The regency romances, p.47
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       The Regency Romances, p.47

           Laura Kinsale
 

  A long silence fell between them. He picked up a pen from the desk and began to stroke it lightly, his sun-darkened hand moving up and down the quills. “You don’t hold love to be a requirement in marriage?”

  “No,” Folie said briefly. “I am quite old-fashioned on that point; I have not encouraged her to be romantic.”

  He rolled the quill between his thumb and fingers, looking down at it. “I must agree,” he said. “I married for love. It was a transcendent disaster.”

  Folie’s heart beat harder. “I am sorry to hear that,” she said crisply. “But this is hardly to the point. To be quite frank, Mr. Cambourne—”

  “Robert,” he said.

  “Robert, then,” she repeated with a faint impatience. “To be quite frank, it is time that Miss Melinda and I departed for London.”

  “No,” he said, “it is not time.”

  Folie arched her brows. “I beg your pardon.”

  “I am Miss Melinda’s guardian. I have barely become acquainted with her character.”

  “Indeed? A little more time in her company might have made you more efficient in this laudable aim. I fear that we are unable to oblige you further. What you know of her now must suffice.”

  “You said that if I came to dinner, you would stay.”

  “I said that we would not leave today. Tomorrow, however, we must depart.”

  “No.”

  His voice did not rise, but the quill in his hand rotated rapidly, then bent in two with a soft snap between his fingers. She looked from his hand up to his face.

  He was frowning. His eyes met hers for a moment, a look like a silver-eyed sentinel, wary and hostile, his mouth set hard.

  “You cannot prevent us!” Folie said sharply.

  “I will stop your income if you leave the house.”

  Folie stared at him. She shook her head slightly. Nothing in his expression changed. He did not smile or pass it off as a poor jest.

  “You cannot,” she said faintly.

  “Certainly I can,” he said.

  She shook her head again, trying to find her breath. She turned away, looking about as if she could find some answer in the corners of the room. “But why?”

  “I wish you and Miss Melinda to remain here. You will not go to London.”

  “But why?” she exclaimed.

  He did not answer. When Folie turned back to him, he would not look at her, but by the sullen curl of his mouth she saw that he would not be moved.

  “I wish to leave!” she said. “I cannot remain here!”

  He turned his back to her, facing the window.

  “Robert!” she cried.

  He shook his head slowly, never looking away from the window.

  Folie sucked in her breath, poised between astonishment and angry tears. She hurried from the room, afraid that she would humiliate herself, pulling the door hard after her.

  FIVE

  “Sir Howard Dingley calls, sir.”

  Lander’s calm voice made Robert turn sharply from the window. He could hardly tear his mind from what he had just done.

  “Sir Howard?” he asked vaguely.

  “Yes, sir. Shall I send him away again?”

  “Who is he?”

  “Sir Howard Dingley of Dingley Court,” Lander said, with the calm air of a teacher explaining a fact to a dull student. “He is the squire and justice of the peace. He has called three times.” Lander cleared his throat and added apologetically, “The father of seven promising daughters.”

  Robert suddenly recalled the times he had sent Lander back to refuse this neighbor entry, claiming indisposition. God knew he had been indisposed; not fit for any civilized society, and the local squire, no doubt some fox-chasing red-cheeked country gentleman, was the last sort of company Robert wished to endure.

  “Show him in directly!” Robert said.

  “Sir?” Lander’s flicker of surprise alone was almost worth it.

  He gave his butler a wolfish smile, one carnivore to another. “Show Sir Howard into the drawing room immediately.”

  “Yes, sir.” The butler did not hesitate further. A moment later, a lean gentleman came striding into the room, shoving his hat and stick at Lander with something of a defiant air. Straight shoulders and leathered skin gave him the air of a hundred Company officers Robert had known. He wore his hair in a queue, unpowdered, as if to worry over his early strands of gray was too much nonsense.

  “Sir Howard,” Robert said, walking forward to offer his hand. ‘ ‘I apologize for my inability to welcome you before now.”

  Sir Howard brushed his chin down with his free hand as he gripped Robert’s. He stared a moment into Robert’s eyes, and said, “Ha! Indisposed! A wily trout, more like! You don’t mind my plain speaking—it’s my wife made me come a-begging. Daughters! See to it that you never have one, that’s my advice!”

  “Come to dinner tonight,” Robert said.

  Sir Howard’s brows rose in astonishment. “Dinner?”

  “Yes. Do me the honor.”

  “Eh? Well, I—” High color burned under the tan in Sir Howard’s cheeks. “Certainly! If you wish!” He gave Robert a wary look.

  “I would be pleased. And my guests, Mrs. Hamilton and my ward, Miss Hamilton—they will be more than delighted to have company, I assure you.”

  Sir Howard made a slight, stiff bow. “Aye, ladies. Of course. You have ladies here.”

  “Yes.” They stood awkwardly. “Mrs. Hamilton and my ward.” Robert reached for the bell pull. “You’ll take some Madeira, Sir Howard?”

  His guest seemed to relax somewhat at the offer. “That I will.” He sat in the chair Robert indicated. “I’m obliged to you, sir. Obliged to you. What do you think of this weather, eh? A wet spring, but not the worst I’ve seen, by far!”

  Robert nodded, as if he had the slightest notion what the weather had been or was, and put his mind as well as he could to polite conversation.

  Folie did not look forward to dinner. She had deliberately avoided Melinda, no easy task, by setting her and Sally to a complete inspection of every stitch of the London wardrobe. Since anything to do with her debut was heaven to Melinda, and sewing a known antidote to Folie, this sufficed to keep her stepdaughter from making uncomfortable inquiries into their plans for the future. Unfortunately, it rather encouraged the notion that they would be leaving for London directly, but Folie could not help that.

  She sat at the window of her cheerful yellow bedroom, clenching the spine of an unread book in her lap. It seemed impossible that they really might not go to London. More incredibly, that for all practical purposes they could actually be prisoners here. An overwrought fancy, and yet however she turned it over in her mind, she could find no other way to describe it to herself.

  That man; that dark and rigid stranger—he had all the control that he claimed over their lives. All of Charles’ will; both her own jointure and Melinda’s portion went under his hand. He could not leave them penniless, no, the will did not allow that, but he could decide where they must live and how much they might have to spend each quarter. Until now Folie had consulted upon all these matters herself with Mssrs. Hawkridge and James, and more—contriving her own affairs under their benign eyes, keeping a conservative profile in the funds, saving and planning, planning and saving. Once, when she had requested that their stock in a banking venture be sold at a modest profit, while the shares were still on the rise, Mr. James had even complimented her on her prudent management.

  And Robert Cambourne said he would take it away if they left this house. But why? Why, why, and why?

  Robert, she thought fiercely. You are not Robert. You cannot be the man I loved; he would never be so wantonly cruel.

  At least there was no fear that she would fall madly in love with him again. All the love she had felt in her dreams transformed like alchemy into a narrow-eyed hatred for this stiff, ungenerous, closemouthed, willful person. Without an inquiry, without a reason, he dictated their fate. She could not compre
hend him. There had been a moment, an instant or two, when she had felt…

  But no—that was mere imagination. Just the sort of absurdity that had led her into disaster with him before, believing that she could ever see or know what lay beyond the part of him that he allowed her to see.

  Still her feelings moved like quicksilver, turning toward him and away. She thought of the note; she thought of that faint way that he smiled at her. So fleeting—and somehow, somehow, so fascinating.

  Oh, she was fascinated. Like a bird frozen before a serpent, she thought ferociously. She leaned her elbow on the windowsill, her forehead in her hand. She was too old for this, for love, for hate, for nonsense. She should never have come here alone. She should have brought Mrs. Couch, at least for company, if not for wise advice.

  Too old for love, too young to be a mother—when there was a knock at the door she sighed in dread, certain it would be Melinda.

  It was not. A chambermaid curtsied, offering a note and vanishing.

  Sir Howard Dingley and Lady Dingley will honor us with their presence at dinner tonight. I hope this will please you.

  Robert

  “How delightful!” Folie murmured dryly to herself. “Let us go to London; that will please me!”

  But at least it gave her something to distract Melinda. She rose, opening her dressing case to take out the pearls that her own mother had left her, the ones that Melinda loved to be allowed to wear.

  As they entered the drawing room, Melinda was chatting of how they must find a brighter ribbon for her pink chip-straw bonnet, something the color of a daisy’s center. Folie nodded and smiled. Melinda looked as well as she ever had, her skin and eyes as lustrous as the pearls at her throat, every move of her gloved hands, each turn of her head a simple grace. Folie felt a rush of love and despair. She could not let her stepdaughter be cheated of the life that was so rightfully hers. Folie must find some way. This was merely another obstacle, a final hurdle to be cleared.

  He awaited them as he had the first night, standing alone beside the fireplace, his hands locked behind his back. The black of formal attire gave him a beautiful erect elegance, yet his eyes—ice gray, dark-lashed—seemed to regard them with the cold calm interest of a jungle hunter. Melinda’s girlish voice faded suddenly to silence.

  “Sir,” she said hesitantly, dropping a curtsy. “Good evening.”

  “Good evening, Miss Melinda,” he said in a cordial voice.

  When he looked up at Folie, she made a brief sketch of a bow, lowering her eyes.

  “Good evening, madam.” He came forward and offered his hand to her with a brisk move.

  She took it, keeping her gaze averted, not even glancing at him as he brought her hand near his mouth. He did not kiss her glove, but his fingers curled lightly over hers a moment. He pressed a yellow rosebud into her palm before he lowered her hand and released it.

  Melinda made a faint sound, the ghost of an astonished giggle. Folie hardly knew what to do; she only looked down at the rose and turned away. She was glad of Lander’s appearance at the drawing room door to announce the arrival of the dinner guests.

  Sir Howard brought a welcome ease as he strode into the room. Folie liked him instantly. He reminded her of Charles, a rangy man; gruff and imperfectly tailored, as if he thought that he ought to fit into his coat whether it was a jot too loose across the chest or not. Still, he was quite markedly good-looking. She did not think him very far past forty, in spite of the gray in his straight brown hair. She gave him an affectionate, pert smile as she curtsied, and was rewarded with a laugh and wink from direct green eyes, as if they had known one another all their lives. There was no Lady Dingley at his side.

  “Sends her deepest regrets,” Sir Howard said cheerfully. “Don’t get out much, you know. Fancies herself stricken by the headache.”

  Folie and Melinda expressed polite sympathy, but Sir Howard waved it off. “Nothing a bit of fresh air could not cure, I tell her. But she pays me no mind.”

  “Naturally not, if you are so brutal,” Folie said. “Ladies must have a very strong dose of fellow feeling before they can recover the headache.”

  “Brutal!” he said. “Ha!”

  Folie shook her head. “I often wonder that gentlemen can be so slow to learn these simple facts.”

  “And you, missy, are entirely too full of sauce for a chit of your age, I see that at a glance.”

  Folie dropped a curtsy. “Why, thank you, sir! You are quite charming for a barbarian!”

  Robert stood by the fireplace, watching Folie’s face, caught between a vague angry disgust at this flirtation and the laughter that had come into her eyes the moment she responded to Sir Howard’s bow. It was like a strong touch on a place he had locked in his heart, the way he had locked her miniature in a velvet strong-box. “I hope your daughters are well, Sir Howard?’’ he asked coolly.

  “Too well!” his guest said. “Would that they would all take to their beds with the headache!”

  Folie laughed. “How many children have you, sir?”

  “Seven girls!” Sir Howard exclaimed. “Can you believe it?”

  Folie thought it was no wonder Lady Dingley had developed the headache. She glanced inadvertently toward Robert. Their eyes met. A roguish, stifled smile changed his whole aspect so suddenly that Folie felt as if a spike of sweet lightning had struck her throat.

  “What fun!” Miss Melinda said. “I should love to have so many sisters!”

  “Take any number you please off my hands,” Sir Howard said carelessly. “We have plenty to spare.”

  Folie turned in surprise when Lander entered to announce dinner. It was far too early for any normal civility. Robert stepped toward Folie, but Sir Howard had already tucked her hand into his arm with a jocund announcement that he knew Mr. Cambourne would not begrudge him the honor of taking Mrs. Hamilton in. Folie accepted his escort with relief. Deliberately, she laid the rosebud on a side table as she passed through the door.

  Robert looked at it. He lifted his eyes and found Miss Melinda regarding him with interest. He offered her his arm and took her in.

  With the ladies seated, Sir Howard took a leather chair at the foot of the table and cast a glance about the dining room. He shook his head at the dragons. “Damned feverish mind it took, to carve this stuff! Don’t think I could live with it more than a day, myself.”

  Melinda sat with her hands in her lap, looking uneasy. Folie said archly, “We don’t dare mention the decoration here, Sir Howard. Our host dislikes it. Although I must say I find myself growing rather fond of Xerxes and Boswell.” She nodded toward the dragons.

  “Mama,” Melinda warned in a soft voice.

  Folie lifted her chin and took a sip of wine. She felt a light flush coloring her cheeks, as if she had already drunk much more than a swallow of the claret Lander had just poured.

  Sir Howard cleared his throat, looking down the long table at his host. “Well then. Do you hunt, sir?”

  “No, I have hunted very little,” Robert said.

  “Pity, pity...I keep a pack of hounds—five pups this morning—thought you might like to take a look at ‘em tomorrow.”

  Robert felt an instant misgiving at the thought of leaving the house. “How big is your pack?’’ he asked, turning the subject.

  “No more than twenty couple. Quality over quantity, eh, Mrs. Hamilton? Do you like dogs?”

  “Yes, certainly,” Folie said. “But I haven’t brought myself to have another since our last.”

  “Brandy,” Melinda said stoutly, “was the best dog in the world.”

  “Indeed?” Sir Howard grinned. “It can’t be so. My Maggie was the best by far. Why, she could bring home a stray lamb from the next county, save a drowning child, and then fetch a fellow’s slippers before she was dry! Tell me what your Brandy could do to match that!”

  Folie and Melinda laughed and exchanged glances. “Oh, Brandy was not that sort of dog at all.” Folie gave a smile and a shrug. “He would merely pu
t his paw upon one’s knee and look up as if to say, ‘I have something to tell you that will please you very much.” She traced the silver engraving on her spoon with a fingertip, smiling wistfully. “Everyone loved him.”

  A vision visited Robert, one of the strong bright ones, of salt-and-pepper fur, brown eyes; a scruffy, panting, mischievous face. “Yes,” he said in a stifled voice. His guests all looked toward him. He hardly realized he had spoken until the expectant pause invited him to say more.

  “I had a dog,” he said uneasily.

  “Our house is always full of ‘em,” Sir Howard said. “I could not trust the man or woman who don’t like dogs.”

  Folie was looking at Robert. He had a horrible moment in which he felt a sickness in his chest, a burn behind his eyes and nose. He stared straight ahead, breathing slowly.

  Do not think, do not think of that; don’t think, don’t think, do not think of it.

  “And have you filled your stable?” Sir Howard was saying. “There’s a pair of grays up for sale at Camden...known ‘em for three years, very nice-going creatures—you might like to think of them for a phaeton if you have the need.”

  “Thank you.” With an act of ferocious will, Robert put his mind on Sir Howard’s words. “I’ll be sure to look into it.”

  “Miss Hamilton, this reminds me that I am charged with discovering your age!” Sir Howard thumped his hand on the table. “I am not to go home without the information.”

  “I am nineteen in June, sir,” Melinda said modestly.

  “Very good, very good!” Sir Howard said, helping himself from the mutton. “My second girl is nineteen. I’ve just bought a little chestnut hack for her to take to town. All my girls ride like demons, I’ll say that for ‘em.” He looked to Robert. “Does Miss Hamilton have any sort of seat?”

  Robert stared at him a moment, his mind so distracted that he felt as if he had to translate the question from a foreign language. “I don’t know,” he said, his mouth twisting in a wry smile. “I have not inquired.”

 

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