Stephanie Laurens

On a Wild Night

Chapter 1

Upper Brook Street, London February 20,1825

"It's hopeless?" Amanda Cynster flopped on her back on her twin sister's bed. "There is simply no gentleman in the ton worth considering-not at present."

"There hasn't been for the last five years-well, not gentlemen interested in taking a wife." Stretched beside Amanda, Amelia stared up at the canopy. "We've searched and searched-"

"Turned every stone."

"And the only ones even vaguely interesting are… not interested."

"It's ludicrous!"

"It's depressing."

Alike in both feature and figure, blessed with blond ringlets, cornflower blue eyes and porcelain complexions, the twins could easily have posed for La Belle Assemblee as the epitome of well-bred fashionable young ladies, except for their expressions. Amelia looked disgusted, Amanda mutinous. "I refuse to lower my standards."

They'd discussed their requirements in a husband ad infinitum over the years. Their standards did not materially differ from those espoused by their mentors-their mother and aunts, their cousins' wives. They were surrounded by strong women, ladies all, who had, one and all, found happiness in their marriages. The twins had little doubt as to the qualities they sought.

A gentleman who loved them, who would set them and the family they would raise above all other considerations. A protector, a helpmate, with a reliable, strong arm who would always be there to keep them safe. A man who valued their skills, intelligence and opinions, who would accept them as an equal however much he wished to be lord and master of his world. A gentleman of sufficient substance to render their not-inconsiderable dowries by-the-by; a man of their world well connected enough to take the powerful Cynster clan in his stride.

A man of passion and family feeling-lover, protector, partner. Husband.

Amanda humphed. "There have to be some out there who measure up to our cousins"-the Bar Cynster, that notorious group of six who had for so long lorded it over the ton, leaving uncounted ladies languishing in their wake until, one by one, fate had snared their hearts. "They can't be unique."

"They're not. Think of Chillingworth."

"True-but when I do, I think of Lady Francesca, so that's not much help. He's already taken."

"He's too old, anyway. We need someone nearer our age."

"But not too near-I've had my fill of earnest young men." It had been a road-to-Damascus revelation when they'd realized that their cousins-those arrogant, dictatorial males they had for so long fought to be free of-were in fact the embodiment of their ideals. The realization had thrown the shortcomings of the current candidates for their hands into even more dismal relief. "If we're ever to find husbands, we're going to have to do something!"

"We need a plan."

"One different to last year's, or the year before that's!" Amanda glanced at Amelia; her twin's expression was abstracted, eyes fixed on some vision only she could see. "You look as if you have one."

Amelia glanced her way. "No, not a plan. Not yet. But there are suitable gentlemen, only they aren't on the lookout for a wife. I can think of at least one, and there must be others. I was thinking… maybe we should stop waiting and take matters into our own hands."

"I couldn't agree more, but what are you proposing?"

Amelia's jaw firmed. "I'm sick of waiting-we're twenty-three! I want to be married by June. Once the Season starts, I'm going to reassess and make a new list of candidates, regardless of whether they're thinking of marriage or not. Then I intend picking the one that suits me best, and taking steps to ensure he accompanies me to the altar."

That last phrase rang with determination. Amanda studied Amelia's profile. Many thought she was the stubborn one, the stronger, more overtly confident one. Amelia appeared so much quieter, yet in reality, once Amelia set her sights on a goal it was well nigh impossible to turn her from it.

All of which begged the point.

"You sly minx-you've got your eye on someone."

Amelia wrinkled her nose. "I do, but I'm not sure. He may not be the best choice-if you disregard the caveat that they should be looking for a bride, then there are a lot more to chose from."

"True." Amanda flopped onto her back. "But not for me. I've looked." A moment passed. "Are you going to tell me who he is, or should I guess?"

"Neither." Amelia glanced at her. "I don't know for certain that he's the one, and you might inadvertently give away my interest if you know."

Weighing the likelihood, Amanda had to admit it was real; dissembling wasn't her strong suit. "Very well, but how do you intend ensuring he accompanies you to the altar?"

"I don't know, but I'll do whatever is necessary to get him there."

The grimly determined vow sent a shiver down Amanda's spine. She knew perfectly well what "whatever is necessary" encompassed. It was a risky strategy, yet she had little doubt Amelia, with her core of steel, could follow it to victory.

Amelia glanced at her. "What about you? What of your plan? You needn't bother telling me you don't have one."

Amanda grinned. That was the best of being twins-they followed each other's thoughts instinctively. "I've already looked through the ton, and not just among those who've deigned to worship at our dainty feet. I've concluded that, as I can't find a gentleman within the ton, then I need to search outside it."

"Where will you find marriageable gentlemen outside the ton?"

"Where did our cousins spend most of their evenings before they married?"

"They used to attend some of the balls and parties."

"Ah, but think back and you'll recall they attended on sufferance, danced twice, then left. They only appeared because our aunts insisted. Not all suitable gentlemen-gentlemen we would consider eligible parties-have female relatives capable of compelling their attendance within the ton."

"So…" Amelia refocused on Amanda's face. "You'll search for eligible parties in the private clubs and gaming hells-gentlemen we haven't yet met because they don't, or don't often, appear in our circle."

"Precisely-in the clubs and hells, and at the private parties held in various ladies' salons."

"Mmm… It seems a good plan."

"I believe it has great potential." Amanda considered Amelia's face. "Do you want to search with me? There's sure to be more than one eligible party hiding in the shadows."

Amelia met her gaze, then looked past her; after a moment, her twin shook her head. "No. If I wasn't determined… but I am."

Their gazes locked, thoughts in perfect communion, then Amanda nodded. "It's time to part ways." She grinned and gestured dramatically. "You to wield your wiles under the light of the chandeliers…"

"While you?"

"While I seek my destiny in the shadows."

There were shadows aplenty in the main room of Mellors, the newest, most dangerously fashionable gaming hell; resisting an urge to peer into them, Amanda paused on the threshold and coolly surveyed the company.

While they, not so coolly, surveyed her.

Four of six round tables were circled by gentlemen, hard-eyed and heavy-lidded, glasses by their elbows, cards in their hands. Their gazes swept insolently over her; Amanda ignored them. A larger table hosted a game of faro; two ladies clung, sirenlike, to two of the players. The banker looked directly at Amanda, froze as if he'd just remembered something, then looked down and turned the next card.

Beside Amanda, Reggie Carmarthen, childhood friend and exceedingly reluctant escort, surreptitiously tweaked her sleeve. "Nothing here, really. If we leave now, we can make it to the Henrys' before supper's over."

Completing her survey, Amanda met Reggie's gaze. "How can you tell there's nothing here? We've barely arrived and the corners are dark."

The owners had decorated the rooms off Duke Street with dark brown flocked wallpaper, matching leather chairs and wooden tables. Lit only by well-spaced wall sconces, the result was a shadowy, distinctly masculine den. Amanda glanced around. A sense of danger swept her, a skittery sensation washing over her skin. She lifted her chin. "Let me do the rounds. If there's truly nothing of interest, then we can leave." Reggie knew what particular thing she was searching for, even if he definitely didn't approve. Linking her arm in his, she smiled. "You can't sound the retreat quite so soon."

"Meaning you won't listen even if I do."

They were conversing in muted tones in deference to the concentration of those playing. Amanda steered Reggie toward the tables, doing nothing to shatter the assumption anyone seeing them would make-that Reggie was her cavalier and she'd talked him into bringing her here for a dare. She had talked him into it, but her purpose was a great deal more scandalous than a dare.

Being new, the hell had attracted the most dangerous bucks and blades searching for the latest in dissipation. If she'd found any thing to her taste in the more established venues, she would never have considered coming here. But she'd been doing the rounds of the established hells and salons for the past fortnight; her presence here tonight, in a room where the only familiar faces besides Reggie's were ones she would prefer not to acknowledge, was a measure of her desperation.