Page 34

Author: Anne Stuart


She stared at him. “Why not?”


“Because I…because I…it’s not a good idea,” he said, knowing his excuse was lame. Indeed, he wasn’t quite sure why he was resisting so fiercely. Bedding her would at least distract her and he could still finish his investigation on his own. And he wanted her so damned badly his hands shook with it.


And the longer he stayed the more tempted he was. “No,” he said again, his voice flat and implacable. “You’re a lovely, tempting woman, but you’re not the kind of woman I want.”


Without another word he left her, afraid to look back.


She couldn’t very well burst into tears in the middle of a ball, Melisande thought calmly. She’d been an idiot to spring her plan on him when they were surrounded by people. When they were alone he tended to touch her, whether he said he wanted to or not. She should have waited until he came to see her.


Except he wouldn’t come. He considered himself well rid of her, and there was no way she was going to leave the Heavenly Host up to him. He’d extricate his brother and consider the job done.


But it didn’t seem right. The gaggle had once more come up with a stunning gown for her to wear, cobbled together from three of her old ones. It was a rush job, and a good thing she couldn’t dance, because the seams would never have held, but for reclining gracefully it would do very well, indeed. And she’d waited for Rohan to make his appearance.


He was so late she was almost afraid he wouldn’t come at all, destroying her plan and her hard-won confidence. Men had surrounded her, Harry Merton had flirted delightfully, and she told herself she should forget about Rohan entirely, when suddenly he had appeared, tall and forbidding, with his dark cat’s eyes and high cheekbones. He was furious with her, she realized as he stalked toward her. That was as good a start as any.


She probably should have calmed him down first before springing her plan on him. She knew very well he didn’t wish to get involved with her, though she couldn’t discern why. It wasn’t as if anyone would think he’d compromised her.


She glanced over at him speculatively. He was talking with Harry Merton now, his saturnine face amused, and despite Emma’s warning she mentally compared the two men. Mr. Merton was by far the more traditionally handsome. A bit shorter than Rohan, he had a square, muscular build that was possibly more pleasing than Rohan’s lean, elegant length. His riotous curls, his sunny smile, his flattering eyes matched his charming, shallow nature. He was at such odds with Rohan’s intense gaze and cynical visage that it made him the obvious choice for her first official affaire. And yet he faded into obscurity standing next to Benedick.


Benedick. It should have felt strange to think of him by his Christian name. Instead it felt oddly right.


A servant was hovering close at hand, and she signaled to him. If she were the kind of woman who let setbacks affect her, then she would have curled up in a ball years ago and shut out the world. So Viscount Rohan insisted she was the last woman in the world he’d have an affaire with?


It was time to show him otherwise.


24


Benedick was determined not to look back. He could feel her dark blue gaze on him, almost like a brand. Damn the woman! As if things weren’t bad enough.


“She’s a pretty bit of pastry, ain’t she?” Harry said appreciatively. “I never realized how tempting Charity might be.”


“Not tempting for you, my lad,” Benedick replied. “She needs a good man, and I know from old acquaintance that you are most definitely not he.”


“I beg your pardon!” Harry protested. “I’m an absolute lamb!” He giggled. “Not that she’s the mistress type. She’s the sort to get leg-shackled or I miss my guess. Not out for bit of hide-the-sausage.”


Benedick controlled his urge to glare at him.


“Exactly. Which is why I’m keeping my distance, as well.”


“It didn’t appear that way a few days ago…


Elsmere’s closet seemed put to good use.”


How could he have forgotten that little tidbit? The woman was scrambling his brains. He still had the garter he’d taken from her. For some odd reason he carried it with him. Perhaps to remind him of how much trouble she was. “It was enjoyable enough,” he acknowledged. “But you’re right, she needs a husband whether she realizes it or not, and you might have a difficult time escaping.”


It had been exactly the right thing to say. Harry shuddered. “Heavens! That’s the last thing I want.”


In for a penny, in for a pound, Rohan thought. “And I doubt she’d be to your liking between the sheets. Despite my best efforts she lay there stiff as a board, and if you think you could get her to do anything more than lie on her back you’d be sadly mistaken. She thinks mouths were meant for closed kisses and nothing more.”


Fortunately Harry was too much of a shatter-brain to notice that tonight was the first time in their decades-long acquaintance that Rohan had ever participated in gutter talk. “Good God,” Harry breathed. “I’d best steer clear of her. Next thing I know she’ll start putting out her lures toward me, especially if you’ve dropped her. In fact, I believe she already has tonight. I count this a fortunate escape. Thank you, old man. I appreciate the warning.”


Rohan bared his teeth in what should have been a smile. “It’s the least a friend could do.”


He finally allowed himself to turn then, to glance back at her, but there were too many people in the way, obscuring her divan. Probably surrounded by more fawning young men, he thought sourly. He couldn’t very well scare them all off—he’d have to count on her unstoppable energy to terrify the rest of them.


“Merton!” A voice came from behind him, light and affected, and he turned around to find himself looking down into Arthur Pennington’s bloodshot eyes. Pennington glanced at him and an expression of uneasiness came into his eyes, and Rohan wondered why. Did Pennington suspect they’d been in the tunnels at Kersley Hall? But how was that even possible?


“Rohan,” he said in a high-pitched voice. “Didn’t know it was you.”


“Your servant, Pennington,” he said politely. “Have you been keeping yourself busy?” It was a loaded question, but he could hardly hope Pennington was about to confess to all his debauched pastimes.


He was surprised. Pennington’s tight grin was positively salacious. “Indeed, I have. Not that it’s for public knowledge, but a few of us have been having quite a grand time…”


“Lord Elsmere’s attempting to gain your attention,” Harry said suddenly, then giggled. “Excuse me, Pennington, didn’t mean to interrupt.”


But Benedick was not about to let Pennington go if he felt inclined to be informative. “Harry, would you do me the great favor of seeing if Elsmere is interested in a game of cards?”


A look of unexpected frustration crossed Harry’s face, but then he smiled again. “Of course. I need hardly worry that you’d believe any of Pennington’s fairy tales.”


Pennington failed to look offended, probably because he hadn’t heard Harry’s deprecating comment. “In fact I need to talk to you,” Pennington said, his speech slightly slurred. “It’s important.”


Harry’s affability had vanished, a singular occurrence. Benedick didn’t remember when he’d seen Harry less than amused by life.


“’Bout my plague-y sister,” Pennington continued.


Did he imagine the lessening of tension surrounding him? But why would Harry be tense? He couldn’t imagine anyone less likely to be involved with the Heavenly Host. As far as he knew, Harry, for all his talk, didn’t particularly like women, and he was far too good-humored to be involved in such a furtive, ugly affair.


Normally he’d fob Pennington off with some excuse. The last thing he wanted to do was be pressured into making an offer for Dorothea. For someone who had seemed so promising a month ago she’d devolved into his idea of hell on earth. He’d take Melisande first.


No, he wouldn’t, he reminded himself. At least Dorothea would leave him alone. Melisande would cling to whomever she ended up with. She would hover and suggest and scream bloody murder if he strayed. She would love him, and the very thought filled him with complete horror.


He gave his version of an affable smile, and Pennington missed the cold glint in his eye. “What may I do for you, Pennington?”


“It’s m’sister, don’t you know,” Pennington said, straining to be affable. “She wanted me to chat you up, give you a little hint. She asked me to invite you to our country place this weekend, and I told her I was busy but she wouldn’t hear of it.”


“And are you busy, Mr. Pennington?”


If anything he looked even more strained. Pennington might not be very nice, but he was far from bright, either. “I am, Lord Rohan. So you see, I can’t possibly invite you. But Dorothea wouldn’t hear of it. She’s not getting any younger, of course, and she’s got the personality of a viper.” He suddenly realized how that might sound to a prospective suitor, and immediately attempted to regain lost ground. “A pet viper,” he said hastily. “A very nice tame one. And only to her brother, of course. Sisters are the very devil.”


Benedick thought back to his own younger sister, married to the monster. If Miranda insisted on staying with someone so completely unsuitable she might at least have had the grace to be miserable about it, instead of ridiculously, breathlessly happy.


No, he didn’t want his sister miserable. He just didn’t want her with the Scorpion. But that was the least of his worries right now. “They are, indeed,” he said politely.


“But you’ll come the following week, won’t you? You’re the closest she’s come to an offer in years. Men seem just about ready to come up to scratch when she frightens them off. You don’t strike me as a man who frightens easily.”


If he offered for Dorothea this would be another idiot he’d have to rescue from the machinations of the Host, he thought, annoyed. And possibly his old friend Harry, as well. Three of them, as well as Melisande’s virginal trollop. He may as well do his best to bring down the entire organization—it would be easier than picking and choosing.

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