Page 13

Author: Anne Stuart


Melisande tried to smile.


“Wider, my dear. Have it reach your eyes.”


She tried it again.


“Very good. And I do believe I hear Viscount Rohan below. You’re more than a match for him. Don’t let him intimidate you.”


“Hardly,” she said with a shaky laugh, pulling the light shawl around her bare shoulders.


But she wasn’t a match for him, not in any way. Any more than she could ever think of herself as Annis, the gay and beautiful woman who’d married Benedick Rohan ten long years ago and then died in childbirth.


But she could use him. For the greater good, she reminded herself. And sailed toward the stairs, her head held high.


He’d been regretting his impulsive decision for the past five hours, and by the time Benedick Rohan arrived at Carstairs House, he was in a thoroughly bad mood. He’d been a fool to believe her wild tales of the Heavenly Host and their evil doings. For as long as that group of profligates had existed the stories had been far wilder than the actual doings. There’d been talk of blood rituals, satanic rites, rape and murder from the very beginning, and he knew how absurd those rumors were. His grandfather had been a notorious hellion, and even now he still heard stories of his father’s years as a dedicated rake, but neither of them would have ever been involved with something as unsavory as Lady Carstairs was suggesting.


Melisande, Lady Carstairs. He probably wouldn’t have listened to her if he didn’t find her quite such a taking creature. If only she were one of the poor unfortunates she wished to help and not their savior, he could enjoy himself quite happily. He’d been determined not to take a mistress for the season, his craving for variety overriding the convenience of having a prearranged partner. But if Melisande had been a highflyer he might have considered changing his mind. He was entranced by the promise of her hidden curves in those abominably ugly clothes. He wanted to see what she looked like when he kissed her.


When he took her to bed. When he was inside her.


He shrugged, taking the steps to Carstairs House two at a time. The heavy rain had slowed to a drizzle, but it wasn’t the weather that was making him hurry. If he didn’t he might end up crying off entirely, and he had never been a coward.


In the best of houses a servant was always watching the door, opening it before one even had to knock. This wasn’t the best of houses. He rapped on the heavy door with his walking stick, hoping against hope that she’d developed a sudden dire illness, one that would require her to absent herself to the country for the next few months, so he could continue his determined debauch in happy peace, safe from crusading viragos and the unexpected temptation they offered.


The woman—no, girl—who opened the door looked about twelve, far too young to be one of Lady Carstairs’s reformed doves. At least, he hoped so. She looked him over for a moment, with a far too assessing look in her eyes, then remembered the lessons she’d been taught, ushering him inside and offering to take his hat and cloak.


“Her ladyship will be down in a minute,” she said, still looking at him as if he might be the devil incarnate. She really was too young to have been selling herself, he thought absently, and gave her a reassuring smile. He wasn’t an ogre and he had no interest in terrifying children. Lady Carstairs was a different matter.


“Lord Rohan.” Her voice came from the stairs and he looked up to see a complete stranger coming toward him, graceful, elegant. He stared at the woman for a moment, trying to recognize her. And then he realized that she wasn’t a well-known mistress or Cyprian; she was Melisande Carstairs, her tawny hair arranged in an artful tousle of curls, her skin dusted with powder, her eyelashes darkened with charcoal. He knew all the tricks, having watched his mistresses over the years, and for a moment he was angry. The dress was far from the dowdy, outmoded creation he’d been expecting. It was de rigueur, the lines of the skirt the very latest in fashion, the bodice exposing her neck and shoulders and the tops of her luscious breasts. She wore a lovely emerald necklace and earbobs, and she looked so exquisite he wanted to take her hand, drag her into the nearest room and pull that distracting bodice down to her waist. He wanted his mouth on her, everywhere, and he glowered at her. She was already enough of a distraction—he didn’t need this new, glossy version of the slightly frumpy Lady Carstairs to drive him mad.


“Lord Rohan?” she said again, a note of inquiry in her voice.


“I see you’ve been taking lessons from your whores,” he said, a harsh note in his voice, and then he was ashamed of himself. He was being ridiculous.


She smiled at him, her gorgeous mouth curving in a wicked grin. “Indeed, I have. I think they’ve done an excellent job, don’t you? Unless you think it’s too much? I have to admit I’m no judge of such things, but Mrs. Cadbury assures me that I simply look like a fashionable lady, not a demirep. But if you think I should change…”


“Mrs. Cadbury? Is she staying here, as well?”


“Of course. Though why it should be any concern of yours escapes me.”


“The most notorious madam in all of London is now your acquaintance?”


“No, my lord Rohan. She’s my dear friend.”


For a moment he thought she was being sarcastic, and then he realized she was simply being truthful. “Charity” Carstairs, destroying her reputation one fallen woman at a time.


He decided dropping the subject was the better part of valor. Besides, what could he say? It was none of his business—he had no interest in Melisande Carstairs except to determine the truth of her allegations and how involved his brother might be.


That, and enjoying the random indecent fantasies about her ripe body, which was even more delightfully distracting in the pale green dress. He was a fool to worry about anything more. She could send her reputation to hell in whatever manner she wished to—it was scarcely any of his business.


“The dress is perfect, and your face paint is only recognizable to a connoisseur.” He was leaving her to draw her own conclusions. “Shall we go? Or have you changed your mind?”


“Of course I haven’t changed my mind,” she said caustically. “We have a mission.”


“God help me…” he muttered. And held out his arm.


He never before thought his coach was too small. Granted, it was the landau, meant for city driving, not the large, heavy traveling coach he used for greater distances. She sat opposite him in the confined space, and the faint scent she had used drifted to his nostrils, reaching into his bones. It was elusive, evocative, erotic. Had the Fates combined forces to kill him?


It was a cool spring evening, and even after nine o’clock there was still enough light remaining that he could see her a little too well. The shawl she’d brought was very pretty but not extremely warm, and he imagined she’d have gooseflesh by the end of the night.


She looked calm, self-possessed, as she always did, but he knew that wasn’t the case. He sat back in the shadows so she couldn’t see his face, his eyes as they lingered over the tops of her breasts. He could see the beating of her heart through her translucent skin, and despite her determined calm she was nervous. He wondered why.


“I suggest we give the appearance of old friends,” she said suddenly. “Otherwise my arrival would seem a bit odd.”


“No one will believe it. They will think we are lovers,” he said lazily.


She blushed, the color very pretty on her pale skin. “No one who knows me would make any such mistake.”


“Ah, but no one knows you. You’ve eschewed society in favor of your oppressively good works.”


“Wouldn’t that make it clear that I’m not the sort for a dalliance?”


“True enough. A dalliance, as you call it, would be easy enough to avoid. A full-out, heart-stopping, body-pulsing physical affaire is more difficult to resist. And they know me. They will assume you’re infatuated with me and that you’ve tumbled off your pedestal and into my bed, at least for a time.”


He could practically feel her horrified intake of breath. “I trust you will do your best to disabuse them of the notion.”


He laughed, enjoying himself once more. “I’ll do what I can, but I suspect my protests would be for naught. If you promise not to hang on me and gaze at me with adoration we may be able to convince people that we’ve simply made an arrangement to assuage our physical needs. Even saints must have physical needs, I suspect.”


“I’m not a saint.” Her voice was low in the darkened carriage, and he remembered the stories about Wilfred Hunnicut and her brief fall from grace.


“No, you’re not,” he said softly, watching the rapid rise and fall of her beautiful breasts, the tight line of her mouth, the dark pools of her eyes in the shadowed carriage. He could feel it, he thought with surprise. It wasn’t his imagination. He could feel the deep strand of longing that was wrapping around both of them. “Charity” Carstairs wanted him, probably about as much as she disliked him. Which was a considerable amount. She most likely hated herself for being attracted to him, probably even refused to consider the possibility. It was part of the reason she was skittish tonight.


He smiled in the darkness. He was going to enjoy himself after all. “I suggest we not worry about what people imagine concerning our relationship. They’ll think what they want. We need to discover who among them are involved in the current incarnation of the Heavenly Host, if the absurd worries you’ve brought to me have any validity, and if so, where and when they’re meeting next.”


“Don’t we need to discover if your brother is truly part of them? Or do you believe me on that one?”


“If the organization is as you’ve described then I have no doubt that my brother is involved. He’s…he’s troubled. The Afghan war was very difficult for him, and he was grievously wounded. It’s taking a long time for him to pull himself together, and I’m certain anything nihilistic would appeal to him. Apart from that, he’s been quite secretive recently, and I’ve had reason to worry.” He was telling her more than he wished to, and he wondered why. She had a calm demeanor that was oddly soothing. Soothing, when he wasn’t consumed by lust.

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