The regency romances, p.109
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       The Regency Romances, p.109

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Chapter 19

  For an instant the scene seemed frozen, with the cottiers crowding behind Martha in silence and Roddy and Earnest standing in suspended confrontation. Then Faelan moved, swinging out the door and pushing through his workers, leaving Roddy and her brother in front of the glowing hearth.

  Roddy picked up her skirts without a word and dashed after Faelan. She knew Earnest followed close behind, his tirade forgotten in sudden fear that he was too late now to rescue his sister from anything.

  It was a picture of eerie familiarity in front of the great house, with Faelan standing on the steps with the wind in his face. This time, though, instead of the gathering of tenants and cottiers facing him, they were turned away, looking down the hill, watching uneasily as the company of redcoats approached.

  Unlike the easygoing militia that had bivouacked and held halfhearted maneuvers for a few months on the road to Glenbeigh, this detachment marched with the discipline of experienced soldiers. Roddy tried to count, and lost the number after she reached a hundred rows of three abreast. Along with a mounted officer at the column’s head were two riders who appeared to be civilian. As they neared, Roddy drew stiff in recognition.

  Mr. Willis and Rupert Mullane. And with them, in full uniform and complete control of his horse, was the captain who had danced with Fionn on the night of the fairy ball.

  Roddy felt for a moment that she could not breathe. It took no talent at all to read what was in their faces, these men who came with guns and soldiers at their backs.

  Earnest stood behind Roddy, his hands tense and protective on her arms. As the scarlet company halted in front of the house and re-formed under hoarse shouted orders, she felt MacLassar come trotting up belatedly. He plopped down on the step beside her. The crowd of cottiers was growing as more laborers came straggling up from the fields below.

  It was a complex shift of mood and emotion that came to Roddy through her gift: too many people and reactions to seem more than a babble rising in intensity. She caught the ugly turn of feeling as Willis was recognized, and a spurt of pure violence toward his deputy, Mullane.

  Faelan had seemed a devil once, but now the memory of Mullane and his horsewhip burned stronger than any fading fears of their new lord. Oh, aye—Mullane. He was the bully buck. He was the rogue. Didn’t he raise the rack rent, and put a man out if it pleased him? Didn’t he come beddin’ an honest man’s daughter, and hold the cattle and bid ’em out to strangers, and pull a man off his own wee harvest to do the big men’s work?

  They looked at Mullane and hated, and Mullane looked back and feared.

  Within the turmoil of the crowd, Roddy could glean no more from Rupert or Mr. Willis than that angry nervousness. Their reason for riding with the redcoats was lost in the swell of emotion.

  The officer rode forward. The tumult of voices quieted, though the buzz of heated thought did not.

  For a long minute of silence, he looked at Faelan. Roddy kept her eyes down, terrified, wishing her husband would fade back in the crowd, try to prevent the inevitable recognition. But he stood there, alone on the stairs, as striking and arrogant as Finvarra himself.

  Finvarra. King of the Fairies of the West.

  The captain had long suspected he’d been made a fool. Now, facing this mansion and Faelan’s unmistakable blue gaze, he knew it as certainty.

  Anger blazed in the officer, agonizing memory of the embarrassment he’d suffered, the ridicule from higher authority, the final indignity of transferral to another command when he’d persisted in broadcasting his folly. But now, as then, there was no way to call the fantastical bluff without exposing himself to scorn.

  “Captain Norton Roberts,” he snapped. “Under command of General Sir James Stewart. I’ve orders to effect the surrender of all arms, pikes, and ammunition in this district.”

  The crowd stirred, a mixture of fear and defiance. Faelan simply waited.

  His calm, faintly mocking smile fueled Roberts’ temper. The captain spurred forward to the foot of the steps as he had done once before. “You are Lord Iveragh?” he demanded.

  “Yes.”

  “Then I place upon you the full responsibility of collection. We have reports that three hundred pikes and four thousand stand of smuggled arms have been concealed in this neighborhood. You have twenty-four hours from this moment to lay them before me.”

  The fear spread suffocating fingers from Roddy’s stomach to her throat. Twenty-four hours. God, oh, God—where had Geoffrey taken the guns?

  “I do not accept any such responsibility,” Faelan said.

  “I’d advise you to reconsider that, Your Lordship. My orders are to free-quarter my men. If the arms are withheld, I turn them loose to forage.”

  Almost imperceptibly, a muscle tightened in Faelan’s jaw.

  The captain caught that betrayal. His frown transformed to a wicked grin. “In fact, Your Lordship…I venture to predict we’ll lay the country waste.”

  Mr. Willis started forward. “There’s no need for that, Captain. I’ve lodged the information. An arrest, a simple arrest, is all that’s necessary.”

  If not for Earnest’s support, Roddy thought her knees would have collapsed beneath her.

  Captain Roberts glanced at his informant with unconcealed annoyance. “We’re here to recover the arms, Mr. Willis. There’ll be no arrests without due process.”

  “But I’ve proof of his connection with Cashel—I’ve shown you the message I intercepted. That seditious rogue is hidden here now—” Willis flung out his hand. “Look at this place. It commands the whole bay. Iveragh’s fortifying it, by God—he’s gathered every ruffian in the district in to speed the process. The law’s in your hands, man. Arrest him. Tear the house apart and you’ll find Lord Cashel, I swear it. One judicious arrest, and you’ve cut off the dragon’s head.”

  “I am not Saint George, Mr. Willis.” Captain Roberts was sour and chagrined, but he was no hothead. He disliked Willis, and after the experience of the fairy ball, he was exceedingly tired of having people point out his supposed errors of perception, most particularly in public. “I shall carry out my orders as I see fit, without recourse to your schemes of petty revenge. Notes can be forged.”

  Amid the threatening murmur from the crowd, Willis flushed with shame and rage. “He’s a damned traitor, with his damned cropped hair and French airs—”

  “Mr. Willis.” Roberts’ voice slashed across the other man’s. “I’m well aware that Lord Iveragh has put you out of a comfortable living. That hardly renders him a traitor. I think you’d be advised to keep a civil tongue before you find His Lordship has you up on charge of libel.”

  “Thank you,” Faelan said. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

  Captain Roberts glared at Faelan, a look that warned. The officer had set himself a goal now, and that was to play Faelan as neatly as he himself had been played that night of the fairy ball. The officer knew the elaborate distraction had hidden something. Roberts was just as convinced of Faelan’s treason as Willis, but the arrest of a peer on such flimsy evidence as vague notes and cropped hair could backfire all too easily.

  The captain had seen the newly planted fields and the livestock and stores of food and grain that Lord Iveragh had imported. Roberts guessed with deadly accuracy that for Faelan the potent threat of free-quarters would be a more subtle and devastating victory than Willis’ clumsy efforts.

  As the officer sat there on his horse, well pleased with himself and his plans, Roddy felt her talent slip away. She turned, though she did not have to, knowing already that Senach was near.

  He stood behind Faelan on the stairs, his blank gaze focused out beyond the red-coated company to the sea.

  Roberts’ horse moved restlessly. Then suddenly it shied, rushing into Willis’ and aiming a kick that barely missed. In a thunder of hooves the other horses began to twist and rear, reeling out of control toward the scarlet row of soldiers. Discipline held the line until Willis lost his seat and his mount careered
right through the column, knocking men aside and narrowly missing a murderous kick at the color-bearer’s head. The soldiers broke and scattered. Roddy screamed, struggling in Earnest’s grip as she saw a man take aim with a pistol at the officer’s raging mount.

  The animal quieted instantly.

  The soldier paused, looking up from his sighting as if he weren’t sure whether or not to fire. But Roberts was in control again, and the man apparently thought the better of shooting a horse out from under his senior officer.

  Willis and Mullane were both on the ground. In a sweep of bannered tails and thunder, their mounts fled away down the hill.

  Mullane struggled to sit up, but Willis lay twisted and utterly still. Another infantryman knelt over him, and looked up at his captain.

  “Sir. He’s gone and broke his neck, sir.”

  Roddy put her hands to her mouth and closed her eyes.

  “Jesus,” Earnest said under his breath.

  She heard Roberts ride forward again. “Lieutenant!” There was a peculiar, controlled note in the captain’s voice. “Have him taken inside.”

  “Forgive me,” Faelan said coldly. “But I don’t think I’m required to provide shelter for the body of a man who has just accused me of treason. I suggest you remove him from my property.”

  With the force of a blast furnace, Roddy’s talent returned. She opened her eyes and saw Roberts’ face; his fear and fury filled her as it had once before. He could not explain it, had no reason or logic to uphold it, but he knew in his soul that he’d been mocked again. You did this, his mind screamed. How?

  This time, he knew better than to demand answers aloud. In a low, furious voice, he ordered a stretcher, and watched as Willis’ body was loaded upon it. The men formed again in their blood-red columns. Roberts wheeled his horse and confronted Faelan.

  “Don’t think,” he hissed, “that this means Willis’ accusations are forgotten.” He backed his horse and raised his voice so that all could hear. “We’ll withdraw for one night, Your Lordship. One night.”

  With a snapped order, the troops fell in to march. Rupert Mullane struggled to his feet, glanced at the crowd of cottiers that began to flood into the forecourt in the army’s wake, and began a limping run. He caught up with Roberts, and was trotting alongside, reaching out to lay an imploring hand on the officer’s boot, when Roberts kicked him away and put his mount to a canter. The cottiers began to laugh and call out insults. Mullane was left to keep up with the soldiers as best he could.

  Earnest gave Roddy a little tug. Come. She caught his thought, close and urgent, from among the emotion of the crowd. Roddy, come away.

  But she could not. She stood watching the stretcher pass, the body on it covered casually by a military cape. One white hand dragged across the smooth terrace stones, bouncing to the soldiers’ rhythmic step.

  Earnest’s persistent pressure finally pulled her bodily away from the scene. When she lifted her eyes, she saw Senach. His faint smile and empty eyes made the hair rise on the nape of her neck.

  Without any sign from Faelan to stay, the crowd was dispersing, some following the soldiers, most spreading out into low-voiced knots of men who stood about and asked one another what was to be done, in tones of mingled guilt and challenge. More than one of them suddenly had a pike burning a hole in his garden or thatched roof or hedge. But they took their cue from Faelan, who simply walked away into the house.

  His Lordship. Roddy caught the thought from one. Aye, His Lordship’s standing buff. And wouldn’t he do so, now, him the great man.

  Then, out of the thinning crowd, something familiar touched her gift. She stopped, ignoring Earnest’s pleas. As she searched for the source her heart seemed to leap into her ears and deafen her with its pounding.

  Geoffrey.

  She recognized him finally, standing alone in the deep shade of an untrimmed bush. His hat was pulled down to hide his face, but cottier’s clothes and soiled leggings made an ill disguise. The tall, unbowed elegance of his figure was a beacon to anyone who glanced twice.

  He did not look at Roddy. He was watching Faelan disappear into the house and planning a way to gain his friend’s attention.

  Roddy pulled away from Earnest’s grip. She could guess only too well what would happen if Geoffrey managed to contact Faelan.

  Disaster.

  Faelan would try to hide his friend. She knew he would. Amid this turmoil of redcoats and suspicions, with Captain Roberts out for the blood of the man who had made a fool of him, Faelan would offer shelter to a known rebel. And Geoffrey—romantic, stupid, idealistic Geoffrey—would somehow betray himself.

  Willis’ accusations would be fact. And Captain Roberts would be waiting.

  There Geoffrey stood in the full light of day, a marked and hunted man, thinking that a hat and a laborer’s coat disguised him, and knowing he had come to the one person who would not turn him away.

  Roddy set her teeth. She could not, would not, let Faelan know his friend was near.

  For once, she thanked God for her talent. No one else had a suspicion of Geoffrey’s presence. Earnest was too occupied with his concern for Roddy’s safety to pay any attention to the cottiers who lingered. He was rehearsing an impassioned tirade to deliver to Faelan. It was just as well. Roddy thought the best thing she could do at the moment would be to goad the two of them to a furious fight and then slip away and intercept Geoffrey before he revealed himself.

  She gave in to Earnest’s bullying and let him drag her into the hall after Faelan. “Iveragh!” Her brother’s shout echoed off the walls as soon as they were inside.

  Faelan walked out from the empty drawing room and leaned against the doorframe. He met Earnest’s glare with a level look, but faint lines of tension touched his mouth. Though he crossed his arms in a casual stance, his fingers were white against his dark sleeve. “Yes,” he said softly. “You may take her now.”

  Earnest had already drawn in his breath to begin before the meaning of Faelan’s words hit him. “I can?” he responded stupidly.

  “I think that would be best, though the overland route is out of the question.” He glanced at Roddy. The gray walls surrounding him made his eyes seem vivid blue. “Pack your things, and you can be at Derrynane before dark. The O’Connells will ship you from there.”

  “No,” Roddy said. “No.”

  Some of the tension went out of his face. He reached out and touched her chin. “Little girl. I’ve miscalculated the situation. I don’t want you here.”

  “It took you till the damned Judgment Day to see it,” Earnest muttered.

  “I’m not going,” Roddy exclaimed. “I won’t.”

  Earnest took her arm. “This is no time to play the loyal wife, sister mine. You’ve got your husband’s leave. Let’s assume he knows best, and be on our way.”

  “No.” She wrenched her arm away. “I’m staying here.”

  “There’s no need,” Faelan said.

  She looked at him, demon-dark and sky-blue in the gloomy hall, and with a stab of desperation thought, Oh, yes, there is. I won’t lose you to Geoffrey’s cause.

  “I don’t care,” she said aloud. “I’m not leaving now.”

  Earnest closed his eyes and ran a hand over his blond hair. “Lord spare me from idiots. The man just said he don’t need you. Roddy—”

  His voice trailed off in consternation as Faelan took a step forward. He pulled Roddy into his arms. It was an unexpected tactic, a smooth attack that for a moment sent reason and resolution tumbling away into unimportance. He held her, traced her jaw and her temple; lowered his thick lashes as his lips brushed her mouth. Roddy’s chin tilted upward in unthinking response. The kiss deepened. She was melting, forgetting Earnest, and Geoffrey, and soldiers…forgetting everything, whirling away down the dark, vortex of his touch…

  “You’re going,” he said.

  Roddy stared up at him, weakened and bemused.

  His arm tightened across her back. She could feel his chest rise
and fall against her. “Is that clear?” he murmured.

  “No.” The word sounded too small, breathless with confusion. “No,” she said louder. “I’m staying.”

  Earnest had turned away self-consciously. Faelan moved his palm up beneath her breast, his fingers barely brushing the eager tip. His other hand cupped the nape of her neck. “Little girl,” he said, very low in her ear. “You’ll do as I say.”

  His breath caressed her skin as he stood with his head bent so close and intimately. She knew what he was doing—distracting her, using his power over her body to twist her mind to his will. It had worked before, often enough. But there was more at stake now. Far more.

  Geoffrey hid outside, awaiting his chance. She had to reach him, had to find a way to get him to safety without endangering Faelan. She could do it, with her talent. She could find a place that no one would know, and keep watch with a thoroughness no one else could. If someone became suspicious, she would feel it. If soldiers threatened, she could anticipate them. She could know whom to trust and whom to fear. For Roddy, Geoffrey was a manageable danger. For Faelan, he was poison.

  She put her hands against Faelan’s chest and thrust herself out of his arms. “Don’t do that.” She glared at him. “Leave me alone.”

  Her voice rang in the hall, strident with her inner conflict. It came out more shrewish than defiant, but she would not take the words back. For good measure, she added, “I’m not going. You can’t force me.”

  A flicker of some emotion came and went in his eyes. He caught her wrist and bent it back with light but steady force, caressing her palm with his thumb. “I wouldn’t put too much confidence in that, my dear.”

  “Just…don’t touch me.” Roddy pulled away from the sensual contact. She backed toward Earnest, who stood tensely, unsure of which side to take to accomplish his goal. He put his hands on her shoulders, more from distraction and habit than any real offer of protection.

  Roddy saw Faelan’s expression change at that. Like the mountain mists that could rise in a moment to swallow the sun, his face went to chilly blankness. His hand dropped. “Do as you please, then.” He was already turning away. “I don’t have time for this.”

 
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