Francis Alistair St. Claire Dominic Charles Edward Rohan, Comte de Giverny, Viscount Rohan, Baron Glencoe, leaned back, letting his long pale fingers gently stroke the carved wooden claws that decorated the massive chair. He let his head rest against the velvet cushioning and surveyed his eager guests, and he allowed himself a faint smile. The vast supply of tapers lit even the dark corners of the salon, and he could see them all, his so-called friends and acquaintances, practically quivering in anticipation of the revels that stretched in front of them. Three days and nights of the most libertine indulgences – gaming and coupling with anyone agreeable, whore or lordling, male or female. Mock satanic rituals to make themselves feel truly wicked, calling on a dark force that no more existed than did a loving god, but babbling Latin in front of an inverted cross gave them even more license to indulge themselves. There was opium and brandy and wine and even good Scots whiskey, and by the time the party was done he expected every drop to be gone, every body to be well-fucked, every soul drained of any illusion of moral goodness.
And he would watch it all, indulging when the urge struck him, otherwise viewing it all with veiled interest. He always wondered how far humans would go in pursuit of pleasure. He knew his own appetites were extraordinary, and he needed more than his own pleasure to satisfy him. He needed the wicked delight of others, and his willing acolytes provided it.
There were women and men awaiting his word, some dressed in clerical garb, some wearing little at all. He could recognize Lady Adelia dressed in a diaphanous chemise better suited to a dancer half her weight, and her husband would be somewhere among the gentlemen dressed in feminine splendor, their carmined lips pursed in anticipation.
He let his gaze drift over them, his disciples in the art of sin, and he sat up, tossing back his long, unpowdered hair.
“My children,” he said in the French they all understood, English and French and German émigrés who’d come seeking pleasure. “Welcome to the revels of the Heavenly Host. You will partake of each other as you would partake of the holy wafer, you will drink the wine as if it were the blessed blood, and you will take your full, with no one to judge. For the next three nights the paltry rules of society are forfeit. Our motto stands … ‘Do what thou wilt.’”
“Do what thou wilt,” they intoned with deep seriousness, like novices taking their final vows, and he let a faint smile dance around the mouth they all craved. They were so determined in their pursuit of wickedness that it made him laugh.
He waved his hand, the layers of Mechelin lace floating. “Then go and sin once more,” he said, his deep, rich voice echoing in the huge salon.
There was a cheer, and the great doors to the rest of the chateau were opened. The revels began, and Francis Rohan leaned back in his chair, wishing he were back in Paris with a glass of brandy and a good book and no eager sinners seeking his attention.
He was bored. He’d witnessed every depravation known to man, participated in a great many of them, and he’d yet to find anything to pierce his interminable ennui. True, he could still find physical pleasure, but it was no more than a brief respite. When he so desired he would wander through the rooms of the chateau and observe acts prohibited by church and state, he would watch fortunes being won and lost at the turn of a card. He would watch men give in to the most base instincts with no fear of repercussion, and in the end, he would return to his opulent chair, or perhaps his own, secret room where the revelers could never find their host, and he would try to summon up some interest.
One woman had separated herself from the hearty revelers, and she glided toward him, a demi-masque on her face, her lush body spilling out of the artful gown she wore. It laced in front, and beneath the loosely tied strings he suspected there was nothing but ripe flesh. He would enjoy loosening those strings – Marianne had quite the most spectacular breasts he had ever seen. And she knew the rules. He wasn’t fond of kissing, and she would seldom made the mistake of putting her lips anywhere near his face. She would instead use that magnificent mouth elsewhere, and it would while away an hour or so, while the more timid of his guests watched.
He signaled with his hand, and she approached, a sly smile on her lips. Lips devoid of rouge – she knew what he preferred from her. She came up the small dais his idiot followers had built him, and he noted with approval that the lacing went down to the hem, and indeed she was wearing nothing at all beneath it.
He pulled her onto his lap, gently, and began playing with the laces, loosening them until her milky white breasts spilled out into the cool night air. Her nipples beaded with the chill, and he had the sudden urge to suckle her.
“Lean back,” he said in his bored voice, and she immediately did so, arching over the arm of the chair, presenting herself to him, and he moved his head down to let his tongue graze the pebbled mound, when a sudden noise caught his attention, and he sat up, annoyed, drawing Marianne with him.
“You’ve got trouble, Francis,” Charles Reading said in his rough, lazy voice. “And it’s early times for you to be sampling the banquet.”
Marianne turned and smiled at him, cheerier than Rohan felt at that particular moment.
“What kind of trouble?” he said. “I’m not in the mood to be seconding duels or even stopping them. If someone wants to kill someone else then let them go ahead. I have servants to clean up the blood.”
“Not that kind of trouble. I think you’ll like this one. I myself find it rather irresistible.”
It was enough to get his attention. There was very little Charles Reading found entertaining, and what did was usually somewhat disturbing, and therefore possibly of interest. “Then don’t keep me waiting. Bring forth the trouble.”
“One of your footman has her. Willis was going to send her on her way when I intervened, knowing you’d be entertained. Shall I tell him to bring her in?”
“I should go,” Marianne said, attempting to pull her gown together over her breasts. He was having none of it.
“You should stay,” he said in the cool voice that brooked no disapproval. He turned to Charles. “A her, is it? An interesting ‘her’? I find that hard to believe. But by all means bring her in. If nothing else we can toss her to the gentlemen and ladies in the green room.”
Reading was a handsome man, if you could discount the scar that had been slashed down the right side of face, making his smile a twisted grimace. He made a sketchy bow. “I am yours to command, my lord.” He backed away in a parody of servile humility, and Francis watched as he called out to a servant.
Charles Reading was one of his most amusing companions. Charles had as little regard for propriety as he did, but he viewed things with the fierce passion of youth, making Francis feel every one of his thirty-nine years. In truth, he felt eighty.
He could feel Marianne squirm, trying to reach for her gown, but it was a simple matter to capture her hand in a vice-like grip. He remembered she liked pain, and he deliberately kept his grip gentle but unbreakable. If he was going to enjoy her later in the evening, as he expected he would, he didn’t want her becoming too excited too early.
One of the footmen appeared, with Willis, his servant from a liftime ago on the other side of what was undoubtedly female and undoubtedly not one of the prostitutes imported from the city. This was going to be entertaining. He leaned back in his chair and gestured them closer, waiting as they approached, waiting as Reading stood in the background watching him.
“What have we got here, Willis?” he asked in his mildest voice. It was too much to hope for anything truly entertaining, but it might provide a few moments distraction.
She lifted her head, the dowdy creature, and he found himself looking into warm brown eyes filled with such loathing that for a moment he was charmed. Few people ever showed their dislike of him.
“And who is she?” he inquired lazily. “Don’t tell me – someone thought dressing a whore as a rag picker would provide added entertainment. Or no … I think perhaps she’s supposed to be a young lady fallen on hard times. Or perhaps a shop girl. Though I fail to see how a shop girl could add to our entertainment. Tilt her head up a bit.”
The footman moved to do his bidding and the wench snapped at him like a wild bitch. The man made the very grave mistake of hitting her across the mouth, and when she lifted her head there was blood on her lip. “No,” he said calmly, “I don’t think she’s a whore, Willis. Not with a nose like that. Whores have pretty little snub noses – this young lady has a nose of consequence. Perhaps you should simply send her on her way.”
She glared at him, the frowsy little creature. Though in fact she wasn’t particularly little – she was taller than most women of his acquaintance. She tried to speak, but Willis pushed ahead of her. “She says she’s looking for her mother, my lord.”
Francis threw back his head and laughed. “She’s the daughter of a whore? What will we come to next?”
“My mother’s not a whore,” she had the temerity to say, and his interest grew. She had a good voice, solid, low-pitched, and undoubtedly from the upper classes of England. He’d been exiled from England nineteen years ago, but he’d entertained enough titled visitors to know the difference. It was the same voice he spoke in, when he cared to speak English.
“Then she’s not here,” he said. “The only women here are whores. Even lovely Marianne here. Granted, she’s a titled whore, but a whore she most definitely is.” He waited, hoping that Marianne might pull away, but she sat still in his lap, her breasts in full view of the interloper.
The girl, no, the woman looked at him. She was past her girlhood, perhaps somewhere in her twenties, and her lip still bled. He was going to have the footman beaten before he was turned out in the streets. He might even administer the beating himself.
“Release her, Willis,” he said lazily. “And take the footman in hand. I’m afraid he’s going to have to be taught a very harsh lesson. No one is struck in this household unless they find it arousing. I can tell that Miss Lumpkin is not aroused.”
He could hear the footman’s alarmed intake of breath, and the fool tried to apologize, tried to explain as Willis hustled him out of the room, another sturdy footman appearing and helping with the disposal of the rubbish. Francis released Marianne’s wrist, and she carelessly pulled her provocative gown together, hiding her treasures. “You may leave us, Marianne,” he murmured. “I find I have better things to do tonight.”
He paid absolutely no attention as she scrambled away from him. She’d be very angry with him, which might make things more exciting if he decided to avail himself of her. At that moment he was doubting it.
The child in the middle of the room was glaring at him, for child she was, no matter what her advanced years. She was a virgin, untouched, unkissed, innocent and angry, and he was prepared to enjoy himself immensely. “So tell me, little one. What really brought you here?”
She already wanted to tell him to go to hell, but young ladies didn’t do that. She brought her fury in hand with a visible effort, yanked her pathetic cloak more tightly around her, and squared her shoulders, clearly determined to be calm. “I’m looking for my mother,” she said again. “I realize you have trouble understanding plain English. Perhaps your dissipations have begun to affect your mind, in which case you have all my sympathies, but it’s my mother I’m concerned about. I believe she arrived here with Monsieur St. Philippe, and it really is imperative I get her home as quickly as possible. She’s not well.”
“St. Philippe?” he said. “I believe he had a female companion, but I paid little attention. Clearly you’re of an advanced age, which leads me to believe your mother must therefore be old enough to make her own decisions on such matters.” He snapped his fingers and a servant immediately materialized from the shadows. “Bring Mademoiselle a chair. She looks weary.”
“No!” she said. “I have no interest in conversing with you, M. le comte. I simply need my mother.”
“But if you won’t sit then I can’t sit either. I still have enough remnants of my proper upbringing to haunt me, and I really don’t feel like standing while we discuss the matter.”
“You’ve managed to overcome your more proper urges so far,” she said pointedly. “Why change?”
There was enough of a barb in her voice that he was amused. He rose, setting his glass of wine down. “A good point, mademoiselle …?”
“You don’t need my name.”
“If I don’t have it how am I to produce your mother?” His voice was eminently reasonable as he started down the short steps from the dais. She didn’t move – he had to grant her that. She was courageous enough to walk into the lion’s den and not shrink from his approach.
She hesitated. “Harriman,” she said finally. “My name is Elinor Harriman. My mother is Lady Caroline Harriman.”
He froze. “Holy Christ,” he said. “That poxy old bitch is here? Don’t worry, my precious. We shall find her immediately. I have no intention of allowing her to stay among my guests. I am astonished St. Philippe had the temerity to bring her with him. Unless it was simply to gain my attention.”
“Why would he do that?” she asked, bewildered. He usually found innocence to be tedious. Mademoiselle Elinor Harriman’s innocence was oddly appealing.
“Because he has a tendre for me, and I’ve shown no interest.”
“He has a tendre for you? He’s a man.”
“He is indeed,” he said gently. “And how have you lived in Paris for so long without knowing about such things?”
“How do you know how long I’ve lived in Paris?” she shot back.
“Lady Caroline Harriman left her doltish husband and came to Paris with her two daughters some ten years ago, and she’s been in steady decline ever since. I’m surprised she’s still alive.”
“Just barely,” the girl said grimly. “Could I please go look for her instead of standing here talking to you? She’s probably gaming, and I’d like to stop her before the last of our household money is gone.”
“A laudable notion, child. I’d like to stop her before she spreads the plague amongst my guests. I’m quite adamant about the health of the whores …”
“My mother is not a whore!”
There was a charming flush to her pale cheeks. She was too thin – she hadn’t been fed properly in the last few months, and he allowed himself the briefest fantasy of feeding her tidbits of meat and pastries while she lay naked across his bed.
His mocking smile was half meant for his own foolishness. Virgins were far too tedious, and even the fiery Mademoiselle Harriman would be more trouble than she was worse.
“Any woman in this house is a whore, my child. So, for that matter, are the men. Let me get you a glass of wine and we can discuss this.”
“You are as addled as my mother,” she snapped, spinning on her heel. “I’m going to look for her.”
He wasn’t in the habit of letting any woman turn her back on him, and he simply took her arm, ungently, and spun her around to face him, fury on her face. A nasty little pistol in her hand, pointed in the general direction of his stomach.