The visit with the lawyer had not gone well. Elinor Harriman arrived home just as her sister Lydia had finished dealing with their landlord, and she ducked out of sight so the old lecher wouldn't see her. Monsieur Picot had no patience for either her or her mother, but her baby sister was a different matter. All Lydia had to do was let tears fill her limpid blue eyes and make her Cupid's bow mouth tremble and M. Picot was destroyed, awash with apologies and assurances. He didn't realize he was being played until the door was firmly closed behind him and Elinor could sneak up the stairs, grateful that she hadn't had to defend Lydia's honor if M. Picot got carried away.
He never did. None of the landlords and butchers and greengrocers ever took advantage of Lydia's delicate beauty. She radiated such an exquisite innocence that no one would dare. Even in this less than felicitous area of town, no one would even think of offering her an insult.
"Told you," Lydia said with an impish grin far removed from her Madonna smile. "It works every time."
Elinor flopped into the nearest chair, letting out a groan as an errant spring poked her backside. During their last enforced move they'd had to relinquish all but their most wretched of furniture. The tiny parlor on the edge of one of the least savory neighborhoods in Paris held three chairs and a meager table that served as a desk, a dining surface and a dressing table, and the chairs were barely functional. The bedrooms were as bad. One sagging bed in the first room held their mother's snoring body, in the other there was only a shared mattress on the hard floor. She refused to think about how Nanny Maude or Jacobs the coachman slept in the back area that served as kitchen and servants' quarters.
And how absurd it was to have a coachman when it had been years since they'd even had a horse, much less a coach? Not since their very first days in Paris, when their mother had been in love and the two sisters had reveled in their new adventure. But Jacobs had come with them from England, under Lady Caroline's spell as most men were, and nothing, not even a total lack of wages, could induce him to leave.
The lover and the money had disappeared quickly, to be replaced by someone almost as wealthy. In the last ten years Lady Caroline Harriman had been working her way down to a state Elinor couldn't bear to consider. At least right now her mother was too ill to cause trouble, to go looking for another bottle of blue ruin, another game of chance, another man to finance her more important needs, which had never included her daughters.
"So how much time have we got?" she asked, reaching for her knitting. She was a wretched knitter – her handwork was atrocious but she convinced herself she could do something useful, even if her socks and vests were full of dropped stitches. Nanny Maude had taught her, but as usual she was proving less than adept.
Lydia sighed. "He'll be back in a week, and I don't think I'll be able to put him off again." Sweet Lydia was perfect in every way, pretty and darling and clever, and her handwork was flawless. She could dance perfectly with only the cursory lessons their mother had once paid for, she could paint a pretty picture, sing like a bird, and any man who met her became her willing slave, from Jacobs, their elderly manservant to the wealthy young Vicomte de Miraboux whom she'd met at the lending library. For a brief time Elinor had hoped their problems were solved, until the Vicomte's family caught wind of what was going on and the Vicomte had been swept away on a grand tour of Europe.
They'd offered her money, Elinor thought, rubbing her chilled hands, and she'd probably been a fool to throw it back in their smug faces. As if a Harriman would ever stoop to being bribed. But at that moment, with M. Picot just walking away, she suddenly thought she could do almost anything if it ensured safety for Lydia and their little family. Even for their reckless mother.
Lady Caroline had been too ill to cause trouble recently. They had no money for a doctor or medicine, and the flush that had covered her body and disordered her never clear mind was a mixed blessing. Ill as she was, at least for the time being she was bed-ridden, unable to get them deeper in debt.
"So tell me about the lawyer, Nell," Lydia said, calling her the pet name only she used. "Has our father left us some vast fortune to ease Maman's final days? Or at least a minor pittance?"
"He's left us something, though a vast fortune might be too optimistic," Elinor said morosely. "His title and estates have been left to a Mr. Marcus Harriman, and another, undoubtedly smaller amount for us. He probably wouldn't have left us anything if he could have helped it." She carefully avoided the fact that whatever inheritance there was belonged, nominally, to her. Lydia's parentage was cloudy, but most definitely had nothing to do with Elinor's father, and everyone knew it. Though British law declared a child born within a marriage to be the legal off-spring of the husband, her father had been infinitely inventive in denying either child or his ex-wife any kind of support.
Lydia sighed. "Perhaps M. Picot would be put off another week if I allowed him a few liberties. A kiss would hardly compromise my soul if it kept a roof over our heads."
"No!" Elinor dropped another stitch, and tossed her knitting aside in frustration. She looked up at her sister. "The lawyer definitely said our father had left us something, though apparently there was some ridiculous stipulation that I would have to go to England to receive it. I just wish we'd known of his death sooner – we could have put this in motion months ago. I expect the death notice would have gone to our former residence, and since we left in the middle of the night with our bills unpaid they would have been unlikely to pass along any correspondence that might have showed up in the few months. I'm sure it won't be too miserable an amount. He wouldn't let his daughters starve."
Lydia's brief smile was wry. "Don't try to sweeten things for me. He always said he wanted nothing to do with the spawn of the harlot he'd had the misfortune to marry. Why should he change his mind on his deathbed?"
"Well, he was still angry. It was only a few years after mother had left him, and he was the laughingstock of London. Sooner or later he must remember that we are his blood and he has some responsibility to us."
"I thought he claimed we aren't actually his children, didn't he?"
Elinor could barely remember their father. He'd been a tall, singularly unpleasant man with little interest in anything but his horses and his women. It had always seemed patently unfair to Elinor that his wife had been denounced for following the same interests, but she'd learned fairness had little to do with reality. "Of course we're his children," she said. At least Lydia had never suspected the truth about her own parentage. "I'm as tall as most men, and I have his wretched nose."
"It's a very nice nose, Nell," Lydia said gently. "It gives you character, whereas I'm just a pretty little nothing."
"There are times when I would have given a great deal to be a pretty little nothing," Elinor said morosely.
"No, you wouldn't. I don't really think you want to be anyone but yourself, if truth be told," Lydia said.
Elinor forced a laugh. "You're probably right. I always was wretchedly strong-minded. I'd like to be exactly as I am, only fabulously wealthy. That's a reasonable enough request, isn't it? Unfortunately the only way to obtain a fortune is to marry one, and The Nose precludes that."
"A very good man would appreciate you, elegant nose and all," Lydia said firmly. "And I have every intention of marrying someone fabulously wealthy, so you don't need to worry about it. You will be free to marry for love."
Elinor snorted in disbelief, a very unladylike reaction. "A lovely thought, dear. But how are you going to meet this very rich man when we're living on the edge of the Paris slums? The next move will put us in the heart of them. It's going to come to that, eventually, and I'm not quite sure we'll survive."
"I have faith," Lydia said simply. "The answer will be provided when we need it." On top of everything else Lydia was a devout Christian, whereas Elinor had lost her faith years ago, when she'd met Sir Christopher Spatts, and now she accompanied Lydia to church only as a matter of form.
"I think the answer is long overdue," she grumbled. "If you could make it hurry up I'd appreciate it."
She heard the commotion coming from the back of the apartment, and Jacobs burst into the room, his hat in his hand, his weathered old face creased with worry, Nanny Maude close behind him.
"She's gone, miss," he announced
There was never any question who he was talking about. "What do you mean, gone?" Elinor said, jumping up. "Is she dead?"
"No, Miss Elinor," Nanny said, her voice thick with worry. "Your mother managed to find the last of the money I'd had for food, and she put on her fancy dress and left."
"Oh, dear God. How did she manage that? I thought she could barely move," Elinor said, chilled. "We can find her, can't we? She can't have gotten far."
"I almost caught her, miss," Jacobs said miserably, crushing his hat with his big, strong hands. "I thought I recognized her running down the streets, but she got in a coach before I could catch her."
"A coach? Are you sure it was my mother? I didn't realize she still knew anyone with a coach."
"It was her," Jacobs said grimly. "And I recognized the coach. Even in the street lights I could see the crest."
"Oh, lord," Elinor moaned. "What new disaster has she gotten us into? Whose was it?"
"Bloody hell," Elinor said. "Don't look at me like that, Nanny Maude. I know you raised me better, but if any occasion deserved a curse then this one does. You know who St. Philippe's friend is, don't you, Jacobs?"
"I don't," Lydia piped up, her blue eyes shining with curiosity.
"You don't need to know," Elinor snapped.
"It's that devil, isn't it?" Nanny said, her voice grim. "She's gone and taken herself off to the devil's lair, where there's orgies and such, and she'll lose the tiny bit of money we have left and probably end up sacrificed to the dark one."
"I don't think they do sacrifices, Nanny," Elinor said in her most practical voice, trying to ignore her own racing heart.
"They do," Nanny said, nodding her head so vigorously her lace cap slipped off her silver hair. "Women go in there and are never seen again. They kill virgins and drink their blood."
"Well, if it's virgins they kill then I think our mother's safe," Elinor drawled, determined to take the terrified look off her sister's face. "And I doubt anyone will be so besotted with her that she'll disappear. She'll gamble away the money and then come crawling home, sick and helpless."
"You don't understand, miss," said Nanny. "It's the only money we have left. And she took the diamond brooch."
A cold chill ran down the center of Elinor's body. It was the last thing of value they owned, a poor piece with tiny, flawed diamonds that was worth very little, but she'd kept it hidden for an emergency that didn't involve their deliberately self-destructive mother. She straightened her shoulders. "Then I'll simply have to go after her."
She ignored her Nanny's howl of protest. Jacobs said nothing – he knew there was no other choice. Lydia rose. "I'm going with you, Nell."
"You certainly are not. If I walk into that den of iniquity I know I'm safe. They'd be on you like a pack of ravening wolves."
"I think you overestimate my irresistibility," Lydia said with a grin.
"And I think you underestimate it. Nanny said they drink the blood of virgins, remember?" she said with just enough lightness to allay her sister's fears.
Unfortunately Lydia could see right through her. "You're a virgin too, darling, unless you've been keeping something from me. They'll drink your blood too."
Elinor didn't even flinch. "They won't be drinking anyone's blood. They thrive on scandal and secrecy, but I suspect they're not nearly as dangerous as they pretend to be," she said in a matter of fact voice.
"They murder babies," Nanny contributed helpfully.
"Hush," Elinor said. "I'm hardly a baby. Jacobs will take me to the house of the Comte de Giverney and we will extract our mother and be back before midnight."
"Begging your pardon, miss, but they were heading out of town," Jacobs said. "I think they've gone to his chateau."
Elinor remained calm. "And how far away is that?"
"Not far, miss. An hour out of town if we hurry."
"Then we'll be back by dawn," she said. "Safe and sound, and this time we'll tie mother to the bed when we can't watch her."
"And how do you intend to get there?" Lydia said. "Last I heard we had no coach nor horses, nor money to rent them. Are you intending to walk?"
Elinor shared a knowing glance with Jacobs, who backed out of the room without another word. "Jacobs will handle it," she said smoothly. "In the meantime I'm counting on you to make certain mother's room is clean and ready for her. We'll probably have to use the restraints we had from the time she was raving. It will depend on how much gin she's drunk and if she's been fed anything else dangerous."
"I don't want you going there alone."
"I'll go with her," Nanny said, bless her elderly heart. She was so crippled with the rheumatics that she could hardly walk, but she'd fight a dragoon of soldiers for her babies.
"No, Nanny," she said gently. "I need you to look after Lydia." She met Nanny's gaze for a moment, and a world of understanding passed between them. If by any bizarre chance Elinor didn't come back Lydia would need someone, and Nanny was their only choice.
Nanny nodded her head, and Elinor could see tears shining in her eyes. "Don't be ridiculous, you two. I'm not walking into the gates of hell. The Comte de Giverney is just a man who throws decadent parties, not Satan himself, and I'm hardly the type of female to inflame his darker passions. Besides, Jacobs carries a pistol, and he'd shoot the first man who tried to harm me. I'll go in, ask for my mother, and they'll probably be happy enough to get rid of her. So there's nothing to worry about."
"Except the diamond brooch," Nanny said grimly.
If Elinor had been closer she would have kicked one of Nanny's painful shins. The old lady had a very gloomy outlook on life, and right then Lydia needed to be hopeful. She didn't need to learn their last hope of rescue had vanished, and if the jewelry was lost they were well and truly doomed.
But right then she couldn't afford to waste any more time. Apart from the orgiastic goings on at the Comte de Giverney's notorious house parties there was high stakes gaming. The brooch would be gone in a matter of moments, and if anyone were fool enough to extend her credit they'd have to start hiding from a better class of creditors, the aristocracy as well as the greengrocers.
She grabbed her threadbare cloak and the rough shawl she wore over it for added warmth, kissed Lydia and Nanny Maude goodbye, trying to appear insouciant and brave. Nanny clung to her like it was a final goodbye, but Lydia simply sat back in her chair and calmly took up her knitting again. It was an act – she knew just how dangerous Elinor's task was, and she knew the best thing she could give her sister was not having to worry about her. The sight of her brave, bowed head of blonde curls made Elinor want to cry.
But she didn't have time for crying. Moments later she was out in the cold night air, her fingerless gloves, which were more darning than original weave, were pulled on, the shawl over her ordinary brown hair, and she started down the street, determined to ignore the more unsavory denizens of the neighborhood.
Jacobs would be at the nearby café, where horses and carriages were stabled. Circumstances had forced them to "borrow" a carriage once before, when Lady Caroline had proved herself unwelcome at a masked ball, though they'd fortunately been able to replace it in time with no one the wiser. Tonight they might not be near as lucky, but she couldn't afford to think of that. For now all she could concentrate on was getting her mother safely out of the devil's lair. One thing at a time.
Jacobs did better than she'd expected, appearing with a small traveling chaise large enough to hold two females and not much more. She scrambled inside before Jacobs could get down to assist her, and a moment later they were off.
It was a cold, moonless night in early February, and if the modest carriage had ever held lap robes they were long gone. She pulled her shawl from her head and wrapped it around her shoulders, shivering. It would take an hour to reach the Comte's chateau, if she didn't freeze to death before she got there.
Still, if she was half frozen it could only help matters. It would give her something less daunting to concentrate on. She held onto the seat as it swayed back and forth. Jacobs was driving at a dangerous pace, but she had complete faith in his abilities. They would arrive at the chateau in one piece; the rest was up to her.
She had no qualms. She knew exactly what she looked like. She was tall, a bit too thin thanks to the state of their larder, with plain brown hair and eyes and the unfortunate nose. It wasn't that bad – it was narrow and elegant, and when she was an old lady she would look quite striking. Still, that didn't help when she was young and wanting to be pretty.
But she was past all that. If she ran into the wretched Comte he'd take one look at her dowdy clothes and hair and never even see her. Thankfully that was the way with most men. She had no doubt she could find her mother in no time at all, spirit her away and the strange goings-on at the chateau would be a distant memory.
If she still believed in God she would pray, but she'd lost that particular comfort six years ago. Besides, Nanny and Lydia would be praying for them like mad – if there really was a god he'd certainly listen to the two of them. Lydia was too charming to ignore, and Nanny too fierce. Perhaps it was only Elinor He paid no attention to.
She closed her eyes. The day had been disastrous from beginning to end, with the unlikely hope of a small inheritance being a mere pinprick compared to the far greater disaster of their future prospects having vanished with the succession. For now she'd hold that knowledge to herself. Nanny Maude and Lydia didn't need the worry.
The lawyer, Mr. Mitchum, had suggested she meet with the new heir, the stranger who'd have control over her inheritance, but she'd left the office in a fit of temper.
She'd have to meet with her distant cousin eventually, and she'd been a fool to storm off. If there was, in fact, even the most pitiful of bequests she couldn't be proud enough to refuse it.
But first she had to find her mother.
Francis Alistair St. Claire Dominic Charles Edward Rohan, Comte de Giverney, 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, surveyed his eager guests and 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 participants 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-pleasured, every soul drained of any illusion of morality.
And he would watch it all, indulging when the urge struck him, overseeing 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 there were times when 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 fill, 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 almost 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 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.
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 underneath.
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 they want to kill each other 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 whatever did had to be unusual, 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. 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, turning his smile into 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. She would go spend that energy on someone else, and he did rather like to be first.
One of the footmen appeared, with Willis, his servant from a lifetime 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 ragpicker 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," Francis 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 twenty-two 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.
"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. Rohan 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 later on. 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 clearly 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, obviously 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."
"And I need to prove myself a proper host," he returned.
"You've managed to overcome your more proper urges so far," she said pointedly. "Why change now?"
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. 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?" the girl 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 and a nasty little pistol in her hand, pointed in the general direction of his stomach.
She would shoot him, without a qualm, Elinor told herself, willing her hand not to shake. If he saw her quaking he would assume she was harmless, and then she might be forced to actually fire the wretched gun. Which she most assuredly did not want to do, unless she had to.
He released her, encouraging her hope that he was a reasonable man, but he didn't take a step back, and he seemed more amused than alarmed.
The King of Hell was everything they said he was, both less and more. He was reputed to have the ability to seduce an abbess or the pope himself, and she could see why. It wasn't his physical beauty, which was considerable. He had dark blue eyes behind a fringe of ridiculously long lashes, pale, beautiful skin, the kind of mouth that could bring despair and delight--and what the hell was she doing, thinking about such things?
He looked younger than his reputed age, which was around forty, and while his long dark hair was streaked with silver it only made him seem more leonine, more dangerous. He was tall, and he moved with an elegant grace that put dancers to shame. He was standing far too close to her, to the gun she'd stolen from Jacobs while he was busy with the carriage, and he was looking at her with far too much interest and absolutely no fear.
"You aren't going to shoot me, my dear," he said calmly, making no effort to take the gun from her shaking hand. And it was shaking – she couldn't disguise it.
"I don't wish to. But my mother's safety is paramount..."
"Your mother is a walking dead woman," he said, his voice casual and cruel. "You know it as well as I. Why don't you return home and I'll find her and send her after you?"
"You don't understand. I can't afford to let her game away the rest of our money." It shamed her to admit how little they had, but then, most of his guests would be capable of losing a fortune on the turn of a cards. There was no need for him to guess just how little they had left.
"Then we shall see that she doesn't," he said in that caressing voice of his. It was little wonder people fell at his feet – his voice could charm angels. "You know you don't want to shoot me. Think of the mess. Not to mention the explanations." He reached out and gently took the pistol away from her. "Very pretty," he said, glancing at the elegant pearl-handled thing. "If you're so hard up for money you could always sell this."
"Who says we're hard up for money?" she demanded.
"Your clothes, child. You dress like a ragpicker. What's your mother wearing – sackcloth and ashes?"
"She'd hardly be allowed in here if she was."
"Oh, on the contrary. Sackcloth and ashes could be deemed quite appropriate. After all, this is a gathering of the Heavenly Host, you know."
She tried not to react to the shock of him actually mentioning the forbidden words. Everyone had heard rumors of the Heavenly Host, that covert gathering of wicked aristocrats with too much time on their hands. The stories went from the ridiculous to the disconcerting – there was word of black masses and virgin sacrifice, orgies and blasphemy and the like, but no one ever admitted the existence of the group. Until Rohan's off-hand comment.
She looked up at him, unnerved by his height, his glittering, gilded glory. He was dressed in impeccable black satin, with elegant clocked stockings on his well-shaped legs, high heeled, bejeweled shoes only adding to his already impressive height. He wore a long, heavily embroidered waistcoat unbuttoned, but no coat. He had heavy rings on his long, pale fingers, even a sapphire in his ear like a gypsy, previously hidden by his long, unbound hair. Most men wore wigs and kept their own hair cut short. The Comte de Giverney was clearly too vain to utilize such shortcuts.
"Looked your fill?" he inquired pleasantly. "Would you like me to turn around so you can observe my backside?"
She didn't blush. "I like to know my enemies. Either let me go look for my mother or take me there yourself."
"Oh, definitely the latter. And I haven't decided whether we're enemies or not." He tossed the pistol back onto the dais, where it landed, with unerring accuracy, on the cushioned chair. "I'm afraid, my dear Miss Harriman, that you would never find your mother amidst the...celebrations. You'll have to accompany me through the nine layers of hell in order to find her."
"I am not a child, Monsieur le Comte."
"That's my French title. To the English I'm the Viscount Rohan."
"Someone else bears that title," she said, repeating one of the bits of gossip she'd overheard.
"Indeed," he said pleasantly. "How kind of you to remind me. The man is a pretender, nothing more." He reached up for his elegant neck cloth and began to unfasten it, and she watched his long, pale, bejeweled fingers in something of a daze.
He pulled the cloth free, his shirt coming open, and she averted her gaze from the disturbing sight of his bare chest. She heard his laugh, and then his hands were on her once more, catching her shoulders and turning her around. "Don't worry, my pet. You won't be seeing anything that might shock you." And he pulled the neck cloth over her eyes, effectively blinding her.
She wanted to fight back, to struggle, but that would give him an excuse to touch her further, and the less she felt the brush of his cool fingers the better. "That's right," he said, his voice soft and approving. "Now give me your arm and we'll give you a taste of damnation."
"Do you really find blasphemy that entertaining?" she said, trying not to start when he took her hand and placed it on his arm.
She'd never put her hand on any arm that wasn't covered by layers of clothing, including a coat. The devil who oversaw these revels, be he monsieur le comte or something else, wore only a thin shirt made of the finest lawn. In her sudden world of darkness she was acutely aware of the feel of his arm beneath her fingers. The sinew and bone. The unexpected warmth of his skin, when his hands and his heart were so cold.
"Are you ready, my child?" he asked, and there was no avoiding the humor in his voice.
But she wasn't about to show her panic. People like Rohan thrived on fear, and if she were to have any chance of survival she needed to hide hers.
"As I have been for the last, tedious half hour," she said in a bored voice.
"Allons-y," he murmured, and she didn't need to see anything to know that he wasn't fooled. "Let us go."
And she had no choice but to allow him to draw her deeper into the very depths of hell.