The mind boggles - I was interested in seeing how the whole thing started.
Which is with Devil and Honoria in Devil's Bride. Miss Honoria Anstruther-Wetherby is a finishing governess just starting with a new family when she comes across an injured man in the forest. He's been shot. They are soon joined by a black-haired, green-eyed tyrant who immediately takes charge of the situation. Due to an impending storm the stranger finds them all shelter at a nearby woodsman's hut. At the height of the storm, the injured man - Tolly - dies of his wound. In the morning, they are all discovered and the identity of the mysterious stranger is revealed: Sylvester Sebastian Cynster, sixth Duke of St. Ives, and known throughout the ton as Devil. Honoria is also Compromised-with-a-Capital-C. Because she has nightmares during storms she winds up looking rumpled, Devil is bare-chested because his shirt was used as a bandage, and, given his reputation as a rake, her virtue is now worth doodle-squat. Devil has no problem introducing her as his fiancee - he's wanted her since about five seconds after they met - but Honoria has no intention of giving up her dreams of exploring interior Africa.
While the insta-love/lust plot is always a bit out there, the characters really make this book. Honoria isn't just a mere governess but an heiress with a penchant for unconvenionality. Devil, and five of his male cousins, make up the Bar Cynster - a group of known rakish bachelors who, although known to cut a swath through the lonely married or widowed ladies of the ton, defend their female family members (sisters, mothers, and eventually wives) with singular tenacity. Devil's mother, Helena, is a delightfully frank French ton matriarch. Over the course of this opening novel, Stephanie Laurens sets the stage for her sprawling family of prowling males and lovely young ladies. As Devil and Honoria fall in love and learn to deal with each others' idiosyncracies, they also solve the mystery of Tolly's murder.
Vane - christened Spencer, but called Vane since he always knows which way the wind is blowing - is determined not to succumb to the dreaded disease of love. As Devil obviously has. So Vane makes A Rake's Vow (ha! see what I did there) to continue in his footloose ways. Due to the weather he winds up paying an unexpected visit to his godmother, Minnie. Strange things have been happening at Minnie's country house: things are going missing and the Spectre has been spotting roaming the grounds at night. Vane stays to investigate and immediately gets entangled with Miss Patience Debbington. Patience is Minnie's niece and she has no time for "elegant gentlemen" - her mother died of a broken heart because her rakish father failed to love in return and Patience wants no part of that.
The story of Vane and Patience and how they unravel the mystery of Bellamy Hall makes for a good read. The collection of nutty hangers-on at Minnie's house gives off the air of an Agatha Christie house party. There's a companion, Patience's brother, a family friend with her two children, a poet, a middle-aged lady who tats constantly, and an odd brother and sister researching the origins of Bellamy Hall. Patience and Vane have a rather sweet romance that comes about when Vane realizes he will never escape Devil's fate.
Richard (Scandal - for some reason his nickname doesn't stick as well as the others' have), meanwhile, has been summoned to Scotland for the reading of a will. Although he is Devil's brother, Helena isn't his mother, and the will being read belongs to his late mother's Highlander husband. He is bequeathed his mother's necklace, a curious piece that immediately catches the eye of another guest present, Miss Catriona Hennessy, the Lady of the Vale. Catriona is present because the deceased was her guardian - and she is now informed that, if she doesn't marry Richard in a week, her guardian's family will be disinherited and the wealth given to the Church. Catriona is, understandably, pissed off. She tries to worm her way out of the demand but when she consults The Lady, the inevitable must occur if he is to father the children forseen by The Lady: Richard and Catriona marry before leaving for the Vale of Casphairn (making her Scandal's Bride). The most interesting aspect of this book is the focus on the pre-Christian mystical aspects of Catriona's "Sight" and how the Vale passes from mother to daughter. It's a nice contrast to the concentration on primogeniture elsewhere in Britain.
Demon (Harry) has promised his mother that he won't marry by special license, unlike his elder brother Vane. He had no trouble making the promise because he's determined to never marry. Now where have we heard that before? Demon holes up at his stud farm in Newmarket - he is a genius when it comes to breeding horses - to avoid the matchmaking mamas of the ton. While watching the grooms excercise his racing stock Demon spies an oddly familiar groom. The slight boy turns out to be Miss Felicity Parteger aka Flick, the niece of a good friend, and she's soon forced to let Demon in on a secret: her dimwitted cousin is in hiding due to getting mixed up in a race-fixing scheme. The two begin to investigate the syndicate together and wind up in all sorts of compromising situations (including the Point-of-No-Return-for-a-bachelor-and-a-young-lady) before finally (finally) sorting everything out. Laurens works horses into nearly every conversation in a way that is rather endearing and a conversation between Flick and Lady Osbaldestone (who is the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale-type character in this series) illuminates the peculiar "rules" regarding courtship between a more experienced gentleman of thirty and a young miss of only twenty. Which are boring and cause nothing but trouble for about thirty boring pages. The title is A Rogue's Proposal which I wasn't able to work into the review. Sad but true.
There are only two members of the Bar Cynster left and Gabriel (Rupert) is determined to remain unattached. Which is why he's lurking on the steps of St. George's Hanover Square in the small hours of the morning in the hopes of meeting a mysterious Countess. She needs help - her late husband has signed a suspicious purchase of shares in an unheard of mining company in South Africa and if the note is called in the family will be beyond destitute. Gabriel agrees to help her in any way he can - and seduce her along the way. Lady Alathea Morwellan, confirmed spinster, has no idea Gabriel intends to seduce her. The two have been at odds since their teens when childhood familiarity gave way to adolescent awkwardness. Alathea invented the Countess to get Gabriel's attention but the disguise is hard to drop even when lust threatens to get them in trouble; she's always had A Secret Love (hehe) for Gabriel. When Gabriel unmasks the Countess, he is understandably angry for about 12 hours (mostly because he feels taken advantage of) but he returns to help Alathea sort out the Morwellan's financial troubles. The backstory of childhood friends/sweethearts changes-up the relationship and lends the idea that one's best friend is also likely to be one's best life partner. The mystery is good, too.
And then there was one. Lucifer (Alasdair) leaves directly for Devon after his brother's wedding. He does not want to learn All About Love so he's off to visit a fellow collector, Horatio, who has enticed him down with reports of a mysterious find. Unfortunately, Lucifer arrives to find Horatio deceased - stabbed in the chest and dead only minutes. Before he can summon help Lucifer is accidentally knocked unconsious by Miss Phyllida Tallent, who is lurking in the house for a mysterious reason of her own. Once it's clear Lucifer didn't kill Horatio, the book gets down to the business of small town village life, finding the mysterious item that excited Horatio, and unmasking Horatio's murderer. While I found the ultimate motivation of the murderer to be vague (aside from sociopathic tendencies), I really liked the development of Lucifer and Phyllida's relationship. Horatio's books also made the bibliophile in me happy.
Laurens throws in a last-minute Cynster: Gyles Rawlings, the Earl of Chillingworth. He's appeared in nearly all six previous books as a foil to the Bar Cynster. He's just like them, so was used to spark jealousy on occasion, and is elected an honorary Cynster for services to the dukedom (he helped sort out Tolly's murderer and assisted in Alathea's rescue). And he gets his own book - All About Passion - in which he sets out to have a perfectly boring, arranged, and altogether passionless marriage by arranging to marry Miss Francesca Rawlings, a distant cousin whose dowry includes the land that completes that of his estate. All he wants is an heir so he needs a quiet, pliant wife. A chance meeting during the marriage negotiations leads him to think he chosen bride is Franni, quiet, blond, and sweet. Certainly not the black-haired hellion who sets his blood on fire. But this is a romance novel so, guess what? His bride is the half-Italian, passionate woman he desires...and it scares the hell out of him.
There were a number of interesting scenes in this book - the progress through the estate village, the plum-picking scene, the Harvest Festival - that painted a lovely picture of rural Regency Britain. The bedroom scenes were ridiculously hot and there may have been more in this book that in any of the others. All About Passion loses points, however, by borrowing part of the mystery plot from Devil's Bride.
So that's the first seven Cynsters. I'm having trouble telling the heroes apart so I think I'll take a bit of a break.