Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(7)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(7)
Anne Stuart

Veronique spat a very nasty word, one that Elinor had only heard a few times and then from the worst gutter whore in Paris, and she started with shock as the door slid open again, and the woman flounced through, her straight back expressing her disapproval.

The man, Reading, paused a moment longer. “Best be careful, Francis,” he said.

“I’m hardly afraid of Veronique.”

“She’s not the woman I think you should worry about,” Reading murmured. And a moment later the door slid shut, leaving them in cocooning darkness once more.

Rohan looked down at her. “You see, my dove. There are creatures far more terrifying than rats who wander these corridors.”

“You’re known as the King of Hell, Monsieur le Comte,” she said. “What else would I expect from your guests?”

He laughed softly, but she had the sense she’d annoyed him. “Next time you wish to call me names you might consider what I’ve saved you from. Veronique is not very nice to girls—she is one who takes pleasure from hurting people, where most of the whores simply fake their distress.”

“I’m ever so grateful,” she said with cloying sweetness.

“Of course you are, love. Unfortunately I desire that you show your gratitude before I release you. Just a small token is all that’s needed.”

“I beg your pardon?” she said in an icy voice.

They’d reached what appeared to be a blank wall. The rest of the corridor disappeared into darkness, and there were no embarrassing animal sounds. He moved, and suddenly she felt her body pressed up against the wall, quite firmly, his hands on her arms. And then a moment later, before she realized what he intended, he moved closer, his tall body covering hers in shadows, and all she could do was feel him, hip to hip, his chest against hers, his heart, slow and lazy against her racing one, as he filled all her senses, and she was drowning.

Endure, she reminded herself, and closed her eyes, holding very still. He moved his head down, to the spot at the base of her neck, and she felt his mouth, his teeth, just the lightest of bites against her skin, and she quivered. Endure, she reminded herself again, trying to breathe normally. He was much too strong to fight.

His body held her still, and he released her arms to slide his hands up, the fingers stroking the pulse at her neck that was racing so wildly. “Ah, child,” he murmured. “If only you’d been lying.”

A second later he pulled back, no longer touching her, and she knew she should run. And run she would, as soon as her senses regained their proper order.

“I…I do not lie, monsieur.” The stammer was faint, and she couldn’t help it. Those few seconds in the darkness had been…overwhelming.

“Alas, you don’t,” he said. “I had hoped you were more like your dear mother. That you’d seized upon this opportunity to find a protector, as Lady Caroline was prone to do. But appearances, unfortunately, are not deceiving. You’re an innocent, and you have no more interest in partaking of our unholy pleasures than you do in becoming a holy martyr.”

“It’s better than rats,” she said frankly.

Silence, and in the darkness she could only see the gleam in his hard eyes. “Child,” he said faintly, “you unman me. If I am ever in the position where I wish to seduce someone I will simply assure her it’s better than rats.”

“Why wouldn’t you be in the position of seducing someone?” It was an impertinent question, but she was still oddly light-headed, here in the darkness with him.

“I don’t have to make the effort. They all come to me, sooner or later,” he said simply.

“How boring,” she observed.

“Indeed.” He reached up behind her to touch something that was out of her line of vision, and a moment later a door opened, and he guided her through.

It was like stepping into another world. The small salon was warm and cozy—a fire burned in the grate, the walls were covered in pale green silk and the furniture looked sturdy and comfortable. There was no sign of revelers or indeed, any of the kind of jeweled ostentation of the first room she’d been in. No false throne and dais, no gilded walls and cherubed trim. She might as well be in a family drawing room in England.

“There’s a seat by the fire,” he said as she pulled away from him.

There was indeed, a large, tufted chair that looked so comfortable she wanted to weep. “Isn’t that yours?”

“Much as it pains me to tear myself away from you, I have other responsibilities, as well as the party I seem to be hosting,” he said. “My guests will wonder where I’ve gone.”

“I must get home. My mother…”

“When your mother is found she’ll be taken back to the city in comfortable accommodations. You will follow, and you’ll never have to see me again.”

“I prefer to go with her.”

“I prefer you to follow. Which of us do you think will triumph?” he said.

She almost mentioned Lydia. Her younger sister would be panicked if she didn’t return home. Already she must be half-mad with worry.

But her younger sister was just the sort of toy these libertines would take and destroy. She needed to make certain they knew nothing about her, and if surviving a night of worry was the price for her sister’s safety, then so be it.

“Never see you again?” she said. “You’re fulfilling my wildest dreams.”

“If those are your wildest dreams then you need to work on them. Mrs. Clarke will be here in a minute. Go get warm.”

In fact she was freezing to death. Now that the immediate fear had passed, and there was nothing more she could do to salvage the situation, the warmth seemed to have left her body. Her feet in the too-tight shoes were cold and damp, and if she didn’t hold herself very still she’d start shaking. And she bloody well wasn’t going to do that in front of the Antichrist.

She headed straight for the armchair. It was even more comfortable than it had looked. It seemed to enfold her, and she couldn’t suppress the sigh of sheer delight. She looked up, ready to say something disparaging to her host.

But he was already gone.

4

Elinor leaned back against the chair, finally alone, trying to regain her balance as the world whirled about her. She’d been in rooms like this, years ago when they’d lived in England. Warm, cozy rooms, with bright fires burning and comfortable, slightly worn furniture.

Which didn’t make sense. The notorious Francis Rohan was as rich as Croesus, and the ornate glory of the rest of the château attested to that. The red damask upholstery on the sofa opposite her had worn patches, and the floor was scuffed. She must have slipped into some sort of dream, and when a stocky woman appeared a few minutes later Elinor decided she was simply a manifestation of her deepest longings for the warmth and safety and comfort of a life long past.

“There you are, dearie,” the apparition said. “I’m Mrs. Clarke, the housekeeper. You look exhausted. And no wonder, all this chasing around you’ve had to do. Mr. Willis says to inform you that your mother has been found, she’s perfectly fine, and Mr. Reading is taking her back home.”

Elinor struggled to her feet. “I need to go with them.”

“They’ve already left, dearie. We have orders from Master Francis. You’re to rest for a while and then be sent home in the second-best carriage. Your mother will be fine. Mr. Reading’s a good man for all that he’s mixed up with this lot.”

The woman looked like Nanny Maude’s younger sister. Plump, pleasantly rounded, just the kind of woman you might find in English households everywhere. Just not in the household of the King of Hell. “But I need—” she began, but Mrs. Clarke calmly interrupted her.

“I know you do, dearie. But there’s no arguing with his lordship. You just sit back and rest and I promise you, all will be well. You’re still wearing your cloak? What was that man thinking! It’s raining outside, and you’re all cold and damp.”

Before Elinor realized what the housekeeper was doing, Mrs. Clarke had managed to strip the cloak and shawl from her, laying the patched garments carefully near the fire. “I hadn’t planned on staying,” she said. “My mother…”

“Now, don’t you go defending him,” Mrs. Clarke said. “He’s a sweet boy but he can be so thoughtless! And your shoes are soaked as well.” She made a disapproving clucking sound as she bent down to untie Elinor’s too-small shoes.

“I’m not…” Before she could deny defending him, the woman’s words sank in. “You must be confused,” she said, trying to pull her feet away. “It was the Comte de Giverney who brought me in here.”

“Exactly. I was the one who brought him up. Came over from England after he was exiled and I’ve been looking after him ever since.” She pulled off one shoe and set it near the fire, then the other. She must have noticed how worn they were, that they were too small, but she said nothing, treating them like jeweled slippers. She sat back and looked up at Elinor for a moment, her gaze sharpening. “You need some hot tea and something to eat.”

“I’m not going to be here long,” Elinor said, ignoring the fact that she was ready to faint from hunger.

Mrs. Clarke was as good at ignoring protests as her master. “Won’t take me but a minute. You just sit there and warm up. Master Francis’s chef is a stuck-up Frenchman, but he does know how to make cinnamon toast and a good strong up of tea. My girl’s bringing it up—won’t take but a moment. Just rest, Miss Harriman. You look like you need it.”

Indeed she did. She couldn’t remember when she’d last had a full night’s sleep. Her mother had a tendency to wander—just a week ago she’d found her two streets away, dressed only in her nightgown, babbling something about being late for a rout. She’d brought her back and slept sitting up on the corner of her bed, just to make certain her mother didn’t wander again. If she’d had any sense she would have tied the woman up, but Lady Caroline made such distressed noises when they did that it was almost worse than the worry.

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