Stephanie Laurens

Rake's Vow

Chapter 1

October 1819


"You want to get a move on. Looks like the Hounds of Hell are on our heels."

"What?" Jerked from uneasy contemplation, Vane Cynster lifted his gaze from his leader's ears and glanced around, bringing Duggan, his groom, into view-along with the bank of lowering thunderheads sweeping down on them from behind. "Blast!" Vane looked forward and flicked the reins. The pair of matched greys harnessed to his curricle stepped out powerfully. He glanced over his shoulder. "Think we can outrun it?"

Considering the storm clouds, Duggan shook his head. "We got three miles on it, maybe five. Not enough to turn back to Kettering, nor yet to make Northampton."

Vane swore. It wasn't the thought of a drenching that exercised his mind. Desperation dug in its spurs; his eyes on the road as the greys swept on, he searched for some option, some route of escape.

Only minutes before, he'd been thinking of Devil, Duke of St. Ives, his cousin, boyhood companion, and closest friend-and of the wife fate had handed him. Honoria, now Duchess of St. Ives. She who had ordered Vane and the other four as-yet-unmarried members of the Bar Cynster not only to pay for but attend the dedication service for the roof of the church in Somersham village, close by the ducal seat. Admittedly, the money she'd decreed they surrender had been ill-gotten gains, their winnings from a wager of which neither she nor their mothers had approved. The age-old adage that the only women Cynster males need be wary of were Cynster wives still held true for this generation as it had for those past. The reason why was not something any male Cynster liked to dwell on.

Which was why he felt such a driving need to get out of the path of the storm. Fate, in the guise of a storm, had arranged for Honoria and Devil to meet, in circumstances that had all but ensured their subsequent marriage. Vane wasn't about to take unnecessary chances.

"Bellamy Hall." He clung to the idea like a drowning man. "Minnie will give us shelter."

"That's a thought." Duggan sounded more hopeful. "The turnoff should be close."

It was around the next bend; Vane took the turn at speed, then cursed and slowed his cattle. The narrow lane was not as well surfaced as the road they'd left. Too fond of his high-stepping horses to risk injuring them, he concentrated, easing them along as fast as he dared, grimly conscious of the deepening gloom of an unnatural, too-early twilight and the rising whine of the wind.

He'd left Somersham Place, Devil's principal residence, soon after luncheon, having spent the morning at church, at the dedication service for the roof he and his cousins had paid for. Intending to visit friends near Leamington, he'd left Devil to enjoy his wife and son and headed west. He'd expected to reach Northampton and the comfort of the Blue Angel with ease. Instead, thanks to fate, he would be spending the night with Minnie and her inmates. At least he would be safe.

Through the hedges to their left, Vane glimpsed distant water, leaden grey beneath the darkening sky. The River Nene, which meant Bellamy Hall was close; it stood on a long, sloping rise looking down on the river.

It had been years since he'd visited-he couldn't offhand remember how many, but of his welcome he had not a doubt. Araminta, Lady Bellamy, eccentric relict of a wealthy man, was his godmother. Unblessed with children, Minnie had never treated him as a child; over the years, she'd become a good friend. A sometimes too-shrewd friend uninhibited in her lectures, but a friend nonetheless.

Daughter of a viscount, Minnie had been born to a place in the ton. After her husband, Sir Humphrey Bellamy, died, she'd retired from socializing, preferring to remain at Bellamy Hall, presiding over a varying household of impecunious relatives and worthy charity cases.

Once, when he'd asked why she surrounded herself with such hangers-on, Minnie had replied that, at her age, human nature was her main source of entertainment. Sir Humphrey had left her wealthy enough to stand the nonsense, and Bellamy Hall, grotesquely gargantuan, was large enough to house her odd menage. As a sop to sanity, she and her companion, Mrs. Timms, indulged in the occasional bolt to the capital, leaving the rest of the household in Northamptonshire. Vane always called on Minnie whenever she was in town.

Gothic turrets rose out of the trees ahead, then brick gateposts appeared, the heavy wrought-iron gates left ajar. With a grimly satisfied smile, Vane turned his horses through; they'd beaten the storm-fate had not caught him napping. He set the greys trotting down the straight drive. Huge bushes crowded close, shivering in the wind; ancient trees shrouded the gravel in shifting shadows.

Dark and somber, its multitude of windows, dull in the encroaching gloom, watching like so many flat eyes, Bellamy Hall filled the end of the tunnel-like drive. A sprawling Gothic monstrosity, with countless architectural elements added cheek by jowl, all recently embellished with Georgian lavishness, it ought to have looked hideous, yet, in the overgrown park with the circular courtyard before it, the Hall managed to escape outright ugliness.

It was, Vane thought, as he swept about the courtyard and headed for the stables, a suitably esoteric dwelling for an eccentric old woman and her odd household. As he rounded the side of the house, he saw no sign of life.

There was, however, activity in the stables, grooms hurriedly settling horses in preparation for the storm. Leaving Duggan and Minnie's stableman, Grisham, to deal with the greys, Vane strode to the house, taking the path through the shrubbery. Although overgrown, it was navigable; the path debouched onto a stretch of poorly tended lawn which continued around the corner of one wing. Around that corner, Vane knew, stood the side door, facing a wide sweep of lawn hosting a small army of huge stones, remnants of the abbey upon which the Hall was partly built. The ruins stretched for some distance; the Hall itself had grown about the guesthall of the abbey, otherwise ransacked during the Dissolution.

As he neared the corner, the blocks of weathered sandstone came into view, scattered crazily over a thick green carpet. In the middle distance, a single arch, all that remained of the abbey's nave, rose against the darkening sky. Vane smiled; all was exactly as he remembered. Nothing about Bellamy Hall had changed in twenty years. He rounded the corner-and discovered he was wrong. He halted, then blinked. For a full minute, he stood stock-still, gaze riveted, his mind entirely focused. Then, gaze still transfixed, his mind fully occupied by the vision before him, he strolled forward, his footsteps muffled by the thick lawn. He halted opposite a large bow window two paces from the semicircular flower bed before it.

Directly behind the lady, clothed in fine, wind-driven sprigged muslin, bent over, fossicking in the flowers.

"You could help." Patience Debbington blew aside the curls tangling with her eyelashes and frowned at Myst, her cat, sitting neatly in the weeds, an enigmatic expression on her inscrutable face. "It's got to be here somewhere."

Myst merely blinked her large blue eyes. With a sigh, Patience leaned as far forward as she dared and poked among the weeds and perennials. Bent over at the waist, reaching into the flower bed, gripping its soft edge with the toes of her soft-soled shoes, was hardly the most elegant, let alone stable, position.

Not that she need worry over anyone seeing her-everyone else was dressing for dinner. Which was precisely what she should be doing-would have been doing-if she hadn't noticed that the small silver vase which had adorned her windowsill had vanished. As she'd left the window open, and Myst often used that route to come and go, she'd reasoned that Myst must have toppled the vase in passing and it had rolled out, over the flat sill, and fallen into the flower bed below.

The fact that she had never known Myst unintentionally to knock over anything she'd pushed aside; it was better believing that Myst had been clumsy than that their mysterious thief had struck again.

"It's not here," Patience concluded. "At least, I can't see it." Still bent over, she looked at Myst. "Can you?"

Myst blinked again, and looked past her. Then the sleek grey cat rose and elegantly padded out of the flower bed.

"Wait!" Patience half turned, but immediately swung back, struggling to regain her awkward balance. "There's a storm coming-this is not the time to go mousing."

So saying, she managed to straighten-which left her facing the house, looking directly at the blank bow windows of the downstairs parlor. With the storm darkening the skies, the windows were reflective. They reflected the image of a man standing directly behind her.

With a gasp, Patience whirled. Her gaze collided with the man's-his eyes were hard, crystalline grey, pale in the weak light. They were focused, intently, on her, their expression one she couldn't fathom. He stood no more than three feet away, large, elegant and oddly forbidding. In the instant her brain registered those facts, Patience felt her heels sink, and sink-into the soft soil of the flower bed.

The edge crumbled beneath her feet.

Her eyes flew wide-her lips formed a helpless "Oh." Arms flailing, she started to topple back-

The man reacted so swiftly his movement was a blur-he gripped her upper arms and hauled her forward.

She landed against him, breast to chest, hips to hard thighs. The breath was knocked out of her, leaving her gasping, mentally as well as physically. Hard hands held her upright, long fingers iron shackles about her arms. His chest was a wall of rock against her breasts; the rest of his body, the long thighs that held them braced, felt as resilient as tensile steel.