Page 28

Author: Anne Stuart


His effect on her. She wasn’t taking into account Lady Carstairs’s deleterious effect on him, he thought resentfully. “I find this conversation boring, Mrs. Cadbury.” He was genuinely tired, and he didn’t bother to stifle his rude yawn. “Say what you wish to say and allow me to retire.”


“I want you to leave Melisande alone. She needs a good man, a gentle man, not someone with your reputation. Some women do very well with a cold-hearted rake. Melisande would not be one of them, even assuming you mean marriage, which I am assured you do not. You wish to bed her and then discard her for another diversion, do you not?”


He knew a moment’s discomfort, but he regarded her blandly. “Pray, continue.”


“I hope with all my heart that Melisande can find a kind man to marry her, someone who will understand her work and help her with it, someone who treats her with respect and cherishes her. I doubt you’ve ever cherished anyone in your entire life.”


He didn’t let even a flicker of reaction cross his face as he thought of his beloved Annis, dying in childbirth and taking his son with her. “I’ve done my best not to,” he drawled.


“Then leave Lady Carstairs alone!”


He could stand this no longer. He rose, half expecting her to rap a ruler on the desk and order him to sit again. But of course she did no such thing. He looked down at her, once more admiring her beauty in a distant, appreciative manner. “You may set your mind at rest, Mrs. Cadbury. This uncomfortable conversation was entirely unnecessary. My only connection with Lady Carstairs has been in service of discovering exactly what the Heavenly Host are up to. With her injury she will no longer be able to go into society, at least for the all-important days leading up to their next gathering, and I will have to persevere on my own. I will, of course, keep her apprised of my success or failure, though I imagine a note will suffice. But any danger I might offer to her chastity would have only been caused by proximity, and that will no longer be an issue.”


Did he imagine he saw disappointment on that coldly beautiful face? It couldn’t be, since he was doing precisely as she demanded. She was right—Melisande offered a delicious temptation, but it was the kind best avoided. He already knew she wasn’t an adventurous widow looking to alleviate her banked frustrations, despite her one foray into an affaire. She was a woman to marry, and she was a far cry from anyone he’d want to spend the rest of his life with. She wouldn’t be ignored, left in the countryside while he pursued his own pleasures and interests. He was looking for boredom and placidity in a wife, two characteristics Lady Carstairs was sorely lacking. She was also, most likely, barren, and his only reason to marry was to provide an heir.


No, he had no lasting interest in Melisande Carstairs, no matter how incredibly tempting he found her, no matter how the sound of her strangled cry when he brought her to climax kept reverberating in his brain and stirring in his loins.


Mrs. Cadbury was still watching him, her expression dubious. It was no surprise that she didn’t believe him—he was having a difficult time believing it himself. But he was a man with his own twisted honor, and he had no desire to make someone else’s life a misery simply to assuage an itch.


The strained ankle had been a blessing in disguise. He had come perilously close to shagging her a number of times today, and the longer he was around her the more overpowering that urge was.


Suddenly he could bear the schoolroom-like parlor no longer and set his words in a cool voice. “Good evening, Mrs. Cadbury. Look after her.” And he was gone, cursing himself as he went.


It wasn’t until he was on the street that he realized how absurd his grand exit was. He hadn’t bothered to have his mount retrieved, and he had two choices—go back into the house sheepishly and demand his horse, or go wandering behind to the mews and find where their rides had been stabled.


Or the third choice, which was the one he took. He could send a servant for Bucephalus. In the mean-time he desperately needed to clear his head, and a cool spring night was the way to do it.


He didn’t like mysteries, any more than he liked emotions, weaknesses or unsatisfied lust. And he had absolutely no idea why he reacted so strongly to Melisande Carstairs. After all, she was no great beauty. She dressed badly, her hair was usually scraped back away from her face, and she had the most disconcerting habit of looking one directly in the eyes, rather than lowering her own in either a shy or provocative glance. He could think of a dozen women far more beautiful than she was, without her unsettling, straightforward demeanor.


And it wasn’t as if she reminded him of the women in his life. Genevieve, his poor, mad fiancée who had eventually killed herself in a horrific public scene, was an exquisite, unstable beauty with coal-black hair and brilliant eyes, and he’d been young and totally besotted, until her madness had come to the fore. He seldom thought about her anymore, the memory too painful. If he had been wise enough to keep her in his memory, his own sister might not be married to Genevieve’s brother, the wretched Scorpion, a man he considered to be a villain and a monster. His sister might not be lost to him now.


Annis had been sweet but strong-minded, totally devoted to him. Barbara had been the opposite, a force of nature with the appetites of a sailor and the sweetness of a rutting boar. What he’d thought had been passion for him had instead been passion for anything between her legs.


But Melisande was nothing like the women he had loved, all of them diamonds of the first water. She was pleasant-looking but not much more, though the night he had taken her to the Elsmeres’ rout she had been astonishingly lovely. Much as he wished, he couldn’t dismiss her opinions as ill-informed, mad or wrongheaded, and he had no intention of spending the rest of his life having to consider someone else’s point of view.


Because that was what he would have to do. Mrs. Cadbury was right; Melisande was a woman to marry. And marriage to her would be one more disaster among a lifetime of disasters. Two out of three times he’d chosen poorly, and he had no intention of making another mistake.


No, the association was at an end, thankfully so. He would keep her apprised of his progress, and once the situation with the Heavenly Host was dealt with he would allow himself one brief visit, chaperoned by the lovely Mrs. Cadbury, to deal with any extraneous bits of business. Then and only then could he concentrate on finding a proper wife.


Though it was a good thing he’d decided against Miss Pennington, who would probably freeze him to death in bed. He wondered if she knew what her ramshackle brother was up to. The Heavenly Host was an expensive indulgence, and the Penningtons’ fortune had all but vanished, hence her willingness to consider the suit of a member of the notorious Rohan family.


The sooner he contracted a marriage the safer he’d be. The sooner he managed to find the sexual relief he’d been longing for the safer he’d be. Though safe was a strange word to use when it came to Melisande Carstairs. She was hardly a threat, except, perhaps, to the cut of his breeches. Blasted woman.


He walked briskly, the cool night air a balm. He almost hoped he’d be set upon by footpads. Beating someone to a bloody pulp would go a great deal toward assuaging his boiling frustration.


He’d come to fisticuffs with his brother Charles often enough, though his baby brother, Brandon, had always been one to be protected rather than confronted. But all that had changed—Brandon was thirty now, a soldier. He could go beat the truth out of him.


But Brandon was a shell of a man, still recovering from his grievous injuries, and the fight would hardly be fair. Confronting Brandon would get him nowhere, but he could at least try. Assuming he could catch his brother at home anytime in the next few days. Surely the once-sunny boy would respond to him, if he approached it properly. His main concern was keeping his brother out of the debacle that was the Heavenly Host—unlike Charity Carstairs he had no illusions that he could save everyone.


But he could save Brandon. He had to. His parents relied on him; his sense of duty insisted. His exasperated love for the siblings who would never do as he thought they should drove him mad, but he couldn’t afford to lose another.


He strode up the front stairs, handing his hat and gloves to Richmond, who was waiting patiently, and ordered a hot bath. It had been a long day. Tomorrow was soon enough to deal with Brandon. If necessary, he could simply truss him up and keep him prisoner until the full moon was done. It wouldn’t solve Lady Melisande’s problem, but she could find herself another knight errant, one better suited to her, and together they could fight injustice and cruelty, and he wished them happy.


“Would your lordship like some supper?” Richmond inquired politely, trailing after him.


He hadn’t eaten since the picnic on the blanket, staring at Melisande’s luscious mouth as she devoured everything in sight. Food might improve his choleric mood, but right then he felt like indulging himself. “No food, Richmond. A bottle of brandy will suffice.” And he continued up to his rooms, prepared to get completely and totally drunk.


Emma Cadbury sat back in her chair, putting her fingertips together, her brow creased with worry. She’d hoped she’d been wrong. Benedick Rohan had been an occasional visitor at the establishment she had once run, and the girls had always been generous with their praise of him. She knew Melisande was totally besotted, and she’d hoped against hope that there might be a corresponding affection.


She should have known better. Women did love a rake, and Melisande, for all that she pretended she was above such feminine weakness, was as vulnerable as the greenest girl. She’d taken one look at Benedick Rohan’s dark, haughty visage and fallen like a stone into a well, drowning in his cynical charm.


One could hardly blame her. No woman had ever been able to resist a Rohan, and Melisande was alarmingly innocent, despite her attempts to become more worldly. Wilfred Hunnicut should be drawn and quartered, and instead he was enjoying the fruits of his labors, a comfortable marriage with the daughter of a cit.


If Benedick Rohan had given any sign, any hint that he cherished tender feelings toward Melisande, then Emma would have done what she could to support the match. She snorted, an elegant little sound. As if a man such as Benedick Rohan were capable of tender feelings! No, Melisande needed someone to watch over her, keep her from charging headlong into dangerous situations, protect her from her own good heart. Benedick Rohan was not that someone.

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