Stephanie Laurens

All About Passion

Chapter 1

London August 1820

“Good evening, my lord. Your uncle has called. He’s awaiting you in the library.”

Gyles Frederick Rawlings, fifth Earl of Chillingworth, paused in the act of divesting himself of his greatcoat, then shrugged and let the heavy coat fall into his butler’s waiting hands. “Indeed?”

“I understand Lord Walpole will shortly return to Lambourn Castle. He wondered if you had any messages for the Dowager Countess.”

“In other words,” Gyles murmured, resettling his cuffs, “he wants the latest gossip and knows better than to return to Mama and my aunt without it.”

“As you say, my lord. In addition, Mr. Waring called earlier. On ascertaining that you were returning this evening, he left word that he would hold himself ready to wait on your lordship at your earliest convenience.”

“Thank you, Irving.” Gyles strolled into his front hall. Behind him, the front door quietly shut, propelled by a silent footman. Pausing in the middle of the green-and-white tiles, Gyles glanced back at Irving, waiting, a picture of patience in his butler’s black. “Summon Waring.” Gyles turned down the hall. “Send a footman with the carriage, given it’s so late.”

“Immediately, my lord.”

Another well-trained footman opened the library door; Gyles walked in; the door closed behind him.

His uncle, Horace Walpole, was sitting on the chaise, legs stretched out, a half-empty brandy balloon in one hand. He cracked open one eye, then opened both and sat up. “There you are, m’boy. I was wondering if I’d have to go back newsless, and considering what would be safe to concoct.”

Gyles crossed to the tantalus. “I believe I can spare your imagination. I’m expecting Waring shortly.”

“That new man-of-business of yours?”

Gyles nodded. Glass in hand, he crossed to his favorite armchair and sank into its leather-cushioned comfort. “He’s been looking into a small matter for me.”

“Oh? Which matter?”

“Who I should marry.”

Horace stared, then straightened. “Hell’s bells! You’re serious.”

“Marriage is not a subject on which I would jest.”

“Glad to hear it.” Horace took a large sip of his brandy. “Henni said you’d be making a move in that direction, but I really didn’t think you would-well, not yet.”

Gyles hid a wry smile. Horace had been his guardian since his father’s death; he’d been seven at the time of his sire’s demise, so it was Horace who’d guided him through adolesence and youth. Despite that, he could still surprise Horace. His aunt Henrietta, Henni to all, was another matter-she seemed to know instinctively what he was thinking on all major issues, even though he was here in London while she resided at his principal estate in Berkshire. As for his mother, also at Lambourn Castle, he’d long been grateful that she kept her perceptions to herself. “It’s not as if marriage is something I can avoid.”

“There is that,” Horace conceded. “Osbert as the next earl is not something any of us could stomach. Least of all Osbert.”

“So Great-aunt Millicent regularly informs me.” Gyles nodded at the large desk farther down the room. “That letter there-the thick one? That’ll be another missive demanding I do my duty by the family, pick a suitable chit, and marry with all speed. One arrives every week without fail.”

Horace pulled a face.

“And, of course, every time I cross Osbert’s path, he looks at me as if I’m his only possible salvation.”

“Well, you are. If you don’t marry and beget an heir, he’ll be for it. And Osbert in charge of the earldom is entirely too depressing a thought to contemplate.” Horace drained his glass. “Still, I wouldn’t have thought you’d let old Millicent and Osbert jockey you into marrying to please them.”

“Perish the thought. But if you must know, and I’m sure Henni will want to, I intend to marry entirely to suit myself. I’m thirty-five, after all. Further denying the inevitable will only make the adjustment more painful-I’m set in my ways as it is.” He rose and held out his hand.

Horace grimaced and gave him his glass. “Devilish business, marriage-take my word for it. Sure it isn’t all these Cynsters marrying that’s niggled you into taking the plunge?”

“That’s where I was today-Somersham. There was a family gathering to show off all the new wives and infants. If I’d needed any demonstration of the validity of your thesis, today would have provided it.”

Refilling their glasses, Gyles pushed aside the prickling presentiment evoked by his old friend Devil Cynster’s latest infernal machination. “Devil and the others elected me an honorary Cynster.” Turning from the tantalus, he handed Horace his glass, then resumed his seat. “I pointed out that while we might share countless characteristics, I’m not, and never will be, a Cynster.”

He would not marry for love. That fate, as he’d assured Devil for years, would never be his.

Every Cynster male seemed unavoidably to succumb, jettisoning rakish careers of legendary proportions for love and the arms of one special lady. There’d been six in the group popularly known as the Bar Cynster, and now all were wed, all exclusively and unswervingly focused on their wives and growing families. If there was, within him, a spark of envy, he made sure it was buried deep. The price they’d paid was not one he could afford.

Horace snorted. “Love matches are the Cynsters’ forte. Seem to be all the rage these days, but take my word for it-an arranged marriage has a lot to recommend it.”

“My thoughts exactly. Earlier this summer I set Waring the task of investigating all the likely candidates to see which, if any, had dower properties that would materially add to the earldom.”


“If one is not marrying for love, one may as well marry for something else.” And he’d wanted a reason for his choice, so whichever lady he ultimately offered for would entertain no illusions over what had made him drop his handkerchief in her lap. “My instructions were that my future countess had to be sufficiently well-bred, docile, and endowed with at least passable grace of form, deportment, and address.” A lady who could stand by his side and impinge on his consciousness not at all; a well-bred cypher who would bear his children and disrupt his lifestyle minimally.

Gyles sipped. “As it happened, I had also asked Waring to trace the current ownership of the Gatting property.”

Horace nodded his understanding. The Gatting property had at one time been part of the Lambourn estate. Without it, the earldom’s principal estate was like a pie with a slice missing; regaining the Gatting lands had been an ambition of Gyles’s father, and his father before him.

“In pursuing the owner, Waring discovered that the deed had passed to some distant Rawlings, then, on his demise, into the dowry of his daughter, presently of marriageable age. The information Waring is apparently anxious to impart concerns the daughter.”

“She of marriageable age?”

Gyles inclined his head as the chime of the front door bell pealed through the house. A moment later, the library door opened.

“Mr. Waring, my lord.”

“Thank you, Irving.”

Waring, a heavy-set man in his early thirties, with a round face and close-cropped hair, entered. Gyles waved him to the armchair opposite. “You’ve met Lord Walpole. Can I offer you a drink?”

“Thank you, my lord, but no.” Waring nodded to Horace, then sat, laying a leather satchel across his knees. “I knew how keen you were to pursue this matter, so I took the liberty of leaving a message…”

“Indeed. I take it you have news?”

“I have.” Settling a pair of spectacles on his nose, Waring withdrew a sheaf of papers from his satchel. “As we’d heard, the gentleman and his household resided permanently in Italy. Apparently both parents, Gerrard Rawlings and his wife Katrina, perished together. Subsequently, the daughter, Francesca Hermione Rawlings, returned to England and joined the household of her uncle and guardian, Sir Charles Rawlings, in Hampshire.”

“I’ve been trying to recall…” Gyles swirled his glass. “Were they-Charles and Gerrard-the sons of Francis Rawlings?”

Waring shuffled his papers, then nodded. “Indeed. Francis Rawlings was the grandfather of the lady in question.”

“Francesca Hermione Rawlings.” Gyles considered the name. “And the lady herself?”

“That proved easier than I’d expected. The family entertained extensively-any member of the ton passing through northern Italy would have met them. I’ve descriptions from Lady Kenilworth, Mrs. Foxmartin, Lady Lucas, and the Countess of Morpleth.”

“What’s the verdict?”

“A delightful young lady. Pleasant. Well-favored. A most amusing creature-that was old Lady Kenilworth. A young gentlewoman of excellent breeding-so said the countess.”

“Who said ‘well-favored’?” Horace asked.

“Actually, all of them said that, or words to the effect.” Waring glanced at the written accounts, then offered them to Gyles.

Gyles took them, perused them. “If you put them together, they spell ‘paragon.’ “ He raised his brows. “You know what they say about gift horses.” He handed the reports to Horace. “What of the rest?”

“The young lady’s now twenty-three years old, but there’s no record nor rumor of any marriage. Indeed, the ladies I spoke with had lost sight of Miss Rawlings. Although most were familiar with the tragedy of her parents’ death and were aware of her return to England, none have seen her since. That seemed strange, so I followed it up. Miss Rawlings is residing with her uncle at Rawlings Hall, near Lyndhurst, but I haven’t been able to locate anyone presently in the capital who has met the lady, her guardian, or any member of the household in the past few years.”