The regency romances, p.65
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       The Regency Romances, p.65

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “If I had listened to you, I would not be here.” She wrapped her hands in the borrowed apron. “But...then— what if you had been all alone? They might have kept you; you might have vanished and I would never have known what happened to you.” As she spoke, her voice began to rise with emotion. “Oh, Robert.”

  They sat silent, the table between them. His face was strangely severe.

  “Be careful of Dingley,” he said. “I swear he’s up to his ears in this.”

  “Sir Howard?” she said incredulously. “No, I can’t believe—”

  “Listen to me for once!” He stood up, leaning on his hands. “Folly. Just once.”

  Folie bowed her head. His vehemence had an odd effect; instead of stiffening her resistance, which nearly anyone else’s sharp command would have done, it warmed her inside. Even if she could not really believe in his suspicions—it had been a long, long time since anyone had worried about her enough to give her overbearing orders.

  “Yes, Robert,” she said submissively, hiding a small smile.

  He gave a caustic grunt. “Very convincing,” he said. “I’m going to try to get word to Cambourne House now. Stay here in the house.”

  “Yes, Robert,” she repeated.

  He reached over and lifted her chin with his fingers. “Little scamp. Look me in the face and say that.”

  Folie lifted her lashes. She stared into his ice-gray eyes. “Yes, Robert.” She was piqued to discover that she could not prevent the smile from playing at the corners of her mouth.

  He stared back. The tips of his fingers were warm on her skin. His look drifted over her face, touching her cheeks and chin and forehead. Suddenly he drew a deep breath and stood straight. “I’m going,” he said firmly, as if she might not believe him. He turned away, buttoning his coat.

  SEVENTEEN

  It was after midnight when Lander arrived at The Highflyer. Robert felt strong relief when he saw the butler’s square, familiar face—sending a thin beggar boy to the back door of Cambourne House had not been the most certain of ways to convey an obscure message—but Lander had his wits about him, Robert could say that without reserve.

  Folie and Sir Howard were in bed. The only light was from the fire, where Skipper lay curled by the hearth, casting a long shadow over the flagstone floor. Lander looked about the small public house curiously as he sat down with Robert, but as usual, he made no comment. Mrs. Moloney—who had flatly refused to discuss the party removing elsewhere when Robert had warned that they might draw something dangerous to The Highflyer—served out a pair of her creamy ales and left them discreetly alone.

  “How is it at home?” Robert asked directly.

  “I believe you saved Miss Melinda’s life,” Lander said. “I don’t think she could have survived another day of terror.”

  “What did you tell her?”

  “Only what you said, that Mrs. Hamilton is alive and well with you.” He gave Robert a crooked smile. “She was not overly reassured, but just to know her mother is unhurt has revived her spirits greatly.”

  “Have you notified anyone of her abduction?”

  Lander paused. He took a deep draw on his mug, then set it down carefully. “I must admit something to you, sir.”

  Robert raised his eyebrows, waiting.

  “You hired me out of Bow Street, as a servant and guardian. I told you I had experience with both—with the thief-takers and with being in service. That is not quite perfectly true.’’

  Robert sat back. He looked at his butler expectantly.

  “I am well acquainted with thieves and ruffians. But my experience with service has more to do with receiving than giving it.”

  “This is shocking news,” Robert said mildly.

  “My father is the Marquess of Hursley.”

  Robert lifted his eyebrows.

  “I’m not the heir, I assure you,” Lander said, as if Robert would wish to be confident on that point. “I have four older brothers.”

  “Ah. So you took up with thieves instead?”

  Lander smiled sheepishly. “My interests would not gratify my family, so I keep them to myself. But when I was a boy, I once visited Mr. John Fielding’s courtroom in Bow Street. You mayn’t have heard of him out in India—the Blind Beak, they called him—and they say he could recognize three thousand thieves by voice alone. Which is no doubt an exaggerated number, but I can tell you true that he could distinguish at least five, for I saw him do it that day. And I’ve been fascinated by the law officers and criminals ever since.”

  “Have you indeed.”

  “My father would not let me go into the army—he wishes me to become an MP. I’m awaiting a seat in his influence.” He shrugged. “But a tranquil life does not charm me. So when I was at loose ends for amusement, I volunteered my assistance at Bow Street, and because I am a little—unusual—in that metier, I am allotted some of the more unusual matters.”

  “That I can well imagine. And am I one of these matters?”

  “Yes, sir. You are.”

  Robert leaned forward. “Tell me what you know.”

  “Little enough. My mentor—you will forgive me if I do not identify him—is highly placed in the government. You came to his attention upon your arrival in England, and I was instructed to take the position with you—”

  As Skipper lifted his head, Lander stopped speaking abruptly. The dog stared toward the passage to the best chamber, then laid his head down again, eyes open, tail sweeping the floor in a friendly beat. Folie peeked around the corner. She saw Lander and hurried forward, pulling an oversized robe about her. Her face was white and anxious in the firelight.

  “Have you seen Melinda?”

  Robert raised his hand, signaling her to keep her voice low. She nodded and slid into the nook next to him. Her hip touched his. Robert was instantly, vividly aware of her lithe body beneath the draping folds.

  “Did you tell Melinda we are safe?” she demanded in hushed tones.

  “Yes, ma’am. She is vastly relieved, as you may suppose.”

  Folie released a long sigh. “She must have been beside herself.”

  “She has been most concerned,” Lander said.

  “Only concerned?” Folie seemed taken aback. “I feared she would be having hysterics.”

  “I attempted to moderate her alarm, ma’am. I did not think it good for her nerves to become overly emotional.”

  She looked at him in wonder. “And you were successful?”

  He smiled. “Tolerably.”

  “Well, you are to be congratulated, then. I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather face that horrid scullion again than Melinda in a panic terror.”

  “She endured it admirably,” Lander said with sincerity. “Indeed, I esteem her—”

  Folie started, grabbing Robert’s elbow as she looked abruptly round behind her. “Oh, I—” She frowned, holding tight. “What was that?”

  “Stay still.” Robert listened, but he heard nothing. The dog lay sleeping peacefully. After listening a few moments, Robert stood up, handing her out of the cubbyhole. He made a deliberate check of the room, the doors, and the windows. It was a simple house—there was little to inspect. Skipper got up and came with him as Robert looked down the passage that led to Folie’s room. He carried a candle down the kitchen stairs and up to the attic door where he shared a bed with Dingley. It was closed. He could hear Dingley snoring even through the heavy wood. The staircase creaked badly—he did not think anyone could have walked up or down it without being heard by the dog.

  “Nothing there,” he said, returning to sit down beside her, this time on the outside.

  “I suppose I saw a shadow.” She gave a breathless laugh. “I am the one with unsettled nerves!”

  “You have not yet told me what happened,” Lander said.

  Robert kept his voice quiet. “I’m still trying to sort it out. I received a note in Mrs. Hamilton’s handwriting— there is no question in my mind that it was genuinely written by her, but she’s receive
d a bad blow on her head, and doesn’t recall writing it now. It asked me to meet her privately at Vauxhall.” He ignored Lander’s slight blink at this. “I don’t know how the note came into my hands. At one point, just after she regained consciousness, she told me that she wrote it to Sir Howard Dingley.” He glanced at Folie. “You still don’t remember that?”

  She cast her eyes upward, then all about the room, looking rather like a student stumped for the correct answer. “No,” she said finally, giving him an apologetic shrug.

  “At any rate,” Robert said, “it would appear that it was meant to cozen me into walking into a trap.” He explained how he had been waylaid, and woken to find himself, Folie, and Sir Howard in the prison hulk.

  “Sir Howard Dingley!” Lander exclaimed softly. “How did he come there?’’

  Robert shook his head. “He claimed to me that he saw Folie dart off into the darkness, and followed to give her a safe escort. That the next he knew he awoke aboard the hulk with us. But I’ll tell you, Lander—I never saw him in the supper party at Vauxhall.”

  “He was not in it,” Lander said. “Though Lady Dingley seemed to me to be rather unsettled, looking about her as if she might expect someone. She would not leave the box at all. Perhaps he had meant to join them there.”

  They both looked at Folie. She shrugged helplessly. “I remember the fireworks. And that’s all.”

  “But you, ma’am?” Lander asked. “I never knew what happened to you. I turned my back to find our boatman, and Miss Melinda said the same—that you just suddenly walked away from us. And we could not find you. For two days I searched that park from tree to tree.”

  “I remember the fireworks,” she said plaintively.

  “We found nothing but your shawl.”

  Folie’s face lit like one of her starry fireworks. “You found my shawl!”

  “Yes, ma’am. Nothing else. Not a trace.” Lander shook his head. “That was when Miss Melinda had the hysterics.”

  “Oh, Melinda, Melinda,” Folie said, pressing her hands together. “What she must have endured.”

  “The whole house has been in turmoil. Lady Dingley was disabled by the vapors. If not for Miss Jane, I think the youngest ladies would have been terrified out of their wits by Lady Dingley and Miss Melinda, but she managed to calm and distract them.” He smiled wryly. “Lord Morier paid a call that next morning, and found himself telling pirate stories in the nursery.”

  “Morier?” Robert said in astonishment. “In the nursery?”

  “What an admirable gentleman!” Folie said. “Who would have thought he had it in him!”

  “Miss Jane gave him little choice,’’ Lander said.

  “So it’s public now—Mrs. Hamilton’s and Dingley’s disappearance?’’

  Lander shook his head negatively. “We knew nothing of Dingley’s being involved. Only that Mrs. Hamilton had been abducted. Or worse. I informed my own people in Bow Street, but otherwise we have put it about that she is taken very ill. The circumstances were too strange—I did not wish to let any details out.”

  “It was no ordinary robbery, certainly,” Robert said. “They meant to be rid of me—perhaps to be rid of Folly and Dingley too, or perhaps they were accidentally snared.”

  “Folly?” Lander asked, in a puzzled tone.

  “That is me, you see,” she said modestly. “My Christian name—Folie Elizabeth.”

  Robert realized that he had not been quite circumspect, but somehow in the tangle of events he could not maintain a proper formal distance. He felt ferociously proprietary of her, in fact, as if he ought to be able to call her by any endearment that he pleased, and decorum—and Dingley—be hanged.

  “It is very pretty, ma’am,” Lander said politely.

  “Thank you, Lander,” she said. “You are a most gallant butler.”

  Lander glanced at Robert with a slight frown, as if to silence him before he could say anything of his “butler’s” true background. Robert was willing to keep that private, but he intended to hear anything Lander might know of his adversaries.

  “You were telling me why you came to Solinger,” he prompted. “Go on.”

  Lander hesitated, glancing at Folie.

  “I think it’s only wise to inform her too,” Robert said. “The more she understands, the safer I believe she will be.”

  Lander frowned down into his empty mug as if he might find some guidance there. Finally, he looked up. “Yes, you may be right. What little I can tell. I am with Bow Street, Mrs. Hamilton,” he explained to a wide-eyed Folie. “I came into Mr. Cambourne’s service advised that there might be some danger about him—in the nature of a radical political intrigue. The purpose of this intrigue was not known, but because of the identity of a gentleman who had shown a considerable interest in shipping lists and the date of Mr. Cambourne’s arrival in England, we became concerned.”

  “What gentleman?” Robert asked sharply.

  “One Erasmus Inman.” Lander looked intently at Robert.

  He shook his head. “I’ve never heard the name.”

  “He is an extremist—the hireling of radical Whigs, but we are not yet certain whom. Mr. Inman himself is not so much a political creature as a very clever terrorist. He has learned his trade at the foot of the Jacobins, and he has learned it well, I assure you. We were at first concerned that you might be a confederate, but I soon suspected that you were to be his victim. I did my best, sir, to prevent him from reaching you.”

  “Why didn’t you tell me this?”

  “I wish that I had. But I could not be sure at the time if you were feigning your madness, or if it were a true lunacy, or—once, in a dark moment, you told me that you feared poison. It was then that I began to believe strongly that somehow it must be Inman’s work.”

  “You cannot arrest him?” Folie asked.

  “We can, ma’am, but we do not. Inman is vicious, but no more useful to us than the butcher’s dog, if we wish to catch the butcher out red-handed.”

  “What do you mean?” Folie exclaimed. “You have not taken this man up on purpose? When he was poisoning Robert’s food? When he was murdering housemaids and selling people onto prison ships?”

  “Hush,” Robert said, touching Folie’s hand. “I understand you,” he said to Lander. “Go on.”

  “We wish to flush out his master, ma’am,” Lander explained apologetically. “For that we must give him a bit of leash.”

  “Humpf,” Folie said. Then she gripped Robert’s hand. “Melinda! Will he go after Melinda now?”

  Lander frowned. “I will keep Miss Melinda safe. I swear to you, ma’am; I swear on my life—I will make certain she is safe.”

  The intensity in his voice made Robert study him with a new attention. But Folie was already talking anxiously of taking Melinda away from London, back to Toot, where she would be unharmed.

  “Ma’am—” Lander said. “If you and Mr. Cambourne will put your trust in me—I believe I know a place where you may go with Miss Melinda that will be secure. Indeed, safer than Toot-above-the-Batch or anywhere else you might take her.”

  “Where?” Robert slid his fingers between hers, closing his hand against her palm.

  “A few hours from town, in the direction of Norwich—it’s a sheltered property where a proper guard may be placed. I am quite familiar with it. The ladies would be comfortable there, with a walled garden close by to the village, and every amenity.”

  Folie looked up at Robert. He nodded. “I agree that they must leave London. Solinger is too large, and already penetrated. Herefordshire is too far away. I know nothing of it.”

  “But Toot is—” Folie began.

  “I don’t want you so far away as that.” He found that his hold was tightening on her hand. “Lander’s notion is better.”

  As she teased her lower lip in thought, Robert had to look away, distracted by a precipitous rise of desire. He drew his fingers from hers and picked up his mug, taking a deep, quick swallow.

  “I s
uppose you are right,” she said reluctantly. “But—what will you do?”

  “We must flush out the ringleader,” Robert said. “I don’t think we can breathe easy until we have him. Just how highly-placed do you suppose this fellow might be?’’

  “I will not mislead you,” Lander said soberly. “Very high.”

  “I’ll hunt down the prime minister himself to put a stop to this nonsense,” Robert said, scowling.

  Folie watched him silently. He did not say it, but he vowed to himself to take a black revenge on whoever had put those bruises on her face. First he would make sure they swallowed plenty of the same maddening drug they had given him, and when they were out of their minds with the fearsome apparitions, he would practice on them a few of those clever tortures favored by the Indian princes. He toyed pleasurably with a vision of it in his mind, staring into the shadows of the taproom.

  “You frighten me when you look so,” Folie said. “Robert—you will not be foolish!”

  He came back to reality. With a distorted smile, he said, “Merely daydreaming.”

  “Unless you can see into the master’s head, sir, I don’t know how you’re to pursue him,” Lander said. “I’ve cudgeled my brain for some plan, but we don’t know who he is, nor what he intends. ‘Tis certain he’s collected a fine pack of revolutionaries and rogues to do his bidding. There are disaffected Whigs aplenty, after the prince refused them office in his regency.”

  “With colleagues in India,” Robert said. “This began in Delhi.”

  “Might it concern the East India Company?”

  “The charter is to be renewed next year—or not,” Robert said. “The Company always has enemies among the Whigs.”

  “Robert thinks someone means to make the regent appear to be mad like his father,” Folie said.

  “Well, it’s merely one possible theory—” Robert began.

  But Lander looked up at her abruptly. He had such an arrested expression that Robert’s voice trailed away.

  “My God,” he breathed. He put his hand over his chin, rubbing his thumb, visibly reckoning. A long moment later, he exclaimed, “This poison that they gave you! It could be done. It could be done, and reason enough. They hate the Prince Regent with a passion, the Whigs. If they supposed they could put him out of his head like his father...force a change in the regency and the cabinet...Good God, that is altogether ingenious. It’s a brilliant notion, sir.”

 
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