Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(16)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(16)
Anne Stuart

“He doesn’t strike me as shallow, Nell.”

Elinor ignored her. “Secondly, even if he did harbor some demented attraction for me, his intentions would be worse than dishonorable. You know the gossip we’ve heard about the Heavenly Host. It’s true.”

“They drink the blood of virgins?” Lydia shrieked, horrified.

“Of course not,” Elinor said in a cranky voice. “The other rumors. They gather together for the most licentious of activities, wearing strange garments and behaving like…like animals. You wouldn’t want me to be part of such a world, would you? Even if he wanted me?”

Lydia looked at her sister’s brown eyes, more troubled than she’d seen them in many years. “I’m sorry, love. I’ve been thoughtless. I hate to see you judge yourself so unfairly, but you’re right. That kind of interest would be disastrous.”

“That goes for Mr. Reading as well, Lyddie.”

Lydia knew how to bat her eyes and fool landlords and creditors. She could fool her sister as well, particularly since Elinor was so distraught. Besides, he’d been nothing but polite, that twisted, beautiful face of his mostly devoid of expression.

Just as Lydia knew how to fool people, she could also read them better than most. Charles Reading was different. Beneath his determinedly distant behavior, she knew he was feeling the same odd, irrational pull that was knotting her stomach and making her knees shake. She who had flirted with any number of handsome young men and remained untouched. All it had taken was a scarred, unhappy man and she was dreaming…

No, she was losing her mind. The house was cold, the last bit of the fire almost out. Elinor didn’t know, but Lydia planned to meet with Monsieur Garot the greengrocer this evening when he closed up shop. And she was going to do whatever she had to do to shoulder some of the burden that Elinor took on herself.

She was calm, determined, undespairing. She knew as well as Nell that Charles Reading wasn’t for her.

It didn’t mean that she couldn’t dream.

“Of course, Nell,” she said absently. “He’s of no interest to me. I’m waiting for a wealthy prince, remember?”

And Elinor smiled back at her, too abstracted to realize that for the first time her sister was lying to her.

He really wasn’t in the mood to deal with all this, Rohan thought several hours later from his exceedingly uncomfortable position on the narrow cot in Etienne’s well-equipped surgery. That had been money well spent, he mused dreamily. In fact, it had been simply to occupy a hotheaded Frenchman from being an annoyance. He never thought it might save his life one day.

They’d given him laudanum—he was familiar enough with its delightful effects to recognize it, and he welcomed the drugged daze. He could remember a few unhappy moments when Etienne had dug around in the flesh of his upper arm for the bullet, and no doubt the young man had taken a fair amount of pleasure in inflicting pain on his so-called usurper. But that was all in the hazy past, and if he could just get a bit more comfortable…

“You’re coming around, cousin.”

He turned his head to see Etienne de Giverney looking at him in pinched disapproval. He’d be a handsome young man if only he didn’t have the unfortunate tendency to sneer, and Francis considered informing him of that when he realized it was the effect of the laudanum.

“Saved my life, did you, Etienne?” he murmured. “That must have gone against the grain.”

“Hardly. The bullet was in your arm, not your heart. Whoever shot you did a very poor job of it.”

“Which must sadden you tremendously.”

“I do think assassins should know what they’re doing,” Etienne said in his clipped voice.

Francis was emerging from the drugged daze, reluctantly. He struggled to sit up without any aid from his unwilling doctor. “You think that was what it was? An assassination attempt?”

“Since you were in town I doubt it was a hunting accident,” Etienne said coolly. “And I imagine there are a great many people who would like to see you dead.”

Francis straightened his back. His arm was wrapped in layers of gauze, and despite the drugs the pain was more than annoying. He was going home to soak himself in brandy until it stopped. “Perhaps. But none of them are crack shots.”

“Whoever it was missed his target,” Etienne pointed out.

“He came close enough, considering the circumstances. A busy city street, the protection of a carriage. I imagine we should look for a talented marksman. Perhaps someone newly discharged from the army.”

“Well, should you ever discover him you can give him your compliments on his marksmanship.”

Rohan controlled his irritation. “Where’s my shirt? And where’s Reading?”

“He’s been doing your bidding. You had quite the list of commands before you finally succumbed to the laudanum. A servant should arrive with fresh clothes momentarily—I had to shred your coat and shirt. They were soaked with blood—there would have been no salvaging them anyway.”

“Tant pis. I can always buy more,” he said deliberately, just to see Etienne’s brow darken.

“And just who is it you’re trying to corrupt at the moment?”

Francis smiled pleasantly. “Anyone who comes near me, Etienne. Did you have someone in mind?”

Etienne made an annoyed click of his tongue. “You had Reading dispatching firewood and food to someplace in Rue du Pélican. Don’t you realize you could have anyone from that area raise her skirts for a few sous?”

“I agree, it’s not a very savory area, but you’ll find there are a couple of very virtuous young ladies in residence. With their ill maman. I’d like you to call on them, see if there’s anything you can do for the poor woman,” he said, trying his best to look saintly.

“Charity is unlike you.”

He laughed. “Oh, acquit me of any such motives. I have nothing but the most impure thoughts when it comes to one of the young women. I’d like you to see to the mother’s swift and painless passing and marry the older girl. She’ll provide you an excellent wife—commonsensical and plainspoken. She’ll organize your life and your practice and give you a dozen hopeful children.”

There was a moment’s silence. “You still have the capacity to surprise me,” Etienne said finally. “I’m not going to kill some old woman for you. Nor am I about to marry some woman so you can debauch her younger sister.”

“In fact, the mother’s not that old. But she’s dying of the Spanish disease and her mind’s gone.” Rohan poked at his arm, then winced. “She’ll be dead in a matter of months anyway. And it’s your future wife I wish to debauch.”

Etienne stared at him. “There are times, Francis, when I wonder if you’re quite mad.”

“In my own way. I take it you don’t fancy the idea of aiding me?”


“I would be most grateful if you’d consider it,” he said. “You know I tend to express my gratitude in tangible ways.” He could see the light of greed in his cousin’s flat black eyes. “And the mother could do with a doctor’s care. I could send someone else, of course, but I thought I should offer such an opportunity to my dear cousin and heir.”

Etienne drew himself upright. “I’ll go see the poor woman. Because I swore an oath to attend the sick. And you’re not going to see me inherit the title—you’ll marry on your deathbed and beget an heir just to spite me,” he said in a voice that wasn’t far from a whine.

“What a wonderful opinion you have of my virility,” Rohan replied. “As it is, I have no interest in begetting anything. Assist me in this matter, at least as far as the woman goes. It’s always possible that you might suddenly become enamored of her daughter. You need a wife, and she’d be a lucrative pick.”

“You’d settle money on her simply in order to get her into bed?” Etienne said, aghast.

“Don’t I do the very same thing with the beautiful whores who attend me? Even the grand ladies offer up their charms for a price, be it jewels or flattery. Sex is always some kind of transaction, and I have no hesitation in paying the price.”

Etienne shook his head. “You’re an extremely cynical man, cousin.”

“As are you, mon fils.” With great difficulty he managed to swing his legs over the side of the small cot. For a moment the world swirled about him most unpleasantly, and then it came back into focus. “I believe I hear a commotion outside. I expect it’s Reading, back from his errands of mercy. Direct your man to assist him.”

“I have no ‘man,’ cousin. Just an elderly widow who helps me in the surgery, and I’m not about to have her wait on a spoiled aristocrat.”

Francis smiled his most angelic smile. “You’d be very happy to be a spoiled aristocrat yourself, Etienne, admit it. This man-of-the-people air you affect is simply because of circumstance, not preference. And you’ll have to get rid of the woman. I think Miss Harriman might tend to be the jealous, possessive sort, and she wouldn’t want you in close quarters with a comely widow. And don’t try to pretend she’s not comely, Etienne. I know your tastes too well.”

“If the woman you desire is the jealous, possessive sort then why are you interested? Those are qualities that have proved anathema to you in the past.”

Rohan was struck. “You know, you are quite right. I have no idea why I am so intent on debauching a young woman who will give me nothing but trouble. But then, I’ve never spent overmuch time examining my motives. I want her. That’s enough.” He looked up as Reading was ushered into the room, indeed by a buxom young woman who could only be Etienne’s “elderly” widow. “Have you come to rescue me, dear boy? There’s only so much of Etienne’s disapproval that I can bear.”

“The carriage awaits. The food and wood have been delivered, with furniture and rugs and bedding to follow. Are you certain you want to bother? You can dress a pig up in satin and lace and it’s still a pig.”

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