side of the lane.”

“He might well have done so, but you can’t hold goats in a field fenced only by hedge—not when they can scent ripening hops on the other side. The animals pushed their way through your hedge into the lane, then broke through the hedge on our side to get to our hops.”

Ellen felt her eyes grow round as her lips formed a soundless “Oh.”

Cynster seemed to be fighting a glare, but then, somewhat to her surprise, he conceded, “As luck would have it, my estate manager spotted them fairly soon afterward, and we got them out before they’d caused much damage.”

Conciliation was surely her best way forward. She clasped her hands before her and earnestly said, “I’m terribly sorry—I assure you it won’t happen again.”

Christopher nearly snorted; he wasn’t all that appeased by her assumption of humility. He still wanted a word with Sir Humphrey. “It  can’thappen again, but while returning the goats to their pen—and yes, I saw that it’s now repaired and in good state—I noticed that the barn roof needs attention, and the rear corral fence is shaky and needs to be fixed. I drew Hopper’s attention to both issues.” He paused, then drew breath and more diffidently said, “I know the staff are, understandably and quite laudably, loyal to Sir Humphrey, and I haven’t sought to question them further over what, on the surface, appears to be an uncharacteristic lack of attention to detail.”

He met Miss Ellen Martingale’s pretty eyes. “I thought I would have a word with Sir Humphrey himself.”

He went to step past her, and quick as a flash, she blocked him again.

Her eyes sparked, and she snapped, “As I’ve already mentioned, my uncle is not receiving.”

He arched his brows. “Are we back to that?”

Without further warning, he reached for her waist, clamped his hands over the frills, and lifted her, swung around, and deposited her on the runner behind him. Then he swiftly released her, turned on his heel, and strode into the study.

“Sir Humphrey?” Christopher scanned the room. In this season, at this time of day, he’d expected to find Sir Humphrey behind the large desk.

The desk was strewn with accounts and ledgers, but no Sir Humphrey presided over them.

An agitated rustle of skirts and petticoats heralded the arrival of his would-be denier.

To his surprise, she caught his sleeve and hauled him around—and with fire and fury in her eyes, planted her hands on her hips and all but stamped her foot at him. “How dare you, sir!” Then she flung out a hand toward the desk. “And as you can now see with your own eyes, as I told you, my uncle is not receiving!”

Rather than glance at the uninformative desk, Christopher studied her flushed cheeks and bright eyes. There was something behind her anger, something more along the lines of fear.

Something  wasgoing on.

“Your uncle has known me for all of my life. Receiving or not, he will see me.” With that, he strode rapidly for the door.

Predictably, she rushed after him. She was on his heels as he paced along the corridor. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t yet know.” He spared her a glance. “Why don’t you tell me?”

“You can’t just barge in!”

“Watch me.”

Ahead in the front hall, Christopher spotted Partridge, the butler. Approaching the mouth of the corridor, Christopher rapped out, “Partridge, where’s your master?”

He heard a gasp and dodged to the side to hide the outraged female trying to signal around him.

As he’d hoped, Partridge responded instinctively to the voice of authority. “In the conservatory, sir.”

“Thank you.” Christopher tried to keep the smugness from his tone and failed.

From behind, he heard a heartfelt “Damn it!”

But he’d already turned and was all but jogging toward the conservatory, which stood at the end of a long corridor, virtually at the rear of the house.

He ignored the muttered imprecations and the patter of feet behind him. He felt a tentative tug on his jacket and ignored that, too.

The conservatory was a large one, constructed of glass panes framed in white-painted wood. He spied the top of Sir Humphrey’s gray head rising above the back of a wicker chair set before the wide windows at the end of the room. Gentle sunshine poured in, bathing the chair and its occupant.

Christopher slowed as he neared, instinct prompting him to look before he leapt.

He drew level with the chair and saw Sir Humphrey gazing out at the rolling lawns, bright garden beds, and the green-and-gold patchwork of orchards and fields beyond.

Sir Humphrey’s expression appeared tranquil, and his lips were lightly curved.

Christopher walked farther, to where Sir Humphrey could easily see him. “Sir Humphrey?”

“Heh?” Sir Humphrey looked up at Christopher.

The lack of immediate recognition in the old man’s faded blue eyes sent unease cascading through Christopher. He held out a hand. “It’s Christopher, sir. Christopher Cynster.”

He’d last seen Sir Humphrey a year ago, and the physical change in the man, while obvious, wasn’t enough to raise alarm. But the vacant expression in the blue eyes staring up at him was deeply disturbing.

Then Sir Humphrey’s eyes widened, and recognition flared. Sir Humphrey beamed and clasped his hand. “Excellent! Well met, my boy! Good of you to call.”

Sir Humphrey glanced around, then waved at another chair. “Here—sit down.”

Christopher glanced briefly at Miss Martingale as he moved to comply; she was standing back, out of Sir Humphrey’s sight, and all but wringing her hands.

After tugging the chair closer to Sir Humphrey, Christopher sat and leaned forward.

Sir Humphrey was still smiling. “Good of you to call, Vane.”

Christopher paused, then gently corrected, “It’s Christopher, sir. The pater and Mama are off traveling in America—they called on you before they left.”

And why hadn’t his parents seen what he was seeing and warned him?

“Oh?” Sir Humphrey frowned. “America…oh yes, I remember. Went to visit someone, didn’t they?”

 He has no idea and is trying to conceal it. Obligingly, Christopher said, “The pater is looking into farming equipment and techniques, while Mama is purely sightseeing.”

Sir Humphrey nodded. “And you’re holding the fort while they’re away, heh?”

Christopher knew his parents would have mentioned that. He nodded. “Yes.”

“Need some advice, then? Is that what’s brought you here?”

Christopher glanced at Miss Martingale. She now stood with her arms folded; both stance and expression radiated irritated resignation. Carefully, he said, “I came because your goats got loose. I brought them back.”

“My goats?” Sir Humphrey’s gaze brightened. “Why, I’d almost forgotten I had them!” He focused on Christopher. “I say—are they all right?”

The sudden flare of imminent agitation had Christopher saying, “Quite all right, sir…although”—he glanced again at Miss Martingale and was relieved to see she’d lowered her arms and was walking forward—“I thought I should mention that their hooves need trimming.”

“Oh.” Sir Humphrey’s eyes clouded with confused concern.

Miss Martingale placed a firm hand on Sir Humphrey’s shoulder. “No need to worry, uncle. I’ll speak to Hopper. He’ll see that the goats are taken care of.”

Sir Humphrey looked up at his niece, and his features relaxed. Smiling, he raised a gnarled hand and patted her fingers. “Thank you, my dear. I know I can rely on you and the others. Very comforting, it is, and that’s a fact.”

As Sir Humphrey’s gaze swung back to him, Christopher rose and held out his hand. “I’ll leave you now, sir. It was good to see you again.”

“Indeed, indeed.” Sir Humphrey grasped his hand with a surprisingly firm grip. “My thanks to you for calling, Vane. Glad we had time to catch up. I expect I’ll see you at the meet next week, heh? Give my regards to Patience, won’t you?”

Faced with the earnestness in Sir Humphrey’s gaze, Christopher managed a reassuring smile. “Yes, of course.” He glanced at Miss Martingale. “Until next time, sir.”

With that, he walked slowly to the conservatory door. Halting, he turned and saw Miss Martingale bending solicitously over her uncle, settling him again.

Eventually, she straightened and walked toward Christopher. He waited until she neared to quietly demand, “What the devil’s going on?”

Her lips compressed to a thin line, and her gaze grew as hard as diamonds. She studied him in silence, assessingly, measuringly, then said, “As you insist on knowing, come to the study, and I’ll tell you what you deserve to know.”

He nearly humphed at her presumption, but there was a strength in her voice—in her attitude—he hadn’t seen before.

She might look like a doll, but there was steel beneath the distracting façade, and every instinct he possessed warned that treating her dismissively would be a serious mistake.

He stood back to allow her to precede him through the door, and with outward meekness, followed her along the corridor.

* * *

Ellen slumped into the chair behind the desk and watched as her unexpected and unwished-for visitor pulled an armchair around to face her and sat—every movement executed with elegant grace. If she had to have a nosy neighbor of her own generation, she deemed it grossly unfair that he was so visually—and in so many other ways—distracting. She had enough on her plate without that.

But he’d seen her uncle and was now as sober and focused as a judge. He would have questions galore, and she needed to decide how much to reveal.

 Can I trust him?

She wished she could have sought advice from Hopper or Vickers or even Partridge. But Cynster was there now, in front of her, and she had to make up her mind purely on her own observations.

She studied him openly. After a moment, he cocked a dark eyebrow at her, with a certain languid arrogance asking without words if she’d seen enough.

She grimaced faintly; the impression she’d got from the exchange in the conservatory—and even more, his reaction to her uncle’s state—was that Christopher Cynster was an honorable gentleman and not the sort to take advantage of another’s misfortune.

 Who knows? He might even be a help.

Apparently losing patience with her hesitation, he offered, “The last time I saw Sir Humphrey, admittedly over a year ago, he was hale and hearty and striding about his acres, keeping everyone in line. I know my parents visited him before they left, and that would have been not quite two months ago. They spoke with me afterward, yet said nothing about your uncle having…difficulties.” His voice hardened. “Yet now I find him with his mind wandering.”

Ellen inwardly sighed; she wasn’t going to be able to keep much, if anything, from him. “We—my younger brother, Robert, who is Sir Humphrey’s heir, our maternal aunt, and I—came to join my uncle’s household last October.”

Cynster frowned. “Why was that?”

Impertinent, yet… “Primarily because Sir Humphrey wished it. He’s been our guardian—my brother’s and mine—since our father, Sir Humphrey’s older brother, died in ’44. We had a house in Belgravia, and our mother was London born and bred and wished to remain there, for the social whirl above all else. But she contracted a fever in the summer of ’49 and passed away. After our year of mourning, as Robbie is Sir Humphrey’s heir, Sir Humphrey, backed by Vickers, the family’s solicitor, pressed us to sell the London house and, together with our widowed aunt, who’d lived with us for many years and who Sir Humphrey knew well, come to live here, at Bigfield House.” She shrugged lightly. “Robbie and I were agreeable, as was our aunt Emma—none of us were as fond of London as Mama—so we sold up and came down to Kent and became a part of this household.”

She paused, then went on, “It seemed sensible all around. We all thought it would give Robbie time to learn how to manage the estate.”

“Including what it takes to safely corral goats,” Cynster drily remarked.

“That would be the least of it,” she returned acerbically. “Robbie’s only twenty and rides well, but that’s the limit of his country expertise. Hopper and the farmworkers, orchardmen, and herdsmen know what’s needed, or so I’ve been assured, but they—like me—have been run off their feet trying to keep up with things”—she drew breath, raised her chin, and looked at Cynster challengingly—“since we realized Uncle Humphrey wasn’t able to anymore.”

He studied her, then prompted, “What happened?”

“Nothing dramatic—that was part of the problem.” She thought back to their arrival and the weeks and months after that. “When we first took up residence here, Uncle Humphrey seemed quite normal—to us and everyone else. Emma has known Humphrey for most of her life, and she didn’t see or sense anything amiss. None of the staff suspected a thing, and as you probably know, most of the senior staff have been at Bigfield for decades and are very loyal to and protective of my uncle. Not even Vickers, who has known and worked closely with Humphrey for most of Humphrey’s adult life, had any idea my uncle’s mind was failing. As you saw, physically, he’s still quite hale and whole, and at first, it was just minor things—slips of memory that anyone might make—like calling Robbie by my father’s name. His condition came on gradually, and we strongly suspect that Uncle Humphrey grew quite adept at hiding his difficulties.”

She paused, then continued, “Eventually, we realized that, at times, Humphrey actually thought Robbie  wasour father—that during those times, Humphrey was living in some version of the past. Vickers now believes Humphrey had some sense of his failing faculties, and that was why he was so insistent we left London and came to live with him.”

“He foresaw his own decline?”

“So Vickers thinks. He may well be right. There are still days when you might imagine Humphrey is back to his former self, but the next day, he’ll have retreated again.” She gestured toward the conservatory. “You’ve seen how he is—he lives more in his memory than in the real world.”

Cynster looked genuinely perturbed. “I can’t believe my parents didn’t sense something was wrong.”

She smiled faintly. “Humphrey rallied when they visited—he made a huge effort to stay focused. There are times when he can manage that, but as the days pass, more and more, he simply can’t bring his mind to bear.”

Cynster held her gaze for a long moment, then stated, “You’re trying to hide your uncle’s decline from the neighborhood.”

She tipped her head. “Not so much from the neighbors as from the agents the estate deals through—the ones who purchase our fleeces, fruits, and crops.” She watched Cynster closely as she said, “According to Hopper, if Humphrey’s condition becomes widely known, then with no experienced man to step into his shoes, when it comes to selling our produce, there’s a good chance the estate will be taken advantage of.” She paused, trying to gauge his reaction. “Vickers agrees, so I’m trying to hold the fort here and cope with the day-to-day decisions while Robbie does his best to learn the ropes from the ground up, as it were.”

From the awareness and concern Cynster allowed to show, she concluded that Hopper and Vickers hadn’t been wrong. She rubbed her forehead, where her earlier headache lingered. “We all, Vickers included, thought Robbie would have five years at least to learn how to manage the estate before, eventually, taking over from Uncle Humphrey. But things didn’t fall out that way, and we’re all doing our best to manage the situation as well as we can—meaning as Humphrey would have wanted and expected.”

When Cynster said nothing but stared frowningly into space, she more waspishly stated, “I assure you we will cope—one way or another. And now, if your curiosity is satisfied, perhaps you’ll allow me to get on with these projections.”

Quite where her spurt of temper came from, she couldn’t have said, but she was certain of its target.

Christopher heard the underlying anger in her words, presumably due to having been forced to reveal such information. She wasn’t the sort to relish being forced to do anything, much less acknowledge such a weakness in an uncle she plainly cared for.

But her revelations had left him with a lot to think about; he needed time to sort through all the ramifications. In the circumstances, he decided to accept her dismissal, regardless of how snippily it had been delivered.

He got to his feet. “Thank you for being so frank.”

She met his gaze and, he suspected, fought not to narrow her eyes.

He hid a smile, but then sobered. He hesitated, then felt compelled to say, “Our families have known each other for decades, and the manor and Bigfield House have always supported each other through any adversity. If we at the manor can render any assistance in this instance, know you have only to ask.”

She searched his eyes and, presumably, confirmed his sincerity. With a graciousness that was singularly remarkable given the ribbons bobbing about her ears, she inclined her head. “Thank you for the offer. If we have need of assistance, I’ll remember it.”

He noted that she didn’t say she would ask for his help, but he’d said what he’d needed to say, and so had she. He nodded in farewell. “I’ll see myself out.”

She didn’t leap to her feet and insist on showing him to the door. She remained where she was and, with a direct and level gaze, watched him leave.

Once in the corridor and out of her sight, Christopher shook his head.

He passed through the hall and walked out through the open front door, into the afternoon sunshine. A groom stood waiting at the bottom of the steps, holding the reins of Christopher’s gray hunter, Storm. After taking the reins and thanking the lad, Christopher stepped to Storm’s side—and paused.

Despite his initial expectations evoked by her doll-like frippery, Miss Ellen Martingale had displayed not the slightest sign of harboring even the faintest interest in him.

Given her status as an unmarried young lady beyond her first blush, that alone was odd.

Yet compounding that oddity, she’d shown no sign of wishing to investigate the searing attraction that had flared so unexpectedly between them.

Indeed, she’d done her level best to pretend that attraction didn’t exist.

After a moment spent reviewing their recent interaction, Christopher softly snorted, stuck his boot in the stirrup, and swung up to the saddle. He settled, lifted the reins, and urged Storm down the drive.

He might have thought he was losing his touch, but he knew it wasn’t that. No. It was Miss Ellen Martingale.

She was a strange bird—one quite different from any other lady of her station. From any other lady he’d ever met. 

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