Stephanie Laurens

All About Love

Chapter 1

June 1820 Devon


It didn't even sound comfortable.

Alasdair Reginald Cynster, widely known, with good reason, as Lucifer, pushed the word from his mind with a disgusted snort and concentrated on turning his pair of highbred blacks down a narrow lane. The lane led south, toward the coast; Colyton, his destination, lay along it.

Around him, early summer clasped the countryside in a benevolent embrace. Breezes rippled the corn; swallows rode the currents high above, black darts against the blue sky. Thick hedges bordered the lane; from the box seat of his curricle, Lucifer could only just see over them. Not that there was anything to see in this quiet rural backwater.

That left him with his thoughts. Holding the blacks to a slow but steady pace along the winding lane, he considered the unwelcome proposition of having to survive without the type of feminine company to which he was accustomed. It wasn't a pleasant prospect, but he'd rather suffer that torture than risk succumbing to the Cynster curse.

It wasn't a curse to be trifled with-it had already claimed five of his nearest male relatives, all the other members of the notorious group that had, for so many years, lorded it over the ton. The Bar Cynster had cut swaths through the ranks of London's ladies, leaving them languishing, exhausted in their wake. They'd been daring, devilish, invincible-until, one by one, the curse had caught them. Now he was the last one free-unshackled, unwed, and unrepentant. He had nothing against marriage per se, but the unfortunate fact-the crux of the curse-was that Cynsters did not simply marry. They married ladies they loved.

The very concept made him shudder. Its implied vulnerability was something he would never willingly accept.

Yesterday, his brother, Gabriel, had done just that.

And that was one of the two principal reasons he was here, going to ground in deepest Devon.

He and Gabriel had been close all their lives; only eleven months separated them. Other than Gabriel, the one person he knew better than anyone in the world was their childhood playmate Alathea Morwellan. Now Alathea Cynster. Gabriel had married her yesterday, and in so doing had opened Lucifer's eyes to how potent the curse was, how irresistible it could be. Love had bloomed in the most unlikely ground. The curse had struck boldly, ruthlessly, powerfully, and had conquered against all odds.

He sincerely wished Gabriel and Alathea joy, but he had no intention of following their lead.

Not now. Very possibly not ever.

What need had he of marriage? What would he gain that he didn't already have? Women-ladies-were all very well; he enjoyed dallying with them, enjoyed the subtleties of conquering the more resistant, encouraging them into his bed. He enjoyed teaching them all he knew of shared pleasure. That, however, was the extent of his interest. He was involved in other spheres, and he liked his freedom, liked being answerable to no one. He preferred his life as it was and had no wish to change it.

He was determined to avoid the curse-he could manage very well without love.

So he'd slipped away from Gabriel and Alathea's wedding breakfast and left London. With Gabriel married, he'd succeeded to the title of principal matrimonial target for the ladies of the ton; consequently, he'd dismissed all invitations to the summer's country house parties. He'd driven to Quiverstone Manor, his parents' estate in Somerset. Leaving his groom, Dodswell, a local, there to visit with his sister, he'd left Quiverstone early this morning and headed south through the countryside.

On his left, three cottages came into view, huddled around a junction with an even narrower lane that ambled down beside a ridge. Slowing, he passed the cottages and rounded the ridge-the village of Colyton opened out before him. Reining in, he looked about.

And inwardly grimaced. He'd been right. From the looks of Colyton, his chances of finding any local lady with whom to dally-a married one who met his exacting standards and with whom he could ease the persistent itch all Cynsters were prey to-were nil.

Abstinence it would be.

The village, neat and tidy in the bright sunshine, looked like an artist's vision of the rustic ideal, steeped in peace and harmony. Ahead to the right, the common sloped upward; a church stood on the crest, a solid Norman structure flanked by a well-tended graveyard. Beyond the graveyard, another lane ran down, presumably joining the main lane farther on. The main lane itself curved to the left, bordered by a line of cottages facing the common; the sign of an inn jutted over the lane just before it swung out of sight. Nearer to hand was a duck pond on the common; the blacks stamped and shook their heads at the quacking.

Quieting them, Lucifer looked to the left, to the first house of the village standing back in its gardens. A name was carved on the portico. He squinted. Colyton Manor. His destination.

The Manor was a handsome house of pale sandstone, two stories and attics in the Georgian style with rows of long pedimented windows flanking the portico and front door. The house faced the lane, set back behind a waist-high stone wall and a large garden filled with flowering plants and roses. A circular fountain stood at the garden's center, interrupting the path joining the front door and a gate to the lane. Beyond the garden, a stand of trees screened the Manor from the village beyond.

A gravel drive skirted the nearer side of the house, eventually leading to a stable set back against more trees. The drive was separated from a shrubbery by an expanse of lawn punctuated here and there by ancient shade trees. Somewhat overgrown, the shrubbery extended almost to where the curricle stood; a glimpse of water beyond suggested an ornamental lake.

Colyton Manor looked what it was, a prosperous gentleman's residence. It was the home of Horatio Welham-the reason Lucifer had chosen Colyton as his temporary bolt-hole.

Horatio's letter had reached him three days ago. An old friend and his mentor in all matters pertaining to collecting, Horatio had invited him to visit at Colyton at his earliest convenience. With the grande dames turning their sights on him, convenient had been immediately-he'd grasped the excuse to disappear from the social whirl.

At one time he had haunted Horatio's house in the Lake District, but although he and Horatio had remained as close as ever, over the three years since Horatio had moved to Devon, they'd met only at collectors' gatherings around the country and in London; this was his first visit to Colyton.

The blacks shook their heads; their harness clinked. Straightening, gathering the reins, Lucifer was conscious of a welling impatience-to see Horatio again, to clasp his hand, to spend time in his erudite company. Coloring that anticipation was Horatio's reason for asking him to visit-a request for his opinion on an item that, in Horatio's words, might tempt even him to extend his collection beyond his preferred categories of silver and jewelry. He'd spent the drive from Somerset speculating on what the item was, but had reached no conclusion.

He'd learn soon enough. Clicking the reins, he set the blacks in motion. Turning smartly in between the tall gateposts, he drew the curricle up by the side of the house with the usual crunching and stamping of hooves.

No one came running.

He listened-and heard nothing but the sounds of birds and insects.

Then he remembered it was Sunday; Horatio and all his household would be at church. Glancing up the common, he verified that the church door stood ajar. He looked at the Manor's front door-it, too, stood partially open. Someone, it appeared, was home.

Tying off the reins, he jumped down and strode along the gravel path to the portico. Ablaze with summer blooms, the garden caught and held his gaze. The sight teased some long-buried memory. Pausing before the portico, he struggled to pin it down.

This was Martha's garden.

Martha was Horatio's late wife; she'd been the anchor around which the Lake District household had revolved. Martha had loved gardening, striving through all weathers to create glorious displays-just like this. Lucifer studied the plantings. The layout was similar to the garden in the Lake District. But Martha had been dead for three years.

Outside of his mother and aunts, Lucifer had felt closer to Martha than any other older woman-she'd occupied a special place in his life. He'd often listened to her lectures, whereas to his mother he'd been deaf. Martha had not been related-it had always been easier to hear the truth from her lips. It was Martha's death that had lessened his enthusiasm for visiting Horatio at home. Too many memories; too acute a sense of shared loss.

Seeing Martha's garden here felt odd, like a hand on his sleeve when there was no one there. He frowned-he could almost hear Martha whispering in her soft, gentle voice.

Abruptly turning, he entered the portico. The front door was half open; he pushed it wide. The hall was empty.

"Hello! Is anyone about?"

No response. All he could hear was the summer buzz outside. He stepped over the threshold and paused. The house was cool, quiet, still… waiting. Frowning more definitely, he strode forward, bootheels clacking on black-and-white tiles. He headed for the first door on the right. It stood open, pushed wide.

He smelled blood before he reached the door. After Waterloo, it was one scent he'd never mistake. The hairs at his nape lifted; he slowed.