Page 35

Author: Anne Stuart


“I’m afraid your sister has read too much into my attentions,” he said quite formally. “While I hold her in great esteem I was not, in fact, contemplating making her an offer.”


Pennington bowed, taking his refusal politely. “I told her that,” he drawled. “Told her you were too smart not to see through her.”


“But I’m interested in this weekend, Pennington,” he went on smoothly. “I haven’t heard of any particular social event being held. Have I somehow been deemed unworthy of an invitation? I confess I’m not sure how I could have offended.” An arrant lie. He very often offended people, and while he regretted it, he wasn’t sure there was much he could do about it. One thing he could say for Melisande Carstairs—she was remarkably difficult to offend.


“Oh, no, nothing of the sort,” Pennington said, assessing him. “It’s…well, you know, these things are all hush-hush, secret society mumbo jumbo and all that. A bunch of us have revived a…er…fraternal organization, and we’re holding a little gathering this weekend. You’re welcome to join us.” The invitation was automatic, and then memory darkened Pennington’s countenance. “Except, of course, that it is a secret society, and we don’t let anyone in who hasn’t been thoroughly vetted.”


Benedick gave him his slow, cynical smile. “Are you telling me I wouldn’t pass the standards of this secret organization? I believe my family has been the making of it.”


For a moment Pennington lost his cool composure. “I could ask, of course. Can’t see the harm in it myself, but you never can tell. Some of the members are downright ridiculous. But then, it’s supposed to be a special gathering. Some dashed pagan holiday or suchlike. Can’t pay attention to that sort of thing. Best wait till the next time. I can bring up your name at the meeting and see if anyone has any objections.”


He could just imagine what his brother would say. “Indeed. Enjoy yourself then, Pennington. And give my regards to your sister.”


“Won’t do that… She’ll simply berate me again. Told her she should concentrate on old Skeffington. He’s got just as much blunt as you do, but he hasn’t got a title, and he’s sixty if he’s a day. Stands to reason she’d prefer you. Though I have to say the thought of my sister in bed with anyone is enough to send shivers down my back.”


“Pray, don’t think of it,” Benedick pleaded, a little horrified himself. “I look forward to hearing of her engagement.”


If Harry had seemed slightly odd earlier in the evening, he was all affability and silly stories during their card game with Elsmere and several others. He lost a great deal, but then, Harry had always had a tendency to play too deep and lose too much. At the end of the night Benedick had yet to wrest an invitation to the weekend’s festivities, no matter how many broad and subtle hints he dropped, no matter how decadent he tried to appear. There was no choice for it; he was simply going to have to show up. He wondered if he could still find the old monk’s robes that hung in his parents’ wardrobe. He never knew quite why, and when he’d asked his mother she’d blushed, a singular occurrence, and his father had changed the subject. He’d decided he’d rather not know.


Melisande had left by the time he emerged from the card room, and he felt a moment’s guilt, coupled with disappointment. He should have at least made certain she had an escort home. Clearly she’d taken care of it herself, and he should be relieved. He wasn’t. He’d been looking forward to sparring with her. To telling her he wasn’t going to touch her. Right before he did.


It was after two when he let himself into his house. The servants were all in bed. For once even Richmond wasn’t hovering. He took a candle and started up the stairs, his mind in turmoil. By the time he reached his rooms on the second floor he was yawning. His bedroom door was ajar, with faint light spilling out, and he closed it behind him, setting the candle down to unfasten his neckcloth.


And then froze as he realized he wasn’t alone.


She was sitting in the middle of his bed, waiting for him, and he stared at her in disbelief. She was wearing a nightdress, a warm, old-fashioned one, buttoned all the way to her neck, voluminous and practical. Her long, tawny hair was in two braids, and her face was scrubbed and clean. She looked like a schoolgirl ready for bed—all she needed was a stuffed doll to complete the picture.


“I’d almost given up on you,” she said.


“What are you doing here?” His voice was cold, clipped. He’d been trying so damned hard to do the right thing, and she was stopping him at every turn. He looked at her, and he was furious.


“I would think that would be obvious.” Clearly he’d done his job too well in assuring her she was desirable; there was only the faintest note of uncertainty in her voice.


“Do you really think appearing in a man’s bedroom in the middle of the night is a good idea? Men tend to be the ones who initiate these things.”


“Why?”


“Men have stronger appetites.” He watched her through slitted eyes.


“That’s ridiculous,” she announced. “You’ve already teased me on more than one occasion about my fondness for sweets.”


As if he’d needed any further proof of her innocence. “Not that kind of appetite, you little idiot. I’m talking sexual appetite.”


The word sexual made her blink, and he allowed himself an evil half smile. She wasn’t nearly as bold as she was trying to convince herself she was.


“But if women have weak…sexual appetites then how do you ever manage to have affaires? It seems terribly mismatched.”


“Those with strong appetites tend to drift together, just as couples with little interest in bedsport do, as well.”


“Which are you?” she inquired in a dulcet voice.


It was a weak attempt to rile him, and he didn’t allow himself to react. “I think you know perfectly well the extent of my sexual appetites, Lady Carstairs.”


“You called me Melisande before.”


“And clearly you mistook it for a carte blanche. How can I make this any clearer? Bribery won’t work. I’m not going to let you get involved in this mess any longer, and all the offers won’t have any effect on me. I don’t want you. I don’t desire you. You have nothing I look for in a mistress—you’re inexperienced and clumsy, and your choice of a life of continuing celibacy was probably a very wise decision. Now put your clothes on while I go summon my coach.”


He was almost at the door when he heard the sound. It was just a small noise, something choked back, and he paused. He who hesitates is lost, he thought. And turned.


He’d expected her to rage at him. He expected fiery eyes and flashing words and high dudgeon. Instead she looked as if he’d shot her puppy. Despite the silly high-necked nightgown, she looked stripped bare, whipped and broken, and he cursed his nasty, vicious tongue that he’d never been able to control.


She struggled, bravely, beautifully, giving him a ghost of her insouciant smile as she pushed back the covers. “You know, I think I’ve changed my mind.” She swung her legs over to the side of the bed, and he could see the strapping on one foot.


It was her toes that did it. He’d forgotten about her lovely, straight, pink toes. Absurd, because he never noticed women’s feet—there were always too many more interesting parts to observe somewhere to the north. It was the fragility of them. The humanity of them. He’d been sparring with her for days, thinking of her as an annoyance, entertainment, the enemy, and yes, a sexual toy.


Now she simply looked human, and shattered by his deliberately cruel words. They’d done what he’d intended. She would never come near him again, never look at another man.


And he couldn’t bear it.


He leaned back against the door, closing it again, and he reached behind his back and locked it, pulling out the key. “Too bad,” he said. “Because I’ve changed my mind, as well.”


25


She’d been a complete and utter idiot, Melisande thought, staring at the cool, cynical beauty that was Benedick Rohan. She was doing her best to hide her misery, but he was looking at her from hooded eyes, and she knew he saw through it. He saw her a little too well, past all the careful defenses she’d built up. He’d known her cool self-assurance was mostly a lie; he’d known she looked at him and something inside of her melted, every time, despite his caustic tongue.


Foolish creature that she was, she’d thought she could handle him without getting burned. Of course he would be willing to bed her, she’d thought, never considering that he might outright refuse. After all, she was a widow, not a virgin. He had no reason to demur unless he simply didn’t want her.


He was watching her, reading her every emotion. She tried to summon up her cheerful smile but for once it deserted her. “Changed your mind?” she echoed. “I’m afraid the offer is withdrawn.”


He held out the key. “Convince me.”


Anger flared, hot and hard, and she slid onto the floor, her toes flinching at the cold of the floor-boards. The fire had burned down and the room was chilly. Perhaps Benedick Rohan preferred to sleep in a chilly room. She would never know.


She’d imagined lying in his arms, against his strong, warm body, safe and protected. She’d glossed over the whole unfortunate business that involved naked body parts and wetness and grunting, concentrating on the absurd glory of the way he’d touched her, wanting that again, willing to let him do his worst in order to have it.


But surely someone else could provide the same thing. Granted, Benedick Rohan was an accomplished lover, even the professionals that made up the gaggle knew that. But with their intimate knowledge of half the men in London they could doubtless point her to someone else just as talented and far less…threatening.


And if she found him threatening, why in God’s name had she come here?


Her clothes were in his dressing room, but she couldn’t see disappearing in there and putting them on again. Her cloak lay across the chair by the fire, as well as her thin evening shoes. She could leave in those.

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