The doctor had tucked her beneath the covers. He pulled them away, so that their bodies were touching. She opened her eyes for a brief moment, wanting to see his face, see whether there was any affection, any tenderness, but he reached out and pinched the light from the bedside candle, plunging them into darkness, and it was as if there were no more restraints. No one could see them, therefore there were no rules. He rolled to his side, bringing her with him, and she ran her hand down his chest, inside his open coat to the loose white shirt he wore. His skin was hot beneath it, and she tugged at the fabric, wanting it out of the way. He reached down and yanked at it himself, and she slid her hands beneath, reveling in the silken feel of his skin.
She moved then, putting her mouth against his throat, and he tasted salty and sweet, wonderful. A faint thought danced through her brain—why had she never felt this for someone reasonable? Someone she could have? With dear Thomas it had been an uncomfortable burden. With Wilfred a disappointing experiment gone wrong.
But Benedick Rohan was richness and delight, setting every inch of her skin alive with feeling, and she wanted to lie beneath him, to have him take her, thrust inside her, cover her. She wanted…
She was dimly aware that he had frozen, and his hands covered hers, stilling their feverish exploration. She made a muffled sound of protest, but he moved away from her, releasing her, and she was very cold.
“I may be a bastard,” he said in a soft voice, “but I do draw the line at taking advantage of drugged women. You and I both know this is a very bad idea, and it’s just as well we’re forced to end our association.”
His words weren’t making sense, but she blamed the laudanum. Damn Dr. Smithfield and his silly concoctions. She hadn’t been in more pain than she could bear, and she should have been able to argue Benedick out of his absurd idea that they should sever their connection. And if she weren’t shatter-brained from that vile stuff he wouldn’t have stopped what he was doing. She wanted him to touch her the way he had in the darkened room in the tunnels. She wanted to feel that astonishing surge of feeling that was almost painful in its intensity. She wanted…
But he was already gone. She heard the click of the door as he closed it behind him, and she wanted to cry. But the laudanum robbed her of even that much. All she could do was fall asleep.
Benedick Rohan was in a toweringly foul mood, and he had no wish to pass the gauntlet of staring women and girls, all scrubbed and fresh-faced and a far cry from their earlier profession. He particularly didn’t want to have Violet Highstreet staring at him with disapproval, nor did he want Emma Cadbury to stop his headlong pace toward the front door, putting her trim little body in between him and safety.
“Your lordship, we need to talk,” Mrs. Cadbury said in the pure, well-bred tones that were clearly natural to her.
“You tell ’im, Mrs. C.!”
“This is none of your business, Violet. You may join the other girls while I speak with the Viscount.”
“Don’t let ’im get around you,” she said, and he stopped his annoyance to look at her in surprise. The last he’d seen her she’d been fighting for the chance to service him—now it seemed as if he’d become persona non grata.
“What in the world is the matter with you?” he said, and then was astonished at himself. The opinion of whores had never mattered. Then again, those of Charity’s gaggle were no longer whores. They were women and girls, human beings. Not faceless bodies for his pleasure.
Damn the woman, he thought absently.
“Just because I fancy you doesn’t mean I’ll stand by and let you hurt the mistress,” Violet announced in strident tones. A chorus of bellicose assent echoed from the women who lined the stairwell, looking down on them.
“That’s enough, girls,” Mrs. Cadbury said, sounding more like a schoolmarm than a notorious madam. Then again, she looked more like a schoolmarm, albeit a badly dressed but still exquisitely beautiful one. If she were planning to live a life of celibacy it was a damned shame, he thought absently.
At another time he might have considered changing her mind. At another time he would have signaled Violet and he knew, despite her disapprobation, that she would follow him home and do anything he required her to do, and do it with great pleasure and enthusiasm. He preferred his women, even the ones he paid for, to honestly enjoy themselves in his bed, and Violet had a natural ability for pleasure.
Unlike the frowning Mrs. Cadbury.
“I’m afraid I don’t have time to speak with you, madam,” he said with thinly veiled impatience.
“If you do not speak with me then I will be forced to call on you, and to keep calling on you in your house in Bury Street until you’re willing to meet with me. You may as well get it over and done with.”
He looked at her with real dislike. A year ago, six months ago, six days ago, he would have given a great deal to have this woman in his bed. Now he wouldn’t touch her if he were the one paid to do so. He glanced up at the staircase at the faces leaning over, watching them, and he realized he didn’t want any of them, or their painted sisters who still populated the elegant houses he knew so well.
There was only one woman he wanted, and he needed to get far away from her. One didn’t seduce a gentlewoman merely for sport, even if widows were considered fair game. Melisande, for all her calm good cheer was closer to a virgin than a woman who understood her own body and needs, and it would get very messy indeed if he didn’t put a stop to it now.
In fact, he could consider himself fairly noble. He’d given her just enough pleasure to let her understand what could exist between a man and a woman. She would find someone suitable and marry him, living a rich, full life, all thanks to him.
Yes, he was a hell of a fine fellow, he thought mockingly. Always willing to do what was necessary for the good of womankind.
Mrs. Cadbury gestured toward an open door that clearly led into a salon, and short of manhandling her there was no way past her. “Five minutes,” he said tersely. “After you.”
She blinked in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said, ‘after you.’ Don’t worry, I’m not going to make a dash for the door the moment your back is turned. I’ll come in with you.”
She stared at him for a long moment. “I’m not used to gentlemen having me precede them… We’re usually bidden to follow meekly behind.”
“I believe I have manners,” he said, his sharp tone belying his words.
“Manners usually don’t extend to whores,” she replied.
He was tired, he was frustrated and he was angry. He wanted to reach out and strangle her. “Consider it one of my quirks. I believe in treating everyone equally.”
“You mean you treat everyone this abominably?” Mrs. Cadbury murmured.
“No, madam. This is how I treat my friends,” he said icily.
“We’re friends? How delightful,” she said, sweeping ahead of him into the room. He considered making a run for it, after all, and then stopped himself. Just how craven was he?
He strolled into the room after her, all insouciance, to see her already seated behind a massive mahogany desk, and his image of her as a stern schoolmarm increased enough to force him to smother a laugh with a false cough.
“Please sit down, your lordship,” she said in that same stern voice that was no request but a clear command.
It wasn’t too late—he could still run.
He took the nearest comfortable chair, sat back and crossed his legs, the picture of insolent grace. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Cadbury?”
“You can stop trying to seduce Lady Carstairs.”
The sixth Viscount Rohan, son of the Marquess of Haverstoke, scion of the ancient and thoroughly wicked house of Rohan, was not likely to listen to orders from a retired abbess. He stared at her haughtily, not changing his indolent position.
“You will have to explain to me why I would have any wish to discuss my private life with you, Mrs. Cadbury.”
“It’s not your private life I’m interested in, your lordship. It’s Melisande’s. You don’t mean well by her—any fool can see that, and I won’t see her heart broken.”
This time he didn’t bother to hide his amusement. “I don’t have any particular interest in Lady Carstairs’s heart.”
Emma Cadbury shot him an angry, contemptuous look, and he noticed for a moment that she really was magnificent. Not to his particular taste, but then, those tastes seemed to be getting more and more narrow. “Do you think I don’t know that, your lordship? It’s not her heart that you desire. I have been in the business of men’s particular interests for many years, and I understand them quite well. Melisande’s innocence intrigues you, and like most men you find it a challenge. You don’t like that she’s chosen to eschew the selfish desires of your gender, and you fool yourself into thinking it would be a kindly act on your part to awaken her to the so-called pleasures of the flesh.”
He stifled an uncomfortable response, raising an eyebrow, as if he hadn’t been thinking that very thing. “So-called, madam? Am I to infer that during your short but impressive career you never experienced those ‘so-called pleasures of the flesh’?”
If he’d hoped to disconcert her he’d failed. “That, my lord, is none of your business. We are discussing my benefactress, not my personal life.”
“We’re discussing my personal life—yours should be equally open for perusal. Though in truth I don’t really care about your dubious past, and I do assume it’s in your past. Unless of course you have managed to convert Lady Carstairs to the joys of Sapphic encounters and I have misunderstood the nature of this house. Pray enlighten me.”
“Not at all. I have no opinion of that particular variation, save when it affects women who interest me. Does it?”
Mrs. Cadbury straightened her already straight back, recovering. “Your prurient interest does you no credit. But I will be more than happy to satisfy it. It is not unknown among some of Lady Carstairs’s rescues. Some have been grievously treated by men, some simply have that inclination, and it matters not to us. But no, my concern for Lady Carstairs’s well-being is that of a grateful, loving friend and nothing more. And if she were of a Sapphic inclination I would hardly be worried about your effect on her.”
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