“You’ll manage.” She reached for another cake. “So first step is to identify the members. What next?”
“Let’s see how far we get with step one,” he said and passed the plate to her.
She eyed it suspiciously for a moment, then took it with an air of defiance. He raised an eyebrow, though she wasn’t sure if it was for her defiance or the fact that she took another cake, but she didn’t care. He was the one who ordered extra cakes.
A moment later the majordomo reappeared. “Richmond, have my carriage brought out. Lady Carstairs needs to be returned to her house.”
“I can walk,” she protested, swallowing the last bit of cake.
“From my house? Alone? I do realize you don’t care about your reputation, but I have mine to think of. Either take my carriage or I’ll walk you home, but since there’s a cold rain I prefer the carriage.”
She had little choice. And besides, it did look awful outside, the rain running down the windows in icy sheets. “There’s no need for you to accompany me,” she said haughtily.
“I had no intention of doing so, though my mother would be appalled. Since I now have to change my previous, far more convivial plans for tonight, I shall have to come up with an alternative.” He gave her a slow, assessing look. “I’ll simply have to look elsewhere for feminine companionship.”
She wanted to arch a brow and say, not with me, just to prove how little she cared, but he’d already given her a major set-down, and she didn’t want to give him another chance. “I’m certain you’ll manage,” she said. “If we accomplish our goal early in the evening, then you can take me home and go on to whatever institution has replaced the White Pearl to slake your…your…”
“My thirst?” he offered in an innocent tone. “I’m afraid their cellar is of indifferent quality. Or were you perhaps talking about some other desire I need taken care of?”
Two could play at that game. She smiled back at him, her gaze limpid. “I’m certain you’ll manage to take care of whatever needs you might have. You are, after all, a wealthy man.” She rose. “As delightful as this has been, I’d best return home and see if we can find something presentable for me to wear.”
He rose as well, punctilious as ever. “I am in a positive terror of anticipation.” His eyes slid over her, slowly, assessingly, and she had the odd notion that it felt like a physical touch. She wanted to shake it off. “One more thing, Lady Carstairs,” he said, and his voice had lost that taunting edge. “You are not to come here unaccompanied again. In fact, you are not to come here at all. I refuse to be trapped into compromising you—I have far more convivial plans for my future.”
“As do I, Lord Rohan,” she said in an even voice. “Point well taken. I’ll be ready by half past nine.”
“If you’re punctual you’ll be the first woman in my acquaintance to manage it.”
“That’s simply because women put off having to be with you for as long as possible,” she said in her sweetest voice. “Good afternoon, my lord.”
“My lady.” She left, but, before the butler could close the door behind her, she heard his soft chuckle. Benedick sank back down in his chair, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. He must be very bored, indeed, if he found he was looking forward to an evening in Charity Carstairs’s company. He didn’t believe the faradiddle she was coming up with, not for a moment, but it was clear she thought it was gospel truth. And he hadn’t anything better to do tonight. The Elsmeres were bores, but he knew others among his friends would be there, and if his recent visitor wanted to play at being a detective then he had no problem encouraging her. She tried so very hard to be calm and matter-of-fact, and it was so very easy to trip her up. He would take her to the Elsmeres, make the proper inquiries and see how wicked he could be before she cried off. Her concerns about the Heavenly Host and its nefarious activities were just one more fairy tale. The group had disbanded shortly after a horrendous gathering at the edge of the Lake District, where his sodding son of a bitch brother-in-law had dared to bring his sister. The repercussions had been so scandalous that no one had even dared to suggest resurrecting the group of tiresome little sybarites.
At least, he was relatively sure he would have heard if they did. Except that he hadn’t been in town for years, not since Barbara had taken to bedding every one of his acquaintance, and not, of course, for the following year of mourning. And if they had re-formed, wouldn’t Brandon be more than likely to have been one of them?
No, he refused to consider the possibility. But in the meantime, Charity Carstairs, with her sweetly curved body, her soft mouth, her stern blue eyes would provide quite a delightful diversion.
He heard Richmond clear his throat, and he glanced up at him. “Did you put the box of cakes in the carriage?”
“I did, my lord. Shall I ask Cook to bake more?”
He considered it for a moment. He’d never had much of a sweet tooth. Except when it came to a certain crusading female. “It might be wise to keep a supply on hand, Richmond. We’ll be seeing more of Lady Carstairs, I suspect.”
“Very good, my lord,” Richmond murmured.
And oddly enough, Benedick was quite sure he meant it.
Rohan’s coach was the epitome of elegance, and Melisande sat back against the leather squabs with a sigh. She could more than afford such an equipage, but luxury always seemed a bit obscene when contrasted with the life the gaggle had led. Still, that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy it when it was forced upon her.
He really was the most annoying man.
She’d tried to come up with any other alternative—going to one of the Wicked Rohans was the last thing she’d wanted to do. In fact, she’d set out this afternoon without the proper companions because she was afraid she’d lose her nerve. She hadn’t really expected him to agree, but she could think of nothing else and she simply couldn’t give up.
The ride to King Street was short, and she didn’t notice the box on the seat opposite her until they’d almost arrived. She reached out for it, looking at the card on the top. Written in a heavy scrawl, it was addressed to her. No note, no signature, but she knew it was from Rohan. She untied the string and opened it, and an unbidden laugh came from the back of her throat.
It was a box of the tiny cakes she’d eaten as she’d drank his tea. Curse his black soul, he’d noticed her inability to resist them, and if she had any sense, she’d leave them in the carriage as a message.
That was the last thing she was going to do. There were gestures and there were gestures, and Mollie Biscuits, while an excellent cook, had yet to achieve the perfection of these little masterpieces. She was going to take the box inside and she was going to eat every single one and be damned to the consequences.
Emma was waiting for her, a troubled expression on her face. “Melisande, where were you?”
Melisande handed her the box, pulled off her bonnet and gloves and tossed them on the table. The girls who were learning to be housemaids were newcomers and not adept at showing up promptly when someone arrived, though Betsey, the youngest, was the most eager to please. The last batch had already secured positions and were well on their way to new lives, and sooner or later the new batch would prove ready, but right then Melisande had more important things to worry about. “At Rohan’s,” she said. “He’ll help.”
Emma said nothing for a moment, and Melisande paused to look at her more carefully, a sudden, dreadful suspicion coming to her. “You didn’t want me to go… Was there a reason?”
“I just think the Rohans are not the best choice to help disband the Heavenly Host,” Emma said carefully. “Particularly since rumor has it that they helped found it.”
“And I think that makes Viscount Rohan a particularly good choice. He knows the workings of the organization, knows most of the members, even if he himself is not a current participant.” She brushed an errant crumb off her dull gray skirt.
“And how do you know that?”
“Because he told me so. Shouldn’t I have believed him?”
“I’ve seldom known you to trust a man’s word,” Emma said carefully.
Melisande looked at her. Emma was a lovely woman, though a far cry from the painted and perfumed abbess that Melisande had first met two years ago outside her London establishment. Her speech and her manners were not mere affectation, though she seldom spoke of her past, and Melisande was wise enough not to ask. Emma would tell her if she needed to. In the end it hardly mattered.
“I know as well as you how trustworthy men are,” she replied. “But in this case I believe him. He was genuinely shocked when I told him what they intended.” She thought about it for a moment. “Well, perhaps not shocked. Perhaps grimly surprised might be a better description. And he wasn’t going to do anything about it, even so, until I told him his younger brother was part of their foul organization.”
“He believed you?”
“He has doubts. But he’s willing to help. Which means I have an engagement this evening.”
Emma’s eyebrows rose. “With Viscount Rohan?”
“Among others. He’s taking me to a party held by Lord and Lady Elsmere. He says if anyone is involved in the organization, they are, and it’s as good a starting place as any. Maybe they’ll let something drop about their plans for the solstice. Maybe we’ll discover other members of their foul group. At least it’s a start.”
“I see.” Emma took a step back, surveying her. “So you’re going into society on Rohan’s arm tonight. What will you wear?”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” she lied, pushing her loose hair away from her face. “I must have something left from my season.”
“Jesus God,” Emma muttered. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.” And suddenly she raised her voice. “Girls! We have a project!”
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