The regency romances, p.42
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       The Regency Romances, p.42

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Folie stood up from the chair. “Your guardian wishes to see you.”

  “Oh.” Melinda’s expression relaxed. “Well, that is not so bad! Sally and Cook said that from the look upon your face, it was something very shocking.”

  “It is shocking,” Folie said dryly. “Considering that he has not lifted a finger on your behalf in years!”

  “Lieutenant Cambourne? Well, he has been in India, has he not?” Melinda’s lashes swept upward. “Surely he does not expect us to travel out there!”

  “No, only as far as Buckinghamshire, I’m afraid. He is at Solinger Abbey.”

  “Solinger! Oh, I shall like to see that place! It must be very grand.”

  “As grand as all the gems in India can make it, I have no doubt. But happily for our self-respect, we need not concern ourselves with vulgar calculating designs on the Cambourne fortune. He is married.”

  “I shall pay him no mind, then.” Melinda gave a pert grin. “Besides, as a calculating hussy, I insist upon having all the sport of hunting down my own rich bachelor—perhaps a few years younger!”

  “Why, today of all days, is this household so haunted by allusions to decrepitude and old age?” Folie exclaimed. “The poor gentleman is but four years older than I. But never mind, if he is too dilapidated for your taste, you shall simper prettily at him anyway. We might move to his house in town for the season if—”

  “Of course! Of course! Oh, Mama, you are wicked!”

  “If the notion should happen to occur to him,” Folie finished gravely.

  “That will be no problem. You can wrap him about your little finger,” Melinda said.

  “I quite doubt that. He has not written since—” Folie paused. “Shortly after your papa died, God bless him. But we shall do our best to squeeze Lieutenant Cambourne for our own nefarious purposes. You are to leave for Buckinghamshire tomorrow.”

  “Tomorrow! As soon as that?”

  Folie waved a limp hand at the packet. “Hawkridge and James,” she said helplessly. “You know how they are.”

  Melinda made an unladylike snort. “I know for a certainty that you can wrap them about your finger. Why should we hurry so?”

  “I see no reason to delay. Your spring wardrobe is quite ready.”

  “But the packing—”

  “Why, have you never stayed up all night to pack for a mad flight from your evil creditors? It is most diverting.” She walked past Melinda, sliding a finger under her stepdaughter’s chin. “Seize your gowns and what’s left of your jewels, my child, and you shall be off to skin fresh pigeons!”

  “Such a shady character you are, Mama,” Melinda said fondly.

  “I know,” Folie said from beyond the door. “I really believe I should have been born a highwayman.”

  She finished packing for her stepdaughter at 4 a.m., long after a somnolent Melinda had fallen asleep in a chair and been coaxed off to bed. Folie decided it was best simply to stay awake until seven, when the post chaise was scheduled to arrive at their door. She made herself a cup of tea in the kitchen and sat alone at the table, reading the letter again.

  Her sweet knight. From half a world away, he had come to her through his letters, whimsical and intriguing, shy and flirtatious, a unicorn stranded in the solid beef of the Indian Army.

  She sipped her tea and toyed with the corner of the paper. It had been a woman’s dream, of course. All an impossible fancy.

  She had not been able to remain angry at him. In the days after his last letter, she had hated him; hated herself for what she had allowed to happen to her. But that had faded, slowly faded, with time and an eternity of heartache. How could she blame him for deceit, for drawing her into loving him, when she had slipped and skidded so easily down that slope herself? She could hardly remember the unhappy girl she must have been, to develop such a passion for a man who was no more than ink upon paper.

  It was best, the way he had done it. She did not doubt that. Folie knew herself; she had longed to write him, to maintain a connection, to remain friends. And yet at the same time she had known how impossible it must be—that she could not keep her heart out of it.

  So she had not written. Only thought of him every day of the past four years, until he was a habit, a smile and a gentle stroke of the blue cashmere shawl when she rose, a little prayer for him each night.

  Only a few months after his last letter, Mssrs. Hawkridge and James had informed her that the father had passed away, and Lieutenant Robert Cambourne, being next named in the will, was now her stepdaughter’s guardian. But nothing had changed, no letter had come to her from him, and Folie had ceased watching for the post.

  At least, she had ceased hoping. She had thought that she would watch for the rest of her life.

  But now...

  Now he asked her to come to him. Commanded it. By his letter, she thought his character must be much the same, but she was not so sure of her own. In the years after Charles’ death, her heart had toughened in some places and grown softer in others. She and Melinda had become friends, and friendship had grown into a deep love.

  Melinda was her priority now. Folie could remember the silent, frozen battles from her stepdaughter’s childhood, but she could no longer feel them. Somewhere along the way the two women had thawed to one another—there was nothing in Folie’s life more important than that Melinda should make an excellent marriage, a happy marriage. And Folie would settle somewhere close by, but not too close by, perfectly comfortable on Charles’ modest pension, and there would be children to spoil and perhaps if she were fortunate some entertaining females to gossip with, and...

  And she was commanded to meet him. To go to his home, to see his wife. A wave of despair washed over her. She did not want to meet him. She wanted him to stay forever as he had been in her memory, a perfect knight. Her knight, hers alone.

  Her throat closed too quickly as she swallowed another sip of tea. She wrinkled her nose. With a deep unsteady breath, she folded the letter, slipped it into her apron, and stood up to wash her cup.

  “Mama, this is perfectly absurd!” Melinda exclaimed, standing between her trunk and valise on the front stoop. An early morning fog obscured most of the village street. “I will not go alone!”

  “Sally will do as a companion for the journey. The letters say you will be there before dark,” Folie said, bending down to check the leather buckle on the valise. “I really do not feel well enough to travel, and once you’ve arrived, Mrs. Cambourne will be a proper chaperon.”

  “If you don’t feel well, then all the more reason I should remain here with you!” Melinda turned to Sally, pulling back the stylish gray hood of her cloak. “You must go for Dr. Martin directly.”

  “No, no!” Folie said. “It’s not as bad as that. Just a touch of the headache.”

  Melinda looked at her suspiciously. “Certainly your eyes are quite puffy and dull,” she said. “You look as if you’ve been weeping all night.”

  “Thank you so much,” Folie said. “I feel as if I have been packing all night!”

  “Well, I did not insist upon it! This is entirely silly. It’s no wonder you feel unwell, staying up till all hours. I simply do not see why there is this great rush—”

  ‘“There, that will be the postchaise,’’ Folie said, straightening up at the sound of hooves and a creaking jingle that carried through the fog.

  Down the street, a handsome carriage materialized, the horses moving at a slow walk jwhile the postboy, mounted on the leader, peered about at the houses. There were even two footmen up behind, a most luxurious touch. Folie lifted her hand and called out to them.

  “I am not going,” Melinda announced. “I will not go without you, Mama.”

  The vehicle came to a halt before Bridgend House. Next door, a parlor window opened and the two Misses Nunney leaned out like a pair of capped and gray-headed puppets.

  “Of course you are going,” Folie said under her breath. She motioned to the baggage as the two footmen leaped down.
This is all.”

  One of them came up the steps and bowed to her. “Mrs. Hamilton?”

  “Yes,” Folie said, looking up at the burly young man. In spite of his polished bow, there was an air of toughness about him, as if he could turn his hand to dock work as well as a lady’s luggage. “Come, Sally, where is the small basket, the one I packed for inside the cab?’’

  “Here, ma’am.” The maid picked up the basket.

  “Put it in, then.” Folie turned to the footman, who had made no move to begin loading. She waved her hand toward the trunk. “No doubt that one should be put up first,” she said helpfully.

  “I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said, “I’m to inquire if one of these cases is yours?”

  “No, I am afraid not. I’m not well enough to travel.”

  “Mama!”

  Folie gave her stepdaughter a pointed glare. “Do not make a scene, Melinda. Half the village is watching. Sally, do put that basket in the chaise!”

  “Beg pardon, ma’am.” The footman produced a letter from his pocket. Folie tried to hide the little twist of her heart as she saw the familiar lettering. She slipped the note into her apron pocket.

  The footman made another bow. “Mr. Cambourne sent instructions that you must read directly his letter that I put into your hands.”

  “Indeed!” Folie stood straight. “I don’t believe I am under any obligation to him to do so.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” the footman said. “Then I am not to do any loading, by Mr. Cambourne’s instructions.”

  “I beg your pardon?” Folie exclaimed.

  “Whatever has got into you, Mama?” Melinda hissed, waving cheerfully at the Misses Nunney. “Only read the gentleman’s note. Perhaps it is a change of plan!”

  Folie stepped back into the house, pulled the door closed and tore open the seal on his folded letter, scowling.

  My dear,

  You are digging in your heels, I see, if you are reading this. My sweet Folly, I know this is difficult for you. You need not forgive me, or even speak to me if you like, but muster your courage. You are no coward, of that I am certain. But if you do not come now, I shall not waste time about retrieving you in person.

  Robert

  She closed her eyes and leaned against the wall with a small sound of misery. “Oh, do not make me come. Don’t make me come.”

  All the shame of that moment when she had read his last letter washed over her again, the shattering realization of her foolishness, her loneliness, of her secret treason. She had never had a right to love him, never a claim to any truth from him, and yet the humiliation had burned as deep as if he had courted her like a rightful suitor. She had done it to herself, had never asked or wished to ask if he were free; had forgotten that she was not; had fallen insensibly, irrationally in love with an unthinkable dream.

  She looked down at his note again. “Don’t make me,” she whispered. “Oh, Robert, don’t.”

  But she knew as she spoke that she would go. He had chosen the words that compelled her. If she did not face him now, her own contempt would haunt her all her life.

  When Folie woke from a weary, bumpy drowse against a folded cloak, their post chaise was rolling along beside a red brick wall that seemed to go on endlessly in the twilight. Before her, the rumps of the horses jogged rhythmically as the team splashed through puddles. A rain shower had mercifully avoided them, though Folie could still see it moving off across the far hills, blue-gray vapor cut by the golden rays of the late sun.

  Melinda, her cheeks flushed pink from the wind, glanced at Folie over the maid who sat between them. “Almost there!” she said cheerfully. “The boy says this wall belongs to Solinger Abbey. It goes all the way about the estate.”

  The postboy, mounted upon the bay wheeler, rose in time to the horse’s trot. Bare trees hung out over the brick, scraping over the carriage roof, scattering droplets against the glass. Though neat hedgerows and pasture bordered the lane on the open side, there appeared to be an extensive forest inside the wall. Black staghorn branches, leafless and dark with rain, seemed to reach blindly for the rainbow-hued clouds drifting past above.

  “Most forbidding,” Folie murmured. “I like it.”

  “Perhaps you will write a novel,” Melinda said, and lowered her voice portentously. “‘The ancient dreadful oaks beckoned her to her doom…’“

  “Of course,” Folie said. “They always do.” The chaise was slowing, approaching a perfectly mundane gatehouse of neat brick. A porter grinned, already stepping outside as the postboy hailed him.

  “The Misses Hamilton arrive!” the postboy called.

  The porter waved in friendly acknowledgment and unlocked the wrought-iron gate. The team swung around, sidestepping into the opening, blowing a little from their work. The chaise wheeled in place, then jerked forward and swept through as the horses resumed their trot.

  Both Folie and Melinda leaned forward, looking for the house. There was nothing to be seen but the aged trees, a tangle of uncut brush swarming beneath their low branches. Ruts in the drive had been newly patched with gravel, so the ride was tolerably smooth, dipping and curving through the forest.

  The house burst into view with a suddenness that made them all gasp like light-headed debutantes. Red brick glowed in the sunset, a Tudor fantasy of towers and twisting chimneys, the round turrets crowned by oriental domes and delicate spires of lead. It seemed to grow as they neared, revealing wings and windows, gabled fronts carved with the heraldic outlines of medieval creatures. The chaise bumped across a low bridge and moat.

  “Oh, Mama, you must write a novel now,” Melinda said, laughing.

  “Very tempting, I admit!” Folie hid her tight fists beneath the cloak folded on her lap. It was just what he would like, this house. This whole estate, a quaint romance. One expected a knight to come thundering down one of the wooded rides at any moment, his banner flying and his armor glinting in the last misted rays of sun.

  It would not be out of character, she thought wryly, for Robert Cambourne to arrange just such a fanciful greeting. It would not be beyond him to assume the guise of a medieval warrior himself; he would delight in it, adding some unexpected touch to make a joke of it all.

  But their chaise was met by no such mythical figure. A bewigged footman opened the door as the vehicle rolled to a halt. Folie and Melinda crept out, surreptitiously stretching arms and legs and backs abused by a long day of travel. Sally scrambled to collect the scarves and combs they had managed to scatter about the vehicle.

  Folie looked up at the leaded glass windows. A thousand diamond lights winked back at her from pointed lancet arches, reflections of the red sun. The air smelled of boxwood hedges and rain.

  “Madam,” the butler said, waiting beside the low steps. He was dressed in a suit of black velvet and white stockings, a square-jawed young man with his long sandy hair in a queue, barely old enough to have charge of such a large house, Folie thought.

  They followed him under the heavy vault of the doorway. Just inside the entry, it was too dim to see much beyond some dark paneling. Folie’s heart was in her throat. At any moment they would meet him, or even worse his wife, and no matter how she tried to compose herself, the anxiety had her in its sick clutches.

  “Mrs. Hamilton.” A masculine voice startled her so that she spun about. He stood in a side doorway into the buttery, a tall man who kept his eyes down deferentially. For an instant she had thought it would be Robert, but she saw that this must be the actual butler—he kept his hands behind his back and made no move of welcome or greeting, only a small deferential bow.

  Besides, he did not look at all like Robert. She had never known what he would look like, but certainly not this. In the dim light this man’s hair was black, his expression utterly forbidding—he never looked at her but seemed to be watching for something, his attention moving restlessly to the doors and corridor.

  “Lander will take you up,” he said. “Dinner at eight.”

  “Eight,
” Folie repeated, rather cross at this cursory hospitality. “May we make our salutations to Mr. and Mrs. Cambourne before that?’’

  He turned his head a fraction to the side as he glanced toward her, as if she were a light that was too bright. “I beg your pardon. I am Robert Cambourne.” Then, for just an instant, he gave her a clear gray-eyed look, a gaze outlined in black lashes. It was like being caught in the direct stare of a wolf.

  Folie gazed back at him. If he knew her, if he even recognized her name, there was no hint in his perfect features. Like some Renaissance prince, he was sinister and flawless, but his face held nothing of civilized humanity. High cheekbones, straight nose, skin sunburnt to darkness; a bleak mouth and black brows. And his eyes—light and violent, like a caged beast’s.

  His glance lowered again, finding nowhere to rest. “Mrs. Hamilton.” He made his faint, stiff bow. “Miss Hamilton. Welcome to Solinger Abbey.”

  Folie stood rooted to the floor. You are not! she wanted to exclaim. You are not Robert. That cannot be true!

  Melinda put her hand on Folie’s arm. “We are honored to meet you, sir,” she said, making a sketch of a curtsy. Her fingers squeezed. “Let us go up, Mama.”

  Propelled by her stepdaughter’s hand, Folie turned blindly and followed the servant down the corridor and up the stone stairs. She did not see anything that she passed. Her whole body felt numb.

  She found herself in a pleasant yellow bedroom, but she could not seem to make herself move beyond the middle of it. Melinda came up behind her.

  “Do try not to look so horrified, Mama!” she said gently. “I’m sure you must have hurt his feelings.”

  Folie looked at her. “I don’t believe that is him.”

  Melinda’s mouth curved unhappily. “I’m so sorry if you’re disappointed. But perhaps when you get to know him a little better—”

  “I do know him!” Folie turned away and sat down on the bed. She shook her head, laughing without humor. “I thought I did. I would have thought—’’ She made a little shrug. “He might have been more—pleased to see us.”

 
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