Page 19

Author: Anne Stuart


She hadn’t wanted him to stop. That was the miserable, unacceptable truth, but she’d always prided herself on facing it, no matter how unpleasant. If they’d been somewhere else, if he’d been someone else, she would have succumbed faster than a leaf falls from a tree in autumn. His kiss, his vile, tonguing kiss, had been revelatory. Because she’d liked it. She could have gone on kissing him all night.


Not that he would have kissed her all night. She knew perfectly well that men kissed simply in order to inflict more indignities upon a woman, and that once they were done the best one could hope for was an affectionate pat on the cheek before the sod would roll over and fall asleep, dismissing her and her feelings from his consciousness….


She stopped herself, taking a deep breath. If she liked his kisses, more than she’d ever liked kisses before, did that mean she would also like what normally followed? She had the horrid suspicion that she might.


Which led her to an obvious conclusion. Celibacy might not be the best answer for every woman.


Oh, to be sure, someone like Benedick Rohan was the worst kind of choice a woman could make. Fortunately he was totally beyond her touch if she had any illusions in that direction. Her background was respectable but undistinguished, he was the scion of an old, if notorious, family. He would be a marquess eventually, and he would choose a very young virgin to be his marchioness, not a widow who was long in the tooth and most likely barren. Viscount Rohan was busy looking among the most beautiful of this year’s crop of marriageable ladies, and he didn’t have to consider fortune among his requirements. He could simply take the prettiest, most amenable one with a snap of the fingers, and she, and her parents, would come willingly. If she hadn’t distracted him with her charges’ problems, he probably would have already announced his engagement.


But she was hardly going to settle for a fortune hunter like Wilfred, if she did decide to marry again. Nor an old man like Thomas, no matter how dearly he’d loved her. No, she would want someone strong and young and yes, handsome. Someone to adore her, to devote himself to bringing her pleasure with the same kind of dedication Rohan brought to kissing. Was it too much to ask for?


Of course, men, even charming men, could turn into brutes. But surely not all of them? She needed to keep an open mind. She might have been hasty in dismissing the entire male gender. Perhaps there might be children in her future after all.


Emma Cadbury appeared in the door, worry creasing her beautiful face. She poured herself a cup of tea and sat down opposite Melisande, managing a distracted smile. “That’s a very pretty riding habit,” she observed.


“It’s seven years out-of-date,” Melisande said, kicking at the long skirt. “Which is one reason why it’s a little too…a little too…”


“Attractive? Flattering?” Emma supplied dryly. “I don’t understand why you refuse to wear clothes that show your figure. The habit looks lovely on you—it brings out the blue in your eyes. There’s no reason why you can’t enjoy pretty clothes, Melisande.”


“I don’t want to attract unwanted male attention.”


“What about wanted male attention?”


Melisande flushed, hoping Emma couldn’t read her recent thoughts. “Is there such a thing?”


“Yes,” Emma said firmly. “And I suspect you’re beginning to realize it. You still haven’t told me how last evening went.”


She would have given anything to have poured out what had happened in that little closet off the Elsmeres’ ballroom, but something stopped her. She wasn’t sure whether it was embarrassment or something else, but she wasn’t ready to share.


“I’m more interested in how Maudie is.” She’d just managed to drift off to sleep when Maudie had showed up, covered in blood, with bruises on her throat, wrists and ankles, another victim of the Heavenly Host’s brutal games. She hadn’t spoken much since they’d managed to clean her up and bandage her, but her blackened eyes were filled with suffering, a suffering that should only have increased Melisande’s disgust for all mankind. Unfortunately it only increased her disgust with the base aristocrats responsible and the worthless examples of human-kind who found pleasure in hurting the helpless.


And Benedick, Viscount Rohan, was her ally in stopping them. She had no choice—she couldn’t do it on her own. At least she was secure in the knowledge that without good reason he would have no interest in touching her. And when she survived without sleep she became, as Emma had frankly informed her, a captious shrew. She would give Viscount Rohan such a disgust of her that he wouldn’t want to venture any closer than strictly necessary.


“Maudie’s sleeping,” Emma said. “She’s lost a bit of blood, but she doesn’t seem to have suffered any permanent injury.”


“With any luck this might work out for the best.” Melisande roused herself. “She’s come and gone from here three times already, each time drifting back into the life of a whore. This time she may have finally had enough.”


“Perhaps,” Emma said doubtfully. “But there are some who never learn. And God knows, it’s easier work than hauling coal to an upstairs bedroom and working in a dressmaker’s shop. You’re off your feet and it’s all over and done with quick enough.”


Melisande frowned. “That reminds me. Lord Rohan said that…that physical encounters can take an hour or longer. I presume he was lying, but…”


“What were you doing discussing lovemaking with Viscount Rohan?”


Melisande picked up the newspaper, endeavoring to look matter-of-fact. “It was an intellectual discussion.”


“Hmmph,” said Emma, clearly not convinced. “If you want to have intellectual discussions about lovemaking then you should come to us. If you put all our years of experience together our wealth of knowledge rivals that contained in the British Museum.”


“Does the British Museum contain knowledge of lovemaking?” she asked. “I’ll have to go in search of it instead of wasting my time learning from the gaggle.”


“Don’t try to distract me. You know I worry about you.”


“Yes, ma’am,” she said in a meek voice. “Then is it true? Does it take longer than five or ten minutes?”


Emma surveyed her judiciously. “It all depends. With experienced lovers it can last the entire night. When money changes hands it’s usually over quickly. The provider of the service wishes to end it quickly, and, being a professional skilled in her craft, she can do any number of things to speed the process along. The purchaser usually wants it over quickly as well, since he’s more than likely ashamed of needing to pay money for it in the first place or concerned that he might be discovered by a wife or friend.


“Among lovers it’s a different matter. In that case the longer it takes the more exquisite the pleasure. There are any number of tricks for prolonging things, bringing someone to the very edge of climax and then falling back, only to approach it again.”


“Climax?”


Emma’s smile was rueful. “Clearly we haven’t been nearly instructive enough. I’m talking about that moment of exquisite bliss that occasionally blesses women. For men it’s simple enough—a matter of biology, and almost any aperture will do for them. For a woman it requires care and skill from the man, and usually deep feeling from the woman, or so I’ve been told.”


Melisande stared at her, momentarily confused. “So you’ve been told?” she repeated. “But you were the most notorious madam in the city, as well as the youngest. How could you not know…?”


“Prolonging a man’s pleasure is a fairly simple matter. Prolonging a female’s release is, for my part, merely theoretical. There are very few men who specialize in providing pleasure for females, and I have never been troubled by tender feelings about anyone. Most of the men who worked for me were there for other men to enjoy. Yes, I know, you don’t want to hear about it, and you don’t need to, though I assure you most of those young men are in as great a need as the women who live here. But as it is, even professionally speaking, a woman’s pleasure is of little value. Occasionally a really good lover can make it last for his partner, but I gather either such men are very rare or, once discovered by wife or partner, they’re never given the chance to stray. So Lord Rohan estimates that his usual lovemaking takes an hour?”


“Including the removal of all clothing.”


A slow smile curved Emma’s gorgeous mouth. “No wonder the whores fought over him. If I’d known I would have investigated myself, just to see if it were true.”


Melisande frowned. “You didn’t, did you?”


“Sleep with Lord Rohan? No, I did not. Does it matter?”


“Why should it matter?” Melisande said, picking up her newspaper and then setting it down again, distracted. “Besides, I already knew that Violet and others had…er…serviced him on a number of occasions.”


Emma’s expression was far too calculating, if only in the nicest way. “If I were you I wouldn’t think about who had taken care of Viscount Rohan and concentrate more on the man himself.”


“Why?”


There was a small, secret smile around Emma’s mouth. “Why don’t we wait and see what happens?”


“Nothing’s going to happen. You know how fractious and unpleasant I can be if I don’t have enough sleep, and I barely managed an hour last night. After a few hours in my company he won’t want to be anywhere near me.”


Before Emma could reply young Betsey barreled into the room. “There’s a cove what’s outside, waiting for you. Sez to hurry up or he’ll leave without you. Right pretty, he is,” she added judiciously. “I’d hurry if I were you.”


It took all of Melisande’s strength of character not to jump to her feet. She rose slowly, glancing at Emma. “I’ll leave Betsey up to you,” she said. “Apparently my presence is demanded.”

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