Page 39

Author: Anne Stuart


“That’s very kind of you.” She struggled for a moment, then remembered his name. “Richmond,” she added, and was rewarded with his smile.


“It’s my honor, your ladyship. May I offer you my arm?”


She took it. She didn’t want to lean on him, didn’t want his kindness, but she really had no choice. They made their way down the flights of stairs with stately grace, and the pain was a welcome distraction from that stronger, bleaker pain inside her. By the time he handed her into Rohan’s town carriage she was biting her lip to keep from crying out, a film of sweat covering her forehead. She’d been an idiot, as always. If she’d simply stayed home, as Rohan had instructed her, this never would have happened. She would be in happy ignorance of the wonders of the flesh, and she could continue to think of Rohan as an annoyingly attractive thorn in her side.


She sat very still on the seat as she was conveyed the short distance to King Street, and she directed the coachman to take her around the back, to the garden entrance, rather than up the twelve steep marble steps to the front door. She was handed down with great care, far more care than Rohan had ever shown toward her, and she limped up onto the terrace, pushing open the French doors that led to what had once been a salon and now served as a sewing room. The house was still and quiet, the gaggle still asleep in their chaste beds, while she had been carousing.


She couldn’t think of them as the gaggle any longer. That had been his term for them, and he was no longer any part of her life. She moved into the deserted hallway, glancing up at the interminable flights of stairs.


She couldn’t face them. She went into the front room, where she and Emma both had desks, and sank down on the chaise, leaning back and closing her eyes. The morning was still and quiet and beautiful, and she had a new life to begin. What a glorious morning, how delighted she was with her little experiment, and how good it was that Rohan had retained his boredom with her while proffering her exquisite, sublime pleasure.


Indeed, life couldn’t be much better.


“Are you crying, miss?” A small, anxious voice came from the general vicinity of the banked fire, and Melisande made a damp, choking noise as a bundle of rags emerged from the shadows. It took a moment for her vision to clear through her streaming tears, and she saw Betsey’s bright young face, creased in uncharacteristic worry as she looked up at her.


For a moment Melisande’s voice refused to obey her. She struggled, then managed to come out with something faintly akin to a conversational tone. “My ankle is paining me, Betsey.”


“Yes, miss.”


Betsey was still proving remarkably stubborn when it came to proper forms of address, and Melisande knew she should instruct her in the proper form. Your ladyship for a titled female, miss for an untitled one. On no account was she a miss, and yet Betsey persisted, possibly because the only comfort and safety she’d known had been provided by a miss long ago.


Melisande swiftly wiped the dampness away from her cheeks. “What are you doing up so early, Betsey?”


Betsey moved into the light, and Melisande could see that the child had been crying as well, and her own heart turned over. “I couldn’t sleep, miss. I curl up down here when I can’t. That way, when Aileen comes back, she’ll be able to find me right away.”


It took all Melisande’s self-control not to wail. Aileen wasn’t coming back; of that one thing she was absolutely certain. Whether the Heavenly Host had murdered her, or Aileen had simply run off to a place where she didn’t have to work quite so hard, Melisande didn’t know. She only knew she wouldn’t be back.


“You need your bed, child.”


“You do, as well, your ladyship.”


Melisande smiled briefly. For once Betsey had got it right. “I’ll tell you what. You and I will both go up to our beds. I’ll leave word with Mrs. Cadbury that you’re to be allowed to sleep late today, and by the time we’re both up and dressed we’ll both be feeling much better. Does that sound like a good idea?”


Betsey looked at her doubtfully. “I don’t think I’ll be feeling better until Aileen comes back. I don’t know what I can do if she doesn’t come home.” She yawned unselfconsciously, and for the first time that morning Melisande felt like smiling.


“You can stay here for as long as you want to,” she said, and paused. “If Aileen doesn’t come back, you still have more than twenty women who’ll be your older sisters.”


“Not Cook,” Betsey said judiciously. “She says I get in the way. She’s more like a mum. But she says I might not be a total disaster in the kitchen.”


Melisande did smile then. “That’s good news. If you learn to cook you’ll always have a job.”


“Violet says working’s harder than lying on your back. I think she’s wrong, though.”


“She is wrong. If you don’t feel like sleeping, you could go down to the kitchens. Cook is usually awake by now, starting the bread. She could use the help.”


“Yes, miss.” Your ladyship had been forgotten once again, but Melisande simply nodded. If Mollie Biscuits was taking Betsey under her wing then the child would be well looked after and well trained. One less soul she had to worry about.


She waited until Betsey had vanished, then struggled to her feet. She needed her bed; she needed a bath to wash away the taste and the touch and scent of him on her skin. It was time to put that part of her life behind her. She had no choice but to trust his word. He would stop the Heavenly Host.


In the meantime, she had to move ahead with her own life. The wicked temptation of Benedick Rohan belonged in the past. The future lay bright and bold in front of her. All she had to do was get through the next twenty-four hours and she’d be fine, perfectly fine.


She locked her bedroom door. She cried as she washed herself, cried as she took her clothes and shoved them into a hamper. Cried as she took a clean shift and drawers, new stockings and garters and then climbed into her narrow bed. It wasn’t until she closed her eyes that she remembered he’d lain with her in that bed, his body covering hers as his deft fingers pinched out the candlelight, leaving them alone in the darkness.


And it was then that the foolish tears finally stopped, as the pain wrapped around inside her, crushing her into silence. She rolled over on her stomach, burying her face in the soft feather pillow, wondering if it was humanly possible to smother oneself.


It didn’t matter. It was over. Time to move on.


There was still laudanum in the bottle beside the bed. This time she didn’t hesitate. She took her dose, swallowed it and closed her eyes, waiting for oblivion to come, for the waves of pain in her ankle to cease.


It took far too long. In the distance she could hear Emma’s voice, calling someone, but it wasn’t her. And it didn’t matter. They could wait. Just for this one day she wasn’t going to take care of anyone but herself.


Just this one day.


27


Benedick was a man who could hold his liquor. At times in his life he’d been a three-bottle man and still been able to hold an intelligent conversation and make his way home without stumbling. The ability to drink and not show it was almost more important to being a gentleman than paying one’s gambling debts, and when he was seventeen years old his father, a re-formed rake and ne’er-do-well, had taught him those salient social graces, much to his mother’s annoyance. Then again, Charlotte Rohan had always been alarmingly strong-minded. She’d had to be, to deal with his charming father’s ways, and Adrian Rohan had ended up being that most original of creatures, a devoted husband, much to his secret embarrassment.


Like father like son. It didn’t matter that the world considered the Rohans to be profligates and degenerates—the moment they found their soul mates they became, if not the epitome of righteous behavior, at least excellent husbands. Even his distant cousin Alistair, one of the founding members of the Heavenly Host, had retired to Ireland with his English bride and lived out an exemplary life breeding horses and children and worshipping his wife.


His own grandfather, Francis Rohan, had been the stuff of legend, which had been difficult to imagine when he thought of the charming and devoted old man he’d adored. He’d been unable to keep his eyes or his hands off his plump grandmother, much to his father’s embarrassment, but in truth, his father was just the same.


Benedick had had every intention of following in the family tradition. He’d sown his wild oats, even attended a few of the waning gatherings of the Heavenly Host before falling in love with Annis Duncan. They should have lived happily ever after, with that same comfortable devotion that had been a shining example.


But apparently his generation was cursed. His darling Annis had died, and he could no longer remember what she looked like. His second attempt had been disastrous, confirming the suspicion that the luck of the wicked Rohans had run out. His brother Charles had married a prig, his brother Brandon was courting ruin and an early death, and his sister Miranda had married her kidnapper, a master of thieves, for God’s sake! And had the effrontery to be happy about it.


Benedick leaned back in his chair, eyeing the brandy bottle with a jaundiced eye. He’d been drinking steadily, pacing himself, in order to blot out these very thoughts that were plaguing him. Better to think about his family than that other, horrific memory that was eating at his stomach and heart and soul. Assuming he even had a heart and soul—he took leave to doubt it. He reached for the brandy bottle, missing, and then clasped it. He spilled more than he managed to get in the glass, and he decided it might be wise to forgo the glass altogether for the next round. Less trouble for the servants.


Why he should care about the servants was beyond his comprehension, but that was his mother’s influence again. Why couldn’t he have had some distant mother who never saw her children and left their upbringing to capable nannies? Then he wouldn’t be plagued with such ridiculous concerns like fair treatment for the servants, responsibility for his siblings, general decency.


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