She raised her chin. “What are you going to do about the Heavenly Host?”
“Leave it to us. You don’t have to be responsible for everything.” He held out an impatient hand to her. “Are you coming?”
“No, I thought I’d stay here with the degenerates and the dead body,” she said, angry once more. She slid off the altar, ignoring his hand and headed for the ladder. She was halfway up, with him directly behind her, when she remembered she was wearing nothing beneath the enveloping monk’s robe, and he could see directly beneath it.
Tant pis, she thought. It would give him something to remember her by.
The hands that caught her were strong and rough, and in the bright full moonlight she found herself surrounded by what appeared to be a gang of criminals. The pregnant woman had her arms around Betsey, wrapped in a blanket, and she was talking to her gently, soothing her, and for a moment Melisande stood still, feeling useless.
“Lady Carstairs?” A rich voice came from beside her, and she turned to look into the scarred face of an otherwise handsome man. He clutched a cane, and she knew who he was.
“Mr. Brandon Rohan?” she inquired.
He shuddered. “God, no. Though I suppose we might as well be bookends, given our similar injuries. No, I can thankfully say that I have none of the wild Rohan blood in me. Only in my children. I’m Rochdale, and that very pregnant woman is my wife, the only female Rohan. Allow me to escort you to our carriage….”
“Take your hands off her, Scorpion!” Benedick’s voice was deadly as he emerged from the collapsed tunnel.
The man’s smile was angelic. “I didn’t touch her, old man. But I thought you didn’t want her.”
“I…” His voice trailed off, and Melisande felt the last of her elation vanish.
She turned to Rochdale, or the Scorpion, or whoever he was. “I would appreciate the kindness of a ride home, Lord Rochdale. I find I’m quite exhausted.”
The woman had brought the dazed Betsey over to her. “She’s all right,” she told Melisande. “She doesn’t remember much, but she was worried about you.”
“Oh, Betsey,” Melisande murmured, pulling her into her arms. “And I promised you’d be safe.”
“Not your fault,” the Scorpion’s lady-wife said cheerfully. “And she won’t remember much of it anyway.” The woman looked her up and down, assessing. “So you’re the woman my brother has fallen in love with. So much for the best-laid plans.” She peered at her more closely. “You poor thing, you look done in. Let’s get them back to town, Lucien. Benedick can follow after he’s made arrangements for the cleanup.”
Her husband nodded. “What do you suggest we do with the Heavenly Host?”
“My thought would be to fill in the hole and leave them to rot,” Benedick said, coming up behind them. “But I don’t suppose that would go over too well. And if it weren’t for our parents’ unwise involvement with the Heavenly Host we might not be here.” He looked at Melisande. “I need to talk to you.”
“Not now, Neddie,” Miranda said firmly, taking Melisande’s arm in one hand and Betsey’s in the other. “It can wait until you get back to London.”
She wasn’t going to see him when he returned to London, Melisande thought fiercely. She wasn’t ever going to talk to him again. He could jump in the hole with the rest of those degenerates and stay there, he could…
She found herself handed up into a luxurious carriage, with Betsey coming after her and the ungainly Lady Rochdale following. “You might stay and keep an eye on Benedick, my dear,” she said to her husband. “See that he doesn’t tarry too long. I suspect Lady Carstairs’s patience is running thin.”
The man looked resigned. “Is there a horse for me to ride?”
“I’m sure Jacob’s men would have come prepared. We’ll be waiting for you when you get back.”
The carriage started with a jerk, throwing Melisande back against the squabs. Betsey immediately curled up on the seat beside her and fell back into a sound, drugged sleep, and Benedick’s sister looked at her across the darkened carriage. Neither of the lamps had been lit, but the fitful moonlight danced by her face, bringing it in and out of the shadows, doubtless doing the same to her own, Melisande thought. It was a strange way to hold a conversation she didn’t want to have.
And Lady Rochdale didn’t appear to be interested in sparing her. “I gather my brother has made a hash of things.”
She tried to stop her. “Lady Rochdale, I’ve just been through an exceedingly trying few days. I’ve been hit on the head, abducted, abused and watched a man die. Perhaps we could continue this conversation another time.”
“You aren’t going to want to hold this conversation another time, Melisande. I imagine I’ll get nowhere near you. Might as well have it out now, while the wounds are still raw. I’m Miranda, by the way. Much easier than Lady this and Lady that, particularly since we’re going be sisters-in-law.”
That was enough to jerk Melisande out of her determined torpor. “Don’t be ridiculous!” she snapped, all her customary good humor and good manners vanished in the extremity of the moment. “He’s done nothing that would force him into marrying me.”
“What an odd way to put it,” Miranda replied. “And I’m afraid you’re wrong. He certainly has done something that would force him to marry you. He’s fallen in love with you.”
Melisande mentally counted to ten in a vain effort to regain her shattered self-control. “I must warn you, Lady Rochdale, that I am very close to screaming, and I wouldn’t want to disturb Betsey.”
“Miranda,” Benedick’s sister corrected, undeterred. “As I said, he made a hash of it. Perhaps I might explain. It’s tedious of him and very male. Men don’t admit weakness, nor examine their feelings. They simply blunder, or in my oldest brother’s case, snarl their way through life, pretending that nothing touches them, when it’s hardly the case. It’s his wives, you see.”
She didn’t want to hear this. But short of putting her hands over her ears and singing loudly like a stubborn schoolchild, there was nothing she could do to stop her. “He’s still mourning his dead wives. Yes, I can imagine.”
“That’s not it. Annis’s death took the joy from him, Barbara’s death finished it. But he mourned them and released them. He’s simply terrified that it will happen again. That he’ll fall in love and marry and his wife would die in childbed once more.”
Melisande laughed mirthlessly, on the edge of hysteria. “I don’t believe it! He was all set to propose to Dorothea Pennington, for the sole purpose of creating an heir. He seemed perfectly willing to do that.”
“Because he didn’t love Miss Pennington.”
Melisande was struck dumb. “That’s rather awful,” she said finally.
“Yes, it is. I never said my brother was a kind man, though compared to my husband he’s an innocent lamb. However, to be frank, I don’t think I could bring myself to mourn Dorothea Pennington overmuch myself.”
The countess’s frank words startled a laugh from Melisande. It was rusty, odd, but it was definitely a laugh, when an hour ago she would have wagered she’d never laugh again.
“That’s better,” said the countess. “You, on the other hand, he couldn’t bear to lose. So he drove you away. I won’t ask how, but I expect it was with his nasty tongue. As I said, stupid of him, but at times all men are stupid. Particularly when they are in love.”
“Would you stop saying that!” Melisande begged. “He’s not in love with me.”
“Allow me to know my brother better than you do. He’s most pathetically, desperately in love, even if he refuses to admit it. And I expect you love him, too, or you wouldn’t be so hurt and angry.”
“I’m annoyed,” Melisande said stoutly. “Apart from that I simply don’t care.”
“Liar,” said the countess. She peered at her closely. “Or perhaps I’m wrong. I love Benedick so much, know his strengths and his frailties so well that I assume anyone with discernment would love him, too.”
“I have no discernment whatsoever.”
Miranda smiled then, the doubt in her face vanishing. “You need to punish him, not yourself, Melisande. The only way you’re going to get a chance to do that is to marry him.”
Melisande slept. She awoke when the carriage pulled to a stop. Dazed, she realized the door was being opened from the outside and the steps let down. Betsey was handed out into liveried arms, and she knew they were in Bury Street. She stayed where she was. “I would prefer to be returned home.”
“I don’t think Betsey can handle much more at this point. She needs a bed and a period of sleep.” Indeed, Betsey was making fretful, sleepy noises like a fractious child. Which indeed, right now, she was. “And your friend is waiting for you here.”
“Mrs. Cadbury,” Miranda clarified.
“Emma would never come here.”
“She did when she knew you were in danger. I prevailed upon her to wait for you, and to keep an eye on Brandon. He’s in bad shape, poor lad, from the opium and whatever else that beastly Harry Merton pumped into him. If you insist, I’ll summon the carriage to take you all home again. But first, please come inside for a bit. Benedick is still in Kent—you don’t need to worry about running into him.”
That, at least, was true. And she had already discovered that it was almost impossible to fight the countess of Rochdale. To her shame her legs felt weak as she climbed the front steps, and it was the very pregnant countess who supported her, not the other way around.
Once inside, the countess immediately became efficient. “Richmond, would you have a nice warm bath poured for Lady Carstairs? She’s covered with soot and she’s had a trying night. And is there any chance some of my old gowns might still be here? I’m afraid her ladyship has lost her clothes.”
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