Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(5)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(5)
Anne Stuart

“Allons-y,” he murmured, and she didn’t need to see anything to know that he wasn’t fooled. “Let us go.”

And she had no choice but to allow him to draw her deeper into the very depths of hell.

3

The heat and noise and smell assaulted her when he led her through the doors. A dozen different perfumes, wax tallows, spilled wine and wood smoke, cooked meats and human sweat all fought for supremacy, and the voices were loud, giddy. One man’s voice broke through the babble.

“What is that on your arm, Francis? Your dinner?” He followed his ridiculous inquiry with rough laughter.

“Don’t be absurd,” a woman’s voice floated to her ears. A Frenchwoman, of indisputably high upbringing, given the quality of her voice. “He’s going to auction her off later on. May I put my bid in early? She really looks quite delicious.”

Elinor couldn’t keep from starting at the words, and her fingers tightened on his arm reflexively. He put his hand over hers, but whether it was meant to comfort her or imprison her, she couldn’t be sure.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Elise,” another man, much closer by the sound of him, broke through. “He’s not giving her up. See the way he looks at her.”

Elinor hadn’t noticed anything in the way Rohan had looked at her, but the very notion made her even more unsettled. He kept her moving through the shuttered darkness, their procession marred by continuing licentious catcalls, and by the time they passed into another room she was grateful. This one darker still, no light filtering through the white neck cloth that blinded her.

“What about my mother?” she whispered. “You didn’t ask…”

“I could see quite clearly that she wasn’t there, my child. That was only the second circle of hell, though I must admit we don’t adhere to Dante’s definitions too closely.”

“What was the first circle of hell?” she asked.

“The anteroom, my love. Where we met. Better known as Limbo, where no real sin takes place.” His voice was low, contemplative, and out of the blue she felt his cool hand gently stroke the side of her face, making her jump nervously. “My footman broke the rules, of course, and he’ll be punished appropriately.”

They’d paused at what she assumed was the entrance of the room. “Will he be punished because he broke the rules or because he hit me?” she asked. “You can tell me the truth—I won’t be offended.”

His laugh was so soft she might not have heard it if she weren’t blindfolded. “And I do so desire to keep from offending you, mademoiselle. In fact, he’ll be driven off the place because he broke the rules. He’ll be beaten beforehand because he raised his hand to you. I’ll make arrangements for you to watch if you care to.”

“That’s horrifying! And no, I don’t want to sit and watch.”

“You’re very different from most of the women here, including your mother. They’d watch and probably lick the blood from his skin when I’m done.”

“Oh, that’s foul!” she whispered. And then the rest of his words sank in. “When you’re done? You’re going to administer the beating?”

She knew he smiled, even without seeing it. She knew his mouth already, the way it curved with just a touch of mockery. “Perhaps I need my exercise,” he murmured. “I doubt your mother is in this room, but I wouldn’t want to miss her due to a misguided sense of propriety.” He raised his voice. “Is the Lady Caroline Harriman here?”

No answer, just the strange, muffled sounds that she couldn’t quite identify. The rub of silk on silk, the whispered laugh, low and intimate, the curious mix of grunts and curses, and her curiosity got the better of her as she reached for the neck cloth.

His hands were ahead of hers, stopping her. “You really don’t want to look,” he said, and she believed him. They must have reached the level of lust, and clearly Francis Rohan’s guests had leeway to enjoy that particular sin.

“She’s not here,” Elinor said. In the last year, her mother had lost all her previous obsession with fornication, replacing that desire with a need to gamble. In truth, very few people would recognize the great beauty she had once been, and very few people would have been willing to risk their health for the sake of a cheap tup. In the darkness of these rooms they might not recognize her diseased skin and addled mind, but clearly there were better choices if they chose to take them. Her mother would be gaming, not…

She knew the word for it, the rough, rude, indelicate word for it. Fucking. Her father had used it, her mother had screamed it in her endless rages, the people on the street used it, and the lower they sank the more that despicable word abounded.

Indeed, it was probably as good a word as any for her mother. It had been lust that had driven her away from her husband, lust and greed and anger. It had been lust that had changed Elinor’s life forever, a strange, dark feeling that she couldn’t comprehend. Didn’t want to. There was an ugliness to it that spread through this room and indeed the entire château, and the longer she stayed the more unclean she felt as old memories fought to crowd their way back into her brain.

“Could we move on?” she said coolly.

In answer he propelled her forward. It was a strange sensation, moving across the floors in darkness, the man beside her closer than a man had been in many years. And not just any man—the King of Hell himself, or so he was called. In fact, she couldn’t really fault him. He’d done her no harm, and seemed intent on helping her. Which was unlike anything she’d heard about him. The Comte de Giverney, the Viscount Rohan, the leader of the Heavenly Host, did nothing that didn’t include self-interest. And despite his polite behavior so far, her undeniable nervousness moved up a notch.

She heard the sound of doors being opened, though the man beside her hadn’t moved. Servants, stationed throughout this orgiastic celebration—of course there would be. Not one of these pampered creatures had ever had to fend for themselves. They didn’t worry about finding enough money to eat, about protecting their beautiful younger sister, about keeping their mother from destroying what small safety they had left.

“You’re rumpling my shirt,” he whispered in her ear. “Relax your grip. I promise I won’t let anything harm you.”

If she were the emotional sort she would have wept at the words. She would have sold her soul to have someone simply take over the constant worry that beset her, but then she remembered where she was. Who accompanied her. Selling one’s soul was de rigueur in such circumstances.

“I’m in a hurry,” she said, trying to sound calm and practical.

“Why?”

“We need to get the carriage back…” The moment the words were out of her mouth she regretted them. He wasn’t a man who missed anything.

“That brings up an interesting point. You hardly seem wealthy enough to keep a carriage in Paris. In fact, I doubt you were able to hire a carriage. What did you do, steal one?”

“Hardly,” she said with a shaky laugh. “I’m charmed that you think I’m that resourceful, but I could hardly have gone to the nearest hostelry, pretended I was the coachman and taken off with one.”

“I am astounded at your resourcefulness, Mademoiselle Harriman. But no, you must have had help.” He suddenly released her arm. “Stay here for a moment and don’t move.”

She had to keep herself from reaching for him. From crying out, “Don’t leave me.” It took all her self-control to simply nod, not even knowing if he saw it.

It was a strange and dizzying sensation, standing alone and blindfolded in the crowded room. No one seemed to be paying her any mind in this one, and she knew from the noise that his guests must be caught up in gaming. This was the place her mother was likely to be, and she reached for her blindfold, pushing it off her eyes.

And froze. Some were gaming. A few were even partially dressed, and in her brief glance she saw them writhing on couches and in chairs, performing acts that should have been foreign to her.

But she’d lived too long in poverty, and she’d seen those same acts and more performed in side alleys, for pay. She should have been shocked. But in truth, she was more concerned that it might be her mother’s mouth on the young gentleman’s—

The blindfold was pulled abruptly back over her eyes, shutting out the disturbing sights. “You’re a very disobedient creature, aren’t you?”

She dismissed the shocking image, simply because she must. “I’m here, am I not? If I were obedient I would be waiting at home for my mother’s safe return. Which, times have taught me, is unlikely.”

Rohan didn’t reply to that. “I’ve sent your coachman back with his pilfered coach. With luck it will be returned to the Bois d’Or before anyone knows it’s missing. I presume he ventured into such a seedy part of the city in order to increase his chances at getting away with it, but he really should have stolen one closer to home. The neighborhood of Rue du Pélican is no place for a young lady, and any coach found there would have been exceedingly uncomfortable.”

She was getting tired of this. “Where do you think we live, my lord? Jacobs had only to walk a short way to steal from that particular inn. We live on the edge of ruin. Our lives are disastrous enough without your mockery reinforcing the misery.” There was something liberating about finally saying it out loud. She was tired of pretending that things were better than they were. That they didn’t spend their days and nights cold and hungry and afraid of what might happen next. “And how do you suggest I get home, once I find my mother?”

“I’ll arrange a carriage for her. In the meantime I’ve found St. Philippe, and he should provide us with the information we need.”

“A carriage for her…?” Elinor echoed, but he’d already moved on, steering her through the noisy room. At least in this one the inhabitants were too busy with their licentious behavior to bother with catcalls.

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