“You may make all the excuses you want, Lord Rohan. One of those girls is destined for horror, and we have no idea where they’re keeping her. The full moon is only six days away, and we’re running out of time.”
“And just how does that involve me?” he inquired coldly. The woman was clearly deranged. There was no way that members of society would descend to such heinous acts. “If you think I’m going to accuse my childhood friends of such depravity then you’ve miscalculated. It’s none of my concern.”
“And what if I can convince the police to raid their gathering and arrest those childhood friends?”
“I doubt you’ll be able to. But in case they’re unwise enough to listen to your ridiculous accusations, then I would say that those childhood friends deserve what’s coming to them. I am not, nor have I ever been, my brother’s keeper.”
“Even if one of the organizers is, in fact, your own brother?”
He’d been about to ring for Richmond to see her out, having tired of all this. But something stayed his hand, and his gaze sharpened. “What are you raving about now, Lady Carstairs?”
But she wasn’t raving. She was sounding much too logical and calm, despite the absurdity of her charges. “Your brother, Lord Brandon Rohan, lately Lieutenant of her majesty’s arm and newly returned from the Afghan wars, has been instrumental in the rebirth of the Heavenly Host. No one knows exactly who is in charge, who sets the evil path they’ve embarked upon, but your brother participates, quite willingly. Sooner or later this will all blow up in their faces, at least if I have anything to say about it, and I warn you right now, I’m a very stubborn woman. I don’t give up. I would think your brother has suffered enough.”
He looked at her blankly, his mind awhirl. As appalling as the idea was, it made sense. Brandon had seldom been home, and his actions had been secretive in the extreme. He was thin and hollow-eyed, and instead of healing, his limp was becoming more pronounced as he burned the candle at both ends. It was possible.
“How did you come by this information?” he snapped suddenly.
“I told you. One of the girls escaped and joined us. She was the one who told us what was going on, and since then we’ve all been finding out anything we can. They wear masks and hoods, she said, but for obvious reasons your brother stands out. The demimask fails to cover the scarred side of his face, and he has a lame leg. She’s recognized a few others, but not the leader of the organization, the one who orders everything. And now she’s disappeared, leaving her little sister behind, and I very much fear she’s dead.”
He’d been dismissing everything she’d said earlier as arrant nonsense, but now he was concentrating, allowing for the possibility that she wasn’t a deranged zealot after all. Indeed, she didn’t look like one. With her fierce blue eyes and determined chin, her soft, rose-colored lips set in a hard line, she looked angry and sensible, a modern-day Boadicea ready to take on the decadent Romans. She was a Viking, a warrior, everything abhorrent in the weaker sex.
Except that he’d never been fool enough to consider women to be the weaker sex. He’d been surrounded by strong women all his life, his mother and sister included, and he knew when to duck and run.
Now wasn’t the time. “All right,” he said. “What is it you want me to do?”
Melisande blinked. She’d come expecting the battle, expecting abject failure in the end, but she’d come anyway. She’d run out of options. “Next?” she said blankly then cleared her throat. “We need to come up with a plan.”
Viscount Rohan was looking at her with half-closed lids that hid the expression in his eyes. Just as well, she thought. He was much too handsome a man, but all those damned Rohans were gorgeous. Even the youngest, Brandon Rohan, had a savage beauty only emphasized by the sad ruin of half his face.
Not that she’d ever been distracted by a handsome face. Her husband had been fifty-three years older than she was, and dying when she’d married him. Her one foolish mistake of a lover had possessed only ordinary attractiveness, nothing like the bone-melting grace of Benedick Rohan’s stern profile. If she were still a green girl she could dream about a man like him. But she wasn’t. She was a grown woman, with no use for men ever again, and totally impervious to his male beauty.
“I would have thought you’d have a plan already in place,” he said, his low voice sending a momentary shiver down her spine.
She was about to reach for a cake, realized she’d eaten them all and had to make do with another cup of tepid tea. “If I had a plan I could have implemented it myself,” she said, keeping a caustic note in her voice. “I assumed this was a fool’s errand, but I always was one to fight for lost causes.”
“Tilting at windmills, Lady Carstairs? And you expect me to be your Sancho Panza. I’m not sure I care for a reenactment of Don Quixote. It ends badly.”
“Life ends badly. And you never struck me as particularly optimistic.”
“Never struck you as particularly optimistic?” he echoed. “Do we have an acquaintance that I’ve forgotten?”
“You would hardly remember every chit making her curtsey each year. I made my debut the year you were married. I remember your wife. She was very beautiful.”
She’d forgotten he’d been widowed twice. And there was some ancient scandal concerning another woman, but no one would tell her the details. Not that she’d asked, of course. At least, not more than a couple of times.
Before she could answer he went on. “Never mind. It hardly matters. So you’ve come here to dump this incipient disaster in my lap, with no plan, no idea how to forestall it. My brother is my main concern. I could simply have him forcibly removed to one of the remote family estates so he wouldn’t be able to participate. That solves my problem even if it doesn’t address yours.”
“Then you believe me?” She was still astonished by that fact.
“At least partially. It’s just the sort of thing my brother would get involved with, and he’s been particularly secretive. I expect some of your concerns are simply fiction. I know a great deal about the history of the Heavenly Host—after all it was formed by my great-grandfather’s cousin, and kept alive through the offices of my grandfather and father.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Melisande muttered.
“But the Heavenly Host are far from the nightmare creatures you’re talking about. They started out as a group of bored intellectuals, curious about the relationship between God and the devil, and curious to taste all the forbidden fruit of human desire. But there were rules. No children. No unwilling innocents, though I gather they paid highly for the participation of willing virgins. And no coercion. Their motto is ‘do what thou wilt,’ and agreement is part of that. Not ‘do what is forced upon you.’”
“I appreciate the history lesson. Things have changed.”
He was already regretting his agreement to help her; she could see that. She went on. “If you could see what they did to poor Aileen…”
But she’d underestimated him. “There’s no need. I believe you. Since you haven’t got a plan I expect we’d best come up with one.” As if by magic the stiff but charming majordomo appeared with a fresh pot of tea and another plate of cakes. “If you wouldn’t mind pouring me a fresh cup I’ll consider what we need.”
She was already in the midst of doing so, for herself, as well. “We need to identify the other members of the organization, including the leader.”
She half expected him to sneer, but he merely nodded. “Finding other members should be relatively easy. There are certain likely ones, including Lord and Lady Elsmere. We find one…we can follow them to the others.”
“What about your brother? Wouldn’t he tell you about it?”
“My brother is the least likely person to answer my questions.”
“You don’t get on? But you’re so charming—I would have thought everyone loved you.”
“Sarcasm is not a becoming trait, Lady Carstairs.”
“I’m not interested in what is becoming or not.”
“Clearly,” he said dryly. “I expect Winston Elsmere would be our best line of attack. And by the greatest good luck they’re holding a party tonight. The guest list is supposed to be small—a mere thirty or so. I declined their invitation, but they should be more than happy to welcome us anyway. Supper is optional, and the dancing starts at ten. I’ll pick you up at half past nine.”
She stared at him in disbelief. “I’m not going to their party! For one thing, I wasn’t invited.”
“That hardly matters. If you come as my guest you’ll be welcomed. There’s an excellent chance that at least two or three members of the Host will be in attendance. Once we identify them we can go from there.”
“I don’t want to attend a party!” she protested. “I keep out of society.”
“You don’t have a choice. Not if you want to stop the Host.”
“I want more than that,” she said, trying to keep her passion in check. “I want to smash their entire wicked organization. I want to expose them to such shame they don’t dare meet ever again.”
“Then we’re agreed,” he said, ignoring the fact that she hadn’t agreed to anything.
She reached for another cake. “Some women might like masterful males. Personally I find them tedious in the extreme.”
But he didn’t rise to the bait. “Then you’ll simply have to be bored. Do you have anything more—” he waved an elegant hand “—more festive? That gown looks like it belongs to a Quaker.”
She didn’t blush. “I might have something older. From my season, perhaps.”
“Lovely,” he said wearily. “I have a choice between a hopeless dowd and someone ten years out of date. I’m not sure my consequence will survive such a blow.”
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