Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(17)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(17)
Anne Stuart

Francis smiled hazily. It had been a long day. In fact, a long pair of days, though he usually survived sleepless nights quite well. “Are you calling my intended a pig, Charles?”

Charles raised a dark eyebrow. “Intended what, Francis? You surely can’t be having respectable inclinations toward this girl. The bullet hit your arm, not your head.”

“No such thing, my boy. I’m too old to change.” He turned to look at his sullen cousin. “Etienne, do you have more of that lovely laudanum? I think I’ll need medicinal assistance for the ride back to Maison de Giverney.”

He wasn’t so far gone that he missed the pinched expression Etienne always wore at the mention of the Paris mansion that should have been his. “You’ve had enough.”

“But if you give me more I might accidentally take too much and die. And then where would you be?” he said sweetly.

“It will take but a moment.”

The moment he left the room Rohan turned to Charles. “The two women will be removed from the sty as soon as it’s feasible. These things must be handled delicately, with finesse, and I’ve never been a clumsy man. Give me your arm. This place smells of cabbage and death. The sooner I return to my own bed the happier I shall be.”

“Your cousin has gone to get you more laudanum.”

“I merely got tired of his sour face. He can send it later. Perhaps we ought to send someone to cheer him up. Marianne, for instance.” He rose to his stocking feet, unsteadily. “Get me out of here, for mercy’s sake. I have evil plans to hatch. Are you with me?”

“Every step of the way,” Reading said, taking his arm. “We’re going to hell, you know.”

“That was ascertained many years ago, Charles. Thank God.”

“Thank God,” Charles echoed heartily.

But even in his drugged state Rohan could hear the faint thread of doubt in his friend’s voice as they headed out into the snowy evening.

8

As far as days went, this one was looking as miserable as the day before. Once Rohan had left, Elinor had waited only long enough to make certain her mother and sister had no need of her, and then she set off to find the lawyer, Mr. Mitchum. Her proud departure yesterday had been put in perspective. There was no room for pride when Lydia was at stake, no room for pride when the Prince of Darkness had set his sights on her sister. Elinor had been a fool to walk out without seeking an appointment with her father’s heir, but the disappointment had been too deep. Without a generous inheritance they were doomed.

She never would have thought she’d be so impulsive. In the last six years she’d considered herself calm, practical, thoughtful. Now in one rash moment of temper she might have put her sister and her small, motley family in danger, and her self-contempt knew no limits.

Mr. Mitchum was no help at all. At least the new Baron Tolliver hadn’t left France, but for the moment he was out of town, visiting friends in the country. There was no telling when he’d return, or even if he’d still be willing to see his poor female relation at that point. Perhaps if Miss Harriman were to return in a week’s time an appointment might be arranged?

They might be lost in a week’s time, Elinor thought grimly, scurrying through the wintry streets of Paris. The snow was falling, swirling down in pretty patterns, and at another time she might have appreciated it. Not on this bitterly cold evening. Once she’d left the lawyer she’d walked for hours, more of her fruitless quest for employment. In this area of Paris people could barely find enough to survive—no one had the money or the interest in learning the fine art of playing the pianoforte or stitching a perfect seam. Particularly since no one could afford to own a pianoforte, and needlework was kept for more practical applications. Just as well, because her needlework was appalling and it had been years since anyone had been forced to listen to her on the pianoforte.

She pulled the shawl around her more tightly. Her own cloak that she’d left behind at the château was warmer than the flimsy wool. Rohan had brought the stolen fur-lined cloak, but Elinor had enough sense not to wear it into the streets. Chances were it would have been ripped away from her in a matter of minutes. One did not display items of such worth in a desperate neighborhood such as this.

And indeed, she’d left Lydia wrapped in it, warm and comfortable in the icy house, so it served its purpose. She just had to hope Lydia didn’t have an attack of guilt and cover their mother with it. Lady Caroline was beyond knowing if she was hot or cold, and she’d thrown everything away. She didn’t deserve the one bit of comfort in their barren home, Elinor thought with fierce bitterness.

Tomorrow she would sell the cloak. Tonight they were going to have to break up the furniture in order to keep from freezing, and she wasn’t sure where to start. Her mother’s bed would be the obvious choice. The rest of them were already sleeping on the floor. But if Lady Caroline had a pallet on the floor there’d be no way to restrain her, and that was even more dangerous than freezing to death.

It would have to be the chairs or the table, and she couldn’t decide which was more necessary. They were young enough and agile enough to sit comfortably on the floor, though Nanny and Jacobs had a much harder time of it. Nanny Maude had frequently napped as she sat beside Lady Caroline on the bed, her back against one of the posts, but that could hardly serve as her main mode of sitting.

Darkness was falling, and what little safety there was in the streets that surrounded them was fading fast as well. She had no choice but to head back, having failed in the most simple of quests. She thought back to that tray of cinnamon-toast strips and wanted to cry.

There was an odd light coming from the small windows that looked out onto the street, and Elinor paused, momentarily confused. One house did look much like another, and she might have mistaken where she was, but no, she could hear Lydia’s voice raised in laughter, and she burst through the door, suddenly terrified that her nemesis had returned.

The room was warm—waves of heat coming from the crackling fire in the hearth, with stacks of wood waiting to one side. There were candles lit all around, putting a temporarily pleasant glow on their poverty, and she could smell the unbelievable scent of roasting chicken from the small room that served as kitchen and servants’ quarters.

She looked around, somewhat desperately, but there was no tall, dangerously beautiful man in sight. No one at all but Lydia and Nanny Maude.

“Isn’t it wonderful, Nell?” Lydia cried, jumping up. “The wood arrived just an hour after you left, more than enough to keep the kitchen fire going as well for weeks, and then the food. You wouldn’t believe it—flour and sugar and tea, fresh cream and butter. And chicken, potatoes, sausages. Nanny’s already made us scones. It’s heavenly.”

Not quite, Elinor thought, remember Rohan’s satanic smile. “There’ll be a price to pay for all this,” she said in a dour voice, stripping off the threadbare shawl and advancing into the cozy room.

“One I’ll gladly pay,” Lydia said cheerfully. “If I have to trade my innocence for a warm bed and a chicken dinner then I’ll do so without hesitation. This scone itself is worth any number of indecent favors.”

“Don’t make light of it, Lyddie,” she said sharply. “This isn’t an act of disinterested charity.”

Lydia popped the rest of the scone in her mouth, then smiled beatifically. “No, I suppose it’s not. But for some reason I doubt Lord Rohan would be the kind of man who’d force you, no matter how wicked he likes to think himself. I think he likes the thrill of the chase.”

“Lyddie darling,” she said, crossing the room and taking a scone. “He’s a heartless, soulless libertine. I doubt there’s anything he’d refrain from doing, simply for moral principles. He has no moral principles.”

“Perhaps not. I suspect he’s not the villain he pretends to be. He likes the challenge, the power. Using force would be too clumsy for him—he’d consider it failure.”

“You’re right about that much,” Elinor said. “But it’s not me he’d want. And I’m not letting any man—” she took a bite of the scone “—take liberties with you…” She took another bite. “I’m here to protect you—” she closed her eyes “—and, damn, you’re right. This is enough to make one surrender one’s honor in a trice.”

“Don’t use such language, Miss Elinor,” Nanny Maude said. “You’ve been spending too much time in these awful streets and around your mother.”

“Our awful mother,” Lydia said with a giggle.

“And I didn’t make the scones—they arrived along with everything else. Real Devonshire clotted cream, strong black tea from China, fresh strawberry preserves. Even the chicken was already butchered and dressed, ready for the pot. Someone thinks I can’t cook,” she said with offended dignity.

“Someone thinks you have way too many things to worry about and thought you deserved some assistance,” Lydia assured her. She twirled around the room, practically giddy. “Don’t you see, Nell? We have a guardian angel, and who cares if he’s a fallen one? I’m not afraid of him. You’re wrong—he has no nefarious designs on me, and you’re more than a match for him. If he has wicked motives he’s going to be sorely disappointed.”

Elinor couldn’t help it—the fire called to her with its siren warmth. She sank down on her knees in front of it, holding out her chilled hand, as Lydia brought a cup of tea—real tea—over to her and sat down beside her.

The heat was sinking into her bones, and for a brief moment she simply wanted to put her head down on the rough floor and weep.

“There’s someone at the door,” Nanny Maude said in her customarily cranky voice.

“Tell Lord Rohan to go away,” Elinor said. “We’re not entertaining guests at this hour.”

“It’s not him,” she said darkly. “There are a bunch of them. Probably come to take the things back. They were brought here by mistake.”

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