“I’m sure he’s tempted,” Emma said wryly. “Women love rakes. You haven’t been in society enough to realize it, but a rake is almost irresistible, and I believe you’re on the point of succumbing.”
Melisande looked at her across the tea table for a long moment, then gave in. “Well, in truth,” she said carefully, “I was thinking it might be a good idea to have an affaire with the Viscount Rohan.”
Emma had been pouring, and at that she dropped the teapot with a clatter, splashing hot tea all over the place and breaking one of the delicate china cups. “Hell and damnation,” she said, desperately mopping up tea and milk. And then she looked up. “What did you say?”
“You heard me.” Melisande reached out and took one of the tea-soaked biscuits. “I thought I might have an affaire with Rohan.”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Don’t be so narrow-minded, Emma. You’ve always insisted that there are real pleasures to be had with a man, and I thought it was past time I discovered what those are. According to the gaggle, Rohan is a particularly gifted man in that department, ensuring even his hired companions enjoy themselves. He seems the logical choice.” She congratulated herself on her practical tone.
Emma stared at her in amazement. “I see… And what made you come up with this idea all of a sudden? Last I had heard you’d sworn off men for the rest of your life.”
Melisande took two more biscuits before they become hopelessly soggy. “Well, I had. But I thought it would make an interesting scientific experiment. I’ve had…relations with my elderly husband, who I adored, and with a young man I thought I loved, and I failed to find any of the messy business enjoyable. Now I’ll try an expert, and if he can’t make it palatable then I expect I’m better off doing without.”
“Is that the only reason?”
Melisande thought of Rohan’s mouth, hot and wet against her, of his hands beneath her skirts, touching her, rousing her, shocking her with that intimate pleasure. She shook her head, as if to shake the thoughts out of her brain. “That’s it.”
“That’s it,” Emma echoed flatly. “I’m not against the idea of you having an affaire, even marrying again. Assuming you found a good man. Viscount Rohan is most definitely not a good man.”
“Well, I didn’t intend to marry him. I just thought I might…shag him.”
“Oh, lord, where did you hear that word?”
“From you. And it seems like a good enough word. I could use tup, I suppose, or even f—”
Melisande grinned. “Well, I’m certainly not going to call it making love, since love will have absolutely nothing to do with it.”
“And you think his lordship will be amenable to this? I got the impression he wanted to keep you at arm’s length.”
Sudden doubt squeezed at Melisande’s heart. “Do you think he wouldn’t want me?”
Emma looked at her for a long, contemplative moment. “He wants you,” she said at last. “Trust me, I’m an expert at seeing what men want, and Rohan most definitely wants you. I’m just not convinced that he’d be any good for you. Why don’t you choose someone a little easier? Surely there are other men whom you find charming.”
“I don’t find Rohan charming,” she said with great truthfulness. She didn’t want to consider what she found him.
“He’s not. He is, however, very enticing. Even I can tell that much,” Emma said. “Isn’t there someone a little less…dangerous?”
Melisande thought about it, trying to picture the men at the Elsmeres’ party, the men she’d seen in the park. “Well, there’s Harry Merton. He’s pretty enough, but he has a tendency to giggle…”
“No!” Emma’s reply was so quick and sharp that Melisande stared at her.
“Why not? He seems perfectly pleasant.”
“I’m sure he is. Nevertheless, I’d like you to keep as far away from Mr. Merton as you can. Rohan is a lamb compared to Harry Merton.”
“I don’t think we’re talking about the same man,” Melisande said doubtfully. “Mr. Merton is charming and rather foolish, and I’m certain he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Perhaps I’m mistaken.” Emma’s smile was forced. “But humor me on this one. If you must have an affaire then take Viscount Rohan. Just be certain not to fall in love with him.”
Melisande hooted with laughter. “That,” she said, “would be completely idiotic.”
“Yes, it would. But women have an unfortunate tendency to think that they have to be in love in order to enjoy sex. I don’t want you to fall into the same trap. He doesn’t love you, is incapable of caring for you or any woman, I expect. I don’t want your heart broken.”
“Pish. My heart is made of sterner stuff than that. If I don’t like it, then I’ll walk away. Besides, I don’t expect to enjoy it much anyway, and then it will be over before he has time to dismiss me. That’s what men do with their mistresses, isn’t it? Dismiss them?”
“You could always dismiss him.”
“And I will. I’ll use him and discard him,” she said grandly, almost believing it. “Starting tonight.” She rose, trying not to wince as pain shot through her ankle. “I’m going to need to find something to wear, I suppose. I don’t suppose the gaggle…”
As if on cue they filed in. Rafaella had a diaphanous gown over one arm, and the rest of them were laden with hair ornaments and face paint.
“I presume you were all listening in,” Emma said in a tone of acceptance.
“Of course we were,” Violet piped up, and Sukey shot her a quelling glance.
“We’ve decided to have a discussion with you, Lady Carstairs,” Sukey said. She was a natural leader, her years with the bishop notwithstanding, and the others nodded.
Melisande resisted the temptation to roll her eyes. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that Viscount Rohan is up to no good.”
“Of course he’s up to no good,” Violet broke in with a saucy smile. “That’s half the fun.”
“Violet,” Emma said in a reproving voice.
“Leave this up to us, Mrs. Cadbury,” Sukey said. “You’ve had your say. It’s time for ours. Now that you’ve decided to sleep with my lord Rohan you’re going to need a bit of advice.”
“I really don’t think it’s necessary.”
“Well, that’s where you’re wrong,” the girl replied. “You’re going to be flat on your back with your heels in the air before you even realize what’s happened, and that can be a dangerous position to be in.”
Melisande envisioned that position and felt her face grow crimson, her tongue too strangled to speak.
“We’re not talking whores’ tricks,” Hetty offered. “Well, in fact, we are, but we’re not talking about games and such. We’re talking about babies.”
“You don’t want to get pregnant,” Sukey said earnestly. “And there are ways to avoid it. Where are you in your monthly courses?”
Melisande could feel her face flaming. “I may not even go through with this. Lord Rohan might not want me. Or I might decide it’s a bad idea.”
“It is a bad idea,” Emma broke in resignedly, “but you’re going to do it anyway. Trust us, we’ve all seen it often enough. Answer Sukey’s question.”
“Perhaps two weeks since my last.”
Sukey shook her head. “Bad timing. If you could put off shaking the sheets with the gentleman for another week, it would be safer, but I know that’s hard when the blood is up. We’d best tell you what to do.”
“I like a sponge and vinegar,” Agnes announced.
“I prefer a copper penny,” Hetty said.
“It’s not an issue if you simply use your mouth,” Violet offered, but was quickly shouted down.
“She’s not going to start with that, you idiot,” Sukey said sharply.
Melisande was embarrassed, horrified, and unwillingly curious. “What in the world do you do with a copper penny? Offer a prayer to some saint.”
Agnes, the only practicing papist in the group, laughed. “You do the same thing you did with the sponge and vinegar, my lady. You insert it into your—”
“Stop!” Melisande cried, her curiosity more than satisfied. “I promise you I have no need of such stratagems. I’m barren.”
“What makes you think that?” Emma said. “Just because you didn’t conceive with an old man or a singular occasion with a younger one doesn’t mean someone with Lord Rohan’s…vigor…wouldn’t do the job.”
Enough was enough. The last thing Melisande wanted to be thinking about was Benedick Rohan’s vigor, or inserting peculiar things into the most private part of her body, or letting Rohan put anything of his into that same place.
“Or there’s coitus interruptus,” Sukey said. “He can just pull out and spill his seed on the sheets, or on you. It’s not foolproof, and not as much fun for the gentlemen, but I imagine Lord Rohan’s not interested in fathering bastards. He may even have a French letter.”
“What’s a French letter got to do with anything?” Melisande inquired, more mystified than ever. “If you’re expecting me to put a piece of paper in my…”
“Such an innocent!” Sukey said, shaking her head. “It’s a wonder we allow her out at night. A French letter, Lady Carstairs, is something the gentleman wears over his rod. He spills his seed inside it, not inside you.”
Rod, she thought, momentarily distracted. It seemed like rather a nice word. Evocative. “I think Rohan will be prepared,” Emma said. She looked at Melisande for a long, thoughtful moment. “Is there any way I can make you change your mind?”
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