The regency romances, p.83
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       The Regency Romances, p.83

           Laura Kinsale

  Stupid. Her gift was no proof against girlish folly.

  So…she had given him up. She wished them happy.


  Oh, foolish, selfish, stupid liar.

  A stable lad ran out to hold the horses as Roddy and her mother disembarked with the aid of Geoffrey’s ancient coachman. Roddy felt the tall green-and-yellow ostrich plume bob gaily and precariously above her hat as she stepped down, trying to be as light as possible. She brushed surreptitiously at the front of her calico morning dress, and hoped that the green gauze veil trailing down from her hat didn’t drag as it felt it did, for the windows of Moorside’s drawing room looked directly out onto the front drive.

  They found the house cheerful with early-afternoon sun and a small gathering of neighbors come to welcome Lord Cashel and his lady to their second home. Geoffrey’s eyes lit in pleasure at Roddy’s entrance—and she was a fool again, going breathless and hopeful for a moment, hardly noticing the flow of surprise from the other callers, who seldom saw the Delamores’ daughter in public. Though no one had ever exactly said so, it was generally believed among the county families that Roddy was “high-strung,” and suffered “nerves.”

  Geoffrey came forward, all tall and hawk-handsome in that way that made her heart sink, maneuvering neatly around the ample girth of the local baron’s widow who sat in the place of honor. But long before he kissed Roddy’s gloved hand with a polite touch, she knew the truth. His pleasure was not really centered on her, but on the fact that someone of an age with his young wife, who was sitting shyly alone in the corner near the fire, had at last arrived.

  Roddy found a smile somewhere in her disappointment and went immediately to Mary after greeting the baron’s widow, which earned Geoffrey’s great goodwill. He then proceeded to forget all about her, except in the frequent moments when he glanced their way to ascertain Mary’s degree of contentment.

  In a small and pleasant gathering, Roddy knew well enough how to cope with her gift. It was a matter of concentrating on one person at a time, and letting the thoughts and emotions radiating from the rest fade to background. Like the babble of simultaneous conversation, the jumble of individual mentalities blurred easily into an indistinguishable mass. The occasional stronger thought would pop into her head: Mrs. Gaskell’s affront at the flippant mention of her favorite card game Preference as “Pref,” or Lady Elizabeth’s growing impatience that tea had not yet been served; but mostly Roddy was able to control her gift and center her attention on Geoffrey’s wife.

  Thus she knew, long before Mary marshaled up the courage to speak of it, that Geoffrey was expecting an heir come spring. Roddy knew, too, that Mary was somehow upset with Geoffrey, and worried about him. If only, Mary kept thinking, and I wish he wouldn’t, but her preoccupation with the coming baby drowned out anything clearer than a vague jumble of politics and meetings. Roddy saw no harm in those things, which had been Geoffrey’s passion all his life, and tried her best to ignore the privacies that inevitably flitted through the other woman’s mind.

  It was boring. Roddy sat there and cooed over Mary’s impending happiness and played cruel games, like saying that Allen was her very favorite name for a boy and then exclaiming over the delightful and amazing coincidence that it was also Mary’s. And Katherine was so pretty for a girl. Mary thought so too? How singular!

  Silly, Roddy thought, in deliberate meanness. Sweet, silly birdwit.

  Oh, Geoffrey.

  Why can’t I be like that?

  The flow in the room changed. Roddy felt it, from her position facing away from the door, felt the pleasantries evaporate and curiosity take their place. A jolt of pure disgust soured the Irish girl’s sweetness. Roddy looked around.

  Not one of Geoffrey’s callers, except for Roddy and her mother, had known of Cashel’s guest beforehand. For a suspended moment, admiration for the fine, athletic figure in the doorway was universal. Then Geoffrey said, “Iveragh. Come in.”

  Attitudes changed. Instantly. The poorly concealed reactions of shock and affront made Roddy angry, though whether for Geoffrey’s sake or for the earl’s, she did not know. She reached out instinctively to take Mary’s hand in support, but the other girl withdrew it in a wave of shame. The clear spurt of furious revulsion Mary felt for her husband’s friend was impossible for Roddy to ignore.

  She slid her hand back into her lap. She hadn’t known how it would be—that among gentle society the Devil Earl was truly a pariah. Already, some of the callers were standing up to take hasty leave, as if even an introduction would taint their pristine reputations. She watched him return her mother’s greeting with a graceful, easy reply, and wondered if he was even aware of the antagonism which surrounded him.

  He gave no sign of it, though she was certain that he was. How could he not be, when half the room was preparing for a sudden exodus? They only hesitated because the baron’s widow and Mrs. Delamore, first and second in precedence, had already acknowledged their introductions. True, Lady Elizabeth had done so only because she had taken a moment too long to make the connection between Iveragh and the infamous Devil Earl, but Roddy’s mother was determined to show that she, for one, was willing to extend approval to Lord Cashel’s guest. She said something to Iveragh about the invitation to dinner, loud enough for the rest of the room to hear, and one or two of the others relaxed enough to reseat themselves.

  Roddy could not keep her eyes from the earl as he followed Geoffrey from one chilly nod to another. Iveragh answered each with an unperturbed civility which appeared to Roddy to be far more well bred than the thinly veiled hostility he received in response. If he had really come to Yorkshire because of her, she thought, he must wish now that he hadn’t.

  “Your Ladyship,” he said to Mary as they came at last to Roddy’s corner of the room. “Good afternoon. I trust you had a pleasant morning’s walk to town?”

  “Quite, thank you,” Mary said curtly, and Roddy had from her hostess the fleeting, agitated vision of a refusal to be driven into the village that morning by her husband’s unvalued acquaintance.

  Roddy was frowning at that when Geoffrey took her hand and transferred it to Iveragh’s. “Miss Delamore,” Geoffrey said gravely. “May I present Faelan Savigar…Lord Iveragh.”

  “I’m honored, Miss Delamore,” the earl said, and Roddy found herself transfixed once again by coal-rimmed eyes of the clearest, strangest blue. He lifted her gloved fingers to his lips and pressed a firm kiss there without taking his eyes from hers. She swallowed. The spur-of-the-moment notion that had possessed her in Newmarket now seemed to border on insanity. Had he actually come to court her? There seemed to be a question in his glance, but without her gift, she trusted nothing. Still, if she could not fathom Iveragh’s thoughts, she could be perfectly certain of the chilling emanations of disapproval from the rest of the company as he lingered a split second too long over her hand.

  It made her angry. What right had they to hold their noses in the air? Every one of them had some scandal in the closet, and though Roddy was a little unclear on exactly what Iveragh had done to earn such dislike, it could hardly be worse than some of the secret desires Roddy could have told about the most respectable matrons present. In a mood of challenge, she smiled back at Iveragh and said warmly, “Oh, but we’ve met before, I think—and not so long ago! Have you forgotten?”

  A shock wave of consternation swept through the room at her comment, but Roddy saw only the earl’s face. It changed at her words, fleetingly but unmistakably, just a slight widening of his ice-blue eyes, a warming of the skeptical set of his mouth. Somehow Roddy knew it was a rare look that he gave her. “You’re quite impossible to forget, Miss Delamore,” he said softly. “I didn’t know but what you might have decided to forget me in the interim.”

  “Not at all, Your Lordship.” She was well aware of the double-edged nature of her words, and her heart sped a little in conspiratorial excitement. “I believe I said at the time that I hoped I might see you again.”

; “So you did.” He turned to Lord Cashel, who was handing Mary up from her chair. “Yes, of course, Geoff, go on. You’ve done your duty manfully.”

  Geoffrey nodded, and then looked back at the two of them as Mary turned away. “Dragons,” he muttered, under cover of a cough, which reinstated him somewhat in Roddy’s estimation.

  Iveragh stood back a little, turning partly toward the window as if, having finished his conversation with Roddy, he was interesting himself in some activity outside. She sat staring down at the handkerchief in her lap, far more aware of his silence beside her than of the busy hum of thought and conversation that emanated from the rest of the room.

  Even so, his low address startled her. “You astonish me, Miss Delamore. Are you not dismayed?”

  Roddy cast a glance up at him, and found that, to all appearances, he was still staring out the window. She took his cue, and bent her head before she answered softly, “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Don’t you? I should think it would be obvious that your entire acquaintance has taken me in extreme dislike.”

  “It’s no concern of mine what they think of you,” Roddy retorted.

  He stiffened perceptibly. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “Of course it’s no concern of yours.”

  The sudden hardening of his tone made her glance up again, realizing he had misinterpreted her offense. “I meant,” she said quietly to his dark profile, “that what these people may think of you does not affect my own opinion in the least. I shall draw my own conclusions, Your Lordship.”

  He was silent for a moment, and from the corner of her eye she saw his hands tighten behind his back. He said abruptly, “Do you still wish me to call on your father?”

  Roddy felt her cheeks turn rosy. Somehow, what had been shamelessly easy in the clothes of a stable lad became excessively brazen in a respectable drawing room. But the more she had thought about her plan the more plausible it had seemed: he needed her money, and she wanted a family and a home of her own. A marriage of convenience, to the only man with whom she could possibly hope to live. She twisted the handkerchief slowly into a ball and nodded her head.

  He let out a harsh breath, whether in relief or dismay she could not tell. She felt his eyes on her, and looked up. “For the life of me,” he murmured, “I cannot understand why.”

  At that, she glanced involuntarily across the room toward Geoffrey and his wife.

  “Ah,” the earl murmured. She turned back to find him watching her. A faint smile twisted his lips. “I see.”

  “Roddy, my dear—” Her mother’s voice rose above the others, recalling her daughter to the time. A half hour was more than enough for a morning call. Roddy rose, and managed a nod toward the earl, which pleased several dowagers who interpreted its self-conscious brevity as coldness. The earl bade her good day without apparent emotion, and in a flutter of farewells she found herself back out in the fresh chill of the autumn afternoon.

  He came to call on her father two days later. The pretext was the broodmare sale, but Roddy had her heart in her throat as she stationed herself on a low bench, hidden by a hedge outside the open window of her father’s study, to listen. If she had been able to summon the concentration in her excitement, she might have witnessed the conversation through her father’s eyes and ears, but that took more discipline than her pounding pulse would afford. It was eavesdropping, plain and simple, but it seemed a minor trespass in a case that concerned her so dearly.

  The conversation was at first painfully polite, but as her father warmed to the topic of horses, he became increasingly jovial and confiding. That was part of his technique, a way to assess and soften up the opposition. Old horse-trader that he was, he did not understand that there was another deal in the offing, and so did not question his success at bargaining down a judge of horseflesh who was clearly as knowledgeable as himself. The dance of wits was long and complex, and when it ended with a handshake on the purchase of the mares at a price exactly short of a steal, Roddy’s father chuckled expansively.

  “A drink on it, m’lord?” he invited, in a mood of supreme tolerance. “I’ve a fine cognac at hand.”

  Iveragh agreed, and they subsided into the familiar male small talk that Roddy had heard a thousand times before. Nothing remotely related to herself was mentioned, and she had the unhappy thought that Iveragh might be planning to take his time and approach the subject on some later visit. Unfortunately, it was clear to Roddy that her father’s friendliness was only a temporary result of the horse trade. He had no intention of meeting privately with the Devil Earl again in his lifetime.

  A short silence fell, of the kind which heralded the end of the discussion. Roddy had almost despaired of her plans when Iveragh spoke unexpectedly.

  “Mr. Delamore,” he said in a calm voice, “I’d like to ask your permission to pay my addresses to your daughter.”

  “Sir?” Her father was flabbergasted out of his mood of self-satisfied tranquility. “M’ daughter?”

  She could almost see the earl’s dry smile. “Your daughter. Roderica. I should like to court her.”

  “But—” Mr. Delamore could find no more words.

  “I’m sure this seems precipitate.”

  “Precipitate—” It was a dumb echo.

  “Perhaps you should sit down a moment, Mr. Delamore.”

  Roddy put her hand over her mouth to press back a giggle. What abominable aplomb! It overset her father almost as much as the unexpected topic of conversation.

  For a full minute, silence reigned, while her father struggled to cope with this unexpected announcement. Then he said, in a sinking voice, “But you don’t even know her.”

  “Of course I know her. We were introduced at Moorside Hall. But I had met her before that.”

  It was spoken quietly, without emphasis, but the implication burst on her father instantly.

  “Newmarket,” he exclaimed with a groan. “For God’s sake, Iveragh, you’re not so lost to compassion as to bandy that about. It was a lark, a stupid lark. I beg you, man—you wouldn’t ruin her by spreading such—”

  “I have no intention of hurting her,” the earl interrupted coldly. “In any manner.”

  The words sent a trickle of gratified warmth through Roddy, but her father flared in righteous indignation. “Don’t get your back up with me,” he snapped. “If you don’t mean to hurt her, I suggest that you keep a respectable distance. I won’t have her made into scandal-broth on your account.”

  The short space of silence suggested to Roddy that the earl was controlling a sharp retort. After a moment, he said mildly, “Will you give me leave to explain my intentions, before tossing me out on my ear?”

  Her father cleared his throat. The earl’s calmness of manner soothed him in spite of himself. He said gruffly, “Go on, then. I haven’t all day.”

  “I ask only that you allow me to court her. If she dislikes my attentions, of course I will not press my suit. You’ll be thinking of my situation, and my reputation—I’ll tell you bluntly that neither is particularly good. I have just a few months ago been put in control of my estates in Kerry, which were held in trust until my thirty-fifth year. I find them a disaster. If I can’t raise considerable capital in a short time, a writ of forfeiture will be served on every acre of arable land in the lot. The entailed property alone is too poor to support the house, which is already in a state of ruin.” The earl paused, and then added, in a different tone, “I can offer your daughter an ancient name. Nothing more, except my pledge to do everything in my power to use her portion to create for her a comfortable home out of Iveragh, and to see to her happiness with my whole heart and mind.”

  Those final words took both Roddy and her father by surprise. She felt herself flushing even in her hiding place, unsure of how to interpret the earnestness behind the phrasing. It was mere verbiage, she warned herself. Any man might have said as much to the father of his intended bride. And Iveragh was a consummate actor—that was already clear to Roddy.
  Her father harrumphed uncomfortably. “Plain speaking,” he muttered. “Plain speaking, indeed.”

  “I’ve said no more than you could discover yourself with a minimum of effort. My financial circumstances are unfavorable.”

  “Then perhaps you’ll tell me what is favorable about this proposal,” Mr. Delamore demanded. “I fail to see where you come by the audacity to make it, myself.”

  The earl said nothing. Roddy pressed her hands together, envisioning a lifetime of spinsterhood. If only Iveragh would say that he already knew she was willing—her father could never deny her anything that she truly wanted.

  She should have dropped hints earlier. If her father sent the earl away now, Iveragh’s stubborn pride would not permit him to ask again. He was suffering already, if she understood him at all. The humiliation of admitting his destitution to a stranger must be agony. And to have nothing at all to offer, no word to say in his own favor—it was more than a man should have to bear.

  She was suddenly, hotly, determined that she would have him. One way or the other. He needed her, which was something new and precious in her life. If her father resfused the earl, she would find some way to contact him. They could escape to the border and be married there. A hundred wild plans filled her head, distracting her from the confrontation at hand. Her father’s voice jolted her out of fantasy as a sudden recollection struck him.

  “Have you been dallying with my daughter behind my back?” he asked angrily.

  “I have not.” The ice in Iveragh’s voice would have frozen hot coals.

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