The regency romances, p.80
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       The Regency Romances, p.80

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “Never worth a dog’s damn,” he said mockingly.

  “Oh!” she exclaimed, fumbling for a handkerchief she could not find. “That made my blood boil, when he said that! But what verily makes me want to scream is that you listen to it.” She snatched the linen that he held out to her and blew her nose.

  With an effort, she recovered her composure. He said nothing, only stood there with that constrained, persecuted air of a gentleman with an unhappy female—as if she were impossible to comprehend and her presence was barely tolerable. It was maddening, Folie thought fiercely, when he was the one who had upset their friendly accord for the most inconsequential reason. She had stepped back away from him. Whatever did he make of that, the silly man? That she could not suffer him to touch her?

  The thought struck her. What had they said about Phillippa? That his wife had not treated him kindly. That she was a devil’s daughter. Or an angel. Never once, in his letters, had he mentioned her name with affection—never mentioned her at all—or even hinted at her existence.

  “I am not Phillippa, you know,” Folie said, crumpling the handkerchief tightly in her fingers. “Whatever she was—whatever happened—”

  He looked around at her sharply. “I know that you aren’t,” he said. As he looked at her, his tone softened a little. “I know that.” He turned away again, but she could see his face reflected in the big gilded mirror on the wall. “Your letters—knowing you were there, just knowing you were there—” His mouth twisted wryly. “In Toot-above-the-Batch, with the geese and river and the white-faced cattle—” He shrugged.

  “It was a difficult marriage,” she said, a faint question.

  “It was hell.” He took a deep breath. “But perhaps I understand her a little better now.”

  Their eyes met in the mirror. Folie waited.

  He shook his head. “You don’t realize, do you? About her.”

  “Realize what?”

  He shook his head again. His jaw was tight, as if he were imprisoning the words. He looked about at the walls and ceiling like a man searching for a way out of a locked room. “I don’t want you to understand,” he said at last, his voice breaking.

  Folie rose. She went to him, reaching up to touch his cheek. She ran her fingers along the dark stubbled line of his jaw, felt the muscles set hard. “Then do not tell me,” she said quietly. “Perhaps it’s better so. Only remember—when you get lost in her dark places...remember that you have a way home.”

  He closed his eyes. She could feel a tremor in his jaw. “Folly,” he said roughly. “You love me, Folly?”

  She took a step back. “Oh,” she said, nodding to herself, “he really is a stupid man!” She looked up at him over the handkerchief pressed to her nose. “What I should like to know is whether you love me!” she said flippantly, to prevent herself from breaking down into nonsensical tears. “But do not put yourself out by saying so, Robert Cambourne. You warned me once that you could never fall in love by letter!” She turned her back on him. As well as possible in a wrinkled and tattered ivory gown, with all the bows untied and most of the seed pearls missing, she flounced up the stairs.

  She did not know what time it was when she woke, but it was certainly afternoon, for the sun shone in the windows she had forgotten to cover. Her eyes felt gritty. And she was cradled in a warm embrace.

  It seemed to take a moment to sort that out. She was not accustomed to waking in a man’s arms. In fact, she could not recall that it had ever happened before. For a time she lay there, hardly breathing, just feeling the long contour of heat pressed to her back. His bare arm lay over her shoulder. In his hand was a note, turned so that she could just read the words aslant.

  Folie squinted as she scanned it. A slow smile grew on her lips. Carefully, so as not to wake him, she slipped out of bed and took a sheet of paper from the desk. She wrote her reply.

  He turned on his back, still asleep, as she lay down with him again. She rested her forehead against his shoulder and put the paper on his chest, where each breath lifted it lightly. She began to place whispery kisses along the line of his jaw.

  His eyes opened. He did not look at her, but stayed still, gazing upward at the canopy as she touched her mouth lightly to his skin, her lips soft as Toot’s tickling nuzzles. After a moment, he made a faint dubious sound, his mouth curving up like a man who wanted to laugh but could not quite.

  Folie guided his hand to the note she had written. He looked down, lifting his head slightly to read it. “Well?” Folie said archly.

  He gave a bark of laughter and dropped his head back on the pillow. “Kiss your what?”

  “You know,” she said, pushing out her lower lip.

  He rolled over suddenly, on top of her, resting his elbows on either side of her shoulders, trapping her against the bed with a growl. “Say it.”

  Folie parted her lips, gazing up into his gray eyes, feeling the heat of his skin on hers. “I will say my line if you will say yours.”

  He buried his face in her throat and mumbled an unintelligible phrase.

  “What a coward!” she said, pressing her cheek to his hair. “I love you, sweet Robert.”

  He mumbled the phrase again, impossible to decipher. Folie smoothed her hand down his bare shoulder and his back. He arched his body against her, groaning with pleasure. A tautness grew in his embrace, a purpose; he held her face between his palms and kissed her deeply. Folie kissed him back, more lightly. She did not move, she did not press up in answer, though her body was warm and urgent. She felt as if she were holding her breath, waiting.

  “My Folly,” he whispered. “My Folly.”

  “Robert,” she said helplessly. “Please.”

  He closed his eyes with a low sound, a moan of surrender and desire. He pushed between her legs, spreading them apart. The hard shaft pressed and opened her; impatient thrusts, as if he could not wait to be gentle. Folie did not even move—every time he came to her, stretching her, invading deeper and deeper into her, it sent a wave of delight upward, closing her throat. She began to make small whimpers, the pleasure caught there, pulsing, spreading through her trembling limbs. The whimpers became sharp gasps, his hard breathing mingled with hers. He slid his arms under her waist, drawing her upward. Folie felt as if she could not command her own body; her head fell back and her breasts arched upward to him, a happy, shameless offering.

  He sucked air between his teeth, gripping her against him. She felt his muscles contract, pumping into the depth of her, holding on a long, hard shudder. His eyes squeezed shut. Folie’s own ecstasy burst as she watched him. She lay back with his arms under her, his thick pressure inside her, the hot joyous waves coursing through and consuming her.

  They lay panting and relaxed, soft against one another, afterward. After a few moments, Robert turned his face into her shoulder and chuckled. “Kiss your what?” he mumbled against her skin.

  She scrambled away as he began to tickle her. “I’ll never say it again! Robert Cambourne!” She squealed as he tackled her and pressed her down into the pillows. “I won’t! See if you can make me!”

  “All right.” He sat up suddenly, scowling, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. Folie’s heart fell as he stood up and left her so abruptly.

  But he only went as far as the desk, leaning over to scratch a short note with the pen and half-dried ink. He came back to the bed, collected the other sheets of paper, and stacked them together in a businesslike manner. Then he slid in beside her and laid the whole sheaf over her nose, the words becoming great black blurs so close to her eyes. He wrapped his arms about her, drew in a long breath, and sighed deeply, settling in.

  “Made it, sweet Folly,” he murmured into her ear. “Made it home.”

  EPILOGUE

  Dear Folly,

  Of course I could never fall in love by letter. I had to know you to even learn what love could be. It is hard for me to say these things aloud, Folly. I love you. I love you. I love you. Is that unequivocal enough? My foolish,
smiling, cherished princess, don’t leave me, don’t ever let me go. You can even keep the ferret if you must.

  Your Knight,

  Robert

  P.S. Lander is the youngest son of the Marquess of Hursley.

  Dear Knight,

  Well, all right. I suppose Melinda may marry him, then. Of course I will never leave you, sweet Robert. I am your homing princess. Who else will show you the way back when you’re lost?

  Love,

  Your Folly

  P.S. Besides, who else would I ask to kiss my kitten?

  Ah, my dear sweet Folly,

  Who else could make me want so badly to kiss her? Next time. You won’t even have to beg.

  Uncertain Magic

  Chapter 1

  Newmarket Heath, 1797

  Roderica Delamore clutched hard at the billowing silk folds of her father’s pavilion as the horses came pounding down the turf. The blood-bay stallion was in the lead, a flash of living fire, pulling away from the challenger with each ground-eating stride as the crowd’s rumble gathered to a piercing howl. The noise and emotion rose up around Roddy like a breaking wave, beating at her, drowning her, crushing the barriers that she’d built in her mind. Her cursed gift laid her open to everything, the sound, the sight, the combined aggression and excitement of ten thousand screaming spectators. The intensity of emotion threatened to overwhelm her, and she tore the silk with her twisting fingers as she sought madly for some way to block it out.

  Her parents had been right—she should never have come. She should have stayed home on the quiet Yorkshire estate where her father raised his blooded running stock, safe in the country solitude. She was not ready for this; she’d had no concept of what it would be like to suffer the full force of her talent in the grip of a hysterical crowd. In desperation she narrowed her concentration to the animals, pushing away the tide of human feeling with terrific effort.

  The trick worked. The impact of the crowd faded and changed, becoming a background roar of sound as Roddy let herself be sucked into the mind of the stallion in the lead, the bright bay, whose will and power filled her like a flood of molten fire. Her world became the world of the racehorse: the taste of copper and foam, the smell of sweat and crushed grass and hot wind; stretching, seeking, ears flicked back to the thunder of the challenger, eyes focused on the terrain ahead; reaching and reaching and reaching forward—

  The sudden pain struck her as if it were her own. It shot down the stallion’s left foreleg, and he broke stride for one fraction of a second, sending the jockey’s live weight forward onto the horse’s shoulders. The whip flashed, not hitting, but the brandishment was enough. The stallion sprang ahead. The pain increased. It grew, spreading across the animal’s chest and striking into his neck and right leg. Still he ran, defying it, his stallion’s mind set in aggression and pride—stay ahead, stay ahead, damn the pain—while Roddy pressed her fists to her mouth and bit down until her knuckles bled with vicarious agony.

  In a back corner of her mind she was aware of fear, a human dread of the moment when the great beast would collapse and take down his jockey and the challenger behind in a savage tangle of flesh and hooves. She’d felt this kind of pain before, at home, when an exhausted gelding had collapsed of heart failure after a twenty-mile race between parish steeples. It was death, close and dreadful, and yet the stallion drove on, opening the lead. His stride lengthened, his black-tipped legs devouring turf like the rhythmic spokes of a giant wheel. As he neared the finish, the crowd noise rose to a crescendo. The pair flashed by Roddy. She was screaming, too, hardly aware of the tears that streamed down her cheeks for the animal’s pain and courage, for the will that carried him past the finish a full length ahead of his rival, for the spirit that made him toss his head and fight the restraining hand of his jockey when every single step was anguish. She broke from her hiding place in the pavilion, in the rough stableboy’s clothes and the cap she’d worn to conceal her bright blond curls, and pushed with unfeminine force through the mob that closed in on the victor.

  She reached the stallion just as the silk-clad jockey swung off. A groom ran forward to take the puffing animal’s bridle; his hand clashed with Roddy’s as they both lunged. Roddy’s fingers closed first and she tore the reins away.

  “Yo!” he shouted amid the din, and made a move to yank them back.

  Roddy screamed, “Don’t move him!” forgetting entirely she was supposed to be a boy. “He’ll die if you move him now!”

  “Are ye crazed?” the groom cried. Roddy stumbled under his shove, then gritted her teeth and held her ground.

  The stallion stood still beside her, awash in pain. He lowered his head, giving in to weakness for the first time, and at that motion the protests of the groom faded momentarily. But the man’s pride was aroused now, his authority questioned. Roddy felt the stallion begin to tremble in delayed reaction. The groom made another grab for the reins. He captured them, pushing Roddy aside as he led the horse forward.

  The stallion faltered, and went to his knees. All around, a dismayed cry flew up, and then a cheer as the horse clambered back to all fours. Roddy gave the groom a savage look. She felt the man’s antagonism, sharp and quick as a stabbing knife within the wash of emotion from the crowd. She knew before he did it that he was going to drag the horse forward again. “Damn you! Don’t—” she shouted, and found herself cut short by another voice that sliced across the noise.

  “Leave it, Patrick. Let him stand.”

  Roddy stiffened, unused to being taken by surprise. She did not turn toward the newcomer—that was habit—but opened her special gift to his mind, expecting to pluck out a name and identity before she even saw his face.

  Instead, she found only blankness.

  That jolted her. She focused her gift more sharply. But the other remained a silence, a void, as disconcerting as the space where a newly lost tooth should have been.

  A bubble of panic rose to her throat. For the first time in her life, Roddy felt herself reaching out instead of turning away, probing for emotion or thought instead of rejecting it. When finally she turned, it was as if she could not quite see the man beside her; only a vague figure, tall and elegant in a black coat and doeskin breeches. She spared a single glance up into his face.

  His features came into focus with a sudden, wrenching clarity. He stood quite still amid the clamor, watching her intently, his eyes a startling blue beneath thick black lashes—light against dark, like the bright evening sky behind stark silhouettes. The expression on his fiercely carved face was closed, set in lines impossible to read. She blinked stupidly and gaped, like a person set down in a foreign country, unable to cope with an unknown tongue.

  The silence spread to the watching throng, the real silence, the one her ears heard instead of her mind. Shouts and talk faded into hush. And in the crowd-thoughts behind the silence she found a name.

  Her eyes widened. She looked quickly toward the stranger from under her lashes.

  Saints preserve us.

  Iveragh. The Devil Earl of Ireland.

  She found herself in deeper water than she’d wanted. A lot deeper. She should have guessed. Oh, God, how had she not guessed? He owned the beast, for the Lord’s sake. Rumor had been rife that the horse would go for a fortune to Lord Derby or the Duke of Grafton if it won today.

  Roddy stole another look. The man could have been Satan himself, with his hell-black hair and burning blue eyes. Every improbable tale of the Devil Earl took on believability: if anyone could be a blackmailer and a thief and a pitiless corrupter of innocent maids, this was surely the man.

  People moved. The crowd shuffled and shifted, and opened way again with that instinct they had for a fine coat and a gentleman’s air. She knew the newcomer this time—Lord Derby himself, eager to lay his claim to the horse.

  He hailed Iveragh and pumped his hand, congratulations on the win. “We’ll call this an agreement.” Derby pumped harder, looking sillier than he knew against Iveragh’s trenchant si
lence. The excited lord babbled something about the next heat, and Roddy swung round in dismay. “Don’t race him again! You musn’t—”

  “Gor—” The groom shoved her roughly. “Mind yer business, ye little bastard. The horse ’twere never better. Get on wi’ ye.”

  Roddy thrust his hands away with hot indignation, remembering too late that she could hardly be taken for a lady of quality just now. She turned again to Iveragh—a look up to those uninterpretable blue eyes as steady as she could make it, which wasn’t very. From somewhere she still had enough sense left to use her best country accents. “He ain’t fit, m’lor’. He’s sick. ’Twill kill him to run again. I’ve felt—” She stopped herself, knowing that these strangers would never believe in the talent that was taken for granted in her father’s stable. “I’ve seen this before. ’Tis his heart, m’lor’.”

  “Sick, is it?” The groom moved a step. “Sick be damned, ye bleedin’—” Roddy felt his intention a moment before the action and stiffened—fool, fool, when she should have ducked—and the cracking blow took her across the face and sent her reeling into the solid wall of the earl’s chest.

  He caught her arms in a painful grip, but Roddy was too stunned by the bruising ache in her jaw to take more than passing notice. She hung a hazy moment in Iveragh’s arms, then struggled up and tore herself free, going at the groom with all the fury of a wildcat, using nails and teeth and all the curses she had ever learned from her four rough-and-tumble brothers. She didn’t bother to throw punches with only her puny weight behind them, but used her talent shamelessly, outguessing, dodging and biting and striking openhanded with ruthless efficiency, drawing blood more than once before she swung her leg up hard and kicked, catching the man squarely in the groin. He yelped and staggered back, bent double, and Roddy drank in his pain with satisfaction as the hisses and cheers rose up around them.

 

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