Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(15)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(15)
Anne Stuart

She was standing too close to him for her own comfort, but she was determined to shield her sister from his lascivious eyes. And Reading had looked a bit…abstracted when he’d first walked in, though his young friend would never make the mistake of wasting his time on an impoverished virgin. He had a fortune to make, and he’d always been dependable.

“Yes, Miss Harriman?” he said, not moving. Wondering how far she’d go to get rid of him, if she’d put those pale hands on him. Wondering how he would react if she did.

“We thank you for your help, my lord,” she said in her most polite voice. “I believe we can dispense with it at this point.”

A faint smile touched his mouth. “You’re an impressive guardian, and my curiosity is satisfied now that I know what treasure you’re so determined to protect. You may rest assured that I’m far too jaded to be attracted to mere beauty. Your sister is safe from me.”

“Nell,” the young girl said in an irritated voice. “Would you stop being so ridiculous?”

“Nell?” he echoed, ignoring everything else about the conversation except what interested him. “That’s quite charming. I…”

“Good day, my lord Rohan,” Miss Elinor Harriman said firmly.

“Come on, Francis,” Reading said. “We have the revels to return to. We wouldn’t want them to have too much fun without us.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, finally moving away from her. While he would have been very interested to see if she really would go so far as to push him, the thought of her hands on him was far too…enticing, and the circumstances were far from ideal. There were too many witnesses.

Lydia managed to move from behind her sister’s imposing presence. “Thank you again for all your help, Mr. Reading. And my lord Rohan.” She curtsied prettily enough, and her older sister frowned.

It was never his nature to let an opportunity slide by. “It was my pleasure, Miss Lydia,” he said in his most flattering tones, relieved that he remembered her name. “The sight of your beauty is reward enough.”

Her older sister reacted exactly as he wanted her to, stiffening. If he were younger and more foolish, her dragonlike protection would have ensured his eventual debauchery of the pretty little thing, but at this point it just seemed too tiresome. Besides, he had the impression that Reading wouldn’t like it.

“Miss Harriman, your servant,” he said, giving her a bow of such extravagant proportions that she’d know she was being mocked.

But she’d already turned back to her sister, and his gesture was wasted.

He waited until they were back out in the narrow alley that held the tumbledown house. His carriage was only a few steps away—she’d lied about the difficulty in getting there. His blue silk shoes were quite ruined by the snow and the filth in the street. “Quite the interesting family, are they not?”

Reading frowned. “I think you should keep your hands off her, Francis. There are more than enough women at the château to occupy your time.”

“But I’m not going back to the château. My honored guests will doubtless notice I’m gone, but it won’t make much impression on them. This was only a casual weekend—we still have the Spring Revels to plan. Besides, I find her oddly enchanting.”

Reading was obviously not happy with him, a curious event in itself. “She has a hard enough lot. The place was freezing, and if they had firewood hidden somewhere I’d be very much surprised. And while she’s pleasantly shaped I suspect she doesn’t get much to eat. I think the best thing you could do is arrange a marriage for her.”

Francis turned to look at his old friend. “Charles, there are times when you astonish me with your perspicacity. That is exactly what I should do. The only problem is finding a willing partner.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. She’s exquisite. Any man would be honored to have her.”

They’d reached the carriage, and Francis paused as he was about to ascend the steps. “Dear boy, I believe we’re talking at cross-purposes. Is it Miss Lydia you’re protecting so fiercely?”

“Of course. Are you going to tell me you don’t have designs on her? She’s an absolute diamond and you know it.” He was sounding particularly glum.

“I fancy the diamond’s sister,” Francis said, half amazed at the truth of his words. “Though you’re absolutely right, she’ll be much easier to handle if she’s married. I think my cousin should do nicely.”

He climbed into the carriage, and Reading followed him. “You mean the doctor?”

“Who better?” He settled himself on the leather seat, draping his long coats around him with great care. “He needs a wife to help him with his practice, and she needs a doctor to attend to her mother. I’ll send him over this afternoon.”

“Is this the sour young man I met? As I recall he’s not too happy you have the title. Is he likely to want to do you any favors?”

“It’s true,” Francis said, picking a speck of dirt from his sleeve. This area of the city was truly atrocious, but as yet there was nothing he could do about it. “He thinks the French title should belong to him. Unfortunately he was born on the wrong side of the blanket, and the old title had to devolve onto an émigré Englishman. I’ve been more than generous with the boy, and he’s wise enough to know that following my wishes is the best way to get his hands on at least some of the family estate, if I don’t work through it first.”

“You have more money than God, Francis. It would take a superhuman effort to lose all your money, and even you couldn’t accomplish it.”

Francis gave Reading his seraphic smile. “Don’t doubt me, dear boy. I can do anything I want if I set my mind to it.”

Reading’s reluctant laugh was encouraging. “That I don’t doubt. I stand corrected. What say we return to the party after all? The Spring Revels won’t be for another few weeks, and I see a long dull period stretching in front of us.”

“I have every intention of entertaining myself, Reading. You should know me well enough to realize that celibacy is no more for the likes of me than monogamy. And I’ve decided to celebrate Lent this year on a grand scale.”

“Oh, bloody Christ,” Reading said.

“Precisely. And I’m going to have Miss Harriman to entertain me.”

“You don’t think your cousin Etienne will have something to say about that? Presuming you manage to marry her off?”

“No. He’d give me his own sister if I asked for her. In fact, I’d offer his sister to you, but she’s alarmingly fat and fecund. And you don’t want any offspring until you’ve bagged your heiress.”

Reading’s sardonic smile tugged at his scarred face. “Indeed. But what makes you think that the dragon will lift her skirts for you once she’s married? She’s the frighteningly respectable sort. Why would you suppose she’d succumb to your evil machinations?”

“They always do, dear boy. And Miss Harriman…” He paused. “Good heavens.”

A moment later there was a loud crack from outside the carriage. “That’s something I don’t hear from you very often,” Reading said. “Good heavens, what? You have the strangest look on your face.”

Francis glanced down at the fine blue satin of his coat. “First my shoes are ruined and now this,” he said in a faint voice. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to see my cousin sooner rather than later.”

“Because?”

“Because I do believe I’ve been shot,” Francis said. “Tell the coachman to hurry, would you?” And he closed his eyes to the sounds of Reading pounding on the carriage wall and the whole conveyance came to an abrupt halt.

Lydia loved her older sister more than any human being in this world, but at that moment she was more than a little cross with her. “Was that entirely necessary?” she said. “You were being ridiculous.”

Elinor lifted her head, and for the first time Lydia noticed how pale she was. “You don’t realize how very bad Viscount Rohan is,” she said in a subdued voice.

“I assure you, Nell, he has absolutely no interest in me,” she said. “Don’t you think I’d be able to tell by now? Any attention he paid to me was simply to annoy you.”

Elinor flushed. Which was odd—she was unused to her calm older sister looking disturbed. “You mistake the matter,” she said. “He’s the very fiend of duplicity. To lower one’s guard around him would be courting disaster.”

More and more interesting. “Did you lower your guard around him, dearest?” Lydia said. “Because he was certainly watching you quite closely. Did he…do anything to you? Offer you an insult?”

“Of course not,” Elinor said with a shaky laugh. “Do I look like the kind of woman to interest a libertine like Lord Rohan? He merely has a peculiar sense of humor, one he uses to torment others. You may be right—he certainly has his choice of some of the greatest beauties of Paris. I still insist you be careful if you happen to encounter him again. I would presume that we shan’t be bothered by him any more in future, but it would be a mistake to assume that fate would be kind.”

“I think we’ll see him again,” Lydia said, not bothering to cover her small smile.

Elinor caught it. “If you find something amusing about this situation I would be most grateful if you would share it with me. Because the humor of it escapes my attention entirely.”

“He likes you, Nell. And why shouldn’t he? Any man with sense would see what a wonderful woman you are. He won’t be able to keep away from you…”

“Stop it!” Elinor said in a sharper tone than Lydia had ever heard from her. She took a deep breath. “For one thing, you’re very wrong. Yesterday I was a curiosity, nothing more. A…a virtuous woman in a land of whores. He’s a shallow man, easily bored.”

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