The regency romances, p.74
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       The Regency Romances, p.74

           Laura Kinsale
 

  He closed his fist again, and opened it magically on the comb. “Come here. Give me your hand.”

  She went to him and held out her palm. He placed his fist over it. Something fell into her hand—not the comb— but a tiny carved elephant of ivory.

  “That is for you,” he said.

  Folie touched it. She turned the small piece over and bit her lip. “Thank you.”

  He shrugged. “I have trunk loads of that rubbish.”

  She held it in her lap, sitting against the edge of the high bed. “Perhaps it’s an enchanted talisman.”

  “No, don’t say that. It’s too easy to lose the boundary between conjuring and enchantment.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe everything has gone so well. It’s as if nothing can go wrong.”

  “Are you worried?”

  “No. Only about you. For me—I don’t know, it’s all rather...” He hesitated. “Lander and the magician—I don’t even know his real name. They’re good men. We work well together. It’s as if...” He seemed to search for words, then opened his hands apologetically. “You know, I’ve never before had anything like this.”

  Folie tilted her head. “Like this?”

  “L’esprit de corps, I suppose,” he said. “That’s what the army calls it.”

  “All this French! My head is spinning.”

  “Comradeship. Pulling together. Good fellows; they depend on you, you depend on them.” He shook his head, as if it bewildered him. “It’s dangerous enough, what we’re up to—but my God, I had not realized...it is fun.” He lifted his face. “In truth, I enjoy it.”

  “You like the danger?”

  “No. Not the danger itself, so much. That is just—spice. The thing that makes it happen. What pulls us together. Tonight, when we all stayed while you wrote out the notes—” He shrugged, turning to look into the cold fireplace. “I liked that.”

  Folie watched him, saying nothing. It was like watching a wild fox come out of the woods—she did not wish to startle him away by her response. He made a coin appear between his fingers, staring absently into space.

  “I suppose I’ve been rather a solitary fellow in my life,” he said.

  “Yes,” she said. “I know.”

  He looked up at her, as if that surprised him. Then he grimaced. “I wrote you about it.”

  “Knight errants must be solitary on their journeys.”

  “Ah, Folly.” He sighed deeply. “When do they end, these journeys?”

  Their eyes met and glanced away. Folie felt that they had tread onto quaking ground, that in a moment she would betray her own little secret by blurting out the words to him.

  “They end when you come to a halt, I suppose!” she said brightly. She turned to the bed and slid her hand beneath the cushions. “I’ll keep the elephant under my pillow. Perhaps it’s not enchanted, but one can never be too prudent.” She faced him again, backed against the bed. “Good night, my dear friend.”

  “Yes.” He stood up, looking at the floor and the bed and the dressing table, everywhere but at her. “Good night, Folly. Sleep well.”

  TWENTY-THREE

  Robert felt as if he had caught himself in his own snare. He spent his days in mastering tricks and sleight of hand, his evenings in illusion, and his nights burning. Twice he had gone to Folie’s bed, waking her and kissing her—gone that far, and known that if he went any further he would not be able to stop short of completion. So he had left.

  It was supposed to be enticing her. Instead, it seemed to be merely driving him out of his mind. She welcomed his advances and calmly accepted his retreats. She did not complain, she did not grow irritable as he remembered he had done with Phillippa when she had teased him beyond endurance.

  In the daytime, he could put it from his mind, in the same manner he had always put Phillippa away, forgot her while he was free to wander outside the sucking marshes of her will. Folie he did not have to forget in quite that way—in fact he liked having her about him; sitting at the secretary or the breakfast table scribbling down notes, asking questions, and making her whimsical remarks. In the midst of their most serious speculations, she would mutter some odd and entertaining thing, and he and Lander and the conjurer would smile covertly at one another over her bent head.

  But at night—he fought his demons the same way he’d fought Phillippa. It was fruitless to pretend that he was cold, that he could practice the same sort of gull upon himself that he was attempting to lay upon the world at large. He had no mystical abilities, and he was growing more desperate for Folie each night. But he could not fail at either deception. He dared not. If society learned that he was a fraud; if Folie realized the power she could wield over him, how he could lose himself to her...

  His mind always stopped at that precipice. Don’t think about it, he commanded, and then stared into the black night as if it were a hole into Hades.

  Still, things were going uncannily well. Every evening appearance he had made had been successful. Their notes now concentrated on who showed the greatest interest in him—who appeared regularly and watched him closely. Robert had begun to drop hints that his “powers” had been gained through a terrible transforming experience—something mysterious and formidable, nearly fatal. He had survived the ordeal, but it had changed him to the core.

  He intended that whoever had drugged him should begin to fear that their potion had altered him in a way far beyond what they had intended.

  How they would catch their quarry was yet a riddle. Just to identify him beyond doubt was the first step. They took each performance as it came, trying to winnow and interpret the subtlest of clues. Usually Robert was on his own, at social events that Lander and the conjurer must necessarily be excluded from, but after each affair they met together and went over every detail, with Folie writing it all down.

  “The Duke of Kent is quite my favorite suspect,” she said, perusing her notes in the breakfast room after Robert’s appearance at the regent’s levee. “He appears to be perfectly sinister. Murdered his valet!”

  “Beg pardon, ma’am,” Lander said. He passed her the butter dish for her toast. “But you mean the Duke of Cumberland. He’s the one whose valet was found with his throat cut.”

  Folie shook her head, crossing something out. “I vow I cannot keep them apart. But Kent is the radical?”

  “Indeed, yes. He has been corresponding with certain persons who advocate revolution as the only method of reform.”

  “Lander,” Folie said severely, “however do you know what is in the poor man’s correspondence?”

  Lander pursed his lips and shrugged.

  “I suppose it’s no use to try to carry on any clandestine love affairs while you are about,” she said with a sigh. “Now, is it the last brother, Cambridge, who has been spreading talk of the regent’s inheriting his father’s madness?”

  “Aye, that’s Cambridge,” Robert confirmed. He took a sip of coffee, looking over the top page of his newspaper. “You were considering a clandestine love affair, my dear?”

  “Yes,” she said, scribbling, “I intend to elope with the collier, the next time he delivers the coal. It is the only way I can see to get out of this house for some fresh air.”

  “My favorite suspect would be Brougham,” Lander said thoughtfully. “If we could corner him.”

  “Brougham!” Robert said, startled. “Lord Brougham? The lawyer?”

  “He’s a far-fringe Whig—though they don’t sleep easy with him, I hear. He’s brilliant. Ambitious. Leads the radical opposition. And he hates the regent.”

  “Circumstantial evidence.”

  “Still, I should like to see his reaction to you.”

  “I don’t know him,” Robert said. “He’s not been in attendance anywhere I’ve yet gone.”

  “I know. I heartily wish we could discover some way to arrange for a meeting.”

  “How do you spell ‘Brougham’?” Folie asked, writing.

  Lander spelled it for her.

 
Would a party at Lady Melbourne’s house be useful?” she asked idly.

  “Useful for what purpose?” Robert asked.

  “It would be excellent, ma’am!” Lander said. “A grand Whig hostess—her soiree would be just the place we could hope to find Brougham.”

  “Ah.” Robert nodded. “But how are we to persuade her to toss this soiree and invite me?”

  Folie looked up. Humming a dramatic air, she held out one closed fist, running her other hand all about it, as if she were a stage magician proving there was no invisible trick. Then she turned her fist over and opened it.

  It was empty. Hastily, she reached under her paper, pulled out a card and slapped it into her open palm.

  “There!” She held out the card, fluttering her eyelashes. “Voila tout!”

  Robert took the card. “ ‘Lady Melbourne proposes to hold a select evening party in honor of the nuptials of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Cambourne,’ “ he read. “Craves our indulgence, suggests time and date, wishes to know if we have any particular guests we should like to have invited.”

  “Now tell me that I am not a magician,” Folie said smugly.

  “Conjuring and French, too!” Robert said. “You make progress.”

  “Lady Melbourne sent it this morning. I was just about to write back with our excuses and refusal, being such an obedient wife.” She made a face at him. He had not allowed her to accept any of the invitations that had begun to arrive with her name included on them. “However, in this case, I am afraid that if you are to have your party, you must have me, too.”

  “Why?” Robert asked casually, hiding a smile.

  “Because!” she said, sitting up with a militant air. “It is in honor of both of us!”

  “Just because you are Mrs. Cambourne! I doubt anyone wants to see you. It’s the bridegroom they come to ogle at these affairs.”

  “Ha. Wait until the coal is delivered.”

  Robert stood up, folding the newspaper. He put his thumb under her chin and tilted it up. “I would hunt you to Japan if you escaped,” he said.

  “Your hopeless sense of direction! We’ll be running away to Newcastle, of course.”

  “Oh, yes. Somewhere off that way.” He made a vague gesture.

  Lander chuckled and shook his head. “That’s west, sir. Newcastle is to the north.”

  Folie smiled sweetly. “I’d better leave you a map.”

  There had been no attempt yet to interfere with their comings and goings, but still Robert insisted on extreme care on the rainy night that they attended Lady Melbourne’s evening party. In fact, he had Folie leave the house early in the day, with all of her paraphernalia, and go to a hotel. Since she could dress there with the help of a maid, she had no objection to it. She was ready precisely at half past seven, dressed in Melinda’s made-over gown, when Lander arrived to escort her across the windswept pavement to a plain black carriage.

  Robert waited inside it, looking quite handsome, Folie thought, in a snowy cravat and the dark blue coat he had worn at their wedding. He handed her a posy of yellow rosebuds.

  “Thank you!” Folie said, pushing back her bedewed camlet hood. “How pretty they are.” Then she did something daring, because things had been going so well between them in the past ten days since Lady Melbourne’s card had arrived. She put her gloved hand on Robert’s and leaned her cheek against his shoulder. The carriage took a turn just then, balancing her the other way, and she straightened and put her hands in her lap with the bouquet. Just that brief touch; he did not say anything, or return the contact—but she thought, in the dimness of the closed carriage, that his mouth curved a little in a half-smile.

  Once they arrived at Melbourne House, the precautions did not have to be so severe. It seemed unlikely that even the most audacious of villains would attempt an abduction of the guests of honor in the midst of a party. Sheltered by the umbrella of a footman, Folie walked openly inside, received warmly by Lady Melbourne in her throne-like chair. They had arrived early, invited to a dinner before the assembly.

  “I have a surprise for you!” Lady Melbourne said with her throaty, pleasant laugh. “Come out, Belle!”

  From behind the Chinese screen, Lady Dingley stepped out, blushing and protesting like a shy girl. She held out her hands to Folie. “Mrs. Hamilton!”

  Folie gasped in pleasure, completely surprised. They clasped hands—Folie was amazed to find Lady Dingley, normally so reserved, pulling her into an impulsive hug.

  “Oh, dear! I meant to say Mrs. Cambourne!” she said, giving Folie a hard squeeze. “I am so glad to see you! You cannot know—we were so worried! But—” She pressed her lips. “I shall say no more of that. When we received Godmama’s letter, we could not possibly refuse to come!” She gave Folie a significant look.

  “Sir Howard is here, too?” Folie asked.

  Lady Dingley nodded, her eyes wide, as if it were a miracle. “He’s here! Waiting in the other room.”

  “Then this is an honor indeed!” Folie said. She turned to Lady Melbourne with a curtsy, forcing any unease about Sir Howard out of her mind, at least while she spoke to her hostess. “I must thank you from my heart, ma’am! How good it is to see my friend!”

  “Oh, that is not all,” Lady Melbourne said, as mischievous as a gypsy. “Perhaps Mr. Cambourne will meet some old friends too, in due time!”

  Robert bowed and smiled politely. He did not appear to be overly gratified by this prospect, but Folie thought it would be quite interesting to meet old friends of his. But she wished that she might know what he was thinking of the Dingleys’ appearance. It was entirely unexpected, and yet—what more natural than for Lady Melbourne to invite them?

  It was not a large group—no more than ten sat down in the dining room, but Lady Melbourne’s table could never be dull—she was too clever and experienced a hostess to allow apathy to enter the conversation. The other dinner guests were soon deep in a discourse upon Napoleon Bonaparte. It seemed odd to hear a gentleman like Lord Byron arguing that the tyrant was in fact an admirable character. Folie could not quite comprehend how a liberal-minded man could appreciate a despot, but she supposed that she must not be deeply shocked at anything bandied about in a dedicated Whig household.

  Poor Sir Howard, she thought, took the disaffection and displeasure with the Tory government much harder. Though he said nothing, he was so red in the face with emotion that Folie almost felt sorry for him. His wife cast him frequent, dubious glances—Folie knew she must be terrified that he would lose command of himself, but he did not.

  When Folie asked after all the girls, Lady Dingley went on at nervous length about her daughters. “And Sir Howard insisted that we bring Fanny and Virginia to town with us,” she exclaimed, as if it were a great mystification to her that her husband would consent to travel with his two youngest daughters. “He says that they ought to learn to drive a gig in Hyde Park! Can you imagine? And Ginny is only just turned five!”

  Robert and Sir Howard studiously ignored one another during this family gossip. Try as she might, Folie could not be afraid of him. In truth, Robert himself seemed far more sinister, with his black panther countenance and the way he kept a watchful silence, his gray eyes observant but impenetrable.

  It had a strange effect on the table, his stillness. Gradually, Folie became aware that the other guests kept casting glances in his direction—as if they could not help themselves, the way one might cross a field with a bull on the far side—boldly enough, but keeping an eye out for any sign of movement.

  “And what is your opinion of the matter, Mr. Cambourne?” Lord Byron demanded at last. “I understand that you are a diviner of the future. What will become of old Boney?”

  “I am nothing of the sort,” Robert said calmly. He looked straight at the poet, lifting his eyebrow.

  “How unfortunate!” Lord Byron smiled. “Has Lady Melbourne brought us here under false pretenses?’’

  “I cannot say, as I do not know what those pretenses may be.” Robert rest
ed his fingers against his wineglass. “I thought the assembly was in honor of my bride.” He lifted his glass toward Folie, smiling affectionately. “To my lovely Mrs. Cambourne...she walks in beauty, like the dusk.”

  As everyone hastily lifted glasses, joining in the toast to her, Lord Byron choked on his wine. He began to cough so hard that he had to push away from the table and rise. “Excuse me,” he wheezed. “M’ ‘cuses!”

  He walked quickly out. Folie thought that Lord Byron, supposed to be quite dark and dashing, looked rather foolish limping from the room. She thought Robert would make a far better Gothic hero in any case. He had certainly done a masterful job of putting to use the lines of unfinished poetry that Lander’s emissaries had scavenged from a search of Lord Byron’s rooms while he had been dining out the previous night.

  Folie carefully did not look toward Robert, for fear that she would burst into exultant snickers. Instead, she turned to Lady Melbourne and assured her that Toot the ferret sent his regards and regrets that he could not attend.

  Robert was aware of Byron’s attention returning again and again to him as the rooms began to fill with guests. Folie stood beside him at the head of the stairs, accepting compliments and congratulations. He was trying to watch both Byron and Dingley; at the same time nod and smile to the line of arrivals filing past to shake his hand. He didn’t know a third of the names bawled by the servant at the foot of the stairs—all he was listening for was the announcement of Brougham’s arrival. So when a vigorous voice hailed him, at first Robert only looked at the man who had just climbed the stairs and seized his hand—saw a handsome brutal face and the uniform of the 10th Bengal Infantry.

  “Sly fox! Ran away back home, did you?”

  Balfour. Robert’s whole body reacted. Automatic shame fountained up through him. A numbness enveloped his brain. He stared insensate at the man who had cuckolded him with Phillippa.

  “John Balfour!” the man said heartily. “Has it been so long you don’t know me?”

 
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