Oh, holy hell, she thought at the gleam in his eye. Now he knew she’d been asking about him, as well. She braced herself for his mockery, but he let the opportunity go, deliberately, she suspected. And not permanently.
“Miss Pennington is not my betrothed,” he said mildly enough. “And I would prefer you walk in the afternoon. Depending on my…debauches of the night before I may be abed until late morning, and I would hate to miss such a decorative addition to the park.”
He was talking about the girls, of course, but he was looking at her, and for the first time in her life Melisande understood why a woman might take off her clothes and lie down for someone. With his deep, caressing voice, intense eyes and handsome face he was a prime example of a rake, the scion of a family of hellions. She was playing with fire. He could talk a nun into an orgy.
She mentally slapped herself. She wasn’t a nun, and he wasn’t referring to her. “The answer to that, my lord, is to avoid debauchery in the first place. Rising early is good for both the body and the soul.”
There was a very definite stir behind her, one of profound disagreement, and she expected Rohan to remark on that. Instead he stayed focused on her, and she felt like a butterfly pinned to a wall with that gaze. No, a moth, she reminded herself, brutally honest.
“Staying in bed can be very good for the body and quite possibly the soul, as well,” he said, his voice low and almost irresistible. “You should try it.”
“I may remind you I’m a widow, Lord Rohan.”
“So you are, my lady. A very wealthy one, I gather. You should beware of men who seek to marry you for that wealth.”
“You’re in no need of a fortune.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Did you think I was referring to myself? I don’t believe I’ve shown any particular partiality toward you, have I? At least, not yet.”
At that point she wanted nothing more than a huge hole to appear in the manicured lawns of St. James Park and swallow either her or, even better, the Viscount Rohan.
Did he know about Wilfred? God, she hoped not. That brief time of idiocy had been kept secret, thank heavens. Her one stupid fall from grace had only solidified her determination. But no, there was no reason to think he might know anything about it.
“Though Wilfred Hunnicut is, of course, another matter.” And with that bland statement he drove a stake through her fond assumption. “It is a great deal too bad no one warned you about him.”
Before she could gather her wits to respond he bowed. “Since you have no need of my accompanying you, I will bid you farewell, Lady Carstairs. I’m certain we shall meet again, and soon.”
“Not if you stay away from my girls,” she said, completely truthful.
His smile curved his mouth. “But what, dear lady, if I can’t stay away from you?”
In all, Benedick had been perversely pleased with his day’s work. He’d paid back the interfering Lady Carstairs in full. The expression on her face was such unflattering horror that he’d almost laughed out loud, and she’d taken her bevy of reclaimed doves out of the park at something close to a run. Sir Thomas Carstairs must have been even more of an ogre than was generally suspected, to give her such a disgust of men.
He wondered if she forced the girls to sit through endless sermons, poor things. She’d marry again, despite her disdain for his sex. She was too plump and luscious not to, and sooner or later someone, probably another fortune hunter, would overcome her scruples and pay dearly for it. She’d probably make him pray before he bedded her, lights out, nightgown lifted primly to her waist in the darkness.
Though chances were, the Honorable Miss Pennington might not have been much better. At least Lady Carstairs had compassion for her gaggle, if not for the male half of the world’s population.
Clearly he needed to set his sights on someone younger, more amenable than Miss Dorothea Pennington. He ran the risk of being cuckolded, he supposed, though with no false modesty he counted that unlikely. Women had an unfortunate tendency to love him. Unfortunate, as they tended to die.
Even Barbara had loved him in her way. At least someone like Dorothea Pennington wouldn’t mourn him overmuch—she was much too practical.
But that glimpse into her ice-cold soul in the park that day had been more than sufficient, and in the following weeks he had cast his eye around the ton, sorting through the eligible maidens and discarding each one, though he found any number that would have done for Brandon. Not that Brandon ever made an appearance at any of the functions created to parade nubile and marriageable flesh in front of jaded male eyes. In truth, his stray comment, meant to enflame, had struck close to the truth. The marriage mart wasn’t much better than a brothel, he mused, staring into the fire one rainy afternoon. Lady Carstairs ought to direct her energy there, preserving the virgins from a life of sexual indebtedness. There might be more freedom in being a whore.
He watched the flames, abstracted. So far, each of the contenders for the role of Viscountess Rohan had failed for one issue or another. One was too pretty, another too plain. One was too lively, another too drab. One had a shrill laugh, another had a vitriolic temper, yet another embraced too much religiosity. None of them would do.
He was having an equally difficult time with the more congenial form of feminine companionship. Despite Lady Carstairs’s best efforts there were still any number of available females eager for his attention, but so far the few who had managed to engage his interest for even a short amount of time were rare, indeed. Even Brandon might have noticed, had he ever been home. He was hollow-eyed, so thin a wind might blow him away, bad-tempered and mocking. His sweet, enthusiastic little brother was now an even greater cynic than he was, though in truth Brandon had more reason. He had seen death on a staggering scale; his body had been ripped to pieces in a foolish war, though Benedick was of the unpopular opinion that all wars were foolish. It was little wonder that Brandon appeared to be burning the candle at both ends, though God knew where he was doing so. Certainly not anywhere Benedick was aware of.
He’d come to the uneasy conclusion that he was not his brother’s keeper, and forced himself to stop worrying. It was no longer in his nature to fuss about his siblings. His brother Charles was so well settled into such a boring life in Cornwall that he had seemed to disappear, and as for his wild and brave sister, Miranda, she had married a man of such unforgivable treachery that his mind still reeled. He kept waiting for her call for help, and he was more than prepared to jump in a carriage and rescue her from the monster she’d married. Instead she kept popping out children and being blissfully happy, which annoyed him no end.
Not that he wanted her to suffer. He just wanted her away from the Scorpion.
Ah, but he wasn’t his sister’s keeper, either. He needed to concentrate on his own concerns, and he was having a devil of a time fulfilling either of his two objectives. The women were accommodating, the virgins were lovely, and he had no taste for either.
Indeed, perhaps he ought to go back to Somerset, where at least…
He heard the commotion at the front door, and he dropped his feet to the floor. Richmond and the footmen should be more than capable of dealing with any disturbance, particularly after their previous failure in letting Lady Carstairs storm into the house, but he was bored and in the mood for a fight. Perhaps he ought to see what was disturbing a gentleman’s peace.
He didn’t have to go anywhere. The door to his library was flung open, and the virago stood there, breathing heavily, her bonnet askew, her eyes blazing, and for a moment he wondered if she had had a brawl with his servants. A moment later an unruffled Richmond appeared behind her, announced in quite unnecessary accents, “Lady Carstairs,” and then closed the door behind her, sealing her in the room with him.
He rose—his mother had raised him to be a gentleman—and raised an eyebrow. It had been more than three weeks since he’d seen her in the park, and he had sincerely hoped she was plainer than he remembered. Unfortunately, the opposite was true. Melisande, Lady Carstairs, was a surprisingly pretty creature despite the dowdy clothes and shadowing bonnet. “What a charming surprise!” he murmured, the correct social lie. “To what do I owe this pleasure, Lady Carstairs?”
For a moment she looked nonplussed. Clearly she’d been expecting a battle, and instead found him on his best behavior. How delightful that being polite was even more upsetting to her than his customary rudeness.
But she was a worthy opponent, and her eyes narrowed, surveying him. “I’ve come to ask for your help,” she said abruptly. She was nervous, he noticed, which surprised him. She hadn’t struck him as the kind of woman to be afraid of anything or anyone.
“I would be delighted to be of service, Lady Carstairs, but if you think I would be of any assistance in persuading women to forego the pleasures of the flesh then I must tell you that you’ve chosen the wrong—”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “Aren’t you going to invite me to sit? I practically ran from Carstairs House.”
He frowned then. “You should have taken a carriage. There are some less than savory areas in between King Street and Bury Street. And I presume your abigail or your footman is waiting outside?”
“I seldom bother with the absurd trappings of convention, Lord Rohan, and I employ neither of them. Besides, I was in too much of a hurry.” She didn’t wait for his invitation, stripping off her bonnet and sinking down on the chair by the fire, fixing her fierce blue gaze on him.
He was, for a moment, startled. Lady Carstairs was prettier than he’d realized, with soft wings of tawny hair framing an oval face, a wide, mobile mouth, straight nose and those piercing eyes. Combined with her luscious body, the total of her assets caused him to mentally reevaluate his timeline. She’d be wed by the end of the season. Some wise man simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.
He realized he was staring at her, and he quickly pulled himself together. “The trappings of convention are there for a reason. If we are shut up alone together for any length of time people might surmise that I compromised you.”
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