What Price Love?
The 13th Cynster Novel
First published in Hardcover 2006
Paperback from Avon Books
Enter the unforgettable world of New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens, creator of the phenomenal Cynster family. This amazing clan - and their friends - are a bold, powerful group who let nothing stand in their way when it comes to matters of the heart. And in this, Stephanie Laurens's newest novel, a passionate man and a daring woman confront the ultimate question...What Price Love?
There is nothing more fascinating than a darkly handsome rake, especially one as controlled and elusive as Dillon Caxton, protégé of Demon Cynster. Despite his dangerous air, Dillon is now a man of sterling reputation, but it wasn't always so. Years ago, an illicit scheme turned into a nefarious swindle, and only the help of his cousin, Felicity, and her husband, Demon, saved Dillon from ruin. Now impeccably honest, his hard-won reputation zealously guarded, he's the Keeper of the Register of all racing horses in England. His standing and aloofness makes Dillon undeniably desirable to young ladies, but despite all the lures thrown his way, he remains uninterested, his attention unfixed.
Until Miss Priscilla Dalling erupts into his life. A stunning beauty, she affects Dillon as no other ever has, but what fascinates him even more is that this tempting young lady is clearly desperate, and equally clearly lying about wanting to see the Register to fulfill the whim of an eccentric aunt.
Lady Priscilla Dalloway will do anything to see what's in the Register. Her twin brother, Russell, who had quarrelled with their father and quit the family home to work with the finest racehorses, has disappeared from Newmarket. Pris knows clues to his plight can be found in the tome Dillon Caxton protects so assiduously.
In its pursuit, she unleashes her feminine wiles on Dillon - to no avail. But Dillon is now determined to learn the truth behind her quest. Exploiting the powerful attraction that flares between them, he succeeds in convincing Pris to tell him all, to trust him with her twin's life. Together, Dillon and Pris locate Rus, only to discover that his life is threatened by the perpetrators of a massive betting swindle, from whom he's escaped.
The time is ripe for Dillon to repay old debts by helping another as he himself was helped. Assisted by Demon, Felicity, and Barnaby Adair, Dillon and Pris embark on a journey riddled with danger - and undeniable passion - as they seek to overturn the swindle and expose the deadly perpetrators. And along the way they discover the answer to that age old question: What price love?
A New York Times, Publishers Weekly & USA-Today Bestseller!
"Laurens writes a story that moves like a thoroughbred out of the gate. Totally captivating, with rising emotional tension--this is a guaranteed winner." BookPage
"Another of the author's lusciously sensual historical romances. Deftly laced with passion and danger, What Price Love? is sexy, suspenseful, and splendidly satisfying." Booklist Reviews
"Crowd-pleasing, hot-blooded romance (with) well-researched horse-racing backdrop." Publishers Weekly
STARRED REVIEW. "A complex sizzler." Library Journal
"5 Rose Rating! What Price Love? has more twists than a Gordian knit and more turns than the Grand Prix. Readers will fall instantly into the well-woven plot. Putting the book down is not an option. Ms. Laurens has outdone herself - again." aromancereview.com
"Laurens has proven her ability to tell a fast-paced story brimming with delightful characters (it is such fun to revisit Demon and Flick), a scintillating bit of suspense, colorful backdrops and sizzling love scenes. Here is one more in her long line of entertaining novels that are sure to satisfy." Romantic Times BOOKClub
Ballyranna, County Kilkenny, Ireland
"I'm looking for Paddy O'Loughlin."
Fronting the bar counter in the Pipe & Drum, Lady Priscilla Dalloway met the tavern keeper's arrested gaze, and wished she'd thought to disguise her diction. But then she watched recognition flare in Miller's eyes, and realized there would have been no point. She'd worn an old habit and a wide brimmed hat, but there was nothing she could do to disguise her face; a veil wouldn't help gain Paddy O'Loughlin's confidence.
Miller, a beefy man with a round, bald head, continued to study her as if she might pose some exotic threat. Inwardly sighing, she leaned confidingly on the counter. "He's not in any trouble-I just want to talk to him." She'd softened her already soft brogue, but Miller didn't budge or blink; she infused a touch more persuasiveness into her tone. "It's just that my brother's now filling the position from which Paddy recently retired, and I wanted to know what Paddy could tell me about the work and the place."
That was all she was willing to reveal. She wanted reassurance as to Rus's well-being, but she wasn't prepared to air the Dalloway's dirty linen before Miller, no doubt as big a gossip as his peers.
Miller frowned, and glanced around.
It was two o'clock; there were three workmen further along the bar, and a few scattered at tables, all glancing surreptitiously at the Quality miss who'd walked into their den. The bar room windows were small, their glass thick and wavy, admitting little light; the room was a medley of browns and greens, dingy and drab, with only the gleam of glasses and bottles on the wall behind the counter to fix the eye.
Miller eyed his other customers, then set aside the glass he'd been drying, stepped closer and lowered his voice. "You're saying young Lord Russell's up and taken Paddy's old job?"
Pris managed not to hiss through her teeth. "Yes. I thought perhaps Paddy could tell me about Lord Cromarty's stables." She shrugged as if it were perfectly normal for an earl's son to become an assistant stableman, and equally mundane for his sister to ride for two hours across country to inquire of the previous incumbent as to the conditions of his erstwhile employment. "I'm just curious."
And concerned over why a man like Paddy O'Loughlin would leave what should have been an excellent position. He was a local legend when it came to horses and horseflesh; he'd helped train a number of exceptional racehorses over the years. She hadn't met him, but had known he lived outside this village, known therefore where best to inquire for him.
Miller studied her, then angled his head at a large man in workman's garb nursing a pint at a table in the dimmest corner. "You'd best ask Seamus O'Malley. He and Paddy were best mates."
Pris's brows flew up at Miller's use of the past tense.
He nodded portentously. "Anyone can help you, it's Seamus." He stepped back, adding, "And if it were my brother in Paddy's old shoes, I'd ask."
Concern tranformed to outright anxiety. Pris straightened. "Thank you."
Turning, she regarded Seamus O'Malley. She knew nothing of him. Quitting the bar, she walked across the room.
O'Malley sat hunched over a table, nursing a pint pot between work-roughened hands. Pausing beside him, she waited until his gaze rose to meet hers. He blinked owlishly at her, clearly recognizing her but at a loss as to why she was standing there.
Quietly she stated, "I'm looking for Paddy O'Loughlin - Miller suggested I speak with you."
"He did?" Seamus shifted to peer at the bar.
Pris didn't turn to see. When, presumably reassured by Miller's nod, Seamus looked back at her uncertainly, she pulled out the second chair at the table and sat. "Miller said you knew Paddy well."
Seamus eyed her warily. "Aye."
"So - where is he?"
He blinked, then went back to staring into his almost full pot. "Don't know." Before Pris could prod, he went on, "None of us do. He was here one night, a sennight gone it was, and he ambled off home come closing time, like he always did. But he never reached home." Seamus glanced at her, briefly met her eyes. "The path to his cottage runs through the bogs."
Pris tamped down a sharp surge of panic, tried to think of some other interpretation, and couldn't. "You're saying he was murdered?"
Returning his gaze to his glass, Seamus shrugged. "Don't know, do we? But Paddy'd walked that path ten thousand times, man and boy, and he weren't even drunk - barely tipsy. Hard to swallow that he'd lose his way and die like that, but no one's seen hide nor hair of him since."
Cold dread welled in Pris's stomach. "My brother, Lord Russell, has taken Paddy's old job." She heard her voice, steady but distant, was aware of Seamus's instant concern. "I wanted to ask Paddy about Cromarty's stables. Did he say anything about the place - about the people, the work?"
The expression on Seamus's face was a disturbing mix of worry and sympathy. He sipped, then in a low voice offered, "He'd worked there for three years. Liked the place well enough at first, said the horses were fine, but recently…he said there was something going on that he didn't hold with. That's why he left."
"Something going on?" Pris leaned forward. "Did he say anything more? Give any hint as to what the something was?"
Seamus grimaced. "All he said was that that devil Harkness - he who's head stableman at Cromarty's - was in it up to his ears, and that it, whatever it was, involved some register."
She frowned. "Register?"
"Paddy never said what register nor how it mattered." Seamus contemplated his beer, then looked at Pris. "I've heard tell your brother's a great one with the horses, but I ain't never heard him spoken of as one who'd tip a man the wink, nor be likely to nobble a horse, nor be involved in any other shady dealing. Lord knows Paddy weren't no saint, but if there were something going on at Cromarty's stables he couldn't stomach, then seems likely your brother might have difficulties with it, too."
Pris stared at him. "And now Paddy's gone."
"Aye. I'm thinking it might be wise to let your brother know." Seamus hesitated, then more gently asked, "He's your twin, ain't he?"
Pris nodded. "Yes." She had to work to strengthen her voice. "And thank you. I'll tell him about Paddy."
She started to rise, then paused and fished in her pocket. Standing, she slipped a silver sixpence onto the table. "Have another pint - for Paddy."
Seamus looked at the sixpence, then grunted softly. "Thank ye. And you tell that brother o'yours to watch himself."
Pris turned and strode out of the tavern.
* * *
Two hours later, she swept into the back parlor of Dalloway Hall.
Her paternal aunt Eugenia, a widow who had come to live with the family on Pris's mother's death seven years before, sat on the chaise calmly tatting. Curled on the windowseat, Adelaide, Eugenia's orphaned goddaughter, now her ward, had been idly perusing a novel.
A pretty girl with glossy brown hair, two years younger than Pris's twenty-four, Adelaide looked up, and set aside her book. "Did you learn anything?"
Grimly stripping off her gloves, Pris headed for the ladies' desk by the windows. "I have to write to Rus immediately."
Eugenia lowered her needles. "From which I take it you discovered something disturbing. What?"
Pris dropped her gloves on the desk, swung the heavy skirts of her habit around and sat in the chair angled before the desk. Both Eugenia and Adelaide knew where she'd gone, and why. "I'd expected to hear that Paddy had had a fight with the head stableman, or something of the sort. I'd hoped his reason for leaving Cromarty's would be simple and innocuous. Unfortunately, it's not."
Across the faded splendor of the Aubusson rug, Pris met Eugenia's wise eyes. "Paddy spoke of something going on at Cromarty's that he couldn't stomach - that's why he left. And now he's disappeared - his friends think he's been done away with."
Eugenia's brown eyes widened. "Great heavens!"
"Oh, dear!" Hand rising to her throat, Adelaide stared.
Turning to the desk, Pris opened the drawer. "I'm going to write to Rus and tell him he has to leave Cromarty's employ at once. If there's something bad happening with the horses - well, you know Rus. He'll get involved trying to put it right. But I don't want him in any danger, not if it's the sort where people disappear, never to be heard of again. If he can't bear to come home and deal with Papa, then he'll have to look for work training horses for someone else."
To her horror, her voice threatened to quaver; she paused to draw a steadying breath.
Rus had always been horse-mad. His one burning ambition was to train an Irish Derby champion. While she didn't share his enthusiasm, Pris fully understood the fervor of his dreams. Unfortunately, their father, Denham Dalloway, Earl of Kentland, had rigid views on what constituted an appropriate occupation for his son and heir, namely the care and management of the family estates. Breeding and training horses was all very well for others, the implication being others of lesser degree, but was an unacceptable occupation for the next Earl of Kentland.
Of the earl's three sons, Rus was the least likely to be satisfied with the role of county landowner as his sole focus in life. Like Pris, he took after their mother, more Celt than English, wild and dramatic and mercurially alive. Both twins could see the benefit in the estate being well-managed, but estate management lacked allure. Luckily, their nearest brother, Albert, now twenty-one, took after their father - solid, dependable, stoic; Albert delighted in and would unquestionably excel at all aspects of estate management.
Pris, Rus and Albert had always been close, as indeed all the Dalloway children were, but the other three, Margaret, Rupert and Aileen, were much younger - twelve, ten and seven years old respectively - more to be protected than viewed as co-conspirators. Even before their mother had died, the three eldest siblings had made a pact: Rus would do as their father wished and look after the estate until Albert returned from university in Dublin, then they would put their plan to their sire, that Albert should manage the estate in Rus's name while Rus devoted himself to establishing and running a racing stud.
It was a prescription for the future the three of them could happily follow and make work.
Two months ago, Albert had returned from Dublin, his studies at an end. Once he'd reacquainted himself with the estate, the three had duly put their plan to the earl - who had rejected it out of hand.
Rus would continue to manage the estate. If he had a mind to it, Albert could assist him. Regardless, however, no Dalloway would ever stoop to indulging in horse breeding on a commercial scale.
So declared the earl.
Rus had exploded. Pris and Albert quite saw his point; he'd curbed his driving desire and done everything their father had asked of him for seven years, and now felt he was owed a chance to live the life he yearned to live.
The earl had curled his lip and refused point blank to even consider their scheme.
Words had been exchanged, things said, wounds dealt on both sides. Pushed beyond bearing, Rus had stormed out of Dalloway Hall in a wild fury. He'd taken nothing more than what he could cram in his saddlebags, and ridden away.
Seven days later, just over three weeks ago, Pris had received a letter to say he'd found work at Lord Cromarty's stables, one of the major racing establishments in neighboring County Wexford.
The schism between her father and brother was now deeper than it had ever been. Pris was determined to repair the rupture in her family, but the wounds would take time to heal. She accepted that. But with Rus gone, out of her world, for the first time in her life she felt truly alone, truly bereft as if some part of her had been excised, cut away. The feeling was much more intense than when her mother had died; then she'd had Rus beside her.
She'd gone looking for Paddy seeking reassurance, something to soothe her growing uneasiness over Rus's safety. Instead, she'd learned Rus was in a situation where his life might come under threat.
Pulling a sheet of paper from the drawer, she laid it on the blotter. "If I write a note immediately, Patrick can ride over and deliver it this evening."
"Actually, my dear, before you write I daresay you should read this."
Pris turned to see Eugenia extracting a letter from beneath the endless fall of her tatting.
Eugenia held out the missive. "From Rus. It was delivered with the post after lunch. When he couldn't find you, Bradley gave it to me rather than leave it on the salver in the hall."
Where their father might see it. Bradley was their butler; like most of the household, his sympathies lay with Rus.
Rising, Pris took the letter. Returning to the desk, she broke her brother's seal, then, sinking onto the chair, unfolded the sheets, smoothed them, and read.
The only sounds in the room were the repetitive clack of Eugenia's needles, counterpointed by the tick of the mantelpiece clock.
"Oh, no! What is it? What's happened?"
Adelaide's agitated questions snapped Pris back to the present. Glancing at Adelaide, then at Eugenia, taking in their worried expressions, she realized her own must reflect her mounting horror.
"Rus has gone to England - to Newmarket - with the Cromarty racing string." She licked her suddenly dry lips and looked again at the pages in her hand. "He says…." She paused to steady her voice. "He says he's thinks Harkness, the head stableman, is planning to run some racket that somehow revolves about horse breeding while in Newmarket. He overheard Harkness explaining to the head lad - Rus says he's a villainous sort - about how the illicit undertaking worked, and that it involves some register. He, Rus, didn't hear enough to understand the scheme, but he thinks the register Harkness was referring to is the register of all horses entitled by their breeding to race on English tracks."
She flipped over a page, scanned, then reported, "Rus says he knows nothing of the details in the register, but if he's ever going to become a breeder of racehorses, he should obviously learn more about it regardless, and he'll be able to follow it up as that register is kept at the Jockey Club in Newmarket."
She turned the last page, then made a disgusted sound. "The rest is full of platitudes assuring me he'll be safe, that it'll all be prefectly fine, that even if there is anything wrong, all he has to do is tell Lord Cromarty and it'll all be right as rain, don't worry….and then he signs himself 'your loving brother off on an adventure'!"
Tossing the letter on the desk, she faced Eugenia and Adelaide. "I'll have to go to Newmarket."
Adelaide's chin firmed. "We'll go to Newmarket - you can't go alone."
Pris sent her a fleeting smile, then looked at Eugenia.
Her aunt studied her, then nodded, and calmly folded her tatting. "Indeed, dear. I see no alternative. Much as I love Rus, we cannot leave him to deal with whatever this is alone, and if there is some illicit scheme being hatched, you cannot, to my mind, risk even a letter to warn him, in case it falls into the wrong hands. You will need to speak with him. So!"
Folding her hands on the pile of tatting in her lap, Eugenia looked inquiringly at Pris. "What tale are we going to tell your father to explain our sudden need for a sojourn in England?"
"I had hoped we'd have longer in reasonable privacy." Letting the door of the Twig & Bough coffee shop in Newmarket High Street swing shut behind him, Dillon Caxton stepped down to the pavement beside Barnaby Adair. "Unfortunately, the sunshine has brought the ladies and their daughters out in force."
Scanning the conveyances thronging the High Street, Dillon was forced to smile and acknowledge two matrons, each with beaming daughters. Tapping Barnaby's arm, he started strolling. "If we stand still, we'll invite attack."
Chuckling, Barnaby fell in beside him. "You sound even more disenchanted with the sweet young things than Gerrard was."
"Living in London, you're doubtless accustomed to far worse, but spare a thought for us who value our buccolic existence. To us, even the Little Season is an unwanted reminder of that which we fervently wish to avoid."
"At least with this latest mystery you have something to distract you. An excellent excuse to be elsewhere, doing other things."
Seeing a matron instructing her coachman to draw her landau to the kerb ten paces further on, Dillon swore beneath his breath. "Unfortunately, as our mystery must remain a strict secret, I fear Lady Kershaw is going to draw first blood."
Her ladyship, a local high stickler, beckoned imperiously. There was no help for it; Dillon strolled on to her now stationary carriage. He exchanged greetings with her ladyship and her daughter, Margot, then introduced Barnaby. They stood chatting for five minutes. From the corner of his eye, Dillon noted how many arrested glances they drew, how many other matrons were now jockeying for position further along the kerb.
Glancing at Barnaby, doing his best to live up to Miss Kershaw's expectations, Dillon inwardly grimaced. He could imagine the picture they made, he with his dark, dramatic looks most commonly described as Byronic, with Barnaby, a golden Adonis with curly hair and bright blue eyes, by his side, the perfect foil. They were both tall, well-set-up, and elegantly and fashionably turned out. In the restricted society of Newmarket, it was no wonder the ladies were lining up to accost them. Unfortunately, their destination - the Jockey Club - lay some hundred yards distant; they had to run the gauntlet.
They proceeded to do so with the glib assurance that came from untold hours spent in ton ballrooms. Despite his preference for the buccolic, courtesy of his cousin Flick - Felicity Cynster - over the last decade Dillon had spent his fair share of time in the whirl of the ton, in London and elsewhere, as Flick put it, keeping in practise.
In practise for what was a question to which he was no longer sure he knew the answer. Before his fall from grace and the scandal that had shaken his life, he'd always assumed he would marry, have a family, and all the rest. Yet while spending the last decade putting his life to rights, repaying his debts of social and moral obligation, and re-establishing himself, his honor, in the eyes of all those who mattered to him, he'd grown accustomed to his solitary existence, to the life of an unencumbered gentleman.
Smiling at Lady Kennedy, the third matron to detain them, he extricated himself and Barnaby and strolled on, casting his eye along the line of waiting carriages and their fair burdens. Not one stirred the remotest interest in him. Not one sweet face even moved him to curiosity.
Unfortunately, becoming known as a gentleman with a hardened heart, one unsusceptible to feminine enticements, had piled additional fuel on the bonfire of the ladies' aspirations. Too many now viewed him as a challenge, a recalcitrant male they were determined to bring to heel. As for their mothers, with every year that passed he was forced to exercise greater care, to keep his eyes ever open for social snares, those traps certain matrons set for the unwary.
Even those select ladies with whom he occasionally dallied discreetly in the capital weren't above hatching schemes. His last inamorata had tried to convince him of the manifold benefits that would accrue to him should he marry her niece. Said benefits had, of course, included her fair self.
He was beyond being outraged, beyond even being surprised; he was close to turning his back on the entire subject of marriage.
"Mrs. Cartwell, a pleasure to see you, ma'am." Taking the hand the haughty matron extended, he shook it, bowed to the vision of loveliness sitting beside Mrs. Cartwell, then stepped back and introduced Barnaby. Always interested in people, Barnaby exchanged platitudes with the lovely Miss Cartwell; cravenly grateful, Dillon stood back and let him have the stage.
Mrs. Cartwell was monitoring the exchange between her daughter and Barnaby, the third son of an earl and every bit as eligible as Dillon himself, with absolute concentration. Reduced to the redundant, Dillon's mind returned to the matter he and Barnaby had retreated to the Twig & Bough to discuss, until they'd been ousted by the invading ladies. They'd chosen the quieter shop catering to the genteel element rather than the club coffee house favored by the racing fraternity for the simple reason that the subject of their discussion would set ears flapping and tongues wagging among the racing set.
Another racing scandal was precisely what he was working to avoid.
This time, he wasn't engaged on the wrong side of the ledger; this time, he'd been recruited by the angels, to wit the all-powerful Committee of the Jockey Club, to investigate the rumors of race fixing that had started to circulate after the recent spring racing season.
That request was a deliberate and meaningful vote of confidence-a declaration that the Committee viewed his youthful indiscretion as fully paid for, the slate wiped clean. More, it was a clear statement that the Committee had complete faith in his integrity, and his discretion, in his devotion to the breeding and racing industry that the Committee oversaw, and that he and his father before him had for so long served.
His father, General Caxton, was long retired, and Dillon was now the Keeper of the Breeding Register and the Stud Book, the two official tomes that together ruled the breeding and racing of horses in England. It was in that capacity that he'd been asked to look into the rumors.
Rumors being rumors, and in this case issuing from London, he'd recruited the Honorable Barnaby Adair, a good friend of Gerrard Debbington, to help. Dillon knew Gerrard well, had for years, through their connections to the powerful Cynster family; Barnaby had recently assisted Gerrard in solving a troublesome matter of murder. When Dillon had mentioned the possibility of a racing swindle, Barnaby's eyes had lit.
That had been in late July. Barnaby had duly investigated, and in August had reported that while the rumors were there, all were vague, very much of the strain that horses people had expected to win had instead lost. Hardly a novel happening in the racing game. There'd seemed little substance, and no real fact behind the rumors. Nothing to warrant further action.
Now, however, with the first races of the autumn season behind them, something rather odd had occurred. Odd enough for Dillon to summon Barnaby back.
In the peace of the Twig & Bough, he'd related the details of three separate attempts to break into the Jockey Club, along with reports of some man asking about "the register" in local alehouses, rough taverns catering to the dregs of the town.
They'd just finished discussing what was known of the inquisitive man - an Irishman by his accent - when the influx of ladies had rousted them. Dillon's office in the Jockey Club was their current goal, the only place they might conclude their sensitive discussion in some degree of privacy.
But it was slow going. Escaping Mrs. Cartwell, they fell victim to Lady Hemmings. As they left her ladyship, Dillon seized the chance created by two groups of ladies becoming distracted by their own gossip to quickly steer Barnaby between two carriages and across the street. They lengthened their strides; by the time the ladies noticed they'd slipped sideways and escaped, they were turning into the long avenue flanked by tall trees that led to the front door of the Jockey Club.
"Phew!" Barnaby shot him a glance. "I see what you mean. It's worse than in London-there's few others about to draw their fire."
Dillon nodded. "Luckily, we're now safe. The only females ever glimpsed within these hallowed precincts are of the horse-mad sorority, not the husband-hunting packs."
There were no others, male or female, presently on the path leading to the front door; easing his pace, he returned to their interrupted discussion. "These break-ins - if someone's asking about 'a register', odds are they mean the Breeding Register, presumably the target of our would-be thief. Nothing else within the Jockey Club has any real value."
Slowing to an amble, Barnaby looked at the red brick building standing squarely at the end of the shady avenue. "Surely there are cups, plates, medallions - things that would be worth something if melted down? Isn't it more likely a thief would be after those?"
"Most of the trophies are plated. Their value lies more in what they represent, not in their commercial worth. And this thief's not a professional, but he is determined. Besides, it's too coincidental - someone asking about 'the register,' and shortly after, someone tries to break into the club where the one item referred to in Newmarket as 'the register' resides."
"True," Barnaby conceded. "So how is the Breeding Register valuable? Ransom?"
Dillon raised his brows. "I hadn't thought of that, but such a tack would be dangerous. Loss of the Breeding Register would stop all racing, so using it in such a way, essentially holding the entire racing fraternity to ransom, would very likely prove an unhealthy experiment. If the Breeding Register disappeared, I would expect to see it magically reappear within three days." He glanced at Barnaby. "This industry isn't short of those prepared to take the law into their own hands, especially over a matter like that."
Barnaby frowned. "But I thought you said it was the Breeding Register our would-be thief was after?"
"Not the Register itself - the set of books - but the information it contains. That's where the gold lies."
"That," Dillion admitted, "is something I'm not precisely sure of - it's a function of what the information is to be used for. However, in light of our earlier rumors, one possible use leaps to mind."
He met Barnaby's blue eyes. "Horse substitution. It used to be prevalent decades ago, before they implemented the present system. One horse would gain a reputation for winning, then, in one race, the owners would substitute another horse, passing it off as the previous winner, and the punters would lose. The owners would be in league with certain bookmakers, and would pocket a nice cut from the lost bets, as well as pocketing even more from bets they or their friends laid against their 'champion' winning."
"Aha!" Barnaby's eyes narrowed. "Unexpected losses - as have been rumored to have occurred over the spring season."
"Just so. And that's where the Breeding Register comes in. It's an obligatory listing of a horse's bloodlines confirming its right to race on English tracks under Jockey Club rules. Bloodlines are fully documented in the Stud Book, while the register is essentially a licensing listing - every horse has to be approved and entered before being allowed in any race at any track operating under the auspices of the Jockey Club. However, along with the horse's name and general details, each register entry contains a physical description supposedly sufficient to ensure that a given horse, with given name, age, bloodlines and racing clearance, can be distinguished from any other horse."
Dillon snorted. "Impossible to be a hundred percent certain always, yet armed with those descriptions the race stewards at the tracks monitor all the starters before every race, and re-examine and verify all the placegetters after the race has been run. That's why horses have to be entered for races weeks in advance, so the stewards can be issued with copies of the descriptions each starter should match."
"And those descriptions come from the Breeding Register held here in Newmarket?"
"Making the stewards' copies is what my register clerks do, at least during the racing seasons."
"So why would our would-be thief be interested in the descriptions contained in this register? How would it benefit him?"
"I can think of two ways." Dillon looked ahead; they were nearly at the Jockey Club's door. "First, if his master was planning to substitute for a champion he owned, he'd need to be sure what points feature most highly in the register description, because the substitute horse would absolutely have to possess those points to make the substitution work."
Halting before the pair of shallow stone steps leading up to the club's double doors, he faced Barnaby. "The second possibility is that whoever has sent our thief is planning a new substitution, but haven't yet located a suitable substitute horse. Scanning the descriptions in the register would take time, but would unquestionably identify the best possible match for a substitution."
He paused, then added, "Bear in mind that in a substitution racket, the substitute only has to pass the pre-race check, which is the least detailed. Because the substitute finishes out of the places, they're not subjected to the more stringent check conducted after the race."
Barnaby frowned. "So what we might have here is an already established racket that ran certain substitutions last spring, and escaped detection, plus an Irishman, presumably acting for some owner, looking to gain access to the Breeding Register to facilitate further substitutions."
Dillon nodded. "And as to whether the former is directly linked to the latter, logically there's no reason it has to be. But I'd lay odds they're connected."
Barnaby softly snorted. "It certainly has that feeling."
They turned to the Club's front door. Both paused as through the central glass pane they glimpsed the club's doorman, inside, hurrying to reach for the latch.
Sweeping the doors wide, the doorman bowed obsequiously, almost tripping over his toes as he stepped aside to allow a lady to pass through.
Not just any lady. A vibrant vision in emerald green, she halted on the top step, taken aback at finding herself facing a masculine wall.
Her head, crowned with a silky tumble of blue black curls, instinctively rose. Eyes an even more intense emerald than her elegant gown, rose, too; widening, they locked with Dillon's.
Barnaby murmured an apology and stepped back.
Dillon didn't move.
For one incalculable moment, all he could see - all he knew of the world - was that face.
Brilliant green, glinting gold, they lured and promised.
She was of average height; standing two steps up, those glorious eyes were level with his. He was dimly aware of the classical symmetry of her heart-shaped face, of perfect, very white skin, fine, almost translucent, of delicately arched brows, lush black lashes, a straight little nose and a mouth a touch too wide. Her lips were full and blatantly sensual, yet instead of disrupting the perfection of her beauty, those distracting lips brought her face alive.
Like a callow youth, he stood and stared.
Wide-eyed, Pris stared back, and tried to catch her breath. She felt like one of her brothers had punched her in the stomach; every muscle had contracted and locked, and she couldn't get them to relax.
Beside her, the helpful doorman beamed. "Why, here's Mr. Caxton, miss."
Her mind whirled.
To the gentlemen, he said, "This lady was asking after the register, sir. We explained she had to speak with you."
Which one was Caxton? Please don't let it be him.
Tearing her gaze from the dark eyes into which she'd somehow fallen, she looked hopefully at the Greek god, but fickle fate wasn't that kind. The Greek god was looking at his sinfully dark companion. Reluctantly, she did the same.
His dark, very dark brown eyes that before had appeared as startled as she felt - she doubted he often met ladies as dramatically beautiful as he - had now hardened. As she watched, they fractionally narrowed.
The precise diction, the arrogantly superior tone, told her all she needed to know of his social rank and background. The flick of inherent power brought her head up, brought the earl's daughter to the fore. She smiled, assured. "I was hoping to view the register, if that's possible?"
Instantly she sensed a dramatic heightening of their interest - a focusing that owed nothing to the quality of her smile. Her gaze locked on Caxton, on the dark eyes in which, unless she was sorely mistaken, suspicion was now blooming, she mentally replayed her words, but could see nothing to explain their reaction. Glancing at the Greek god, she saw the alert look he sent Caxton…it was her accent that had triggered their response.
Like all the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, she spoke perfect English, but no amount of elocution lessons would ever remove the soft burr of her brogue, the stamp of Ireland on her tongue.
And Rus, naturally, was the same.
Tamping down the sudden surge of emotion - trepidation and expectation combined - she looked again at Caxton. Meeting his eyes, she arched a brow. "Perhaps, now you've returned, sir, you could help me with my inquiries?"
She wasn't going to let his beauty, or her unprecedented reaction to it, get in her way.
More to the point, his reaction to her gave her a weapon she was perfectly prepared to wield. She would do anything, absolutely anything without reservation to help Rus; running rings around an Englishman and tying him in knots barely rated.
Dillon inclined his head in acquiescence, and gestured for her to re-enter the building - his domain. Her distracting smile still flirting about her even more distracting lips, she swung around, waiting for the doorman to step back before passing through the portal and into the foyer.
Climbing the steps, Dillon followed her in. He'd noted the calculation that had flashed through those brilliant eyes, was duly warned. An Irish lady asking to see the register? Oh, yes, he definitely would speak with her.
Pausing in the foyer, she glanced back at him, an innately haughty glance over her shoulder. Despite the dictates of his intellect, he felt his body react, yet as he met those direct and challenging eyes, he had to wonder if she, her actions, her glances, were truly calculated, or simply instinctive.
And which of those options posed the bigger danger to him.
With a distant, noncommittal smile, he gestured down the corridor to the left. "My office is this way."
She held his gaze for a heartbeat, apparently oblivious of Barnaby at his shoulder. "And the register?"
The suggestion in her tone had him fighting a grin. She wasn't just fabulously beautiful; she had wit and a tongue to match. "The latest volume is there."
She consented to walk down the corridor. He followed by her shoulder, half a stride behind. Far enough to be able to appreciate her figure, her tiny waist and the curvaceous hips the prevailing fashion for slightly raised waistlines did nothing to disguise, to imagine the length of leg necessary to run from those evocatively swaying hips to the surprisingly dainty half boots he'd glimpsed beneath the hems of her emerald green skirts.
A small flat hat sporting a dyed feather sat amid the thick curls at the back of her head. From the front, only the tip of the feather was visible, curling above her right ear.
He knew enough of feminine fashion to identify both gown and hat as of recent vintage, almost certainly from London. Whoever the lady was, she was neither penniless nor, he suspected, his social inferior.
"The next door to the right." He was looking forward to having her in his office, in the chair before his desk, where he could examine and interrogate her.
She halted before the door; he reached past her and set it swinging wide. With a regal dip of her head, she moved into the room. He followed, waving her to the chair facing his desk. Rounding the wide desk set between two tall windows, he took the chair behind it.
Barnaby quietly closed the door, then retreated to an armchair set to one side, opposite the bookcase in which the latest volume of the Breeding Register resided. Briefly meeting Barnaby's eyes, Dillon understood he intended being the proverbial fly on the wall, leaving the questions to him, concentrating instead on watching Miss…
Returning his gaze to her, he smiled. "Your name, Miss…?"
Apparently at ease in the straight-backed chair, comfortably padded with arms on which she'd rested hers, she smiled back. "Dalling. Miss Dalling. I confess I've no real idea of, nor interest in racing or racehorses, but I was hoping to view this register one hears so much about. The doorman gave me to understand that you are the guardian of this famous tome. I'd imagined it was on public display, like the Births and Deaths Register, but apparently that's not the case."
She had a melodic, almost hypnotic voice, not so much sirenlike as that of a storyteller, luring you to believe, to accept, and respond.
Dillon fought the compulsion, forced himself to listen dispassionately, sought, found and clung to his usual aloof distance. Although uttered as statements, he sensed her sentences were questions. "The register you're referring to is known as the Breeding Register, and no, it's not a public document. It's an archive of the Jockey Club. In effect, it's a listing of the horses approved to run on those racetracks overseen by the club."
She was drinking in his every word. "I see. So…if one wished to verify that a particular horse was approved to race on such tracks, one would consult the Breeding Register."
Another question parading as a statement. "Yes."
"So it is possible to view the Breeding Register."
"No." He smiled, deliberately a touch patronizingly, when she frowned. "If you wish to know if a particular horse is approved to race, you need to apply for the information."
At last a straight, unadorned question; he let his smile grow more intent. "You fill out a form, and one of the register clerks will provide you with the required information."
She looked disgusted. "A form." She flicked the fingers of one hand. "I suppose this is England, after all."
He made no reply. When it became clear he wasn't going to rise to that bait, she tried another tack.
She leaned forward, just a little. Confidingly fixed her big green eyes on his face, simultaneously drawing attention to her really quite impressive breasts, not overly large yet on her slight frame deliciously tempting.
Having already taken stock, he managed to keep his gaze steady on her face.
She smiled slightly, invitingly. "Surely you could allow me to view the register - just a glance."
Her emerald eyes held his; he fell under her spell. Again. That voice, not sultry but something even more deeply stirring, threatened, again, to draw him under; he had to fight to shake free of the mesmerizing effect.
Suppressing his frown took yet more effort. "No." He shifted, and softened the edict, "That's not possible, I'm afraid."
She frowned, the expression entirely genuine. "Why not? I just want to look."
"Why? What's the nature of your interest in the Breeding Register, Miss Dalling? No, wait." He let his eyes harden, let his deepening suspicions show. "You've already told us you have no real interest in such things. Why, then, is viewing the register so important to you?"
She held his gaze unwaveringly. A moment ticked by, then she sighed and, still entirely relaxed, leaned back in the chair. "It's for my aunt."
When he looked his surprise, she airily waved. "She's eccentric. Her latest passion is racehorses - that's why we're here. She's curious about every little thing to do with horse racing. She stumbled on mention of this register somewhere, and now nothing will do but for her to know all about it."
She heaved an artistic sigh. "I didn't think those here would appreciate a fluttery, dotty old dear haunting your foyer, so I came." Fixing her disturbing green eyes on him, she went on, "And that's why I would like to take a look at this Breeding Register. Just a peek."
That last was said almost tauntingly. Dillon considered how to reply.
He could walk over to the bookcase, retrieve the current volume of the register, and lay it on the desk before her. Caution argued against showing her where the register was, even what it looked like. He could tell her what information was included in each register entry, but even that might be tempting fate in the guise of someone allied with those planning substitutions. That risk was too serious to ignore.
Perhaps he should call her bluff, and suggest she bring her aunt into his office, but no matter how intently he searched her eyes, he couldn't be sure she was lying about her aunt. It was possible her tale, fanciful though it was, was the unvarnished truth. That might result in him breaking the until-now-inviolate rule that no one but he and the register clerks were ever allowed to view the Breeding Register for some fussy old dear.
Who could not be counted on not to spread the word.
"I'm afraid, Miss Dalling, that all I can tell you is that the entries in the register comprise a listing of licenses granted to individual horses to race under Jockey Club rules." He spread his hands in commisseration. "That's really all I'm at liberty to divulge."
Her green eyes had grown crystalline, hard. "How very mysterious."
He smiled faintly. "You have to allow us our secrets."
The distance between them was too great for him to be sure, but he thought her eyes snapped. For an instant, the outcome hung in the balance - whether she would retreat, or try some other, possibly more high-handed means of persuasion - but then she sighed again, lifted her reticule from her lap and smoothly rose.
Dillon rose, too, surprised by a very real impulse to do something to prolong her visit. But then rounding the desk, he drew close enough to see the expression in her eyes. There was temper there - an Irish temper to match her accent. It was presently leashed, but she was definitely irritated and annoyed with him.
Because she hadn't been able to bend him to her will.
He felt his lips curve, saw annoyance coalesce and intensify in her eyes. She really ought to have known just by looking that he wasn't likely to fall victim to her charms.
Manifold and very real though they were.
"Thank you for your time, Mr. Caxton." Her tone was cold, a shivery coolness, the most her soft brogue would allow. "I'll inform my aunt that she'll have to live with her questions unanswered."
"I'm sorry to have to disappoint an old lady, however…" He shrugged lightly. "Rules are rules, and there for a good reason."
He watched for her reaction, for some sign, however slight, of comprehension, but she merely raised her brows in patent disbelief and, with every indication of miffed disappointment, turned away.
"I'll see you to the front door." He went with her to the door of his room, opened it.
"No need." Briefly, she met his eyes as she swept past him. "I'm sure I can find my way."
"Nevertheless." He followed her into the corridor.
The rigidity of her spine declared she was offended he hadn't trusted her to go straight back to the front foyer if left to herself. But they both knew she wouldn't have, that if he'd set her free she'd have roamed, trusting to her beauty to extract her from any difficulty should she be caught where she shouldn't be.
She didn't look back when she reached the foyer and sailed on toward the front doors. "Good bye, Mr. Caxton."
The cool words drifted over her shoulder. Halting in the mouth of the corridor, he watched the doorman, still bedazzled, leap to swing open the door. She stepped through, disappearing into the bright sunshine; the doors swung shut, and he could see her no more.
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