Page 7

Author: Anne Stuart


She’d been wrong. The young women were somehow managing to make their sober clothes seem like the frivolous wardrobes of the demimondaines they had once been, further convincing Melisande of the truth that seductiveness was a matter of attitude, not dress or even natural beauty. Fortunately she was as devoid of seductiveness as she was of everything else, so she’d never had the chance to test her theory.


But the girls were sashaying along, swinging their hips, and while they loved Melisande, obeying her was the least of their worries. And to top it off, Viscount Rohan had chosen today of all days to take a stroll in the park.


Emma had spent the last few days passing on much too much gossip about the man, and all Melisande’s protests couldn’t seem to silence her. She’d learned about his two dead wives, the fiancée who’d shot herself, and his current quest for a conformable wife, with the Honorable Dorothea Pennington in the lead for the position. She’d learned about his decadent family, a dynasty of rakes and libertines, his estate in Somerset and a bit too much about his purported prowess in bed. Not that Emma had ever sampled him, she assured Melisande. But the girls under her care had talked, and it was seldom that the gentlemen came in for praise. Benedick Rohan was held in awe.


Which was none of her business. She didn’t want to listen to Emma’s disclosures, she didn’t want to think about the man and his dark eyes looking at her with such cool contempt. Indeed, for the last two days Emma seemed to have forgotten all about him, and Melisande had been happy to dismiss him, as well. It was with deep regret that she recognized the tall, lean figure bent assiduously over Dorothea Pennington’s skinny body.


She had hoped he’d be so busy with his flirtation that he wouldn’t notice her presence. The girls had seen him immediately, with those instincts that could find a wealthy, attractive man in a crowd in under a minute, but Melisande had simply hurried them on, her face averted, praying he would leave the park before they were back from their forced march along the canal.


“Lady Carstairs,” one of the girls said in a cross between a whine and a wheeze. “Could you go a little slower, if you please? I’m fair winded.”


“Nonsense,” she said, and quickened her pace. “We’re here for exercise and fresh air, not for social purposes.”


“Couldn’t we do both?” asked Raffaela, and Melisande knew a moment’s guilt. Raffaela was the daughter of an Italian sailor and an Irish doxy, and she walked with a limp, thanks to the badly broken leg that had never set right, due to a backhanded slap from her pimp that had sent her tumbling in front of Melisande’s carriage. However, she had seen Raffaela race up the long flights of stairs at Carstairs House without a moment’s hesitation when there was something she wanted, and she only slowed her pace marginally.


“We have no need of male companionship.” Melisande’s announcement held a practiced cheerful tone.


“Speak for yourself,” one girl muttered from the back of the line, but Melisande ignored her.


“We’ll have tea and cakes when we get back,” she said, hoping to bribe them into behaving.


“Now there’s a bit of crumpet I wouldn’t mind ’aving,” another girl said, looking past her, and Melisande knew a sudden, lowering presentiment. Please let him have taken off with the saintly Dorothea, she thought desperately. Don’t let him be waiting here.


But she knew exactly who had come up behind her, his shadow on the pavement looming over hers. With a quick intake of breath she turned, plastering her most disarming smile on her face.


“Lord Rohan,” she said cheerfully.


“Lady Carstairs.” Yes, his voice was as deep as she remembered it. Really, if all men had voices like Rohan did then her job would be a great deal more difficult, she reflected. She could practically hear the sighs from her bevy of charges, but she stiffened her spine. After all, these women had already shown themselves to be susceptible to male lures, and he had what some women would doubtless consider a seductive voice to go along with his austere, handsome face and tall, elegant body.


It was a good thing she was immune, and always had been. The women behind her were no better than moonstruck girls—she could practically hear their gusty sighs. The sooner she got them safely back to the confines of Carstairs House the better. They had been doing an admirable job of adjusting to their new lives, but Viscount Rohan could tempt a saint.


However, he was the one who’d approached her, and she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of prolonging the conversation. He knew who she was, which was interesting. He must have asked about her.


She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about that, but she knew better than to be flattered. He’d assuredly wanted to know who that annoying woman was, who’d spoiled his afternoon debauch.


Finally he spoke, and his voice sent silver shivers down her spine. “I believe I owe you an abject apology, Lady Carstairs. I was under a misapprehension about your identity and treated you…impolitely. I crave pardon.”


“You treated me abominably. However, since I’ve never been mistaken for an abbess before, the novelty of it almost made up for the insult. I presume the gossiping tongues have filled you in on my mission.”


His smile was faintly mocking. “Your mission? Indeed. You wish to deprive the men of London of their most cherished pastime.”


This time she did hear an actual sigh from one of the girls. She ignored it. “I thought you all preferred horses and gaming to sexual congress?” Most men were shocked by her plain speech, but his cool, handsome face was still composed of polite lines.


“It depends on the girl.”


“And the horse,” she shot back.


An expression flickered in his eyes for a moment, one of surprise and something else. Respect? Amusement? She was looking for things that were not there. “And the horse,” he agreed. “As for mistaking you for an abbess, I do believe I mentioned that you were an extremely unlikely one.” His dark eyes slid down her deliberately dowdy dress.


Ungallant bastard, she thought calmly, wishing she dared say it out loud. But there was a limit as to how far she would go, and she had no wish to tweak the tiger’s tail. She had the suspicion that Benedick Rohan would be most unsettling if roused. “Indeed,” she said briefly. “Was there anything else? Because if not, I accept your apology and bid you good-day.”


“So quickly, Lady Carstairs? I thought I might take the air with you. At least see you safely out of the park.”


“Aha!”


“‘Aha’?”


“I can see Miss Pennington has been busy. You’re her errand boy, are you not? She sent you to warn us out of the sacred confines of St. James Park so we won’t sully her so very proper eyes with our presence.”


Really, the woman was the most tiresome prude. If a noted rake like Viscount Rohan thought he’d be happy married to such a dried-up stick, then he deserved the wretched woman.


“I don’t believe it’s you she objects to. And I’m hardly her errand boy. I find the presence of your…charges to be quite delightfully distracting.” He glanced back at them, and was rewarded with smothered giggles. “They’re like a gaggle of lovely geese.”


“They’re equally silly!” Melisande said in disgust. “Wave a handsome man in front of them and they turn into blithering idiots.”


“Merci du compliment, Lady Carstairs,” he said, and she could have kicked herself. “Perhaps they’ve regretted their choice in leaving the perfumed confines of Mrs. Cadbury’s establishment.”


“Shall we ask them?” she said coolly, and before he could demur she whirled around, focusing on the dozen or so women in her company. “Ladies?” She raised her voice. “The Viscount Rohan is interested in our social experiment. He believes you regret the choice you made and would prefer your previous employment, be it in Emma Cadbury’s house or elsewhere. What say you? Would you rather be back where I found you? Raffaella?”


“No, your ladyship,” Raffaella said promptly.


The rest of them answered, as well, and she turned back to Rohan, cool and cheerful. “Of course, they may be lying because they’re so terrified by my brutish nature, but I expect they mean it. The life of a prostitute isn’t a kind one, my lord. It’s a world of disease and despair, being forced to lie supine beneath men they don’t know and allow them their brutish lusts. They age quickly and end up on the streets, and most of them are dead by forty, of disease or accident or murder.”


There was a glint in his eye. “In fact, Lady Carstairs, in most brothels the women are rarely on the bottom.”


She eyed him steadily. “No, I imagine not. My assistant and friend has been very thorough in detailing the lives of these poor women, and I doubt being astride has much to recommend it.”


“I gathered you’ve been married. Don’t you know?”


“I hardly think that’s your business.”


“I’m merely curious that a widow who enjoyed the marriage bed is unaware of all the infinite varieties of making love. Or didn’t Sir Thomas manage to perform his husbandly duty? I collect the match was uneven—your youth for his fortune. In fact, that would put you on the same par with some of your charming gaggle. Sexual congress in return for financial remuneration.”


He was trying to goad her, and managing to succeed, when she considered herself relatively even tempered. She repressed a well-deserved growl. “Are you asking me if all women are whores due to the strictures of society? I won’t disagree with you. And while it is none of your business, Sir Thomas certainly fulfilled his marital obligations, but only in the most proper and respectful fashion. Which would hardly include…variations.” Why in the world was she discussing such intimacies with him, she wondered.


“Pity.”


He was trying to annoy her. Or at least provoke an unmannerly reaction from her, and succeeding to an alarming degree. “I beg pardon,” she said, aiming for sweetness and falling short of the mark. “This is hardly an appropriate topic of conversation. At times my passion for my project can cause me to speak intemperately. Perhaps we should leave. You may assure your betrothed that we will do our best not to sully her eyes with our presence. We will walk in the mornings rather than the afternoons.”

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