The regency romances, p.85
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       The Regency Romances, p.85

           Laura Kinsale
 

  She was caught, with no possible excuse for staring at him except that she was staring at him. The astonishing contrast of light blue and dark jolted her, as it always did, with a physical sensation. He held the smile, faintly, as if waiting to see if she would return it. But before she could command her lips to move or her face to turn, the butler announced dinner.

  Lord Iveragh looked away, offering his hand to Lady Elizabeth. Whatever the prevailing opinion on his morals, certainly no one could fault his manners. Roddy could feel Lady Elizabeth warming to his easy courtesy, and was suddenly and absurdly jealous of the fat old woman who entered the dining room on his arm.

  Dinner was interminable. If any one of Roddy’s four brothers had been at home, she might have found some enjoyment in contrasting their polite exteriors with the piquant personal opinions she was sure they would hold of such a dull and distinguished company. But they were all gone, Charles and Miles down to Oxford, and Mark and Earnest off to hunt grouse with a friend in Scotland. It was Ernest, the eldest, whom she missed the most. This tepid dinner gathering could havebays used a spike of his dry and pointed humor.

  Seated at the far end of the table between Roddy’s mother and Lady Elizabeth, Lord Iveragh carried on a charmingly innocuous conversation about some recent production at the reopened theater in Drury Lane, a topic which set both ladies at ease and convinced Roddy that he was himself an inspired performer. In his role of amiable gentleman, he reminded her of a great lazy black cat masquerading as a tame canary.

  After dinner, when the men had finished their brandy and rejoined the ladies, he sought out Roddy for the first time. As she watched him walk toward her, the dinnertime illusion of domesticity disappeared. He seemed no longer a canary, but an untamed cat again, a natural predator with strange, light eyes.

  She moistened her lips, trying to shed the uncomfortable feeling that it was now she who represented the canary. He stood just beside and a little behind her, a location that somehow, without words, claimed and branded her as his personal territory. The vicar, who had been heading for the seat next to Roddy nearest the fire, took one glance at Iveragh’s cool smile and veered off for another part of the room. Roddy felt a gulf form between the pair of them and the rest of the guests, an intangible wall that even her parents seemed loath to cross. She looked up at the earl and felt as if she were alone with him.

  He said softly, “I’ve spoken to your father.”

  Roddy nodded and fixed her eyes on her hands, unable to force her tongue to move.

  He stood still a long moment, and then reached out and stroked the nape of her neck, a feather touch that made Roddy stiffen in surprise. She did not dare look up at him, but sat rigid, hoping that the movement was not visible to the rest of the party. No one was looking their way; everyone was covering curiosity with determined conversation, as if by mutual agreement they had decided to pretend that Roddy and the earl were no longer in the room. Iveragh’s hand moved down her spine, leisurely, a bare tickle of warmth that made her breath come shallow and quick in a way that she’d never felt before. She sat paralyzed, telling herself that it was outrageous, preposterous—that he should be standing in her parents’ drawing room with all the dinner guests and caressing her as if she were a tavern girl.

  “Will you be my wife?” he asked, in a tone so low it was hardly a breath.

  Roddy felt herself suffuse with color. A mistake, she thought frantically—it was all a mistake. She could not marry this man. Fear was not an emotion that often plagued Roddy, but it closed in on her now with an icy grip. What did she know of him? Nothing. Less than nothing. Blind, deaf, and dumb she was, without her gift to aid her. Naive and ignorant, unable to distinguish fact from fancy. She had made him a hero in her mind, a proud man bearing the weight of his misfortune with dignity, but what was that image to the purpose? He might just as well be—was sure to be—what everyone else thought him: a dissolute cheat unworthy of the title “gentleman.”

  His fingers paused in their feather movement. She felt them float above her shoulder, barely touching. Waiting. She realized that she was holding her breath. The moment seemed to stretch out painfully, and still she could not speak. Finally he moved, lifting his hand as if in withdrawal, and the cool place where his warmth had been was suddenly more than she could bear.

  “Yes,” she said clearly, and looked up at him. “I would be honored.”

  His face had been grim, his eyes intent on empty space as he waited. At her words, his bright glance flicked toward her. His expression changed, and in that moment Roddy was glad of her answer.

  He lifted his head as he spread his hand over her shoulder. His fingers pressed possessively into her skin. His voice, low and carrying, caught the attention of everyone in the room. “Mr. Delamore,” he said. “Your daughter does me the kindness of accepting my hand in marriage.”

  It was hardly a conventional announcement. Lord Iveragh met the stares with a level gaze. Roddy wished she could slowly sink through the floor. His touch seemed to turn cold—a result of the hot blush that spread up from her breasts to her face. The wave of consternation and dismay that emanated from her parents and their guests made her want to turn away and bury herself in the earl’s hard arms, as if there she might find protection from the others’ horror.

  Why had he done that? He should have waited, told her parents in private, allowed them time to accustom themselves before they had to face their friends.

  But she could guess why. He was afraid that she would change her mind. Or have it changed for her.

  And he was right.

  Given time to think, she would have grown cowardly. A day of reflection, and she would have found all the reasons to hang back. She was afraid. The future seemed to fall away from before her like a black pit. Yet his hand was firm on her shoulder, and his body a solid reality at her back. Trust me, that comforting presence said. Lean on me.

  She managed an uncertain smile.

  Geoffrey stepped forward while the rest were still frozen in astonishment. “Congratulations,” he said, and reached for Iveragh’s hand. Geoffrey’s surface warmth did not match his true feelings, which were a confusing mixture of relief and guilt. The cause, he was thinking as he bent to brush a light kiss to Roddy’s fingers. The cause, poppet. I’m sorry.

  Roddy blinked up at him, and he recoiled instinctively at the direct look from her unsettling silver eyes, turning away to focus on Mary again. Lady Cashel came forward at his glance, and offered her good wishes in a subdued voice. Roddy realized at once that if there had ever been a possibility she and Mary might become friends, that event was impossible now. The Irishwoman’s antagonism toward Lord Iveragh hung about her like a dark fog.

  The earl received their approbation gravely. Roddy leaned a little toward him as her father approached.

  “Roddy,” he said, not even glancing at Iveragh. “This is truly what you want?”

  Though the earl’s deliberately public declaration had made denial all but impossible without hideous embarrassment, Roddy’s father was fully prepared to speak out if she showed the slightest doubt.

  She placed her hand over the earl’s, a theatrical gesture, and one that made her intensely aware of the hard strength in the fingers that rested so lightly on her shoulder. “It’s what I want, Papa.”

  He glared at Iveragh. In a savage undertone, he said, “Take care of her, damn you. Or you shall answer to me.”

  She felt the tiny quiver that went through the earl’s hand, as if he might have clenched and unclenched it. “Of course.”

  Her father stepped back, and Roddy looked beyond him in trepidation. She dreaded her mother’s response more than any other. Mrs. Delamore was standing stiffly, still staring at her daughter and the dark intruder who had claimed her as a wife. Her mother’s anguished helplessness brought hot tears to the back of Roddy’s eyes. Please, Mama, she pleaded silently. Please understand.

  Pride came to Mrs. Delamore’s rescue. She waged an internal battle of gr
ief and rage, but nothing of it showed on her face. She went to Roddy and kissed her cheek, managing a smile that was brittle with despair. “Be happy, my dear,” she said too loudly.

  The other guests all left as soon as possible after offering their own congratulations. Lady Elizabeth and the vicar were desperate to start passing the word to the neighborhood, and Lord and Lady Cashel were uncomfortably aware of Mrs. Delamore’s barely controlled emotion. Lord Iveragh stayed only long enough to ask if he might call on Roddy in the morning.

  She nodded shyly to the request, still feeling the imprint of his hand on her shoulder like a brand.

  Roddy had never known anyone who had been engaged before. All of Geoffrey’s courtship had taken place far from Yorkshire, and there were no girls of Roddy’s age in the neighborhood from whom she might have gleaned the proprieties. Her mother had chosen to ignore the situation. She was avoiding her daughter, as Roddy well knew. In one way that made things easier, but no tearful reproaches also meant no advice, and Roddy was left to choose her own line of conduct toward her new fiancé.

  She met him alone in the small parlor the next morning. A smile was more than she could manage, but she held out her gloved hand politely. He did not take it. He stood in the doorway and looked at her, with a far steadier gaze than she herself could command.

  “Good morning,” she said, trying very hard not to look down before those frost-blue eyes. She forced her lips into an awkward curve. “I’m…glad to see you.”

  He raised his dark brows, and faint humor touched the firm line of his mouth. “Brave girl.” He stepped forward and took her gloved hand, bowing over it with smooth grace. “Would you be so courageous as to drive out with me?”

  She looked up into his face and realized with surprise that she really was glad to see him. She felt like a spooky colt let out for the first time alone—fascinated by new sights and sounds and liable to bolt at the merest shadow.

  “I should like that,” she said. “I’ll go speak to Papa.”

  He let go of her hand. “Ah, yes. Papa.”

  She left him standing in the parlor. The interview with her father was brief, for Roddy was determined to block her parents’ fears from her mind. She wasted no time in the hopeless task of convincing her father that Iveragh was not going to attack her the moment they were out of sight of the house, but simply stated firmly that she was going for a drive, and might not be back for luncheon. Her father took one look at the stubborn set of her chin and agreed. As Roddy exited he was making hasty plans to stay out of his wife’s sight for the remainder of the day.

  Lord Iveragh handed Roddy into the phaeton and took up the lines. The crisp morning air and the fresh eagerness of the horses raised her unsteady spirits to the point of inebriation. A bubble of giddy laughter escaped her as the whip tapped the back of the nearside gray and the carriage rolled into motion with a gentle jolt. Appalled, she popped her hand over her mouth and tried to make the giggle sound like a cough. The earl slanted a look toward her at the sound, but said only, “Which direction?”

  She raised her parasol against the sun with a nervous snap. “Have you visited the East Riding before, my lord?”

  “Never,” he said. “My name is Faelan.”

  “Faelan.” She tested the exotic sound of it on her tongue, the way he said it with an Irish lilt—Feylin. It called up thoughts of mist and mountains and wild places. “Faelan Savigar.” She hesitated, and then said diffidently, “It’s certainly fierce-sounding.”

  “Faelan is Gaelic for ‘wolf.’”

  “Oh.”

  He gazed solemnly out over the backs of the trotting horses. “Fortunately, my second name is Vachel.”

  “Oh?”

  “That means ’little cow’ in Old French.”

  “Oh.”

  “They balance each other out, you see.”

  Roddy looked down at her gloves. “Not exactly.”

  He turned his disturbing blue eyes upon her. “Some young ladies are afraid of wolves.”

  She fiddled with the cloudy-glass handle of her sunshade.

  “Are you?” he asked gently.

  Roddy stole a glance and found him watching her. “A little,” she said, in a burst of honesty.

  The phaeton drifted to a stop at the end of the driveway. He smiled. “Then I suggest you pick a direction in which we won’t meet up with any. East or west?”

  Roddy swallowed her confusion. It seemed that they were carrying on two conversations at once, and she was not at all sure if one was not entirely in her imagination. “East,” she said, trying to sound brisk and unconcerned. “I’ll show you a surprise.”

  The horses arched their fine necks and leaned against their traces, and the carriage wheeled out of the drive.

  Chapter 4

  Roddy spent the first quarter hour of the drive watching the wind flutter the silk of her parasol and trying desperately to think of topics of conversation. It was a new and imposing problem. With her gift and her small circle of family and close friends, subjects of mutual interest had always been easy to find. Several came to mind now on which she might have spoken quite knowledgeably, such as the weather and the horses and the price of wool, but none seemed to hold out much hope of amusing the Devil Earl.

  When at length she hit upon a topic, she was so relieved to break the silence that her question came out with an excess of enthusiasm. “Will you tell me about Iveragh, my lord?” She caught her breath, furious with the way her voice quavered upward. “What it’s like, I mean,” she added, which only made her sound worse, as if she’d thought he was too stupid to understand the first time.

  He glanced at her. “Iveragh.” His mouth twisted into something like a smile. “Not yet, I think. I wouldn’t want you to break our engagement before we put the contract in writing.”

  Roddy peeked at him, looking hopefully for a sign that he was joking.

  He tilted his head and raised one eyebrow. “Tell me about yourself instead.”

  “There’s little to tell about me,” she said apologetically. “I’ve never been to London.”

  “Ah.” He nodded, gravely enough, but she suspected humor in the odd set of his jaw. “We shall remedy that, if you like. But it’s you and not London that interests me. What do you do with yourself, when you aren’t dressed up in breeches and battling grooms?”

  Roddy bit her lip. “I suppose I shall never live that down.”

  “No, I don’t suppose you ever shall.” He grinned at her, an expression so unexpected that it seemed to go straight to her heart and make it thump madly. “You’ve a damned graceful way of unmanning an opponent. You can rest assured I’ll remember it to my grave.”

  She shrugged, to cover her agitation. “One is obliged to learn self-defense, with four older brothers.”

  His rich laughter wound around her thudding heart and seemed to squeeze it even harder. “Good God, I hope you never tried that trick on them.” He rolled his eyes heavenward in mock terror. “I’ll take care around you, my dear. I hope you haven’t a short temper.”

  “Not really. Only—I dislike to see animals abused.”

  “I see.” He glanced at her again, with laughter still warming his deep blue eyes. “Tell me about your father’s stable.”

  The question was as surprising as it was welcome. Under the steady encouragement of his smiling interest, she found herself launched on an enthusiastic description of her father’s training methods and breeding techniques. It must have been an hour, but it seemed only a few minutes later when she glanced up at the horizon and caught her breath.

  “There it is,” she cried, and pointed with her parasol as the phaeton bowled out of a steep chasm and onto a rise.

  The horses clattered to a stop. They had been on an indifferent road, surrounded on all sides by nothing but sky and sheep and the gray-green bleakness of the moors.

  “The sea,” Faelan said.

  It had appeared as if by sorcery. A moment before it had seemed that the moors woul
d go on forever in their brooding beauty, but now sea gulls mewed in the cloudless sky, and a sapphire horizon stretched away beyond the sheer cliffs. On a headland in the distance, the crumbling skeleton of a medieval abbey crowned the scene. They sat in silence for a full minute, and then hbe said simply, “I like your surprises.”

  To her profound annoyance, Roddy found herself blushing again.

  “Does the road go past the ruin?” he asked, when she did not respond.

  “Yes. In another mile or so.”

  “Good. We can stop there to eat.” He urged the horses forward. “Are you hungry?”

  “Well—” Roddy hardly knew what to say. Surely he didn’t think there would be food available at the deserted abbey?

  “Well, what?” he mocked, smiling at her hesitation. “Look in the hamper, then, and see if there’s aught to be tempting you. It’s under the seat.”

  By the time they reached the abbey, she had examined and enthusiastically approved the contents. While Faelan saw to the horses she took it upon herself to spread the cloth and arrange the cheese, smoked salmon, and crusty bread on a convenient block of stone. She was working diligently, if inexpertly, to open the wine bottle when he returned.

  He lifted the bottle out of her hands, and with one deft twist freed the cork. Roddy had seated herself on the block next to the food, facing the water. He sat down in the grass beside her, leaning against the roughly dressed stone and stretching out one boot-clad leg as he poured the wine. In exchange for the offered glass, Roddy handed him a makeshift sandwich. They ate in a comfortable silence. It was pleasant, to have someone nearby and yet not intruding on her thoughts. The horses were content with their feedbags. A light breeze from the sea fanned her cheek and the egret feathers on the bonnet she had set aside, but all else was quiet. Even the gulls had deserted them, too wild on this empty coast to accept a handout.

 
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