The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh (Cynster #20) - Stephanie Laurens

Chapter One

May 1837


“He’s the one you’ve set your sights on?”

Mary Alice Cynster jumped a foot into the air—or so it felt. As her jarred senses reestablished contact with terra firma, fury seared through her. Swinging around, she glared—at her irritating, infuriating, utterly irrepressible nemesis. Quite why Ryder Cavanaugh had elected himself to the role she had no idea, but since a brief encounter at her sister Henrietta’s engagement ball two nights ago he’d been dogging her heels, assiduously transforming himself into a hideously distracting pest.

Before them, the Felsham House ballroom was awash with the crème de la crème of the ton, the silks and satins of ladies’ gowns bright splashes of color against the black of gentlemen’s evening coats. Coiffed heads gleamed, jewels glittered, and hundreds of well-modulated voices rose in polite cacophony.

She’d retreated into the shadows beneath the minstrels’ gallery the better to consider her target. She’d been so absorbed studying him that she hadn’t noticed Ryder drawing near; despite his size, he moved smoothly and silently. As usual, his impeccable, severely styled evening clothes only served to emphasize the fluid strength harnessed within his long, muscled frame. With one broad, elegantly clad shoulder negligently propped against the wall alongside her, he regarded her with his customary, hooded, lazy lion gaze.

Others were often fooled by Ryder’s amiable, gentle giant, lackadaisical air; she never had been. Behind those brilliant hazel eyes lurked a mind as incisive, decisive, and ruthlessly capable as her own.

Yet despite the deflective glamour of his normally impenetrable languid sophistication, from his tone and the fact his lids had briefly risen, his eyes momentarily widening, identifying the object of her interest—by surreptitiously looking over her shoulder—had genuinely surprised him.

Uttering a mental damn!—he was the very last person she would have chosen to share that information with—she fixed her gaze, basilisk-like, on his green and gold eyes. “Go. Away.”

Predictably, the order had no effect; she might as well have saved her breath. Ryder—correctly styled the fifth Marquess of Raventhorne, a title he’d inherited on his father’s death six years before—was widely acknowledged as a law unto himself. There were few gentlemen society’s grandes dames recognized as such—noblemen with sufficient personal power that it was deemed wiser to allow them to stalk through the ton’s ballrooms, drawing rooms, and dining rooms without let or hindrance, as long as they abided by society’s rules, at least well enough to pass. It was one of those unvoiced social accommodations.

Even as she held her ground—and her glare—Mary was well aware of all the aspects of Ryder’s personal power.

At such close quarters, it was impossible not to be.

As if contemplating a curious, potentially succulent morsel, he looked down at her; as she was not only the youngest of the current generation of Cynster girls but also the shortest, and he stood well over six feet tall, that degree of down should have been intimidating, yet she’d never felt intimidated by him. Distracted, thrown off-balance, even mentally tripped to the point of feeling she was somehow falling, yes, but threatened in even the smallest way, no. Then again, she’d known him in passing for as long as she could remember; their families were among the oldest in the ton, and so knew each other in the way such families did.

His lushly lashed hazel eyes had remained unwaveringly fixed on her face, on her eyes. “You can’t seriously imagine Rand will be a suitable husband for you.”

She tipped up her chin, but looking down her nose at him was beyond even her. “I should think it patently obvious that that is a determination I will make for myself.”

“Don’t bother. You won’t suit.”

“Indeed?” She hesitated, but if anyone would know his half brother’s aspirations, Ryder would. She arched her brows and infused sufficient disbelieving hauteur into her tone to, she hoped, tempt him to share. “And why is that?”

While he considered obliging and she waited, she wondered if perhaps denying having any particular interest in Randolph—Lord Randolph Cavanaugh, one of Ryder’s half brothers and the nearest to him in age—might have been the wiser course . . . but when at Henrietta and James’s engagement ball she’d summarily dismissed Ryder, declining an invitation most ladies of the ton, young, middle-aged, or ancient, would kill to receive, she’d unintentionally piqued his curiosity, and just like any feline he’d been, albeit apparently idly, stalking her ever since.

Even though tonight was only the second evening since the engagement ball, Ryder was more than intelligent enough to have divined her purpose.