The regency romances, p.105
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       The Regency Romances, p.105

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Faelan just stood, watching the uneasy crowd in silence. He seemed to be looking at each man at his leisure, immune to the cold that made everyone else shiver and curl their toes in their boots and MacLassar huddle completely under Roddy’s skirt. At length a rider kicked his horse forward and reined up in front of the weed-grown terrace steps.

  “Will you be speakin’, my lord,” he demanded, “or keepin’ us stamping our feet all the day long?”

  Faelan raised his eyes to the man on the horse, a man whose sparse-haired pate wouldn’t even have topped his lord’s shoulders if the rider had been standing on the ground.

  “Rupert,” Faelan said pleasantly. “Rupert Mullane. I remember.”

  His pure, unaccented intonation rang out like a clear warning bell. Rupert Mullane gave a stiff nod in return for the recognition. He was secretly a little gratified to be remembered, but he knew better than to show it. “You’ve a marvelous head for names,” he said ungraciously. “You might have come back and used it a few years past.” He paused, and then added, “My lord,” as if it were an after-thought, hoping his comrades appreciated his daring incivility.

  “I was prevented.”

  Rupert would have snorted in disbelief, but even from a slight advantage of height, he did not quite have the nerve.

  “Mr. Mullane,” Faelan said. “If you would be so kind as to remove your mount…”

  Roddy turned curiously toward the crowd, surprised to find that several were pleased to see Mullane dismissed so coolly. The approvers stood at the back, a knot of three, two strapping young men and an older one dressed in muddy shoes and worn leggings. Roddy focused on the oldest, who was half listening and half fretting about a milk cow that had dried up and the charge Mullane planned to make for a replacement. But Faelan’s next words caught the man’s full attention.

  “Gentlemen,” Faelan said, when Mullane had reluctantly backed his horse aside. “My intentions are simple. I plan to put this estate into full productivity. I have no interest whatsoever in your religious beliefs, your political affiliations, or the way you’ve always done things. In all matters concerning my land, I demand your unreserved cooperation. If you or your families are ill fed or clothed, you will come to me. In return for short-term assistance, you will plant what I tell you, when and where. Those who wish to participate with me in improvements to the estate may lease cattle from me at five shillings a head per annum. You will do things in my way, or you may expect that your lease will not be renewed. Are there any questions?”

  Faelan, Roddy thought ruefully, could give his own mother lessons on insensitivity. Only the trio Roddy had noticed before, and a few others, turned to look at one another in disbelief at the astonishing generosity of the five-shilling offer. The rest were bridling visibly at Faelan’s blunt demands.

  Mullane was quick to capitalize on the fantastical sound of the scheme. “Five shillings, my lord!” He flung a grin over his shoulder toward his fellow riders. “He’ll be runnin’ us out of business, now!”

  “Yes,” Faelan said calmly. “I will.”

  Oh, God, Roddy thought, closing her eyes in despair.

  “And just where would these cattle be hidin’?” a horseman at the far end of the gathering called. “Faith, I’ve no five-shillin’ cattle for sale.”

  “Nor I!” cried another, and a round cheer of agreement went up.

  Faelan shrugged. “Not yet, perhaps.” He surveyed the muttering crowd. “Any other questions?”

  “Aye! Will ye be upholdin’ the tithe?” someone shouted, from far back and unseen.

  Everyone quieted. That sudden silence was warning enough, but Roddy received the full force of feeling on the subject. The tenants might be divided over the five-shilling cattle, but here was an issue they would unite and kill for.

  “What tithe?” Faelan asked, in that carefully emotionless voice Roddy had learned to recognize.

  A babble broke out, shouts, and Mullane urged his horse forward. “To the damned Church of Ireland!” he yelled, dragging on his horse’s reins until the poor animal danced and half reared in protest.

  Roddy took a step backward, intimidated by the rising emotion. But Faelan’s hand on her elbow stopped her as he faced the crowd. “I don’t give a damn if you pay the Church of Ireland or the Church of Rome or if all your souls go to bloody hell,” he shouted. “But don’t look to the Devil Earl for salvation when you’re starving to death. Not if you cross me now.”

  In the disconcerted silence that followed this speech, Faelan began to look to his tenants like the devil indeed. To hear him call himself by the title they’d used to vilify him for twenty-five years seemed to make the illusion concrete. Roddy realized that the Devil Earl had been something of an entertainment at a distance, like a child’s shiver of pleasure over tales of ghosts, but in the flesh he appeared all too satanic for comfort. And his bride…

  They wouldn’t even look at Roddy, except from the corners of their eyes. Abruptly, they all wanted to leave. Further discussion of leases and cattle and even tithes seemed to lose its appeal. When they came up one by one to tug their forelocks and make their awkward bows, there was an agitation that bordered on panic in the simplest of them, and a struggle to hold back superstitious uneasiness even in the more sophisticated. Roddy smiled in her friendliest manner and got nothing but grunts and monosyllables in return.

  Rupert Mullane hung back until last, and dismounted in stiff dignity. He kissed Roddy’s hand with a flourish. For the briefest moment he held her gaze, and her talent reacted, going down levels and levels of thought in an instant, past the pride and the despair of being too small to physically intimidate, past the anger at Faelan’s highhandedness, past the wild schemes of retaliation down to the fear, real and deep, that Faelan could do what he promised—destroy Mullane’s livelihood. And underneath that fear was animal instinct: the will to survive and prosper at any cost.

  Faelan turned away and started back for the house as the gathering broke up into little knots of men who hurried off in pregnant silence. Roddy called softly to him. When he turned, she nodded toward the cottier and his two sons, who were lingering under the pretense of adjusting their leggings.

  Faelan appeared to recognize the situation in an instant. “Send Martha,” was all he said before walking on. “Meet me in the study.”

  Roddy nodded, glad that in this, at least, he had realized the delicacy of human psychology. The cottier and his sons were in a difficult position. They wanted to investigate Faelan’s offer, but to be the first to do so openly would place them firmly in his camp, where they were not at all certain that they wanted to be.

  With MacLassar at her heels, she hurried into the house where the maid Martha had begun a furious attack on the impossible job of sweeping out decades of accumulated rubble. “Those men—” Roddy almost shoved Martha out the terrace door. “Ask them in for tea, and then bring them to the study. Hurry!”

  Martha gave her mistress a look which was as expressive as the astonishment in her mind before she gathered her skirts and rushed after the cottier family, who had begun to walk away.

  Roddy pulled her shawl around her and headed for the “study,” which was in fact only a room in the old servants’ quarters which still had a dry roof. In the two days since Martha had arrived with their baggage, she and Roddy had been able to clear and arrange a makeshift desk out of two overturned cookpots and an old stall partition. It was so cold in the room that Roddy could see her breath frost when she pushed open the door. She found Faelan on his knees making up the fire.

  “They’ll be here in a moment, my lord,” she said, crossing to the window. With the corner of her shawl, she wiped at the accumulated dust on the broken pane, trying to add more light to the dismal scene. She heard Faelan come up behind her and turned, brushing at her hands.

  He caught one wrist and raised it, kissing a smudgy palm with a hard, brief pressure. His fingers were warm against her icy skin, but she felt the tension in them, saw the taut lo
ok about his eyes that had been there the night of the fairy ball. It was important to him, this meeting with three rough country peasants. It was life or death to the dreams he cherished.

  Martha ushered the trio into the room with an air that would have been casual in London, but which seemed quite regal in this dingy place.

  “Mister Donald O’Sullivan. Mister Evan and Mister Fe…Fac…” Martha bit her unruly tongue and took a breath.

  “Fachtnan,” said the tallest of the two sons, with a shy, sideways grin on his freckled face. “Ye make it pretty, miss, however ye speak it.”

  Martha curtsied quickly, blushing to the roots of her hair with pleasure at the small personal attention. She looked with shining eyes at Fachtnan. Oh, la, she thought, he likes me, and hurried to pump the ancient bellows and set the teapot on the hob. Roddy had planned to send the maid off and make the tea herself, but she hadn’t the heart to cut Martha’s little romance so short.

  There were no chairs. Roddy hoped Faelan knew better than to lean against the unstable desk. He stood next to it, looking very much as he always did, which was enough to put the cottiers in a misery of tongue-tied unease. The rough surroundings only made him more elegant and mysterious and intimidating than ever, while at Roddy they dared not look at all.

  The cottiers stood unhappily, not knowing what to do and expecting Faelan to speak. They had no notion of taking the initiative. The father had begun trying to remember an old tale he’d heard of a man who’d sold himself to the devil, uneasily comparing the details of the story to this scene. Roddy suddenly thought that the five-shilling offer was a mistake, that it was so low as to be suspicious. Here in this remote valley among ruins long dead, it was all too easy to believe in ancient tales. She kept her own eyes carefully away from the men and sought desperately for some way to undermine their fears. To make Faelan and herself human.

  Martha began setting china cups out on the table for the tea, and the clatter seemed very loud in the silence. Redhaired Fachtnan cleared his throat nervously.

  “Tea, gentlemen?” Faelan said finally.

  In a fright that he would break the cup and humiliate them all, Fachtnan said, “No, thankee, m’lord. No, thankee. We don’t take tea.”

  The others nodded agreement.

  Roddy was still watching Faelan, afraid he would lean on the table and precipitate his own humiliation. She saw him shift his weight and reach out his hand, and stepped forward in quick reaction. Her foot encountered something soft. The next instant a loud squeal cut the tension in the air.

  MacLassar shot out from beneath her skirts, snuffling and crying piteously. He ran between the elder O’Sullivan’s legs, found no comfort there, and darted toward Martha’s skirt. The maid—no country-bred girl—shrieked, “A rat,” and with a move that was completely unpremeditated threw herself headlong into Fachtnan’s strong arms.

  She nearly knocked him down. He staggered back, clutching her as much for balance as for giving support, but by the time he had recovered, a flash of very masculine appreciation coursed through him as his hands fitted around Martha’s sturdy torso. He slid his palms upward in the guise of steadying her and his thumbs curved under her heaving breasts. “There now, miss. ’Tis no but a wee pig, do you see?”

  “I believe it belongs to the countess,” Faelan said calmly, reaching down to where MacLassar cowered with deep-throated, sorrowful grunting underneath one of the cookpots.

  He handed the piglet across the table.

  Roddy grabbed her charge hastily and slung him into his favorite position with his small forefeet dangling over her shoulder and his snout pressed lovingly behind her ear. She dared one glance up into Faelan’s face. Fearing the worst, she took a moment to interpret the strange twist and hardening of his jaw.

  Donald O’Sullivan coughed in a strained way. The air in the room had changed; Roddy felt the cottiers’ eyes on the Devil Earl and his countess as they faced one another across the table. The vision formed in her head in all its absurdity—the dingy room, the china cups; herself staring apprehensively up at her husband with a piglet slung over her shoulder and Faelan with a belly laugh trapped behind the fierce set of his mouth.

  Roddy bit her lip. MacLassar grunted and snuffled in her ear. Her body began to shake. “Oh, my,” she gasped. “I’m so s-sorry!”

  Martha giggled. Donald O’Sullivan began to chuckle. “Ah, well,” he said. “An’ we was after thinkin’ m’lord and m’lady too fine and fearsome to traffic with the likes of pigs and poor dairymen.”

  Roddy met his eyes while the laughter still lit her own, and was pleased and astonished to find that at that moment he’d rather look at her than not. Everyone in the room was smiling at her—directly at her—and she felt as giddy and self-conscious as Martha had under Fachtnan’s appreciative gaze.

  A half hour later, the O’Sullivans had departed with the promise of twoscore cows in exchange for a pound sterling at the end of a year. They could sell their butter for cash to Faelan. Fachtnan and Evan were to begin work on the mansion house, and spread the word that the wage of fifteen pence a day was no dream, but real enough for any cottier who would come to work and lease Faelan’s cattle.

  Martha had seen them out with all the pomp that was possible under the circumstances. When they had gone, Roddy set MacLassar on the floor.

  “You see,” she said as the piglet snuffled and snorted in mild complaint. “He’s good for something.”

  Faelan moved around the table. Success and humor lit his blue eyes with something that made her breath catch in her throat. “Little girl.” He came close and drew her into his arms. “I know what won them.”

  “What?” She stood with a smile that changed to a giggle as he squeezed her.

  “’Twas you, of course. Magical sidhe.” He tilted her chin up to plant a deep kiss on her quivering lips. “’Twas you,” he whispered at the edge of her mouth. “Because you’re so beautiful when you laugh.”

  Chapter 17

  Roddy hugged MacLassar, sniffing the scent of the lavender water she’d bathed him in and smiling to herself at the memory of Faelan’s way of expressing gratitude. With Martha occupied by her new beau and Senach off wherever Senach spent his time, there had been a few hours of privacy that day in the empty stall where they’d made their bed.

  It suited her better, she thought, to take a roll in the hay like a stablehand than play the gently bred Countess of Iveragh. It had been cold, but Faelan could always warm her; his words and his touch and the sky-fire of his eyes. A bed or barn, it made no difference when she was aware of nothing but his body hard and hot against hers.

  That afternoon seemed long ago now, the last time in over a month that Faelan had been awake and hers alone. Winter was blowing in, and there was only work and more work in the sharp demand of the damp west wind.

  Their cottiers had grown accustomed to the earl hammering beside them like a common laborer and the countess sweeping and hauling trash and bringing the workers tea and oatcakes with her pig and her maid in tow. That kind of acquaintance bred a measure of trust—at least they had stopped equating Faelan with the devil, by the simple logic that the devil would never have to work as hard as Faelan did to get a roof over his head.

  Of Roddy they were less certain. Only the O’Sullivans spoke freely to her, and even with them the doubts would creep in if she happened to meet their eyes. It seemed that her difference was stronger here, and somehow more apparent. On those occasions, Roddy would smile at them and they would remember her laughing, and it set their minds at rest.

  She wished it were so simple for herself. She knew now how it felt, that uneasy sense of facing a power beyond common humanity—knew it for reality, instead of through her gift. Every time her talent faded and slipped away and she looked up from whatever she was doing to find Senach’s blind gaze upon her, her heart pounded and her legs trembled with the need to flee.

  Public nakedness could not have been worse. She knew those empty eyes saw through her,
pinned her and judged her: the petty fears and selfish needs, the times she’d used her gift to cheat—just a little, just a quick answer to spare her from a scolding, a remark made to sting and unsettle. And worse, far worse—the place in her heart that feared and adored and hungered for her husband, the place that cared not what he was, but only that he held her.

  She could lose him. If he guessed her talent; if Senach told him and made him believe—

  Roddy huddled in her cloak. The wind traced her exposed skin with cool, wet fingers, like Senach’s lifeless, probing touch. She sat, clutching MacLassar and his comforting small mind, where warmth and food were all that mattered and both were provided in plenty. But even as she drowsed there with him, she felt the connection slip away. She had climbed the hill to escape Senach. When she opened her eyes he was there.

  “God bless,” he said, and smiled at her. He was standing on the path below her, leaning on a staff. Farther down, the men still worked, and the sound of their voices blew away with the wind.

  She took a breath, trying to slow the thump of her heart. “Good afternoon, Senach.”

  Her politeness was useless, all sham and humiliation; she knew that he saw through it to the loathing in her heart. Go away, her mind shouted. Leave me be.

  “I’ve come,” he said, “to show ye the way.”

  Roddy’s arms tightened around MacLassar. The piglet shifted with a sighing grunt. “I’m just resting awhile. I wasn’t going anywhere.”

  Senach’s pale eyes found hers. She recoiled, refusing the challenge, jerking her face away to stare out to sea. Don’t. Don’t look at me.

  “Your lad’s father, he come here,” Senach said. “He were a wee laddie thattime, and he come away up here to think.”

  Roddy looked down at her toes and fingered a tiny white flower that she had not noticed there before.

 
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