Page 32

Author: Anne Stuart


And now the vagaries of fate had brought this family back into her life. Her darling boy was no longer a wounded soldier, but from what Melisande had discovered it appeared that his sickness had gone far deeper, burrowing into his soul. It broke her heart, when she thought she was invulnerable.


22


Benedick couldn’t rid himself of a strange feeling of melancholy as he dressed that evening for the Worthingham’s ball, one he ascribed simply to the unsettling effect of having such a whirlwind as Melisande Carstairs thrust herself into his life. He was rid of her now, well rid of her, and her twisted ankle had been a blessing. He had been growing closer and closer to seducing her, and that would have been a very bad idea, indeed, for both of them.


He pondered that as Richmond helped him into his perfectly tailored coat. A widow was considered fair game, and sooner or later someone would break through the wall of cheerful unconcern she’d built around herself. He’d done a great deal to shatter the foundations of that fortress—all it needed was an enterprising man to breach it.


He frowned. Not, for God’s sake, a useless fribble like Wilfred Hunnicut. She ought to have better taste than that. He cast his mind through his acquaintances, trying to envision the perfect man for her. She was someone who needed marriage, and a firm hand to control her more extravagant starts. Someone who understood and sympathized with her charitable work, not someone who’d take advantage of the more willing members of the gaggle behind her back.


“Your lordship?” Richmond’s voice was anxious. “Is there something wrong?”


Benedick stepped away from him, picking up his neckcloth. “Why should something be wrong?” he said irritably, turning toward the mirror to tie it. And then he caught sight of his face. He looked positively thunderous.


He could remember his father looking just that way, when confronted with some injustice or wrong. He’d looked that way when they’d all travelled to the Lake District to see Miranda’s firstborn and to prove they could tolerate the villain she’d fallen in love with and chosen to marry.


He was feeling the same way toward any of the men he pictured marrying Charity Carstairs, which was absurd. She could hardly match his sister’s wretched choice in the Scorpion. Lucien de Malheur wasn’t your ordinary scoundrel, and there was no one imaginable who could reach his depths of depravity.


Except, of course, the mysterious members of the Heavenly Host, and whoever among them was guiding them into such treacherous waters.


He composed his face into his usual saturnine calm, tying his neckcloth deftly. At least the interfering, disturbing Lady Carstairs was out of the way for the next fortnight, and he could concentrate on the Host without worrying about her. Without being forced to endure her proximity. Without being tempted.


Worthingham House took up a good half a block on Grosvenor Square, a massive edifice built at the end of the last century to demonstrate the Worthinghams’ consequence in society and political power, a consequence that was still in order. He doubted the duke or duchess had anything to do with the Host, but the guest list for their annual ball was massive, and no one dared ignore it, lest they be considered disrespectful and find themselves on a decidedly lower rung of the social order as punishment. Which meant most or all members of the Host would be in attendance, and perhaps growing giddy, and reckless with the night of the full moon fast approaching. He’d even done a bit of research that afternoon in the massive library his parents had acquired. In the Old Religion they were nearing the festival of Imbolc, festival of the maiden, though he was relatively certain his pagan ancestors hadn’t performed rape and blood sacrifice as part of their celebration. He knew from his years at Oxford that men could twist anything to their own meaning, and he’d even remembered a class studying myth and folklore, including the Old Religion. There’d been several of his acquaintance taking that class, though for the life of him he couldn’t remember which ones. It had been more than twenty years ago and while it had fascinated him at the time, he hadn’t thought of it since. Was the leader of the Heavenly Host one of his erstwhile classmates?


Maybe seeing his schoolmates tonight would jog his memory. Though in fact that same class would have been held other years, and younger students, older students would have learned of the same ritual, been able to take and pervert them to their own use.


He glanced at Richmond. “You can send the other servants to bed, Richmond, and retire yourself. I won’t be back till late, and I can certainly put myself to bed.”


“And what of Lord Brandon, my lord?”


He thought back to their short but vicious fight early that day. “He won’t be returning.”


“Very well, my lord.” Richmond’s perfect expression showed nothing of what he was feeling. Only his old eyes reflected the same pain and resignation that filled Benedick.


He’d been in his library, waiting for Brandon to drag himself out of bed. He had no idea whether last night’s debauch was singular or not, and he didn’t care. He could turn a blind eye to his brother’s self-destruction no longer, and he’d been determined to have it out.


In the end he’d almost missed him. Brandon was never the most furtive of people, his long, loose-limbed body casual and noisy. Now, with the limp, he made more noise than ever, and Benedick had been sure he would hear him. But Brandon knew him just as well, and he’d waited until Benedick had been deeply involved in his books, almost making it past the door before he looked up.


“I want to talk to you.” He’d sounded like his good-natured father when he was on a tear, he thought ruefully. He softened his voice. “Brandon, please.”


“Sorry, old boy,” Brandon mumbled, not meeting his gaze. “I’ve got an appointment. Can’t stand up my friends.”


“It won’t take but a minute. Come in, please.”


Brandon’s haunted face was torn, and Benedick suspected that if he hadn’t had a bad leg he would have simply gone on. But in the end he moved, coming into the room and taking a seat, staring at his older brother defiantly.


He looked like bloody hell, Benedick thought distantly. While his ravaged face was slowly healing, the unmarred side looked pale and deathly. The hollows beneath his cheekbones were unmistakable, his mouth was thin and hard, and there was a faint tremor in his hand. His eyes were the worst of all, Benedick thought. They were the eyes of a man already dead.


What had happened to the obstreperous boy who’d bounded through life like an overgrown puppy? But he knew what had happened. The full-blown horrors of war, the ceaseless pain of cruel injuries, and the search for oblivion that had followed. The old Brandon was probably gone forever. He still wasn’t ready to give up on the new one.


“I suppose you want me to apologize for casting up my accounts all over you,” Brandon said. “No, I don’t remember, but Richmond chided me quite thoroughly. It’s amazing how that old man can make me feel worse than you and our father combined. Only Mama can make me squirm as badly.”


“Unfortunately she’s in Egypt with Father, or else you might stop this horrific behavior.”


Brandon’s mouth turned in an ugly smile. “Brother mine, you have no idea of the meaning of horrific, and I see no point in educating you. And in fact I have no regrets about spewing all over you. You doubtless deserved it.”


“I appreciate the token of your esteem,” Benedick said dryly. “Are you involved in the Heavenly Host?” The question came out more abruptly than he’d wanted.


Brandon didn’t even blink. “If you’re interested in joining, I would advise against it. You’re far too judgmental.”


He almost laughed at that, having spent years being chided for not being judgmental enough. But that was the least of his concerns. “Then you are a member?”


Brandon shrugged negligently. “I gather the Heavenly Host goes by a strict rule of anonymity, which I think is rather wise. You don’t want to play cards with someone you’ve seen servicing another man the night before. Not that I have, of course.”


“Played cards or serviced men?”


Brandon smiled unpleasantly. “I prefer not to answer.”


“Are you saying you’re not a member?”


“I’m saying mind your own damned business.”


He’d controlled his temper with an effort. “I can’t sit back and watch you destroy your life. Not to mention our family name, disgraced as it already is. I had hoped there might be room for improvement, but given your behavior I think it unlikely. The Heavenly Host is going too far, and it’s all going to explode in your face. Do you want to bring that kind of shame on your family?”


“Oh, I think Father would survive. After all, he spent time among their unhallowed ranks himself. As for Mother, I know everyone will keep the truth from her.” His voice was offhand.


“And how will you look her in the eye, knowing the company you’ve kept, the crimes you’ve committed?”


“Dear brother, I have no intention of surviving long enough to worry about it.” He rose, oddly graceful despite the limp. “And I will now take myself out of your presence. I’ve already arranged for my bags to be sent on to lodgings, and you won’t have to…how did you put it…sit by and watch me destroy myself. I’ll do it quietly and discreetly.”


“Not if you’re a member of the Heavenly Host.”


“You underestimate me. Goodbye, Neddie.” It was the old childhood name, and for a moment it stabbed Benedick to the heart.


He was gone before Benedick could react, too late for him to have the footmen restrain him, disappearing into the gloomy afternoon. And Benedick knew that if Brandon had his way, that goodbye would be final.


Richmond appeared in the open door. “I gather Master Brandon won’t be here for dinner.”


Benedick sighed. “No.” He looked at Richmond’s impassive face and sorrowful eyes, and he felt the same pain in his own heart. “Don’t worry,” he said softly. “I won’t let him go forever.”

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