Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(4)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(4)
Anne Stuart

“St. Philippe?” he said. “I believe he had a female companion, but I paid little attention. Clearly you’re of an advanced age, which leads me to believe your mother must therefore be old enough to make her own decisions on such matters.” He snapped his fingers and a servant immediately materialized from the shadows. “Bring mademoiselle a chair. She looks weary.”

“No!” she said. “I have no interest in conversing with you, Monsieur le Comte. I simply need my mother.”

“And I need to prove myself a proper host,” he returned.

“You’ve managed to overcome your more proper urges so far,” she said pointedly. “Why change now?”

There was enough of a barb in her voice that he was amused. He rose, setting his glass of wine down. “A good point, mademoiselle…?”

“You don’t need my name.”

“If I don’t have it how am I to produce your mother?” His voice was eminently reasonable as he started down the short steps from the dais. She didn’t move—he had to grant her that. She was courageous enough to walk into the lion’s den and not shrink from his approach.

She hesitated. “Harriman,” she said finally. “My name is Elinor Harriman. My mother is Lady Caroline Harriman.”

He froze. “Holy Christ. That poxy old bitch is here? Don’t worry, my precious. We shall find her immediately. I have no intention of allowing her to stay among my guests. I am astonished St. Philippe had the temerity to bring her with him. Unless it was simply to gain my attention.”

“Why would he do that?” the young girl asked, bewildered. He usually found innocence to be tedious. Mademoiselle Elinor Harriman’s innocence was oddly appealing.

“Because he has a tendre for me, and I’ve shown no interest.”

“He has a tendre for you? He’s a man.”

“He is indeed,” he said gently. “And how have you lived in Paris for so long without knowing about such things?”

“How do you know how long I’ve lived in Paris?” she retorted.

“Lady Caroline Harriman left her doltish husband and came to Paris with her two daughters some ten years ago, and she’s been in steady decline ever since. I’m surprised she’s still alive.”

“Just barely,” the girl said grimly. “Could I please go look for her instead of standing here talking to you? She’s probably gaming, and I’d like to stop her before the last of our household money is gone.”

“A laudable notion, child. I’d like to stop her before she spreads the plague amongst my guests. I’m quite adamant about the health of the whores…”

“My mother is not a whore!”

There was a charming flush to her pale cheeks. She was too thin—she hadn’t been fed properly in the last few months, and he allowed himself the briefest fantasy of feeding her tidbits of meat and pastries while she lay n**ed across his bed.

His mocking smile was half meant for his own foolishness. Virgins were far too tedious, and even the fiery Mademoiselle Harriman would be more trouble than she was worth.

“Any woman in this house is a whore, my child. So, for that matter, are the men. Let me get you a glass of wine and we can discuss this.”

“You are as addled as my mother,” she snapped, spinning on her heel. “I’m going to look for her.”

He wasn’t in the habit of letting any woman turn her back on him, and he simply took her arm, ungently, and spun her around to face him, fury on her face and a nasty little pistol in her hand, pointed in the general direction of his stomach.

She would shoot him, without a qualm, Elinor told herself, willing her hand not to shake. If he saw her quaking he would assume she was harmless, and then she might be forced to actually fire the wretched gun. Which she most assuredly did not want to do, unless she had to.

He released her, encouraging her hope that he was a reasonable man, but he didn’t take a step back, and he seemed more amused than alarmed.

The King of Hell was everything they said he was, both less and more. He was reputed to have the ability to seduce an abbess or the pope himself, and she could see why. It wasn’t his physical beauty, which was considerable. He had dark blue eyes behind a fringe of ridiculously long lashes, pale, beautiful skin, the kind of mouth that could bring despair and delight—and what the hell was she doing, thinking about such things?

He looked younger than his reputed age, around forty, and while his long dark hair was streaked with silver it only made him seem more leonine, more dangerous. He was tall, and he moved with an elegant grace that put dancers to shame. He was standing far too close to her, to the gun she’d stolen from Jacobs while he was busy with the carriage, and he was looking at her with far too much interest and absolutely no fear.

“You aren’t going to shoot me, my dear,” he said calmly, making no effort to take the gun from her shaking hand. And it was shaking—she couldn’t disguise it.

“I don’t wish to. But my mother’s safety is paramount…”

“Your mother is a walking dead woman,” he said, his voice casual and cruel. “You know it as well as I. Why don’t you return home and I’ll find her and send her after you?”

“You don’t understand. I can’t afford to let her game away the rest of our money,” she repeated. It shamed her to admit how little they had, but then, most of his guests would be capable of losing a fortune on the turn of a card. There was no need for him to guess just how little they had left.

“Then we shall see that she doesn’t,” he said in that caressing voice of his. It was little wonder people fell at his feet—his voice could charm angels. “You know you don’t want to shoot me. Think of the mess. Not to mention the explanations.” He reached out and gently took the pistol away from her. “Very pretty,” he said, glancing at the elegant pearl-handled thing. “If you’re so hard up for money you could always sell this.”

“Who says we’re hard up for money?” she demanded.

“Your clothes, child. You dress like a ragpicker. What’s your mother wearing—sackcloth and ashes?”

“She’d hardly be allowed in here if she was.”

“Oh, on the contrary. Sackcloth and ashes could be deemed quite appropriate. After all, this is a gathering of the Heavenly Host, you know.”

She tried not to react to the shock of him actually mentioning the forbidden words. Everyone had heard rumors of the Heavenly Host, that covert gathering of wicked aristocrats with too much time on their hands. The stories went from the ridiculous to the disconcerting—there was word of black masses and virgin sacrifice, orgies and blasphemy and the like, but no one ever admitted the existence of the group. Until Rohan’s offhand comment.

She looked up at him, unnerved by his height, his glittering, gilded glory. He was dressed in impeccable black satin, with elegant clocked stockings on his well-shaped legs, high-heeled, bejeweled shoes only adding to his already impressive height. He wore a long, heavily embroidered waistcoat unbuttoned, but no coat. He had heavy rings on his long, pale fingers, even a sapphire in his ear like a Gypsy, previously hidden by his long, unbound hair. Most men wore wigs and kept their own hair cut short. The Comte de Giverney was clearly too vain to utilize such shortcuts.

“Looked your fill?” he inquired pleasantly. “Would you like me to turn around so you can observe my backside?”

She didn’t blush. “I like to know my enemies. Either let me go look for my mother or take me there yourself.”

“Oh, definitely the latter. And I haven’t decided whether we’re enemies or not.” He tossed the pistol back onto the dais, where it landed, with unerring accuracy, on the cushioned chair. “I’m afraid, my dear Miss Harriman, that you would never find your mother amidst the…celebrations. You’ll have to accompany me through the nine layers of hell in order to find her.”

“I am not a child, Monsieur le Comte.”

“That’s my French title. To the English I’m the Viscount Rohan.”

“Someone else bears that title,” she said, repeating one of the bits of gossip she’d overheard.

“Indeed,” he said pleasantly. “How kind of you to remind me. The man is a pretender, nothing more.” He reached up for his elegant neck cloth and began to unfasten it, and she watched his long, pale, bejeweled fingers in something of a daze.

He pulled the cloth free, his shirt coming open, and she averted her gaze from the disturbing sight of his bare chest. She heard his laugh, and then his hands were on her once more, catching her shoulders and turning her around. “Don’t worry, my pet. You won’t be seeing anything that might shock you.” And he pulled the neck cloth over her eyes, effectively blinding her.

She wanted to fight back, to struggle, but that would give him an excuse to touch her further, and the less she felt the brush of his cool fingers the better. “That’s right,” he said, his voice soft and approving. “Now give me your arm and we’ll give you a taste of damnation.”

“Do you really find blasphemy that entertaining?” she said, trying not to start when he took her hand and placed it on his arm.

“Always.”

She’d never put her hand on any arm that wasn’t covered by layers of clothing, including a coat. The devil who oversaw these revels, be he Monsieur le Comte or something else, wore only a thin shirt made of the finest lawn. In her sudden world of darkness she was acutely aware of the feel of his arm beneath her fingers. The sinew and bone. The unexpected warmth of his skin, when his hands and his heart were so cold.

“Are you ready, my child?” he asked, and there was no avoiding the humor in his voice.

But she wasn’t about to show her panic. People like Rohan thrived on fear, and if she were to have any chance of survival she needed to hide hers.

“As I have been for the last, tedious half hour,” she said in a bored voice.

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