The regency romances, p.51
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       The Regency Romances, p.51

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Strangely, she began to feel herself somehow in command of the moment. It was as if now that he was here, he had lost whatever force had brought him. He seemed caught in a cold trance, unable to look at her, wordless.

  “Is that why you came after us?” she asked, moving to the window. She sank down upon the cushioned seat. “To apologize?”

  As if her action released him, he moved again, this time crossing to the bed. Abruptly he sat down upon it. Folie felt as if they were engaged in some peculiar dance, each step of hers matched by one of his, but none taking them anywhere. Still he did not look at her, but seemed intensely engaged in a study of a brass ewer on the chest.

  The faded light touched his face, lighting it with a particular softness. The set of his mouth and arch of his brows remained, and yet now what had been inflexible arrogance seemed almost wistful. Sitting on the bed, he did not appear so stiff; he looked down at his hands and shook his head.

  She waited. After a long moment, he made an unhappy laugh. “Folly.” He shook his head again. “My sweet Folly.”

  She closed her eyes. All the vivid years of his letters and his love seemed to accumulate at the base of her throat, caught hard there. She had never heard them spoken, those words. It sounded so different, so strange, so harsh and rueful; nothing of what she had dreamed.

  Suddenly, without any purpose to what she did, she rose and went to him. She sat down beside him on the bed. It felt like a clumsy move, a silly thing to do. But he shifted slightly to accommodate her, as if he had expected it. They sat side by side, not looking at one another. She looked down at his hands, saw the red cut, untended, from the smashed wineglass.

  “Oh, well, then,” Folie said, angrily. She sounded petulant, as if she had given in to some whim of Melinda’s. She touched his hand. She barely skimmed the back of his palm, her fingertips tracing the rough line of the cut. “Your poor hand,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

  He shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

  He turned his palm over and opened it. She looked down at the broken chess piece he held, a black queen with the head broken off. “What is this?” she murmured.

  “Nothing,” he said. He let it slip into her fingers.

  Folie held the damaged piece, feeling the warmth in it. She could feel his body’s warmth beside her. It was as close as she had ever been to him; she breathed the familiar scent of his letters, of him. She had no notion of what she was doing or what she wished to happen. But her heart was pounding.

  Robert, Robert, she thought. It seemed her mind would revolve on nothing else.

  He moved his hand from beneath hers. She thought he would stand up, but instead he brushed his fingers against her throat. Folie made a faint sound of protest, drawing back, but he slid his hand behind her neck, pulling her toward him. His other hand came up and cupped her cheek; he held her chin between strong fingers and kissed her.

  She had never been kissed on the mouth before. He tasted of ginger—or she did; she hardly knew. Her hands pushed against his shoulders, but he had a purpose in his movements now; he held her, exploring her mouth, his breath warming her lips, his fingers pressing into her jaw.

  She broke away, turning her face. “I’ve never done this!” she whispered in agitation.

  “Done what?” He ran his fingers gently over her cheek, across her mouth, his gaze following his touch.

  She moistened her lips, lowering her chin. “Kissed,” she said stupidly. She made a sound like a frantic half-laugh. “Not this way. I don’t know how!”

  “Yes, you do,” he murmured urgently, leaning to draw her back, kissing her again. “Yes, you do.”

  He touched her lower lip with his tongue, teased it, and then tasted her whole mouth. This is Robert, she thought in wonder—Robert kissing me, now, now, the first and last time. She could feel the heat in him catch her, like a fire igniting from a hidden coal beneath the ashes. The air she breathed was Robert. Her body flamed with shame and yearning, but she did not move. She could not, she should not; she did not wish to do this.

  Oh, but it was him, really him.

  He leaned suddenly very close to her, bent down, his arm sliding under her knees. He scooped her up. In the loss of dominion over her own balance she clung to him, her arms about his shoulders as he lifted her. She sprawled back against the pillows, looking up at him wide-eyed. He leaned over her, on her; she felt his weight, all hesitation lost. And something in her answered, something hot awoke, a deep demented thrill that Charles had never stirred. Her breath came quickly; as Robert pressed her into the bed, her body arched upward, meeting his kiss, his heaviness on her.

  He splayed his fingers into her hair, holding her trapped, kissing her jaw and her cheeks and her ear. She arched her head back and then gave a whimpering gasp as his hand cupped her breast. “Don’t, don’t,” she whispered, but through her muslin gown he circled his thumb, pulled her nipple down against the edge of her stiff corseted petticoat. Folie’s eyes opened wide with the sensation. She bit her lower lip, and he ran his tongue across her teeth, nudging and searching, sucking her lip free in a way that made their tongues meet wickedly.

  “Folly,” he said fiercely against her mouth. His hand left her breast, formed her waist under the muslin and corselet. “Do you know how much I need you?” He turned his head down, kissing her throat, gripping her skirt and drawing it upward.

  All this, all this she had dreamed of in the deep nights lying awake and still at Charles’ side, but in reality it was none of the fanciful tender delicacy she had imagined. It was deeper and wilder, as if he took over her very will, as if he knew every part of her, thrusting two fingers inside her and pressing upward into a place that sent white fire to her breasts and her throat. She reached blindly, clutching at his other hand, locking her fingers in his and lifting her arms above her head.

  “Yes,” he breathed into her ear. “Yes, yes, yes.”

  Folie shook her head. Through his clothes she could feel him aroused and ready to take her; the shape of him solid on her bared thigh. Suddenly he rose above her, leaning on his hands, and pressed his clothed body against hers as if he drove himself inside. He looked down at her, moving against her in hot rhythm, urging her over and over to arch upward. She made sounds like a puppy’s dreaming moans, half-pleading, half-denying.

  She had never in her life felt anything like this. She began to pant with extremity, her modesty, her reason, her whole body beyond her command. Each lift of her hips meeting his made her gasp. He pressed her down and down against the bed. Folie twisted under him, pushing up frantically.

  “Folly.” He met her, kissed her, urged her with his tempo. “Never leave me. Never leave me. Never leave me.”

  She gave a low cry, a frenzied shudder. Joy burst and bled through her under his body, washing her with fiery light. She clutched his shoulders, holding onto him as if a wave carried her out to sea and only he could save her.

  She gulped for breath as she lay weak beneath him, trembling uncontrollably. She kept her eyes closed; for a long moment she could not open them, full of chagrin and delight, too near to tears. She felt him search out the pins in her hair. He pulled them free, gently fanning it out across the pillow.

  She opened her eyes. He was looking down at her, his gray eyes deep and light.

  “There,” he said. “That’s how it would be.”

  Then he lifted himself away. He stood up. Without speaking or looking back, he left Folie alone in the room.

  After he was gone, she turned to her side and lay huddled on the edge of the bed, lost in time, listening to the faint sound of the pianoforte and girlish voices lifted in a merry duet. A dog was barking somewhere in the house. Each sound, each scent, seemed utterly crystalline; a new world.

  She put her fingers over her mouth and drew in a deep breath. Robert, she thought, smiling against her hand. She shook her head in disbelief.

  With a faint terror, she recognized this feeling. This tumult, this deep comfort, this giddy laughte
r welling up in her throat.

  “Oh no,” she moaned, rocking a little. “Please no.”

  But she felt as though her soul had found its home again. And as if she were falling free into a black cavern with no floor. Some lost part of her settled into place; at the same time a high wind tore her apart into a thousand helpless fragments.

  Silent tears slid down her cheeks and onto her hand. Oh, she knew this dreadful feeling. She knew it all too well. She was in love with him again.

  EIGHT

  My Dear Mrs. Hamilton,

  Upon consideration, I give you my permission to take Miss Melinda to London for a visit of one month in the company of Lady Dingley and her daughters, as per the proposal conveyed to me by Sir Howard. My permission is contingent on several conditions: to wit, that the entire party reside in my house in Curzon Street, the hire of all servants to be under the auspices of Mr. Lander. This excludes the use of Dingley servants, unless approved by him. All outings and parties are to be attended under the escort of Mr. Lander, all transportation arranged by him. Neither Miss Melinda nor yourself are to leave the premises without a footman. I trust that you will have callers; however, no gentleman must be admitted into the house except by Mr. Lander. You are not to question or discuss his decisions on these points with anyone save myself. All household disbursements will be drawn on my accounts, so you need not concern yourself with expenses. A sum accompanies this letter—it is a gift from me to Miss Melinda in honor of her debut. Certain personal expenditures related to yourself will be covered as well. I hope that you will accept these conditions. None of them are negotiable.

  Your Servant,

  Robert Cambourne

  Folie handed the letter to Melinda, who stood waiting with her hands clenched together fretfully. Jane and Cynth pressed beside her, their arms about her waist, expressions of adolescent calamity on their faces. All three of them peered apprehensively down at the note.

  Jane was the first to emit a joyous squeal. Within an instant, Folie was treated to the spectacle of three shrieking, laughing teens hugging one another and flinging their shawls and caps toward the ceiling with victorious abandon.

  Lady Dingley looked away from the window, with her vague expression of having just strayed into a room she didn’t quite recognize. Folie had already spoken to both parents before giving the news to the girls, with some trepidation, but to her surprise, neither Sir Howard nor his wife had taken exception to the rather insulting “conditions.” Indeed, they had seemed quite gratified.

  “It is most generous of Mr. Cambourne,” Lady Dingley said. “You must write him your thanks immediately, Jane.”

  “Oh, yes—but after we call on Charlotte Pool, Mama! Curzon Street!” Jane exclaimed. “I vow I cannot wait to see the look upon her face when she hears!”

  “Jane—” Lady Dingley said helplessly, but her eldest daughter was already leading an exodus from the room. Left alone with Folie, she gave a small shrug. “Well, I shall write to him, of course. He is very kind.”

  “Oh, indeed,” Folie said, with a dry smile. “Extremely kind.”

  Sir Howard escorted them to town, presiding over a horseback cavalcade of his daughters while Folie, Lady Dingley, Melinda, and the youngest girls rode in the carriage. But he adamantly refused to install himself in a house with “a tribe of babbling females,” for even one night. He betook himself to his club, promising to provide Folie and Melinda with suitable mounts by the next afternoon. Folie was less relieved to hear that than to have no responsibility for the small herd of ponies and horses he took away with him to the mews behind Cambourne House. Straw bedding was not foremost in her mind; linen bedding was.

  Cambourne House was a mansion suited to a nabob, three times as large as its neighbors, with beautiful arched windows two stories high set across the drawing room façade, and twelve bedrooms arranged on three upper floors. But the shouts and squeals of the Dingley girls echoed in gilded rooms that were almost empty of furnishings. Lander introduced her to the grim-faced housekeeper of his choosing, Mrs. Cap, who immediately began to complain of the poor condition that the previous tenants had left.

  Lander might be an adequate butler, although Folie would sooner have cast him as a pugilist, but he was perfectly hopeless at providing for the Babbling Tribe. They had arrived at dusk after two days of maddeningly slow travel, hungry and cranky, to find an empty larder, no cook, six strapping footmen standing idle, and one harried charwoman hanging out sheets that were still soaking wet.

  “I must find a cookshop directly,” Folie said to Lander. “Melinda, you and the girls make sure that all the feather beds are turned over and shaken out. Sally, we shall need plenty of water. Mrs. Cap, see to it that the men get fires started in every room. The place is like a grave! I pray there is coal. The good Lord only knows what we shall sleep upon tonight.” She gathered up her shawl and purse and started for the door.

  “Madam,” Lander said sharply. “You are not to go out alone.”

  Folie stopped. She had completely forgotten Robert’s orders. In Toot, there had never been any reason to hesitate to go out alone at any hour. But this was London, of course.

  “Well, come along then,” she said, pulling her shawl about her. “Perhaps I can stuff a little common management into your head on the way.”

  He pursed his lips, but only bowed and followed her out into the darkening street. On the front step, Folie paused and took a deep breath. London smelled of horses, smoke, and a cold spring. There was still a bustle of traffic in some large thoroughfare nearby. To her delight, a lamplighter was just illuminating the street. She paused for a moment, watching the pools of light grow upon the pavement.

  “How pretty it is!” she murmured.

  “Yes, ma’am,” Lander said at her shoulder.

  Folie started, unused to having a servant at her heels for simple errands. “We must have milk,” she said. “Where will we find it?”

  “In the Shepherd’s Market at this hour, I think, ma’am.” He looked at her dubiously. “I am not certain a lady ought to be seen there so late in the day—”

  “Perhaps she ought not,” Folie said briskly, “but you have left me no choice in the matter. Food before footmen, Lander. Food before footmen! If I can but convince you of that single truth, I shall increase your administrative merit immeasurably.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” he said meekly. “I have not been able to locate a suitable cook.”

  “Hmmm!” Folie replied. “But six footmen quite fell into your hands!”

  “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

  The market was only a few steps below Curzon Street. Lander at least appeared to be well acquainted with the neighborhood, and led her there without delay. Folie felt instantly at home among the close streets and half-timbered buildings, as if she had wandered into market day at Toot— but tucked behind the elegant houses of Society and showing no signs of closing for dark. Light from fires in barrels and tubs gave the milkmaids and shop stalls an exotic air, and the accents of the people were so thick as to be almost a foreign language. The Punch and Judy booth was curtained, but there was a silent juggler spinning his multicolored balls in the flickering light, his painted eyes following Folie with an intent, unnerving smile.

  She located a cookshop easily enough, by the smell of baked pudding. She placed an order that made the proprietor’s eyebrows go up, but after a little negotiation and an appeal to his wife, who laughed at the story of Lander’s six footmen and no cook until she could hardly breathe for sputtering, arrangements were made to have fifteen pork pies, a cold roast, an assortment of cheeses, ten loaves of bread with butter, five gallons of fresh milk, a kettle of vegetable soup, and a block of ice delivered within the hour.

  “That will do to break our fast in the morning, too,” Folie said as they walked back into the narrow market alley. “What a wonderful place London is, that one can get fresh milk at seven in the evening! And a block of ice! It’s almost April!”

  “Yes, ma’am
,” Lander said.

  She was about to make a comment upon his vast range of conversation when she looked up at the juggler. The mummer had followed her and Lander, apparently considering them his best hope of any profit tonight. He pulled a paisley scarf from his sleeve, wadded it into his hand until nothing could be seen in his fist, then reached out toward Folie, opening his fingers.

  She laughed in spite of herself at the bright peering eyes and black mask of a small ferret that stood up amid the unfolding scarf on his palm. Folie clapped. The mime cupped the ferret between his hands and set it upon her shoulder. She felt the creature nuzzle at her bonnet. The juggler’s painted face smiled, weirdly expansive in the unsteady light. With a magician’s flourish, he made a circle about his head and then held up four fingers.

  She hesitated. “Four crowns?”

  The juggler nodded with enthusiasm. His ferret put one paw on her cheek, patting it gently.

  “Well! I think Mr. Cambourne will buy us a pet,” she said, giving Lander an arch look.

  “As you wish, madam,” the butler said.

  Folie had meant the ferret as a diversion for the younger girls, to occupy them while she and Lander and Mrs. Cap got the house in some sort of order, but when she attempted to leave it with them in the back drawing room, it slipped from twelve-year-old Letty’s hands and scampered up Folie’s skirt. From then on, the little creature made it clear that Folie was its mistress. As long as she was in the room, the animal would play with the girls; but where Folie went, the ferret went, too.

  There were a few moments of tearful protest, but to Folie’s relief, Melinda and Cynth seemed to have taken upon themselves the responsibility for keeping the younger ones happy. Melinda appeared entranced by all the hectic chatter, proposing games and mediating arguments with the glad grace of a girl who had longed for sisters all her life. Miss Jane, proving as practical and forthright as her father, had already found out from the charwoman the name and direction of a seamstress from whom more bed linens might be obtained straightaway, and sent a footman out for them. When the food arrived, she joined in laying out the table. In a system that Folie considered masterful, Miss Jane called in three at a time to the dining room, each pair of young ones escorted by an older girl who supervised the filling of their plates. By ten o’clock, everyone had eaten, including Folie. The rooms were warm and the new linens installed.

 
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