The Perfect Lover
The 10th Cynster Novel
First published in Hardcover 2003
Paperback from Avon Books
Never let it be said that a Cynster male can't face up to the one unassailable truth: that a successful marriage gives life its fullest meaning. To all of English society, Simon Frederick Cynster has a perfect life - one of enormous wealth and impeccable social status. His lean handsomeness turns the heads of naïve debutantes, while his sensual allure ensures he never lacks for more sophisticated partners for a night, or more, of pleasure. Yet despite all of this, Simon knows that there is something - or rather someone - missing in his life.
To achieve true contentment, Simon accepts that he must find a lady accomplished enough to be his wife. Someone who will spend her days as a member of one of England's most influential families…and her nights pursuing duties of a more private - and personal - nature.
But Simon knows what to expect if he reveals his intention to choose a bride; nothing could be more tiresome than having every blushing miss on the marriage mart thrust upon him. So he discreetly begins his search at a house party at Glossup Hall…and is astonished that the lady who immediately captures his interest is Portia Ashford.
Simon has never considered Portia as a potential wife. He's known the raven-haired beauty since childhood; she's willfully independent and has always claimed to be uninterested in marriage. But an unexpectedly heated kiss abruptly alters the rules of their decade-long interaction. Soon they begin to long for the moments they can spend in each other's arms.
But all is not as it seems at Glossup Hall. As Simon and Portia begin to explore the depths of their mutual passion, a shocking murder is committed…and it appears that the next victim will be Portia herself. And even more shocking than the fact that a murderer secretly walks among them is the realization that all of Simon's considerable strength and influence may not be enough to protect Portia - his once and always perfect lover.
A New York Times, USA Today and Publisher's Weekly Bestseller!
#2 Amazon Editor's Best Romance of 2003
#3 Waldenbooks Best Romance of 2003
A Readersread.com Best Books of 2003
A New York Times, Wall Street Journal & Publishers Weekly hardcover fiction BESTSELLER!
"This is a must-have for your Cynster library. Don't miss it!" Debbie @ aromancereview.com
"Elegant writing flavored with wit, memorable characters, some superbly sensual and exquisitely detailed love scenes, and a plot laced with danger all come together beautifully in this wickedly fun, wonderfully sexy romance." John Charles, Booklist
"Another utterly delightful, highly sensual romance, this Cynster novel will satisfy devoted readers and bring new ones into the fold. A delicious love story, perfect Regency and a mystery full of surprises." Kathe Robin, Romantic Times
Late July, 1835.
Near Glossup Hall, by Ashmore, Dorset.
"Hell and the devil!" Simon Cynster reined in his bays, his eyes narrowing on the ridge high above Ashmore village. The village proper lay just behind him; he was headed for Glossup Hall, a mile further along the leafy country lane.
At the rear of the village cottages, the land rose steeply; a woman was following the path winding up the berm of what Simon knew to be ancient earthworks. The views from the top reached as far as the Solent, and on clear days even to the Isle of Wight.
It was hardly a surprise to see someone heading up there.
"No surprise she hasn't anyone with her, either." Irritation mounting, he watched the dark-haired, willowy, ineffably graceful figure steadily ascend the rise, a long-legged figure that inevitably drew the eye of any man with blood in his veins. He'd recognized her instantly - Portia Ashford, his sister Amelia's sister-in-law.
Portia must be attending the Glossup Hall house party; the Hall was the only major house near enough from which to walk.
A sense of being put-upon burgeoned and grew.
"Damn!" He'd yielded to the entreaties of his longtime friend James Glossup and agreed to stop by on his way to Somerset to support James through the trials of the house party. But if Portia was going to be present, he'd have trials enough of his own.
She reached the crest of the earthworks and paused, one slender hand rising to hold back the fall of her jet black hair; lifting her face to the breeze, she stared into the distance, then, letting her hand fall, gracefully walked on, following the path to the lookout, gradually descending until she disappeared from sight.
She's no business of mine.
The words echoed in his head; God knew she'd stated the sentiment often enough, in various phrasings, most far more emphatic. Portia was not his sister, not his cousin, indeed, she shared no blood at all.
Jaw firming, he looked to his horses, took up the slack in the reins-
And inwardly cursed.
"Wilks - wake, up man!" Simon tossed the reins at his groom, until then dozing behind him. Pulling on the brake, he stepped down to the road. "Just hold them - I'll be back."
Thrusting his hands into his greatcoat pockets, he strode for the narrow path that led upward, ultimately joining the path from the Hall that Portia had followed up the rise.
He was only buying himself trouble - a sniping match at the very least - yet leaving her alone, unprotected from any wastrel who might happen along, was simply not possible, not for him. If he'd driven on, he wouldn't have had a moment's peace, not until she returned safe and sound to the Hall.
Given her propensity for rambling walks, that might not happen for hours.
He wouldn't be thanked for his concern. If he survived without having his ego prodded in a dozen uncomfortable places, he'd count himself lucky. Portia had a tongue like a double-edged razor-no way one could escape being nicked. He knew perfectly well what her attitude would be when he caught up with her - precisely the same as it had been for the past decade, ever since he'd realized she truly had no idea of the prize she was, the temptation she posed, and was therefore in need of constant protection from the situations into which she blithely sailed.
While she remained out of his sight, out of his orbit, she was not his responsibility; if she came within it, unprotected, he felt obliged to watch over her, to keep her safe - he should have known better than to try to fight the urge.
Of all the females he knew, she was unquestionably the most difficult, not least because she was also the most intelligent, yet here he was, trudging after her despite his certain reception; he wasn't at all sure what that said of his intelligence.
Women! He'd spent the entire drive west considering them. His Great Aunt Clara had recently died and left him her house in Somerset. The inheritance had served as a catalyst, forcing him to review his life, to rethink his direction, yet his unsettled state had a more fundamental genesis; he'd finally realized what it was that gave his older cousins and his sisters' husbands their purpose in life.
The purpose he lacked.
Family - their own branch of it, their own children - their own wife. Such things had never seemed critical before; now they loomed as vital to his life, to his satisfaction with his lot.
A scion of a wealthy, well-born family, his lot was a comfortable one, yet what worth comfort against the lack of achievement he now felt so acutely? It wasn't his ability to achieve that was in question - not in his mind, nor, he'd warrant, in any other - but the goal, the need, the reason; these were the necessities he lacked.
Crucial necessities for a satisfying life for such as he.
Great Aunt Clara's legacy had been the final prod; what was he to do with a rambling country house if not live in it? He needed to get himself a wife and start building the family he required to give his life its true direction.
He hadn't accepted the notion meekly. For the past ten years, his life had been well-run, well-ordered, with females intruding in only two arenas, both entirely under his control. With countless discreet liaisons behind him, he was a past master at managing - seducing, enjoying and ultimately disengaging from - the well-born matrons with whom he habitually dallied. Other than that, the only females he consorted with were those of his own family. Admittedly, within the family, they ruled, but as that had always been the case, he'd never felt constrained or challenged by the fact - one simply dealt with it as necessary.
With his active interest in the Cynster investment business together with the distractions of tonnish society, with his sexual conquests and the customary family gatherings to season the whole, his life had been pleasantly full. He'd never seen the need to linger at those balls and parties graced by marriageable young ladies.
Which now left him in the unenviable position of wanting a wife, and not having any useful avenue through which to acquire one, not without setting off alarm bells that would resonate throughout the ton. If he was foolish enough to start attending the balls and parties, the fond mamas would instantly perceive he was on the lookout for a bride - and lay siege.
He was the last unmarried male Cynster of his generation.
Stepping up to the top of the earthworks' outer wall, he paused. The land fell away in a shallow sweep; the path continued to the left, leading to a squat, covered lookout set into the earth wall some fifty yards on.
The view was magnificent. Sunshine winked on the distant sea; the silhouette of the Isle of Wight was distinguishable through a soft summer haze.
He'd seen the view before. He turned to the lookout, and the female presently in it. She was standing at the railing, gazing out to sea. From her stance and stillness, he assumed she hadn't seen him.
Lips setting, he walked on. He wouldn't need to give any reason for joining her. For the past decade, he'd treated her with the same insistent protectiveness he applied to all the females of his family; doubtless it was her relationship - the fact she was his brother-in-law Luc's sister - that dictated how he felt about her despite the lack of bloodties.
To his mind, Portia Ashford was family, his to protect. That much, at least, was unarguable.
* * *
What tortuous logic had prompted the gods to decree that a woman needed a man to conceive?
Portia stifled a disgusted humph. That was the crux of the dilemma now facing her. Unfortunately, there was no point debating the issue - the gods had so decreed and there was nothing she could do about it now.
Other than find a way around the problem.
The thought increased her irritation, largely self-directed. She had never wanted a husband, never imagined the usual path of a nice, neat, socially approved marriage with all its attendant constraints was for her. Never had she seen her future in such terms.
But there was no other way.
Stiffening her spine, she faced the fact squarely: If she wanted children of her own, she would have to find a husband.
The breeze sidled up, whispering, coolly caressing her cheeks, lightly fingering the heavy waves of her hair. The realization that children - her own children, her own family - were what in her heart she truly yearned for, the challenge she'd been raised, like her mother, to accept and conquer, had come just like the breeze, stealing up on her. For the past five years, she'd worked with her sisters Penelope and Anne in caring for foundlings in London. She'd plunged into the project with her usual zeal, convinced their ideals were both proper and right, only to discover her own destiny lay in a direction in which she'd never thought to look.
So now she needed a husband.
Given her birth, her family's status and connections, and her dowry, gaining such an encumbrance would be easy, even though she was already twenty-four. She wasn't, however, fool enough to imagine any gentleman would do. Given her character, her temperament, her trenchant independence, it was imperative she choose wisely.
She wrinkled her nose, her gaze fixed unseeing on the distant prospect. Never had she imagined would come to this - to desiring a husband. Courtesy of their brother Luc's disinterest in pushing her and her sisters into marriage, they'd been allowed to go their own way; her way had eschewed the ballrooms and salons, Almack's and similar gatherings of the ton at which marriageable young ladies found their spouses.
Learning how to find a husband had seemed beneath her - an enterprise well below the more meaty challenges her intellect demanded...
Recollections of past arrogance - of all the chances to learn the hows and wherefors of husband selection and subsequent snaring at which she'd turned up her nose - fed her aggravation. How galling to discover her intellect, widely accepted as superior, had not forseen her present state.
The damning truth was she could recite Horace and quote Virgil by the page, yet she had no real idea how to acquire a husband.
Let alone the right one.
She refocused on the distant sea, on the sunlight winking off the waves, constantly vacillating. Just as she was, had been for the past month. That was so unlike her, so at odds with her character - always decisive, never weak or shy - her indecision grated on her temper. Her character wanted, nay demanded a decision, a firm goal, a plan of action. Her emotions - a side of herself she'd rarely been swayed by - were far less sure. Far less inclined to jump into this latest project with her customary zeal.
She'd revisted the arguments ad infinitum; there were no further aspects to be explored. She'd walked here today determined to use the few hours before the other guests arrived and the house party got underway to formulate a plan.
Lips setting, she narrowed her eyes at the horizon, aware of resistance welling inside, of a shying away from the moment-so aggravating yet so instinctive, so powerful she had to fight to override it and push ahead...but she was not going to leave without a firm commitment.
Grasping the lookout's railing, she tipped her chin high and firmly stated, "I will use every opportunity the house party provides to learn all I can and make up my mind once and for all." That was nowhere near decisive enough; determinedly, she added, "Whoever is present of suitable age and station, I swear I will seriously consider them."
There - at last! She'd put her next step into words. Into a solemn vow. The positive uplifting feeling that always followed on the heels of decision welled within her-
"Well that's heartening, I must say, although of suitable age and station for what?"
With a gasp, she whirled. For one instant, her mind boggled. Not with fear - despite the shadows in which he stood and the brightness of the day behind him, she'd recognized his voice, knew whose shoulders blocked the entrance arch.
But what in all Hades was he doing here?
His gaze sharpened - a disconcertingly acute blue gaze far too direct for politeness.
"And what haven't you made up your mind about? That usually takes you all of two seconds."
Calmness, decisiveness - fearlessness - returned in a rush. She narrowed her eyes back. "That is none of your affair."
He moved, deliberately slowly, taking three prowling steps to join her by the railing. She tensed. The muscles framing her spine grew rigid; her lungs locked as something within her reacted. She knew him so well, yet here, alone in the silence of the fields and sky, he seemed larger, more powerful.
More dangerous in some indefinable way.
Stopping with two feet between them, he gestured to the view. "You seemed to be declaring it to the world at large."
He met her gaze; amusement at catching her out lurked in the blue, along with watchfulness and a certain disapproval.
His features remained expressionless. "I suppose it's too much to hope there's a groom or footman waiting nearby?"
That was a subject she wasn't about to debate, especially not with him. Facing the view, she coolly inclined her head. "Good afternoon. The views are quite magnificent." She paused for only an instant. "I hadn't imagined you an admirer of nature."
She felt his gaze slide over her profile, then he looked at the view.
"On the contrary." He slid his hands into his pockets; he seemed to relax. "There are some creations of nature I'm addicted to worshipping."
It required no thought at all to divine to what he was alluding. In the past, she would have made some tart remark...now, all she heard in her mind were the words of her vow... "You're here for the Glossups' house party."
It wasn't a question; he answered with an elegant shrug. "What else?"
He turned as she drew herself up. Their eyes met; he'd heard her vow and was unlikely to forget...
She was suddenly sure she needed more space between them.
"I came here for the solitude," she baldly informed him. "Now you've arrived, I may as well start back."
She swung toward the exit. He was in her way. Her heartbeat accelerating, she glanced at his face.
In time to see his features harden, to sense him bite back some retort. His gaze touched hers; his restraint was almost palpable. With a calm so deliberate it was itself a warning, he stepped aside and waved her to the door. "As you wish."
Her senses remained trained on him as she swept past; her skin prickled as if in truth he posed some potential danger. Once past him, head high, she glided out of the archway; with a calm more apparent than real, she set off along the path.
Jaw setting, Simon ruthlessly quelled the urge to stop her, to reach out, catch her hand, reel her back - to what end he wasn't sure. This, he reminded himself, was what he needed, her on her haughty way back to Glossup Hall.
Drawing a long breath, he held it, then followed her out into the sunshine.
And on down the path. The sooner she got back to civilization and safety, the sooner his own journey would end. He'd driven straight down from London - he was thirsty; a glass of ale would not go astray.
With his longer strides he could easily overtake her; instead, he ambled in her wake, content enough with the view. The current fashion for gowns with waists that actually fell at a woman's waist suited her, emphasizing the svelte lines of her figure, the slender curves, the very long lines of her legs. The purply-blue hue of the light summer walking dress suited her dramatic coloring - raven black hair, midnight blue eyes and pale, almost translucent skin. She was taller than the average; her forehead would brush his chin - if they ever got that close.
The thought of that happening made him inwardly, grimly, laugh.
Reaching the crest of the rise, she continued over and on - and only then realized he was following her. She threw him a black glance, then stopped and waited, swinging to face him as he halted before her.
Her eyes like shards of dark flint, she glared at him. "You are not going to follow me all the way back to the Hall."
Portia didn't ask what he thought he was doing; they both knew. They'd last seen each other at Christmas, seven months before, but only distantly, surrounded by the combined hordes of their families. He hadn't had a chance then to get on her nerves, something that, ever since she'd turned fourteen, he'd seemed absolutely devoted to doing, if possible every time they met.
His gaze locked on hers. Something - temper? decision? - flashed behind the deceptively soft blue of his eyes. Then his lips firmed; he stepped around her with his usual fluid grace, unnerving in a man so large, and continued on down the path.
She whirled, watched. He didn't go far but stopped a step beyond the fork where the footpath to the village led down to the lane below.
Turning, he met her gaze. "You're right. I'm not." He waved down the path.
She looked in that direction. A curricle - his curricle - stood in the lane.
"Your carriage awaits."
Lifting her gaze, she met his. Directly. He was blocking the path to the Hall - quite deliberately.
"I was intending to walk back."
His gaze didn't waver. "Change your mind."
His tone - sheer male arrogance laced with a challenge she hadn't previously encountered and couldn't place - sent a peculiar shiver through her. There was no overt aggression in his stance, yet she didn't for a moment doubt he could, and would, stop her if she tried to get past him.
Temper, wild willfulness - her customary response to intimidatory tactics, especially from him - flooded her, yet this time there were other, powerful and distracting emotions in the mix. She stood perfectly still, her gaze level and locked in silent combat with his, the familiar struggle for supremacy, yet...
Something had changed.
And in her.
Was it simply age - how long had it been since they'd last crossed wills like this? Three years? More? Regardless, the field had altered; the battle was no longer the same. Something was fundamentally different; she sensed in him a bolder, more blatantly predatory streak, a flash of steel beneath his elegance, as if with the years his mask was wearing thin.
She'd always known him for what he was...
Her vow echoed in her head. She mentally shook aside the distraction, yet still she heard...recognized the challenge.
Head rising, she walked forward, every bit as deliberate as he.
The watchfulness in his eyes condensed, until his attention was focused exclusively on her. Another tingle of sensation slithered down her spine. Halting before him, she held his gaze.
What did he see? Now she was looking, trying to see past his guard only to discover she could not - odd, for they'd never sought to hide their mutual dismissiveness - what was it he was hiding? What was the reason behind the veiled threat emanating from him?
To her surprise, she wanted to know.
She drew a deliberate breath, evenly stated, "Very well."
Surprise lit his eyes, swiftly superceded by suspicion; she pivoted and looked down, stepping onto the path to the village, hiding her smile. Just so he wouldn't imagine he'd won, she coolly added, "As it happens, one of my shoes is pinching."
She'd taken only one more step when she sensed him shift, then he was sweeping down on her, moving far too fast.
Her senses leapt. Uncertain, she slowed -
He didn't halt; he bent, and scooped her up in his arms.
Without breaking his stride, he juggled her until he had her cradled, carrying her as if she weighed no more than a child.
Her lungs had seized, along with her senses; it took serious effort to draw breath. "What do you think you're doing?"
Her total incomprehension invested every word. Never before had he shown the slightest sign of reacting to her jibes in any physical way.
She was...what? Shocked? Or...?
Thrusting her confusion side, she met his gaze as he briefly glanced her way.
"Your shoe's pinching - we wouldn't want your delicate little foot to suffer unnecessary damage."
His tone was bland, his expression guileless; the look in his eyes would even pass for innocent.
She blinked. They both looked ahead. She considered protesting - and discarded the notion in the next thought. He was perfectly capable of arguing until they reached the curricle.
As for struggling...she was intensely aware - far more than she liked to be - that she was physically much weaker than he. The arms supporting her felt like steel; his stride never faltered, powerful and assured. The hand clasping her thigh just above her knee - decently protected by her full skirts - grasped like a vise; the width of his chest and its muscled hardness locked her in. She'd never regarded his strength as anything she needed to consider or weigh, yet if he was going to bring physical contact into their equation, she would need to think again.
And not just on the basis of strength.
Being this close, trapped in his arms, made her feel...among other things, lightheaded.
He slowed; she refocused.
With a flourish, he set her on the curricle's seat.
Startled, she grasped the railings, out of habit drawing her skirts close so he could sit beside her - noting the equally startled face of Wilks, his groom.
"Ah...afternoon, Miss Portia." Wide-eyed, Wilks bobbed as he handed the reins to Simon.
Wilks had to have witnessed the entire performance; he was waiting for her to explode, or at least say something cutting.
And he wasn't the only one.
She smiled with perfect equanimity. "Good afternoon, Wilks."
Wilks blinked, nodded warily, then hurried back to his place.
Simon glanced at her as he climbed up beside her. As if expecting her to bite. Or at the very least snarl.
He wouldn't have believed a sweet smile so she faced forward, serenely composed, as if her joining him in the curricle had been her idea. His suspicious glance was worth every tithe of the effort such sunny compliance cost her.
The curricle jerked, then rolled forward. The instant he had his bays bowling along, she asked, "How are your parents?"
A pause greeted that, but then he replied.
She nodded and launched into an account of her family, all of whom he knew, describing their health, their whereabouts, their latest interests. As if he'd asked, she continued, "I came down with Lady O." For years, that had been their shorthand for Lady Osbaldestone, a connection of the Cynsters and an old friend of her family's, an ancient beldame who terrorized half the ton. "She spent the last weeks at the Chase, and then had to travel down here. She's an old friend of Lord Netherfield, did you know?" Viscount Netherfield was Lord Glossup's father and was presently visiting at Glossup Hall.
Simon was frowning. "No."
Portia smiled quite genuinely; she was fond of Lady O but Simon, in company with most gentlemen of his ilk, found her perspicaciousness somewhat scarifying. "Luc insisted she shouldn't cross half the country alone, so I offered to come, too. The others who've arrived so far..." She rattled on, acquainting him with those present and those yet to arrive, precisely as any friendly, well-bred young lady might.
The suspicion in his eyes grew more and more pronounced.
Then the gates of Glossup Hall appeared, set wide in welcome. Simon turned the bays in and set them pacing up the drive.
The Hall was a sprawling country house built in Elizabethan times. Its typical red brick facade faced south and boasted three storeys with east and west wings set perpendicular to it. The central wing housing the ballroom and conservatory made up the middle stroke of the E. As they neared, sunlight glanced off the rows of mullioned windows and glowed on the tall chimneys with their ornate pots.
By the time he swung the bays into the circular forecourt, Simon felt thoroughly disconcerted. Not a common feeling, not for him; there wasn't much in tonnish life that could throw him off balance.
Other than Portia.
If she'd railed at him, used her sharp tongue to its usual effect, all would have been normal. He wouldn't have enjoyed the encounter, but neither would he have felt this sudden disorientation.
Rack his brains though he might, he couldn't recall her ever behaving toward him with such...feminine softness was the description that sprang to mind. She was usually well armored and prickly; today, she'd apparently left her shield and spears behind.
The result was...
He reined in the bays, pulled on the brake, tossed the ribbons to Wilks and stepped down.
Portia waited for him to come around the carriage and hand her down; he watched, expecting her to leap down in her usual, independent, don't-need-you way. Instead, when he offered his hand, she placed her slim fingers across his palm and let him assist her to alight with stunning grace.
She looked up and smiled when he released her. "Thank you." Her smile deepened; her eyes held his. "You were right. My foot is in an unquestionably better state than it otherwise would have been."
Her expression one of ineffable sweetness, she inclined her head and turned away. Her eyes were so dark he hadn't been able to tell if the twinkle he'd thought he'd seen in them was real, or merely a trick of the light.
He stood in the forecourt, grooms and footmen darting around him, and watched as she glided into the house. Without a single glance back, she disappeared into the shadows beyond the open front door.
The sound of gravel crunching as his curricle and pair were led away jerked him out of his abstraction. Outwardly impassive, inwardly a trifle grim, he strode to the door of Glossup Hall. And followed her in.
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