The regency romances, p.71
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       The Regency Romances, p.71

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Robert’s letters were there, bound in a yellow ribbon. She laid them carefully on the table—she had not taken them out in years, though she still could recite every line.

  “Oh,” Mrs. Paine breathed, her eyes glistening. “My dear. Are those your love letters?’’

  “Yes,” Folie said. It was the first time she had ever allowed anyone, even Melinda, to know that they existed.

  At the bottom of the box lay the pearl stickpin. She held it up to view.

  “He sent me this from India. For my twentieth birthday. It came from a pirate ship in the China Sea.” Folie smiled a little. “And I had never been past Tetham in my life.”

  Mrs. Witham-Stanley sniffed. She pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “It is lovely.”

  “Yes,” Folie said, almost defiantly. “It is. It is—and he gave it to me, and I am going to wear it.”

  “Of course you are!” All the ladies were wiping tears. Mrs. Paine stood up. “Let me pin it for you. And then I must go down and see that Christopher has not managed to wriggle out of his coat. He looks so sweet, I vow you will just want to eat him up!”

  Robert was truly afraid that the sudden prospect of marriage had sent him plunging back down through the gauzy net of reason to insanity. He could not seem to get any command of his words or actions. Though Phillippa did not appear to him with the maddening reality of his worst visions, the memories of her seized him close. What she would say, what she would do. And he answered in hostile kind—but the person he was answering was not Phillippa. It was Folie, something he seemed to realize only after he saw the flicker in her expression with each injury that he did. Which did not seem to check him from wreaking another after that.

  It was all very different from his first wedding. Mercifully. He at least remembered to send out a footman for yellow roses. That was nearly all he remembered; he forgot that Mrs. Paine was providing flowers for the bride.

  After the ladies arrived, he did not see Folie again, though there were auguries, signs, and tokens from time to time from the upper floor—Lander had to be applied to for sewing supplies; the kitchen was required to send up tea; Robert’s bouquet mixed at the last moment with Mrs. Paine’s, ribbons changed and colors mingled to suit a proper sense of taste and refinement. Robert, dressed in a dark blue coat, was immured with Christopher in the breakfast room. They stared glumly at one another across the table, prisoners in common in their wedding-clothes.

  “I hate this,” Christopher said. “Why do I have to do this?”

  “God only knows,” Robert said, drinking another of the uncounted cups of black coffee he had consumed this day. It was beginning to have an inebriating effect: his heart skipped and raced as if he could not get enough air to breathe.

  Christopher wrung up his face disconsolately. “But why can’t you hold the ring?”

  “Damn!” Robert thrust himself out of his chair. “The ring!”

  He opened the door, starting out to search for Lander. But a lady—they seemed to be multiplying themselves—posted on the staircase chased him back, hissing and spreading her gown like an angry swan pursuing him away from a riverbank.

  “Ring!” Robert managed to exclaim, seeing Lander walking through in the hall beyond.

  The younger man paused, fished in his vest pocket, and held up something. Robert could not really see it beyond the irate matron who cried, “Get back! Get back! We are not ready for you!” but he presumed it was a gold band. He lifted his hands, retreating backwards into the breakfast room, pulling the door closed with relief.

  “I only wanted to play with the ferret,” Christopher said accusingly.

  “It bites,” Robert said.

  “No, it doesn’t! It never bit me!”

  “Just you wait,” Robert muttered. “It will.”

  At dawn, Folie had been riding into the outskirts of London, shielding her eyes against the rising sun and thinking of nothing but reaching Robert Cambourne. At 3 p.m. she was married to him.

  She knew the time because the room was so silent as he slipped the gold band onto her wedding finger that she could hear a single parish bell tolling the hour. Even the closed curtains of the drawing room did not muffle the clear echoing sound.

  Fifty candles lit the chandelier. Along with the thin beams of sunlight from between the curtains and candle sconces on every table, the scent of flowers gave the room a strange funereal atmosphere, as if there should be a body lying in state instead of a wedding in progress.

  Christopher broke the moment with a snicker. Having handed up the ring, he appeared to believe he had done his duty manfully, and deserted his position, turning to run back to his mama. Folie heard her sniffing proudly.

  Robert held Folie’s wrist with the lightest possible contact, as if he did not wish to touch her. Out of pure pride, she had spoken her own lines steadfastly, but her heart felt like a kite quivering and careening in a high wind, tossed between sudden ascents and raking plunges. There were yellow roses in the bouquet—he remembered—but his voice paused, hesitating to speak every line—he abhorred her—she listened to his halting words after the priest: “With this ring—I thee wed—with my body I thee worship—with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

  Never once did he lift his eyes from their hands.

  They knelt. Folie squeezed her eyes shut during the prayer. She did not even open them when the priest lifted her right hand and placed it in Robert’s.

  “Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”

  Self-protective defiance and the bizarre surroundings erased any sense of reverence in her for the solemn moment. Well, she thought impudently, in the very midst of the prayer, what a pair of silly fools. He did not have to marry me, and I did not have to marry him. More hair than wit, they would say of us in Toot!

  The impertinent thought made her smile. She glanced aside at Robert, her head bowed, the curve lingering mischievously on her lips.

  He was looking at her. One of his black-Satan looks, fit for the local executioner, as if he would as soon chop off her head as marry her. Folie deliberately held her smirk in the face of it. They locked glances, Robert scowling, Folie smiling—like a pair of fencers clashed and poised in balance, faces close enough to feel the warmth of one another’s breath.

  The priest intoned his prayer of holy matrimony over their clasped hands. “I pronounce that they be man and wife together, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

  Oddly, the corner of Robert’s mouth turned up. He closed his eyes and turned his face away. As the priest went on with the blessing, Robert lifted his free hand to his face, like a man covering it in prayerful intensity, but Folie thought she could see him fighting a smile.

  She listened to the clergyman’s exhortations to love and obey. She had not been obliged to obey anyone or anything but her own inclinations for a long time. She began to feel apprehensive again. Easy enough to think of it as a silly muddle, to recite the ancient words by rote, as if they had no personal meaning, no intent beyond this moment. The priest seemed to repeat, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands,” with a dreadful regularity.

  If Robert had squeezed her hand or done any patronizing thing, made any effort to reassure her at that moment, she would have felt as if a trap closed on her. But he did not. When Folie sneaked a look, his expression had changed again—she could have vowed that he appeared more alarmed at the thought than she did.

  She relaxed a little. She even closed her fingers and gave his hand a slight, comforting pressure.

  Really, she would do her best. Her very best. She closed her eyes and said her own particular prayer, asking for God to help her love and honor and obey this man, even though he baffled her. Even though he frightened her. Even though he seemed to have a devil inside to oppose every angel that touched him.

  Mrs. Paine bustled about the dining room where the cake and kickshaw had been set out, placing chairs and arranging Folie and R
obert and the guests to her satisfaction.

  “Now, Mrs. Ha—Lord bless us—Mrs. Cambourne, I mean to say! You must cut the first piece of the bride cake for your husband.” She took them both by the hand and led them to the table, where Mrs. Witham-Stanley’s cook had indeed outdone herself in the few hours available. A beautifully iced cake, garlanded and flowered in white marchpane and cream, graced the head of the table. Mrs. Paine handed Folie the knife and stepped aside.

  But before Folie could raise her hand, Mrs. Paine gasped. She struck her hand to her bosom as if a silent gunshot had just hit her. “Good God! Someone has cut it!”

  Indeed, when Folie leaned over, she could see that a slice had been taken from the back of the cake, the icing repaired clumsily, sagging and cracking over the theft.

  “Christopher!” Mrs. Paine exclaimed in a voice of doom.

  “I didn’t!” the boy cried. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t!”

  “Christopher William Paine!” his mother cried, reaching for him.

  Christopher dived for safety behind Lander. “I didn’t!” he howled. “He did it!” He yanked at Lander’s coattail.

  “Nonsense! Do not add prevarication to your crime!” Mrs. Paine descended on Lander and her son with a determined stride.

  “Ma’am,” Lander said, standing forward while Christopher clung to him. Considering the expression of rage on Mrs. Paine’s face, Folie thought it was a very brave thing to do. “Mrs. Paine, I apologize. The boy is correct. I cut it.”

  “You?” She stopped still.

  Lander looked toward Robert. He cleared his throat. “It was thought prudent.”

  “Prudent!” Mrs. Paine cried. “Why, it is a wicked trick! You had no right! You’ve ruined it!”

  “What did you do with the piece, Lander?’’ Robert asked. His voice had a strange crack in it.

  The butler maintained a grave expression. “Cat, sir.”

  “Cat?” Mrs. Paine repeated. “And who might Cat be?”

  “Gave it to a cat,” he clarified. “Stray cat.”

  “You gave it to a cat?” Mrs. Paine screeched. “You cut the first slice of Mrs. Witham-Stanley’s beautiful marchpane bride cake and gave it to an alley cat?”

  Robert was making the most peculiar sound—rather like a cat himself that could not quite swallow a fishtail. Folie did not dare look at him.

  “Mrs. Witham-Stanley—” Lander said soberly, turning from Mrs. Paine and bowing to the older lady. “You must understand that a gentleman of Mr. Cambourne’s—uncommon nature—must be very careful of his diet. In the absence of the ferret, we have found a cat to be a useful barometer of his digestive tolerance.”

  Robert cleared his throat again in that singular manner. Folie was really afraid that he would burst into hysterical laughter at any moment.

  She looked brightly at their guests. “I hope you will not be offended, dear ma’am,” she said to Mrs. Witham-Stanley. “I deeply apologize that a stray was resorted to—I have not yet had time to choose the particular cat that we will use on a daily basis. Lander,” she added sternly, “you will present me with a selection of suitable cats directly. Also I shall need to interview housekeepers. But that is for tomorrow. First—’’ She turned to Robert, smiling up at him as if he were her whole dependence. “I shall like to celebrate my wedding with a slice of this exquisite cake.”

  He had a vicious frown. But Folie was beginning to realize that it was his method of containing himself—the more fierce he appeared, the harder he was laboring at it. He made it through the cutting of the cake and a rather inexplicable speech by a Mr. Bellamy—Folie had not a notion who Mr. Bellamy might be, but he had no headache, by his own admission—and he seemed to be a great admirer of Robert’s.

  “How kind of you, sir,” Folie said, giving the man a small curtsy when the toast had been drunk. “How kind of you all to come!” She could hear Robert breathing in a way that she feared would bring on a dead faint if he did not regulate it. She looked up at him. Sure enough, his face was pale, and he was scowling like a demon.

  “I daresay I feel a little dizzy with all the stimulation!” She put her hand on his arm. “Please take me into the air for a moment, my dear Mr. Cambourne. Lander, you will see that everyone is served their cake!”

  Robert nodded, walking toward the door. The guests stood aside. “The shoes, toss the shoes!” Mrs. Paine cried gaily—and a small rain of slippers and wedding favors followed Folie and Robert into the hall, as if they were leaving a normal wedding breakfast for a normal honeymoon.

  Just outside the door, he took a stronger grip of her arm. He drew her quickly toward the breakfast room, pulled her inside, and closed the door. The sounds in his throat were of a man who had just run twenty miles.

  He fell into a chair, dragging her down before him onto her knees. Folie looked up, terrified that he was going to have a seizure or a swoon. He put his palms on her cheeks, gasping.

  “A...selection...of...” he wheezed. “Cats.” He gulped for air. “Suitable—cats!”

  Folie relaxed. She sat on her knees on the braided rug, looking up at him. “Lander started it,” she said.

  He was laughing so hard that he did not even make a sound. His whole body trembled as he leaned over her, pressing his mouth against her temple, gulping air against her skin. Folie shook her head, softly chuckling, leaning against him.

  As she moved closer, she could feel the nature of his touch change—his hands pressed her face, and then skimmed over her hair. He buried his face hard into her throat. To her confusion she felt wetness on her skin.

  “Robert?” she murmured, lifting her hand to his hair.

  He shook his head violently. He began to kiss her ear, to score her throat with his teeth. He slid from the chair onto his knees. His hold on her grew rough, imploring. “Folly,” he whispered. “My Folly.”

  She turned her face to his. He sought her mouth, kissing her, a hot sugared taste of almonds. His fingers pressed painfully into her arms.

  “It will be all right,” he said into her hair, soft and slurred, as if to reassure himself as much as her. “It will be all right.” Then as suddenly as he had begun to kiss her, he pulled back.

  He stood up, walking away. While Folie still knelt on the rug, he went to the window.

  “Put yourself to rights,” he said. “I suppose we must go back.”

  Her cheeks flamed with agitation and chagrin. How quickly he could toss her into a maelstrom! She rose, smoothing down her skirt. To gloss over the moment, she said, “I hope they do not suppose we have been—” She stopped, caught in the middle of an imbecilic sentence. Of course, everyone would suppose they had been doing precisely what they had been doing.

  “Never mind,” he said. “We have only to say that you fainted in my arms, and I revived you from certain death with handsome compliments on your coiffure.”

  “Oh, they will be perfectly ready to believe that!”

  “My dear, I am learning that the world is full of gulls. They seem to wish to believe all sorts of rubbish.”

  “Such as Mr. Bellamy and his headache?” she inquired.

  “Ah, well,” he said, slanting an appreciative glance down her figure. “Bellamy may not believe I revived you with compliments, I admit. He might be a simpleton, but he’s not a fool.”

  TWENTY-ONE

  When the guests had gone away, and Robert had vanished like a genie into some magic bottle, Folie and Lander were left to see the house put to rights again. By the time she had reached her bedchamber, Folie was exhausted. She went to bed without the help of a maid—no small task after the ladies had dressed her—unpinning the lace headress and brushing out her hair, scattering flower petals on the floor. She popped one of the buttons on Melinda’s gown while trying to slide out of it, and writhed arduously to loosen her corset strings. But that was better than having Mrs. Paine attend to her, as that lady had merrily threatened to do. Folie put on the worn and comfortable nightgown she had stuffed into her bag in the
middle of the night—a thousand years ago, it seemed—and climbed into bed.

  Nervous and excited, she sat up against the pillows in the middle of the bed. He might not come soon. He might not come at all. She thought of him in the breakfast room—and left the candle lit.

  After a while, she climbed out of bed, trimmed the candle, and got in again. She thought of reading, but her eyes were so tired that she could only look without ambition toward the bookcase. She really did not think that he would come. Charles had not. Not the first night. He had given them time to become better acquainted with one another.

  Folie was not certain about Robert’s delicacy of feeling in that regard. She was by no means averse to his love-making. She had a trick in her mind when she thought of it—when those strange, enflamed moments at Dingley Hall came to her—she did not examine them in detail, though she knew perfectly well that she could if she wished—but rather hastily transferred her attention to some other topic, leaving herself a little breathless, as if she had a cryptic incantation for pleasure that she never quite dared to use.

  What she did know was that Charles had never been that way with her. Probably he had with the first Mrs. Hamilton, but his ardor had died with his first wife. In an odd way, Folie felt very much a virgin, sitting in the big bed with her hair down around her shoulders. She had been a wife. But she had never been a bride.

  She hoped that Robert would come to her. She did not want delicacy of feeling, or consideration, or respect, not from Robert. Somehow it was crucial that he come tonight, this first night—if he did not, she would never be certain how to approach him or act with him. If he did not, she would not know if she was a real wife or not.

  And she would have to bury her veiled and secret hope forever. He had spoken of trust. She had spoken of friendship. She supposed that they liked one another reasonably well. But she had kept a flame that burned beyond all of those things in her heart. It had flickered and waned, half-forgotten—but it had never wholly died. She might be plain Mrs. Charles Hamilton, of Toot-above-the-Batch, Herefordshire, a genteel widow in the eyes of the world—but someone, once, had seen her for a princess. And since then, she had never in all her life known passion for any man but Robert Cambourne.

 

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