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What Price Love? (A Cynster Novel)
by Stephanie Laurens
William Morrow, 2006

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Chapter One

September 1831
Newmarket, Suffolk

I had hoped we'd have longer in reasonable privacy." Letting the door of the Twig & Bough coffee shop on Newmarket High Street swing shut behind him, Dillon Caxton stepped down to the pavement beside Barnaby Adair. "Unfortunately, the sunshine has brought the ladies and their daughters out in force."

Scanning the conveyances thronging the High Street, Dillon was forced to smile and acknowledge two matrons, each with beaming daughters. Tapping Barnaby's arm, he started strolling. "If we stand still, we'll invite attack."

Chuckling, Barnaby fell in beside him. "You sound even more disenchanted with the sweet young things than Gerrard was."

"Living in London, you're doubtless accustomed to far worse, but spare a thought for us who value our bucolic existence. To us, even the Little Season is an unwanted reminder of that which we fervently wish to avoid."

"At least with this latest mystery you have something to distract you. An excellent excuse to be elsewhere, doing other things."

Seeing a matron instructing her coachman to draw her landau to the curb ten paces farther on, Dillon swore beneath his breath. "Unfortunately, as our mystery must remain a strict secret, I fear Lady Kershaw is going to draw first blood."

Her ladyship, a local high stickler, beckoned imperiously. There was no help for it; Dillon strolled on to her now-stationary carriage. He exchanged greetings with her ladyship and her daughter, Margot, then introduced Barnaby. They stood chatting for five minutes. From the corner of his eye, Dillon noted how many arrested glances they drew, how many other matrons -were now jockeying for position farther along the curb.

Glancing at Barnaby, doing his best to live up to Miss Kershaw's expectations, Dillon inwardly grimaced. He could imagine the picture they made, he with his dark, dramatic looks most commonly described as Byronic, with Barnaby, a golden Adonis with curly hair and bright blue eyes, by his side, the perfect foil. They were both tall, well set up, and elegantly and fashionably turned out. In the restricted society of Newmarket, it was no wonder the ladies were lining up to accost them. Unfortunately, their destination -- the Jockey -Club -- lay some hundred yards distant; they had to run the gauntlet.

They proceeded to do so with the glib assurance that came from untold hours spent in ton ballrooms. Despite his preference for the bucolic, courtesy of his cousin Flick -- Felicity Cynster -- over the last de-cade Dillon had spent his fair share of time in the whirl of the ton, in London and elsewhere, as Flick put it, keeping in practice.

In practice for what was a question to which he was no longer sure he knew the answer. Before his fall from grace and the scandal that had shaken his life, he'd always assumed he would marry, have a family, and all the rest. Yet while spending the last decade putting his life to rights, repaying his debts of social and moral obligation, and reestablishing himself, his honor, in the eyes of all those who mattered to him, he'd grown accustomed to his solitary existence, to the life of an unencumbered gentleman.

Smiling at Lady Kennedy, the third matron to detain them, he extricated himself and Barnaby and strolled on, casting his eye along the line of waiting carriages and their fair burdens. Not one stirred the remotest interest in him. Not one sweet face even moved him to curiosity.

Unfortunately, becoming known as a gentleman with a hardened heart, one unsusceptible to feminine enticements, had piled additional fuel on the bonfire of the ladies' aspirations. Too many now viewed him as a challenge, a recalcitrant male they were determined to bring to heel. As for their mothers, with every year that passed he was forced to exercise greater care, to keep his eyes ever open for social snares, those traps certain matrons set for the unwary.

Even those select ladies with whom he occasionally dallied discreetly in the capital weren't above hatching schemes. His last inamorata had tried to convince him of the manifold benefits that would accrue to him should he marry her niece. Said benefits had, of course, included her fair self.

He was beyond being outraged, beyond even being surprised; he was close to turning his back on the entire subject of marriage.

"Mrs. Cartwell, a pleasure to see you, ma'am." Taking the hand the haughty matron extended, he shook it, bowed to the vision of loveliness sitting beside Mrs. Cartwell, then stepped back and introduced Barnaby. Always interested in people, Barnaby exchanged platitudes with the lovely Miss Cartwell; cravenly grateful, Dillon stood back and let him have the stage.

Mrs. Cartwell was monitoring the exchange between her daughter and Barnaby, the third son of an earl and every bit as eligible as Dillon himself, with absolute concentration. Reduced to the redundant, Dillon's mind returned to the matter he and Barnaby had retreated to the Twig & Bough to discuss, until they'd been ousted by the invading ladies. They'd chosen the quieter shop catering to the genteel element rather than the club coffee-house favored by the racing fraternity for the simple reason that the subject of their discussion would set ears flapping and tongues wagging among the racing set.

Another racing scandal was precisely what he was working to avoid.

This time, he wasn't engaged on the wrong side of the ledger; this time, he'd been recruited by the angels, to wit the all-powerful Committee of the Jockey Club, to investigate the rumors of race fixing that had started to circulate after the recent spring racing season.

That request was a deliberate and meaningful vote of confidence -- a declaration that the Committee viewed his youthful indiscretion as fully paid for, the slate wiped clean. More, it was a clear statement that the Committee had complete faith in his integrity, in his discretion, and in his devotion to the breeding and racing industry that the Committee oversaw, and that he and his father before him had for so long served.

Excerpted from What Price Love? by Stephanie Laurens. Copyright © 2006 by Stephanie Laurens. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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