“And you changed her mind?”
He looked away. “I was a damnable fool. Though I must say in my defense that it wasn’t strictly my fault. She wanted my assistance in stopping the Heavenly Host, and she knew that Brandon was a part of them.”
“Then I like her already. So what happened next?”
“We made discoveries. We found they were meeting at Kersley Hall, and we discovered several of the current membership, though we still have no idea who their mysterious leader is. The one who’s pushing everyone in such a sordid direction.”
“That’s something good, at least. So what went wrong?”
There was no way in hell he was going to tell her. “None of your business.”
“Did you seduce her?” She looked at him closely. “Of course you did. Oh, Benedick, how could you be so cruel! If the woman really wanted nothing to do with getting married again you should have let her be. Unless you really have fallen desperately in love with her.”
“I most certainly have not! And I certainly didn’t intend…that is, I wasn’t going to…” He floundered, then stopped, glaring at her. “I’m not going to discuss this with you.”
“You botched it? I’m astonished. I used to hear the maids and the local girls whispering about you, and you were accounted to be a most accomplished lover. Annis used to tell me you…”
“Oh, God,” he said weakly. “This is completely inappropriate.”
“When have I ever been appropriate?” She grinned. “So you botched the job, she ran away screaming in horror and you’re not brave enough to try again. Have I got that right?”
“As usual you’re completely wrong. I didn’t, as you so delicately put it, ‘botch the job.’ I was, however, less than…less than kind the next morning. The relationship is quite impossible, and I managed to make that perfectly clear.”
“Oh, God, Neddie, your poisonous tongue,”
Miranda said with a groan. “You could flay a person alive. Were you so afraid of loving her that you had to hurt her?”
He was silenced. She really did know him far too well, better than he knew himself. He closed his eyes, unable to bear the simple truth.
The silence lengthened. And then he heard her slide off the bed, cross the floor and take his unwilling hand in hers. “I’d sit beside you on the floor, the way I used to when I was young,” she said softly, “but I’d have trouble getting up again. Oh, Neddie, you’ve made such a mess of things.”
“Yes,” he said, not bothering to deny it.
“You can fix this.” She gave his arm a little shake. “But first we need to save Brandon, and then we’ll see what we can do about you. I want you to be happy, love. You don’t need an heir—we’ve got stuffy old Charles to take care of that, and if it’s children you want, I’ve got babies to spare. Anytime you want to romp with them I’ll bring them down to visit.”
He finally turned to look at her, a wry grin on his mouth. “You’re kindness personified.”
“Don’t try that with me—I know you adore my children, and they adore you. At times it was my only assurance that you hadn’t turned into a cold-hearted fish. We can fix this, Neddie. You can have your happy ending, too.”
He wanted to use his poisonous tongue to blister her. But then, Miranda had always been immune to it, and he had no real desire to hurt her. “First things first,” he said. “We need to find Brandon.”
The Grand Master of the Heavenly Host was feeling well pleased with himself. To be sure, things hadn’t gone as smoothly as he might have hoped, but the missteps and danger put a certain piquant edge to the whole proceeding. Who would have thought the Carstairs woman would have been quite so persistent? He’d had her locked in a room, far away from the young girl chosen for the ritual, and so far no one had come looking. If they had, they would find nothing. Ever since the collapse of the north tunnel he’d had the main entrance closed off and another opened in the old stables. He could just imagine the complaints from his congregation, as he liked to think of them. The thought amused him. They would be wallowing in proverbial mud once they reached the caves—they could certainly withstand ancient manure.
They had already begun to gather. The ritual room was set, an altar erected with flowers and fruit and arcane symbols all around, as well as restraints and trays to catch the blood. He was hard with excitement. He’d never killed anyone before, and a young virgin was going to be particularly enjoyable.
The fools who made up the Heavenly Host would oooh and ahhh and commune in the spirit, wash in her blood, drink it if he insisted. They would do anything he wanted them to do once they drank the wine he’d doctored. He had no idea what the symbols that decorated the altar meant, but neither did any of them. They believed; he did not. That was the difference between power and obedience.
He would have no choice but to kill the much-too-curious Lady Carstairs, but he could enjoy the impromptu nature of the act. Perhaps he’d have one of his followers wield the knife, or perhaps snap her slender neck himself. That was part of his grand plan, after all.
It was gloriously simple. He wanted, craved, power. Power brought you everything you wanted—money, sex, control. And he knew just how to acquire it. By witnessing the deeds he had planned for later that evening, every one of the members would then be culpable. A member of the House of Commons, known for his rants that went counter to sound business practices, could hardly keep his head up when confronted with the knowledge that he’d participated in a ritual murder. A young earl couldn’t refuse to sponsor an admittance to an exclusive club or the suit of an unwelcome lover if threatened with exposure. He could have anything he wanted; he would be unstoppable, all by dint of a bit of blackmail.
He considered his choice of Brandon Rohan as executioner to be a particularly brilliant stroke. There was no way he could get someone like Viscount Rohan under his thumb. Rohan wasn’t interested in the little games the Heavenly Host enjoyed, and he was impervious to blackmail. But when it came to protecting his baby brother he would do anything. There would be no way in the world he would stand aside and let Brandon Rohan be tried and hanged for murder.
Indeed, it had seemed ridiculously easy. It hadn’t required much persuasion to keep Rohan’s addiction to opium alive, and his rapid consumption of alcohol was benefitted by the addition of certain substances that had been carefully preserved. Rye ergot gave visions approaching the beatific, or the horrific, depending on one’s frame of mind. If they came without warning the effects could be devastating.
He hadn’t counted on young Rohan having enough of his brother in him to almost destroy his careful plans. He had set the details out for him last night—he hadn’t wanted to tip his hand too soon. There should have been no problem. Young Rohan had killed before; he was a soldier, after all, and there were rumors of a distressing incident with some of the locals that had been hastily covered up. The Grand Master had been unable to find the details but he hadn’t given up hope. Sooner or later nothing would be closed to him.
But Brandon Rohan, sodden with drink and dazed with drugs, sat in his chair, staring dully at the ornate blade the Grand Master had had forged for just this occasion, and said, “No. Absolutely not. Not ever,” in tones so clear he might not have recently imbibed impressive amounts.
The Grand Master wasn’t one easily dissuaded, though, and he simply kept feeding the stuff into his unwilling proxy. All to no avail. He eventually passed out, the flat, monosyllabic word still on his lips. “No.”
It was no matter. He would never know the difference. He’d had his servants cart Brandon Rohan’s unconscious body to an opium den in the worst section of the east end rookeries—he wouldn’t be found for days, if he was even found alive at all. His men had instructions to smear blood all over Rohan’s cassock and tuck the blood-stained knife beneath him. As always he’d been prescient enough to have two made. Rohan would awake and be convinced he’d committed the murder he’d refused to do. The Grand Master’s only regret was that he wouldn’t be there to witness the man’s horror.
But he had his own job to do. The cassocks decreed by the Heavenly Host were indistinguishable, and the hoods and cowls assured complete anonymity. All he needed to do was copy Brandon Rohan’s dragging gait and everyone would recognize the crippled war hero committing the crime.
Truly, he’d planned it so well he astonished even himself. A quiet giggle escaped, and he slapped his hand over his mouth lest someone hear him. But the only noise was from the trussed form of Lady Carstairs, and he had plans for her.
Very specific plans.
Never let it be said, thought Benedick Rohan, that sitting around waiting was any less heroic than charging into battle. It was a damned sight harder. He was trapped in his house, with his meddlesome, far too acute younger sister and her blackguard of a husband, and he didn’t dare leave. Eating alone in his room was too childish to be contemplated, so he had no choice but to sit at table with the Scorpion and the woman he’d abducted and forced into marriage, and while nothing could induce him to be pleasant, there was simply a limit to how much boredom he could withstand.
One way to alleviate that boredom was to fleece his brother-in-law out of every penny he had on him. Not that Lucien de Malheur wasn’t a practiced gambler, but when it came to faro there were few who could beat a Rohan. Miranda reluctantly served as banker, more as a means to keep them from killing each other than an interest in the game, but the play was alarmingly even, probably because Miranda’s husband cheated. The winnings went back and forth, well into the early hours of the morning when once more Benedick consumed far more brandy than was good for him, but this time when he retired to bed he was too drunk and too weary to want to kill the Scorpion.
He woke late, suddenly alert. He dressed hastily, even shaving himself rather than waiting for Richmond to make his appearance, and by the time he was downstairs he’d decided that, wise or not, he couldn’t wait in the house any longer. He was going out looking, and be damned to the consequences.
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