Authors: STEPHANIE LAURENS
The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae
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June 1, 1829
Cavendish House, London
h. My. God.” Angelica Rosalind Cynster, standing to one side of Lady Cavendish's salon with the bulk of her ladyship's chattering guests at her back, stared at the long windows giving onto the unlit terrace and the dark gardens beyond, at the reflection of the gentleman who was staring at her from the opposite side of the room.
She'd first felt his disconcerting gaze some thirty minutes before; he'd watched her waltz, watched her laugh and chat with others, but no matter how discreetly she'd looked for him, he'd refused to show himself. Irritated, with the musicians resting she'd worked her way around the room, moving from group to group, exchanging greetings and comments, smoothly shifting until she'd got him in her sights.
Eyes wide, barely daring to believe, she whispered, “It's
Her ill-suppressed excitement drew a glance from her cousin, Henrietta, presently standing beside her. Angelica shook her head, and someone in the group to the side of which she stood reclaimed Henrietta's attention, leaving Angelica with her gaze locked on the most riveting man she'd ever beheld.
She considered herself an expert in the art of assessing gentlemen. From her earliest years she'd been aware of them as “other,” and years of observation had left her with a sound understanding of their features and foibles. When it came to gentlemen, she had very high standards.
Visually, the gentleman across the room trumped every one.
He was standing with six others, all of whom she could name, but she didn't know him. She'd never met him, had never even set eyes on him before. If she had, she'd have known, as she now did, that he was her one, the gentleman she had been waiting to meet.
She'd always been unshakably convinced that she would know her hero, the gentleman fated to be her husband, the instant she saw him. She hadn't expected that first sighting to be via a reflection across a crowded room, but the result was the sameâshe
it was him.
The talisman that The Lady, a Scottish deity, had gifted to the Cynster girls to assist them in finding their true loves had passed from Angelica's eldest sister, Heather, to her middle sister, Eliza, who on her recent return to London with her new fiancÃ© had handed the necklace to Angelica, the next in line. Composed of old gold links and amethyst beads from which a rose-quartz pendant hung, ancient and mysterious the talisman now lay beneath Angelica's fichu, the links and beads against her skin, the crystal pendant nestling in her dÃ©colletage.
Three nights ago, deeming her time, her turn, had come, armed with the necklace, her instincts, and her innate determination, she had embarked on an intensive campaign to find her hero. She'd come to the Cavendish soiree, at which a select slice of the upper echelon of the ton had gathered to mingle and converse, intent on examining any and all prospective males Lady Cavendish, a lady with an extensive circle of acquaintance, had inveigled to attend.
The talisman had worked for Heather, now engaged to Breckenridge, and had brought Eliza and Jeremy Carling together; Angelica had hoped that it would help her, too, but hadn't expected such a rapid result.
Regardless, now she had her hero in sight, she wasn't inclined to waste another minute.
He hadn't noticed, from his position on the opposite side of the room possibly couldn't see, that she was studying him. Her gaze locked on his reflection, she visually devoured him.
He was stunningly impressive, towering half a head taller than the men around him, none of whom were short. Elegantly attired in a black evening coat, pristine white shirt and cravat, and black trousers, everything about him from the breadth of his shoulders to the length of his long legs seemed in perfect proportion to his height.
His hair appeared solidly black, straight, rather long, but fashionably styled with windblown, slightly ruffled locks. She tried to study his features, but the reflection defeated her; she couldn't make out any details beyond the sharply defined, austere planes of his face. Nevertheless, his broad forehead, bladelike nose, and squared chin stamped him as the scion of some aristocratic house; only they possessed such hard, chiseled, coldly beautiful faces.
Her heart was thumping distinctly faster. In anticipation.
Now she'd found him, what next?
If it had been in any way acceptable, she would have swung on her heel, marched across the room, and introduced herself, but that would be too forward, even for her. Yet if after thirty and more minutes of watching her he hadn't made any move to approach her, then he wasn't going to, at least not there, not that night.
Which didn't suit her at all.
Shifting her gaze, she scanned the gentlemen in the loose circle in which he stood. He'd been listening to the conversations but rarely contributing, merely using the interaction to cloak his interest in her.
Even as she looked, one of the other men saluted the group and moved away.
Angelica smiled. Without a word, she quit Henrietta's side and glided into the crowd thronging the salon's center.
She caught the Honorable Theodore Curtis's sleeve just before he joined a group of young ladies and gentlemen. He looked around and smiled. “Angelica! Where have you been hiding?”
She waved to the windows. “Over there. Theo, who is that gentleman in the group you just left? The very tall man I've never met.”
Theo, a friend of her family who knew her far too well to entertain thoughts of her himself, chuckled. “I told him it wouldn't be long before the young ladies noticed him and came swanning around.”
Angelica played the game and pouted. “Don't tease. Him who?”
Theo grinned. “Debenham. He's Viscount Debenham.”
“Who is?” She gestured for more.
“A capital fellow. I've known him for yearsâsame age as me, came on the town at the same time, similar interests, you know how it goes. His estate's somewhere near Peterborough, but he's been away from the ton for .Â .Â . must be four years. Left because of family and estate business, and has only just returned to the drawing rooms and ballrooms.”
“Hmm. So there's no reason you shouldn't introduce him to me.”
Still grinning, Theo shrugged. “If you like.”
“I would.” Angelica took his arm and turned him to where her hero, Debenham, still stood. “I promise to return the favor next time you want to steal a march with some new sweet young thing.”
Theo laughed. “I'll hold you to that.” Anchoring her hand on his arm, he led her through the crowd.
While they tacked past various groups, nodding and smiling, pausing only when they couldn't avoid it, Angelica conducted a rapid inventory of her appearance, checking that her pale teal silk gown was hanging straight, that the lacy fichu that partially filled in the scooped neckline was sitting properly and adequately concealing the necklace. At one point, she paused to redrape her teal-and-silver silk shawl more elegantly over her elbows; she'd elected to make do without a reticule or fan, so she didn't have those to fuss over.
Her hair she didn't dare touch. The slithering red-gold tresses were swept up in a complicated knot on the top of her head, anchored by innumerable pins and a pearl-encrusted comb; from experience she knew that even a little jiggling could bring the entire mass cascading down. While no gentleman had ever minded her transformation to a clothed version of Venus rising from the waves, that wasn't how she wished to appear before her hero for the first time.
He knew she was coming; she caught a glimpse of his face through the crowd. His gaze still rested on her, but even though she was now closer, she couldn't read anything in his expression.
Then Theo pushed past the last pair of shoulders, drew her to the group, and presented her with a flourish. “Heigh-ho! See who I found.”
“Miss Cynster!” came from several throats in tones of pleased surprise.
“I say, delightful fashionable ladies always welcome, don't you know.” Millingham swept her a bow, as did all the other men in the group, bar one.
After acknowledging the greetings, Angelica turned to Debenham; Theo had helpfully inserted her into the group by Debenham's side. She raised her gaze to his face, eager to see, to study, to knowÂ .Â .Â .
From her other side Theo said, “Debenham, old son, allow me to introduce the Honorable Angelica Cynster. Miss CynsterâViscount Debenham.”
Angelica barely registered the words, captured by, trapped in, a pair of large, well-set, heavy-lidded eyes of a stormy, pale-greenish-gray. Those eyes held her entranced; the expression, not in them so much as behind them, spoke of shrewdness, assessment, and cool, clear-headed cynicism.
Her hero was still watching her, coolly studying, examining, and assessing her, and she couldn't tell whether he was impressed with what he saw or not.
That last snapped her back to the moment. Lips curving lightly, her eyes still on his, she inclined her head. “I don't believe we've previously met, my lord.” She extended her hand.
His lips barely relaxing from their noncommittally straight line, he raised a hand from where both rested, folded over the silver head of a caneâsomething she hadn't seen from across the roomâand clasped her fingers.
His grip was cool, yet not impersonal, too definite, too firm to shrug off as the usual. She inwardly wobbled, some inner axis tilting as, still locked in his eyes, she absorbed the unexpected sensationâand the subtle but undeniable impression that he was in two minds over letting her go. Lungs suddenly tight, she curtsied.
Those disconcerting eyes remained on hers as he bowed with a fluid grace unimpaired by the cane. “Miss Cynster. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
His voice was so deep his tones sank into her and wrapped sensuous fingers around her spine.
Combining with the effect of the cool fingers still clasping hers, that voice sent warmth sliding beneath her skin, set sultry heat unfurling in her belly. Close to, her hero was a sensual force, as if he exuded some elemental male temptation that was directed at her and her aloneÂ .Â .Â .
. She quashed an impulse to fan her face. She was tempted to give thanks to The Lady there and then, but instead corralled her wits and retrieved her hand, sliding her fingers from between his. He allowed itâbut she was intensely aware that he'd made the decision. Certain alarms rang in her head, but she would be damned if she acknowledged, even to herself, that she might be out of her depth with him; he was her hero, ergo she could go forward with confidence. Drawing in a tight breath, she said, “I understand you've only recently returned to London, my lord.”
As she spoke, she turned toward him, away from the group, compelling him to reciprocate; the adjustment left them still attached to the group, but able to converse more privately, leaving the others to their own amusements. Theo took the hint and stepped in to ask Millingham about his newly acquired acres.
Debenham, meanwhile, continued to look down at her, his heavy lids and lush black lashes largely veiling his gaze. After a fractional pause, he replied, “I returned a week ago. Debenham Hall is no further than Cambridgeshire, but business has kept me away from the ton for some years.”
Tilting her head, she openly studied his face and let the questions that were crowding her tongueâimpertinent and unaskableâshow in her eyesÂ .Â .Â .
His lips curvedânot a real smile but an unequivocal sign of understanding. “I've been managing my acres. I take the responsibilities that are mine very seriously.”
Despite the lightness in expression and drawling tone, she felt certain he was speaking the absolute truth. “Am I to assume that your estates are now prospering sufficiently that you no longer feel the need to monitor them constantly, and so have returned to the diversions of town?”
Again he considered her, as if his strange eyes could see straight through her confident, sophisticated social mask. Devil Cynster, Angelica's cousin, and his mother, Helena, both had pale green eyes, and they, too, had penetrating gazes. Debenham's eyes were paler, more changeable, more gray mixed in with the pale green, and for Angelica's money, his gaze was even more incisive.
“You might say that,” he eventually conceded, “but the unvarnished truth is that I've returned to London for the same purpose that drives most gentlemen of my age and class to haunt the ton's ballrooms.”
She opened her eyes wide. “You're looking for a wife?” It was utterly shocking of her to ask, but she absolutely had to know.
His lips curved again, a touch deeper this time. “Indeed.” His gaze held hers. “As I said, the most common reason of all for returning to the capital and the ton.”
Because of the press of bodies, they were standing only inches apart; due to his height and her lack of it, she was looking up into his face, and he was looking down, into hers. Despite the proximity of the other men, their stance was peculiarly close, private .Â .Â . almost intimate.
His largeness, the sheer power of his body, albeit disguised in elegant evening clothes, impinged on her senses; a tempting warmth, his nearness reached for her, wrapped insidiously around her, tempting her closer yet.
The longer she stared into his eyesÂ .Â .Â .
“AngelicaâI thought I spotted you through the crush.”
She blinked and turned to see Millicent Attenwell smiling at her from across the group, as Millicent's sister, Claire, insinuated herself on Debenham's other side.
“I declare, even though it's June these events are still unmitigated crushes, don't you think?” Claire angled an inquiring gaze upward at Debenham, then smiled coyly. “I don't believe we've met, sir.”
Theo glanced at Angelica, then stepped into the breach. He introduced Millicent and Claire, then had to perform the same service for Julia Quigley and Serena Mills, who, seeing the Attenwell girls had found a devastatingly handsome new gentleman, hurried to join the expanding circle.