Bessett spun round to face the half-naked woman.
She had made no effort whatsoever to pull together the robe he had hurled about her shoulders, a fact which made him inexplicably angry. He let his eyes trail hotly down her, and felt something besides anger curling in the pit of his belly.
“If you are truly Vittorio’s acolyte,” he said tightly, “then you’ll be marked.”
She jerked up her chin, anger flashing in her black eyes. “Oh, I am,” she said, her hand seizing the hem of the shift. “Do you wish to see the proof?”
“Good God, Bessett,” said Rance on a groan. “She’s marked. I made sure.”
Bessett spun in the other direction. “You made sure?” he echoed incredulously. “Do you mind telling—no, never mind.” He turned again, and seized the girl by the upper arm. “You, come with me.”
“Where are you taking her?” Belkadi, one of the Advocati, had materialized at his elbow.
“To Safiyah,” Bessett answered, his voice pitched low. “For I can see, even if Rance cannot, that an unmarried female of good family cannot stand half naked in the middle of what is believed to be little more than a gentleman’s club.”
“Oh, thank you!” said the girl bitterly. “Ten years of my life tossed into the rubbish heap over a point of etiquette!”
Bessett did not reply but instead hauled her up the steps and through the wine cellar, into the laboratory passageway. Another flight took them to the ground floor, and eventually to the relative privacy of the servants’ stairs, the girl snapping at him the whole way.
Except that she was not a girl.
No, not by a far shot.
And what she had just done—dear Lord, it was courting ruin. Did it simply not matter to her?
“You are bruising my arm, you lout,” she informed him. “What are you so afraid of? After all, I am just a mere woman.”
“I am afraid for you, you little fool,” he whispered. “Be still, before you’re seen by someone whose silence we can’t so easily command.”
She bucked up at that, jerking to a stubborn halt on the landing. “I am not ashamed of what I am,” she said, clutching his robe shut with one hand. “I have worked hard to learn my craft.”
“You, madam, do not have ‘a craft,’” he said coldly. “For God’s sake, consider others if not yourself. What would your father think if he knew where you were just now?”
And that, a faint flush chased up her cheeks. “He might not approve, to be honest.” “Might not?” Against his will, Bessett’s gaze swept hotly down her length again.
“He might not approve? Of his daughter running around half naked in a London club?”
Her hard, black eyes narrowed. “It isn’t like that,” she said. “I simply haven’t told him everything. Not yet.”
Bessett hesitated, incredulous. “You mean you’ve told him something?”
Her blush deepened, but her tone did not soften. “Oh, for pity’s sake, I’ve been staying in Tuscany with Vittorio for months at a time,” she retorted. “What do you think I told him? That I was off to finishing school in Geneva? Do I look finished to you?”
No, she did not.
She looked like something . . . wild and totally unfinished.
Like something a man might never be finished with—though she was not precisely pretty. But she was intriguing and earthy and full of a vivacity he couldn’t quite grasp.
And whatever she was, she looked like no woman he’d ever known before—and he’d known quite a few.
Her father’s wrath, however, was none of his concern. Oddly angry with himself, he turned as if to set off again, yanking her toward the next staircase. But he caught her unaware. One foot tangling in the hem of his long woolen robe, she tipped precariously forward.
“Oh!” she cried, her empty hand flailing for the stair rail.
Instinctively, Bessett caught her, his arm lashing round her slender waist, hitching her hard against his chest.
Suddenly, time and place spun away. It was as if no one breathed—a mere instant of warmth and scent and pure, artless sensuality that seemed to stop logic dead in its tracks.
And when he looked down into those eyes—eyes the color of warm chocolate, fringed with thick, inky lashes—he felt something deep inside him start to twist and bend, like metal warming to the fire of some otherworldly forge.
Her bottom lip was full, like a slice of ripe peach, and for an instant, it trembled almost temptingly.
Then the girl saved him from whatever folly he might have been contemplating.
“Ooff,” she grunted, pushing a little away. “If you mean to kill me, Bessett, just pitch me over the banister and be done with it.”
“Don’t tempt me,” he growled.
But inexplicably, he couldn’t stop looking down. The swells of her extraordinary breasts were plainly visible from this angle, and God help him, he was no angel.
Irritation flashing in her eyes, Miss de Rohan fully righted herself. “Really, my lord, do you mind?” she said, hitching up the front of her shift. “I’m not in the habit of displaying my assets unless they’re corseted into a ball gown.”
“And that,” he said quietly, “cannot possibly be often enough.”
Her face colored furiously.
“I beg your pardon,” he said again. “But you did choose to wear that, Miss de Rohan. And I am, after all, just an ordinary man.”
She sniffed disdainfully. “Ordinary, hmm?” she said. “I didn’t think anyone here was ordinary.”
“Trust me, my dear, when it comes to attractive women, all men are the same.” He held out his hand to her, his actions more gentle now. “Yet another reason I am afraid for you.”
“You suggest I’m not safe in this house?” Her voice was sharp.
“Your reputation is not,” he answered. “But no one here would do you a harm, Miss de Rohan. You may trust each and every one of us with your life—my roaming eyes notwithstanding.”
With obvious reluctance, she laid her hand in his.
“Now, about your father.” He kept his voice firm. “I believe you were about to tell me who he is.”
“Precisely?” For an instant, she caught her lip in her teeth. “He’s a minor Alsatian nobleman. The Vicomte de Vendenheim-Sélestat.”
Carefully watching those chocolate-brown eyes, Bessett stood his ground. “And imprecisely?” he pressed. “Come, Miss de Rohan. You are London born and bred, I’ll wager. I may be a lecherous lout, aye, but I’m sharp enough to know when I’m getting but half the truth.”
At last, her gaze broke away. “A long time ago, he was called Max de Rohan. Or just de Vendenheim. He’s . . . with the Home Office. Sort of.”
Well. So much for gentleness. Bessett stifled a curse, then turned to haul her up the next flight of stairs.
De Vendenheim! Of all people! Rance must be a lunatic to allow her into the fold.
That little shite from the Chronicle had finally driven him stark, staring mad.
Bessett didn’t know anything about de Vendenheim’s title, but he damned sure knew the fellow wasn’t the sort of man one antagonized. And he wasn’t ‘with’ the Home Office, sort of. He was the Home Office—or more accurately, the ruthlessness behind it.
Politically, he was untouchable—unelected, non-partisan, and more or less unofficial—the ultimate eminence grise.
And now his daughter had been trained as a Guardian? And not, apparently, with his blessing?
“Hurry up,” he said gruffly. “You are going to get dressed now.”
“A capital notion, given the miserable draught coming up these steps,” she snapped. “Can’t you people afford coal? I thought you were all rich. My feet are bare and my arse hasn’t been so cold since the winter of —”
“Miss de Rohan,” Bessett managed to reply, “I could not be less interested in the state of your arse.”
Liar, liar, liar.
“Why, I am crushed, my lord!” she said mockingly. “Of course, I was supposed to be completely naked, according to the ceremony—but even I couldn’t summon up the cheek to do that.”
“A tiny sliver of good judgment for which we must all be grateful,” said Bessett through clenched teeth. And he meant it. The last thing he needed on his mind just now was the vision of Anaïs de Rohan naked.
And yet he was already imagining it. Conjuring up those impossibly long legs in his mind, and wondering if they would reach—
No. He needed to know nothing about the length of her legs. He needed to get rid of her.
Thank God they had reached the topmost floor of the house, where Belkadi kept his private apartments. At the door, Bessett rapped twice, hard, with the back of his hand, still holding on to the hellcat. It took all his English civility not to sling her inside and bolt as soon as the door cracked. His Scottish half wanted to tie her to a rock and tip her into the Thames.
Safiyah opened the door, her wide, doe-brown eyes sweeping over them. “My lord,” she said, startled. “Where is Samir?”
“Your brother’s still downstairs,” said Bessett, hauling Miss de Rohan inside. “It has been a strange night. Sorry to barge in but I need your help.”
“But of course.” Safiyah lowered her gaze. “Who is she?”
“The acolyte,” snapped Miss de Rohan. “And I have a name.”
Safiyah colored furiously, and looked away. “I shall put the kettle on.”
Bessett’s prisoner looked immediately contrite. “I beg your pardon,” said Miss de Rohan. “You did not deserve that.”
“No, I did not.” Safiyah’s hands were folded serenely. “Excuse me. I shall be but a moment.”
“I’m Anaïs,” she replied, thrusting out her hand. “Anaïs de Rohan. Do forgive me. Being manhandled up the steps has left my temper regrettably short. And I should love a cup of tea. By the way, I have do clothes, Lord Bessett. I did not walk in off the street naked. And you are Lord Bessett, are you not? After all, you did not introduce yourself before hauling me from the Temple and up the stairs.”
“Where did you leave them?” he asked, ignoring the rest of the diatribe.
Her eyes widened with irritation. “In a little room on the ground floor,” she said. “I came in through the gardens.”
Bessett went at once to the bell-pull, then realized the stupidity of it. “Sit down and be quiet,” he ordered. “I’ll fetch them. And be kind to Safiyah. She may be your only friend here when this dreadful night is over.”