“Yes, my lord.” There were tears swimming in Richmond’s old eyes. “I have faith.”
Benedick wasn’t much in the mood for dancing, but staying home and brooding would be even worse, he thought as he strolled into the brightly lit vestibule of Worthingham House, surrendering his greatcoat to a waiting servant. Another crush, another night of heat and noise and boredom. He glanced around at the other late arrivals, nodding at one couple, exchanging a few words with another as he mounted the massive staircase. He could hear the music drifting down, and he grimaced. The Duchess of Worthington preferred the music of her youth, all from the past century, requiring stiff, practiced moves and very little pleasure. He had every intention of going straight for the card room when Lady Marbury, a plump young matron he’d once shared a few pleasurable nights with, came sidling up to him, a sly expression on her face.
“There you are, Rohan,” she said. “We wondered what was keeping you! You’d best be careful, or Harry Merton will steal a march on you.”
He kept his confusion from his face, smiling blandly. “I doubt it. Harry’s tried to best me a number of times and always failed. What, pray, is he attempting now?”
“Why, Lady Carstairs, of course! She said you had sent her on ahead, but really, Lord Rohan, you shouldn’t keep a lady waiting quite so long.”
His expression was so well schooled that the avid Lady Marbury didn’t notice that his face froze as every curse he’d ever known danced through his brain. He smiled at her. “Then I’d best protect my field,” he said. “Direct me to them and I will explain to Harry that trespassing is never a wise idea. Particularly when there’s a Rohan involved.”
“He’s over by the embrasure on the left,” she said. “Just right for them to slip into, if Lady Carstairs were a little more mobile. Alas, she has that sprained ankle, but I imagine she could hop if the urge hits her.”
He knew he should say something pleasant, flirtatious, even kiss her hand. Without a word he turned and stalked across the ballroom floor, barely acknowledging any of the greetings. He couldn’t see her, but he could see the men ranged around her, and he wasn’t sure whose neck he wanted to ring, Merton’s or Melisande’s.
He slowed his pace as he approached them. He could see her now, sitting in state on a divan that must have been brought in for her use, surrounded by laughing, flirting men, and he ground his teeth. What the hell was she doing being the center of attention? And where had she gotten that totally indecent dress? It showed most of her exquisite breasts, and he felt a sudden surge of fury. He hadn’t seen her breasts, touched her breasts, and yet here they were, on display for every lascivious idiot in London.
He pushed through the crowd, and they parted easily enough until he loomed over Melisande, who looked up at him with a limpid smile. “Rohan!” she greeted him with feigned delight. “I was afraid you might stand me up.”
Merton was sitting next to her, holding her gloved hand in his, and Benedick simply looked at him, a possessive glare in his eyes, his smile a dangerous warning.
Merton dropped her hand and stumbled to his feet, but he giggled anyway. “Heavens, Rohan, you terrify me. I was merely keeping your lovely lady company while you were dreadfully late. Really, I would think you’d know better how to treat a lady. If you send her on ahead, you risk having other men poach on your lands.”
“I’m not a fallow deer,” Melisande said brightly.
Merton giggled again, looking down at her. “No, my dear lady, you’re a plump little partridge, just ripe enough to be irresistible. But I have no interest in being called out so I will cede my place.” He gestured toward his abandoned gilt chair with a flourish, and Benedick took it, keeping his gaze averted from Melisande’s.
“Clearly I owe you a debt of gratitude, Harry,” he said. “I should have known I could count on you to keep my property safe.”
“I beg your pardon?” Melisande began in a dangerous voice, but one look from his blazing eyes and she subsided, though he suspected that wouldn’t be the last of it.
“Always, old fellow. Might I bring you and the lady something to drink? It looks as if you headed straight for us once you arrived.”
“Of course I did. And all Lady Melisande and I need at the moment is a little privacy. We have, after all, been parted for hours.”
Merton smiled. “Ah, the flush of young love!” And he sauntered off.
By then the other suitors had faded away, like young cubs bowing before an alpha wolf, he thought, remembering another class on animal nature. It was just as well. He felt like tearing out the throat of anyone who got close to her.
Melisande spoke first, though not to him. “Miss Mackenzie, you can leave now that the viscount has arrived. He’ll look after me.”
He followed her gaze to the tall, thin, disapproving woman in the shadows.
“Harrumph,” the woman said, or something like it, expressing strong disapproval of her, of himself, of everyone there and life in general.
“Don’t tell me she was a courtesan, I beg you,” he said. “I won’t believe you.”
“She was my governess,” she said, smiling up at him, and for a moment he was dazzled. And then he remembered he was furious.
His laugh was mirthless. “It’s no wonder you have a twisted view of life!”
“Don’t pick a fight with me, Lord Rohan,” she said sweetly. “You should have known I wasn’t going to stay immured in my bedroom. Indeed, I’ve already made a great deal of progress.”
“With Harry Merton. He was almost drooling down the front of that indecent dress.”
“Hardly indecent when compared to some of the others,” she pointed out. “And when did you become such a prude?”
He pulled himself together. “Hardly a prude, Lady Carstairs. And if you wish to distract yourself with Harry, then you have my blessing. He’s a useless fribble but essentially harmless.”
“I have your blessing, do I?” she purred. “I didn’t realize that I needed it.”
He knew enough of women to realize he was on dangerous ground. Still, there wasn’t much she could do in public. “I beg pardon, madam,” he said immediately. “Of course you may sleep with whomever you like.” He could see Lord Elsmere approaching him, probably wanting a game of cards, and from a distance he could spy Dorothea Pennington’s dissolute older brother. “I asked you to leave this to me,” he added in a lowered voice.
“And I told you I wouldn’t. Besides, I’ve come to a decision and it seemed only proper that I share it with you.”
Elsmere was trying to get his attention, and he was only half paying attention to her. “What?” he said absently.
“I’ve decided to become your mistress.”
Benedick froze in sheer astonishment, staring at her as if she’d suddenly grown two heads. She was looking entirely rational, smiling up at him from her divan like a queen receiving visitors, and for a moment he couldn’t move.
“You’re out of your mind,” he said finally. “You’re the last woman in the world I’d take as a mistress.”
There was a flicker in her dark blue eyes, one he couldn’t read, but her calm was unimpaired. “That’s hardly flattering.”
“I wasn’t intending to flatter you. Merely to tell you the truth. I have no interest in having any mistress, least of all you.”
“I’m hardly an innocent, Lord Rohan. I know men’s bodies, and I recognize desire. You can hardly convince me that you don’t want me.” There was only the slightest note of strain in her voice, and he suddenly realized what that flicker was. Beneath her self-assurance was a very real doubt, and he knew that, strong as she was, he could crush her. Ensure that she never dared offer herself to any man ever again.
It should have been tempting. He’d come to the unhappy conclusion that he didn’t want her bedding anyone else, and he knew better than to sleep with her himself. But he couldn’t be that cruel.
“I do not want a mistress,” he said again in a steadier voice. “And if I did, I would be a very bad choice for you. I’m not particularly kind or thoughtful, and we annoy each other, even if you try to pretend we don’t.”
“We don’t…” she began, but he interrupted her.
“Well, you annoy me. You’re a wealthy, beautiful widow, and you could take your pick of half the men here. Look at the way they swarmed around your indecent dress tonight,” he said in a tight voice. “If you wish to have an affaire, choose one of them.” And I’ll break his legs, he thought savagely.
He didn’t believe her offer of an affaire for one moment. She’d said over and over again that she had no interest in men, and while he had no false modesty about his own charms, a furtive climax was not likely to change her mind. She was probably simply looking for a way to get back in the hunt, and he was damned if he’d give in, no matter what delicious bait she dangled in front of him.
Her flicker of fear was gone. “I don’t want anyone else. I don’t trust them.”
His amazement was real. “And you trust me?” He stared at her. “Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t possibly.”
“Well, perhaps saying I trust you is going a little too far. But I trust you to know what you’re doing in the bedroom. I’ve had an old, infirm man and a clumsy, selfish young one. The gaggle assure me that you’re a remarkable lover, and it seemed only reasonable to start with you. I’ve decided that I might not be cut out for celibacy after all, and if I wish to embark on a series of affaires I want to make certain I’ll find them enjoyable.” She looked up at him, her voice and face as calm as if she were ordering her menus for the week, and continued ingenuously, “I like your kisses. And you’re remarkably good at touching. So I choose you.”
“No. Never in this lifetime.”
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