Stephanie Laurens

A Rogue's Proposal

Chapter 1

March 1,1820

Newmarket, Suffolk

Unfettered freedom! He'd escaped. With an arrogant smile, Harold Henry Cynster-Demon to everyone, even to his mother in her weaker moments-drew his curricle to a flourishing halt in the yard behind his Newmarket stable. Tossing the reins to his groom, Gillies, who leaped from the back of the elegant equipage to catch them, Demon stepped down to the cobbles. In a buoyant mood, he ran a loving hand over the glossy bay hide of his leader and scanned the yard with a proprietorial eye.

There was not a scheming mama or disapproving, gimlet-eyed dowager in sight.

Bestowing a last fond pat on his horse's shoulder, Demon headed for the open rear door of the stable. He'd left London at midday, unexpectedly content to have the breeze blow the cloying perfume of a certain lascivious countess from his brain. More than content to leave behind the ballrooms, the parties, and the myriad traps the matchmaking mamas laid for gentlemen such as he. Not that he'd found any difficulty in evading such snares, but, these days, there was a certain scent on the breeze, a presentiment of danger he was too experienced to ignore.

First his cousin Devil, then his own brother Vane, and now his closest cousin, Richard-who next of their select band of six, the Bar Cynster as they were called, would fate cause to trip into the arms of a loving wife?

Whoever it was, it wouldn't be him.

Pausing before the open doors of the stable, he swung around, eyes squinting in the slanting sunlight. Some of his horses were ambling in the paddocks with their lads in close attendance. On the Heath beyond, other stables' strings were exercising under the eyes of owners and trainers.

The scene was an exclusively male one. The fact that he felt entirely at home-indeed, could feel himself relaxing-was ironic. He could hardly claim he didn't like women, didn't enjoy their company. Hadn't-didn't-devote considerable time to their conquest.

He couldn't deny he took pleasure in, and derived considerable satisfaction from, those conquests. He was, after all, a Cynster.

He smiled. All that was true. However…

Whereas the other members of the Bar Cynster, as wealthy, well-born gentlemen, had accepted the fact that they would marry and establish families in the time-honored tradition, he had vowed to be different. He'd vowed never to marry, never to tempt the fate with which his brother and cousins had fenced and lost. Marriage to fulfill society's obligations was all very well, but to marry a lady one loved had been the baneful fate of all male Cynsters to date.

A baneful fate indeed for a warrior breed-to be forever at the mercy of a woman. A woman who held one's heart, soul and future in her small, delicate hands.

It was enough to make the strongest warrior blanch.

He was having none of it.

Casting a last glance around the neat yard, approving the swept cobbles, the fences in good repair, Demon turned and entered the main stable housing his racing string. Afternoon stables had already commenced-he would view his exercising horses alongside his very capable trainer, Carruthers.

Demon was on his way to his stud farm, located three miles farther south of the racecourse in the gently undulating countryside bordering the Heath. As he had every intention of avoiding marriage for the term of his natural life, and the current atmosphere in London had turned fraught with the Season about to start, and his aunts, as well as his mother, fired with the excitement of weddings, wives and the consequent babies, so he'd elected to lie low and see out the Season from the safe distance of his stud farm and the unthreatening society of Newmarket.

Fate would have no chance to sneak up on him here.

Looking down to avoid the inevitable detritus left by his favored darlings, he strolled unhurriedly up the long central alley. Boxes loomed to his left and right, all presently empty. At the other end of the building, another pair of doors stood open to the Heath. The day was fine, with a light breeze lifting manes and flicking long tails-his horses were out, doing what they did best. Running.

After spending the last hours with the sun warming his shoulders, the stable's shadows felt cool. A chill unexpectedly washed over the back of his shoulders, then coalesced into an icy tingle and slithered all the way down his spine.

Demon frowned and wriggled his shoulders. Reaching the point where the alley widened into the mounting area, he stopped and looked up.

A familiar sight met his eyes-a lad or work rider swinging a leg over the sleek back of one of his champions. The horse was facing away, wide bay rump to him; Demon recognized one of his current favorites, an Irish gelding sure to run well in the coming season. That, however, was not what transfixed him, rooting his boots to the floor.

He could see nothing of the rider bar his back and one leg. The lad wore a cloth cap pulled low on his head, a shabby hacking jacket and baggy corduroy breeches. Baggy except in one area-where they pulled tight over the rider's rear as he swung his leg over the saddle.

Carruthers stood beside the horse, issuing instructions. The lad dropped into the saddle, then stood in the stirrups to adjust his position. Again, corduroy strained and shifted.

Demon sucked in a breath. Eyes narrowing, jaw firming, he strode forward.

Carruthers slapped the horse's rump. Nodding, the rider trotted the horse, The Mighty Flynn, out into the sunshine.

Carruthers swung around, squinting as Demon came up. "Oh, it's you." Despite the abrupt greeting and the dour tone, there was a wealth of affection in Carruthers's old eyes. "Come to see how they're shaping, have ye?"

Demon nodded, his gaze locked on the rider atop The Mighty Flynn. "Indeed."

With Carruthers, he strolled in the wake of The Flynn, the last of his horses to go out on the Heath.

In silence, Demon watched his horses go through their paces. The Mighty Flynn was given a light workout, walking, trotting, then walking again. Although he noted how his other horses performed, Demon's attention never strayed far from The Flynn.

Beside him, Carruthers was watching his charges avidly. Demon glanced his way, noting his old face, much lined, weathered like well-worn leather, faded brown eyes wide as he weighed every stride, considered every turn. Carruthers never took notes, never needed any reminder of which horse had done what. When his charges came in, he would know precisely how each was faring, and what more was needed to bring them to their best. The most experienced trainer in Newmarket, Carruthers knew his horses better than his children, which was why Demon had pestered and persevered until he'd agreed to train for him, to devote his time exclusively to training Demon's string.

His gaze fastening once more on the big bay, Demon murmured, "The lad on The Flynn-he's new, isn't he?"

"Aye," Carruthers replied, his gaze never leaving the horses. "Lad from down Lidgate way. Ickley did a runner-leastways, I assume he did. He didn't turn up one morning and we haven't seen him since. 'Bout a week later, young Flick turned up, looking for a ride, so I had him up on one of the tetchy ones." Carruthers nodded to where The Flynn was trotting along, pacing neatly with the rest of the string, the small figure on his back managing him with startling ease. "Rode the brute easily. So I put him up on The Flynn. Never seen the horse give his heart so willingly. The lad's got the touch, no doubt about that. Excellent hands, and good bottom."

Demon inwardly admitted he couldn't argue. "Good," however, was not the adjective he'd have used. But he must have been mistaken. Carruthers was a staunch member of the fraternity, quite the last man to let a female on one of his charges, let alone trust her with The Flynn.

And yet…

There was a niggle, a persistent whisper in his mind, something stronger than suspicion flitting through his brain. And at one level-the one where his senses ruled-he knew he wasn't wrong.

No lad had ever had a bottom like that.

The thought reconjured the vision; Demon shifted and inwardly cursed. He'd left the countess only a few hours ago; his lustful demons had no business being awake, much less raising their collective head. "This Flick…" Saying the name triggered something-a memory? If the lad was local, he might have stumbled across him before. "How long's he been with us?"

Carruthers was still absorbed with the horses, now cooling before walking in. "Be two weeks, now."

"And he pulls his full load?"

"I've only got him on half-pay-didn't really need another hand with the stablework. Only needed him for riding-exercising and the gallops. Turned out that suited him well enough. His mum's not well, so he rides up here, does morning stables, then rides back to Lidgate to keep her company, then comes up again for afternoon stables."

"Hmm." The first horses were returning; Demon drew back into the stable, standing with Carruthers to the side of the mounting area as the stable lads walked their charges in. Most of the lads were known to him. While exchanging greetings and the occasional piece of news, and running knowledgeable eyes over his string, Demon never lost sight of The Flynn.

Flick ambled at the rear of the string. He'd exchanged no more than brief nods and occasional words with the other lads; amid the general camaraderie, Flick appeared a loner. But the other lads seemed to see nothing odd in Flick; they passed him as he walked the huge bay, patting the silky neck and, judging from the horse's twitching ears, murmuring sweet nothings with absolute acceptance. Demon inwardly cursed and wondered, yet again, if he could possibly be wrong.