The regency romances, p.46
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       The Regency Romances, p.46

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “There, that should do nicely.” Folie held her own garnets against the shimmering cream of Melinda’s overdress as it lay on the bed. “I’ll call Sally.”

  “No, I don’t want Sally,” Melinda said, fussing with her combs on the dressing table. “You help me dress, Mama.”

  “Well, I mislaid something downstairs, I’ll just go and—’’

  “No,” Melinda said anxiously. “Please don’t go down there.”

  “My dear, you heard the maid say that it was only a poor madman from the village. He is spending the night in the jail by now.”

  “Please, Mama!” Melinda turned a flushed face toward Folie. “I don’t feel well.”

  “Oh, come...”

  “No, truly.” Melinda stood up. “Does my forehead feel warm? And that tea had no taste. Truly, Mama, I’m not funning.”

  Folie touched her stepdaughter’s face. “Well...”

  “I don’t feel hungry at all,” Melinda said. “I have such a headache.”

  “Perhaps you are a trifle warm,” Folie admitted. “I’m sure it’s nothing, but it cannot hurt you to lie down for a bit. I’ll go down and see the cook about a tisane.”

  “Cannot Sally do that?” Melinda said, pushing the dress aside and folding herself down across the pillows with a tragic air. “May I have a cold compress? Would you hold it for me, Mama?” Her voice grew faint as she closed her eyes. “I want you to do it.”

  Hours later, Folie sat bolt upright in her bed. That letter! She scrambled out from under the bedclothes, searching for the bedstool with her bare toe.

  How could she have forgotten it...even in the commotion about the housebreaker; left it there for any servant to find! But Melinda had been in such a strange temper, alternately petulant and loving, as if she were indeed coming on with a fever. Still, she had never seemed to grow hot or damp, and had even eaten much of the broth and toast Sally had brought for their dinner.

  Folie found her candlestick and lit it hurriedly. Likely enough no one had been into the library after they had left it; most of the housekeeping, such as it was, seemed to be completed by noon each day. The floorboards were chilly beneath her slippers. She closed the door behind her and made her way along the passage and down the stairs, sliding her fingertips along the scaly creature that coiled in and out of the banister. At the foot of the stairs, she gave the beast’s nose a friendly flick with her middle finger and tiptoed across the cold marble hall, shielding her candle.

  The door stood partially open. Folie touched it gently, pushing it inward with her shoulder. The veiled glare of her own candle prevented her from discerning the faint glow inside until she was standing in the wide open doorway.

  She started, expecting to see someone there. But a quick glance around the library showed no one, only a guttering candle on the desk where she had been writing that afternoon.

  Folie bit her lip. It had been found, then. Quick heat came to her face as she hurried to the table. A sealed letter lay on it...directed to her in that familiar hand.

  If she had stumbled upon him there in person, she could not have been more agitated. For a few moments she stared at it—he had read it; he had answered her—she did not know whether she was embarrassed or terrified.

  She set down her candle and picked up the letter. The wax was cool but still slightly soft, the impression of the Cambourne coat of arms blurring under her finger. She broke the seal.

  Folly, I am here. Perhaps it seems otherwise. I am lost, my dear sweet Folly, well and truly lost, and I cannot seem to find my way back this time.

  Robert

  Folie put her fingertips over her mouth, holding the note gently. She sat down slowly at the desk, frowning at the words.

  It had not been long since he had written it. As she touched the letter, a sensation came back to her vividly— she felt as she had felt in that dream of India so long ago...as if he were just out of sight; as if she could reach out and touch him if only she knew how. If only she knew where; and yet she followed and followed the echo of an image and never quite saw him, put out her hands and met only blowing silk and silence.

  “Robert,” she whispered.

  There was no answer. Motionless figures stared back at her from the deep shadows of the room, enigmatic blank eyes. She tucked the letter inside her robe, pulling it closer about her.

  That is not him, she thought vehemently. That man in this house is not him at all. It cannot be him.

  It was a strange thought; she knew it even as it came to her so strongly. This was undeniably his handwriting. He was clearly the master of this house, which had been a well-known Cambourne property for decades. And yet the suspicion had dogged her from the first instant—now that she gave it free rein in her mind, a rush of wild speculations followed one upon the other.

  Robert Cambourne was wealthy. A veritable nabob. It had been something of a legend among Charles’ kin, one of those things mentioned as an aside, a murmur of awe, of pride and just a trace of jealousy—the vast Indian fortune and political influence that the Cambourne branch of the family had amassed in two centuries of service to the East India Company. The Cambournes sent their sons and daughters home to England to be educated and married, but their adult lives were spent in foreign opulence, a leisurely swim through cascades of precious jewels, marvelous banquets, and marbled palace halls—at least, that was the impression in the Hamilton branch. Only through her letters from Robert had Folie caught a different glimpse, though she had never mentioned it to any of the Hamilton kin.

  But Robert Cambourne was rich. Very rich, that much she did know. Mssrs. Hawkridge and James made no bones about it. And if he was rich, then there might be Unsavory Elements who wished to steal from him. Extort money from him. Even kidnap him.

  She frowned blindly at the glossy scarlet surface of the desk. It was a ridiculous notion. She had no reason to entertain any such idea.

  I am lost. I am here. Perhaps it seems otherwise.

  She opened the letter again and bent over it, looking closely. It was certainly his handwriting, or an extraordinarily accurate imitation of it.

  But it was not the writing that convinced her. As she held it up near her face to examine it, she breathed a memory, a scent so faint that it seemed to vanish even as she drew it in; the scent of her sky-blue shawl and his letters.

  She knew it instantly and unequivocally. She pressed the paper to her face and breathed deeply.

  He had written this. Handwriting, diction, greeting—all that could be imitated—but not the imperceptible incense that brought a lightning re-creation of those days when she had eagerly broken open his letters and thought of him from moment to moment.

  Folie laid the paper down again, smoothing it open. A part of her tried to remain reasonable and sober, arguing that it was all a nonsensical flight of imagination; a part of her wanted to flee this place immediately, as frightened as Melinda by its strangeness and shadows—but as Folie spread her fingers across the letter, she felt a deeper welling of fear.

  If this was him...the real Robert, her Robert...she was in another sort of danger altogether.

  A moment of near panic seized her heart. Somehow until this moment, this letter, this scent, he had not seemed quite real; she had not ascertained her jeopardy.

  Oh, God save her. If it was truly Robert—she would fall in love with him again. How could she not?

  She made a soft whimper of dismay. It seemed unlikely...the man in this house was hardly attractive to her, but four years ago she had learned a lesson that she would never forget. Love was not for her. Better a practical marriage, safe and quiet, as hers had been, than the foolish flight and terrible fall from those airy heights. She should not have written that letter to him, even in fancy. She must not allow any such thing to happen again.

  With a quick move, she tore the reply in half, and half again, crumpling the pieces in her hand. She must not stay here, not another day.

  Robert received the message in his dressing room, del
ivered by a silent Lander with his breakfast tray. He had been doing nothing, simply sitting in a chair staring at the rows of books and bound journals that lined the small dark room, holding his neckcloth dangling in his hand.

  Doing nothing. Thinking nothing. When he saw the tray, smelled the fragrance of warm bread and tea, his mouth watered painfully. The note lying beside the silver cover made his heart squeeze hot blood into his brain. But he merely nodded dismissal to Lander.

  The butler bowed, remaining in place. “It is from Mrs. Hamilton,” he said. “She requests the favor of an immediate reply, sir.”

  “All right,” Robert said, snapping up the note. “All right, then.”

  He tore it open. He was afraid his hand was shaking visibly from hunger and suspense—and then he had to stand up and carry it to the window to read it in the dim little room.

  Dear Mr. Cambourne,

  It is my understanding that we are here at your request, that you are our host. We will expect to see you at dinner. If you cannot come, I shall conclude that our presence here is inconvenient at this time. Therefore, we shall depart this morning. Please inform me of your decision before 10 A.M. If I do not have an answer from you by that time, then Miss Melinda Hamilton and I extend our thanks and our farewells by this note.

  Mrs. Charles Hamilton

  Robert looked up at the butler. “They are not to leave the grounds.”

  Lander made a slight bow of his head. “I don’t quite understand you, sir.”

  “What time is it?”

  “It is half past nine, sir.”

  Robert gazed at him. He had hired Lander for his military stance, for his air of pugnacity. He had hired him, frankly, for protection. And now he did not trust the man, though he could not tell why. He wished that he had held the note and examined it in private, to see if the seal had been tampered with, while at the same time his crazy suspicions mortified him.

  “Take the tray,” he said. “I’m not hungry.”

  “Yes, sir,” Lander said. He gathered up the breakfast and carried it through the door, closing it behind him with one hand.

  Robert waited a few moments, and then pulled down books from the shelf. Late in the night, he’d stolen five bottles from his own cellars. He wiped the dust from a brown vessel marked Devonshire cider and pried out the cork. He drank straight from the bottle, tasting the waxy edge, downing the warm sweet gingery liquid with inelegant greed.

  After a few deep draughts, he would have sat down and consumed the cider more slowly, but he did not have time if he was to prevent her leaving before ten o’clock. He upended the bottle, finishing off the drink. He hadn’t drunk cider since he was a schoolboy at Eton; it was hardly common in India, but he thought it ought to be mild and somewhat nourishing. It would keep him alive, at any rate.

  He replaced the books quickly, hiding the bottles behind a set of his Indian diaries. For a moment, he paused with his hand resting on the spines. He remembered Phillippa laughing at him. But he narrowed his eyes and stared hard at the diaries, at their green calfskin edged in gold. Imagination. Imagination. He must control it. God, he hated her.

  He counted the numbers he had inked on the backs of the twelve volumes, one-two-three-five-four-seven...the clock chimed the quarter hour. Robert hastily rearranged the books, glanced around for where he had laid number six—there on his father’s lead-lined chest of drawers. He stuffed it into the space and went to the door.

  She swept into the room wearing her cloak, facing him with an assumed belligerence. She would not reveal that she was quaking in her boots. It was not as easy as she had determined it would be. The moment she saw him, her stride broke. He stood before the tall windows, too much silhouetted for his expression to be clear, his posture an unyielding stiffness, hands locked behind his back like an officer staring down his troops.

  Folie stopped for just an instant, consciously preventing herself from making an apologetic curtsy, as if she were late to an appointment with the headmistress. She made a brief nod. “Good morning, Mr. Cambourne.” Then she walked to the window and looked out on the gray drizzle, her fingers resting lightly on the sill.

  “You must not leave,” he said.

  Folie turned to him, her eyebrows lifted. He did not look at her, but remained in profile, his gaze fixed on some unknown point in the middle of the room. She could see him more clearly now—his straight solid jaw and high-bridged nose, his hair making black curls against the crisp starch of his neckcloth.

  “Why ever not?” she heard herself say boldly. “I do not feel that I know you. I am uncomfortable here. Melinda is unhappy and anxious.”

  His gaze flickered, as if he were searching for something in the room that he could not find. He frowned.

  “I don’t understand why you wish for us to stay,” she said.

  He moved away. “I wish it.”

  “Do you indeed?” She made a light disbelieving laugh. “I beg your pardon; this is quite confusing to me. I am not a woman of the world, perhaps I know little of society manners, but I have never been so comprehensively ignored by a host!”

  He looked up at her suddenly. “Have you been ignored?”

  Folie met his eyes. They were gray and stern, not so fiercely strange as they had seemed before.

  “Well,” she said, slightly taken aback. “We never see you.”

  “That does not mean that I have not thought of you every minute,” he said.

  Folie drew in her breath. She tried to remember the clever lines she had prepared as she had lain in her bed staring up at the darkness. But all she could feel was her nerves; all she could think to say was, “What did you mean? In that note?’’

  His eyebrow lifted. “Note?”

  “You wrote me a note, did you not?” She gestured toward the writing desk. “And left it there.”

  He looked down at her disapprovingly, as if she were an unruly servant. “I suppose that I did.”

  “What did you mean? To say that you are lost?”

  There was a long pause. He gave a cold smile. “No doubt I had taken too much wine. Kindly erase it from your memory.”

  She bit her lip and turned to the window.

  “What shall I do to convince you?” he asked.

  She turned back. “Convince me of what?”

  “That I wish you and Miss Melinda to stay.” He gave a faint shrug. “I’ll come to dinner, if it pleases you.”

  “That would be most kind!” Folie said. They stood in silence.

  “Shall I—” He seemed to come to an impasse with his sentence, and then said suddenly, with a gesture toward the door, “Shall I show you the garden?”

  “It is raining,” she murmured.

  “Then the picture gallery.”

  Folie moved restlessly away from the window. “I have seen the picture gallery.”

  “What a difficult princess you are!”

  “Well, I don’t mean to be difficult—” Folie said quickly. She stopped. “I am difficult?” She gave a huff. “That must make you impossible!”

  He gave a bare nod, as if to accede to the verdict. “I believe ladies always find gentlemen impossible, do they not?”

  “No doubt,” Folie said coolly.

  “That is what my sisters tell me.”

  “Oh yes. You have sisters.” She recalled that he did, although it seemed as if he must have sprung from no family at all, have walked one day fully grown from some cold mountain cavern.

  “Two,” he said. “Lady Ryman lives in London. Mrs. Coke is in Bombay, but I believe she is intending to return here with her children this year. The boy is six; he’ll enter Eton, I suppose.” He paused a moment, and then said, “I’m glad that Frances will come.”

  “You are close to her?”

  “Close?” His brow lifted again, as if the question were an impertinence. “No, I cannot say so. I am not close to either of my sisters, in truth.”

  Folie tilted her head. “But you are glad she will come to England?”


  “With her children.” He shrugged. “I think it a good thing, that their mother comes home with them. It is difficult for a child of six to travel so far and begin school alone.”

  “So I should suppose!” Folie exclaimed. “Surely that is not common practice?”

  “In some families,” he said briefly.

  “Poor things!”

  “It is India. The boys must attend school, the girls must learn their English manners. If the wife prefers to remain with her husband, then the children must come alone, or with friends or some relative. Or as I did, with a hired bearleader.”

  “Cannot they go to school in India?”

  He smiled dryly. “No, they cannot.”

  “You are quite right, it is a great good that your sister comes.” Folie looked at the writing desk. “I did not even know my mother. And yet I missed her every day of my life.”

  “Yes,” he said.

  “I should like to be the best of mothers to Melinda. But it is so difficult sometimes.”

  “You are an excellent mother.”

  Folie lifted her head. “I should not suppose you had enough evidence to judge.”

  “One reveals a great deal of one’s character in letters.” One corner of his mouth turned up crookedly. “You do, at any rate.”

  She felt herself becoming flustered. It seemed as if the conversation had somehow reeled off into topics she had never meant to discuss with him. “I have spoiled her dreadfully. But she is very good, and hardly needs to be curbed.”

  “And she must have an exemplary husband. You are determined.”

  “Yes, certainly. We are not aiming over-high, titles and that sort of nonsense; though I vow she is beautiful enough to deserve a duke. A gentleman of good substance and breeding will suffice, in high health and not too old, and I should hope that she will find someone who can—” Folie came to an abrupt halt. “Feel some moderate degree of affection for her,’’ she finished tonelessly.

 
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