Home > Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(9)

Ruthless (The House of Rohan #1)(9)
Anne Stuart

Which was no certainty. He’d been watching when they’d wrestled the woman into the carriage, her curses and her fists flying. The pox had driven her mad and nothing would change that. The sooner she died, the better for all concerned.

He could arrange it, of course. As he lounged on the settee he considered the possibilities. The wretched hag would have little connection with him, and there’d be no reason for him to be accused of orchestrating her death. Any of the Heavenly Host who happened to have noticed her presence here tonight would never breathe a word of it, or risk being ousted from their hallowed little group.

The police in Paris were fairly lax, but they might pay more attention to the death of a titled émigré. Then again, they might not. They let him do anything he wanted in his mansion in Rue Saint-Honoré, but then, no one had died. At least as far as he knew.

No, his charitable instincts would be better off curbed for the time being. Wretched as Mademoiselle Elinor Harriman’s life might be, it was hardly his job to fix it. To remove the major obstacle to her happiness.

Though the poxy wretch might annoy Reading so much that he stabbed her. Reading was notoriously quick-tempered, rash and impulsive. Perhaps he’d take care of things of his own volition.

In the meantime, here he was, ready to sleep with the perfect virgin. He let out a soft laugh. Miss Harriman would hate that, making it all the more delightful. They would sleep together, albeit a chaste three feet apart, and it would annoy her for the rest of her life.

And with that he closed his eyes and slept, a smile on his face, malice in his heart. He slept.

It was past five in the morning, and Lydia Harriman was already up and dressed, having spent a wretched three hours in bed, tossing and turning, before giving up completely. Her mother’s disappearance wasn’t that unusual—Lady Caroline would vanish for days at a time, and there was nothing they could do about it.

But she’d gotten much worse recently. Her conversations were sprinkled with curses, and there was a strange, otherworldly look in her eyes that no one could break through. She complained constantly of the cold, even with the warmest fire, and when things were really bad they tied her to the bed lest she hurt herself.

Or them. When her mother was raging there was no telling what she might do, and Nanny Maude kept the knives hidden just to be safe. And there were times, which Lydia would never admit to, that she hoped her mother would simply not return from her next escapade.

But this time Elinor had disappeared as well.

It was an eerie, ice-cold dawn. She’d been careful not to put too much wood on the fire. What little fuel they had must last as long as possible. Elinor tried to shield her from the harsher realities of life, and Lydia had stopped arguing. If it made her elder sister happy to think that she was ignorant of the truly desperate circumstances they were living in then Lydia could pretend. Elinor had always been a bossy sibling, in the best sense of the word, and she wouldn’t hear of Lydia shouldering her share of the burden. Sooner or later she’d have to give in, but for now Elinor was happier pretending that she had everything under control, when control had vanished months ago.

She heard the noise in the kitchen, and she jumped up, almost knocking over the chair in her relief. Nanny was already there, in her robe and nightcap, as Jacobs came in. Alone.

“Where are the others, you auld idiot?” Nanny Maude demanded before Lydia could speak.

The old man hung his head. “We followed her ladyship out of the city to the devil’s own playground.” He turned to Lydia. “There was no stopping your sister, miss. She took off before I knew what she was doing, and they wouldn’t let me follow her. I tried to fight them but there were too many of them, and I’m an old man. Not as strong as I was.”

“You couldn’t have done anything,” Lydia said in a soothing voice, while Nanny made a derisive noise that could almost be called a snort.

“They wouldn’t have been stopping me,” the old woman said bitterly. “You’re a fool and a coward.”

“You crazy old bat, no one would dare to touch a harridan the likes of you,” he snapped back, their lifelong battle flaring up.

“Stop it, both of you!” Lydia said sharply. “You still haven’t told me where they are. Did they go to that man’s château?”

“They did indeed,” he said. “Your mother had gone there to gamble. I hadn’t been there an hour, still trying to find my way into the house, when they came and found me. Told me to take the coach and get back to town, and your mother and sister would be following.”

“What coach?”

If Jacobs had been looking shamefaced before, he looked even more devastated now. “The coach…er…I meant to say…er…the coach…” He cleared his throat. “I had to borrow a coach…”

“You had to steal a coach,” Lydia interrupted him gently. “That’s all right, Jacobs. I’m not as blind as my sister wishes me to be. You’ve done it before, I know. So you stole a coach in order to go after my mother. Well done. Did you get it back before anyone noticed it was missing this time?”

Jacobs lifted his head, clearly relieved. “Not quite, Miss Lydia. But I managed to sneak away before they caught me. And they’re not going to make too big a fuss since everything’s been returned.”

“Everything but my mother and my sister,” Lydia said.

“The viscount’s men promised they’d be coming home in a fancy coach,” he said desperately. “I never would have left if I didn’t think they’d be better off with his lordship.”

“The man everyone calls the devil? The one who runs satanic parties and drinks the blood of virgins?” Lydia said, trying not to sound panicked. “You need to steal another coach, Jacobs. I have to go after her.”

“Miss, it’s daylight. I canna steal a coach in broad daylight.”

“Then I’ll walk,” she said fiercely. “I’m not going to sit by and let my family be—”

The noise at the front door interrupted her, and she turned around and flew down the hall, flinging open the door with relief. “Oh, Nell, I was so worried about you…!”

Her voice trailed off, as she realized she was looking at someone a far cry from her sister. He stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the sunrise over the rickety buildings, and she couldn’t see his face, even though he doubtless could see hers quite clearly.

“Not Nell, I’m afraid.” He had a deep, English voice, and for a moment Lydia was flooded with a host of memories of a life lost long ago. “I assume you’re her sister? I have your mother in the coach. If you’ll show me where I can have my men bring her I’d be greatly obliged.”

“Yes. Of course.” It took her a moment to gather her wits. “In the front bedroom.” She could hear the howls and curses coming from behind the stranger, and her heart sank. Her mother was in one of her full-blown bouts of madness, and Elinor wasn’t around. She was better at calming Lady Caroline than any of them. “We’ll have to see about restraints. I’m not sure where anything is.”

“You needn’t be concerned, Miss Harriman,” he said smoothly. “My men can handle things.” He turned and made a gesture behind him, and for a moment she could see his face.

It was a handsome face, or it would have been, if not for the scar running from eyebrow to mouth on one side, giving him a faintly sinister look, quirking his lips up in a parody of a smile. He was dressed exquisitely, and he’d doffed his hat to expose unpowdered tawny hair. For a moment she couldn’t move. This must be the devil they talked about, and for the first time she could understand the lure.

“Miss Harriman?” he said gently, and she shook herself out of her abstraction.

“You’re very kind,” she said, racking her brains for his title. All the ones she could remember were vastly insulting. She backed out of the way and he followed her into the shabby little house, and she mentally thanked God she was already up and dressed. Nanny was bustling around, clucking like an agitated hen, clutching her robe around her plump frame.

He took her arm with the finesse of a prince. “Why don’t we get out of their way and leave them to take care of things? Your housekeeper can show the footmen where to put her.”

“That’s Nanny Maude,” she blurted out as he drew her into the tiny front room with its sullen excuse for a fire. It was a ridiculous thing to say, but she didn’t want Nanny relegated to the role of servant when she was so much more.

He smiled, the move jerking his smile up so that he looked even more ruthless. “Nanny’s got things well in hand,” he said smoothly. “And I’ve been remiss—I haven’t introduced myself.”

“I know who you are, my lord,” she said. Finally his name came to her. “You’re the Comte de Giverney.” She was determined not to show any fear. “Apparently you consort with the devil, have orgies and drink the blood of virgins. According to gossip you’re sin itself.”

The smile, which had been oddly pleasant and even comforting despite the scar, turned cool. “Sorry to disappoint you, Miss Harriman. I realize I look like the very devil, but in fact I’m nothing more than an untitled gentleman with an ugly face and empty pockets. Charles Reading, at your service.”

She could feel the color flood her face. “You’re not the demon king?”

“I’m afraid not.” He shook his head. “No, he’s busy entertaining your sister.”

5

For a moment Lydia didn’t move. “You’re not ugly,” she said. Before he could respond to that she went on. “And what’s the comte going to do with my sister? I presume the stories are just that—stories made up to scare children into behaving.”

“Do they work? Are you properly terrified?”

“I left my childhood behind years ago, Mr. Reading.” At that moment they were interrupted by the procession of people carrying her mother into the house. She was struggling, swearing and spitting, her waif-thin body unnaturally strong, and one of the men carrying her cursed when she managed to land a blow. A moment later they disappeared into the bedroom, Nanny Maude following them and closing the door behind her.

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