The Lady By His Side

An original Cynster Next Generation Novel #4
Volume 1 in Devil's Brood Trilogy
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-40-8
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-0-9922789-00-2
Release Date: March 9, 2017

A marquess in need of the right bride. An earl’s daughter in search of a purpose. A betrayal that ends in murder and balloons into a threat to the realm.

Sebastian Cynster knows time is running out. If he doesn’t choose a wife soon, his female relatives will line up to assist him. Yet the current debutantes do not appeal. Where is he to find the right lady to be his marchioness? Then Drake Varisey, eldest son of the Duke of Wolverstone, asks for Sebastian’s aid.

Having assumed his father’s mantle in protecting queen and country, Drake must go to Ireland in pursuit of a dangerous plot. But he’s received an urgent missive from Lord Ennis, an Irish peer—Ennis has heard something Drake needs to know. Ennis insists Drake attends an upcoming house party at Ennis’s Kent estate so Ennis can reveal his information face-to-face.

Sebastian has assisted Drake before and, long ago, had a liaison with Lady Ennis. Drake insists Sebastian is just the man to be Drake’s surrogate at the house party—the guests will imagine all manner of possibilities and be blind to Sebastian’s true purpose.

Unsurprisingly, Sebastian is reluctant, but Drake’s need is real. With only more debutantes on his horizon, Sebastian allows himself to be persuaded.

His first task is to inveigle Antonia Rawlings, a lady he has known all her life, to include him as her escort to the house party. Although he’s seen little of Antonia in recent years, Sebastian is confident of gaining her support.

Eldest daughter of the Earl of Chillingworth, Antonia has abandoned the search for a husband and plans to use the week of the house party to decide what to do with her life. There has to be some purpose, some role, she can claim for her own.

Consequently, on hearing Sebastian’s request and an explanation of what lies behind it, she seizes on the call to action. Suppressing her senses’ idiotic reaction to Sebastian’s nearness, she agrees to be his partner-in-intrigue.

But while joining the house party proves easy, the gathering is thrown into chaos when Lord Ennis is murdered—just before he was to speak with Sebastian. Worse, Ennis’s last words, gasped to Sebastian, are: Gunpowder. Here.

Gunpowder? And here, where?

With a killer continuing to stalk the halls, side by side, Sebastian and Antonia search for answers and, all the while, the childhood connection that had always existed between them strengthens and blooms…into something so much more.

Arthur’s Gentlemen’s Club, St. James, London

October 15, 1850

“I need your help.”

Lord Sebastian Cynster, Marquess of Earith, sank into the comfort of a leather armchair in the refined quiet of Arthur’s and watched as Lord Drake Varisey, Marquess of Winchelsea, settled his elegant length in the armchair facing Sebastian’s.

Drake had sent a footman around that morning with a request for this midafternoon meeting. Sebastian had arrived to find Drake waiting in the foyer, and together, they’d ambled through the club. It was too late for the luncheon crowd and too early for the dinner scrum; there’d been few to witness their presence. By unvoiced agreement, they’d made their way to the alcove off the far end of the long, narrow library; from the pair of armchairs slightly angled down the room, they could see at a glance that there was no one near enough to overhear their exchange.

“As I recall,” Sebastian murmured, “the last time I helped you, I had to hide my hands from my mother for more than a week.” He glanced at one hand, long fingers relaxed on the chair’s arm. There was no sign of bruised and scraped knuckles now, but his sharp-eyed mother, the Duchess of St. Ives, had she detected such evidence her firstborn was indulging in fisticuffs, would have evinced far too much interest as to the circumstances for either Sebastian’s or Drake’s comfort, Sebastian’s mother being a bosom-bow of Drake’s mother, the Duchess of Wolverstone.

“You enjoyed every minute of it,” Drake replied. “And regardless, this is, I’m afraid, a matter of queen and country.”

“Ah.” Sebastian stilled. “Queen and country” was Drake’s way of flagging affairs—more specifically missions—with the potential to impact the security of the realm.

“Besides,” Drake said, his dark brows arching, his golden-hazel eyes—eagle’s eyes—keen on Sebastian’s face, “what other absorbing prospects can you possibly have to fill your hours at this time of year?”

As it happened, Sebastian had a mission of his own that he was currently pursuing, but it wasn’t something he had any intention of sharing with anyone, much less Drake.

They were very alike—in many ways and on many planes. Drake was two years Sebastian’s senior, and because of the friendship between their families, they’d known each other from their earliest years. As sons of the higher nobility, they’d attended Eton and Oxford, both at Balliol; their paths had, perforce, crossed again and again at both institutions.

Although they would never be mistaken for brothers, the physical similarities were nevertheless striking. Both were tall—several inches over six feet—broad shouldered, long limbed, and lean, and moved with the inherent, somewhat predatory grace of powerful men comfortable in their own skins—men who were confident in their strengths, in their prowess, in their ability to meet whatever challenges the world sent their way.

They were both dark haired, although Sebastian’s hair was a true blue-black, while Drake’s was sable. Scions of the upper echelon that they were, their hair was fashionably cropped, worn just long enough to brush their collars, and they were elegantly attired, both favoring subdued colors and unobtrusively exceptional tailoring. Sebastian, with his pale green eyes, generally wore some combination of black and tan, while Drake, with his eagle’s eyes, habitually wore midnight blue teamed with lighter-hued golds and browns.

Both shared the pale complexions of their Norman ancestors, together with the chiseled facial features and innately autocratic expressions of those progenitors. High cheekbones, wide brows, well-set eyes, and patrician noses, thin, mobile lips, and squared chins completed the picture, yet the impression each projected was quite distinct.

Sebastian appeared hard, shielded—more openly a warrior in civilized garb. Drake, on the other hand, could, when he smiled, seem charming, but behind the façade lurked a ruthlessness that anyone who really looked into his golden predator’s eyes could not fail to see.

Drake had, in large part, picked up where his powerful father had left off. When Royce, Duke of Wolverstone, had finally retired from assisting the government and the Crown in dealing with matters that threatened the realm—those matters that required incisive, decisive, and covert action—many had assumed that, with the wars long over, there would be no real need for the services of such as Wolverstone again.

In that, they’d erred. While no fresh wars had been declared, tensions remained, exacerbated by this action or that, which resulted in plots, clashes, and schemes, some commercial, some political, and many held the potential to destabilize the state and cause havoc in wider society.

When Wolverstone had declined to emerge from retirement, the disgruntled political powers had offered the position to his heir. Drake had inherited most if not all of his father’s relevant abilities, including the knack of inspiring other men and building networks of informers; those sterling capabilities had been augmented by some of his mother’s traits—such as the ability to charm. Wolverstone had never charmed anyone in his life; Sebastian seriously doubted the duke had ever seen the need.

But Sebastian and Drake lived in a somewhat different world to that of their fathers’ heyday. That said, some things remained cast in stone, among them, family honor and loyalty.

Sebastian’s father, the Duke of St. Ives, the duke’s brother, and his cousins had all fought at Waterloo. The engagement in which their troop was credited with having helped to carry the day had been critical to the battle’s outcome—to England’s success.

While Sebastian, his brother Michael, and their tribe of Cynster cousins and second cousins no longer had wars in which to serve their country, they still instinctively heeded and responded to duty’s call. And Drake had uttered the magic words “queen and country.”

There was no point dissembling. Sebastian’s personal quest wasn’t urgent. More, he knew himself well enough to acknowledge a certain readiness to allow himself to be deflected by a legitimate distraction. He sighed and met Drake’s eyes. “What do you need me to do?”

Drake fleetingly grinned, but a second later, all humor drained from his face. “Yesterday afternoon, I received a letter from Lord Ennis.” Drake languidly waved one hand. “I believe you and he are acquainted.”

“Distantly.” Sebastian uttered the word as repressively as he could; his acquaintance was with Ennis’s wife, a point he felt sure Drake knew.

“Ennis wrote asking me to call on him at his estate in Kent. Judging by his composition, he was suffering from a degree of agitation. He said he had stumbled on information that he believed I needed to know, but that he was unwilling to commit said information to writing and was unable to travel to London at this time. He and his wife are hosting a house party commencing on the nineteenth—four days from now. Various guests have already arrived. Ennis stressed he needs to see me privately, face-to-face. He suggested I attend the house party as one of the guests. Reading between his lines, I believe Ennis wishes to engineer a situation in which he can speak with me without alerting those about him as to the nature of our exchange.”

Sebastian arched his brows. “You turning up at the Ennises’ house party…there’s no way that won’t be noticed and widely commented on.”

“Indeed. Which is one reason I won’t be taking up his lordship’s invitation.”

Sebastian opened his eyes wide. “Me turning up at the Ennises’ house party will be every bit as bad. People will speculate wildly.”

“But not for the same reason.” Drake smiled. “Few know you occasionally sully your noble hands by getting involved in the missions I run.”

Sebastian lifted one shoulder. “Few know that you sully your noble hands by running your own missions—society in general imagines you sit in an office in Whitehall and pull strings all day.”

Drake’s smile turned wry. “Few appreciate that, while in my father’s day, our enemies lay over the seas, the realm’s current enemies are much nearer to hand.”

“It always amazes me that no one seems to notice that, while your father worked under the aegis of the Foreign Office, you report to the Home Secretary.”

“In truth, there aren’t that many people in the wider population who know of the details of the position I hold, and I would prefer to keep it that way. Which is yet another reason I won’t be driving down to Pressingstoke Hall next Saturday.” Drake held up a hand to stay Sebastian’s protest that him taking Drake’s place wouldn’t work. “Bear with me—there are reasons I chose you to go in my place.”

“Such as?” Sebastian invested all his considerable supercilious arrogance into the words. Futilely; his arrogance bounced off Drake and made no impact at all.

“Quite aside from raising too many eyebrows, along with questions we’d all prefer to avoid, I can’t go into Kent to meet Ennis because I’ll be leaving tomorrow or the day after for Ireland. My contacts there have turned up information that, if true, is worrisome, to say the least. But at present, the intelligence is fractured. I need to go myself—to show my face—in order to get confirmation from deeper within the insurgents’ hierarchy.”

Sebastian studied Drake’s expression. As usual, it gave little away. “I presume by insurgents you mean the Young Irelanders.”

Drake shrugged. “I imagine so, but until I get confirmation, I can’t be certain. After their failure in ’48, they retreated to lick their wounds, but they haven’t gone away. There have been various minor protests, but this is the first whiff I’ve had of anything potentially serious.” He arched a brow. “I have to follow it up.”

“Ennis is an Anglo-Irish peer.”

“Just so. And there’ll be other Anglo-Irish gentlemen at this house party.”

Sebastian caught Drake’s gaze. “So are the two issues connected—what you’re hearing from your Irish contacts and Ennis’s sudden wish to speak with you face-to-face?”

“It’s tempting to imagine so, but there’s no way to tell at this point. I have to go to Ireland and see what I can winkle out, while you, my friend, need to stand in for me at Pressingstoke Hall.”

His eyes locked with Drake’s, Sebastian considered, then faintly grimaced. “You said there were reasons—plural—why you selected me specifically to take your place. What are the others?”

“Just one, really. Out of all those of our ilk I might call on to attend the Ennises’ house party, you are the only one who can do so without appearing entirely out of place.” In response to Sebastian’s look of disbelief—he was heir to a wealthy and powerful dukedom as much as Drake was—Drake continued, “As you rightly pointed out, either one of us turning up at Pressingstoke Hall without some acceptable reason to excuse our presence is going to attract an inordinate amount of attention, which will fuel gossip and speculation—precisely what Ennis wishes to avoid. But Ennis sent a guest list. As you’re no doubt aware, Lady Ennis is something of a social climber—she invited an old friend and encouraged said friend to invite her more exalted circle, which includes Antonia Rawlings, who will be attending.”

Drake sat back; raising his interlaced fingers to his chin, he smiled at Sebastian. “I suggest you use your persuasive talents and convince dear Antonia to allow you to accompany her into Kent. The association between your families is widely known. As Antonia’s mother will not be accompanying her, no one will be all that surprised to see you acting as Antonia’s escort.”

Sebastian frowned. He could appreciate the scenario Drake had described. And yes, he suspected he could make it a reality. It would mean gaining Antonia’s support and spending more time with her than he had in recent years—indeed, than he ever had—but she came from much the same stock as he and Drake; he didn’t doubt that she would help him for the same reason he would help Drake.

After a moment of imagining, he shot a look at Drake. “Ennis is not going to be pleased to see me.”

Drake’s swift grin surfaced. “Not initially, but he will be. I’ll write to him and explain that I won’t be coming, but that I’ll send someone in my stead. Given Ennis’s trepidatiousness, it seems entirely possible someone at the house party is involved in whatever scheme he intends to bring to my attention, so I’m not going to put your name in writing. Instead, I’ll tell Ennis that my surrogate will be the very last man he’ll want to see.”

Sebastian groaned.

“No—think about it. As you’re one of his wife’s ex-lovers, Ennis won’t want you there, and his animosity will show. No one is going to imagine him willingly telling you—trusting you with—anything sensitive. You are the perfect gentleman for the task.” Drake’s smile returned. “Being Antonia’s escort and the hostess’s ex-lover…no one will look for any other reason for your attendance at Pressingstoke Hall.”

* * *

The following morning at a little before eleven o’clock, Sebastian walked down the steps of St. Ives House in Grosvenor Square. He was correctly attired for a morning visit in coat, waistcoat, and trousers. Idly swinging his cane, he headed for Green Street.

After his meeting with Drake, he’d dined with friends. Rather than join the group in a night on the town—a diversion that was increasingly losing the attraction it once had held—he’d returned to the peaceful quiet of St. Ives House. With his parents still in the country and his sister visiting friends in the Dales, only he and Michael were currently residing in the mansion, and Michael, as usual, was out.

Sebastian had walked into the library, poured himself a brandy, then slumped into an armchair by the cheery fire, sipped, and turned his mind to this morning’s endeavor.

At least, that had been his intention, but the pervasive silence of the house—the lack of anyone with whom he might discuss the situation—had impinged and nudged his mind back to his personal project, the one he’d so readily set aside in favor of assisting Drake.

Finding the right wife was no easy task, not for a gentleman—a nobleman—like him or, for that matter, Drake. Sebastian knew Drake was steadfastly avoiding the issue and would for as long as he could—just as his father had. Sebastian, on the other hand, had realized that such a tack was not going to work for him; he had too many female relatives. Various members of that sorority had already started dropping hints. He had, he judged, at most another year—another Season—before they came after him in a concerted way, determined to assist him in doing his duty and ensuring the succession of one of the primary dukedoms in the country.

To date, his mother had held off—and in doing so had kept all the others at bay—but he’d recently turned thirty-one. His father had married at thirty-three. In Sebastian’s estimation, his mother’s forbearance would almost certainly not extend beyond his next birthday.

He’d decided he needed to attend to the matter himself—within the next year—before his female relatives attempted to take charge.

But finding the right lady to make his marchioness, ultimately his duchess, was proving far more difficult than he’d imagined. Possibly because, until the past few days, he hadn’t made any effort to define what qualities that role required. Three very brief excursions into the ballrooms had underscored the conclusion that any of the bright young things—the recent crops of debutantes who circulated in hopeful droves at ton events—would drive him to drink within a week.

He needed someone more mature, someone of his own class with whom he could actually converse. Someone with whom he could share a ducal life.

In that day and age, a ducal life brought with it significant responsibility—politically, socially, and as a landowner and investor. It was a life of assured luxury, but unless one worked at it, satisfaction would not be forthcoming.

He needed a wife who could stand by his side—who had the backbone, talents, and skills to do so.

That much, he now understood. But as to where he might find such a lady, he had absolutely no idea.

Brooding on the matter did no good. Taking a long swallow of brandy, he’d set the vexed issue aside and turned his mind to the more immediate prospect of Drake’s mission.

He’d focused on Antonia, calling up all he could remember of her. It was something of a shock to realize that, although he’d known her since birth—hers, as he was two years older—and they’d spent long summers and numerous other holidays running wild as part of the large group of Cynster children of which he’d been the undisputed leader, while he could remember those carefree days—remember her quite clearly as an eager participant in almost any lark—he knew very little of the lady she’d grown to be.

He’d last seen her only months before, in May at his cousin Marcus’s wedding in Scotland. He’d recognized her instantly; it wasn’t that he hadn’t met her over the years, but rather that he hadn’t spent any time with her—private time in which he might have learned what she thought about things, how she felt, how she reacted…what sort of lady she’d grown into. All his meetings with her over the past decade had been the same as at Marcus’s wedding—in the middle of a large group of his relatives who were as much her friends as his.

Curious, now he thought of it, that on the surface, he knew her well, yet he knew so little about the woman she now was. Too little to feel confident of managing or manipulating her. In order to deal with her, he would either have to learn fast or rely on his persuasive skills.

With that in mind, he’d honed his approach, his arguments. He rehearsed them as he strolled down Green Street, then climbed the steps of Number 17 and plied the knocker.

The butler recognized him. “Good morning, my lord.”

“Good morning, Withers. I need to speak with Lady Antonia.” Sebastian arched a languid brow. “I assume she’s at home.” At that hour in that season, Antonia was unlikely to be anywhere else.

“Indeed, my lord.” Withers stepped back and bowed. “If you will step inside, I will inquire.”

Sebastian walked into the elegant front hall.

Withers shut the door and reached for Sebastian’s cane. “The earl is out at the moment, my lord, but the countess and Lady Antonia have come downstairs.”

Sebastian cooled his heels in the front hall while Withers retreated to the rear of the house, then returned to escort him to the back parlor—the room the family used—indicating that the countess, at least, had correctly deduced that this was not a formal morning call.

Withers opened the door at the end of the corridor and bowed Sebastian through. He walked in. The parlor overlooked the garden, possessed an abundance of white-framed windows, and was furnished with white wickerwork armchairs and sofa upholstered in slub silk. The silk sported a feathery pattern in white, greens, and blues, creating a light, airy atmosphere that was the perfect setting for the two very different but equally vibrant ladies who looked up as he entered. One pair of emerald-green eyes and another of cool gray regarded him with interest and expectation.

Chillingworth’s countess, Francesca, was perched on the window seat, while Antonia was sitting in an armchair a little way from and angled to the window.

Antonia was tall for a female; she’d inherited her height from her father’s side and, like her late paternal grandmother, was slender, willowy, and effortlessly elegant. Her figure was svelte, lacking Francesca’s abundant curvaceousness, but Antonia’s coloring was a more obvious blending of her father’s and mother’s—from Francesca came the lush, gleaming blackness of her long hair, presently up in a fashionable loose bun, while she’d inherited the fine skin and pale complexion of the females of her father’s family. Her exquisitely shaped ruby lips, finely arched black brows, and the long black lashes that framed her large eyes were all Francesca, but those eyes were Chillingworth’s silvery gray. The combination was unexpected and, if come upon unawares, could be riveting.

In contrast, Francesca was quite short, a pocket Venus in every way. Despite her matronly status, the countess retained an abundance of energy along with her bounteous charms.

Sebastian was pleased that none of Antonia’s siblings were present, especially her nosy little sister, Helen.

“Sebastian.” Francesca had been reading a letter. She set it aside and held out her hand as, with an easy smile curving his lips, he strolled forward.

He took her hand and bowed over her fingers. “Lady Francesca.”

Francesca made a rude sound at the formality and flicked her hand, directing him to Antonia.

Her elegant daughter had been embroidering. She laid the frame in her lap and, her fine eyes quizzing him, gave him her hand. “Sebastian.”

He grasped her fingers and half bowed. “Antonia.”

As he straightened, she arched her brows. “No ‘Lady’?”

Those cool gray eyes were laughing at him. He missed only one heartbeat before replying, “You don’t need the title.”

She smiled, a laughing, radiant smile that lit her face.

Arrested, he stared.

Beside them, Francesca chortled. “An excellent riposte. Who says you young ones know nothing of repartee?”

Antonia glanced at her mother, releasing Sebastian and recalling him to his purpose. He freed her fingers.

Francesca waved him to the chair facing Antonia’s across the window seat. “Do sit down, Sebastian—like Gyles and your father, you are far too tall to stand and converse.” As soon as he’d subsided into the armchair, Francesca brightly asked, “So what can we do for you? I take it you wish us to assist you with something?”

The countess had spent her formative years in Italy; she had never seen the sense in British reserve, claiming it only wasted time.

Sebastian recalled that now. He glanced at Antonia and saw her lips quirking and her eyes dancing in understanding and empathy. He cleared his throat and returned his gaze to Francesca, who was plainly waiting with mounting impatience. “I’ve been asked by Winchelsea to assist in a mission that may prove critical to the safety of the realm. However, to successfully conduct the mission, I need your”—Sebastian swung his gaze to Antonia—“or more specifically Antonia’s, help.”

Antonia widened her eyes at him. “That sounds serious.”

“It is.” He had Ennis’s letter to Drake and a copy of Drake’s reply, both of which Drake had sent around that morning, in his pocket to prove that, if need be. He glanced at Francesca, realized she was frowning, and hurriedly added, “There’ll be no danger involved. I merely have to act in Drake’s stead and speak with someone. Drake is otherwise engaged, but he needs to learn what this person has to tell him.”

Francesca looked unconvinced. “Who is this person?”

“Lord Ennis.” Sebastian glanced at Antonia.

She blinked, then stared at him. “You want to go to the Ennises’ house party?”

He nodded. “But I need a believable reason for attending. Drake suggested that, given our families’ long association and”—he looked at Francesca—“that you’re not planning to attend, ma’am, then it wouldn’t raise eyebrows were we to pretend that I was accompanying Antonia”—he returned his gaze to her—“as her escort.”

Antonia’s eyes started to narrow, her lips to compress, and her chin to set—all ominous signs.

“Purely pretense.” Leaning forward, he clasped his hands between his thighs, fixed his eyes on her face, and spoke directly to her. “We would know it was all a sham, but there would be no need to tell anyone else that.” He knew how to get Francesca on his side; it was Antonia he needed to convince.

Antonia regarded Sebastian with exceedingly mixed feelings. He had always had the ability to appear entirely sincere—and for all she knew, he might be sincere. Might genuinely believe he could pretend to be her escort at a house party and not react in his habitually overprotective—dictatorial and absolute—fashion.

Just the thought of enduring five whole days of him looming at her shoulder was enough to make her nerves cinch tight.

And in the informal atmosphere of a country house party where he wouldn’t know anyone else, he might well keep so close that he would rub her nerves—not to mention her senses—raw.

Luckily, he hadn’t yet realized that he’d already won over her mother with his comment about Francesca not attending. The Ennises’ house party was to be Antonia’s first as a spinster—a lady out from under her mother’s wing. Her parents had agreed to the arrangement only because three of her friends were also attending, two, like her, as spinsters, along with the fourth member of their small circle, now the highly respectable the Honorable Mrs. Hadley Featherstonehaugh.

Melissa Wainwright and Claire Savage, Antonia’s unwed friends, were, like her, expecting to enjoy their first foray free of maternal oversight. It wasn’t that any of them expected to engage in any romance but rather the lure of a sort of freedom none of them had ever enjoyed.

For Antonia to then turn up with Sebastian in tow…

She stared at him—nearly glared—and made no effort to hide her dislike of the entire idea. Trust Drake to have thought of it—the man was a menace. “Just how important is this message Lord Ennis has for Drake?”

“Important enough for Drake to not even contemplate putting Ennis off until Drake returns—he’s had to go to Ireland.”

“Ireland?” Francesca glanced at Antonia, then looked back at Sebastian. “Is there any possibility of some new threat from that direction?”

Sebastian debated for a second; Antonia saw that in his face. But then he evenly replied, “The threat from the Young Irelanders never went away. But these days, they concentrate on protests in Ireland, and whatever Ennis wants to convey, it’s all in words—a warning at most, or possibly merely background information. There is no immediate threat involved.” Sebastian met Antonia’s eyes. “Neither Drake nor I would have contemplated involving you if there was.”

While she found that remark comforting on one level, Antonia felt a spurt of irritation at the way gentlemen—noblemen in particular, and she’d always understood the license the rank conferred—invariably shielded women such as her from any possible danger. As if ladies such as she were inherently too weak to stand with them. As if they—the males—were all-powerful, while she and her sisters had nothing to contribute and, more, were something of a liability.

“If there is no danger, why do you need to go at all?” She opened her eyes wide. “Why can’t I approach Ennis and get the message for Drake?” She knew the answer, but wanted to make Sebastian say it.

His lips thinned to a line, but when he spoke, his tone remained even—patiently persuasive. “Because, quite aside from us not knowing what action the message might necessitate—such as riding to Whitehall post haste—Ennis is highly unlikely to entrust his message to a lady, no matter how highly placed and well connected.”

When Sebastian shut his lips and declined to complete the answer, she added, “And it’s possible, even likely, that having a lady sent as go-between instead of a gentleman such as yourself will put Ennis’s back up, and he might decline to share his so-important information at all.”

Sebastian’s fleeting grimace was sign enough that she had that right, too.

Her reaction to what she viewed as a slight was almost intense enough to make her throw caution to the winds and agree to his and Drake’s outrageous scheme—she could and would assist them, possibly in ways they hadn’t dreamt of—but…when it came to acting as escort for a lady like her, she knew Sebastian. Apparently, better than he knew himself. Rapidly, she considered how best to retain control—of herself, at least. “If I agree to this, you need to agree not to actually act as an escort would—that you will not at any time seek to constrain my behavior in any way.” That you will not get in my way.

He understood perfectly, as if he’d heard the words she hadn’t said. His lips thinned again, but then he nodded. Curtly. Once. “If you agree to our necessary charade, I will give you my word that the only time I might step in is if you are in some degree of imminent danger.”

She wasn’t going to get better than that. After a second of further consideration, she graciously inclined her head. “Very well.”

Sebastian almost sighed with relief. For an instant there, he’d had the feeling he was standing on thin ice—because of what, exactly, he had no real notion—but she’d agreed, and that was enough. Once she’d given her word, she wouldn’t renege. “I gather the party starts on Saturday. I’ll drive us down. What time should I pick you up?”

“That depends on your horses. How long will it take us to reach Deal? Pressingstoke Hall is on the coast a little south of there.”

“Going via the Dover Road will be fastest—we can turn north along the coast road from there.” Sebastian rapidly calculated. “It’ll take just over six hours.”

“We’re expected at three in the afternoon.”

“Then I’ll call here at eight in the morning. We can stop at Faversham for lunch.”

“I’ve been thinking.” Francesca addressed her daughter. “You must let the Ennises know that Sebastian will be attending as your escort. I suggest a letter to Lady Ennis, throwing yourself on her mercy and saying that although you had previously gained my permission, when your father heard of your proposed stay, he insisted you have a suitable escort.” The countess waved. “No one will be surprised at that—Gyles’s overprotectiveness is legendary. And as for the reason Julius isn’t with you, as your brother is younger than you, your father refused to accept him as an escort capable of swaying you—which, heaven knows, is true. Consequently, we appealed to Sebastian, and he kindly agreed to act as your escort.” Francesca beamed. “There!” Eyes bright, she looked at Sebastian. “And as there is no hostess in England, Scotland, Ireland, or Wales who wouldn’t give her eyeteeth to have you attend her house party, Lady Ennis will excuse the late notice—indeed, she’ll be in alt.”

Lady Ennis, Sebastian feared, would, indeed, be imagining a paradise—a far from innocent and distinctly illicit one. But Francesca’s ruse would clear the way for him to attend the house party, and that was his principal aim. He could avoid Cecilia, Lady Ennis, and stick with Antonia on the pretext of taking his escort duties seriously.

If he had, in truth, given the Earl of Chillingworth his word that he would guard the virtue of the earl’s precious eldest daughter, then his sticking to her side would be entirely expected.

Slowly, he nodded, then glanced at Antonia. “I second your mother’s suggestion. Such a tale will adequately excuse my presence and silence any questions over my turning up more or less unheralded.”

Antonia met his eyes. Although nothing showed in her expression, he sensed a certain mutinous reaction. But then she nodded, rather tersely, and he breathed again.

Deciding to quit while he was ahead, he rose. “Thank you both. I must get on, and I daresay you have morning calls to make.”

Antonia rose, as did Francesca.

He bowed over Francesca’s hand, then turned to Antonia.

She offered her hand, and he grasped her slender fingers. Rather than bow, he pressed her fingers gently and smiled at her. “Thank you for agreeing. I promise you won’t regret it.”

She stood looking up at him; her face was near expressionless, and he was visited by the odd notion that shutters suddenly screened her eyes. Then her lashes fell, and she looked down. “We’ll see.”

Cynical skepticism colored the words.

He didn’t approve of her lack of faith in him. He’d eased his grip, and she started to draw her fingers from his—he had to clamp down on a sudden urge to tighten his hold again.

He quashed the silly reaction. “Don’t bother Withers,” he said to Francesca. “I’ll see myself out.” With a last polite nod and a general smile, he made for the door.

Antonia stood transfixed and watched him go. Even after the door closed on his broad-shouldered figure, she continued to stare, unseeing, at the panel.

She’d always known she reacted to Sebastian in an odd way—in a way somehow different to how she responded to, for instance, his brother, Michael, or his cousins Marcus and Christopher, all of whom were of a similar age. Or indeed, to any other gentleman. She’d put it down to Sebastian being…well, Sebastian—his dominant, not to say domineering, personality, his innate command, his assumption of leadership, and his performance in that role. Or perhaps it was simply because women like her were drawn to strong men. There’d been a plethora of reasonable, conventional excuses, and she hadn’t thought more of it—of that shiver of awareness that being close to him provoked—not for years.

She couldn’t remember him ever holding her hand before—not in the way he just had, where the gesture was more than just part of a polite greeting.

When he’d squeezed her fingers and smiled at her, something inside her had shifted, and she’d felt as if the bottom had dropped out of her stomach. She’d looked into his face, into his eyes, and without Lucilla or Prudence or any of the others of their group around, had, for the very first time, seen him clearly.

She’d seen him as a man—a man she inexplicably, but utterly undeniably, wanted.

That degree of want—sharp, direct, and absolute—had never struck her before.

That it had struck her over him, of all the males in the ton…

“Hmm, my darling daughter…”

Antonia turned to regard her mother, who had sunk onto the window seat once more. Like Antonia, she’d been staring unseeing at the closed door.

As Antonia watched, Francesca’s emerald eyes narrowed, then her mother turned her bright gaze full force on her.

“I think, my dear, that you would do well to use this time away from us all to think of what you wish to do with your life.” Francesca’s expression was serious. “We have never pressed you to marry and will not, now or in the future. All decisions must be your own, but as you are twenty-nine, and with this first excursion on your own, it seems an appropriate time to dwell on what you wish your life to be.”

Antonia smiled faintly. “Great minds, Mama—I had planned to do precisely that.” And she had. But now…

With a slight shrug, she bent and picked up her embroidery hoop. “With Sebastian going and Drake’s mission to deal with, I’ll have to see what prospects for contemplation remain.”

* * *

Withers had materialized in the front hall and handed Sebastian his cane. He’d taken it with a word of thanks and, once Withers had opened the door, had gone quickly down the steps, walked along to Park Street, and set off for Arthur’s, where he had a luncheon appointment with friends.

As he walked, at first, he congratulated himself on successfully negotiating his entrée to the house party. Yet the farther he strode, niggling questions squirmed into his brain and dispelled his smugness. Antonia hadn’t been at all thrilled at the prospect of him acting as her escort. They’d known each other forever, so why?

He wasn’t a coxcomb, yet there was no question that he ranked among the most highly eligible bachelors in the haut ton. Having him by her side wouldn’t hurt her social standing one whit. Why, then, her reluctance?

Was she intending to conduct some illicit romance at Pressingstoke Hall?

The idea stopped him in his tracks—until a gentleman who had been stumping along in his wake poked him in the back, and with a muttered apology, he started off again.

For half a block, the prospect of Antonia, who was twenty-nine and unmarried after all, plotting some seedy affair played havoc with his faculties, but then reality reasserted itself. If she had been planning any such thing, gaining her agreement to having him as her escort would have been much harder.

With that resolved, his wits settled, and his mind moved on to the more important question of why she’d changed her mind—of what in the situation had swayed her to his cause. He always found it helpful to understand the motivations of those he needed to manage.

He revisited her questions and her reactions to his answers and confirmed that, as he’d anticipated, his mention of the “safety of the realm” had paved the way, even though it had taken her a while to admit it, even to herself. She was an earl’s daughter; responding to the call of duty came as naturally to her as it did to him.

But there’d been something else, some other strand in her ruminations. Those questions over why she couldn’t act as Drake’s surrogate herself…she’d known the answers, yet still she’d asked.

Insight bloomed lamp-like in his mind. She intended to actively assist, of course—that was the final lure for her, the prospect of dabbling in intrigue.

He pondered that as he waited to cross Piccadilly.

Once across the busy street and nearing Arthur’s, he concluded that, while Antonia attempting to actively help him in what was really a very simple and straightforward mission might prove a trifle annoying, if the prospect of engaging in an intrigue had cleared his way over attending the house party, then dealing with her efforts to involve herself was a small price to pay.

He’d reached the pavement in front of Arthur’s when, unbidden, the image of Antonia’s face as she’d smiled radiantly up at him filled his mind.

He halted as recollection poured through him.

In that moment…

He stood stock-still on the pavement as understanding dawned.

In that moment, he’d glimpsed the real Antonia—the woman behind the coolly composed social façade.

And to him, to his senses, she’d been riveting.

She was, in truth, a blend of her parents—Chillingworth’s reserve for her haughtily assured outer shell, but inside…

Inside, she was all Francesca—dramatically passionate and alluring.

Something primitive and predatory in him stirred…but this was Antonia.

Antonia, with whom he had just arranged to spend five entire days, for once free of the buffer of their usually ever-present families.

Sebastian considered the prospect, then slowly climbed the steps to Arthur’s door.

Carrying out Drake’s simple and straightforward mission might well prove to be more complicated and challenging than he’d thought.

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