The Greatest Challenge Of Them All
An original Cynster Next Generation Novel #6
Volume 3 in Devil's Brood Trilogy
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-41-5
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-05-7
Release Date: July 13 2017
A nobleman devoted to defending queen and country and a noblewoman wild enough to match his every step race to disrupt the plans of a malignant intelligence intent on shaking England to its very foundations.
Lord Drake Varisey, Marquess of Winchelsea, eldest son and heir of the Duke of Wolverstone, must foil a plot that threatens to shake the foundations of the realm, but the very last lady—nay, noblewoman—he needs assisting him is Lady Louisa Cynster, known throughout the ton as Lady Wild.
For the past nine years, Louisa has suspected that Drake might well be the ideal husband for her, even though he’s assiduous in avoiding her. But she’s now twenty-seven and enough is enough. She believes propinquity will reveal exactly what it is that lies between them, and what better opportunity to work closely with Drake than this latest mission with which he patently needs her help?
Unable to deny Louisa’s abilities or the value of her assistance and powerless to curb her willfulness, Drake is forced to grit his teeth and acquiesce to her sticking by his side if only to ensure her safety. But all too soon, his true feelings for her surface sufficiently for her, perspicacious as she is, to see through his denials, which she then interprets as a challenge.
Even while they gather information, tease out clues, increasingly desperately search for the missing gunpowder, and doggedly pursue the killer responsible for an ever-escalating tally of dead men, thrown together through the hours, he and she learn to trust and appreciate each other. And fed by constant exposure—and blatantly encouraged by her—their desires and hungers swell and grow…
As the barriers between them crumble, the attraction he has for so long restrained burgeons and balloons, until goaded by her near-death, it erupts, and he seizes her—only to be seized in return.
Linked irrevocably and with their wills melded and merged by passion’s fire, with time running out and the evil mastermind’s deadline looming, together, they focus their considerable talents and make one last push to learn the critical truths—to find the gunpowder and unmask the villain behind this far-reaching plot.
Only to discover that they have significantly less time than they’d thought, that the villain’s target is even more crucially fundamental to the realm than they’d imagined, and it’s going to take all that Drake is—as well as all that Louisa as Lady Wild can bring to bear—to defuse the threat, capture the villain, and make all safe and right again.
As they race to the ultimate confrontation, the future of all England rests on their shoulders.
“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
Enthroned in an armchair in the back parlor of St. Ives House, Lady Louisa Helena Horatia Cynster watched Lord Drake Varisey, Marquess of Winchelsea, struggle to accept the inevitable. Could his reluctance be any more obvious? Well, he would simply have to get used to it. She’d had enough of playing by his rules.
She knew all about Drake’s “missions” and his coterie of gentlemen known as the “sons of the nobility.” What she wanted to know was: What about the daughters of the nobility? Weren’t they allowed to play a part in defending their country?
What about Boadicea?
Besides, as it appeared that Antonia Rawlings and Miss Hendon had been included in this intrigue, Louisa saw no reason why she—a duke’s daughter accomplished in wielding the power such standing bestowed—couldn’t play a part. An active part.
Naturally, she understood why Drake, and her brothers, too, wished to keep her far from their enterprise. But her brothers knew their place. Drake would simply have to grow accustomed to his.
It was time. And more, truth be told.
She could remember the precise moment when she’d realized that from her point of view, Drake was the outstanding candidate for the position of her husband. She could also remember perfectly well when she’d realized he knew that, too.
He, however, had evidently decided to avoid addressing the issue for as long as he possibly could.
They were not in love. How could they be when he’d ensured he spent as little time within ten yards of her as humanly possible?
Which, of course, was a very large part of the reason he didn’t want her anywhere near his precious mission.
Too bad. She was dealing herself into his game.
“I understand,” she said, allowing her words, clear and even, to fall into the pervasive silence, “what your intentions are at this point.” Briskly, she summarized, “Sebastian and Antonia to hold the social fort and, now we know the dead gentleman’s name, to learn as much as possible about him from those they meet in the ballrooms. Also, they will inquire of Scotland Yard as to whether Lawton was the man who shot Connell Boyne in Kent. If not, it would seem we have more than one killer involved in this intrigue.”
Drake opened his mouth, but she gave him no quarter—no chance to interrupt and seize the reins. “Meanwhile, Michael and Cleo—” She broke off to smile at the fair-haired lady sitting beside Michael. “I do hope I may call you Cleo?”
Cleo’s resulting smile held a touch of fascination. “As we are to be sisters-in-law, I hope you will.”
Louisa felt her smile spontaneously deepen; she rather thought she and Cleo would get on. She inclined her head and continued, “Michael and Cleo will make inquiries as to whether gunpowder can be transported in containers other than barrels specially made for the purpose.” She arched a brow at Michael. “I assume the men you have watching the area in Southwark are the footmen army.”
Michael blinked; it seemed he hadn’t realized she knew about his and Sebastian’s previous exploits that had led to the formation of said army. Slowly, warily, he nodded. “They know what they’re doing—we can trust them to keep watch.”
“And respond appropriately should they spot the barrels once again in transit.” She switched her gaze to Drake.
Apparently accepting that she was not about to withdraw, he’d subsided into the armchair he’d previously occupied and was regarding her through eyes of beaten gold; his expression said little other than that he was very definitely not amused.
She inwardly grinned. “As it’s already well past five o’clock”—on cue, the others all glanced at the mantelpiece on which a large ormolu clock resided—“then I assume it’s too late to call at the London Working Men’s Association.” At the slight flaring of Drake’s eyes—which for him denoted startled surprise—she smiled a touch patronizingly. “I understand that’s the headquarters of the London Chartists. However, like most such offices, they will have closed at five o’clock, so pursuing that line of inquiry will need to wait until morning.”
Drake nearly spoke—no doubt to insist she went nowhere near the London Working Men’s Association—but at the last second, his gaze steady on her face, presumably reading her preparedness to verbally engage, he bit the words back.
Smoothly, she continued, “Our most pressing need—and also the avenue most amenable to immediate pursuit—is to learn of Lawton Chilburn’s connections. His friends, his family, those with whom he associated. Anyone who might know with whom he was involved in recent days—or, indeed, who might themselves be his fellow conspirators.”
“You knew who he was.” Drake’s tone was studiously level. “What do you know of his family?”
“Three older brothers and three sisters—two much older, the other younger, yet still older than Lawton. All his siblings are married.” She paused to consult her memory. “His father is Viscount Hawesley of Ludworth, near Durham. His mother was a Nagle—she’s aunt to the current Marquess of Faringdale.” She met Drake’s eyes. “The branches of both family trees are numerous, so Lawton has a large number of cousins.”
She switched her gaze to Sebastian and Antonia. “Which events are you planning to attend tonight?”
From his expression, Sebastian had no clue. He glanced at Antonia, who recited, “The Carnabys’ dinner, Lady Ormond’s soiree, and the Marchmains’ gala.”
Louisa nodded. “I have to make an appearance at the Marchmains’, but as you’re covering those events, I’ll try my hand at Lady Chisholm’s ball and at the Mountjoys’ soiree, then end at Lady Cottlesloe’s. Most of the Chilburns should be in town, and at least some of them should be out and about in the ton tonight.”
Michael glanced at Cleo. “We need to compose and dispatch a letter to Cleo’s parents.”
“And I must return home before my household raises a hue and cry,” Cleo added.
“But later”—Michael looked at Louisa, then switched his gaze to Drake—“I can circulate through the clubs and see if I can turn up any of Chilburn’s friends. At the very least, I should get some inkling of what crowd he ran with.”
“Then tomorrow,” Cleo said, “we’ll check with the footmen and learn what types of containers are commonly passing out of that area, then I believe we’ll visit the office of the Inspector General of Gunpowder. Someone there should be able to tell us definitively whether any other sort of receptacle can be used to transport gunpowder.” Gathering her reticule, she glanced at the clock and rose. “And as it’s past six o’clock, I need to be on my way.”
The men stood. Michael declared he would see Cleo home.
Louisa rose, clasped Cleo’s hand, and smiled warmly. “We haven’t had a chance to grow acquainted, yet I’m already certain we’ll be friends.”
Cleo’s smile was delighted and also intrigued. “I feel the same. Until tomorrow and whatever it brings.”
Louisa watched Michael and Cleo leave, then turned to see Sebastian arching a black brow at Antonia.
“Yes, I agree.” Antonia glanced at Louisa. “The Carnabys’ dinner is at eight, so we, too, must get on.”
They’d been acquainted all their lives; Louisa touched cheeks with Antonia. For her ears alone, Louisa whispered, “I can barely believe he finally came to his senses. How on earth did you manage it?”
Antonia’s smile turned mischievous. “It wasn’t that hard. I just needed the right time and the right place. And the right incentive.”
Barred by the company from requesting further clarification, Louisa released Antonia to Sebastian, whom she farewelled with a regal nod.
She and Drake watched the pair pass through the parlor door, leaving the two of them standing in the space between the sofas, separated by a perfectly decent two yards.
Although she wasn’t looking at him—was rather careful not to—she sensed his hesitation, his equivocation over being alone with her even in such innocuous and understandable circumstances. And it wasn’t any consideration of propriety that provoked the itch beneath his skin. She was twenty-seven years old, for heaven’s sake, and they were in her parents’ house with staff only a good scream distant.
No. It was the attraction that had always simmered between them that was making him glance at the door. To this day, she didn’t know if he was as affected by it as she was—if he felt it to the same extent, with the same unrelenting intensity. Like a roughened hand passing over already sensitized nerves in a manner that was simultaneously unsettling and the ultimate in temptation.
She didn’t know if that compulsive attraction presaged anything more than lust or if it might be a harbinger of something deeper. Something more profound, like love.
The most irritating aspect of her ignorance was the lowering thought that his reaction to her over the past decade was due to him—so much more experienced in such matters than she—correctly interpreting her fascination with him, not reciprocating it, and because of their families’ connection, rather than bluntly repudiating her interest, he’d elected to simply avoid her.
Presumably in the hope that she would turn away and, eventually, marry someone else.
She might have done just that—no lady of her ilk willingly remained a virgin for so long—except that from her earliest years in society, she’d measured every other gentleman against him, and invariably, those others had failed to meet his mark. Until she—and he—confronted whatever fueled their attraction, until they gave it its head and allowed it to rise or die as it would, she wasn’t going to be able to get on with her life.
With him or with some other gentleman. She was already twenty-seven years old. Waiting for Drake to make his feelings known—to accept or reject her in some unequivocal fashion—hadn’t borne fruit. It was time to learn the truth, one way or the other.
“What are you imagining?”
She glanced at him and found him regarding her through narrowed eyes. His demand—for demand it unquestionably was—was no longer couched in any gentle tone. His voice had turned hard, even harsh, with an undertone that was faintly menacing.
She quelled an urge to grin; if he was trying to send her running, she had the upper hand. “I believe I’ll concentrate on tracking down Lawton’s sisters and possibly his mother and see what they can tell me about him. I’m sure they’ll frequently send notes, even if only summonses to family events. They must know his address.”
Learning of Chilburn’s address was Drake’s top priority. With the man dead, the sooner Drake gained access to his rooms and any papers therein, the better.
Her limpid gaze on his face, Louisa arched her brows. “How are you planning on spending your evening?”
Avoiding you. “I’m going to start at Arthur’s, then quarter the likely clubs.” He hesitated, then acknowledged, “I—we—need to learn Chilburn’s address with all speed.” Of course, she’d focused on the critical next step.
Her lips curved playfully. “I wonder which of us will learn it first?” For a second, her eyes quizzed him.
Then before he could insist she promise that, if she did learn of Chilburn’s address, she wouldn’t venture there herself, Lady Wild’s smile deepened, and with a swish of her skirts, she swept past him and on toward the door. Without looking back, she raised her right hand and waggled her fingers. “Good luck.”
And then she was gone, leaving him staring after her, inwardly swearing while wrestling with a host of contradictory impulses.
A minute passed, then he set his lips. He felt his jaw clench, tried to ease the telltale sign, and failed.
With a muttered oath, he stalked out of the room and headed for the front hall.
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