The regency romances, p.108
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       The Regency Romances, p.108

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Faelan’s careful fingers steadied hers, pressing the sliver free in one hard, skillful pinch. She drew in a sharp breath, and caught his eyes, finally. “Did you know this?”

  “I saw a copy of the proclamation of martial law at O’Connell’s. Several weeks ago.”

  “And you didn’t tell me? You didn’t do anything?”

  He let go of her hand. “What would you have me do?”

  “Come back with me,” Earnest said. “If you won’t come, Iveragh, at least send Roddy with me.”

  Faelan looked at Earnest, and Roddy felt the impact of that gaze as if it had been directed full at her.

  “No,” he said.

  Her brother held his ground. Clear as speech, he promised, I’ll take you, Roddy. No matter what this bastard does.

  Faelan interpreted Earnest’s stubborn jaw with precision. “She’s my wife. She stays with me.” He picked up Roddy’s discarded spade and in one savage stroke sliced through the root she’d been struggling with all morning. “Think twice if you have any other notions.”

  “You don’t care for her danger?”

  Faelan went on digging. “Let me tell you about this rebellion,” he said to the muddy ground as his shoulders relaxed and tightened in rhythmic exertion. “The peasantry don’t fight for philosophy—they fight for their lives and their bellies. They hate the tithe. They’re ground down to slave labor at the hands of tithe proctors and mean little gentlemen who live off the rack rents from a hundred miserable potato patches. They’ve got their Whiteboys and Defenders because violence is the only means they’ve found to keep themselves alive. And the damned gentry who’ve brought it on themselves are afraid to go to bed at night without a few of those miscreants they’re pleased to call an army camped upon their doorstep.” With one final dig and heave, he stood straight and tossed the spade aside. “The Irish army. ‘…formidible to everyone but the enemy.’ That’s how their own commander in chief describes ’em.” His coat flared as he rested his hands on his hips. “And into this keg of black powder wades an open flame—a parcel of idealistic schoolboys with their talk of French democracy and free land.” He snorted. “Aye. We’ll have a revolution. And a thousand ignorant, starving cottiers will die for every musket-happy soldier.”

  “And you plan to sit here in the midst of it?” Earnest demanded. “I want my sister out of here.”

  “Are you going to take her by force?” Faelan asked softly. “She’s safe enough here. I’ve paid the tithes and forgiven the arrears in exchange for the labor to open up new cropland. That alone makes me a hero.”

  Earnest’s lip curled. “I suppose some do have to buy their heroism.”

  “I’m a practical man, Delamore. I’d rather buy it than die for it.”

  “With my sister’s money.”

  “Earnest—” Roddy protested.

  But Faelan only smiled his bitter wolf-smile. “As I said. I’m a practical man.”

  Earnest was prepared to say more. Roddy cut him short. “Come inside, Earnest. Come inside and see what we’ve done.” Her eyes pleaded with him to drop the argument. He caught her look, and acquiesced reluctantly.

  I don’t like this. The phrase was silent and clear through her gift. I want you safe.

  She took his hand as if to lead him up the steps, and squeezed it in answer. Deliberately she refused to acknowledge the second level behind his concern, the distrust that went beyond politics and revolution to fear of Faelan himself.

  Up the wide steps, she pushed open the door—so new that the carved and painted wood had not yet lost its fresh odor. MacLassar shoved his way past her legs and trotted into the huge hall.

  Roddy caught Earnest’s jolt of dismay at the sight. “Oh, MacLassar is quite the most civilized pig,” she assured him. “I consult him on all my household decisions. What shall we serve our guest, MacLassar? Will you part with some of your best French brandy?”

  The piglet ignored her, heading through the hall toward the rear entry to the house and the servants’ quarters. There, MacLassar knew, Martha would be struggling to understand the Parisian chef’s pastry lessons and slipping her mistakes to any wandering pig who might happen by.

  The interior of the great house was a peculiar sight. Just how peculiar Roddy had never really considered until she felt Earnest’s confusion and shock as he followed her in. The chef, like the brandy and the elegant furniture and the fine white sugar for the pastries, was contraband.

  Roddy could offer French spirits and an elegant meal if she wished, and serve it on a polished mahogany table—as long as she left the sheets draped across the shining wood to protect it from the dust of the plasterers at work in the dining room.

  Eating in the midst of a construction site had never seemed to make much sense, so she and Faelan dined with Martha and the chef and the rest of the laborers in the large kitchen beside the servants’ quarters.

  Earnest stood in the front hall and stared around at the barren space, where the only things that had escaped the fire were the stone walls, the intricately carved mantelpiece of Italian marble, and the floor of black Kilkenny limestone.

  He blinked up the huge opening in the rebuilt floor above, frowning at the narrow ladder which did service in place of the magnificent staircase only imagination could supply. “What in God’s name happened here?”

  “The place burned,” Faelan said from behind. “Obviously.”

  “You should have seen it when we arrived.” Roddy leaped in to reassure. “Faelan’s done wonders. There wasn’t even a roof. There isn’t much to see down here yet, because we’ve been concentrating on the bedrooms upstairs.” She grinned mischievously over her shoulder. “Faelan’s tired of sleeping in the stable.”

  “The stable!” Earnest turned on his sister’s husband. “You’re sleeping in the goddamned stable? And just where is your wife sleeping?”

  For an instant it was only a demand, a worry about comfort and responsibility. Then Faelan smiled, and even in the watery gray light from the second-floor windows, the slow sensuality was clearly evident. His hands slid onto Roddy’s shoulders, drawing her back against him as they moved up her throat in a light caress. “Do you really have to ask, Delamore?”

  Roddy opened her mouth, and shut it again, feeling her face go to scarlet at the picture that formed in Earnest’s mind. She threw up barriers even as he hastily tried to concentrate on something else, casting about at the windows, the pavement, the doors. She had forgotten, living only with Faelan and Senach and kindhearted, dull-witted Martha, that her talent could precipitate such moments of agonizing awkwardness.

  After that, she stayed out of Earnest’s thoughts.

  It was difficult, though, to block his growing consternation as she led him through the house and out the opposing door where the wild hillside seemed to tumble down to the doorstep in a tangle of heather and gorse.

  “What’s this?” he asked dryly. “The formal garden?”

  Faelan gave Earnest a bland look. “I believe Roddy was digging the lake and the Grecian grotto when we rode up.”

  She stomped ahead of them, reckoning they could nip at one another without her help. As they passed the stone enclosure where the barefooted boy had turned out their mounts, she heard Earnest make a caustic comment about the hospitality of the horses in vacating their stable. Faelan said he was certain Roddy would put Earnest up in the best available stall.

  She reached the kitchen and found Martha and several cottiers, including the two O’Sullivan boys, taking tea with Monsieur Armand. In the babble of French, Gaelic, and English around the hearth, there was no thought of revolution. Faelan was indeed a hero to the men he had fed and employed. Roddy was no longer sorry to have put Mr. Willis out, though the Farrissys had been a much-loved family among the peasants.

  But to Faelan, there were only those who worked the land and those who did not. When Mr. Farrissy’s and Mr. Willis’ leases had fallen in, so had the those of all their subtenants. Faelan had kept his promise. Th
e homes of the middling gentry who had resisted his changes were empty.

  Those evictions had won them no friends among the landed class. The only place where Faelan and Roddy were received by members of the gentry—Protestant or Catholic—was at the O’Connell house in Derrynane, where the improvements Faelan had initiated softened the impact of his blunt impatience concerning delicate political matters.

  The men all rose when Roddy appeared, like a small respectful gathering of medieval vassals who stood with their hats in their hands as Faelan entered.

  In six short months, his cottiers had grown to love him. He had thrown the squireens out, lowered the rents, brought seed and plows and hope. He worked the same backbreaking hours of the cottiers and more—buildin’ a grand house, a quare great house, fit for Himself and the Lady—Many times she’d caught such a thought from a man standing back to stare up at the mansion. They had no notion of Geoffrey’s democracy. Faelan ordered, and they obeyed, finding safety and a kind of childlike pleasure in the relationship. He was a lord in their old tradition: openhanded and patronizing, with an aristocratic manner that was as natural to him as breath, whether he dressed in velvet or homespun. Aye, fit for His Lordship, they said now, of anything fine or clever.

  Monsieur Armand’s hissed instructions sent Martha and the cottiers to abandon their tea and return to work. Faelan gave some orders as they left, and Roddy had the impression that he would have liked to accompany them. Instead he sat down with Roddy and Earnest at the hand-hewn table as befitted a decent—if not gracious—host. Roddy didn’t think it was politeness for a minute. She knew his weakness. Tea would include some of Armand’s hot buttered scones and fresh pastries.

  “Really,” Earnest said, with a mocking glance around after Armand and Martha withdrew. “This is the first stare. Are you sure the pig wouldn’t like a seat closer to the fire?”

  Faelan broke off a piece of his scone and tossed it to MacLassar—something which Roddy had never seen him do before. The piglet, grown now longer than his forearm, gulped the morsel and sat down next to Faelan’s chair. He held out another bite, teasing with it until MacLassar rose up with his feet braced on Faelan’s thigh and begged. Only the faint curl of her husband’s lips indicated there was anything unusual about his actions at all.

  Earnest took up the bait as readily as MacLassar went for the scone. “Christ, Iveragh—at least feed the filthy thing outside.” He shoved his chair back from his untouched plate and strode to the tiny window. “My sister might as well be living in a barnyard.”

  “MacLassar,” Roddy said with dignity, “gets a bath and a rub of lavender every other day.”

  “Which is better than you do.” Faelan flipped another piece of scone, this time toward Earnest’s boots. MacLassar trotted over and began a loud, grunting snuffle around her brother’s polished toes. “When was it—a fortnight ago, that you visited Maire O’Connell?”

  Earnest turned in horror. “Good God, you’re not saying it’s been a fortnight since she’s had the opportunity to bathe?”

  “We don’t have a proper place here,” Roddy said, trying to make herself sound as prim as possible. “Surely you can see that, Earnest.”

  “Then why in the Lord’s name are you here? When Papa allowed you to marry this—” He stopped that phrase at a calculated spot, not quite ready for open warfare. “—to marry, I’ll tell you, he had no notion he was sending you to hold court in a pigsty!”

  Roddy stood up. “It’s not a pigsty, Earnest. It’s a perfectly clean kitchen that happens to have a perfectly clean pig in it. MacLassar belongs to me, and I can assure you that in spite of Faelan’s display”—she gave her husband a withering look—“he doesn’t approve of my keeping him.”

  Faelan leaned back in his chair and crossed his feet among the delicate cups on the table. “Not at all, my dear. You may keep all the swine you like. I merely suggested that a pig who thrives on French brandy is an expensive pet, although I can imagine it might add an interesting flavor to the final product.”

  “Quite,” Earnest said feelingly.

  Roddy pressed her lips together, and pushed Faelan’s boots from the table with one angry shove. “Leave off—both of you. MacLassar’s just as clean as any of your silly hunting dogs that run tame in the house at home, Earnest. And twice as smart, I’ll wager.” She turned on Faelan. “And who got him started on brandy, I’d like to know, after we ran out of port?”

  Faelan shrugged. “A man has to have some intelligent conversation along with his claret. After the ladies retire.”

  Earnest glanced at Roddy. She kept her barriers in place. What he thought of her husband was plain enough. That Faelan was doing all he could to reinforce the opinion was also clear. She gave an impatient sigh and sat back down. “Come and have some tea, Earnest. I assure you the cup’s been boiled.”

  After a moment’s hesitation, he did. He poured the fine, thick Kerry cream without comment and then looked at Faelan over the cup rim. “I had the pleasure of meeting your mother recently,” he said. “In London.”

  Faelan had been sugaring his tea. He did not pause in his idle stirring.

  “She was on her way here,” Earnest said.

  Faelan’s spoon clattered. He steadied it and laid it beside his cup. “Was she? In spite of the rebels behind every bush?”

  “Because of them. She was coming to fetch Roddy away.”

  “Indeed.” Faelan’s black lashes lowered as he sipped at his tea. “And you’ve been given the mission now.”

  “Yes. She feared she might not be welcome.”

  “Neither are you,” Faelan said bluntly, “if you’ve come to kidnap my wife.”

  Earnest frowned. “I won’t take Roddy against her wishes, of course—”

  “Then you might ask what they are.” Faelan’s cup hit the saucer with a clash as he stood up. “I’ve noticed a singular lack of that little politeness in this discussion, Delamore.”

  With a restless move, he strode to the fuel bucket and threw fresh turf on the fire. Earnest watched, and there was something in his face which made Roddy loath to look behind it to the reason. She glanced away, controlling her gift with sharp discipline.

  “I’ll ask her, yes,” Earnest said. “But I think she should know all the facts before she makes her decision.”

  Faelan squatted before the hearth. He tonged the turf into order and reached for the swab in the brass pot of oil.

  “Your mother says that you’re not…well.”

  The oil splashed against the turf. Flames leaped, throwing a furious red glare onto Faelan’s face, creating light and satanic shadows. With a deliberation that was agonizing, he replaced the swab and tongs by the hearth, and turned slowly to the table.

  Earnest glanced at Roddy, a look that asked her to open her gift, to listen to him. He knew she was barriered—for too many years he’d lived with her talent to miss the signs, the need for full conversation in place of the clipped and spare exchange of thought and words that marked a deeper link. Whatever was in his mind he did not wish to say aloud.

  She refused him. She wanted to rush out of the room, to run away from what he would tell, in words or silence.

  “Do you understand me, Roddy?” Earnest asked.

  Her skin grew hot with the flush of panic. For six months, this had lain untouched. ’Tis best not to think of it, Faelan had said, and she had not. She’d come back from the ring of stone missing three days of her life and gone on, building as if those days had not existed. It was easy, with Faelan to help her, to collude in the pretending. He knew how to do it.

  He had experience.

  The fire darkened. Faelan stood still, silent, with the waiting glitter of a cornered wolf in his eyes.

  “Roddy,” Earnest probed softly.

  “No,” she said. She stared stubbornly at her cup. “There’s nothing wrong with Faelan.”

  “Look at me, Roddy.”

  “No!”

  “Damn.” Earnest came to his feet. “
You tell her, then, Iveragh. You tell her she’s not safe with you. God’s mercy, man—think of what you risk with these…fits, or whatever you would call them. If you care for her at all, let her go with me.”

  “If you take her against her will,” Faelan said, “I’ll kill you.”

  Earnest exploded at that. Roddy’s barriers tumbled before the blast of his frustrated temper. “Ah, you would, wouldn’t you—you godforsaken bastard! In cold blood in my bed, I haven’t a doubt. It’s my belief that you’re as sane as any other hound out of hell, but if it takes proving you’re a madman to get my sister out of your hands, then I’ll have your mother and your uncle and God Almighty on the stand to have you locked in the blackest pit in Bedlam.” He crossed the room and grabbed Faelan’s lapel. “Do you know what I saw before I left London, Iveragh? I saw your mother get the news that a Miss Webster had been pulled out of the Thames. Dead, brother-in-law. Drowned. Cast herself off Westminster Bridge. Care to tell my sister why? Or do you hide behind your mother’s excuses—that you ‘forget’; that you walk in your sleep or some such folderol.” Earnest’s mouth curved into a grimace. “Walk in your sleep,” he sneered, and let go of Faelan with an excitement of disgust. “You must have villainous dreams, Iveragh.”

  Roddy was on her feet, pushing Earnest back. “Leave him alone! You don’t know anything!”

  Earnest gripped her elbow. Come with me, Roddy, he pleaded. Get out of here.

  “No!” she said furiously. “I won’t go. I’m not afraid of the people here—they’d never hurt us. Never. I know that, Earnest.”

  “The people be damned,” Earnest shouted. “It’s this—”

  He broke off as a heavy pounding came at the door. In the heat of the moment Roddy had been aware of nothing but her brother’s fury, but now the agitation seemed to spread as her gift expanded. Outside she heard the scuffle of many feet as Martha shoved open the heavy wood.

  “Beggin’ your pardon. Beggin’ your pardon, Your Lordship, but Mr. O’Sullivan says to tell you there’s redcoats coming up the hill!”

 
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