Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(3)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(3)
Anne Stuart

And he would watch it all, indulging when the urge struck him, overseeing it all with veiled interest. He always wondered how far people would go in pursuit of pleasure. He knew his own appetites were extraordinary, and there were times when he needed more than his own pleasure to satisfy him. He needed the wicked delight of others, and his willing acolytes provided it.

There were women and men awaiting his word, some dressed in clerical garb, some wearing little at all. He could recognize Lady Adelia dressed in a diaphanous chemise better suited to a dancer half her weight, and her husband would be somewhere among the gentlemen dressed in feminine splendor, their carmined lips pursed in anticipation.

He let his gaze drift over them, his disciples in the art of sin, and he sat up, tossing back his long, unpowdered hair.

“My children,” he said in the French they all understood, English and French and German émigrés who’d come seeking pleasure. “Welcome to the revels of the Heavenly Host. You will partake of each other as you would partake of the holy wafer, you will drink the wine as if it were the blessed blood, and you will take your fill, with no one to judge. For the next three nights the paltry rules of society are forfeit. Our motto stands…‘Do what thou wilt.’”

“Do what thou wilt,” they intoned with deep seriousness, like novices taking their final vows, and he let a faint smile dance around the mouth they all craved. They were so determined in their pursuit of wickedness that it made him laugh.

He waved his hand, the layers of Mechlin lace floating. “Then go and sin once more,” he said, his deep, rich voice echoing in the huge salon.

There was a cheer, and the great doors to the rest of the château were opened. The revels began, and Francis Rohan leaned back in his chair, wishing he were back in Paris with a glass of brandy and a good book and no eager sinners seeking his attention.

He was bored. He’d witnessed almost every depravation known to man, participated in a great many of them, and he’d yet to find anything to pierce his interminable ennui. True, he could still find physical pleasure, but it was no more than a brief respite. When he so desired, he would wander through the rooms of the château and observe acts prohibited by church and state, he would watch fortunes being won and lost at the turn of a card. He would watch men give in to the most base instincts with no fear of repercussion, and in the end, he would return to his opulent chair and he would try to summon up some interest.

One woman had separated herself from the hearty revelers, and she glided toward him, a demimasque on her face, her lush body spilling out of the artful gown she wore. It laced in front, and beneath the loosely tied strings he suspected there was nothing but ripe flesh. He would enjoy loosening those strings—Marianne had quite the most spectacular br**sts he had ever seen. And she knew the rules. He wasn’t fond of kissing, and she would seldom make the mistake of putting her lips anywhere near his face. She would instead use that magnificent mouth elsewhere, and it would while away an hour or so, while the more timid of his guests watched.

He signaled with his hand, and she approached, a sly smile on her lips. Lips devoid of rouge—she knew what he preferred from her. She came up the small dais his idiot followers had built him, and he noted with approval that the lacing went down to the hem, and indeed she was wearing nothing at all underneath.

He pulled her onto his lap, gently, and began playing with the laces, loosening them until her milky-white br**sts spilled out into the cool night air. Her ni**les beaded with the chill, and he had the sudden urge to suckle her.

“Lean back,” he said in his bored voice, and she immediately did so, arching over the arm of the chair, presenting herself to him, and he moved his head down to let his tongue graze the pebbled mound, when a sudden noise caught his attention, and he sat up, annoyed, drawing Marianne with him.

“You’ve got trouble, Francis,” Charles Reading said in his rough, lazy voice. “And it’s early times for you to be sampling the banquet.”

Marianne turned and smiled at him, cheerier than Rohan felt at that particular moment.

“What kind of trouble?” he said. “I’m not in the mood to be seconding duels or even stopping them. If they want to kill each other then let them go ahead. I have servants to clean up the blood.”

“Not that kind of trouble. I think you’ll like this one. I myself find it rather irresistible.”

It was enough to get his attention. There was very little Charles Reading found entertaining, and whatever did had to be unusual, and therefore possibly of interest. “Then don’t keep me waiting. Bring forth the trouble.”

“One of your footmen has her. Willis was going to send her on her way when I intervened, knowing you’d be entertained. Shall I tell him to bring her in?”

“I should go,” Marianne said, attempting to pull her gown together over her br**sts. He was having none of it.

“You should stay,” he said in the cool voice. He turned to Charles. “A her, is it? An interesting ‘her’? I find that hard to believe. But by all means bring her in. If nothing else, we can toss her to the gentlemen and ladies in the green room.”

Reading was a handsome man, if you could discount the scar that had been slashed down the right side of face, turning his smile into a twisted grimace. He made a sketchy bow. “I am yours to command, my lord.” He backed away in a parody of servile humility, and Francis watched as he called out to a servant.

Charles Reading was one of his most amusing companions. Charles had as little regard for propriety as he did, but he viewed things with the fierce passion of youth, making Francis feel every one of his thirty-nine years. In truth, he felt eighty.

He could feel Marianne squirm, trying to reach for her gown, but it was a simple matter to capture her hand in a viselike grip. He remembered she liked pain, and he deliberately kept his grip gentle but unbreakable. If he was going to enjoy her later in the evening, as he expected he would, he didn’t want her becoming too excited too early. She would go spend that energy on someone else, and he did rather like to be first.

One of the footmen appeared, with Willis, his servant from a lifetime ago, on the other side of what was undoubtedly female and undoubtedly not one of the prostitutes imported from the city. This was going to be entertaining. He leaned back in his chair and gestured them closer, waiting as they approached, waiting as Reading stood in the background watching him.

“What have we got here, Willis?” he asked in his mildest voice. It was too much to hope for anything truly entertaining, but it might provide a few moments distraction.

She lifted her head, the dowdy creature, and he found himself looking into warm brown eyes filled with such loathing that for a moment he was charmed. Few people ever showed their dislike of him.

“And who is she?” he inquired lazily. “Don’t tell me—someone thought dressing a whore as a ragpicker would provide added entertainment. Or no…I think perhaps she’s supposed to be a young lady fallen on hard times. Or perhaps a shopgirl. Though I fail to see how a shopgirl could add to our entertainment. Tilt her head up a bit.”

The footman moved to do his bidding and the wench snapped at him like a wild bitch. The man made the very grave mistake of hitting her across the mouth, and when she lifted her head there was blood on her lip. “No,” Francis said calmly. “I don’t think she’s a whore, Willis. Not with a nose like that. Whores have pretty little snub noses—this young lady has a nose of consequence. Perhaps you should simply send her on her way.”

She glared at him, the frowsy little creature. Though in fact she wasn’t particularly little—she was taller than most women of his acquaintance. She tried to speak, but Willis pushed ahead of her. “She says she’s looking for her mother, my lord.”

Francis threw back his head and laughed. “She’s the daughter of a whore? What will we come to next?”

“My mother’s not a whore,” she had the temerity to say, and his interest grew. She had a good voice, solid, low pitched, and undoubtedly from the upper classes of England. He’d been exiled from that land twenty-two years ago, but he’d entertained enough titled visitors to know the difference. It was the same voice he spoke in, when he cared to speak English.

“Then she’s not here,” he said. “The only women here are whores. Even lovely Marianne here. Granted, she’s a titled whore, but a whore she most definitely is.” He waited, hoping that Marianne might pull away, but she sat still in his lap, her br**sts in full view of the interloper.

The girl—no, the woman—looked at him. She was past her girlhood, perhaps somewhere in her twenties, and her lip still bled.

“Release her, Willis,” he said lazily. “And take the footman in hand. I’m afraid he’s going to have to be taught a very harsh lesson. No one is struck in this household unless they find it arousing. I can tell that Miss Lumpkin is not aroused.”

He could hear the footman’s alarmed intake of breath, and the fool tried to apologize, tried to explain as Willis hustled him out of the room, another sturdy footman appearing and helping with the disposal of the rubbish. Rohan released Marianne’s wrist, and she carelessly pulled her provocative gown together, hiding her treasures. “You may leave us, Marianne,” he murmured. “I find I have better things to do tonight.”

He paid absolutely no attention as she scrambled away from him. She’d be very angry with him, which might make things more exciting if he decided to avail himself of her later on. At that moment he was doubting it.

The child in the middle of the room was glaring at him, for child she was, no matter what her advanced years. She was a virgin, untouched, unkissed, innocent and angry, and he was prepared to enjoy himself immensely. “So tell me, little one. What really brought you here?”

She clearly wanted to tell him to go to hell, but young ladies didn’t do that. She brought her fury in hand with a visible effort, yanked her pathetic cloak more tightly around her and squared her shoulders, obviously determined to be calm. “I’m looking for my mother,” she said again. “I realize you have trouble understanding plain English. Perhaps your dissipations have begun to affect your mind, in which case you have all my sympathies, but it’s my mother I’m concerned about. I believe she arrived here with Monsieur St. Philippe, and it really is imperative I get her home as quickly as possible. She’s not well.”

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