Miss Flibbertigibbet and The Barbarian

The 12th Cynster Next Generation Novel
In Paperback, digital and audio formats
ISBN: 978-1-925559-55-2
Release Date: March 16, 2023

#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens returns with a story of two people thrown together on a journey of discovery that defines what each most want of life, love, and family. A gentleman wishing to buy a fabulous horse and a lady set on protecting her family find common ground while pursuing a thief who upends both of their plans.

Nicholas Cynster rides up to Aisby Grange determined to secure the stallion known as The Barbarian for his family’s Thoroughbred breeding stable, only to be turned away by the owner’s daughter. Nicholas retreats, but is not about to be denied by any lady, no matter how startlingly beautiful and distracting.

Lady Adriana Sommerville knows Nicholas will be back and resigns herself to having to manage his interaction with her aging father. She successfully negotiates that potential quagmire only, at the very last moment, to discover the horse is missing.

Stunned, Addie insists on setting out in pursuit and is not so silly as to refuse Nicholas’s support.

But as they follow on the heels of The Barbarian, their adventures and encounters open both their eyes to the prospect of a more enduring partnership. Yet before they can follow that trail farther and before they can lay hands on the horse, through shock after shock, their pursuit uncovers a complicated plot that strips away masks and rescripts everything Addie and her siblings thought they knew about the Sommerville family.

A classic historical romance of adventure, discovery, and reconciliation set in the English countryside. A Cynster Next Generation novel. A full-length historical romance of 103,000 words.

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“The Cynster saga continues in this tale of romance and horse thievery. Mystery and passion intermingle in the love story of Nicholas Cynster and Adriana Sommerville. Fans of historical romance won't be able to get enough of the engaging characters and steamy love scenes.” Brittany M., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing 

“Lady Adriana Sommerville would much prefer to become a spinster than settle for one of the insipid London gents she's met during Seasons past. When handsome Nicholas Cynster visits her home to buy a valuable horse from her father, however, she finds herself re-examining her thoughts on men and marriage in the latest Cynster saga, one sure to please fans of this sweeping series.” Angela M., Copy Editor, Red Adept Editing 

“Nicholas Cynster and Adriana Sommerville both share a love of horses, and a romance begins to bloom between them. With a backdrop of adventure and great main characters, this book is a wonderful read!” Kristina B., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing

CHAPTER 1

 

July 8, 1854

Newmarket, Cambridgeshire

 

Whatever you have to do, get that horse!

Nicholas Cynster reread the words with which his sister Prudence had concluded her reply to his urgent inquiry. His lips twisted wryly. Pru had underlined the last three words several times. In his imagination, he could hear her voice forcefully and determinedly uttering the injunction.

He was seated in solitary splendor at the breakfast table in the early-morning quiet of the Cynster farmhouse. Currently, he was the only member of the family in residence. Indeed, if Pru had been in England, sitting at the table opposite him as she had for so many years, he had no doubt she would be preparing to leave in pursuit of said horse herself. But luckily or unluckily—at times like this, he wasn’t sure which—Pru was now married and living in Ireland with her husband, Deaglan Fitzgerald, the Earl of Glengarah. More, at present, she was heavily pregnant with their second child. Consequently, Nicholas and Pru’s parents had traveled to Ireland to assist in keeping Pru and Deaglan’s firstborn, Dougal, a rambunctious toddler, entertained.

Nicholas slumped back in his chair, tossed the letter onto the table beside his emptied plate, and with reluctant but growing resignation, contemplated the missive that had been delivered by courier mere minutes before.

Given that his father, legendary Thoroughbred racehorse owner and trainer Demon Cynster, would have been privy to Pru’s assessment—Nicholas’s inquiry had been addressed to them both—he had to accept that Pru’s directive carried his father’s imprimatur. Although Nicholas now ran the Cynster racing stable, his father’s opinion on such a matter wasn’t something he—or indeed, anyone in the Thoroughbred racing world—would ignore.

Several days ago, Nicholas’s groom, Young Gillies, had picked up a rumor in a smoky corner of the local tavern to the effect that an exceptional Thoroughbred stallion that had vanished from the Jockey Club’s records some years ago, whereabouts unknown, had recently been sighted on the Earl of Aisby’s estate.

Unfortunately, Nicholas’s younger brother, Toby, who had succeeded Pru as manager of the Cynster breeding stable, was presently off on some mission for Drake Varisey and, consequently, was not available to pursue the horse.

Nicholas’s youngest sibling, Meg, was also away from home, spending summer with friends while their parents were in Ireland. Not that Meg, being the only one in the family who was not horse-mad, would have been of much assistance. She certainly wouldn’t have agreed to go haring off to Aisby to persuade the earl to sell the stallion known as The Barbarian to the Cynsters.

On learning of the rumor and being of a cautious nature, especially when it came to matters of horseflesh—there were too many shysters in the game—after ascertaining the known particulars of the horse, Nicholas had sent a courier racing to Ireland to seek Pru’s advice. He had plenty to keep him occupied at Newmarket, running the Cynster racing stable and filling in for Toby in overseeing the breeding stable. He really didn’t want to tear off on some goose-chase—stallion-chase—after a horse that, in the end, proved to be not worth his and the family’s time.

“However”—he tapped Pru’s letter with one fingertip—“it seems The Barbarian is a horse we have to have.”

There was no getting around it; he would have to go to Aisby Grange in Lincolnshire—the earl’s principal seat—and negotiate to buy the horse. As part of that, he would need to clarify just why the horse had vanished from the Thoroughbred register for several years before turning up in the earl’s stable.

Nicholas sighed and pushed away from the table. “At least it’s summer. With any luck, the earl will be rusticating at Aisby Grange.”

* * *

Two days later, astride Tamerlane, his big gray hunter, Nicholas trotted up the gravel drive of Aisby Grange. Debrett’s had informed him that the current earl was a Sommerville, but Nicholas knew little beyond that; he didn’t know anyone in the Sommerville family and hadn’t had time to visit his grandmother in London to learn more.

Given that he habitually eschewed the capital and paid ton gossip no heed at all, he was, therefore, venturing into unknown territory. When he emerged from the avenue of trees, currently in heavy leaf, and the house came into full view, he reined in and scanned the façade for any clues as to its owner.

Built of pale-yellow stone, with two full stories plus dormers beneath a slate roof, Aisby Grange was an impressive, earl-worthy residence. From this vantage point, the house appeared to be a substantial rectangular block. The front doors faced south, looking over an expanse of gently sloping lawn to the shores of a large lake.

Everything about the place appeared neat and in excellent repair. The stone frame around every long window was crisp and clean, and diamond-shaped panes sparkled in the summer sunshine. The many chimneys stood tall and straight, their pots aligned in perfect symmetry, while the canopies of the ancient trees behind the house swayed and danced, ruffling in the intermittent breeze and forming a living frame for the structure.

A large porte-cochere extended outward over the front steps and the carriage drive, rendering the edifice even more imposing.

Sudden movement in the shadows of the porte-cochere, around the open front doors, accompanied by muffled shouts from within captured Nicholas’s attention. He squinted against the sun’s glare, trying to see what was happening.

* * *

Summoned by a cacophony of shrieks, screams, and yells, Lady Adriana Sommerville rushed into the Grange’s front hall and skidded to a stop at the sight that met her eyes.

Her ever-widening eyes.

Their butler, Merriweather, two footmen, and one of the parlormaids were scrambling to assist her three younger siblings—Mortie, fourteen years old, Angie, twelve, and Benjamin, ten—who, apparently, had decided that creating a game involving flying flour bombs was a good idea.

To that end, they’d attached paper sacks stuffed with flour to several conglomerations of rubber balloons—one, two, or three balloons, multiple examples of each. In addition, some of the sacks-plus-balloons were attached to kites. As usual on warm summer days, the front doors were propped wide, and there was enough breeze flowing through the hall to keep the kites-plus-balloons aloft. As for the balloon-only efforts, even without the kites, they were soaring and bobbing in the high-ceilinged hall, wafting this way and that on the currents that swept through whenever a door almost anywhere in the house was opened.

The creations with kites had long strings attached, which were now trailing on the floor, but the balloon-only efforts had strings that might have been long enough to be caught in other rooms or in the house’s corridors, but the ceiling in the front hall soared much higher, and the balloons were now bobbing free, despite the best efforts of the footmen, who were leaping up, trying to catch the strings.

The entire scene was comical and would have been amusing had the sacks of flour not started to leak.

Drips of flour now liberally splattered the black-and-green floor tiles and decorated the heads and shoulders of Merriweather and the footmen.

Argh! Lips setting, Addie strode forward. “Mortie! Angie! Benjamin!”

The three culprits swung to face her, identical expressions of guilt on their faces.

She pointed to the kites’ trailing strings. “Pull the kites in first. Now!”

Her brothers leapt to obey.

“My lady.” Merriweather looked guilty, too. He waved at the chaos. “I’m afraid the contraptions got away from us.”

“No need to apologize, Merriweather. Please have”—Addie glanced at the footmen—“Tom and Trevor take charge of the kites and associated balloons. We don’t want them to get loose again. I suggest taking the contraptions”—that was as good a name for the things as any other—“to the kitchen, where I’m sure Cook will have an implement sharp enough to puncture the balloons, and she’ll want to retrieve her flour.” Addie caught Angie’s eyes. “I wonder if Cook even knows she’s missing several pounds of her best flour, hmm?”

Her expression reminiscent of a startled doe, Angie whirled to help her brothers gather in the kite-attached balloons with their dangling, dripping sacks of flour.

While her siblings dealt with half the problem, planting her hands on her hips, Addie stared upward at the significantly more intractable half. Six balloon-only sacks continued to randomly drip flour across the hall. Without kites attached, the contraptions seemed even more susceptible to every little breeze. They dipped and swayed this way and that.

The sound of a door slamming somewhere on the upper floors of the house reached her.

A second later, a gust of air blew into the hall. For an instant, the balloons dipped low, forced down by the sudden pressure from above. Tom leapt and caught one, only to have the sack of flour burst in his hands, showering him with fine white dust.

“Oh no!” burst from several throats.

Most eyes were on Tom, sputtering and gasping, but Addie’s gaze remained locked on the remaining five balloon-and-flour-sack combinations as they swept low across the hall and out through the tall front doors.

Not yet relieved, she hurried to the doorway. It would be a fine thing if the five contraptions escaped into the wide blue sky, but…

She halted on the threshold, looked out, and sighed in disappointment. Glancing back into the hall, she confirmed that the kite-attached flour bombs had been retrieved and were being carted off to the kitchen in the arms of the maid, Trevor, and poor flour-bedecked Tom.

“Right, then!” Imperiously, she beckoned her siblings to join her.

All three responded with an alacrity that suggested the outcome of their latest “experiment” had not, thus far, been a disappointment. Along the way, Mortie and Benjamin swooped and picked up their bows and arrows, apparently set aside on the floor while they’d leapt to catch their contraptions.

Merriweather followed rather more cautiously.

When the children clustered about her, Addie pointed into the porte-cochere, directing their gazes upward into the high, deep-raftered roof. The five contraptions were now lodged between the rafters and crossbeams and, despite the quite gusty breeze, showed no sign of moving again.

Far from being downcast, Mortie, Angie, and Benjamin clattered down the steps. Their faces alight, they peered upward at their handiwork.

Addie studied the contraptions, noting that, from the level of the drive, the attached strings were nowhere near long enough to be caught. She followed her siblings down the steps and onto the gravel and joined them in staring up at the five flour bombs.

“I say!” Mortie exclaimed. “What an excellent notion!” Eagerly, he turned his wide-eyed gaze on Angie and Benjamin. “If our enemies come calling and we have this already set up, we can shoot holes in the sacks and rain…well, something nasty down on the attackers’ heads.” He looked up at the porte-cochere’s ceiling. “They’d never guess the bombs were there.”

Addie refrained from pointing out that any archer would have to be visible in the doorway or, worse, down on the drive to shoot at the sacks. She crossed her arms and studied her siblings. “What, exactly, was this in aid of?”

They turned ardent faces her way. “We thought,” Mortie explained, “that if the house was under siege—”

“Like it was during the War of the Roses,” Angie put in, and Benjamin nodded solemnly.

“Then,” Mortie continued, “we could use flying bombs to defend the place. That was our original idea.”

Benjamin brandished his bow. “We were going to let the kites and balloons free over the front lawn, then shoot holes in the sacks.”

“As a trial,” Mortie said, “to see if the idea would work.”

“But I tripped in the hall,” Angie morosely admitted, “and lost hold of the strings, and the kites and balloons flew up, and we couldn’t catch them.”

Having witnessed the outcome, Addie fought to keep her lips straight. She looked up at the errant balloons. “Very well. One has to acknowledge that defending the house is a laudable enterprise. But how are you going to get those down?”

All five remaining bombs were intermittently dripping flour.

The trio studied their no-longer-flying bombs, then offered several half-hearted and distinctly improbable suggestions, all of which obviously would not work.

In light of the difficulties, more to herself than to anyone else, Addie mused, “Perhaps we can just leave them. Eventually, the flour will run out, and the balloons will deflate and come down low enough to be caught.”

“Or to blow away,” Angie said.

Addie nodded. “Indeed.”

Merriweather, who had halted on the porch’s top step and, until then, had remained a silent observer, cleared his throat.

Addie glanced his way; character-wise, the man was a rock, and he was built like one as well, a stout, solid presence in butler’s black. “Yes, Merriweather?”

“If I might comment, my lady, leaving the bombs to drip until empty will hardly do. It will risk the embarrassment of inconveniencing anyone who comes to call.”

Addie smiled reassuringly. “But no one is likely to call, at least not over the next days.”

“Ahem.” Merriweather looked pointedly left, along the drive.

Swiveling, Addie followed his gaze…to the gentleman who was riding up on a magnificent gray hunter.

The gentleman, Addie noted, was rather magnificent, too.

She blinked at the thought, then promptly banished it. She glanced at her siblings, only to see that, judging by their expressions, they shared her assessment. She returned her gaze to the rider and was forced to admit that, with his nut-brown hair touched by the sun, clean-cut, strong, and austere features, broad-shouldered horseman’s build, and the relaxed, loose-limbed posture of one born to the saddle, he was the epitome of a gentleman-god approaching on a magnificent steed.

“Such lines,” Mortie breathed.

“He’s very handsome,” Angie whispered. “And such a lovely pearly color.”

“Has to be a Thoroughbred,” Benjamin announced.

Another glance at her siblings confirmed that their eyes were all for the horse. Hers, on the other hand…

Addie looked back at the rider as he drew the horse to a halt. A nice enough horse, no doubt, but her attention was all for his master.

He dismounted with the fluid grace of an expert horseman, and she discovered her mouth had gone dry.

She felt faintly stunned. Since when had any man affected her like that? And he was still yards away!

Disconcerted by such unexpected—unprecedented—susceptibility, she stiffened her spine and strengthened her defensive shield. No matter what had brought such a gentleman to Aisby Grange, such vulnerability was not a good sign.

As he strolled toward them, closing the distance with distractingly graceful strides, the threat that any such gentleman inherently posed to her family and their ongoing battle to keep her father’s condition hidden, concealed from all the ton, bloomed in her mind.

Nicholas saw hostility flare in the lady’s eyes and wondered at its cause.

Had she recognized him? Should he have recognized her?

Was she one of those tiresome females he’d slipped away from at some ball or other?

Over recent years, he’d avoided ton events, yet she looked to be in her early twenties, some years past her come-out, so it was possible she was one of those to whom, in the past, he’d given social short shrift.

Then again… As he took in her appearance, something within him stirred, and he was suddenly acutely aware that if they had met before, he would have remembered her.

She was of average height and slight build, her curves definite yet sleek and understated. Her blue cambric day dress was of fashionable cut, yet surprisingly unadorned. Most notably, however, the lady possessed a face that was a cross between a female cupid and an angel, with a truly flawless, almost pearlescent complexion combined with large, wide, huge periwinkle-blue eyes fringed by impossibly long, lush, golden-brown lashes. Her nose was short and straight, and her finely drawn brown eyebrows were perfectly arched, while her lips—ripe, full, and the color of a blush rose—were the sort to distract any red-blooded male and lead his mind into illicit arenas. Overall, her face was heart-shaped, and her chin was almost pointy but, somewhat unsettlingly, presently set in stony firmness.

Regardless, the wealth of pale-blond curls that clustered like a frame about her face gave her the superficial appearance most—including him—associated with feminine vacuousness.

If he hadn’t detected the clear-eyed determination in her blue gaze and the underlying stubbornness in the set of her chin, he might have been fooled into taking her at face value.

Indeed, in many ways, her features and coloring reminded him of his mother, but even at her most youthful innocent, he doubted his mother had ever looked so like the stereotypical artist’s rendition of a flighty, witless, yet well-born lady.

He halted before her and politely inclined his head, but before he could speak, one of the boys asked, “I say, do you ride him to hounds?”

Given the direction of the boys’ gazes, there was no doubt who “he” was. “Sometimes,” Nicholas allowed. “But mostly, I ride him on Newmarket Heath.”

“Newmarket?” To say that the older lad’s ears perked up would be understating his reaction.

“What’s his name?” The girl seemed almost as eager as her brothers.

“Tamerlane.”

The younger boy’s face scrunched in thought. “Wasn’t he some emperor?”

Nicholas grinned. “In the Far East.”

He glanced at the lady—and saw a dribble of white descending from above her head.

He had two sisters. He didn’t stop to think. He clamped his hands about the lady’s shoulders and jerked her forward, out of the line of danger and all but into him.

He felt the galvanizing shock that passed through her—saw it in her blue, blue eyes.

Felt an answering reaction streak though him, leaving him stunned and equally shaken.

He stared into her eyes, and for that moment, the world ceased to turn.

She stared back.

Both of them had stopped breathing.

“Oh! Oh!” The children leapt into action, ducking behind the lady, brushing at the back of her skirts, pushing her even farther forward, almost into Nicholas’s arms, effectively shattering the moment. “We’ll take care of it!” the trio chorused.

Nicholas hauled in a breath and forced himself to take a single step back and release the lady.

Instantly, she swung around to look at the puddle of what appeared to be flour on the ground.

For a second, they both stared at it, then he gestured at the patch. “I saw it falling and thought you would prefer not to have”—any unnecessary adornment—“a dusting.”

She didn’t glance his way, but drew in a tight breath and managed, “No. Indeed.” Stiffly, she dipped her head to him. “Thank you.”

The children were staring upward.

The younger boy plaintively asked, “How do we get them down?”

As he’d approached, Nicholas had glimpsed some of what had been going on. He could remember his cousins doing something similar at Somersham Place. He walked under the edge of the porte-cochere and looked up. “Flour bombs?”

“Yes.” The older boy glanced at him. “It was a trial to see if we could use something along these lines to defend against marauders.”

Solemnly, Nicholas nodded. “A noble cause.”

“But now they’re stuck, and we have to get them down.” The girl fixed blue eyes—not as blue as the lady’s but pretty eyes, nonetheless—on Nicholas’s face. “Do you know how?”

A spirited discussion ensued. Despite his active participation, Nicholas remained highly aware of the silent figure beside him. With her arms crossed, she watched and listened—specifically, she watched him through narrowed eyes and listened to every word he said—but made no comment, even when he regretfully informed the children that the only way to remove the balloons was to shoot them rather than the flour sacks.

“It might be wise,” he suggested, “to attach strings to your arrows, in case they become lodged in the rafters.”

The trio appealed to the butler, who had watched the performance with a quietly relieved air, and he dispatched a minion to fetch a ball of twine.

While they waited and the children studied the best angles for their shots, from beside Nicholas, the lady murmured, “Is that the voice of experience speaking?”

He grinned and shot her a glance. “You might say that.”

Their eyes met, and a frisson—a definite frisson of attraction—sparked between them.

In unison, they stopped breathing again.

A footman appeared in the doorway, proffering a ball of string. Nicholas glanced at the man and, ruthlessly smothering the unmistakable flare of desire and steadfastly ignoring the more rapid beat of his heart, took the string and proceeded to show the children how to tie the twine in front of the fletching of each arrow. Once all the arrows had strings attached, he stood back and allowed the boys to try their hand at puncturing the balloons.

The older lad managed to nick one enough to have it deflate. It was a minor victory and, it seemed, not one that was going to be repeated.

Nicholas waited patiently until both boys had grown weary of shooting and missing, then asked if he could try his hand and was promptly handed a bow.

He made short work of the remaining four clusters of balloons, much to the children’s relief. They glanced at the lady, then gathered up the debris and looked hopefully her way.

She nodded in absolution. “You should tender your heartfelt thanks to Mr.…?” She glanced inquiringly at Nicholas.

He met her gaze, then smiled at the children. “Cynster.” He held out a hand. “Mr. Nicholas Cynster.”

* * *

While her siblings eagerly shook Nicholas Cynster’s hand and sincerely thanked him for his assistance, Addie seized the moment to rein in her whirling wits, reclaim her senses, and regain her breath, all lost during that charged moment when she’d all but fallen into the distracting man’s rich-brown eyes.

And then she had to quell the panic sparked by hearing his name, especially uttered in that deep, dark voice that did very strange things to her insides.

But he was a Cynster, for heaven’s sake! Admittedly not one she’d met before, yet even so, she knew the family well enough to know how much of a threat he posed.

“Miss Sommerville?”

She blinked to attention and found him studying her face. The children were scanning the gravel, picking up the last pieces of their wrecked experiment. The trio appeared reconciled to the failure of their grand plan, and she knew she owed their relative equanimity to the way he’d handled the past minutes.

But his question—his guess—confirmed that he wasn’t sure who she was…

It was tempting to sound sweet and flighty, to cloak herself in her social persona and shamelessly use it to drive him off, but with the children still there and having spoken as she had to them and him… And she owed him, enough at least to hear why he’d come.

Regretfully setting aside her customary shield, she tipped up her chin and coolly confirmed, “Lady Adriana.”

He half bowed. “I’m here to see the earl.”

No matter how much in charity with him she ought to feel, that was something she wouldn’t allow. Calmly, she responded, “Is my father expecting you?” She knew he wasn’t.

Nicholas Cynster frowned slightly. “Given the subject of my inquiry, I didn’t feel it necessary to write for an appointment.”

No, he wouldn’t, not least because he was a Cynster. “And the subject of your inquiry is…?”

“I—my family—have an interest in a horse that I understand is presently gracing your father’s stable. The Barbarian.”

The children had cleared the gravel and, burdened with the detritus of their experiment, glanced at her. She arched a brow at them, and they dutifully thanked Cynster again and made their farewells, to which he responded in a way that underscored that he was accustomed to dealing with youngsters. When the trio again looked to her, she nodded in dismissal, and they trooped up the steps and into the house, leaving her to deal with their wholly unexpected guest. Merriweather hovered in the doorway, ready to respond to any instruction.

Nicholas Cynster had returned his gaze to her face. “In short,” he continued, “assuming The Barbarian is, indeed, a horse your father owns, the Cynster Stable would like to discuss purchasing the stallion.”

She searched his expression, wondering… “Why?”

Somewhat to her surprise, he willingly elucidated, explaining his family’s wish to add the horse to their stud at Newmarket, which was attached to their famous racing stable that, apparently, he oversaw. He was open and direct and even hinted at how valuable the horse might be.

While she’d enjoyed riding The Barbarian over the months the horse had been at Aisby Grange, given the condition of the estate’s accounts, she couldn’t overlook such an unexpected source of additional funds, much less dismiss Cynster’s offer out of hand.

Yet she’d already seen enough of Nicholas Cynster to know that he was both shrewd and observant—witness the way he’d handled her sometimes difficult siblings. And being a Cynster, he would have all the connections one might expect of a member of that family, which was to say more than enough for him, inadvertently or otherwise, to pose a very real risk to her family’s ongoing and exceedingly necessary subterfuge.

All in all, shielding her father from exposure was more important than gaining further funds.

Having reached the end of his explanation, he’d fallen silent, waiting for her response. She forced herself to meet his unrelentingly intent brown gaze and haughtily state, “Regardless, Mr. Cynster, I fear The Barbarian is not for sale.”

Of course, he didn’t accept that; she hadn’t expected he would.

“I can’t imagine,” he stated, “that such a horse would be easily handled other than by those accustomed to dealing with Thoroughbred stallions.”

He was right. The Barbarian was dangerously temperamental, an altogether difficult beast.

“Your stablemen must have their hands full, what with the exercise such a horse requires on a constant basis. You can’t have the setup to cope easily with such demands.”

As that was true, she said nothing.

His jaw tightening, Cynster continued to press his case, but she was accustomed to dealing with difficult males. She did him the courtesy of hearing him out, then flatly informed him, “Unfortunately, my father isn’t of a mind to sell the horse. It was bequeathed to him by a very dear friend.”

Nicholas studied Adriana’s beautiful blue eyes and accepted those statements were true. Her gaze wasn’t guileless—far from it—and her tone and her expression confirmed that, in making such declarations, she felt she stood on absolutely solid ground.

Such grounds could change, but…

He recognized that in Adriana Sommerville, he’d met a lady of adamantine will. She was not going to be swayed, certainly not easily and, very likely, not that day. The set of her lips and chin and the regal way she held her head conveyed that unequivocally.

That meant he was going to have to retreat and come at her—or more precisely, at the earl—from a different angle.

He manufactured a heartfelt sigh. “Very well. As your father is so set on keeping the horse, I can do nothing more than bid you a good day. If, however, he should change his mind, you’ll be able to find me at the Angel in Grantham for the next few days.”

Her eyes faintly narrowed, but she readily inclined her head. “I’ll bear that in mind, but I doubt Papa will have a change of heart.”

They exchanged the usual civil phrases in farewell. She knew how to play the social game as well as he; they might be at odds, yet neither of them allowed any of that to show.

Leaving her at the bottom of the steps, he strode to Tamerlane and mounted. Wheeling the big gray, he saluted Lady Adriana, then tapped his heels to Tamerlane’s sides and rode quickly down the drive.

Addie watched him go and chided herself for feeling deflated. “What is it with him?” She had no answer. Nevertheless, she allowed herself to enjoy the sight of him riding away until the trees lining the drive cut off the view. It wasn’t often that she got the chance to enjoy such a pleasant and, if she was honest, stirring distraction from her daily travails.

Finally, she turned, climbed the steps, and set about soothing Merriweather’s still faintly ruffled feathers before commending him and the staff for so swiftly restoring the dignity of the great hall of her ancestors.

* * *

Nicholas rode through the small village of Aisby and onto the road to Grantham. As one of the horse-mad Cynsters, he was well acquainted with the nearby town, having stayed at its inns numerous times when riding with the local hunts.

While cantering along, he reviewed what little he’d learned and what more he would like to know prior to making another attempt to purchase The Barbarian. He wasn’t about to be denied by a pretty face and a pair of periwinkle-blue eyes.

He clattered into the yard of the Angel Inn to find his groom, Young Gillies—so named to distinguish him from Gillies, Nicholas’s father’s groom and Young Gillies’s father—waiting to take Tamerlane’s reins.

“Well?” Of less than average height and wiry with it, Young Gillies had a round, open face framed by brown curls. “Did you get the horse?”

His eagerness was understandable; it was Young Gillies who’d brought Nicholas the rumor of The Barbarian’s current location, and the groom understood the potential value of such a stallion.

Nicholas grunted and swung down from the saddle. “I’ve confirmed Aisby has the horse. However, getting him to part with it”—getting past the dragon at his door—“is going to take a little more effort.”

“Oh?” Young Gillies accepted Tamerlane’s reins. “So what’s next, then?”

Nicholas paused, then, eyes narrowing, replied, “Before I return to storm Aisby’s gates with an offer the earl can’t refuse, I believe it would be wise to assure ourselves that The Barbarian is all he’s purported to be.” Nicholas met Young Gillies’s eyes. “In other words, that Pru has it right and we really do want this horse.”


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