“Stuff and nonsense,” she said. “I’m hardly the sort of woman who catches your eye. They’re more likely to think I compromised you, and I assure you, you’re safe from any claims on my part.”
“And I assure you, Lady Carstairs, that there are very few women who don’t catch my eye, and you underestimate your charms.”
She blushed. Charity Carstairs, the Virago of King Street, actually blushed, and for a moment he was enchanted. And then she recovered, fixing him with a stern gaze. “Don’t waste your time, Rohan,” she said, using the familiar form of his name simply to put him in his place. It didn’t work, he thought with amusement. “I’m beyond such flummery. And no, I’m not an idiot. I don’t want you anywhere near my girls—you’re far too great a distraction as it is. I have a far greater problem, and you have reason to share in the blame, given your family’s history.”
“I have no intention of taking responsibility for my father or grandfather. They were two of the finest rakes England has ever known, and I could never hope to equal their feats. They were like gods, I, merely a godling. I only take responsibility for my own debaucheries, which are many.” Though not as many as he could have wished, he thought dejectedly.
But she was undeterred. “And you’re proud of this?”
He was spared having to respond by the appearance of Richmond carrying a tea tray, lavishly outfitted with cakes and trifles as well as the best china, the set his mother had picked out for him and which seldom saw the light of day. Richmond must approve of Lady Carstairs, for some as yet unfathomable reason. He would hardly approve of her visiting a gentleman’s house, and Richmond had very severe standards. There must be something else to make him overlook such a shocking breach of etiquette and signal his approval.
She poured, of course, the ritual almost unconscious, and he was pleased to see she hadn’t forgotten that much in her devotion to good works. He took his with lemon only, and he sat back, holding his cup, as she filled hers with enough sugar and milk to destroy the taste completely. So Lady Carstairs had a fondness for sweets? Clearly she hadn’t given up all pleasures of the flesh.
She took a cake, nibbled it, then devoured it, her movements quick and nervous. He waited, entirely at his ease. This was the most interesting thing that had happened in weeks. In fact, since he’d run into her in the park. It was a shame Brandon hadn’t returned last night. Then again, there was no telling how the new Brandon would act.
The old Brandon would have been amused and polite, and probably defend her once she left. The new Brandon simply wouldn’t care.
No, it was just as well he wasn’t here.
Lady Carstairs took a second cake, not that he could blame her. He retained a most excellent kitchen staff, though he seldom paid attention to sweets. Apparently Lady Carstairs made up for his abstinence.
She must have realized he was watching her, for she finished the cake, sat back and took a deep breath. “It concerns the Heavenly Host.”
Benedick looked at her for a long moment, marshalling his thoughts. “I would ask how you even know of the existence of that organization, but I assume you learned of it from your protégés. As far as I know the Heavenly Host has been disbanded for almost ten years. And even if they did still exist they’re hardly any of your concern, unless you now wish to rescue bored aristocrats from their sexual indulgences.”
She was unfazed. “They’ve reconvened. Apparently there was some outrageous contretemps ten years ago that caused most of them to lose interest, but in the last three years they’ve re-formed and are far worse than they ever were before.”
Most women of the ton had no knowledge of what went on with the Heavenly Host, not unless they were part of it. A surprisingly large number of outrageous sisters and wives of the original participants had joined in, lessening the need for paid companionship. He himself had attended a gathering of the Host when he was in his early twenties, more out of curiosity than anything else, and found their playacting tedious.
“Perhaps you’d care to elaborate. How are they specifically different from the past?” He was hoping to make her blush again. The last one had stained her smooth cheeks. He wanted to see if it could travel down the neckline of her tasteless dress.
But he’d underestimated her. “According to my resources, the Heavenly Host has always had a history of consensuality. Everyone must be agreeable to whatever depraved acts are committed.”
“What sort of depraved acts?” he asked in his sweetest voice.
“The sort of act you were about to perform with Violet Highstreet,” she said, unruffled.
“In truth, she was the one who was going to perform it. I was simply the happy recipient….”
She’d done a good job of keeping her color down until that point; he gave her credit, but her cheeks flamed once more. He decided to press his point. “So fellatio, which is the technical term for it, is one of the acts performed at gatherings of the Heavenly Host? I regret to inform you, Lady Carstairs, but that same act is performed in almost every bedroom in this city.”
“And street corner and alleyway.”
“Yes, well we know your opinion of that, and I’m not about to argue with you. So is your mission to stamp out oral pleasuring, or something else? Because I can assure you that convincing people to refrain from it is unlikely….”
“Would you stop!” she cried, her sangfroid finally showing cracks. “I didn’t come here to talk about…about…”
“Fellatio,” he supplied helpfully.
“That. It’s the Heavenly Host that needs to be stopped. Their new mandate is total depravity, the kind that knows no limits.”
“Such as binding people so that they have no recourse. They are forced to receive the attentions of someone and are unable to move, and occasionally even to speak, but must simply endure.”
He laughed. “You’ll find that in any whore’s bag of tricks, Lady Carstairs, and even in the best bedrooms, as well. You misunderstand the game. Trust me—it can be quite…stimulating.”
“They rape women.”
His amusement faded. “Don’t be absurd. The women who attend the gatherings are there willingly and always have been. The ones who participate in rough play agree to it and are well compensated.”
“Rough play?” she echoed. “Is that what you call it when a woman is whipped until she bleeds, whose face is scarred so badly she won’t go out in public? Is that what you call it when young girls are brought in to satisfy the base urges of the foulest men on the face of the earth?”
“No,” he snapped. She was no longer such a charming diversion. “The Heavenly Host has always had an edict against using children, and that wouldn’t have changed. People have always believed horror stories about them, when in fact they harm no one. They’re just a group of spoiled aristocrats enjoying being wicked. Their gatherings are not about innocence.”
“True enough. They’re about innocence de spoiled.”
He waved her piety away. “As for the woman who was scarred, I’m certain that was an accident and deeply regretted. And I expect that the woman was well compensated for the fact that her future earning power is greatly diminished. That has always been the way of the Host, and I can’t believe things have changed that much.”
“The girl was raped, whipped and slashed with a knife. When she escaped she tried to report it to the police, but they simply handed her back to her tormenters. She hasn’t been seen since.”
His eyes narrowed. “And how do you know all this?”
“Her sister has joined us.”
“And you’re trying to convince me that someone has done away with the woman? I don’t believe it,” he said flatly.
“It doesn’t matter what you believe. It happens to be true. Aileen would never have abandoned Betsey on the streets if she had any choice. And now they’re working toward their most horrifying act of all.”
Bloody Christ, he thought irritably. The world had always had ridiculous theories about the essentially harmless activities of the Heavenly Host, and it was no wonder someone like Charity Carstairs believed them.
“Pray do not tell me they’re planning an orgy.” He did his best to sound bored. “That’s de rigueur for the Host. I’ve even participated in them when I was a guest at their gatherings. Quite entertaining the first time or two, but it pales after a while. You never know whose bum you’re stroking, a high-priced courtesan or your father’s best friend.” He shuddered delicately.
“I’m delighted you find this is amusing,” she said. “And, indeed, why shouldn’t you? No one will ever miss the girls they take, and as long as you’re not a part of it then no blame falls on you. But in fact if you do nothing you’re just as much to blame as the men who stand around and let them.”
“Let them do what, exactly, Lady Carstairs?”
She took a deep breath. “They intend to summon the devil on the night of the full moon.”
He laughed, unimpressed. “They’ve tried that before. His Wickedness always fails to respond to the invitation, no matter how politely phrased.”
“This time they’re planning to sacrifice a virgin to ensure success.”
For a moment there was silence in the room. He noticed that in her nervousness she’d eaten all the cakes, and he would have ordered more if he didn’t feel slightly ill. “Absurd! They wouldn’t.”
“They would. A number of young girls have gone missing over the last few weeks, though it’s unlikely any of them were still unmolested.”
“I hate to disillusion you, Lady Carstairs, but there are any number of ravenous creatures out there who would have taken those girls. Depravity is not the sole possession of the Heavenly Host. These young women may have even left on their own.”
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