The regency romances, p.48
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       The Regency Romances, p.48

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “Your daughters go to town this season, Sir Howard?” Melinda asked, leaning forward. The light of eagerness gave her beauty a striking glow. Robert glanced at Folie and saw her dismay.

  “Ha! They do if their mother can recover the headache. I’ll be jiggered if I’ll take ‘em on my own, though she’s threatened to task me with it!”

  “Perhaps we will see you there!” Melinda said.

  “Do you go too, then?” Sir Howard looked toward Folie with an interest Robert found all too transparent.

  Folie opened her mouth as if she would answer, fixed her gaze on the base of the silver candlestick before her, then gave Sir Howard a look that seemed to Robert full of entreaty.

  “No,” Robert said coldly. “They do not go to town. Mrs. Hamilton and Miss Melinda will be living here.”

  Melinda’s radiance froze. She turned a white face to Folie. “Mama...”

  “We will discuss it later,” Folie said, lifting her hand as if to brush away an uninteresting subject.

  Melinda sat up very straight in her chair. “We are not to go to town?”

  “Later, my dear,” Folie said, but there was an uneasy note in her voice—Robert saw the girl fasten on it, saw how the blood mounted dangerously in her face.

  “Tell me now,” Melinda said. As her back stiffened, her voice took on a piercing note that was all too familiar. “Are we to go or not?”

  “Melinda—” Folie’s voice faded.

  “We are not!” Melinda’s eyes grew wide and wild as Folie hesitated. “We are not to go!”

  “Now, my love—”

  “I don’t believe it!” Melinda gasped. She pushed her chair back from the table. “I cannot—you have let him convince you, haven’t you?”

  “We will discuss it later,” Folie said firmly.

  “Discuss what? Discuss that we are not to go?”

  Folie tilted her head meaningfully toward Sir Howard. But Melinda seemed oblivious.

  “Ohhh, I knew it!” her stepdaughter hissed. “You have let him ruin everything! And I know why! For that forty thousand pounds!’’

  “Melinda!” Folie said sharply, her voice trembling.

  “I don’t care! I don’t care what everyone thinks! It is not fair! It is monstrous! I hate you—”

  “It is my decision,’’ Robert said, keeping his voice cold and steady. “Not your mother’s.”

  Melinda turned on him with a look in her eyes that he knew too well, that touched a well of dread deep inside him. “You!’’ she cried. “Why should you have anything to say to it? Where have you been? Away off in India, living in a palace! You don’t care what happens to me! You don’t care for anyone but yourself—” She stood up, flinging her hand wide. Her fingers hit her wineglass. It shattered like an explosion as it struck the candelabra, spilling a wave of red across the cloth, glass fragments flying in all directions.

  Robert found himself on his feet. He felt a sting on his hand, but his body seemed to slow down, immovable. His hands froze in fists.

  “There!” the girl cried, “There! I don’t care! See what you’ve made me do! Oh, I hate you all!” Her shrill voice broke into a sob.

  “Melinda!” Folie pleaded. “Sit down!”

  “I won’t!” Melinda held the back of the chair and banged it against the floor. “I hate you, I hate you!” She glared at Robert with a furious venom, filling the room with wooden thumps. “I don’t want your horrid money! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you all! Oh, I want to die!” she wailed. “I’m going to—”

  “That will do, miss!”

  It was Sir Howard’s deep voice, filling the room like a resonant bell, startling everyone silent.

  Melinda looked at him, holding the chair poised. Then she gave a choked sob. The mask of rage seemed to collapse and turn to a child’s tragic plea. “Oh,” she whimpered. “Oh. But we aren’t to go.”

  “Curtsy to your mother and Mr. Cambourne and beg their pardon,” Sir Howard commanded in a tone that brooked no disobedience. “And sit down.”

  Melinda blinked rapidly, her mouth in a pinched bow. Then suddenly the pinch relaxed into a helpless tremor. She bowed her head, weeping, but more calmly.

  “Make your apologies,” Sir Howard said.

  “Yes, sir.” Melinda bit her lower lip. She started to move toward Robert. He felt struck into stone. He could barely breathe and hardly see her; it took all of his focus simply to contain the flinch when she came close enough to touch him. Through Phillippa’s silent clamor in his head he heard Melinda make her apology as if she were speaking through a thick blanket.

  He said nothing in reply. Speech was beyond him.

  She moved away, curtsied to her mother. As she tried to beg pardon, falling into a deep curtsy, her voice caught on uncontrollable sobs. Folie shook her head mutely and drew Melinda to her feet, pulling her into a deep hug.

  “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Mama,” Melinda moaned. “I didn’t mean it.”

  “Never mind,” Folie murmured, stroking her hair. “Never mind. It will be all right. I promise. It will be all right, darling.” Over her stepdaughter’s head, she looked at Robert. Her eyes glistened with tears, but there was pure rancor in them for him. He stood numbly. Some distant part of his reason told him to speak, to say she might go, that he did not mean to keep her incarcerated here with him. But he saw that she would go and not return, go out where he could not reach her, to London, to life, to sanity. He could not bear it; he could not even bear a girl’s tantrum. He felt as if he might shatter into a thousand shards of bleeding glass.

  “You must pardon me,” he said beneath his breath, and walked blindly past her to the door.

  Folie did not think he had even seen them as he left, or felt the bloody cut on his hand. She drew a deep, shaky breath. With a soft push, she set her stepdaughter away from her. “Sir Howard—”

  “Do not say it!” he exclaimed roughly, shoving to his feet. He shook his head at Melinda. “Good God. I daresay you are hardly old enough to leave the schoolroom, miss, far less disport yourself in London, if this is how you intend to go on!”

  “Oh no, oh no,” Melinda said in meek rush. “I beg your pardon, Sir Howard! Truly! I am abominable.”

  “That you are! If you was my girl, you would go to bed on bread and water!”

  Folie started to protest, but Melinda shook her head vigorously. “No, Mama—I—I should. I could not eat, not now. Please—if you would just go up with me...”

  For the first time, Folie realized that Lander had come into the room. He stood attentively by the side door, his face expressionless.

  “Take the child up while the table is set to rights,” Sir Howard said.

  “I don’t know if Mr. Cambourne will return—” Folie began, but he cut her off with a significant look. Folie was too flustered to keep her mind straight; she kept seeing Robert Cambourne’s white frozen countenance in the face of Melinda’s histrionics, and the blood that dripped unacknowledged from his hand.

  “Yes, of course,” she said in a confused voice. “You’ll accept my excuses, Sir Howard.”

  Melinda gave a curtsy, bidding Sir Howard a humble good night and begging his pardon again and again. He nodded impatiently, apparently unmoved by her pretty, tear-stained face. As Folie passed him, following Melinda from the dining room, he leaned toward her and touched her arm.

  “You will come back down,” he murmured. “I wish to speak to you.”

  Folie nodded blindly.

  “Good. I shall await you in the drawing room.”

  “My dear.” Sir Howard closed the drawing room door as Folie entered. She had left Melinda in Sally’s tender care, swearing upon her heart that it would all be fixed tomorrow. “I have no right to advise you,” Sir Howard said, “but I cannot deny I am deeply concerned at what I saw here tonight.”

  She drew an unsteady breath. He reminded her so much of Charles that she could hardly recall that she had only met him an hour ago. “I should be glad of advice. I am in despe
rate need of it.”

  “What is the situation, my dear?” he asked warmly.

  “He is my trustee and Miss Melinda’s guardian,” she said. “He insists that we live here, and is adamant that Melinda will not go to London, though we have planned a season for her for years. As you saw. I know not why.”

  Sir Howard frowned. “He strikes me as a strange fellow. Refused all my calls until this very afternoon, when he up and invites us to dinner. Ha!” He shook his head. “I wish I knew more of him. How long have you been here?”

  “A week, no more.”

  “You had made his acquaintance before you came?”

  Folie pressed her hands together. “No. Not in person. We have had...some correspondence.”

  “You will forgive my impertinence—he makes no reasonable explanation of why you must stay here? That the chit is too untamed? That lack of funds requires it?’’

  “Neither is the case, I do assure you! Our funds have been perfectly adequate to our needs for the past five years, and I have already put back enough for a modest season. And Miss Melinda...” Folie made a helpless shrug. “I have not seen her have the hysterics since she was a child. She is most well-behaved and gentle-mannered, though I do not ask you to believe me after such a scene.”

  He waved his hand. “Oh, I am accustomed to girls. They are easy broke to bridle, but the meekest will buck if you put a sufficient burr under her saddle. And I daresay that to deny a chit her day in London qualifies as such. Though if I were you I would not let it pass unpunished, or she will be spoilt in a trice.”

  Folie lowered her head in deference, though she had no intention of castigating Melinda further.

  “You tell me you had made plans for town already?”

  “Oh, yes—we were to go up on the first of March, but I was not quite satisfied with the house we had obtained. I understood from a neighbor more experienced than I that it’s in an inferior street. I confess, I had entertained a little hope that Mr. Cambourne might lend us the use of his town house, but...” She trailed off.

  “Ah!” He gave her a smile. “I see now why you are here.”

  “He is Miss Melinda’s guardian,” she said, with a faint defensive lift of her palm.

  “You need not blush! Dear God, when I think of how I have beseeched the man for the favor of a mere morning call! It sickens me. But it is the way of the world, my dear. I don’t fault you for doing whatever you can for Miss Melinda.”

  “Well, it has been a complete disaster. I should have predicted!”

  “Predicted? How could you predict such strange conduct? I don’t like you staying here without an older companion.”

  “Yes, I have thought the same,” she said unhappily. “I was under the misconception that his wife was still living, and would be here. But—he is Melinda’s guardian, and I am a widow of respectable age myself, you know.”

  “A respectable widow!” he exclaimed with a grin. “What talk. As if you are not barely beyond the schoolroom yourself. A respectable widow. Ha!” He shook his head. “No, I tell you, Mrs. Hamilton, I do not like you being here alone with him. I believe he may be a little unsteady.”

  “Oh! I am so frightened that is the case! I fear he is mad.”

  “Mad?” Sir Howard drew back his chin in surprise. “Well...”

  “Oh, I should not have said that,” Folie said quickly. “It is nonsensical.”

  He rubbed his jaw. “No...no...I understand what you mean. There is something about him that disturbs...”

  Folie turned away guiltily, fixing her attention on a tabletop. The yellow rosebud lay there. He had remembered. Her own Robert.

  She turned back, lifting her chin. “I must go back up and see to Melinda. I should like to call upon Lady Dingley tomorrow, if she is well enough.”

  “I hope you will, my dear. I assure you that she will be well enough to receive you!” His tone said that she would be well enough or be the sorrier for it, which made Folie smile a little. “Now I shall bid you goodnight. It would seem that our host does not intend to reappear. Will you be quite all right?”

  “Oh yes,” Folie said, picking up her candle. “I’ll have Lander light me upstairs.”

  Sir Howard made a bow over her hand and gave her a wink. “I am charmed to meet you, Mrs. Hamilton. And in such intriguing circumstances!”

  Folie smiled and made a little curtsy. “It is my pleasure, sir.”

  He turned smartly and left her. Folie stood looking at the door after it closed behind him, feeling slightly giddy at the attention, her cheeks burning. She was not used to the compliments of gentlemen, that was all.

  SIX

  “I ordered the carriage nigh a half hour ago,” Folie said in surprise, as she and Melinda stood in the front hall, dressed in hat and gloves for their call on Lady Dingley.

  The footman bowed and said unhappily, “I was told, ma’am, that they are charged in the stable not to bring the carriage to you.”

  “Not to bring it?”

  “Aye, madam. I do fully beg your pardon, ma’am.”

  “We are not to use the carriage?”

  “No, madam.”

  Folie drew in a sharp breath. “Indeed! Then you will give me the direction to Dingley Court. We shall walk.”

  He looked uneasy. “Ma’am. I’m sure I don’t know, ma’am. Perhaps the gatekeeper may tell you.”

  “Come, Melinda,” Folie said, and swept out the door.

  The morning was foggy and chill, and neither of them had worn pattens to keep their shoes free of the dew, but Melinda did not utter a word of protest. Both of them walked quickly. Folie felt as if each step was a jab at Robert Cambourne’s throat. She barely saw the nodding branches, and did not even stop to look after the rabbit that darted across the drive.

  She was breathing rapidly by the time the gatehouse came into view. The wrought-iron gates were closed, a pair of dragons united at the peak. Folie strode to the green door of the gatehouse and rapped hard with the knocker.

  A servant answered, one of the burly sort that Robert Cambourne seemed to favor. He pulled his short forelock and gave his apologies as the footman had done; he was not to open the gate for them.

  “What?” Folie frowned at him. “This cannot be true!”

  The gatekeeper stood with his head bowed, silent.

  “We are not held in hostage here!” she cried. “I will not believe this for a moment!”

  “The master’s orders, ma’am,” the gatekeeper said, crushing his hat in his hands. “There was nothing about hostage said, only that I was not to open the gate for you. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

  Folie felt a wave of panic. She had not, until this moment, really allowed the truth of the situation to reach her. And Melinda was standing silent, her face pale, the cheerful yellow ribbon on her bonnet drooping in the damp. Her mouth made an anxious bow, trembling a little at the corners. She stared in wide-eyed question at Folie.

  Folie looked back at her stepdaughter. Her heartbeat doubled with anger and mortification. She felt her jaw lock. She turned without a word and began to walk with strong strides back toward the house, her mind boiling with the words she had for him. No, she would not even speak to him; they would pack their things and quit this place if they had to climb the wall in their slippers to do it.

  Robert had known it the moment she left the house. He stood by the window of his dressing room, watching her walk with her stepdaughter down the drive. She went away with a soldier’s stride, as if there were fifes and drums playing; as if she meant to put miles behind her before the march was over.

  His hands pressed hard on the windowsill. A shout clenched in his throat. If he moved one inch of his body, if he even took a breath, he would begin to howl with despair. The room and house would fly apart around him and he would rip anything within his reach to bloody shreds. Even her. Especially her.

  She was leaving him, and he could not go after her. He felt like a trapped animal, faced with the choice of dying in the snare or
escaping by chewing off his leg.

  This was Phillippa’s doing. Long ago he had retreated into a bunker to evade her, closed down the hatches, bolted the doors, for fear that he would lose his reason, lose himself completely. And that was something he had known he must guard against with all the strength he could muster. He had lost his career for it. He had lost his future and forfeited his friends.

  And now Folly. Folly, Folly, Folly.

  He watched her figure vanish among the dark trees at a curve in the drive.

  Why should you have her? Phillippa’s voice said. Why should you have her when you wouldn’t have me?

  “Quiet,” he muttered. “Be quiet.”

  She wouldn’t take you anyway. She’s going, leaving as fast as she can. Even a plain little mouse like that won’t have you.

  Robert made a low noise in his throat, staring at the empty grounds.

  What is wrong with you? she whispered. You paltry bore, always on about your hideous natives and your ugly dog; Good God, it’s no wonder I couldn’t bear it.

  “Shut up,” he said savagely.

  I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it! Her scream rose like a wraith’s cry in his ears. It echoed in the halls. He could see her fingers clenched thin; red and white against the pale muslin gown she wore. Red and white marks on his cheek in the looking glass.

  He held himself stiff. That maddened her; the colder he made himself, the more hysterical she became. The arch of her screams rose; she danced furiously, stamping her slippers like a child. You never think of me! You never think of me! I hate you! Why can’t you think of me?

  Long ago he had tried to reach out to her, to tell her that he thought of her, that he loved her. He had lived his life trying to foresee what she would want, trying to give it to her before she asked, a daily scramble to anticipate her mood—money, dresses, compliments, parties; he had begged for funds from his father; he would have stolen the jewels from the sultan’s turban—anything to stop her from weeping until she could not find breath. But it had not been enough.

 
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