Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(8)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(8)
Anne Stuart

A moment later Mrs. Clarke was back. There was steam rising from the tray she carried, and she could smell the cinnamon and butter from where she sat. “There we are,” the housekeeper said cheerfully, setting the tray down beside her on a slightly battered table. “All nice and cozy, are we? I’m going to find a throw to put over you—that’s a nice enough fire, but you look like you’ve got yourself a chill.”

She didn’t deny it. She was so cold and disoriented that she wanted to weep. What had happened to her? Had he managed to drug her? There were rumors that he and his band of degenerates did that to unsuspecting young women, but the brief glance she’d had of the half-clothed women parading around the château told her that he had no need of a plain, over-tall spinster with a nose.

A moment later a thick cashmere robe was tucked around her, at odds with the shabby furniture. “You poor thing!” Mrs. Clarke said. “I’m just going to forget about manners and sit right down beside you. You don’t look like you’ve got enough strength left to pour yourself a decent cup of tea. And Master Francis has never been a man who pays much attention to ceremony. You don’t look like you do either.” She plopped herself down in the chair beside her, pulled the hand-knitted cozy off the earthenware teapot with capable hands.

“You’re looking at the teapot, aren’t you?” Mrs. Clarke said as she proceeded to pour her a cup of tea, with lashings of heavy cream and sugar. “I brought that from England when I came here. I thought Master Francis would need something to remind him of home. So young he was, poor boy, to have lost his family, his home, his country.”

Elinor wasn’t going to ask. She’d heard rumors, but the vagaries of the titled émigré population of Paris had never been of particular interest, and even in the best of times her mother seldom talked to her. “Indeed,” she said in a noncommittal voice.

“Indeed,” Mrs. Clarke said cheerfully. “You don’t want to talk about him, and I can understand that. He’s a very bad boy, he is. But he has reason.”

“I cannot think of anything that would excuse his—” she was going to say “licentiousness” but thought better of it “—his behavior.”

“No, I suppose not. You’re too young to remember.” She shook herself. “We’ll get you warm and fed and taken care of and back home right as rain,” she said firmly.

It took all Elinor’s self-control to keep her mouth shut. Too young to remember what? What reason might he have for an exile that was far from voluntary? Some scandal? But none of it mattered, she reminded herself. This wasn’t her world.

“You look like the kind of girl who’s been drinking her tea black,” Mrs. Clarke continued, “but right now I think you need some sustenance.”

The housekeeper was right—she’d given up sugar and milk more than a year ago, insisting she preferred her tea undiluted. In fact, she preferred her tea just as Mrs. Clarke was making it, but of late it had become more important to ensure that her sister got enough to eat and drink. Any cream and sugar they could afford went to Lydia.

The tea was ambrosia. Manna from heaven, milk and honey—the biblical terms danced through her foggy brain. It was so wonderful that she would have happily trampled over her sister’s delicate body for it.

“Let me get you another cover,” the housekeeper said, rising from her seat. “I don’t know what’s come over me. It’s just been so long since I’ve had a proper young English girl to look after that I let my tongue run away with me.”

Elinor struggled to be polite. “Don’t you miss England?”

“Of course I do, child. But I could never abandon Master Francis. Not until he gets past this playacting foolishness and marries.”

“I believe the Heavenly Host has been holding their revels for many years,” Elinor said. That much gossip she’d heard. “Perhaps you should give up waiting.”

“Foolishness,” Mrs. Clarke said firmly. “Eat your toast, dearie. I’ll be back.”

The thin slivers of cinnamon toast were wonderful. She tried to eat slowly, but she was so famished she devoured them.

She really must be in a dream. In a moment the King of Hell would come in and chop off her head or something equally bizarre. It would be worth it.

She closed her eyes, the teacup still in her hand. It was old, eggshell-thin china, with myriad tiny cracks in it. Another anomaly, but for a moment she wasn’t going to think about it. She was going to keep her eyes closed and let herself drift into this strange, wonderful, magical world, where everything was safe and familiar, where there were no raving mothers, no sisters in need of protection, no servants who needed to be fed, and most of all, no Francis Rohan.

She heard the door open, heard the measured footsteps approaching her. Mrs. Clarke must have returned. She felt the teacup being taken from her slack fingers, and she knew she should open her mouth, insist on a carriage and a ride home—Lydia was waiting for her—but right then it was impossible. Two more hours wouldn’t make that much difference. She’d sleep for that long and awake refreshed and reasonable, and this magic room would make sense. By the time she got home her mother would be in a dull, stupefied state, and they wouldn’t have to deal with her for a few days at the least. She always slept deeply after one of her sorties.

And all Elinor would have to worry about was what in heaven’s name they were going to do next.

He took the teacup from her hand and set it down on the small tray. Mrs. Clarke was watching him, a suspicious look on her face. She knew him too well—she was the only person who saw him clearly, with all his flaws and vanities and wicked indulgences. Saw him and loved him anyway, like an exasperated parent.

In truth she wasn’t that much older than he was. She’d come into service at the age of twelve, and her first task had been the care of the Viscount Rohan’s youngest son, Francis. He’d been born a sickly, angry child, prone to noisy displays of temperament, and young Polly Siddons had been saddled with him. But even at age twelve she’d known how to deal with him, and she’d been with him ever since, following him to Paris after the debacle of 1745. When her husband died, she’d simply replaced him with a Frenchman, but she still was Mrs. Clarke to all and sundry. His lifeline and his conscience. For all that he listened.

“And what exactly do you think you’re doing with this young lady?” she demanded. “If you brought her here you know as well as I do that she’s not one of your fancy pieces. She has no place here.”

“True enough,” he said. “And I’ll send her home safely, untouched. You’ve been around me long enough to know that I have no interest in innocents. And she’s hardly my style, don’t you think? I insist on beauty.”

“In the rest of this godforsaken place, yes. But these rooms are different, Master Francis. Here you’re more likely to value real worth. And I don’t like seeing her here.”

I do, he thought, surprised. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Clarke. I’ll be sending her back to her misbegotten family as soon as she awakens. Which looks to be a while.”

“Poor thing was worn-out,” his housekeeper said. “She needs a rest without you harassing her.”

“I’m not going to harass her,” he said. “I’m simply going to take a nap myself. She’ll probably wake up and start beating me with a fire poker, but I’m willing to take that risk. You can go back to bed.”

She gave him that doubtful look that always made him feel twelve years old, but then she nodded. “You behave yourself, Master Francis. The girl’s already got too much to deal with. She doesn’t need you complicating things.”

“Trust me,” he said airily, heading for the settee opposite his sleeping guest. “I only intend to make her life simpler.”

With a disapproving sniff Mrs. Clarke departed, leaving him alone in the room with the sound of the fire crackling in the fireplace, the lash of rain on the windows, her steady breathing as she slept.

He kicked off his elegant shoes. The settee wasn’t the most comfortable of beds, but it was long enough to hold his frame, and he couldn’t ask for much more. He’d slept on it when he was younger and it had resided in his father’s house in Yorkshire, and he’d always found it surprisingly comfortable. He stretched out, his arms behind his head, and stared at her.

He could be kind, he could be generous, if he had reason. He had his reputation to consider, but he doubted anyone would know he’d done an act of charity in seeing to Miss Harriman’s mother. If anyone heard, they’d assume he had wicked, ulterior motives, and that was good enough for him.

This girl before him wasn’t a beauty. Her dark brown hair was unremarkable, her body, what he could see of it beneath the shabby clothes, could hardly compete with Marianne’s lush pleasures. The pleasures he’d turned his back on to lie on this shabby sofa staring at this shabby girl.

Her face was…interesting. She had a smattering of freckles across her cheekbones, something he’d always found irresistible. A surprisingly lush mouth, which clearly hadn’t been kissed enough. And the nose.

It was narrow and elegant and only slightly longer than beauty required. In fact, it gave her face a certain piquant charm. Without it, with the requisite button of a nose, she’d be boring.

Boring was the one thing Miss Elinor Harriman couldn’t lay claim to. She’d stormed into his life, and she was still here, long after she should have disappeared.

He could have handed her off to Reading. She would have much preferred accompanying her mother’s drunken body back to Paris, but he’d kept her here instead. She was better off this way. Lady Caroline had proven combative, and he’d sent two strong footmen to keep her contained in his traveling carriage, with Reading to oversee the transfer.

No, this stern young woman would be better off arriving home after her mother was properly settled. He’d given Reading orders to make certain one of the footmen remained until they were convinced Lady Caroline had returned to her senses.

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