Which he could ignore, he reminded himself. He’d come to London to assuage that lust, and so far he’d had very little success. It was only natural he would look at Melisande Carstairs and her magnificent breasts and think wicked thoughts.
Though to be truthful, he’d had those same thoughts when she’d been decently covered and looking like a nun.
“I’ll tackle Lord Elsmere. You approach his wife,” he said.
She frowned. “And when did we decide you were in charge of this investigation?”
“When you asked for my help. This is my world, Lady Carstairs, the world you’ve walked away from. I know it, and its inhabitants, quite well, and you’d be a fool not to listen to me. And you’re many things but not, I think, a fool.”
She glowered at him, then her expression smoothed out. She didn’t want to let him know how much he annoyed her, a mistake on her part, he thought. The more she withstood the more determined he was to ruffle her.
“No, I’m not a fool,” she said. And she wasn’t. Except, he hoped, where he was concerned. He was finding her more and more tempting, and he wasn’t in the mood to fight it too strenuously.
The coach had drawn to a stop, and one of his footmen had already jumped down, and the sound of the steps being dropped was like a death knell, he thought with lazy amusement. He was being fanciful, but he couldn’t rid himself of the notion that this was the point of no return.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here, Dante’s welcome to hell read. Do what thou wilt, read the entrance to Rabelais’s fictional Abbey of Theleme.
The door opened, and he looked up at the Elsmere town house, then back at the woman with him. And he wondered which greeting was more accurate.
“Benedick, old man!” Harry Merton would have to be the first person they ran into, Benedick thought with resignation. Melisande had her back turned as she was handing her shawl to the maidservant when Harry came in the vestibule, a broad grin on his slightly foolish face. “Just the fellow I was wanting to see, don’t you know. I’ve found just the right piece of crumpet for you—a girl with the most amazing flexibility. You wouldn’t believe what she could do with her…”
“Good evening, Harry,” Benedick said hastily, though he wasn’t quite sure why.
Harry blinked. A gentleman never showed his liquor, and it was only the slight owlishness of his eyes that gave any hint that Harry had already been drinking steadily. “Good evening,” he managed to reply. “Any luck with Charity? Now there’s a field I might like to plow, assuming I could pry those legs apart…”
Melisande turned, her vivid blue eyes sparkling with something dangerous, and Harry blinked again, clearly embarrassed. “Beg your pardon, old man,” he mumbled. “I didn’t realize there was a lady present. Been an ass. Excuse me.” He sketched an unsteady bow. “Your servant, ma’am.”
Melisande Carstairs surveyed his old friend for a long moment, and he half expected her to attack. Instead she managed a seraphic smile and held out one gloved hand, which Harry bowed over, kissing the back of it a little clumsily.
“May I make my old friend Harry Merton known to you?” Benedick asked formally. “As he said, he’s an ass, but a good-hearted one. Harry, I believe you might know Lady Carstairs.”
“Of course,” Harry said automatically, starting to rise when Benedick’s words sank in, and he stumbled, a horrified expression on his face. “I mean, I know of…that is…” He finally managed to pull himself together, but it was a Herculean effort. “I knew your husband, Lady Carstairs. Sir Thomas was a good man.”
“Not really,” she said, and her frankness did little to calm Harry’s amour propre.
Benedick decided to deliver the coup de grâce. He pulled Melisande’s arm through his, drawing her close to his side in a proprietary gesture. “You’ll excuse us, won’t you, Harry? Melisande is famished and I promised I would feed her.” He could feel her sudden start, and he simply pulled her closer, smiling down at her with only a touch of malice. She really was the most delicious creature. “Shall we go join the others, my sweet?”
Oh, she didn’t like that, he thought with satisfaction. And there was nothing she could do about it. She couldn’t pull away; she could only let him draw her up the wide marble stairs, feel his body heat leaching into hers, his hand on hers as he led her across the crowded floor of Lady Elsmere’s formal salon. It was a Pyrrhic victory—the feel of her against his body was playing havoc with his own hard-won sense of self-control. He was as unsettled as he was hoping to make her, and he wanted to curse, but he simply smiled down at her, noting the confused, slightly nervous expression in her eyes.
“Don’t look so anxious.” His voice was barely audible. “I’m not going to throw you down on the floor and molest you.”
“I didn’t think you were,” she said, managing to sound both dignified and vulnerable at the same time. “You would never be so clumsy as to have to use force.”
He smiled at her. “You’re learning, my love.”
“Please don’t call me that.”
“I’m afraid I must. I have a reputation to uphold, and if people suspect I have another reason for bringing you here we’ll be scuttled before we even leave land.”
“I get seasick.”
“I’m a very experienced sailor. Put yourself in my hands and I promise you a smooth sail.” He let his fingers stroke the back of her hand, so gently that she probably didn’t notice it, any more than she understood his double entendres. But he’d underestimated her.
“Save it for when people can hear us.”
“I’m getting in practice,” he said, his upper arm pressing against the side of her breast. It was most disturbing—the longer he was in her company the more aroused he became. Right now even the thought of Violet Highstreet couldn’t distract him. For some reason the thought of Charity Carstairs kept distracting him.
He should have done something to assuage the state of arousal that burned inside his body, but the uncomfortable truth was that right now he wasn’t interested in any of the demimondaines available to him. There were no new and nubile widows and wives among the ton eager for a bit of sport, at least, none that tempted him. His determined debauch had been a sad failure so far, and it was all Melisande Carstairs’s fault. Every time he thought to lose himself in some Cyprian’s ripe flesh the thought of her determined blue eyes distracted him, and he ended up feeling vaguely empty and unsatisfied.
He glanced down at her. A dark, wicked thought had come to mind, and try as he might to dismiss it, it remained stubborn. Lord and Lady Elsmere were at one end of the large room, greeting their guests, and as he waited for the butler to announce them he leaned down and whispered in Melisande’s ear, “I’m afraid I might have to seduce you, my precious,” he whispered, feeling her sudden start.
But a moment later they were announced and all eyes were upon them as the cream of the ton looked up and wondered what in the world Charity Carstairs, the saint of King Street, was doing with one of the wicked Rohans.
Lady Elsmere was an ancient, heavily painted dowager with a taste for young men, and she greeted them with her usual assessing gaze. “Good God, Rohan. What are you doing robbing a nunnery?”
He put his face close to Melisande’s, pressing his forehead against hers in a manner that looked romantic to an outsider but had the felicitous effect of keeping her stormy gaze downcast. “Hardly a nunnery, Lady Elsmere,” he whispered in a low, sensual voice.
Again that start of reaction through Melisande’s body. Really, she was too easy. If he wanted he could waltz her into a different room and have her skirts over her head with no effort at all. Which was a totally lovely idea, his heartbeat informed him. He planted a light kiss on Melisande’s nose and drew back, assured she was flustered enough not to let anyone see her usually direct gaze.
“We’re delighted you could join us tonight, my dear,” Lady Elsmere was saying. “I see Rohan has managed to persuade you to reenter society. You must be careful of him—he could persuade a saint to bed down with Satan. Or has that, perhaps, already happened?”
“I haven’t…” she began, but Benedick gave her arm a slight, hard pinch, and she let out a little squeak. She glared at him swiftly from beneath her eyelids and then smiled at Lady Elsmere. “That is, I haven’t decided as to just how social I wish to be, but tonight Lord Rohan wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“No, I imagine he wouldn’t,” Lady Elsmere said with a bray of laughter. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Lady Carstairs. He’s a very dangerous man.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Lady Elsmere,” Rohan said coolly, “I’m a woolly lamb.”
Again that noisy laugh. “Come sit by me later, my dear, and I’ll tell you all about him. In the meantime, why don’t you two dance? That will at least keep his hands decently occupied.”
He pulled her away, keeping a tight grip on her. “Did you have to pinch me so hard?” she demanded in an angry whisper.
“You looked as if you were about to start in on a lecture about the rights of women or something equally tedious. You’re supposed to be here as my lover.”
“As your friend,” she corrected.
“And why would my ‘friend’ join a party of notorious hellions for the evening? Curiosity?”
“Perhaps. Maybe I wanted to make converts to my cause.”
“Then you chose the wrong group.”
Music was coming from one of the adjoining rooms, and he began to steer her in that direction “You’ll dance with me,” he said. “Lady Elsmere’s orders.”
“What a charming request. No, I won’t!”
He sighed. “If every step is going to be a battle we won’t discover what the Heavenly Host is planning until next Christmas,” he said in an undertone. “May I have the honor of this dance?”
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