Page 41

Author: Anne Stuart


She placed a hand over her swelling stomach. “Perfectly.”


He stared at her. “Good God, are you increasing again? How many children is this, twenty-seven?” Another hideous thought struck him. “They aren’t here, are they? Because while I adore your children this is hardly the time for a social visit, and there are things going on…”


“This will be my sixth baby, and the other five are back at home with their nanny. This isn’t a social visit, darling. Lucien and I are here for a reason, and you’re just going to have to swallow your outrage for the time being and put up with us.”


At that moment he was incapable of moving, but he grunted unencouragingly. The moment he could get to his feet he was heading straight for the Scorpion again.


“What reason?” A sudden fear struck him. “Father and Mother…are they all right?”


“Perfectly fine, as far as I know, and it’s a good thing they’re still in Egypt and not here to watch you make such an utter cake of yourself.”


“And that’s why you’re here?” The wheeze had almost gone out of his voice. “To make me behave?”


“Hardly. We’re come to stop Brandon from destroying his life. You seem to have forgotten his very existence, but Lucien had it from good authority that the Heavenly Host has…”


“Regathered, yes I know,” Benedick said, managing to sit up. “You didn’t need to come all the way down here and subject me to your husband’s presence in order to tell me that. I have the matter well in hand.”


“Yes. It really seems like it.” She sounded skeptical, as only a sister could. “And exactly where is Brandon now? Richmond said he moved out a couple of days ago and hasn’t been seen since.”


“I’ll find him,” Benedick snarled, his eyes narrowing as he saw Lucien looking at him.


“The question is, will you find him in time?” the Scorpion asked in a deliberately civil tone. “Or not until he’s slaughtered some innocent female and gone beyond any hope of a future.”


“Why should he slaughter an innocent female?” Benedick snapped. “I’m still presuming those rumors about a virgin sacrifice are highly embroidered, even though I’ve promised to check them out. I never thought you so gullible that you’d come haring down all the way from the Lake District.”


“They aren’t rumors, Neddie,” Miranda said in a quiet voice. “Lucien knows people—his sources are unimpeachable. They’re planning some hideous ritual on the night of the full moon, involving an innocent girl, and our brother has been chosen to wield the knife. And apparently he’s so far lost to drink and opium that there’s no common sense left to stop him.”


“Why would he be chosen?” Benedick demanded.


“No one has any idea who’s in charge, who chose him, or why,” Lucien said. “But my sources are never wrong. If we don’t find Brandon before tomorrow night, it will be too late. We haven’t the faintest idea where they’re planning to meet, and…”


“That’s where you’re wrong. I know exactly where they’re meeting, and if we haven’t found Brandon before then I suppose I can go and stop them myself.” He got to his feet, albeit a little shakily; his hangover and the recent sucker punch still left him reeling. He glanced at Malheur, wondering if he dared go for him again, but Miranda was in the way, and he expected she’d make certain to keep between them from now on. He’d have to wait to wipe the smirk off that toad-sucking son of a bitch.


“And if we do find Brandon? Are you going to stand by and let some poor innocent be murdered?” his sister demanded, for all like the woman he’d just sent from his life. Why did they all have to be so damned emotional?


“All sorts of poor innocents get murdered every day, Miranda. I can hardly be responsible for them,” he drawled.


“You can if you know about them.” Her fine eye narrowed. “What’s happened to you, Neddie?”


Fallen in love, he thought morosely, and then froze. Where had those words come from? At least he hadn’t said them out loud; he only had himself to chastise. “I’m a practical man,” he said instead. He looked away. For some reason the disappointment in Miranda’s eyes was too painful.


He was becoming adept at disappointing women, he thought sourly. Perhaps he deserved a cold-blooded bitch like Dorothea Pennington after all.


“Miss Dorothea Pennington has arrived to see you,” Richmond announced from the doorway, like a voice from the grave. It had to be some bloody sign.


He shoved his hair away from his face, wincing as his hand bounced against his head wound. “Tell her I’ll join her directly.”


“Dorothea Pennington?” Miranda said, aghast. “What in the world has that mean-hearted piece of work got to do with anything? I thought you were…were involved with Lady Carstairs.”


He wanted to whirl around and snap like an angry cur, but he kept his temper in check, saying the one thing he knew would horrify her. “Your sources are nowhere near as reliable as you seem to think. I intend to marry Miss Pennington, of course.”


29


By the time he managed a hasty wash and changed his ruined clothes Benedick had kept Miss Pennington waiting a goodly amount of time. Miranda had flatly refused to entertain her while he made himself halfway presentable, so he’d sent Richmond in with sugar cakes and tea while he stripped, washed, changed and took one horrified look at himself in the mirror.


The cut above his eyebrow was absurdly small to have caused so much blood, and it did little to distract from his bloodshot eyes and the circles beneath them. He needed to be shaved as well, but there was hardly enough time to manage that. Richmond usually did the honors, and if he attempted it himself, he’d probably cut his throat.


Which, in retrospect, wouldn’t be a bad thing.


Well, if they were to be married, she’d be seeing him unshaven, across the sheets of the marriage bed. He shuddered, instinctively, and paused outside the door to the blue salon. He shouldn’t have had Richmond put her in there. He’d spent too much time with Charity Carstairs in that room.


Though presumably he’d be sharing his bedroom, his bed with Miss Pennington. The same room and bed he’d shared with Melisande. If anything would lay her ghost it would be Dorothea’s pinched face.


Straightening himself, he opened the door.


Miss Pennington was sitting by the fire, ramrod straight, her gloved hands folded perfectly in her lap, her face set in impatient lines. It was a handsome face, he realized with surprise. Good bones, clear skin, symmetrical, with wide-set eyes and a Cupid’s bow of a mouth. If she were a little softer, she might have been considered a beauty. Perhaps he could soften her.


She turned to look at him, rising, and there was disapproval in those flinty eyes. “You hardly look ready to receive guests, Rohan,” she observed.


“Indeed, I must ask your pardon. I decided I had kept you waiting for too long and hoped you would forgive me my dishabille.”


She didn’t look like she was about to forgive anything, but then she smiled, mechanically. “Of course, dear sir.” She sank back down, allowing him to take the chair he so badly needed.


“And to what do I owe the extreme and unexpected honor of your visit, Miss Pennington?” He had no idea whether it was his hangover or the blow on his head, but he could fathom no reason at all why she’d be here.


“It’s dreadfully forward of me, I know, but I hadn’t seen you in a while, and I was concerned. I wanted to assure myself that you were quite well.”


He hoped the hunted feeling didn’t show on his face. She was like a prize spaniel in search of its prey. Except that he liked spaniels.


“Quite well, Miss Pennington. I beg your pardon—I’ve been dealing with a pressing family matter.” He glanced around, desperate to change the topic. “But you haven’t touched your tea. Allow me to ring for fresh…”


“No, thank you, Rohan. I have a strong dislike of sweets and consider afternoon tea to be a weakness of the constitution.”


He couldn’t help it. The plate was piled high with the sweet cakes that Melisande adored. Left alone with them, she probably wouldn’t have left a crumb. There was something so…reassuring about a woman with an honest appetite.


He wiped the thought from his mind. Dorothea Pennington wasn’t improving his headache, and the sooner she departed the better. “So true,” he said vaguely, knowing he would give his right arm for a cup of even lukewarm tea. “And how may I assist you, Miss Pennington?”


Her posture was so rigidly correct that he would have said it impossible, but she seemed to draw herself up even more. “May I be frank, Lord Rohan?”


“I wish you would, my dear Miss Pennington.”


“I think we should be married.”


It was a good thing he wasn’t drinking tea—he would have choked. As it was he kept his expression schooled, shielding his shock. “I beg your pardon?”


“Yes, I know, it’s completely forward of me, but you and I are mature people, and you have already shown a marked partiality toward me. Several people have noted it, and I am certain you would never have paid such particular attention without meaning to follow through. You are, above all things, a gentleman, and I know I can count on you to behave as you ought. You would never bring me a moment’s shame, and your title, though connected to a name that is ramshackle in the extreme, is high enough that a Pennington would not blush to be connected. My family goes back to William the Conqueror, and we may look as high as we please when it comes to marriage, but I think you and I should suit extremely. I would like to get married in the fall, and it takes a great deal of time to arrange a wedding on the magnitude that would befit a Pennington, and I really cannot afford to be patient any longer. I decided it would make things a great deal simpler if I took the bull by the horns, so to speak.”


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