The regency romances, p.76
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       The Regency Romances, p.76

           Laura Kinsale
 
“How kind of them!” Folie said. “What of the note that I wrote to Sir Howard?”

  He gave an ironic laugh. “I cannot say I trust your memory of that incident any more than I trust my own reason. We have no clear idea of how that note came about.”

  “The apron,” Lander said. “The maidservant’s apron.”

  “A hallucination.”

  “Sir—” Lander said.

  “Better to stop now, before we create a real debacle.” Robert stood up. He tossed the cards left in his hand onto the table.

  “Just stop?” Lander demanded. “Just throw away what we’ve accomplished?”

  “We’ve accomplished nothing!” Robert’s voice rose.

  “We’re on the very brink,” Lander exclaimed, jumping up from his chair. “I know we are. I’m no greenhorn in these matters. I can feel it.”

  “Nonsense,” Robert said.

  “Nay—it is not. There are clues enough, outside of what we’ve been doing. Something’s afoot among the worst of the radicals.”

  “I can’t go on—I’ll make these mistakes.” Robert shook his head. “You have to understand that. I’ll blunder it.”

  Lander gave him an incredulous look. “Are you afraid?’’

  “I’m not afraid,” Robert said savagely.

  “It seems to me that is what you’re saying.”

  “Then let us meet at dawn, and I’ll show you that you’re wrong!”

  “Robert,” Folie exclaimed. “Listen to yourself!”

  Her appalled voice made him pause. He realized that he was standing with his hands clenched, his whole body ready for combat. Lander had squared his shoulders, as if in unconscious response.

  Robert made a dismissive gesture. “I beg your pardon,” he said coldly. “I misspoke myself.”

  Lander relaxed his hands. He pulled at his waistcoat, as if he did not quite know what to do with them. “Myself also,” he said. “It is just that I am—surprised. Sir.”

  Disappointed, sir, Robert heard unspoken.

  “Very well,” he said stiffly. “You are surprised. I bid you all good night.”

  He left them in the drawing room and mounted the stairs. Inside his bedroom door, he tried to light a candle and burned himself on the brimstone match. Caught between shame and anger, mortified by his own excuses, he fiercely wished himself in some remote wasteland, where any mismanagement of his own could touch nothing and no one. Some cold mountain pass where there was only wind and ice. Someplace where the best companions he had known in his life could not be disappointed when he failed them— and Folie would not be there to see it.

  Rain pattered on the window. Robert stood in the dark. He felt Phillippa in this room. Phillippa and Balfour. It was imagination and madness, he knew that. But he did not try to light the candle again—it was as if he might illuminate the bed and find them entwined there.

  The walls of the house seemed to press in upon him. He had to get away. He had to be gone.

  “By Jove,” the sharper said, “it appears as if our cock won’t fight!”

  “This is unexpected.” Lander looked troubled, glancing toward the door where Robert had left them. “I think I must make a call on someone. Immediately. Ma’am—I’ll leave Martin in charge. If you need anything, you may apply to him. I should return in a few hours.” He nodded to his companion. “Come, I’ll drop you on my way.”

  Folie lingered in the drawing room long after everyone else had left. She listened to the rain fall gently.

  If she ever understood Robert Cambourne, she thought, she would be fit to go touring as an all-seeing magician herself. He was without a doubt the most bewildering, perverse, and distressing man on three continents. He came to her with a man’s desire and left her burning. He teased her like a sister in the day and kissed her at night as a lover— demanded that she plead for more, and then withdrew. It was as if he wanted to strip her of her every defense, as if he could not be content to leave her alone, but kept himself barriered within his own castle walls.

  Or as if he were wandering in some impenetrable forest. She thought of that moment in her bedroom, when she had held her breath, keeping silence so that she would not startle a wild creature as it cautiously showed itself. Something chary and magical, like a unicorn—a fleeting glimpse of a white shadow half-hidden in the depths. Something that was not quite entirely feral, something that yearned to come forward and eat from her offered hand. And yet with every step forward, the distrust grew, until the creature came so close and feared so much that no desire could hold it beside her—it shied and bolted, lost in the darkness.

  That was what his letters had been, she realized now. Letters from her unicorn man, dreams and love at a safe distance for them both.

  A part of her wished to flee him. He might be beautiful and lost, but he was dangerous, too—wielding his cutting words, as sharp as that mythical twisted horn, each one a well-placed laceration. He knew exactly how to wound.

  She thought that if she stayed with him, she would bleed to death from a thousand tiny cuts, delivered over years of holding out her hand for those brief moments of enchantment.

  And yet...

  She remembered Melinda, an unhappy, angry, grieving child. How hard it had been, how hard, to accept the unfair indictments and complaints, to meet a deliberate stab with a gentle reply. How hard to cherish her difficult stepdaughter, and how much worth it in the end.

  To be loved, you must love. Folie did not know where she had heard that. It came into her head; a simple truth, an arduous lesson—something that it seemed she had always known.

  She could not shout or scream or burn down the woods and expect her unicorn to draw near. As long as they were both afraid, he would not—could not—leave the wild, dark woods. As long as she did not trust him, he would hide himself.

  She could leave him there. Or she could offer her love—openly and without defense—hold out her hand and be still, and trust that he would come.

  Robert stood under the dripping eaves, leaning against the house. The tiny back garden smelled of stable and wet bricks. He thought of walking out the gate into the mews, of vanishing into the night.

  It was an old and tempting invitation. He knew alleyways and corners. He knew strangers and the sound of street music. He knew what it was like to have no destination and no time he must return.

  No reason to return.

  He could go now. Robert Cambourne could disappear. He did not know where or how far he might go. America, perhaps. China. Study the natives, take notes, sit down at a desk and suppose that he would begin his book very soon.

  He could leave Lander and the Prince Regent and Brougham and the radicals to their own devices. He could leave Folie to live in splendor at Solinger Abbey and spend all of his money that she pleased. She was welcome to it. She would be safe enough once he was no longer near her.

  Perhaps he would send things to her now and then. Something pretty and exotic, to please her. He would write her letters as he used to do, and tell her of everything he saw.

  But he must get away. He must go. It was as if Balfour and St. Clair had come to him as messengers, demons pricking him with reminders of what he had begun to forget. Flushed with success, he had begun to believe in this new mask of his, but it was a charade. She would find him out.

  He heard the back door open. Lander, no doubt. Robert did not turn his head to look, but only shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and stared into the dark. He could not defend himself further—if the man called him a coward now, Robert could only nod and depart.

  “Robert,” she said. Folie’s soft voice made him turn toward her in consternation. She paused on the step, coming no nearer to him. “I want to tell you something.” Her voice sounded ghostly, echoing in the walled space. She wore a dark cape, her figure a graceful sweep against the silver slips of rain.

  “Yes?” he asked gruffly.

  “I’ve been thinking of what you said tonight. That you believe you should stop this—intrigue.”


  He squinted into the dank shadows. “So?” he said.

  “I just wished to tell you that—whatever you may decide—that—” Her voice seemed to get lost in the soft chime of a gutter that spilled water onto the bricks between them. “I cannot seem to put this quite as I mean it, but...” She cleared her throat. “You know—whatever you decide is best—you will not lose me as a comrade.”

  They stood three feet apart. Robert listened to the water as it ran. He could not seem to bring any words to his throat.

  He heard her take a deep breath. “I love you, Robert,” she whispered. “Very much.”

  His chest began to hurt. No one had ever said that to him, but he could not tell her that. In one sentence she could reduce him to beggary. Make him think that he could not even breathe without her.

  “Sweet knight,” she said. “Your armor will rust if you stand in the rain.”

  There was a tiny quiver in her voice. The pain in his lungs grew deeper. He swallowed and scowled. “Well, it’s my armor, is it not?” he said roughly. “You needn’t concern yourself.”

  The water gurgled in the rain gutter. From the corner of his eye, he saw her pull the cloak closer about her. “I suppose not,” she said in a quiet voice.

  He waited for her to go away, driven off by his rebuff. She would. It was necessary and inevitable, and he could bear it better now than later. The accusation and tears; a woman’s contempt—or worse, this soft, slow whisper of disappointment that scored his heart into ribbons.

  “I think you are all frozen up in rust already, sweet knight,” she said, with an odd, unexpected note of affection. “You stand here stupefied because none of your joints will move.”

  Robert gave an ironic laugh. It struck him as one of those things an Indian saint could say—so utterly true that it laid his whole life before him in a single picture.

  “I’m going for a walk,” he said abruptly.

  “A walk? Now?”

  “Yes. Go inside.” He didn’t wait to see if she obeyed him, but pushed away from the bricks and strode out into the rain. He thrust his key into the lock of the garden gate, pushed out, and heard it clang shut behind him.

  The narrow alley lay ahead, overhung by the black bulk of houses and garden walls. At the end, a street lamp threw light onto the pavement, rain-slicked and puddled, like a shining path that led into mist and darkness.

  It had been midnight when he had left. At one in the morning Folie was still sitting up in her full party dress, waiting to hear that he was safely back, dismayed that she had not somehow stopped him from leaving.

  Lander had not returned, either. Martin, the rather ponderous footman left in authority, had all the helpful instincts of a willing dog, but unfortunately not much greater intellect. He did not know where Lander had gone, and could not think of a way to contact him, but he would be happy to bring ma’am all the trays of tea and cakes that she could hold.

  Folie started up in her chair at the sound of a carriage drawing to a halt outside. Robert, she thought. He might have hired a cab to bring him back. When the doorbell rang, she hurried to the top of the stairs.

  But it was neither Robert nor Lander. To Folie’s shock, when Martin demanded identification of the nocturnal caller, it was Lady Dingley’s shrill voice that answered through the door.

  While Martin stood looking nonplussed at the sound of a woman pleading entry in the middle of the night, Folly ran down the steps. The note in Lady Dingley’s muffled voice was frantic; Folie could not leave her stranded on the doorstep in the rain. She opened the front door carefully, peeping out. The carriage was pulling away. Her friend stood alone on the steps, a forlorn and trembling figure.

  “Come in!” Folie urged. “Quickly! What is it? Are the girls all right?’’

  “He has turned me out!” she wailed, stepping into the hall in soaking wet slippers. “Oh, my God, what am I to do?”

  “Out? What—”

  “Oh, I hate him, I hate him! He—he—has—another—” Her words fragmented into choking sobs. “Cannot bear—sight of...me!”

  “Come upstairs.” Folie took her dripping cloak and held it out to Martin. She put her arm around Lady Dingley’s heaving shoulders. “Bring us some brandy,” she said to the footman as she guided her friend to the staircase. “And some handkerchiefs.”

  In the drawing room, Folie pulled two chairs close to the fire. Martin floundered in with a decanter and glass, clearly enervated by the sight of a hysterical female. Lady Dingley kept attempting to speak, but each time her face would crumple into misery and she sobbed so deep in her chest that no sound emerged, like a child weeping with such force that it could hardly draw breath. Her face was red and white.

  “There,” Folie said, patting her hand and pressing the brandy and a handkerchief into it. “Take this. Be careful now—not too much at once.”

  Lady Dingley gulped the brandy, wincing heartily and gasping. “Oh, dear!” But it seemed to break the hold of the sobs upon her. She sat with her head down, breathing jerkily, and then took another large sip. “I hope I drink myself to death!”

  Folie bit her lip. She knelt beside the chair. “I’m sure it’s not so bad as that.”

  “It is. It is.”

  Folie did not press her, but only stroked her hand and waited.

  Lady Dingley lifted her tearstained face. “I’m sorry to disrupt everything this way.” Her voice squeaked upward. “In the middle of the night!”

  “It’s quite all right,” Folie said. “I was not in bed, as you can see.”

  “I h-had nowhere else to g-go.” She swallowed convulsively. “He said...he said—oh, terrible things...I said I would leave if that was how he—I said you would take me in—and h-he said...I’ll drive you there!”

  “The beast,” Folie said gently.

  “Yes!” she cried. “He is a beast! Oh, you don’t know. You can’t know. Don’t get married, Mrs. Hamilton, it is an awful thing.”

  Folie did not remind her that the dreadful deed had already been accomplished. “He has not hurt you, has he?” she asked. “He has not...” She left the sentence unfinished.

  “No, he does not beat me,” Lady Dingley said, sitting up a little. “I—no—but...” She sniffed. “That is not the only sort of hurt a man can do to his wife.”

  Folie said nothing. She squeezed Lady Dingley’s hand.

  “What did I do wrong?” Lady Dingley moaned. “I don’t know what I did wrong.”

  “It is not your fault.”

  “I loved him so much! That was what did it. I loved him too much. It’s not a good thing, for a woman to be in love with her husband. Oh, but we used to be...it was so...” She made a whimpering sigh that turned into a sob. “And now he has...some horrid...some awful—g-g-girl!”

  Folie handed her a fresh handkerchief. She wished that she had Sir Howard at the point of a sword.

  “I don’t know what to do,” Lady Dingley cried. “I don’t know what to do.”

  “You can stay here as long as you like,” Folie said soothingly. It was only after she said it that she realized that it might not be such an excellent idea—still, at least for tonight, it must do.

  “But the girls.” Lady Dingley blew her nose. “When they wake up, they’ll want me.”

  “Where are you staying?”

  “At that h-hideous Limmer’s Hotel. I hate it! And he said the girls must have their own room—probably because he knew he was going to shout at me until I could not endure it! It was as if he meant to do it! As if he would not be satisfied until I s-said I would leave him!”

  Folie remembered that Limmer’s was where Sir Howard always stayed. She sat back on her heels, wishing desperately that Robert or Lander would come back. The later it grew, the more her nerves tightened. She should never have let Robert walk out that gate, never. It seemed insane now.

  The doorbell rang again. Lady Dingley drew in a sharp breath, but Folie was already on her feet and running to the stairs. “Robert?” she
called, halfway down, before Martin even made it to the front door.

  A heavy fist pounded on the door. It rang again.

  “Hurry!” Folie cried, thinking it must be Robert in danger. “Open it!”

  Martin flung wide the door. Sir Howard stood in the rain, his hat brim-dripping. “Please,” he said, without stepping inside. He looked up to where Folie stood on the stairs. “I wish to speak to Lady Dingley.”

  Folie stood rigid. She was not at all inclined to let him in—but the door stood open, and suddenly he took off his hat.

  “Oh, God. Let me see her.” His voice was strained, hardly even audible.

  “All right,” Folie said coldly. “You may stay a few moments.”

  “But, ma’am—” Martin said.

  Folie knew she should not allow Sir Howard inside. But the look upon his face was nothing calculating—it held as much unhappy desperation as his wife’s.

  “Close the door,” she ordered. “Be quick. And keep close watch for Mr. Cambourne’s return. I’m frightened that he’s been gone for so long.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” Martin said unhappily. “I’ve sent to Mr. Lander to tell him Mr. Cambourne’s gone missing, ma’am, but nothing comes back.”

  “They aren’t here?” Sir Howard asked, pausing with his hand on the newel post.

  “Not at present,” Folie said briefly. “But you may see Lady Dingley in the drawing room. And I’ll just mention, sir, that she is welcome here at Cambourne House as long as she likes to remain.”

  He put his head down and mounted the stairs. Folie went ahead of him, and made him wait in the passage while she went in to warn his wife.

  Lady Dingley met her news with wide terrified eyes. “Stay with me!” she whispered. “Don’t leave me.”

  “Yes—all right.” Folie opened the door and beckoned to Sir Howard. He came inside, holding his hat between his hands. As Folie closed the door behind him, he turned quickly.

  “Cambourne is not here?” he asked.

  Folie kept her hand on the door knob. A new note had entered his voice—something in it made the base of her spine tingle.

 
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