Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(6)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(6)
Anne Stuart

“How many circles of hell are there?” she demanded, breathless, as the next set of doors opened.

“Nine, child. Haven’t you done your reading? I’m beginning to wonder whether this isn’t all a ruse. Whether you’ve come here on your own, on a trumped-up excuse.”

“Why in heaven would I do that?” she said, mystified.

“To ensnare a husband, perhaps? Or at least money. You’re not pretty enough to be a whore, but perhaps you heard that the members of the Heavenly Host prize innocence before beauty.”

It shouldn’t have hurt. She’d never had any delusions about her beauty. She was the plain one—too tall, her hair too brown and straight, her nose too aquiline, her nature too outspoken. She was made for spinsterhood, and she’d accepted it long ago. But hearing her attributes dismissed so lightly in Francis Rohan’s pitiless voice was a cruelty she’d not expected.

“Do you get pleasure from inflicting pain, my lord?” Her voice was calm and practical, denying the hurt.

There was a moment’s silence. “Occasionally,” he said after a long moment. “There are times when hurting and being hurt are the only way to feel anything at all.”

“Pray, excuse me from my part in that game then. I’m certain you’ll find any number of people here who would enjoy being hurt by you,” she said.

“Did I hurt you? You seem so very calm and practical.”

“You simply spoke the truth. It was, perhaps, unnecessary, but I would be a fool to let my feelings be hurt by something so insignificant.” There, she thought. That should convince him.

Or perhaps not. “You’re an interesting child, Miss Harriman.”

“I’m not a child. I’m twenty-three.”

“Such a great age,” he said, mocking. “From my viewpoint you are very young indeed.” He started forward, and she wanted to pull back, but he was too strong, drawing her into the next room.

This one was overheated. The sounds were muffled and still—the sound of cards being dealt, the roll of dice. They’d found the room for serious gaming, at last.

She reached up for the neck cloth again, but this time he stopped her, wrapping his hand around her wrists and imprisoning them. “St. Philippe,” he said, his voice barely raised. And suddenly the overheated room felt cold and still.

“Monseigneur?” Came the answer, the voice slurred, drunken.

“I’ve been informed you’ve brought an unwanted guest into our midst. Where is she?”

“I don’t know what you—”

“Where is she?” He didn’t raise his voice, but the room grew colder still, and for a brief moment Elinor wondered how Rohan’s control of his followers was so absolute.

“Gone,” St. Philippe said, his voice sulky. “She had barely enough money to game, and once that was gone no one was willing to advance her credit. I expect she’s out in the stables, trying to earn enough on her back.”

Elinor couldn’t help her instinctive flinch, both at the thought of her mother and at the loss of their only money. It was a disaster, total and complete, and she tried to yank her hands out of Rohan’s grip. He tightened his hand, and it hurt enough to make her stop struggling.

“You’ve displeased me, Justin,” he said calmly. “May I suggest you get dressed and come see me in the anteroom? In a few minutes, shall we say?”

“Of course, monseigneur,” he stammered, sounding terrified.

Rohan released her wrists, snaking an arm around her waist, his grip unbreakable. “Then I will take my prize back with me,” he said, his voice more pleasant. “The rest of you may continue.”

“I don’t…” Elinor began, but he moved her so swiftly her words died away. She expected him to move her back through the series of rooms he’d brought her, but a moment later they were in the pitch darkness, someplace enclosed and silent, and he pulled the neck cloth off her face.

They were in a hallway, lit only by torches, and he no longer touched her. She found that for the first time she could breathe normally. “The problem is solved,” he said. “Your mother is here after all. It won’t take long to locate her—my servants are very good. I’ll take you somewhere to await her.”

She looked at him doubtfully. “I could accompany your servants…”

“No, you could not. You heard St. Philippe. There’s no telling what kind of condition she’s in. I only hope she hasn’t infected half the servants—it’s hard to get a decent coachman.”

Elinor drew in her breath swiftly. “Don’t be absurd!”

“Your mother has the French disease, child. Or as we call it over here, the Spanish disease.” He shrugged. “Perhaps even the English disease. She’s going to die raving, and I suspect you know that as well as I do. If you want, I can do you a favor and have her tossed off the nearest cliff.”

“Joking about such matters is in very poor taste,” she said stiffly.

“Why in the world would you assume I’m joking?”

She could barely see his face in the dimly lit corridor. In such an enclosed space he seemed even larger, and she was uncomfortably aware of the fact that his white linen shirt was open. He wasn’t joking about anything, she realized.

“I made the mistake of assuming you were a responsible human being,” she said stiffly.

“Oh, heavens, a very grave mistake indeed. I’ll take you somewhere to wait. You’ll be pleased to know I have a very English housekeeper who’ll see to your comfort.” He held out his arm for her to take, and she didn’t move. She didn’t want to touch him again. The fine linen weave of his shirt was too thin, she could feel his arm too clearly, feeling the strength of him, the corded muscles, the heat. It distracted her—she wasn’t used to touching men at all, and certainly not with such intimacy.

“If you don’t take my arm you might trip and break your leg and then what good would you be to your poor mother?” he said in a bored voice. “This corridor is a back way to the private wing of the château and seldom used. There may even be rats.”

She grabbed his arm immediately, taking heart in the fact that she hadn’t climbed on top of him. She had a horror of rats, which was unfortunate given her family’s living conditions. “Let’s go,” she said hurriedly, trying to control her shudder.

“I take it you don’t like rats,” he said, drawing her down the hallway.

She kept imagining them running up her skirts, and with her other hand she held them tight around her legs. “I don’t care for them, but then, who does?” she said in her most reasonable voice.

“Oh, I think it’s a little more than that. Rats are a fact of life, and yet you…”

“Could we please discuss something else?” She’d given up trying to hide her distaste. “Anything else?” The muffled sound of groans leeched through the walls, and they moved on before she could make the mistake of asking what those noises were. If anyone was in pain. Because a moment later she realized what those moaning, grunting sounds were. Remembered.

Her companion seemed oblivious to it all. “We can discuss your plans for the future. What do you plan to do after your mother dies raving?”

Not much of an improvement over rats, but she’d take it. “I don’t even know what I’m going to do for the next week,” she said, perhaps unwisely, but she’d used up almost her last ounce of courage.

There was a moment of bright light as a door opened into the hallway, and then they were plunged into darkness again. The smell of perfume and heated skin was overwhelming, and she looked at the two who’d managed to breach the viscount’s private hallway.

“I thought you’d be here, Francis,” the gentleman said, looking at her out of hooded eyes. He was the one she’d first met, with the handsome, scarred face. “Veronique thought you might be interested in a trade and promised her I’d find you.”

“A trade for what?” Rohan said lazily.

“The little dressmaker,” the woman said in a husky voice. “You know as well as I do, Francis, that she’s the most delicious thing to appear at one of our parties in a long time, and you can’t just expect us all to ignore her. It’s hardly reasonable.”

“Veronique, have I ever struck you as a reasonable man?”

“I, too, am not reasonable,” the woman, Veronique, said. “I can be extremely difficult when thwarted.” Her voice was a soft purr.

For some reason Elinor moved closer to Rohan, her fingers clutching his arm tightly.

“And exactly what are you suggesting?” Rohan inquired.

“I’ve tried to distract Veronique with my humble charms,” the man said with deprecating candor, “but she insists she’s in the mood for a woman tonight, and she’s never had a virgin. Assuming the little waif still is—she’s been in your company for more than an hour, so there’s no guarantee of anything.”

“Very true,” Rohan said. “So Veronique gets the girl and I get you? That hardly seems fair.”

The scarred man cast her a wary glance. “She doesn’t understand us, does she? Her French was atrocious.”

“Oh, I think she understands us well enough, looking at her face. And I think we’ll have to forgo the pleasure of your company.” He dismissed them.

“When you’re done with her then, Francis?” the woman said, looking at her avidly. “I could have a lovely time schooling a lamb who has strayed.”

“I think you’ll have to find another stray lamb, madame,” he said, placing one hand over Elinor’s. “You’re already aware of the motto of the Rohans—what I have I keep. Reading can find you another innocent.”

“Hard to do when you won’t let us invite children,” Veronique said with a pout.

“A foolish inconstancy on my part,” he drawled. “But it’s not up for discussion. I’m certain the two of you will find adequate distraction back in the green room.”

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