She had just reached the door when she heard a noise overhead. A scuffling sound, louder than even the largest rats could make, and she froze, her hair standing on end. If it were any of the Heavenly Host, they would hardly be hiding, she thought, forcing herself to calm down.
There were stairs at the back of the room, and before she could cry off she started up them, as quietly as she could so as not to alert anyone who might be up there. The hallway was dark and deserted, with a doorway on either side, both doors closed and locked. Light was coming through the door on the left, as if there was a window, and she tiptoed toward it, flinching every time a floorboard creaked.
The door had a barred window in it, with no glass, and she stood on her tiptoes, her ankle screaming in protest. At first she could see nothing inside, just a cot, a table and chair, and a bundle of rags. But slowly that bundle of rags began to look familiar, the blue serge that all of her gaggle wore.
“Betsey?” she whispered urgently. “Is that you?”
The bundle stirred, very slowly, and then resolved itself into the familiar figure of a young girl. “Miss?” she said anxiously, her young voice raspy.
“It’s me, Betsey. Are you all right?”
Betsey scrambled to her feet, running over to the door. “Oh, miss, you shouldn’t be here. They’ve locked me in and there’s no way out, and they’re very bad men. You should leave.”
Melisande rattled the door in frustration. “What about the windows? If I were able to find you a rope could you climb down?”
She shook her head. She was filthy—straw in her hair, dirt and what looked like a bruise across her young face. “There are bars on the windows.”
Melisande cursed, and Betsey looked impressed. She looked around her, but the hallway was empty of everything, and she hadn’t even thought to bring the small lady’s pistol she carried with her when she traveled in the more dangerous areas of London. What an idiot she’d been! “I’m going to need to find something to break the lock, Betsey. Just be patient—I’m not walking too well. I hate to leave you locked in here even for another moment, but I’ll try to hurry.”
“I’ll be fine, miss. I’ve been here one night already, and they bring me food and leave me alone. Do you have any idea of why they want me? I ain’t pretty like the others, and I’m too old for those that likes the little ones.”
Melisande didn’t bother to ask her how she knew of such foul practices. After all, the child had lived on the streets for years, just barely managing to maintain her innocence. There would be few things she hadn’t seen or heard.
But she wouldn’t have heard of girls being murdered in a ritual sacrifice, and Melisande wasn’t about to enlighten her. “I don’t know,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter. I’ll be back as soon as I can with help, and we’ll get you away from here, safely back home.”
An odd expression crossed Betsey’s face. “I don’t think so, miss,” she said in a hollow voice.
“You don’t? But why not?” she demanded, puzzled.
The sudden darkness that descended answered all her questions.
The house on Bury Street existed in what could best be called an armed truce. While Benedick would have liked nothing better than to kick his wretched brother-in-law to the street, that would involve losing his sister as well, and he wasn’t in any particular mood to pass judgment on anyone, or to drive another female from his life.
For the time being there wasn’t anything particular that he could do. His brother-in-law had connections in the London underworld, and right now their criminal minions were out and about, scouring the city for any sign of Brandon, and it stood to reason that they would have far more success than he would. Miranda had taken over his library, and was even now making long lists. He was wise enough, or cowardly enough, not to ask why. He had the dreadful suspicion she was already planning his forthcoming nuptials, and he didn’t know how to tell her that Melisande Carstairs wouldn’t have him if he were the last man on earth. She’d ask him why. And he certainly couldn’t tell her.
Which left him with nothing to do for the next few hours but try to recover from his hangover. Soaking in a hot bath for half an hour helped, opening all the windows in his bedroom and letting the warm spring air rush in was even better. He considered seeing if another tot of brandy might finish the job, but his stomach rebelled at the very thought. Which left him, clean and shaved and dreadfully sober, to face the future.
He wasn’t marrying her. Even if she’d have him, which she certainly wouldn’t, he had no intention of leg-shackling himself to such a difficult woman. She’d always be racing off to save some new stray lamb, and if she even caught wind of the Scorpion’s criminal associations she’d probably try to save them, as well. She was a dangerous woman, never content with the status quo, and she would drag whoever was fool enough to marry her along for the ride.
Mind you, she was quite exquisite when she wasn’t on a tirade. She had the softest mouth, the creamiest skin, the loveliest breasts that beaded perfectly beneath his hungry mouth. He could still hear the sound she made when he first thrust inside her, and the other squeaks and murmurs and cries when she climaxed. He could feel the heat of her body beneath him, her arms around his neck, her legs around his hips, pulling him into her. He could close his eyes and remember the weight of her on top of him, head thrown back in mindless delight.
He needed a woman. He needed sex; it didn’t matter with whom. For some reason he’d been unable to summon up even the slightest bit of interest in anyone else ever since he first ran afoul of Charity Carstairs. Now that he’d effectively driven her away for good he should be able to find a suitable bed partner quite easily.
Except…when he went over possibilities in his mind he found he dismissed each one. None of them suited; none of them aroused him in the slightest. Not even Violet Highstreet’s most sophisticated talents could fill him with even the slightest trace of longing. Thinking of Melisande Carstairs’s soft mouth, however…coaxing her to take him. They hadn’t gotten to that particular delight. Now they never would.
His sister walked in without knocking, and he slammed a book over his loins to hide himself from her curious eyes. “People do knock, you know,” he said coldly.
“I knew you were dressed. Besides, I’m not people…I’m your sister.”
“More’s the pity.”
Miranda plopped herself down on the bed, her noticeably pregnant belly making the move cumbersome but still graceful. “How do you manage with that thing?” he demanded, fascinated.
“You get used to it,” she said with a grin. “Don’t you remember with Annis? With Lady Barbara?”
His momentary curiosity vanished. “I prefer not to dwell on those times in my life. Considering that both times the pregnancy led to the death of my wife I can hardly consider the memories to be cheerful ones.”
If she’d showed pity he would have thrown something. Instead she was practical. “Pregnancy is always a difficult prospect. Some women aren’t strong enough for it. Clearly I have the constitution of a broodmare.”
“Even broodmares have a high incidence of birth-related mortality,” he said gloomily. “I raise horses on the side, remember.”
“All right then, think of me as a milk cow. I can drop my calves in the field and keep on munching grass. So can a great many others. Most women, in fact. Just because you had abominable luck doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again.”
“In case you haven’t heard, I have every intention of remarrying and providing an heir. That was why I made the mistake of considering Dorothea Pennington.”
“God help us all,” Miranda said with a shudder.
“And that is why I would never consider Melisande Carstairs.”
“Melisande?” Miranda said, diverted. “What a pretty name!”
He snarled. “She’s thirty years old,” he said. “She was married ten years without giving birth, so presumably she’s barren.”
Miranda sat on the bed, watching him out of eyes that saw too clearly, knew him too well. Finally she spoke. “Then I don’t see what you’re so damned terrified of. If she can’t get pregnant she can’t die, and you don’t have to worry about losing her. It’s all right to love her.”
“But I…” His voice trailed off as her words sank in. Melisande wouldn’t die. It didn’t matter if he made the mistake of loving her—she was barren. The rigors of childbirth wouldn’t rip her away. He looked into Miranda’s sympathetic eyes. “You think you know me so well,” he said sourly.
“I do. I’ve known you all my life. You try to pretend you don’t care about things, but inside you’re like a nice warm bowl of porridge.”
He looked at her with profound dislike. “Your pregnancy won’t keep me from kicking you out on the street if you continue with such asinine similes.”
She didn’t look worried. “Lucien will let us know the moment he gets word. I think you need to tell me about her. Why wouldn’t she have you if you were the last man on earth?”
The damnable thing about erections was that it took forever for them to subside, even when faced with the most daunting of circumstances, and he couldn’t very well get up and walk away without embarrassing them both. No, that was probably not true. Nothing could embarrass his wretched younger sister. “She has no particular need for men. In fact, she had decided to live a life of celibacy, devoted to good works.”
Miranda shuddered. “She doesn’t sound much better than Dorothea. What is this current mania of yours for joyless women?”
“She’s not a joyless woman,” he snarled. “She just doesn’t see the need for the opposite sex. Her life was carefully arranged, her efforts going toward rescuing fallen women and soiled doves, and it gave her satisfaction and yes, joy.”
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