Reckless, страница 1часть #2 серии The House of Rohan
Author: Anne Stuart
Lina batted at Louise's hands and turned to look at her. "Why not?" Her voice was sharp. "I wasn't aware that you were even acquainted with him. Has he done something to offend you?"
"Apart from his appalling lack of moral fortitude?" Charlotte said icily. "No. I've only spoken with Viscount Rohan once in my life, and I've never been alone in his presence, thank heavens. " This time she allowed her voice to be as prim as possible, filled with disapproval. Because if Lina guessed the truth it would be unbearable.
'Thank heavens," Lina echoed. "Then why won't you. . . ?"
"I'd rather keep my distance. "
Lina shrugged, turning back to face her reflection, and Louise returned to her work, muttering French imprecations beneath her breath. "Suit yourself. If you've taken him in aversion then I'm certain one of my friends will help. I just can't be certain they wouldn't take him for themselves. " She made a moue of distress.
"From what I've heard of Viscount Rohan, he's probably had them already. "
Lina's laugh was low and earthy. "Most probably. If he hadn't spent the last year on the continent he would have had me. Ah, well, if not tonight, then most definitely at the gathering. I absolutely cannot wait! The Heavenly Host, in all their wicked glory!"
The familiar knot in her stomach tightened. "Nor can I," she said, secure in the knowledge that her cousin's dresser wouldn't understand.
Lina looked up at Charlotte for a long moment. "Are you certain this is the wisest choice, darling?" she said finally. "I'm all for broadening your education, but going from sheltered spinsterhood to a gathering of the Heavenly Host is rather like moving from St. James Palace to the stews of London. I do admire your scientific mind and interest in observing the baser instincts of mankind, but perhaps that might be going a bit too far. You might wish to start a little more slowly. "
The fact that Charlotte wanted to agree with her made her even more forceful. She wasn't going to turn craven at this late date. "I understand the basics of animal husbandry and fornication, Lina. I've lived in the country for a great part of my life, and there are no mysteries there. But if I'm intending to spend my life in celibate comfort I wish to observe exactly what it is that you tell me I'm missing. Besides, I have a certain scientific curiosity. The practices I've heard mentioned seem either unsanitary or anatomically impossible, and I'm interested to see just how one manages it. " It had all sounded extremely reasonable when she and Lina had first come up with the notion, and she told herself there was nothing untoward about it. To think so would be ridiculously missish.
Lina chuckled. "I can't promise your curiosity will be satisfied if you choose to come merely as an observer. "
"You think I should participate?" Charlotte inquired, careful to keep her voice sensible.
"Good God, no! Hardly the proper introduction to the pleasures of the bedroom, my dear cousin," Lina said with an uneasy laugh. "And I suppose there's nothing to be concerned about. If you wish to observe some of the more interesting sexual practices then a gathering of the Heavenly Host is the place to do it. There are always a fair number of guests who derive their primary excitement from watching others, and you'd be dressed in an enveloping monk's robe, with a hood pulled down to obscure your face and hair. No one will know whether you're male or female, and no one would think of accosting you as long as you wear that strip of white around your arm. It's perfectly safe. "
"You sound as if you're convincing yourself. Perhaps this is a bad idea," Charlotte said evenly.
"And it was mine in the first place, rather than answer your questions. No, I think it will be good for you. If you don't witness anything too bizarre it may even help you overcome your aversion to men. "
"I have no aversion to men," Charlotte said. "Only to the institution of marriage, which enslaves women as surely as—“
"Yes, I know," Lina said, having heard it all before. "And in truth, you'll see men at their basest—it could put you off them entirely. Not that I'm in favor of marriage, quite the opposite. I just have different reasons. ”
"Since no one seems likely to offer for me then that's probably just as well. And you know what a lively intellect I have. This is one area I can't study in books. "
"Depends on the book. . . Never mind, love. We should have a great deal of fun once we're back home, discussing what the great men of London look like without their drawers. In most cases it's not a pretty sight. "
"Then why—" Charlotte began, honestly curious.
"It's not the looking, dearest. It's the touching. Not that you're to let anyone touch you. If they try I'll cut off their. . . ears. You're my dearest cousin and I intend to protect you. " She looked at her for a long moment. "Wear your green sarcenet tonight, and I'll have Louise come and do your hair as well. You may as well give it one last go before all your illusions are shattered. "
"I have no illusions, I have no interest in 'giving it one last go' as you so delicately put it, and Meggie can take care of my hair. "
"You're impossible!" Lina said with a sigh. "At least wear the green and not that hideous peach thing. It looks dreadful with your hair. "
Charlotte rose from the bed and kissed Lina's pale, delicate cheek, resisting the impulse to tell her everything looked dreadful with her hair. Except, perhaps, the sarcenet, which made her eyes green. "I'll meet you downstairs," she said, promising nothing, and took herself off.
Lina watched her cousin disappear, then turned her attention back to her reflection, trying to ignore Louise's ministrations. Surely they were doing the right thing. One glimpse of the goings-on of the Heavenly Host and innocent cousin Charlotte might be so revolted she'd never again countenance the idea of marriage. Keeping her safe from making the same mistake Lina had made.
She knew her cousin much better than Charlotte realized. She understood perfectly well the look in Charlotte's eyes when Viscount Rohan entered the room. Adrian Rohan was enough to tempt even Charlotte, who persisted in saying she had no interest in men in general or the viscount in particular. And in truth, she was probably safe. Rohan could have anyone he wanted, and usually did. He'd have no appreciation for an over-tall young woman with copper hair who wasn't quite comme il faut, one so firmly on the shelf that she may as well start wearing lace caps and sitting with the dowagers. Which Charlotte would, if Lina would let her.
And just in case, once Lina had finished with him he would no longer hold the faintest allure for her cousin.
No, Rohan wouldn't be likely to go near her, and Lina was reasonably certain that Charlotte would be immune to anyone else, no matter how handsome, charming or affluent. As for the kind of man she might be more likely to attract—some plump, elderly widower or, even worse, some pious vicar—once she saw the sort of thing men were capable of she would reject even those unappealing aspirants. In truth, she was taking her into the wilds of Sussex, to Hensley Court and the libertine gathering of the Heavenly Host, to protect her.
Charlotte knew only a bit of the horrors of Evangelina's marriage to the elderly earl of Whitmore, and Lina had absolutely no intention of telling her any of the unpleasant details, details that were better left in the shadows where they belonged. Those were times she refused to think about, except in the dark of night when she couldn't help it, and she could stuff her pillow over her face to keep from screaming out loud. It was over, it was past. But she wasn't going to chance letting the same thing happen to her darling Charlotte.
Perhaps this wasn't necessary. After all, Charlotte was unfortunately right: no man was likely to make her an offer. She was thirty years old, well pa
It was a shame, because Charlotte would make a wonderful, loving mother. But motherhood came with husbands, and price was too dear.
"Voila, enfin!" Louise cried, stepping back, clearly well satisfied with what she had wrought
Lina stared at her reflection. She was exquisite. A work of art. A creation cold and lifeless and beautiful. Good enough to lure the dissolute Viscount Rohan into her bed, further ensuring the necessary demise of Charlotte's hopeless daydreams.
"Eh bien," she said tonelessly. And she rose from her dressing table, ready to finish the job. Charlotte only considered the green sarcenet for a moment before dismissing it in favor of the insipid peach that turned her ivory complexion to ash. She ignored Meggie's objections, waiting until the last minute to head down to the ballroom. Lina would be more than capable of sending her back to change, if it weren't already too late. The first guests had already begun to arrive, and Lina looked resplendent in clinging pink silk that molded her delicate curves. She gave Charlotte a look, then shrugged, as if her poor sartorial choice was no more than she'd expected, and Charlotte took up her place behind her. Had it been up to Lina she would have been by her side, greeting the guests as an equal, but Charlotte staunchly refused. There were few advantages to being a poor relation, but this was one of them. She didn't have to stand in line and smile and simper at idiotic young men and elderly villains. This was going to be one of the major crushes of the season— Lina had invited everyone, and Charlotte held her place as long as she could. It was only when she could see the black-and-silver mane of Etienne de Giverney overtopping everyone else's as he moved toward them that she panicked. Where the dashing Comte de Giverney went, his younger cousin, Viscount Rohan, was likely to follow, and she wasn't going to take that chance.
She slipped away without a word to blend into the mass of guests, making her way toward the back of the ballroom. The only safe way to escape to her bedroom would be to take the servants' stairs. The main staircase stood just outside the ballroom, and she would be in full view of the arriving and departing guests if she tried to disappear by that route. Not that anyone would notice the movements of a poor relation, but she didn't want to take the chance.