Page 29

Author: Anne Stuart


Even if Melisande desperately wished otherwise.


Not that she’d admit it, even to herself. But Emma was wise in the ways of men and women, and she could see Melisande’s longing. And she was hardly going to stand by and watch her heart be broken.


Viscount Rohan was a little more difficult to read. He’d denied any particular interest in Melisande, but given the amount of time he’d spent with her recently she wasn’t certain she could believe him.


At least she’d effectively warned him off. If he had ever thought of seducing Melisande, he had now been shown the error of his ways. She would be mournful; she would miss the excitement and danger of his company. Emma knew far too well how enticing that danger was.


But in the end she’d be ready to find the right sort of man, one who would cherish her. And Viscount Rohan could go to hell with the rest of his kind.


20


Lady Melisande Carstairs had erotic dreams that night. For the first time in her life she woke up as her body convulsed with a little shiver of pleasure, and so she sat up, horrified. There was the faint light of dawn filtering through her curtains, and she could see the bottle of laudanum on her bedside table beside a half-filled glass of water.


No more laudanum for her, she thought grimly. She hadn’t wanted it in the first place. Rohan had tricked her, the slimy snake, and right now he was probably off celebrating his escape from her.


Except he was probably asleep at that hour, she decided fairly, closing her eyes again. Which was a good thing, because he hadn’t escaped at all. If he thought she was staying off her strained ankle and leaving everything up to him then he was far too trusting, and Rohan didn’t strike her as the trusting sort. She would be up and about once the vile drug was out of her system. It was Tuesday, and thanks to her presence at the Elsmeres’ rout, she had received invitations on her own to attend a ball given by the rather notorious Duke and Duchess of Worthingham, and if Rohan refused to accompany her she would go alone. There was some reason why women should not attend social gatherings on their own, but she couldn’t remember. Perhaps most of them had companions to accompany them.


Of course she had more than her share of companions. Miss Mackenzie, her aging governess who oversaw the reading lessons, would occasionally fill in as a duenna, but she didn’t approve of Viscount Rohan, and she might very well refuse, leaving her with the choice of Emma or Violet, either of whom would throw the assembled multitude into a state of disbelieving horror. It was tempting, but she couldn’t afford to risk losing one of her last opportunities to make progress. The night of the full moon was fast approaching.


It was past ten when she hobbled downstairs, accompanied by the strictures of half the gaggle. “I’m perfectly fine,” she said by the time she made it to the first floor. In truth, her ankle hurt like blue blazes, but she was still able to walk, and she was hardly going to let a little discomfort get in her way. “Stop fussing!”


Emma had appeared at the bottom of the stairs, watching her halting progress with a stern look in her eye. “You shouldn’t…” she began, but Melisande forestalled her.


“There’s nothing to worry about. I’ll rest when this is over. It’s not as if the damned thing is broken. I can stand a little pain.”


“You are the most stubborn creature,” Emma said in her calm voice. “Why wouldn’t you listen to good sense?”


“Because I don’t see it as good sense. Is Lord Rohan’s horse still here?”


Emma shook her head. “He sent someone over to collect it last night. He…er…also took your horse, as well. He said you shan’t be using it for the next few weeks and he had need of it.”


Melisande stared at her, incredulity and anger warring for control. “And you just let him?”


Emma’s smile was wry. “Do you really think I could stop a peer of the realm from doing exactly what he wanted? Did you expect me to throw myself in front of the horses?”


“Stealing a horse is a capital offense,” Melisande said darkly.


“Stealing a teaspoon is a capital offense,” Emma replied. “I think it would be a waste of time to try to charge him with the crime. Surely you’re not thinking of leaving the house? The doctor ordered bed rest.”


“The doctor is an old woman.”


“Am I going to have to have one of the girls sit on you to keep you from racing around?”


“It won’t do any good. Truly, Emma, I’m fine!” she insisted. “Just a little bit of pain in the ankle, but I can certainly handle that. I need to go see Lord Rohan. We have things to discuss.” Things like the moments in the darkened room in the caverns, or the way he’d kissed her.


“You know as well as I do that young women do not pay visits to the establishments belonging to gentlemen. If you wish to see him you send him a note asking him to call on you. How many times do I have to remind you of this? And how many times have you ignored me?”


“You know as well as I do that we can’t afford to wait. He’s just as likely to wait until next winter to respond. No, if I want Viscount Rohan’s attention I’m going to have to track him down to his lair and force him to listen to me. I need a carriage.”


Emma looked at her, fully as stubborn as she accused Melisande of being. “And what if I refuse?”


“Then I’ll simply ask someone else. Don’t be difficult, Emma. If you thought about it you’d admit I’m right. If you’re worried about my reputation you may accompany me, but I’ve already ridden through London sitting in Rohan’s lap, so I would think any reputation I had left is completely shattered,” she said cheerfully. “Which is just as well. Reputations are tiresome things. I’ll do much better without one.”


“If you think my presence would do you any good then your intellect has shattered, as well. Being accompanied by a notorious madam is no way to ensure respectability.”


“Well, I live with a notorious madam and twenty former prostitutes, Cyprians, courtesans and streetwalkers. I would think that would pretty much put paid to any hope I have of being considered proper. Give it up, Emma. It’s a waste of time. You know I’m quite devoid of sensibility. I may as well be practical.”


Emma’s mouth set in an attempt at a stern line. “You’re tiresome, you know that,” she said in a repressive voice.


Melisande limped toward the settee, settling gracefully, not allowing even a grimace to cross her brow, prepared to wait her out. “I know. In the meantime, why don’t you show me how the girls are progressing.”


It had ended up a peaceful afternoon, watching Emma put the younger girls through their paces. Betsey had done her irrepressible best, an impish grin on her face, and it was all Melisande could do not to laugh. The child was darling, and the thought of the life she’d been headed for made her blood run cold. It was children like Betsey, women like Rafaella with the scars and the limp, women like Emma, who was just learning to smile again, who reminded Melisande that she didn’t dare lessen her efforts.


She tried to remind herself that she could wait a day before confronting Rohan, but she couldn’t sit still. She’d been restless, edgy, her skin prickly, her body in an odd state of nerves. Her breasts tightened uncomfortably in the soft cotton shift, and between her legs she felt a strange tightening and dampness when she least expected it. She’d taken a warm bath that morning, hoping it would ease some of the tension that ratcheted through her, but it had only made things worse.


She blamed the laudanum. People said it gave you strange dreams, and while she couldn’t remember any of them they had to be responsible for the uproar her body was in. The thought of staying home that night had become unbearable, and in the end she looked Emma Cadbury in the face and lied.


“I did promise Rohan I would meet him at the Worthingham’s ball tonight,” she said blithely. “I know you’d prefer I stay home, and I understand your reservations about visiting Bury Street, but even you must agree that this is unexceptional. I’ll bring Miss Mackenzie with me until he arrives, just to make sure everything is proper.”


Emma looked at her suspiciously. “It’s hardly proper for you to be there with only Rohan as your escort.”


“Of course it is. I’m not a green girl. I’m a widow, and the rules are different.” At least, she was relatively certain they were. “He’ll bring me home—you know how ridiculously protective he is.”


Emma’s eyelids had lowered. “And I wonder why that is.”


“Oh, because he’s madly in love with me,” Melisande said airily. “He can’t bear to be away from me, and he…”


“Is that wishful thinking on your part?”


“God, no! I was simply being facetious. He’s the most controlling creature I’ve ever met. And do you think there’s a chance in this world that he’d be faithful?”


“No.”


The monosyllable stopped her cold for a moment, and then she continued gamely. “He just wants to make certain nothing happens to me while I’m around him. He doesn’t want to be held responsible if I bring the whole of society crashing down, which he seems to think I will.” Melisande pushed her hair away from her face. “Don’t worry, Emma. He’ll keep an eye out to make sure no evil rake takes advantage of me and he’ll see me home safely.”


“Are you sure that’s what you want?”


“Of course,” she said. Believing it. Until she remembered the weight of him, on top of her, between her legs, and the prickling of her skin increased, and the tightness between her legs.


“You know, I find I don’t believe you,” Emma said after a moment. “I believe you’re far too interested in Lord Rohan for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the Heavenly Host, and I have to warn you that that can be extremely dangerous.”


“Dangerous? Why? Do you think he’ll try to murder me?”

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