He heard Miranda’s gurgle of laughter from beside him, and he realized how much he had missed that sound. Missed his sister. So much that he’d stomach the Scorpion to have her back in his life.
Miss Pennington was glaring. “You insult me, sir. If you think I don’t know that my brother has been disporting himself with those gentlemen then you think I’m a great deal stupider than I am. There’s a difference—their activities are held in secret, among their own class, and the only ones who are hurt are whores and peasants.”
“Peasants, Miss Pennington? That seems an oddly archaic term. Do you still keep serfs on your estates in Cumberland? Oh, but I forgot. Your father lost all the family estates years ago, leaving you forced to marry for money. Though why in heaven’s name you thought I’d be a suitable choice astounds me.”
“I assumed you were a man who shared my values and opinions,” she said tightly. “Apparently I was quite deluded in my opinion.”
“Quite, thank God,” Miranda broke in.
Dorothea Pennington refused to even acknowledge her. “I’m afraid, sir, that the engagement is off.”
“I’m afraid, my dear Miss Pennington, that the engagement was never on. You are the very last woman I would consider marrying.”
He could almost imagine smoke coming out of those perfect, shell-like ears.
“No decent woman would have you,” she hissed.
“Now that’s where you’re wrong. You may expect a happy announcement from me quite soon.” He wasn’t quite sure why he said it—it seemed to spring into his mouth from nowhere.
“Do not bother to send me an invitation.” Her voice was frosty.
“He won’t,” his cursed interfering sister volunteered. “I don’t believe Lady Carstairs would want you anywhere near her.”
He jerked to look down at her in astonishment when Miss Pennington let out an outraged shriek. “Lady Carstairs?” she cried. “Charity Carstairs? You’re marrying her? Why, she must be thirty years old.”
Damn his sister—he should drown her in the Thames as well. “I have yet to ask her,” he temporized.
“But she’ll say yes,” Miranda jumped in. “Because they’re in love. You don’t know the meaning of the word, Dorothea Pennington, and you never will. Now go away, do. We have a wedding to arrange.”
If the exquisitely well-behaved Dorothea Pennington had something near at hand she would have thrown it, Benedick decided, horror and amusement warring for control. He watched her stalk from the room, and he could tell from her horrified shriek when she clapped eyes on his scarred brother-in-law, lazily stretched out in the hall. They waited until they heard the front door slam, and then he turned to Miranda.
“What the hell did you mean, I’m marrying Melisande?” he demanded in a choked voice. “I most certainly am not.”
Her smile broadened. “I know you better than you think, Neddie. Stop fighting it. You want her, whether it’s practical or not. You should have her.”
“We don’t suit,” he said stiffly. “Besides, she despises me.”
“Well, that’s always a good sign. But we can deal with your love life later, once we’ve found Brandon. Any idea where he might have gone?”
He gave up then. His head ached too much to deal with all of this, and Dorothea Pennington would hardly be likely to spread rumors of her former suitor’s engagement—it would reflect too badly on her. He would have a few days to sort things out.
“Brandon,” he agreed, heading toward the open door. Lucien de Malheur was still there, an ironic expression on his face. He tensed when he saw Benedick, as if expecting another assault.
“I’m not going to kill you now,” Benedick said. “We need to fetch Brandon.”
“You’re not going to kill me ever,” Lucien said lazily, getting to his feet, his gold-headed cane in one strong hand. “Lead on, MacDuff.”
It started as a soft scratching on her bedroom door, the one Melisande had locked before she’d collapsed into bed. That much she could ignore. It was morning, and she’d just gone to bed, and it simply wasn’t fair to try to wake her. She put the pillow over her head as the scratching went to a soft knock.
“Open the door, Melisande.” Emma’s soft voice came from the other side. “I need to talk to you.”
She didn’t need to talk with anyone. Emma would know full well that she hadn’t returned home last night, and she would know where she’d been and what she’d been doing. And that was absolutely the last thing Melisande had any intention of discussing.
The knocking grew louder, penetrating the layers of feathers and laudanum-induced fog, and Melisande rolled over, cursing. From the angle of the sun she could tell it was early morning, not much past six. She hadn’t closed her curtain, but the overcast sun was still an annoyance. Why should anyone expect her to wake up at such an ungodly hour when she’d been out all night and…
And not returned home until after nine in the morning. She’d slept the day and night away, wrapped in misery and laudanum, and they were one day closer to the solstice. Bloody hell.
Emma was pounding by now, and the wood door was shaking in its frame. Melisande sat up, groaning, and climbed out of bed. She was vaguely aware that her ankle wasn’t bothering her as she limped toward the door. Vaguely aware that muscles she hadn’t known she had were protesting. And she wasn’t going to examine that thought too closely.
By the time she opened the door, Emma was using both fists, and one look at her expression and Melisande’s bruised heart sank. Something was very wrong, indeed.
She looked past Emma to the gaggle, all in various states of undress, watching them. “When did you last see Betsey?” Emma demanded breathlessly.
“This morning,” Melisande replied immediately, confused.
“Oh, thank God.”
“At least, I think so,” she added. “What day is it? Friday?”
Emma’s relief vanished. “It’s Saturday. You’ve slept the clock around. Do you mean you haven’t seen Betsey since yesterday morning? Where was she?”
“In the library. We talked for a bit. She was missing Aileen, and worried about the future. I told her she could stay here as long as she wanted, and then she went down to visit Cook. Did you ask Mollie Biscuits?”
“Of course I did!” Panic was shredding Emma’s usual calm. “She said Betsey came in, helped her with the bread, then took some pasties and said she was going to eat them out in the sun. Mollie thinks she was heading for St. James Park, but we can’t be certain. She might have walked farther ahead to Green Park or even all the way to Hyde Park. And she never came back. No tea, no supper, and her bed hasn’t been slept in.”
“She wouldn’t have run away,” Melisande said flatly, trying to force her brain into full working mode despite the lingering effect of the damned laudanum.
“Of course not. Which means only one thing.”
The gaggle were listening avidly, but they were all women of the world, and knew the answer as well as she did. “It means she was taken.”
“No!” Mollie Biscuits let out a cry, tears running down her plump cheeks. “Not that poor wee child!”
“It’s the Heavenly Host,” Violet piped up helpfully, causing the rest of the gaggle to start talking, so loudly that Melisande could barely think.
“Enough!” Emma cried, temporarily shutting them up while doing absolutely nothing for Melisande’s headache. “If they’ve taken her, and there’s no guarantee that they did, then Lady Carstairs can get her back. She’s been working very hard this week, and Viscount Rohan has been assisting her. Cook, bring us up a pot of strong tea and some of those little cakes you’ve been experimenting with. Violet, you take the others and go out looking. It’s always possible that Betsey simply got lost and found an alley to sleep in. She had to do it often enough when she was younger, poor thing.”
“Yes, Mrs. Cadbury,” Violet said importantly. “And lord knows she’s at a good age. Too old for the gents who like the young ones, yet not old enough for those who like a bit of meat with their brisket.” She plumped her full breast with one hand.
“What does that even mean?” Long Jane, beside her, demanded.
“It means she’s got a good chance at being safe enough,” Sukey said. “God willing.” Sukey’s tenure with the bishop had left some of his piety intact.
There were a few added “God willings” from the more religious of the gaggle, as they slowly started to disperse, and Emma took Melisande’s arm, hurrying her back into her bedroom.
“I’ll help you dress,” she said briskly. “We haven’t any time to waste.” She paused enough to look at her. “I wish we had time to talk about your night with Rohan, but Betsey’s been gone for far too long, and we can’t afford to waste any more time.”
“Nothing happened,” Melisande said stoutly.
“God give me strength,” Emma muttered, pulling the robe off her shoulders. “Of course it did. You just don’t want to talk about it, which I assume means he either botched the job or you didn’t like it. Whichever it was, we can deal with it later.”
“There’s nothing to be dealt with. I told you, nothing happened.” She let Emma hand her into one of her narrow walking dresses, then began fastening the long row of buttons up the front.
“Then why is your body adorned with such interesting signs, may I ask you? Clearly my lord Rohan likes to mark his partners, though that must be something new. Unusual for someone who prides himself on his self-control.”
Melisande touched her breast instinctively, then snatched her hand away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I fell.”
“Of course you did. And the bruise just happens to be the size and shape of a mouth. I didn’t see teeth marks, which is a good thing. The ones who leave teeth marks can be a little strange.”
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