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Stephanie Laurens

Viscount Breckenridge to the Rescue

Prologue

February, 1829

The castle was silent and still. Outside snow lay heavy on the land, a white blanket smothering hill and vale, loch and forest.

He sat in the armory, one of his retreats. Head bent, he concentrated on cleaning the guns used earlier that day, when a break in the weather had allowed him and a small group of others to venture forth. They’d bagged enough fresh meat to keep the castle supplied for a week, maybe more. He’d taken some small satisfaction in that.

Meat, at least, he could provide.

The sound of determined footsteps reached him. All satisfaction fled. What replaced it. . he couldn’t put a name to the roiling mix of fury, frustration, and dread.

His mother stalked into the room.

He didn’t lift his head.

She came to a halt at the end of the central table at which he sat.

He felt her glare, but stoically continued to reassemble the gun he’d been cleaning.

She broke first. Slapping a hand on the table, she leaned forward to hiss, “Swear it! Swear that you’ll do it — that you’ll go south, seize one of the Cynster sisters, and bring her here so I can have my revenge.”

He took his time reacting. Clung to the slowness he habitually used to cloak his true nature and so better control others. However, in this instance, his mother had schemed well enough to put herself beyond his control, indeed to the extent that he now found himself in hers.

That stung.

The what ifs still resounded in his head. If he’d paid more attention to her ramblings, might he have noticed some sign of her scheme earlier? Early enough to step in and put a stop to it? Yet she’d been thus for as long as he’d been old enough to notice, filled with black thoughts, with burning vengeance at her core.

His father had never seen her clearly; to him she’d always put on a sweet face, a mask impenetrable enough to cloak the bitterness beneath. For his part, he’d hoped his father’s death would drain the black bile from her heart. Instead, the poison had welled even more corrosively. He’d grown too accustomed to hearing her ravings; he’d stopped listening long ago.

To, it seemed, his and others’ cost now.

But it was too late for regrets, much less recriminations.

Raising his head enough to meet her eyes, letting nothing he felt show in his face, he held her gaze for a moment, then briefly nodded. “Aye, I’ll do it.” He forced himself to say the words she wanted to hear. “I’ll bring one of the Cynster sisters here, so you can have your revenge.”

Chapter One

March, 1829

Wadham Gardens, London

Heather Cynster knew her latest plan to find a suitable husband was doomed the instant she set foot in Lady Herford’s salon.

In a distant corner, a dark head, perfectly coiffed in the latest rakish style, rose. A pair of sharp hazel eyes pinned her where she stood.

“Damn!” Keeping a smile firmly fixed over her involuntarily clenching teeth, as if she hadn’t noticed the most startlingly handsome man in the room staring so intently at her, she let her gaze drift on.

Breckenridge was hemmed in by not one but three dashing ladies, all patently vying for his attention. She sincerely wished them every success and prayed he’d take the sensible course and pretend he hadn’t seen her.

She was certainly going to pretend that she hadn’t seen him.

Refocusing on the surprisingly large crowd Lady Herford had enticed to her soiree, Heather determinedly banished Breckenridge from her mind and considered her prospects.

Most of the guests were older than she — all the ladies at least. Some she recognized, others she did not, but it would be surprising if any other lady present wasn’t married. Or widowed. Or more definitively on the shelf than Heather. Soirees of the style of Lady Herford’s were primarily the province of the well-bred but bored matrons, those in search of more convivial company than that provided by their usually much older, more sedate husbands. Such ladies might not be precisely fast, yet neither were they innocent. However, as by common accord said ladies had already presented their husbands with an heir, if not two, the majority had more years in their dish than Heather’s twenty-five.

From her brief, initial, assessing sweep, she concluded that most of the gentlemen present were, encouragingly, older than she. Most were in their thirties, and by their style — fashionable, well-turned out, expensively garbed, and thoroughly polished — she’d chosen well in making Lady Herford’s soiree her first port of call on this, her first expedition outside the rarefied confines of the ballrooms, drawing rooms, and dining rooms of the upper echelon of the ton.

For years she’d searched through those more refined reception rooms for her hero — the man who would sweep her off her feet and into wedded bliss — only to conclude that he didn’t move in such circles. Many gentlemen of the ton, although perfectly eligible in every way, preferred to steer well clear of all the sweet young things, the young ladies paraded on the marriage mart. Instead, they spent their evenings at events such as Lady Herford’s, and their nights in various pursuits — gaming and womanizing to name but two.

Her hero — she had to believe he existed somewhere — was most likely a member of that more elusive group of males. Given he was therefore unlikely to come to her, she’d decided — after lengthy and animated discussions with her sisters, Elizabeth and Angelica — that it behooved her to come to him.

To locate him and, if necessary, hunt him down.

Smiling amiably, she descended the shallow steps to the floor of the salon. Lady Herford’s villa was a recently built, quite luxurious dwelling located to the north of Primrose Hill — close enough to Mayfair to be easily reached by carriage, a pertinent consideration given Heather had had to come alone. She would have preferred to attend with someone to bear her company, but her sister Eliza, just a year younger and similarly disgusted with the lack of hero-material within their restricted circle, was her most likely coconspirator and they couldn’t both develop a headache on the same evening without their mama seeing through the ploy. Eliza, therefore, was presently gracing Lady Montague’s ballroom, while Heather was supposedly laid upon her bed, safe and snug in Dover Street.

Giving every appearance of calm confidence, she glided into the crowd. She’d attracted considerable attention; although she pretended obliviousness, she could feel the assessing glances dwelling on the sleek, amber silk gown that clung lovingly to her curves. This particular creation sported a sweetheart neckline and tiny puffed sleeves; as the evening was unseasonably mild and her carriage stood outside, she’d elected to carry only a fine topaz-and-amber Norwich silk shawl, its fringe draping over her bare arms and flirting over the silk of the gown. Her advanced age allowed her greater freedom to wear gowns that, while definitely not as revealing as some others she could see, nevertheless drew male eyes.

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