“I don’t think you need to worry about Brandon,” Harry said, his voice still jovial despite being slightly slurred. “He’ll be just fine. Best not to interfere or ask too many questions.”
Benedick raised an eyebrow, but Harry was too drunk to notice. Then again, there was little he could do until Brandon was willing to talk to him, to let him into the private hell that had been his dwelling place for the past six months, ever since he’d returned from the Afghan battlefield.
“So tell me, where’s the best establishment for seeking female companionship?” he said, changing the subject, unwilling to have his troubled brother the topic of conversation among a group of drunken aristocrats. “I gather Emma Cadbury has closed her doors.”
“And moved in with Lady Carstairs,” Lord Petersham said mournfully. “And The White Pearl has been abandoned. In fact, several of the most beautiful of highflyers in town have abandoned their profession and either left London or become depressingly respectable. It’s damnable.”
“Are you telling me I can’t find a decent whore in this city? I don’t believe you.”
“Wouldn’t you rather have an indecent whore?” Harry said, then subsided into giggles. Benedick ignored him.
“Oh, there are still a number of reasonable establishments where a gentleman might go for a glass of wine, a hand of cards and female companionship. The night is young!”
For a moment Benedick hesitated, and the fact that he did shocked him. He’d returned to London to assuage his appetites, to feast until he was gorged on sensual pleasures, and yet for a moment he could see those blazing blue eyes, looking at him with utter contempt. Lord, there was nothing more tedious than a zealot.
“Indeed, it is,” he said, rising to his feet, pleased to note that he was almost entirely sober. Sober enough to enjoy himself. A slow, wicked smile lit his face. He looked down at Harry, but his old friend was drifting, and he’d never been one for the ladies. Or the whores, for that matter.
“I do believe I’ll accompany you, Petersham,” he said.
“Capital!” Petersham beamed. “I can promise you clean and willing companionship, with this one little darling who has the most amazing trick of the…”
Melisande Carstairs couldn’t sleep. It was happening more and more often nowadays, and there didn’t seem to be much she could do about it. Usually she kept herself so busy she would tumble into bed in a state of exhaustion more nights than not.
But that had changed recently, and she wasn’t sure why. She would lie abed and try to think peaceful thoughts, but the worries would leach through, and she would fuss over Violet, or Hetty, or young Betsey.
And when she did sleep it was worse. She would wake up, her body damp with sweat, her skin tingling, her entire body reaching for something indefinable and doubtless unpleasant.
That was what had happened tonight. After leaving Viscount Rohan in his disgusting state of arousal she’d come back home and thrown herself into a frenzy of activity, scooping up a handful of girls and leading them down into the kitchens to conduct an impromptu baking session, much to Cook’s dismay. The plump and placid Mollie Biscuits had once been one of the great whores of London, but age and girth and lassitude had drawn her into the kitchen, and once there, she’d never left. She had no problem with other women of doubtful reputation joining her there, she just didn’t like having someone else in charge. If Melisande had any sense, she would have ceded her place and gone back upstairs to look over her accounts.
But she needed the distraction as well as the cinnamon bread and lemon curd biscuits and apricot custard pots de crème. And eventually Cook unbent enough to join in the merriment, with flour and sugar dusting her plump cheeks and apricot preserves staining her apron.
And of course Melisande had eaten too much, she thought, her stomach in an uproar. It had always been a weakness, her passion for sweets, and she turned to them in times of great trial. Though why she should be so overwrought today made no sense. She’d come face-to-face with the slightly infamous Viscount Rohan, and he’d mistaken her for a madam, of all things! Normally that would have amused her, and she would have replied with enough hauteur to depress the pretensions of even the king himself. She was surprised she’d let such a silly thing disturb her.
And it hadn’t been the first time she’d seen him. Twelve years ago, during her first season, he’d been engaged to Annis Duncan and hadn’t eyes for anyone else, including the not very distinguished Melisande Cooper. She’d watch him prowl the dance floor like a great jungle cat, always circling, always one eye on his betrothed. He’d never even noticed her, which was just as well. She had never been the sort to attract the attention of men like him; she knew it, and accepted it without grief. She had no fortune, no title, no lands to inherit. She was ordinary looking, with hair that was neither brown nor blond but a boring kind of in-between shade, and her blue eyes had a tendency to see things a bit too clearly. Gentlemen had never liked that, particularly combined with her alarming habit of speaking her mind. She was also curvy rather than willowy, bustling rather than languid, practical rather than dreamy, and those depressing characteristics had made her one of the leftovers. Those gentlemen still in search of a wife had no choice but to turn to her. And so she had attracted the attention of Sir Thomas Carstairs, and hadn’t had much choice when there were no other offers and her aunt, her only surviving relative, had made it clear that one season was all she was willing to countenance.
She’d married him, perfectly aware that he wasn’t going to last long. He had a wasting disease, he was already coughing blood and his uncertain temper had promised to carry him off quite quickly. He was irritable, critical, much older than she was and the most impatient person she’d ever known.
And she’d loved him.
Indeed, with her care he’d lasted years longer than his doctor had predicted. He’d railed at her, dismissed her, criticized her and loved her in return. And when he died she’d mourned him deeply, much to the surprise of those who knew her.
The odd thing was that she hadn’t realized how wealthy he, and now she, was. He had no issue and no entailments, so her widowhood had made her an instant target of fortune hunters. After her year of mourning she’d returned to London and immediately fallen in love. How was she to know he had pockets to let and a marked preference for willowy beauties. She’d even gone so far as to allow him to seduce her, curious if a young man would be any different than Sir Thomas’s occasional, ineffectual efforts.
It had been both boring and disgusting. Wilfred Hunnicut hadn’t been particularly handsome. He had a weak chin that he tried to disguise with side whiskers, a slightly bowed posture and just the faintest hint of a belly. She had closed her eyes and instead of envisioning calm landscapes, as her aunt had suggested, she instead envisioned someone else pressing her down into the bedclothes, someone who’d looked remarkably like Benedick Rohan. Even that didn’t help, as Wilfred’s hunching and sweating over her proved distracting as he quickly finished his business. She might have been trapped with him if she hadn’t had the good fortune to catch him pressing kisses on a chambermaid.
She’d dismissed her fiancé, retained the chambermaid and decided then and there that she had no need of a man in her life. She would fill it with good works and convivial souls, which, from her years of observation, would doubtless consist of women.
Women were practical, fair-minded, inventive and far less likely to fuss over things. When they did there was usually an underlying reason, and within a few short years she’d had any number of good female friends.
She’d even managed to retain the best of them, despite her peculiar habit of rescuing soiled doves and bringing them home with her, along with their siblings and offspring.
She drew the line at their lovers or pimps. When an unfortunate joined the women of the Dovecote, they relinquished their old ways of earning a living in return for learning a decent trade.
For some reason she couldn’t ever picture Violet Highstreet hunched over a needle in a decent milliner’s shop. Though she had an eye for fashion—she’d doubtless be excellent at designing hats. If she was patient enough to learn her craft, which she most certainly wasn’t.
But I like it, she’d wailed, and Melisande couldn’t get that picture out of her mind. Any more than she could forget Benedick Rohan’s dark eyes sweeping over her in thinly veiled contempt.
Of course, he’d thought she was a madam. But she suspected he would have shown more respect for an abbess than a do-gooder. Charity Carstairs, they called her behind her back.
Well, so be it. There were worse names to be called, and the only people who’d ever flattered her had been seeking her money. But with her belated wisdom she could simply ignore the handsomest fortune hunter and rejoice in the fact that she didn’t have to go through the indignity of that again. What reasonable woman would want to?
Warm milk and biscuits would help things, she decided, wrapping a shawl around her nightgown and sticking her feet in soft, fur-lined slippers. She headed out into the hall, moving as quietly as she could so as not to wake the others.
The ground floor of Carstairs House held the training rooms nowadays, plus her small office and library. The first floor held her formal salon and bedrooms for herself and her staff. Emma Cadbury had the adjoining room, with several of the older women sharing rooms toward the back of the house. She’d put Violet in one of them, simply because she was older than most of the girls on the second-and third-floor bedrooms. It might have been a mistake.
There wasn’t a sound as she crept down the hall. She had no idea whether Violet had slipped out the moment she had a chance, to go running back to Viscount Rohan. It was hard to convince a beautiful young woman that she was better off laboring under difficult terms for pence rather than pounds for lying on her back, though Melisande couldn’t figure out why. Surely any reasonable woman would willingly take a cut in her income simply for the chance not to have to let a man do those things to her. She shivered slightly, thinking of Rohan’s dark eyes as he’d watched her. Finish what Violet started, indeed!
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