Page 15

Author: Anne Stuart


He could see her hesitate, and she would have liked to say no. But he didn’t make the mistake of underestimating her intelligence—she knew perfectly well that if she didn’t make an effort they’d get nowhere.


“It’s a waltz,” she said in a wary voice.


“Exactly,” he said. And before she could say no he pulled her into his arms and whirled her into the next room and onto the dance floor.


She stumbled at first, as if she weren’t used to dancing, and he slowed his pace, letting her grow accustomed to the sound of the music, the feel of his hands on her, the closeness of their bodies. She was as stiff as a board, awkward, and he tried to quiet his impatience. He danced well, particularly for such a tall man, and he usually tried to avoid clumsy partners.


“Relax,” he said in her ear, her curls tickling his nose.


“I can’t relax, I’m trying to dance.”


“You’re failing.” He spun her, just a bit, in an effort to throw her off guard. She was trying too hard, and the only way they were going to get through the dance without his reputation in shreds would be to startle her into relaxing. “It’s like sex, my darling,” he murmured in her ear. “Just stop fighting and let me lead.”


11


Melisande stopped abruptly, astonished and outraged, and he almost knocked into her. And then before she realized what he was doing he’d pulled her back into the dance, and she was so disturbed that she didn’t stop to worry about following him, about her steps, about anything, as he moved her across the dance floor. “I beg your pardon,” she said, her magnificent blue eyes glaring up at him.


“Fighting so soon, Rohan?” Harry Merton said with a grin as he waltzed by with a scantily dressed young lady in his arms.


Melisande immediately controlled her reaction. She didn’t like Harry Merton, she didn’t like Lady Elsmere and right now she positively detested Benedick Rohan. He hadn’t meant a word of it, of course, he just wanted to throw her off balance, and he’d succeeded. If she had any choice at all, she would have kicked him in the shins and walked out of the party without a backward glance. But the memory of Aileen’s scarred face was enough to stop her. Who was she to complain about putting up with the manners of social ninnies when there were lives at stake?


“Lady Carstairs has a passionate nature,” Rohan said calmly as they circled around Merton. “She enjoys fighting.”


“Enjoys making up even more, I’ll warrant,” Merton said with a loose grin. “You’re a lucky man, Rohan.”


“Indeed,” he said, glancing down at her, and she stared up, momentarily disconcerted. His eyes were a dark, dark green, not black after all, and his dark eyelashes ringed them, framing them. It was no wonder he was reputed to be such a rake, she thought dizzily. Who could resist someone who could look at you with such vivid stillness, drawing you into their gaze? She could feel herself falling, falling…


And then the music stopped, and he was no longer holding her. His hand dropped from her waist and for a moment she felt dizzy, almost bereft. “You can dance after all,” he said in a low voice. “As long as you’re too angry to think about what you’re doing.”


“I wasn’t angry,” she said in a deliberately sweet voice. “Merely astonished at your good taste.”


He laughed at that, and several people turned to observe them. “You really are delicious, Lady Carstairs. Perhaps I’ll decide to seduce you in earnest, not just to shock you into dancing well.”


She did it before she even stopped to think, stomping on his foot beneath the curtain of her skirts, hard. He jumped back with a muffled curse, and she froze, unable to help herself, shocked at herself, wondering how he was going to retaliate.


But to her astonishment he laughed again, the sound rich and full. “You’ll pay for that,” he said softly, his amusement too evident for her to be worried.


She made a dismissive noise, moving away from him. Lady Elsmere was ensconced on a gilt settee on the edge of the room, and her duty was clear. She moved across the floor, ignoring Harry Merton as he tried to gain her attention, reaching her hostess’s side a moment later and taking the seat beside her, fanning herself vigorously with one hand. “I’m exhausted,” she said in faint tones. “Lord Rohan is such an energetic dancer I wonder he doesn’t trample everyone in his way.”


She made certain her voice carried to her companion, but Rohan simply gave her a seraphic smile, that promise of revenge still clear in his dark eyes.


“I hope he’s as energetic when he’s off his feet,” Lady Elsmere said with a smirk. “I do like a man with stamina.”


“Quite exhausting.” Melisande refused to think about Lady Elsmere’s meaning. “Indeed, there are occasions when I wish it were possible to…er…share the brunt of his attentions.”


Lady Elsmere raised her skimpy gray eyebrows. “Really, my dear? I had the impression you were a devoted crusader, part saint, part nun. And instead you exhibit this totally unexpected degenerate streak. I find it unexpectedly delightful.”


Melisande had been worried at the start of this speech, but by the end she was reassured. She glanced across the room. Rohan was deep in conversation with Lord Elsmere and two other men she couldn’t identify, and he must have felt her eyes on him. He raised his head and met her gaze for an infinitesimal moment, then turned back to concentrate on his quarry.


At least, she hoped he was his quarry and not his partner in crime. It was always possible that Rohan had simply been humoring her when she’d asked for his assistance. After all, if he were a member of the organization himself, wouldn’t he be likely to try to distract her from her mission? What better way than to pretend to help her.


She turned back to Lady Elsmere. “My personal interests have nothing to do with my social conscience, Lady Elsmere. And I must say Lord Rohan has introduced a whole new world of experience into my life, one I find immensely pleasurable.” Holy God, but the words burned in her throat, and she wished she could wash away the taste of them. On top of everything else she had rapidly come to the conclusion that he was right, and posing as lovers was the only possible choice given their circumstances. No one would believe she was simply his friend, particularly given the way he’d manhandled her. But he’d had reason—if he hadn’t kept his hands on her, she might have bolted. Or Harry Merton might have demonstrated his interest in “plowing her field” or whatever that revolting man had said.


In truth, Merton was an attractive man in his early thirties, with bright eyes and clear skin and a sunny smile. He had also appeared to be on the edge of inebriation, but for some reason Melisande wasn’t quite sure if she believed it. There was a sharpness to his gaze, above the foolish smile, that suggested there was more to Harry Merton than the fop he appeared to be.


Lady Elsmere’s chuckle was…there was no other word for it…lascivious. “I envy you, my child. I’d love a chance to taste Lord Rohan’s energy.”


She couldn’t push, tempted though she was. The Heavenly Host was the epitome of a secret organization—there was no way they’d invite her in, given her reputation, until they were really sure of her. Besides, the idea of Lady Elsmere touching Rohan was revolting. The thought of any woman touching Rohan filled her with a sharp stab of anger that was totally inexplicable. She had always prided herself on her equable frame of mind, but somehow Benedick Rohan had a genius for upsetting her.


She wasn’t going to examine that too closely. She returned the old woman’s smile. “For now he’s all mine.”


“Indeed, I am, my heart.” A voice came from behind her, and she felt the heat flood her face. His hands slid down over her bare shoulders, and in a few more inches he would have been cupping her breasts.


She let out a squeak and jumped up, half-afraid he wouldn’t let her go. But he continued with his cool, slightly teasing smile, and she wondered if she could get away with slamming her elbow into his ribs. His feet had certainly survived her previous attempt.


Her urge toward violence shocked her again, and she took a deep breath, determined to regain her equilibrium. But then he moved beside her, sliding his arm around her waist in a shockingly intimate gesture, and his hand was dangerously close to the underside of her breast. She tried to disguise her sudden intake of breath as he leaned down and breathed in her ear with a gesture that would have looked more like a nuzzle than the warning it was. “Remember we are lovers, Charity. At least try to act the part, or I’ll be forced to give them more graphic evidence.”


She moved her foot, but he sidestepped her quite neatly this time. “Come along, my pet. Lord Elsmere wants to dance with you. I warned him that it would be a challenge, but he’s more than willing to undertake it. Just make certain his hands stay above your waist, not below it. And don’t let him dance you off into a corner.”


“But I don’t want…”


“Lord Elsmere! Lady Carstairs was just telling me how much she’d adore a dance. But be gentle with her—she hasn’t had much chance to practice.”


He really was the most annoying man, she thought, giving him a tight smile as the wizened old man took her into his arms. She should have had the gaggle help her with her dancing. If this absurd partnership lasted for more than this night she’d have to practice. Which didn’t mean she wouldn’t still attempt to stomp on his feet given half the chance. Any violence she could deliver on his person was earned well in advance.


She danced perfectly well with the old man, who did have a tendency to let his hands roam southward. She kept him busy talking, but he said little that could be helpful, apart from extolling the beauty of the Kent countryside and a place called Kersley Hall. After Lord Elsmere she danced with a hearty gentleman name Robert Johnson, a quadrille with Harry Merton, and by the time she finished with another waltz she was feeling quite comfortable. She’d never had much of an opportunity to dance when she was younger—her hand had not been sought during her season and Sir Thomas had been too frail to attend dances. But she’d had the requisite lessons, and by the time supper was announced her nervousness had vanished and she was quite enjoying herself.

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