The regency romances, p.86
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       The Regency Romances, p.86

           Laura Kinsale
 

  She finished her sandwich and stared around her at the quiet ruins. A melody came unbidden to her lips, the kind of haunting air she loved. She hummed it softly, liking the way the wind carried her notes away as if to please some fay sea creature drowsing far out on the shimmering waves.

  She realized, with a small shock, that she was happy. Her fears and doubts had faded into pleasant attention to the numerous small sensations that interested her. In the cool autumn day, there was just a trace of heat from the man at her side, the slightest warmth where his shoulder rested half an inch from her knee. She felt it even through her light wool skirt. Against the background of cerulean, his hair seemed very black. It made her think of his eyes and their blue beneath thick charcoal. She watched his hands idly as he poured another glass of wine. The fingers were long and perfect: strong, rather than refined.

  He was, she thought smugly, a handsome man.

  The idea made her lips curve upward. She had to remind herself firmly that theirs would be a marriage of convenience. He needed her for her money, not her person. Those fine hands had undoubtedly caressed far more beautiful women than Roddy was sure she would ever become. After their wedding, he might even decide to go back to his mistresses.

  A depressing thought. Not that she’d expected eternal devotion from him, but it would have been nice to…

  But no, that was mere fantasy. She wanted children, and proper management of the money and estate that would be their future. That was enough. He could keep all the highfliers he liked. It was, she told herself, one of the specific advantages of marriage to the Devil Earl—she would know no more than he chose to tell her.

  He slanted a look at her, and held up his glass. “To my bride,” he said unexpectedly. “May you always be as happy as you were a moment ago.”

  Before Roddy could summon a reply, he finished off the wine in one swallow and stood up. “Walk with me.” He held out his hand. “We need to talk.”

  His fingers curved around hers, giving her little choice but to obey. He did not let her go as he began to walk, but tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, a move that seemed so natural to him that she thought again, gloomily, of the women he must have known.

  “What is it?” he asked suddenly.

  Roddy looked up at him in startlement. “I beg your pardon?”

  He stopped and turned, and once again she was caught by the vivid blue of his eyes. “Why do you frown? I’d hoped you were enjoying yourself.”

  “Was I frowning?” Roddy made an effort to lighten her expression. “I’m sorry. Of course I’m enjoying myself.”

  He took her arm again and moved on. “Good. I like it when you smile.”

  “My lord—”

  “Faelan.”

  Roddy took a breath. “Faelan—there’s really no need for gallantry. I realize full well that you’ve offered for me because of my portion, and I’m well satisfied. You don’t have to pretend affection when we’re alone.”

  He stared out at the water. “Don’t I? How practical you are, Miss Delamore.”

  “You may call me Roderica,” she said generously.

  “I would far rather call you Roddy, as Geoff does. May I have that honor, or is it reserved for—” He paused, and then said with an odd quirk to his mouth, “—old friends?”

  “I’ll never be properly dignified if everyone calls me Roddy,” she protested. “It sounds like a stableboy.”

  “Ah, but I have a special fondness for stableboys. I’ll call you Roderica until we’re married, if you like. After that, I shall consider it my prerogative to choose what suits you best.”

  They walked in silence for a while as he led her aimlessly among the tussocks of dried and windblown weeds. Finally she said, “You wanted to discuss something, my lord?”

  “Yes.” He reached down and pulled a late-blooming wildflower, a ragged thing with tiny, colorless petals, and gave it to her absently. “We both know the advantages to me in this match.” He lifted his head to gaze at the horizon. “I’d much like to know what advantages you see for yourself.”

  Roddy looked down at the brittle stalk in her hands. “That’s difficult to explain. Is it so important to you?”

  “It is,” he said.

  “I want a family, my lord. Children.”

  He tilted his head, probed her with a glance that was as hard and quick as blue metal. “Forgive me if I seem vulgar, but I can assure you that there are any number of men who could give you children. My…talents…in that area are hardly unique.”

  “Nevertheless,” Roddy maintained bravely, “I feel that we shall suit.”

  He gave a humorless laugh. “What illusions are you laboring under, child?” He stopped and turned to face her. As he met her eyes, his brows drew downward. He reached out and gripped her shoulders in a savage shake. “Has no one told you about me?” he demanded. “God’s mercy, will your friends let you do this blindly?”

  Roddy held his fierce gaze on the strength of willpower alone. “If there’s aught to tell, my lord, I would rather hear it from you. As a man of honor.”

  His hands fell away from her as if she had singed him. “Honor. There’s a piece of drollery. Half the world would tell you I can’t even spell it.”

  Roddy said nothing. I will not let him frighten me, she promised herself, watching gamely as he tore another autumn weed from the earth and ripped the plant into tattered shreds. There was violence there, in the restless fingers that made quick work of destroying a wildflower. He dropped the crushed pieces as if they were nothing. “Shall I tell you, then?” His voice was harsh. He looked at her and then away. “Ahh…those eyes of yours. You scare me, little girl. Old…young…” He laughed, a distorted sound. “A man might fear Athena in all her wisdom never saw as much as you.”

  Roddy pressed her hands together behind her back and swallowed. She kept her gaze resolutely from his face.

  “Where shall we start?” he said, with a lightness that was chilling. He took her arm and turned her toward the sea. “With my most recent sins, I think. I remember them more clearly. You’ll forgive me if I give you a summary rather than an accounting—thirty-five years of corruption might be too much to stomach at one sitting.”

  “My lord—”

  “Just lately,” he went on, as if she had not spoken, “I have seduced the third daughter of George Compton of Asherby—her name is Jane, I believe, but I can never keep all these Marys and Janes and Elizabeths straight in my mind. She is to bear my child—so you see, Roderica, you have indeed selected a man with fertile seed. That should put to rest any fears you might have entertained on that score. This Jane…” He paused, as if searching his memory. “Ah, yes. I’ve blackmailed her father into paying her keep for me at the remote hunting lodge where I will continue to visit her until my carnal desire for her is glutted. When thmat time comes, I plan to cast her off entirely, but of course I shall continue to insist that her father pay me well to keep the secret to myself. He holds a sensitive government post, you see, and has five more unmarried daughters, unfortunate man. I believe they have put it about that Jane has died of smallpox.”

  The painful grip of his fingers on her arm belied his conversational tone of voice. She could almost feel bruises forming beneath her jacket and blouse.

  “A representative example of a scheme which I’ve found to be successful over the years,” he added. “I shall not bore you with particulars. Suffice it to say that I’ve ruined no fewer than eight innocent maids and sent them all to walk the streets of London while I pocket their parents’ hush money.”

  His stranglehold on her arm had begun to cut off her circulation. She twisted one hand about the other, trying to ease the tingling. He showed no sign of noticing her discomfort, but forced her along with him on his slow and terrible stroll. “Yes,” he said casually, “I quite excel at extortion. I’m also in the habit of manufacturing false evidence concerning the many indiscreet young bucks who frequent certain houses in the City. It’s shockingly e
asy, I fear, to bribe servants into the wildest of tales—stories which could ruin a man’s good name for life. Occasionally the game becomes more challenging, for a few of these young men are quite courageous. Even rash. They have the effrontery to face me down in a public place and accuse me of blackmail. They challenge me to meet them, and naturally I accept—how could a man of honor do less, my love? And you have called me a man of honor, have you not?”

  She opened her mouth to put an end to the bitter words, but he quickly cut her off. “I don’t care for duels myself,” he said, in a careless way. “But I assure you I am an excellent shot. I always aim to kill on the field of honor, my dear. A clever way of discouraging the practice, don’t you think? I fancy I would have faced challenges without number had I been so foolish as to go lightly on my adversaries. I’m proud to say I’ve dispatched three young men of promise and valor and still escaped the displeasure of the law, although I believe my feats are common knowledge in the highest circles. Alas, there is no proof.” He made a sound of disgust. “Otherwise, I make no doubt, I wouldn’t be in a position to offer you my hand—as a man of honor.” His hold on her loosened, so suddenly that she took an unbalanced step away from him. He let her go, with a sardonic, sideways glance. “Frightened, little girl?”

  “No.” Roddy stood rubbing her tingling hand. “I think you would like me to be.”

  He raised his dark brows. “You don’t believe what I’ve told you?”

  “I—I hardly know what to believe, my lord.” She was floundering, and missing her talent painfully. What had seemed like freedom a few moments before now felt like a prison with blank, unbreachable walls. “I cannot think you have killed men for nothing.”

  His smile was sour and hard. “It’s always for nothing that men are killed, my sweet child.”

  “I don’t believe you’ve shot any young men over trifles,” Roddy said resolutely. “You wouldn’t even race your horse when I told you he might die.”

  His blue eyes narrowed. He inclined his head in a slight, chilly bow. “Ask Cashel,” he said. “He has acted second for me. He may also tell you that an accusation of blackmail is no trifle.”

  She stiffened at the steel in his voice. “I will.” She was glad to hear that her own words only quivered a tiny bit. “Geoffrey will tell me the truth, even if you won’t. Have you more tales to frighten schoolroom misses?”

  His face became a mask. “Many,” he said curtly. “I think the most celebrated of them must be the rumor that I murdered my father when I was ten years old.”

  If Roddy had never perceived the same word flitting through Geoffrey’s mind, she might have stopped herself from instinctive recoil. But self-discipline came too late. The earl saw her start, and a smile of acid satisfaction twisted his mouth. He lifted her chin with one finger. “My lovely innocent. Will you let me kiss you, little girl? I would dearly like to do so.”

  It was a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to cover what had gone before. He had made himself out to be a monster, and he dared her to accept him still. She could make no conscious choice; she half believed and half did not. Yet she raised her face to his in a move that must have been an invitation, for his bitter smile suddenly faded.

  He stared down at her, his face bleak and still as a winter sky. With a low moan, more like pain than pleasure, he pulled her toward him, trapping her hands at her sides. His mouth closed hard on hers. Cruel and yet gentle, harsh but tender; a confusion of sensations enfolded her. His punishing demand forced her head back, and yet his arms were there to hold her, to cradle and caress her.

  He kissed her mouth, her cheeks and eyes, and then took her mouth again and kissed her until darkness swam in the back of her brain. He tasted like the wine they had drunk. Deep and drowning. Intoxicating.

  “Curse you,” he breathed as his mouth moved in a rough trail over her exposed throat. “You’ll haunt me all my life—you and your damned witching eyes.” His teeth closed on soft skin, and fire bloomed in the pit of her stomach. With an urgent move, he pulled her hips against his, as if he could make her part of him by force. Roddy found that she wanted the same, and answered him in kind, her body arching close; her hands seeking warmth beneath his coat and shirt.

  She found the heat she sought. A hoarse sound escaped him as her fingers burrowed under his waistcoat and splayed across his back where taut muscle and hot, smooth skin lay under a shirt of thinnest lawn. He moved away suddenly, a quick, rejecting push, as if her touch burned him. Her hands fell free. Then, before she could even moan in protest, he had pulled her back into his rough-gentle embrace, sliding his hand to the nape of her neck and trapping her cheek against his shoulder. He held her tightly, too tightly to move; so tightly she could feel the faint tremor in his palms. She resisted a moment and then rested there, listening to his harsh breath, feeling the beat of his pulse and her own, while his hand and his lips moved softly in her hair.

  “Little girl,” he whispered against her temple. “It’s not too late. Tell me you won’t marry me.”

  She thought of what he’d told her, in a voice that mocked itself. She thought of what she wanted. A life of her own. A family.

  Love.

  A day ago, an hour—even a minute—she might have obeyed him. But the taste of his mouth on hers, his arms around her and his warmth beneath her hands…

  Roddy shook her head without lifting it from his chest.

  He groaned softly, and held her closer. “God help you. God help you. I’ll do my best, but there’s so goddamned little I can give you.”

  This is all I want, she could have said, but she knew he would not heed her while this dark mood held him. She rested in his arms, closing her mind to doubt. She would deal with what was real, not rumors. What she could see with her own eyes. He hated the man whose sins he described, whether that man was himself or a creation of vicious gossip. Of that much she was certain, and it was enough for now.

  They were halfway back to Roddy’s home when the pastured mare’s distress came to her like a dog’s howl on the wind: distant and distorted at first, gone for a moment, then closer and sharper as the phaeton moved on at a brisk pace.

  She said nothing of it, having nothing logical to say to someone unaware of her talent. Instead she searched, her eyes focused hard on the horizon for the first reasonable moment when she could say she had seen the horse. She only hoped the animal was in view of the road. Pain rendered her gift deceptive, overcoming distance with intensity, driving all closer consciousness into background. And this pain was increasing by the moment, expanding into something she’d never experienced before. She could not tell how far away the mare might be, or even in which direction.

  As the discomfort grew she cupped her elbows and squeezed, clenching her teeth and closing her throat against the moan that rose in unthinking response. She wanted to move as the mare did, wanted to cry out under the swelling strength of the anguish that gripped her. The carriage rolled on. The torment increased. Roddy dug her fingernails into her arms. She had not held back to protect herself, leaving her full gift open to locate the horse. Too late, she realized her mistake. By then the pain was beyond controlling, beyond any barrier she could possibly raise. Merciless. She would have screamed with it if there had been air in her lungs to move.

  “Are you all right?”

  The question seemed to come from far away. As the phaeton jolted to a halt she lifted her head and stared at the man beside her, hardly knowing who he was. Her lips would not form words. He asked again, more sharply. She felt as if she were splitting in two, trying to answer and trying to push away the pain. She looked at him and past him, desperate for words, for a way to explain what was inexplicable. A dark blur took shape in her watering eyes—the mare, black against the faded green in the shadow of the far hillside.

  She pointed, which was all she could manage of sense in her torment. He turned.

  “Help.” Her voice came out a croak. “Help.”

  His gaze swung back, dark brows dra
wn low over a bright question. She felt his hand close hard and urgent on her arm. “Are you ill?”

  “Not me.” She shook her head, wild with the pain. “The mare.”

  He let go, looking again toward the hill. And then moved, leaping out of the phaeton with an oath.

  Roddy gathered sense and strength and scrambled after him. He went over the wall in one easy vault, but Roddy stumbled back from her attempt in a tangle of hampering skirts. Her legs threatened to collapse under her. She gathered her skirts and tried again, her throat choked with sobs of effort and pain and frustration. She was halfway across and falling back when his strong hands closed at her waist. He dragged her over and lifted her down, setting her feet without hesitation in the mud that had already ruined his boots.

  They both ran. The horse was laid out flat on the rocky ground in a hollow of the hill, her legs stiff and restless with distress. The pain had eased for a moment to something duller, but Roddy knew it would come again. It hung over her like a robe of chain mail, dimming reason to disorder. Faelan snapped, “Careful,” as she came too near a flailing hoof.

  “Hold her head,” he ordered, with an authority that penetrated the blind and unreasoning urgency in Roddy’s brain. She obeyed him, unable to think farther through the haze. The mare jerked in fear as Roddy went down on her knees, but habit and instinct brought the right music to Roddy’s tongue, the ageless soothing croon to comfort animals and babies. She bent over the mare’s head and rocked and sang a lullaby in the velvet ear, keeping one hand free to gather the animal’s soft upper lip into a pinched fold, a trick that always worked at home to deaden pain and terror.

  “It’s breech,” Faelan said, from a thousand miles away. “We’ll have to make her stand.”

  Roddy looked up in blank stupor, saw him shirtless and bloody, and still made no sense of it. The mare groaned and twisted. Roddy whimpered. She bent her head as another wave of dark agony rolled through her mind.

 
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