Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(14)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(14)
Anne Stuart

“I’m going to be sick. If you don’t stop and let me out I’m going to cast up my accounts all over your expensive carriage!” she said in a harsh, muffled voice.

“That would be a great deal too bad, but carriages can be cleaned. I have servants for that.”

She looked up at him, her hand still clamped over her mouth. “Do you want to ride back to your château in a closed carriage filled with the results?”

“An excellent point.” He rapped on the carriage wall behind him, and the conveyance came to an abrupt stop, hurtling her forward.

She caught herself in time, just before she ended in his arms. He’d unfastened the pelisse at her neck at some point during the wicked play he’d forced on her, and she thrust it off her shoulders, scrambling for the door just as the footman let down the steps.

With one hand clamped to her mouth and another against her stomach, she let the footman help her out of the carriage as she groaned piteously. A light snow was falling, making the wretched area look almost pretty. She felt the ground beneath her feet, and for a moment she began to sink to her knees in order to relieve herself of her last meal. She leaned toward the footman, making a gagging noise, and he drew back instinctively, releasing her.

It was all she needed. In a moment she was gone, disappearing into the throngs that crowded the main thoroughfare of that miserable part of the city.

She could bless the new boots, and thank Mrs. Clarke most heartily for them, she thought as she raced through the streets, turning corners, making her way deeper and deeper into the seedy underbelly of Rue du Pélican. He would be no match for her, she could outrun anybody when she so desired, thanks to her long legs and determination, and besides, she knew this area well. The footman would be at a loss.

No, Monsieur le Comte would have no choice but to return to his den of iniquity, and Lydia would be safe.

Elinor slowed down to a brisk trot, pulling her shawl more tightly about her. He would have had to get out and walk—that, or have his coachman find a sedan chair in order to reach the back alley that held their wretched little house, and even then he’d have a hard time finding it. Granted, one of his coachmen knew of the place, since Jacobs had been forced to direct him there in order to return her mother, but by the time Francis Rohan got home he would have lost interest in a plain woman with a secret.

The alleyway that held her small house looked even more dismal than usual, and as she scrambled up the two steps to the entry she felt the cold begin to reach into her bones. That pelisse had been lovely, and would have looked beautiful on Lydia. But safety was a far greater treasure.

She pushed open the door and froze, momentarily afraid that somehow Lord Rohan had managed to defy the laws of nature and arrive there before her. A tall man was standing over her sister, and even in the shadowy light she could see her sister’s vivid smile, and she let out a groan, a real one this time.

The man turned, and it wasn’t Rohan. Of course it wasn’t; it was the scarred man from the night before, the one who had had a half-clad demimondaine on his arm. A man who was talking to her sister, looking at her. A man who was no better than Rohan himself.

Lydia jumped up, her smile wider than ever. “Nell, I was so worried about you!” she cried. “Mr. Reading told me there was nothing to be concerned about, but you were gone all night, and ever since that time you went away to Italy I’ve been…”

“I’m fine, darling!” Elinor said swiftly, forestalling Lydia’s artless comments. Even if Lydia hadn’t been able to put two and two together, a more jaded member of society would have no trouble jumping to conclusions, and she couldn’t afford to let that happen.

“This is Mr. Reading, Nell. He was kind enough to escort Mummy home.”

Only Lydia called Lady Caroline by the cozy “mummy.” If their mother had had any favorite besides her own dedicated self-interest, it would be her lovely younger daughter. Elinor herself looked too much like her father’s branch of the family, and she had what Lady Caroline considered to be the disconcerting habit of giving her opinion when asked. She hadn’t bothered sugarcoating it for her mother in years, and Lady Caroline hadn’t thanked her.

“Very kind,” Elinor murmured. “But we can handle things from this point.” She couldn’t quite hold the door for him, but she still made her point that he needed to leave, and now.

His smile tugged at the ugly scar on his otherwise handsome face. “Rohan would expect nothing less from me. Your mother appears to have quieted, but I’m not sure I should take the footmen with me, even though I’m being summarily dismissed.”

It was a challenge, one Elinor met smoothly. “It’s starting to snow, and it’s a long way back to the château. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for you getting caught in a snowdrift.”

“Only if you pushed me in, Miss Harriman, which you look tempted to do.” He caught Lydia’s small hand in his and gave her an extravagant kiss. There was no missing the look in her sister’s eyes, though Elinor hoped and prayed Reading wasn’t alert enough to read it.

“Let me just check on our mother,” Elinor said. “I would expect from the blissful silence emanating from the bedroom that she’s well settled and we have no more need of your so-generous assistance.”

She turned, trying not to shiver in the cool morning air. There wasn’t much of a fire in the grate, and she had no idea where they’d get more wood. But first things first, and getting rid of the man standing far too close to her baby sister was utmost. She had no choice but to leave them together long enough for her to see to Lady Caroline, but then she could shoo him out quite handily.

Two of Rohan’s liveried footmen stood in the hallway, almost on guard, and at Elinor’s approach they moved out of the way, bowing. She pushed open the door to see Nanny sitting beside her mother.

Lady Caroline lay still in the narrow bed, with only the fitful light of the winter morning to pierce the darkness. “She hasn’t moved since they brought her back, poor thing,” Nanny said. “I washed her and tried to make her more comfortable and told the gentleman that he can safely leave. Your poor mother probably won’t be up for days.” She looked back at her charge. “If ever.”

Elinor looked down at her mother. Her skin was bluish, with deep circles around her eyes, but for the moment she was at peace. “Has she taken any food?”

Nanny Maude knew better than she did just how little food there was in their larder. “Some weak tea. And a bit of gruel. She spat out more than she took in.”

And they couldn’t afford to waste what little they had. “I’ll send Lydia in while I get rid of our visitors,” Elinor said.

“What are you going to do, Miss Nell?” Nanny said plaintively. “I’ve sent Jacobs out to see what he can find, but there’s nothing left for me to make a dinner out of. No wood for the fire unless we take this bed apart.”

Elinor wanted to put her hands to her face and scream, but her calm expression showed none of it. It was up to her to see to things, and even if she hadn’t the vaguest idea what she was going to do, she didn’t need to share that.

She couldn’t even sell her body on the streets for money. Paris was filled with beautiful whores—she’d barely make enough to keep them fed. If that.

Jacobs could sell the boots and the silk stockings. She’d been a proud fool to have left the fur pelisse behind—that could have supported them for weeks if they were careful.

She was going to have to go back and meet with that wretched lawyer, petition her unknown cousin, her stupid pride in the dust. She could hear the noise from beyond the closed door and she breathed a sigh of relief. The intruders were leaving. Men were such noisy creatures there was no mistaking their footsteps or the sound of their flimsy front door closing. “I’ll go find Jacobs,” she said calmly. “We’re not out of options yet.”

Elinor pushed open the door. “Lydia, my dear, could you…” Her voice trailed off as her worst fears came to fruition. The scarred gentleman stood off to one side, an unreadable expression on his face. And Francis Rohan, the Prince of Darkness, the King of Hell, stood over her sister, holding Lydia’s small, delicate hand in his.

7

She wasn’t pleased to see him, that much was evident, and Francis Rohan bestowed his most charming smile on her. “You forgot to wait for me, Miss Harriman. I had quite a time catching up with you.”

He didn’t miss the momentary panic in her fine eyes, quickly replaced by that same maddening calm she wrapped about her more fiercely than the ragged cloak she’d worn. “There was no need for you to come all this way, Monsieur le Comte. I know these streets very well, and no one would dare accost me.”

“Now, that doesn’t surprise me in the least. You’d terrify the king himself. But you left your cloak behind, and despite my many failings I have exquisite manners. Haven’t I, Reading?”

His friend bowed slightly in agreement. “Exquisite.”

“And I’ve just met your lovely sister…”

She moved with astonishing speed, somehow managing to come between him and the pretty little chit whose hand he’d been holding, and everything suddenly made sense, which pleased him. He preferred his life with a certain order, and anomalies, while entertaining, needed to be explained, before one could move on.

Though the anomaly that was Elinor Harriman was going to take a bit longer figure out.

“Thank you so much for coming,” she said, her voice brooking no opposition. “You’ve been extremely kind, but we wouldn’t think of keeping you from your guests.”

She was tall enough, and solid, but he could simply pick her up and move her out of the way if he had any interest in the pretty little sister.

He had not. He’d had enough pretty girls and beautiful women to last him a lifetime. This other one, however, was proving interesting. He was still aroused from their time in the carriage—if he hadn’t pretended to fall asleep he would have had her skirts up over her head in a minute.

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