The regency romances, p.103
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       The Regency Romances, p.103

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Maurice inclined his head. He’d abandoned his powder this morning; his graying hair was dressed in rolls at the temples and clubbed back over his collar. In the whole room, Faelan was one of only two males who wore their hair cropped and free of curls or powder. A la rèvolution, someone in the company called it to themselves, and Roddy was puzzled by the significance such a minor thing seemed to carry.

  “Will our good friends from Paris be following their guns?” Maurice asked.

  Faelan shrugged. “I fear I’m not privy to their councils.”

  “Yet you move their muskets in the dead of night,” said the young man with the cropped hair. His fair skin flushed a little. “With our help.”

  “I thank you for it.” Faelan leveled his blue gaze on his questioner. “But ’twould be a mistake for you to think I favor an Irish invasion by your good friends the French. They’re no friends of mine.”

  “Why, then?” Maurice asked quietly.

  “The guns,” Faelan said, “were an inconvenience to me. So I had them removed.” He offered no explanations of how they had arrived in the first place.

  The faint touch of arrogance in his voice did nothing to conciliate his hosts. Roddy sensed that they were puzzled. Although a week ago they had casually opened their small hidden harbor to land and dispatch Faelan’s counterfeit fairies, he was still suspect in their eyes. He ran rebel guns with Irish flair, but he was English-schooled, Protestant; he fit no mold, and as a landowner he would wield great power in the district. Beneath the age-old traditions of Gaelic hospitality, they regarded him with all the respect and affection they might have felt for a loaded powder keg.

  “’Twas only a thought of ours,” Maurice said softly, “that a man with French muskets comes with the fleet close behind.”

  Faelan laughed without humor. “Ah, but how close—that’s the thing you might wonder. The Frogs missed their chance in ’96 when the headwinds kept them out of Bantry Bay. They missed it again this spring, when Britain lay helpless as a babe for weeks with her navy in the hands of mutineers.” He sat back in his chair with his fingers locked and raised one dark brow at Maurice. “The east wind doesn’t love the French, it would appear.”

  O’Connell decided to drop the subject. “Here,” he said in a tone of melodramatic resignation, “we only wish to mind our own affairs.”

  “Just so.” Faelan’s glance took in the comfortable room and imported furnishings, the well-filled decanters of wine and spirits. “And you do it so well.”

  Maurice nodded in modest assent, ratifying the mutual, unspoken agreement to stay out of one another’s business. In a sudden reversion to formality, he said, “We welcome Your Lordship, for as long as you and your bride will stay.”

  Faelan took a sip from his glass. “Thank you. But we won’t impose on Mrs. O’Connell’s hospitality for long. I have a lease which has fallen in—there’ll be a house available as soon as we have our first eviction.”

  A quick, sharp tension thickened instantly in the room. Faelan looked around with no visible emotion at the suddenly hostile faces surrounding the table.

  “You disapprove,” he said dryly. “Do you think I would move my wife into a cottier’s hovel? ’Tis Willis who’ll be vacating.”

  “John Willis.” Maurice sat up straight. “By the saints—do you mean that, man?”

  Faelan’s lips drew back in a wry half-smile. “Not by your saints, perhaps. But yes. I do mean it.”

  “And who’s to replace him?”

  “Myself,” Faelan said simply.

  They all stared.

  “You mean to live there?” the flushed young man exclaimed. “I can’t credit that.”

  Faelan looked toward Roddy, reaching across the corner of the table to take her hand. “Do you like this house, Lady Iveragh? Do you find it sufficient for your ease?”

  “Of course,” she said quickly, and hoped it was the right answer. The level of emotion in the room was running high, consternation and glee shifting too fast and wildly for her to make sense with her gift.

  “Then you’ll like the one John Willis has built for himself even better. He’s a man who knows his worldly comforts, I hear.”

  She wet her lips. “But—my lord…you wouldn’t turn a man out of his home—”

  The young man snorted. “Aye. John Willis’ll burn the place down first.”

  “Not if he wishes reimbursement for his improvements,” Faelan said. “I’ll give him fair price.”

  “Will you now?” The youth made a rude sound. “That’s more than Christian, then. He can take his miserable pack of hounds and go hunt in hell and welcome.”

  “Davan.” Maurice addressed his young cousin in faint reproof and looked at Faelan. “Have you other changes in mind, Your Lordship?”

  “Yes.” Her husband ran his forefinger around the rim of his glass. “The Farrissy lease is also at an end.”

  The approval that had gathered dissipated, gone in an instant at this news.

  “He’s a good man, Farrissy,” Maurice said with careful neutrality. “A good neighbor with a promising family.”

  “And hunting a pack of skinny hounds the equal of Willis’, I’m certain. No, Mr. O’Connell—I’ll not support a crowd of petty gentlemen at their leisure, Catholic or Protestant.” Faelan’s mouth set hard as he returned his host’s look. “Who leases my land will work it. Under my supervision. The countryside’s poor enough—there’ll be no subletting five-deep and living off the rents. As for Farrissy’s promising family, I know that kind of promise. All to become priests, or schoolmasters, or French officers, no doubt.”

  “Honorable professions, my lord,” Maurice said stiffly.

  “Leeches. Living off beggarly peasants and giving nothing back but a sorry smattering of bog Latin.”

  “That’s not the remark of a gentleman, sir.” Offense pulled the lines tight across Maurice’s cheekbones. “Your father had better manners.”

  Faelan stood up. Though his face remained cold and utterly neutral, Roddy could see the tendons in his hand flex. “Of course I’m no gentleman,” he said softly. “I’m not my father. I have no manners and no morals and no heart, but I have title to my land, and I’ll make it produce. Those who choose to help me may stay and share in the results. The rest may find another place to pass the time. Be it in the alehouse or in the church, they’ll have no support from me.”

  Roddy was glad to escape the uneasy atmosphere of Doire Fhionain. Only the grip of tradition kept Maurice from bidding Faelan leave the O’Connells’ roof that very day; tradition, and their host’s determination not to lower himself to Faelan’s level by putting a well-bred English gentlewoman out of shelter. But Roddy would rather have slept as she had the past week—on the ground beneath the sky—than endure the concealed animosity and the memories of Faelan’s past that her husband’s abrupt declaration of his intentions had invoked.

  Faelan seemed insensible to the tension. As they rode out in the crisp morning, sea-cooled and sharp-aired, he was smiling the way he had smiled in Gunther’s pastry shop: like a small boy let loose from hated lessons.

  He led the way back over the high road they had taken the day before. At the top, he halted and swept his arm wide over the long valley spread before them, the magical country with the sea on the west and the misted mountain passes on the east. It seemed empty of human habitation, and yet full of some presence, some welcoming song that the mind heard, though the ear could not.

  “Iveragh,” he said, in a tone that echoed with love and pride. He looked sideways at her, and shrugged with a trace of self-consciousness. “There isn’t much here yet, I know.” The wind billowed his black cape as he reined his horse and turned to point down the ridge on which they’d paused toward a sheltered bay. “Down there—we’ll build a pier,” he said with studied casualness. “I think that will be the place, at any event; I have an engineer from Aberdeen coming in December to begin sketches.”

  He stared intently at the spot, as if he co
uld see the pier in all its detail. “’Twill be next fall before it’s finished, at that rate,” he added suddenly. “I wanted the damned fellow sooner, but he’s the best man in the field and in high demand. It took a king’s ransom to draw him off at all.”

  The trace of impatience, the eagerness which he could not quite hide, made Roddy want to smile. “And what will we ship, my lord?”

  “Butter,” he said seriously. He pointed again, this time up to the east, where Roddy could see several small black dots on one hillside. “The native upland cattle yield fine milk-fat on this scant pasturage. I want to consolidate a herd for improvement, and do some careful crossing with English imports. If we could make some enclosures, isolate the dairy herd—cull out the poorer milk producers and cross them with English imports—luck might have it that we’d gain better hardiness in a beef cow, too.”

  “I see.” Roddy kept her voice solemn, not wanting to break into his rising enthusiasm with her amusement.

  “Those bogs across there,” he went on without pause. “We’ll drain them. I think we can have a good start on it before the weather turns. We’ll have corn there next year, or hay.”

  “Yes,” she said. “Of course.”

  “We’ll increase tillage in that way, by reclaiming the bogs. I don’t want to convert to grazing at the expense of crops. Particularly grain. Too precarious. There was famine in 1741—” He shook his head. “That’s the other thing I want to start on right away. A mill. And storage enough for our surplus. I won’t have my people starving. And I want to begin replacing the trees—” He motioned up the valley. “All those hills used to be forested. There’s an old ironworks up there. I’ve thought of reopening it. We’d have to operate on imported coke until the trees are ready.”

  “Only a few decades, my lord,” she murmured.

  “Yes.” He sighed harshly. “I don’t know that I have the patience for trees.”

  Roddy chewed the inside of her cheek to control herself.

  He gazed at the far hills. She lost her desire to laugh as she saw the bitterness come into his face. “If I could have begun planting when I first had the notion,” he said, “they’d be fifteen years along by now.”

  She wished she could touch him, soothe away half a lifetime of frustration. “’Tis no matter, my lord,” she offered softly. “The trees will be there for our children.”

  He looked toward her. His horse moved restlessly beneath him, closer to hers. He caught her hand in a hard squeeze. “Little girl.” He raised her glove to his lips. “If not for you, there’d be no trees at all.”

  She smirked, to cover the way her mouth quivered with a sudden, silly weakness. “No. Nor children either, I should hope. Shall I beat you to the bottom of the hill, my lord?”

  “Indeed not.” His grip transferred instantly to her horse’s bridle. “You’ll break your neck.” He grinned as the horses sidled. “And it’s such a pretty neck, my love. I have plans for it.”

  Roddy felt herself blushing. “You seem to have plans for everything, my lord.”

  He let go of her horse. The animal moved forward, and he brushed her cheek as she passed. “But some,” he said seductively, “can be executed so much sooner than others.”

  Roddy ducked her head and gave her mount a kick. They scrambled ahead of him down the long, green hill.

  Riding with Faelan through the wild and lovely country, she found it easy to forget the antagonism that had erupted this morning. But as they approached the home of John Willis, Roddy began to lose her carefree mood. She glanced often at Faelan. He did not seem to be concerned about the coming interview. He did not even mention it; just rode easily down the well-tended side road and past the stone gates toward the house.

  It sat among fine grounds, this house they were to summarily wrest from its resident. Roddy liked it, in spite of herself: it had a simple, pretty Palladian facade softened by a thick growth of vines that had turned scarlet in the autumn chill. A peat fire warmed even the high-ceilinged entrance hall, the coals burning in an efficient chimney that drew off all the smoke and still radiated a comfortable heat—a feat which the O’Connells’ smoky fireplaces had not accomplished half so well.

  Mr. Willis stepped into the hall with his hand outstretched just as the manservant was taking Roddy’s cloak.

  It was a welcome carefully contrived, Roddy knew, exquisitely timed to be gracious and yet unperturbed by His Lordship’s visit. Under Mr. Willis’ polite reserve was a turmoil of question and curiosity at this unprecedented “honor.”

  He was utterly unaware of Faelan’s plans for him. Roddy realized that instantly, and it made her more miserable than before. She smiled painfully in answer to his greeting, hardly knowing how to act toward someone who was about to experience what seemed to her the most heartless act of cruelty. As they sat down in the pleasant drawing room amid gold velvet draperies and polished wood, she glanced at Faelan.

  No manners, no morals, and no heart, he had said.

  That was not quite true. The devil himself could not have been more smooth of manner as he accepted a glass of rum punch from his victim.

  Mr. Willis was much younger than Roddy had expected, round-faced and boyish-looking, with fine brown hair tied back in a limp queue. Behind a pince-nez and a mild smile, his mind worked rapidly, assessing his guests and his interests. His hospitality held none of the emotion, the warmth and strong tradition, that characterized the O’Connells’. His actions were schooled and careful. It was necessary to be polite to his landlord; it was expected. And so he was.

  They began with a discussion of Roddy and Faelan’s journey, moved to the weather and the hunting, and the frightful lack of decent horses in the area.

  “Since the Relief Act, there’s not a nag to be had for under twenty pound,” Mr. Willis said. “Why, I can remember my father speaking of the time, not threescore years ago, Your Lordship, when that Popish fellow—O’Leary, the one eloped with Eileen O’Connell—refused to give up his mare for five pounds when the sum was legally offered. They shot the man,” he said with satisfaction, “but everything’s changed now. They wouldn’t do so now, and there’s not a bag o’ bones will hold a saddle to be gotten for love nor money.”

  “Yes,” Faelan said, in that neutral way Roddy had come to know so well. “It’s bound to be an inconvenience, when you can’t have a man shot for overpricing his horse.”

  Willis laughed in honest humor. “Too true, Your Lordship. Only too true.”

  “I understand you think the same of my price for the renewal of your lease.”

  The other man came back to business with a jolt, but he recovered smoothly. “Ah—the lease, Your Lordship. We can discuss that at some other time. I should be loath to bore your lovely wife with farming matters.”

  Faelan set down his empty glass and sat back in his chair. In his polished boots and open coat, he was the epitome of the carelessly elegant aristocrat, a fine greyhound to Willis’ plump country beagle. “I think we will discuss it now,” he said softly.

  Roddy’s finger tightened around the cup of tea she held. She took a sip, and tried to keep the cup from rattling in its saucer.

  Willis recognized the disadvantage of trying to come to terms with his opponent’s young wife present. “Your Ladyship,” he said. “If your husband insists—I’m terribly sorry to have no hostess to represent me. Perhaps my housekeeper might take you on a tour of the house…or would it be too cold for you to stroll in the garden?”

  “Not at all.” Roddy was happy to leave. Willis had hardly impressed her with his talk of five-pound horses, but he seemed no more than a plump gamecock in her husband’s ruthless hands, and she had no desire at all to be in at the kill. She and Mr. Willis started to rise, but Faelan remained firmly in his seat.

  “Don’t desert us, my dear,” he said. She caught the hint of steel beneath the silk. “This won’t take a moment.”

  Roddy sat back down.

  After a moment, Mr. Willis did so, too. Like two chil
dren caught misbehaving and called up for a lecture, they glanced at one another.

  Mr. Willis recoiled a little from the first direct look into Roddy’s eyes. She tried to smile, to show him that she, at least, was not so unfeeling of his situation. But then, he did not know his situation yet, and he took her smile and quickly lowered lashes as coy shyness. Charming, he thought. Damned shame this devil’s got hold of her.

  Aloud, he said with determined pleasantry, “You wished to discuss the renewal, then, Your Lordship?”

  “Yes. I’m afraid the offer in your letter to me several months ago will be insufficient.”

  “Indeed.” Mr. Willis glanced at Roddy. “Well, Your Lordship, I would have preferred to discuss this between us in private, but since you insist on coming to terms immediately, I’ll say without ceremony that I can go to an annual rent of four thousand, and that is my absolute limit.”

  “I see. We won’t be able to come to an agreement, then. Do you have any documentation on the net worth of your improvements?”

  It was said so evenly and casually that Mr. Willis missed the point for an instant. Then his mouth thinned into a smile. He steepled his fingers and leaned back, tilting his head. “Your Lordship,” he said. “You’re unfamiliar with the area. Four thousand is an excellent offer, I assure you. You would look far and long and not find better. But I understand that you may wish to do so. Perhaps we could make an appointment for three weeks hence to further—”

  “No. Thank you, Mr. Willis. I expect you will have long vacated by the time three weeks have passed. In fact, my wife and I will be looking forward to taking up residence here next Sunday.”

  “Faelan—”

  He silenced Roddy with a flicking glance and spoke again to Willis. “You may not wish to move all your furniture on short notice. I’m sure Her Ladyship would be happy to look over anything you wish to leave.”

  “I shall do nothing of the sort!” Roddy’s conscience overwhelmed her on hearing this last indignity to be forced on the hapless Mr. Willis. “I won’t turn this poor man out of his home, and then come and look over his furniture as if ’twere at public auction.”

 
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