Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(2)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(2)
Anne Stuart

“I don’t,” Lydia piped up, her blue eyes shining with curiosity.

“You don’t need to know,” Elinor snapped.

“It’s that devil, isn’t it?” Nanny said, her voice grim. “She’s gone and taken herself off to the devil’s lair, where there’s orgies and such, and she’ll lose the tiny bit of money we have left and probably end up sacrificed to the dark one.”

“I don’t think they do sacrifices, Nanny,” Elinor said in her most practical voice, trying to ignore her own racing heart.

“They do,” Nanny said, nodding her head so vigorously her lace cap slipped off her silver hair. “Women go in there and are never seen again. They kill virgins and drink their blood.”

“Well, if it’s virgins they kill then I think our mother’s safe,” Elinor drawled, determined to take the terrified look off her sister’s face. “And I doubt anyone will be so besotted with her that she’ll disappear. She’ll gamble away the money and then come crawling home, sick and helpless.”

“You don’t understand, miss,” said Nanny. “It’s the only money we have left. And she took the diamond brooch.”

A cold chill ran down the center of Elinor’s body. It was the last thing of value they owned, a poor piece with tiny, flawed diamonds that was worth very little, but she’d kept it hidden for an emergency that didn’t involve their deliberately self-destructive mother. She straightened her shoulders. “Then I’ll simply have to go after her.”

She ignored Nanny’s howl of protest. Jacobs said nothing—he knew there was no other choice. Lydia rose. “I’m going with you, Nell.”

“You certainly are not. If I walk into that den of iniquity I know I’m safe. They’d be on you like a pack of ravening wolves.”

“I think you overestimate my irresistibility,” Lydia said with a grin.

“And I think you underestimate it. Nanny said they drink the blood of virgins, remember?” she said with just enough lightness to allay her sister’s fears.

Unfortunately Lydia could see right through her. “You’re a virgin too, darling, unless you’ve been keeping something from me. They’ll drink your blood too.”

Elinor didn’t even flinch. “They won’t be drinking anyone’s blood. They thrive on scandal and secrecy, but I suspect they’re not nearly as dangerous as they pretend to be,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice.

“They murder babies,” Nanny contributed helpfully.

“Hush,” Elinor said. “I’m hardly a baby. Jacobs will take me to the house of the Comte de Giverney and we will extract our mother and be back before midnight.”

“Begging your pardon, miss, but they were heading out of town,” Jacobs said. “I think they’ve gone to his château.”

Elinor remained calm. “And how far away is that?”

“Not far, miss. An hour out of town if we hurry.”

“Then we’ll be back by dawn,” she said. “Safe and sound, and this time we’ll tie mother to the bed when we can’t watch her.”

“And how do you intend to get there?” Lydia said. “Last I heard we had no coach, nor horses, nor money to rent them. Are you intending to walk?”

Elinor shared a knowing glance with Jacobs, who backed out of the room without another word. “Jacobs will handle it,” she said smoothly. “In the meantime I’m counting on you to make certain Mother’s room is clean and ready for her. We’ll probably have to use the restraints we had from the time she was raving. It will depend on how much gin she’s drunk and if she’s been fed anything else dangerous.”

“I don’t want you going there alone.”

“I’ll go with her,” Nanny said, bless her elderly heart. She was so crippled with the rheumatics that she could hardly walk, but she’d fight a dragoon of soldiers for her babies.

“No, Nanny,” she said gently. “I need you to look after Lydia.” She met Nanny’s gaze for a moment, and a world of understanding passed between them. If by any bizarre chance Elinor didn’t come back Lydia would need someone, and Nanny was their only choice.

Nanny nodded her head, and Elinor could see tears shining in her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous, you two. I’m not walking into the gates of hell. The Comte de Giverney is just a man who throws decadent parties, not Satan himself, and I’m hardly the type of female to inflame his darker passions. Besides, Jacobs carries a pistol, and he’d shoot the first man who tried to harm me. I’ll go in, ask for my mother, and they’ll probably be happy enough to get rid of her. So there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Except the diamond brooch,” Nanny said grimly.

If Elinor had been closer she would have kicked one of Nanny’s painful shins. The old lady had a very gloomy outlook on life, and right then Lydia needed to be hopeful. She didn’t need to learn their last hope of rescue had vanished, and if the jewelry was lost they were well and truly doomed.

But right then she couldn’t afford to waste any more time. Apart from the orgiastic goings-on at the Comte de Giverney’s notorious house parties there was high-stakes gaming. The brooch would be gone in a matter of moments, and if anyone were fool enough to extend her mother credit they’d have to start hiding from a better class of creditors, the aristocracy as well as the greengrocers.

She grabbed her threadbare cloak and the rough shawl she wore over it for added warmth, kissed Lydia and Nanny Maude goodbye, trying to appear insouciant and brave. Nanny clung to her like it was a final goodbye, but Lydia simply sat back in her chair and calmly took up her knitting again. It was an act—she knew just how dangerous Elinor’s task was, and she knew the best thing she could give her sister was not having to worry about her. The sight of her brave, bowed head of blond curls made Elinor want to cry.

But she didn’t have time for crying. Moments later she was out in the cold night air; her fingerless gloves, which were more darning than original weave, were pulled on, the shawl over her ordinary brown hair, and she started down the street, determined to ignore the more unsavory denizens of the neighborhood.

Jacobs would be at the nearby café, where horses and carriages were stabled. Circumstances had forced them to “borrow” a carriage once before, when Lady Caroline had proved herself unwelcome at a masked ball, though they’d fortunately been able to replace it in time with no one the wiser. Tonight they might not be near as lucky, but she couldn’t afford to think of that. For now all she could concentrate on was getting her mother safely out of the devil’s lair. One thing at a time.

Jacobs did better than she’d expected, appearing with a small traveling chaise large enough to hold two females and not much more. She scrambled inside before Jacobs could get down to assist her, and a moment later they were off.

It was a cold, moonless night in early February, and if the modest carriage had ever held lap robes they were long gone. She pulled her shawl from her head and wrapped it around her shoulders, shivering. It would take an hour to reach the comte’s château, if she didn’t freeze to death before she got there.

Still, if she was half-frozen it could only help matters. It would give her something less daunting to concentrate on. She held on to the seat as it swayed back and forth. Jacobs was driving at a dangerous pace, but she had complete faith in his abilities. They would arrive at the château in one piece; the rest was up to her.

She had no qualms. She knew exactly what she looked like. She was tall, a bit too thin thanks to the state of their larder, with plain brown hair and eyes, and that unfortunate nose. It wasn’t that bad, she mused, it was narrow and elegant, and when she was an old lady she would look quite striking. Still, that didn’t help when she was young and wanting to be pretty.

But she was past all that. If she ran into the wretched comte he’d take one look at her dowdy clothes and hair and never even see her. Thankfully that was the way with most men. She had no doubt she could find her mother in no time at all, spirit her away and the strange goings-on at the château would be a distant memory.

If she still believed in God she would pray, but she’d lost that particular comfort six years ago. Besides, Nanny and Lydia would be praying for them like mad—if there really was a god he’d certainly listen to the two of them. Lydia was too charming to ignore, and Nanny too fierce. Perhaps it was only Elinor he paid no attention to.

She closed her eyes. The day had been disastrous from beginning to end, with the unlikely hope of a small inheritance being a mere pinprick compared to the far greater disaster of their future prospects having vanished with the succession. For now she’d hold that knowledge to herself. Nanny Maude and Lydia didn’t need the worry.

The lawyer, Mr. Mitchum, had suggested she meet with the new heir, the stranger who’d have control over her inheritance, but she’d left the office in a fit of temper.

She’d have to meet with her distant cousin eventually, and she’d been a fool to storm off. If there was, in fact, even the most pitiful of bequests she couldn’t be proud enough to refuse it.

But first she had to find her mother.

2

Francis Alistair St. Claire Dominic Charles Edward Rohan, Comte de Giverney, Viscount Rohan, Baron of Glencoe, leaned back, letting his long pale fingers gently stroke the carved wooden claws that decorated the massive chair he sat in. He let his head rest against the velvet cushioning, surveyed his eager guests and allowed himself a faint smile. The vast supply of tapers lit even the dark corners of the salon, and he could see them all, his so-called friends and acquaintances, practically quivering in anticipation of the revels that stretched in front of them. Three days and nights of the most libertine indulgences—gaming and coupling with anyone agreeable, whore or lordling, male or female. Mock satanic rituals to make participants feel truly wicked, calling on a dark force that no more existed than did a loving god, but babbling Latin in front of an inverted cross gave them even more license to indulge themselves. There was opium and brandy and wine and even good Scots whiskey, and by the time the party was done he expected every drop to be gone, every body to be well pleasured, every soul drained of any illusion of morality.

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