Page 44

Author: Anne Stuart

For a moment the memory, almost physical, of Benedick biting down on her earlobe as her arousal built to hit her like a blow. “Don’t we have something more important to discuss? Has anyone been seen loitering around here? Half of London knows the women live here, but Betsey is the only innocent. It makes no sense that anyone would be searching for a virgin here. Unless Aileen was forced to tell them.”

“I don’t know,” Emma said bleakly. “But I have a very bad feeling about this. Do you want me to have a note delivered to Viscount Rohan, or will you go there directly?”

As if things weren’t desperate enough. She ducked her head so that Emma wouldn’t see the absolute horror that suffused her face. She would go nowhere near Benedick Rohan, ever again. He had made his disdain for her perfectly clear.

Which meant she had to find Betsey on her own. “Have the girls finished with the monk’s robe they were making?”

“It’s in your closet. Does that mean you think the Heavenly Host really did take her?”

“They need a virgin for tomorrow…tonight. How and why they knew is beyond me.” Maybe Rohan had betrayed her and told them in order to rescue his brother. Anything was possible. “I cannot risk losing her. I must go, even if I’m wrong.”

“And you know where they’re meeting? You and the viscount?”

“We do,” she said, sticking to the absolute letter of the truth. “I’m not going to let anything happen to Betsey.” She strode to the wardrobe, caught the dull brown robe in one hand and started limping toward the door.

“You can’t go out with that bad ankle,” Emma said belatedly. “Let me send a message…”

“No! On no account are you to correspond with Viscount Rohan.” The panic was seeping into her voice, but she averted her face on the off chance Emma wouldn’t notice. She was usually far too observant, but her worry over Betsey was bound to distract her. “Just leave it up to me. I wouldn’t want a letter to get into the wrong hands—we certainly don’t want his brother to know we’re so close.”

An odd expression crossed Emma’s face. “Are you certain his brother is tied up with those deviants?”

“Absolutely. According to Benedick…er, Viscount Rohan, his brother is equally fond of the opium pipe and excesses of alcohol. It’s little wonder—he was grievously wounded in the Afghan wars, and he’s yet to recover.” She looked Emma directly in the eyes, unblinking, and flat-out lied to her. “I’ll go there directly and we’ll decide what to do next. You may rely on me. I’ll bring Betsey back.” If it kills me, she thought. If Emma thought she was with Rohan she wouldn’t worry, and it would give her more time to accomplish what she had to do.

She made her way slowly down the two flights of stairs, breathing a sigh of relief that her ankle had definitely improved. By the time she reached the ground floor a hired carriage had been brought round, the gaggle had dispersed in what Melisande knew was a fruitless search for Betsey, and Emma was watching her with a doubtful expression on her face. “I hate to send you out alone,” she said. “But I can’t very well accompany you, and Miss Mackenzie is too elderly to be of any assistance. If it weren’t for Viscount Rohan, I would feel very grave doubts about letting you go.”

Melisande plastered a totally believable smile on her face. “I’ll be perfectly fine, I promise you. We’ve got this well in hand.”

“And what if you’re wrong?” Emma trailed after her. “What if Betsey turns up, none the worse for wear? How can I get in touch with you?”

“If Betsey is safe then so much the better, but it still means that some other innocent is in danger. Even if it’s a stranger I can hardly turn my back on her.” She needed to get out of there, before Emma asked one too many questions and realized she had no intention of going to Rohan at all, before she looked too closely into Melisande’s deliberately limpid gaze.

“Of course. But still…”

“I need to go, Emma. Remember your promise. It would do no good to be in touch with Viscount Rohan—he’ll be out of town with me. I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can, once I’m assured that the Heavenly Host won’t be enacting any cruel rituals.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” Emma said sharply.

“I don’t have time to tell you everything!” Melisande cried. “I’ll explain it all when I get back. But right now there’s no time to waste.”

She finally managed to escape, limping down the front steps to the small carriage awaiting her. Emma had helped her down, giving Rohan’s Bury Street address to the driver, and Melisande had no choice but to sit on the edge of the seat until he turned the corner before knocking at the small hatch.

“Yes, my lady?” The driver inquired.

“I’m afraid my friend had the wrong address. I require you to drive me out of town, to the village of Kersley Mill. It’s only a few hours from London, and you’ll be well compensated.” Her reticule was stuffed with every bit of money the household had boasted, and it should be enough to put the coachman up for the night at the local inn if that was what he preferred.

“Yes, my lady,” he said, and she sat back, breathing a sigh of relief. One hurdle, no, a great many hurdles had been leaped. The rest was up to her.

She only felt a moment’s guilt at misleading Emma into thinking she’d gone to Rohan for help. He’d made it abundantly clear that his only interest in all this was in rescuing his brother. If she wanted to guarantee Betsey’s safety she was on her own.

It had nothing to do with the fact that the very idea of facing Benedick Rohan ever again made her want to curl up into a ball and weep.

She was a stronger woman than that. She didn’t need anyone to help her, particularly not a grudging, cynical, scum-sucking, pig-swiving sack of offal like Benedick Rohan.

The two hours it took her to get to Kersley Mill was more than enough to gird her loins. It was still early in the day, given Melisande’s crack-of-dawn start, and while the driver was loath to drop her off in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, the purse she thrust on him more than made up for any misgivings. It was a warm afternoon, though the day was overcast, and she waited until the coach was out of sight before she found a copse of trees and proceeded to don the monk’s robes.

Unfortunately her petticoats were too full, and she had no choice but to reach under her skirts and untie the tapes that held them. By the time she slid out of all three of them the dull monk’s robe sat a little closer to her body, though she wasn’t sure it would pass close inspection. The trick, then, was not to let anyone get too close.

According to Rohan’s idle conversation on their last trip to Kersley Hall, the original Heavenly Host allowed for certain members to attend ceremonies merely as watchers. If they wore a monk’s robe and had a white ribbon around their arm then they were allowed to pass among the assembled celebrants with a vow of silence, and no one conversed with them nor expected them to partake of the depraved activities. She hadn’t bothered to ask him how he knew of this particular variation—he’d assured her it had been the case some forty years ago, and considering he hadn’t been born back then she took leave to doubt the veracity of that notion, but she had no choice. She could hardly mingle as Charity Carstairs, do-gooder and semivirgin. The only way she was going to find Betsey was if she went in disguised.

She’d overestimated the improvement in her ankle. By the time the ruins of Kersley Hall came into sight she was moving very slowly indeed, and she could only hope she wouldn’t be called on to run for it. She’d be in big trouble if she was.

She’d almost waited too long. It was Saturday—tomorrow was the night of the full moon, the night of virgin sacrifice that Melisande suspected had absolutely nothing to do with the old pagan religions and everything to do with the twisted mentality of the humans involved in this degenerate organization.

The gloomy ruins of Kersley Hall looked as abandoned as they had a few days ago, when she and Rohan had ridden there. Of course they’d run into two of the members that time, even though there’d been no sign of them, so there was no guarantee the place was deserted this time, either. She could see the area where the tunnels had collapsed and they’d fallen through. The collapse could have been caused by the heavy spring rains just as easily as trespassing humans, and she could only hope the members who’d already found it had attributed it to natural causes. Otherwise there was always the devastating possibility that they’d changed their location.

Pulling the cowl up around her head, she moved forward, trying to disguise her limp. She was usually acutely aware when someone was watching her, and thankfully that feeling was absent, but it didn’t hurt to be as circumspect as possible. There was no way she was going to slide back down into the collapsed tunnel—her only way back into the caves was through the abandoned dairy.

She moved carefully, holding her breath as she came up behind the building and peered in the smoke-stained windows. No sign of anyone. Her heart was hammering, her palms were sweating and she wanted to turn back. But running from Benedick Rohan was one thing—that was no one’s business but her own. There was no way she could run from someone in need, no matter how dangerous the situation.

She moved around the front of the building, pushed open the latch and stepped inside. Even in the brightness of the midday sun the room was dark and shadowed, and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. She started for the doors leading down to the tunnels and then stopped.

The door was barred and locked, an ancient padlock the size of a platter holding an equally heavy chain in place. There was no way she was getting past that.

Which meant she had no choice but to see whether she could climb back in using the cave-in, this time without landing on her ankle. Of course, the first time she’d had a full-grown male end up under her, which hadn’t improved matters. And she wasn’t going to think about Benedick Rohan being underneath her anymore. That didn’t help matters, either.


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