Page 51

Author: Anne Stuart


She didn’t bother to consider why he’d come after her; she could only be glad he did. The monk’s robe still retained his body heat, delicious around her chilled skin, and his spicy scent lingered. She wouldn’t give this back, she thought, even though it symbolized everything horrific about the group she was determined to wipe out. It smelled like Rohan, and like a lovesick adolescent she wanted to hold on to it, cling to it for safety.


She could hear the noise of the chanting from a distance. There was no sign of Rohan, and she felt an icy chill sweeping through her body. Had they caught him so quickly? Was he now lying trussed up as well, one more offering to whatever strange god they seemed to worship. She held her breath, praying it wasn’t too late. She’d been insane to stop long enough to…what would he call it? To fuck him, that’s what it had been, plain and simple. Well, perhaps not so plain and not so simple, but it had hardly been making love. Her fear and need had blinded her to the much more important task. Saving Betsey’s life.


By the time she reached the hallway approaching the large gathering room the myriad candles were sending out bright pools of light into the darkened corridors, and she could see Benedick ahead of her. He’d set the lantern down, pressing against the side of the cave, disappearing into the shadows. He was so busy concentrating on the scene in the vast room beyond that he hadn’t noticed her arrival.


She stopped where she was, flattening herself against the wall. She had to face the unpleasant fact that he was, at least this time, right. She needed to be out of the way so she didn’t distract him. The odds were bad enough without her getting in the way.


She held her breath, waiting. And then she closed her eyes and began to pray.


35


Benedick leaned back, not moving. The chanting was loud and mindless, in some kind of Pig Latin. He could only hope his sister and the Scorpion had moved quickly. Things were rapidly getting out of hand, and if he didn’t get out of here alive then someone would need to rescue Melisande. At this rate time was running out.


“Has someone joined us?” A smooth, oddly familiar voice carried from the chamber beyond, and Benedick cursed beneath his breath. Scratch that. The time had come. And without another word he strode into the center of the great hall, grateful at least that Melisande was safely out of the way.


The chanting didn’t stop when he walked into the room. They didn’t even seem to notice, though their faces, hidden in the depths of their hoods, were turned upward to watch as they knelt around the perimeter. But he wasn’t interested in the mind-addled mad monks. It was the center of the room that caught his attention.


The young girl lay spread out on what could only be an altar. She was wearing a lacy white dress and her hair was clean and flowing around her peaceful face. He could only hope that whatever drug the so-called Grand Master used on his acolytes had been given to Betsey, as well. She’d be a lot easier to deal with if she were unconscious.


The man stood alone in the middle of the room, cowled, hidden like the coward he was, an ornamental dagger in one hand. There was something that resembled a tray surrounding the platform where the girl was placed, presumably to catch her blood, and he didn’t want to think what they planned to do with it.


“I was expecting you,” the man said, moving around so that the altar lay between them. He was limping badly, and it took Benedick a moment to realize why. He was pretending to be Brandon, wrapped in the enveloping monk’s robe and hood, so that his drugged followers would believe in his brother’s guilt. “Though I suppose you released that tiresome woman. I would have thought you’d had your fill of her by now.”


For an opening salvo it was a weak one. “I don’t think that’s possible,” he said evenly, determined not to let the man bait him. “But you wouldn’t understand that, would you?”


“The sentimentality of love?” The Grand Master’s voice was mocking. “I have been spared that particular embarrassment. I would have thought you would be, too, brother. You could always take her back to the banquet hall. Feed her some wine and she’ll do anything you tell her to. By the time you come back this will be over and done with, and you won’t even be a witness.”


He didn’t turn around. He had the sudden, unbearable suspicion that Melisande had managed to escape his makeshift bonds, but he couldn’t afford to waste his time considering it. “We found Brandon in that hellhole you left him. These idiots might think you’re my brother but I know better.”


“Yes, but you see, they can’t hear so well. They’re in an altered state, thanks to the drugs I administered to their wine and the advanced practice of mind control. When they awake they will only remember what they think they saw. Which is your crippled brother slashing the throat of an innocent girl and splashing them all with her blood.”


He heard a strangled noise behind him, but he kept focused. Damn the woman. “But I’m not drugged. And I know who you are.”


He was rewarded with a familiar giggle over the maddening chant. “Of course you do, old man. I wouldn’t expect anything less.”


“I have people coming, you know. You can’t really expect to get away with this. Let her go. If you left now you could get to the continent and no one would come after you.”


“Why should I do that, when I’m about to have everything I want?” his old friend said smoothly. “You won’t turn me in. Too many reputations are a stake. None of these impossibly highborn people want to admit that they were part of anything so shameful, but if you’re the one to betray them then I’m sure they will all testify that your brother killed this young girl. As for your so-called reinforcements, you don’t have any. Most of the people you call friends are already here. Accept it, Rohan. I’ve won. And I’m only beginning.”


He raised the knife high over his head, and his cowl fell back just far enough for Benedick to see Harry Merton’s smiling face.


“No!” Benedick shouted, leaping forward and vaulting the altar, but not all the monks were as mindless as they appeared to be. Harry sidestepped him adroitly as two cowled figures came up behind Benedick, pinning his arms behind him. He didn’t bother to struggle—he kicked at the man on his left, hard behind the knee, and the man went down in a yelp of pain, leaving only the second man to face Benedick’s fury. He smashed a fist beneath the enveloping hood, directly into the man’s face, and he felt the crunch and splinter of bone, the spurt of hot blood, the skin split on his own hand as the second man let out a howl, pushing back the hood. It was Pennington, shrieking in fury as he fell back, and then it was only Harry Merton, watching him from a short distance away, calm, a cheerful light in his eyes, the ornamental knife in his hand.


He was closer to the body than Benedick was, and he doubted he could move quickly enough to stop him. “Come on, Rohan, old friend,” Harry crooned. “You’ve taken out my two best men. Surely you aren’t going to give up now. Or do you realize I’ll have this child gutted before you even move, and that will signal a bacchanalia that not even you can stop. You’ll be pulled down beneath my followers, washed in her blood, and I can promise you, someone will slip a knife between your ribs before you have any idea what’s happened.”


“I’ll take you with me, you bastard,” he said, leaping for him, ready to rip his throat out. He heard her scream from a distance—Melisande—but he didn’t stop, simply kept moving when the world exploded.


36


Melisande screamed, unable to keep still any longer. It sounded like the wrath of God or the end of the world, and she buried her head as the ceiling disintegrated, dirt and stones and rubble pouring down around them. Something hit her hard between the shoulder blades, knocking the breath from her, and she coughed, struggling, trying to get to her feet once more, trying to reach Benedick.


Slowly the tumbling rocks and sliding dirt halted. And so, thank God, did the ghastly chanting, though the garbed monks didn’t move, still kneeling around the tableau. She finally lifted her head, her eyes searching for Benedick, but there was no sign of him, just a huge pile of rocks and dirt, and she felt hysteria rise in her throat. If he was dead…if he was hurt…


And then a movement caught her eye, and she turned her head to see him at the altar, covered in dust as he rose to his full height, brushing the debris from Betsey’s body. He’d covered her, Melisande realized in shock. In the last minute he’d leaped forward to try to save the innocent girl he insisted didn’t matter, and it made her want to cry.


She looked around for Harry Merton, but there was no sign of him. And then she saw the legs sticking out from beneath the pile of rubble, and she breathed a sigh of relief. It was over.


She started toward the altar and began to unfasten the leather straps, then stopped, looking overhead to the night sky above. A very pregnant young woman was looking down at them. “Is everyone all right down there?”


Benedick looked at Melisande for a long, silent moment, and then he moved away from the altar, peering upward. “That was a bit more effective than I expected, sister mine,” he drawled, sounding only slightly rattled. “Deus ex machina, indeed.”


“We didn’t know this was directly over you, Neddie,” the woman said in an apologetic tone. “Is anyone hurt?”


“Only the right people. Harry Merton is dead.”


Miranda let out a shriek. “God, no!”


“Thank God, yes. He’s the Grand Master.” He moved to the sloping side, refusing to look at Melisande. “Find Lucien. I want to get the women out of here, and the cave leading to the stairs has collapsed in the explosion.”


His sister disappeared, and Benedick came over to the altar, moving Melisande aside with gentle hands, before he finished unfastening Betsey’s bonds. Ignoring Melisande, he scooped Betsey up in his arms and carried her to the side of the cave-in. Someone had found an old ladder, and it was lowered down. Benedick climbed the first few rungs with Betsey over his shoulder, passed her on to waiting hands and then turned back to Melisande, finally looking at her.

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