Page 20

Author: Anne Stuart


She heard Emma’s words trail after her. “Give him hell, Melisande.” And Melisande grinned sourly.


She intended to do just that.


14


It was a ride of close to two hours from the Dovecote on King Street to the ruins of Kersley Hall in Kent, and it was a ride conducted in silence. He waited, just waited, for her to come up with something inflammatory to set his barely banked temper into a roaring blaze, but she barely said a word, damn her.


And he couldn’t summon the energy to engage her. After the first few minutes he settled back into an exhausted semistupor. He should have cried off, but one didn’t stand up a lady, even as big a hoyden as Charity Carstairs, and besides, he despised giving in to weakness. He should have been able to sleep, at least until Brandon had come home, and instead he’d lain awake reliving those disturbing moments in the Elsmeres’ closet.


He was still uncomfortable thinking about it, physically so, and he shifted in the saddle, glancing at his companion. Her eyes were shuttered, her face expressionless, so he let his gaze roam down the rest of her. The habit was deplorably out-of-date, but it fit her better than most of her clothes, with the exception of that wicked gown of hers last night, and the color made her skin luminous. She rode well, which surprised him, and her mare was a beautiful piece of horseflesh, well trained and responding to her slightest gesture.


“Where did you learn to ride?” he asked abruptly, making it sound more like a demand than polite conversation.


“Why? Do you think I lack skill?” she said in a voice bordering on annoyed.


That was what he was looking for, he thought. A fight, to keep him awake, and to remind him of how totally inappropriate she was on every level. “You’re adequate,” he drawled, giving her an insolent look. “I’m afraid I remember very little of your past, apart from your marriage to Sir Thomas Carstairs. You come from an old Lincolnshire family, do you not?”


“If you’re asking me if my parents were wealthy enough to provide a horse for their only child then the answer is no. My father was a baronet addicted to gaming, my mother was devoted to her ill health, and they had neither the inclination nor the money to spend on their ill-favored daughter. I didn’t learn to ride until after I was married.”


He didn’t respond to her “ill-favored” remark—it was simply fishing for compliments and he wasn’t about to react. “If they were so poor and uncaring how did they manage to provide you with a season in London? Or were they that desperate to get rid of you?”


She flashed a dangerous smile at him. “They died. My father from a drunken fall, my mother from a fever. My aunt offered to give me one season to come up to scratch, and after that… In fact, I have no idea what my future would have been if Sir Thomas hadn’t offered for me. I’d probably be a governess somewhere.”


“Terrorizing small children,” he murmured. “Was yours a happy marriage?”


She slowed her mount, turning to look at him. “And which of your marriages did you prefer, Lord Rohan? Were they both equally satisfying to your carnal appetites?”


“And why should you care about my carnal appetites?”


A slight flush tinted her cheekbones. Rather nice ones, he thought absently, and they set off her intense blue eyes. “I don’t. My point was that your questions were discourteously intimate.”


“I’ve never been known for my courtesy,” he said with simple truth. “My first wife, Annis, was the love of my life. She was strong-minded but passionate, and if she hadn’t died in childbirth I imagine we’d still be very happy. My second wife, Lady Barbara, also died in childbirth, though in that case I doubt the child was mine. She was headstrong and sexually voracious, and she fed those appetites with rare conviction. I’d rather not be tied to marriage again—I find it smothering, but I suppose I must eventually come up with an heir. Which is why, for a change, I’m looking for a docile young wife with no interest in anything other than pleasing me.”


Melisande snorted inelegantly. “I’m certain you’ll have your pick of them, my lord. I hope you don’t grow tired of your eventual choice. Docility can be very wearing after a while.”


“I’m surprised you even know the meaning of the word. Clearly it’s something you’ve eschewed. And as for being bored, I will, of course, look elsewhere for stimulation.”


He could almost hear her grind her teeth, and his mood lightened. Astonishing how entertaining it was to annoy his unwanted confederate.


“That’s hardly surprising. Most men have mistresses. Unfortunately that means you’re in search of two women, not one, and with your exacting standards that might be rather difficult. Particularly since I’ve removed a fair number of candidates for the second position.”


“The sad truth about whores and Cyprians and demimondaines,” Rohan began, “is that there are always more where they came from.”


She kicked her horse, surging ahead, and he let her go for a moment. By the time he caught up with her she’d managed to get her temper under control, unfortunately. She looked at him.


“Lord Rohan,” she said, her voice tight, “I am not in a good mood. I’m tired and bad-tempered and I don’t feel like dealing with what passes for conversation with you. We’ll make it through the day more successfully if we simply do not converse.”


He managed to put a contrite expression on his face. “I beg your pardon, Lady Carstairs. I had no idea I’d managed to upset you.”


“You haven’t managed to upset me,” she snapped. She took a deep breath then. “Are we almost there?”


He pulled his horse to a stop, glancing around. They’d been following a rutted and overgrown road, the trees overhead forming a tunnel of leaves. There was a forlorn, neglected air to the place, and he knew they couldn’t be far. “I think over the next rise,” he said, no longer interested in baiting her. “I’m not certain—it’s been twenty years since I’ve been here, but I have a fairly decent sense of direction. It certainly doesn’t appear to have had recent visitors. Are you certain Elsmere said Kersley Hall?”


“Certain,” she said, her voice clipped. The road took a sharp turn, heading up over a hill, and she reached the summit before he did. She stopped and waited for him, an odd expression on her face.


Kersley Hall, or what was left of it, lay spread out before them. It had burned most thoroughly, blackened spires reaching toward the sky, the stones scorched, the windows long gone. There was no roof left, and only the outbuildings remained, though they looked abandoned, as well.


“If the Heavenly Host were planning to disport themselves here then they’re a hardier bunch than I imagine,” Rohan said pensively.


“It looks so sad.” His companion was no longer paying attention to him. “It must have been here for centuries, and now everything’s gone.”


“Built at the end of the Tudors, I believe.” Rohan nudged his horse forward. “I don’t even remember who ended up inheriting the place. The family died out, and some poor relation ended up with it, but I recall now that it burned before he could take possession. Then he died as well, and God knows who owns it now. Clearly we’ve wasted our time.”


“I don’t know that.” She was staring at it meditatively. “It would be a prime location for a secret society bent on evil deeds.”


“Most of the members of the Heavenly Host have their own estates and all the privacy they might command. Why choose a ruined, abandoned estate where anyone might see them?” he countered.


“I don’t imagine this place has many casual visitors. I would think the Heavenly Host could expect a great deal of privacy which they might not get at their own homes. There’s not much to see here. It also has a convenient proximity to London, which would recommend itself to the members.”


He didn’t want to consider it but she made sense. “I suppose it’s possible. According to my father they used to meet at house parties out in the countryside, though those sounded much more comfortable. If I had my choice between slogging out here on a day trip, reveling in massive debauchery, and then riding home, compared with a leisurely trip to someone’s country estate and a comfortable room to recover from my excesses, I would most definitely choose the latter.”


“How convenient that you come from a family of degenerates,” his companion murmured. “But I still hold that the Heavenly Host has changed from a silly group of playacting gentry to an organization of dangerous deviants, and what was true in the past is no longer the case. In the past their crimes were simply against the laws of decency. Now they are breaking the law of the land. They would need to be far more circumspect.”


“I bow to your superior knowledge of degeneracy,” he said, stifling a yawn. They had started closer, and he could smell the scent of burned timbers on the air. The ruins had a sad, eerie air to them—at night it would appear almost haunted. The sun had come out at one point during the morning ride, but even with it bright overhead the place still depressed him. He pulled his horse to a stop, reaching out to catch the bridle of his companion’s horse.


She was most definitely an excellent horsewoman. Her temper at having her mount controlled by another was understandable, and he’d done it to annoy her, but she didn’t jerk her horse’s head or do anything to break his hold and upset her mount. “If you want to stop you need only say something,” she said, managing to be polite at what he suspected was great cost.


“I want to stop.” He released her horse, then slid off his own, tossing the reins over a low-slung branch of an overhanging oak tree. “Why don’t we have lunch before we explore the place? I find I’m in need of sustenance.”


He moved to help her down, but she’d already managed to dismount on her own, no mean trick given that her mare was a good fifteen hands or more. He looked forward to helping her remount, and then he wanted to kick himself. He was like a schoolboy looking for excuses to touch the object of his adolescent desire. If he wanted to touch Melisande Carstairs he’d damned well do so.

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