Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(12)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(12)
Anne Stuart

“It will be never,” Elinor said, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Don’t count on it, my pet. Whatever scurrilous lies Mrs. Clarke spreads about my so-called goodness, she’ll have to admit that I always get what I want.”

And before she could say another word he vanished, closing the door quietly behind him.

6

“There’s really no need for him to accompany me,” Elinor said hurriedly, suddenly able to breathe again. “In fact, I’d be much more comfortable traveling back to Paris alone. If you could just help me find my shoes and direct me to the carriage you could tell his lordship that his assistance was not needed.”

“Don’t you worry, Miss Harriman,” Mrs. Clarke said briskly. “He’ll behave himself. And I’ve got my girl Janet finding some nice warm boots for you. The ones you wore have fallen apart, and there’s snow in the air.”

“Find some boots for me?”

On a less dignified personage, Mrs. Clarke’s smile would have looked positively mischievous. “Lady Carlton looks to be about your size. Whenever she comes she brings several trunks of clothing and shoes, which seems ridiculous, because according to Janet she spends the entire time wearing nothing at all. She’ll never notice if one of her pairs of boots has gone missing.”

“I can’t wear stolen boots!” Elinor said, scandalized.

“Of course you can.”

The door opened and Janet appeared, bearing a tea tray with a pair of kid-leather boots under her arm. She looked like a younger version of Mrs. Clarke, and she set both her offerings in front of Elinor. There were toast strips on the tray as well as tea, and a pair of silk stockings with the boots, and Elinor gave up being virtuous.

“No disasters, pet?” Mrs. Clarke inquired of Janet.

“They’re all sleeping it off, most of them starkers,” Janet said. “No worries.”

“I never do,” her mother said. “Drink your tea, Miss Harriman. The doings of this household, while shocking, needn’t concern you any more than they concern me.”

“They don’t concern you?” Elinor said with a mouthful of toast.

“I never venture into that part of the château. His lordship likes to misbehave, but as long as no one is hurt I keep out of it. This part of the house is small but cozy, with no strumpets allowed.”

“You don’t think I could be a strumpet?” She poured her tea and put obscene amounts of sugar in the cup. She might as well enjoy it while it lasted. “I suppose it’s The Nose,” she said resignedly.

“The nose?” Mrs. Clarke said, her forehead wrinkling. “You mean your nose? What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s the Harriman Nose,” she said gloomily. “Strumpets are pretty.”

“Strumpets are tarts. As for your nose, it’s nothing that extraordinary. It gives your face character, something those foolish girls lack.”

“Lucky me,” Elinor murmured. She took another toast sliver. Then jumped, as she realized Janet had knelt before her and reached for one bare foot.

“I’ll take care of this, miss,” Janet said. “Me mother wanted me to train as a lady’s maid.”

“Unfortunately there are never any ladies at his lordship’s house parties,” Mrs. Clarke said grimly. “And Master Francis should be returning momentarily—you wouldn’t want to be flaunting your bare feet in front of him, now, would you?”

Trapped. “Thank you, Janet,” she said. “You’re very kind to help me.”

It was almost seductive. The warm, sweet, rich tea, the toast slivers with lashings of butter and a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar, a maid assisting with her clothes. It had been so long since they’d had a lady’s maid that she could barely remember what it was like. Janet drew the silk stocking up her leg for her, and the feeling was decadently wonderful, too splendid to fight. Besides, she could give the stockings to Lydia, who’d delight in the extravagance. She’d have to somehow convince her younger sister that she herself couldn’t wear them—Lydia had grown suspicious of Elinor’s stratagems. Her sudden dislike of sugar, her inability to drink cream, the discomfort of the one decent pair of boots between them. She’d be hard put to come up with a reason why Lydia simply must accept the silk stockings as her own, but she could prevaricate with the best of them. She’d had her mother as an example.

The boots were a perfect fit, roomy for her less-than-dainty feet. By the time she’d finished her tea and toast and had the kid-leather boots neatly fastened she felt she could face any kind of ogre. Including the one who’d reappeared in the door of the cozy drawing room, looking enigmatic.

“I’ve had the carriage brought round,” he said. “Where’s your cloak?”

“Here it is, sir,” Janet said, reappearing from behind him, carrying a fur pelisse. The sort of thing that was shockingly expensive and deliciously warm.

Elinor set the tray away and rose, speechless for the moment. Janet came up behind her to assist her into the pilfered cloak, and Elinor whispered a protest to the maid. “I can’t take this.”

“There you go, Miss Harriman,” Janet said in a loud voice, taking one of Elinor’s arms and shoving it into the sleeve. She could either have a wrestling match with the maid, something she might very likely lose, or give in. She was taller than the sturdy Janet, but Janet was very strong.

“Are you two going to fight?” the King of Hell asked in a lazy tone. “There are few things more entertaining than watching two females try to tear each other apart, but if you’re going to go at it you might give me time to get my own tea and perhaps find a better venue.”

Elinor stopped struggling, and the cloak slid up her arms. Janet stepped around her and began fastening it, and it took all of Elinor’s self-control not to bat at her hands. Stolen boots and silk stockings were one thing, a rich fur cloak quite another. But the garment was so blessedly warm.

“No catfights? I’m shattered. But then, I’ve learned to live with disappointment. Come along, then, Miss Harriman. The sooner I leave you in Paris the sooner I can get back to vigorous dissipation, since you seem determined to resist my blandishments. And frolicking with my guests. Or was it trifling?”

“As long as you don’t frolic with Miss Harriman,” Mrs. Clarke said sternly. She turned to Elinor. “Goodbye, miss. I’ll look forward to seeing you again.”

That was most certainly not going to happen, Elinor thought, thanking the woman.

Rohan held out his arm, and she hesitated for a moment. He simply took her hand and pulled her to his side, ungently. “You must at least pretend to be on speaking terms with me, Miss Harriman,” he drawled.

“Why?”

He simply glanced down at her. It was an unnerving experience. She was so very much taller than most of the men, particularly the French ones, that having to look up into those hard, merciless blue eyes only added to the sense of unreality.

But if she didn’t want to wrestle with Janet for fear she might lose, fighting with Lord Rohan would be even worse. Because she knew he wouldn’t be following any of the rules of civilized behavior.

There was a light snow falling when they stepped outside the massive front portico of the château, and Elinor drew the stolen fur cloak closer around her, trying to ignore her guilt. The liveried footman immediately opened the coach door for her, and she pulled away from Rohan and scrambled up before he could assist her. He’d barely touched her, but she didn’t trust those large, beautiful hands.

A moment later he was inside as well, dwarfing the spacious interior, and they were on their way. It had been so very long since she’d been in such an elegant coach, perhaps never. Her father had been wealthy but not on the scale of Rohan, and he had never sent his young daughters out in his best carriage. She tucked her hands in the folds of the pelisse, lifting her eyes to look at her reluctant companion.

Stretched out on the seat, perfectly comfortable, he was eyeing her with calm curiosity.

“You should have had Mrs. Clarke steal you some warm gloves and a bonnet while she was at it,” he said. “Lady Carlton would never miss them.”

She’d been warm enough before, but the heat that flushed her face was uncomfortable, and she immediately reached up to unfasten the cloak. One look at his face stopped her. “You really don’t want to get into a wrestling match with me, now, do you, my sweet?” His voice was amused. “I’d like nothing more than an excuse to put my hands on you in the privacy of the carriage. It’s a long, cold drive into Paris and I can think of any number of things that would make the time pass more quickly, all of which involve touching you. Lady Carlton has a dozen fur cloaks, and your shabby cloak was probably infested with vermin.”

“It was not!” she said, incensed.

“If you say so.” His eyes narrowed, and he yawned. “I assume you aren’t interested in…er…frolicking with me?”

“No!”

“Trifling? We’ve already been flirting…”

“We have not!” she said, aghast.

“Oh, yes, child, we most certainly have, even if you don’t recognize it. Why don’t we simply dispense with all the pleasantries and descend into hot, nasty fornication?”

For perhaps the first time in her life Elinor was at a loss for words. And in the end, only the most foolish ones escaped her mouth. “In a carriage?”

He laughed. “Oh, most definitely in a carriage. Though if you prefer a bed we can always return to the château, though we’d have to avoid Mrs. Clarke’s evil eye.”

His words were shocking, disturbing. No doubt meant to be, she realized. He had no more amatory interest in her than he had in Mrs. Clarke, but if she charged him with it he’d doubtless strive to prove her wrong. She managed to meet his dark, wicked gaze with a deceptive calm. “You promised her you’d behave with propriety.”

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