The regency romances, p.87
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       The Regency Romances, p.87

           Laura Kinsale

  Faelan grabbed her hand and hauled her to her feet. He drew her roughly toward him, gripping her chin and forcing it up. “Don’t you dare faint,” he hissed, shaking her head as if to drive reason into it. “Stay with me. You stay with me. Hear?”

  Roddy stared up at him, breathing hard. Her eyes searched for focus and found it in his, blue light in the darkness. She swallowed and nodded.

  He released her, glaring at her hard a moment, as if he thought she might fall. Roddy pulled anger out of the pressing pain, a tonic for her wits. She bared her teeth in something like a smile. “All right,” she panted. “All right. So let’s get her up.”

  Between them, they did it. With Faelan’s shirt for a halter and his strength for a crutch they prodded and pulled and coaxed the mare to her feet in the short intervals between contractions. He made the horse and Roddy walk, both of them, and if the mare tried to lie down he slapped her hard on the rump with a stick.

  He was adamant in his purpose. When the stick lost effect he began to yell, to wave his arms in the mare’s terrified face. Her eyes rolled white as Roddy dragged at the horse’s head and stumbled on, thinking dimly that he would probably take the stick to her, too, if she faltered in her job of leading.

  Walk and walk. Walk and stumble and walk again. The pain came in huge tearing waves, rising and falling and rising to a higher peak each time. It seemed to go on forever. Never in all the years in her father’s stable had she been present at a breech birth, but in the rational part of her mind she knew Faelan was right in his insistence. The moment had to be postponed, as long as possible, and then, when it came, completed in a frantic rush.

  That was how it happened. The mare went down with a heavy grunt, pulling Roddy into the sweep of straining agony. Roddy closed her eyes and bit her lip until she tasted blood. The smell of sweat and horse and fear filled her nostrils. The mare breathed in great moaning gusts. The pain mounted and the world dissolved, one long excruciating moment in which the mare was screaming and Faelan was shouting something and Roddy could not tell human sound from animal. She felt blackness closing and the liquid salt of tears in her mouth.

  Then it was over.

  It left her as weak and wobbly as the newborn foal that Faelan scrubbed with the shirt Roddy had dropped.

  She watched him, too drained to think. When he’d finished, seen to the mare and foal both, he left the tiny bundle of legs and nose and came to where Roddy was crumpled at the exhausted mare’s head.

  He held out a hand to her. She took it, letting him pull her to her feet, and leaned on him as he led her a few yards away to a patch of grass.

  He drew her against his shoulder, hard and warm, and she focused for the first time on the fact that her dress was in ruins and his shirt far beyond recall.

  She thought vaguely that she ought to be embarrassed. Instead, she was only tired. She rested her cheek on his bare skin and watched the age-old tableau unfold before them as the mare lunged to her feet and turned to inspect her new foal.

  A creature of the moment, the mare was. The pain was forgotten already, fading and dulled in the new interest of this appealing little fellow that smelled like herself. She began to lick the tiny creature, pausing often to look up at Roddy and Faelan in mild and protective suspicion.

  Roddy found words in her thickened throat. “Thank you,” she said to her muddy toes.

  He looked at her sideways. She thought there was a lurking smile at the corner of his mouth. “I thought I’d lost you once or twice.”

  She kept her eyes down. “Your boots are ruined, I’m afraid.”

  He bent one knee and leaned over to inspect his formerly polished footwear. “Salvageable. Which is more than I can say for my shirt.”

  The foal splayed out one leg and fell back. Roddy saw Faelan’s half-smile widen.

  “I’m—” She searched for a way to say it. “I’m glad you knew what to do.”

  He shrugged, his eyes on the mare and foal. “Whose are they?”

  “I don’t know.”

  He glanced at her, and let out a breath of amusement. “You are a wonder, Miss Delamore.”

  “Am I?”

  “You feel it, don’t you?” he said. “What the horses feel.”

  The blood drained from her face. “What—what do you mean?”

  “At Newmarket with my stallion. And just now.” He shook his head at her look of horror. “I’ve known one other who could do the same. It’s a damned God-given gift. You knew about the mare long before you saw her.”

  “Of course not. I—”

  “The devil you didn’t. You looked like death by the time we stopped.” His hand closed on her arm as she started to rise in panic. “Don’t run away.”

  She tried to relax, tried to act easy. “I wasn’t feeling well for a moment,” she said. “That’s true. It was the salmon, perhaps, and then the—all the excitement. I’m better now.”

  He looked at her again, a long, deep, speculative look. Roddy managed to hold her gaze steady beneath his.

  “I’m sorry I wasn’t much help,” she said.

  For a moment she thought he would say more, but then his smile broke into a sudden grin and he splayed his fingers through her hair, pushing her head down in the kind of affectionate shake that her father gave her brothers. “You kept her walking, little girl.”

  Roddy smiled too, then, a little shakily. “I thought you’d smack me with that stick if I didn’t.”

  He nodded. “So I would have.” He pulled a stalk of dry grass and stripped the grains from the stem, biting carefully into one. He spat it out with an expert puff. “Volunteer wheat. What’s that doing here?”

  Roddy looked at the stalk in his manicured hands, those strong hands that were stained now with blood and dirt. At his once perfectly laundered shirt, sacrificed without a thought. She thought of him tending the mare, with moves expert and certain and not at all fastidious. She sat up and looked at him. “You’re not a rake,” she cried. “I believe you’re a bloody farmer!”

  His blue eyes crinkled in humor. “Watch your language, child. Do you think the one mutually excludes the other?”

  “I’m sure I don’t know what to think,” Roddy muttered.

  “I’ll tell you what I think,” he said, reaching out to drag her against him in a hard hug. He kissed her ear, and then her mouth when she turned in confusion. Colors were pin-wheeling behind her eyelids and breath had almost failed her before he let her go. He gave her a smile that made her toes curl in her muddy boots, and then flicked a gentle finger across her cheek. “I think that we shall suit, my love.”

  A week later, Mark and Earnest returned empty-handed of grouse.

  “Not that we should grouse about it,” Earnest said, which was something Earnest would say, when Roddy ran out to meet them amid the bustle of baggage and servants in the drive. He gave her a bear hug that lifted her off her feet, so that blond hair flew in her eyes and she couldn’t tell if it was hers or Earnest’s; a hug as warm as his feelings on greeting her.

  Mark was not so cheerful. He was determined, in fact, to grouse loudly and long about the poor shooting. In view of his temper, Roddy reserved her great news for later, and joined with her parents in demanding an account of every boring and wasted day of shooting.

  The silence on the subject of her engagement held through dinner and after. Every time Roddy’s father worked himself up to speak, his throat would go dry and he’d take another sip of wine or sherry or whatever happened to be at hand, until finally he forgot what it was he’d been trying to announce and went to sleep in his chair by the fire.

  It was long after the household had retired that Roddy gathered the courage to tiptoe to Earnest’s room and knock softly on the door.

  He was still awake, as she’d known through her gift, awake and sitting in a dressing robe reading by the light of one candle. He closed the book and smiled when he saw her. “You’ve come to congratulate me,” he said. “I deserve it. ’Twas devilish hard to miss
my shot every time Mark did.”

  Roddy set her candle down and went to stand beside him, leaning over to give his short queue a playful tug. “A noble effort.”

  He put his arm around her and chuckled. “Base self-interest. It doesn’t do to plague Mark when he’s carrying a loaded gun.”

  A memory of Mark’s angry frustration rose in Earnest’s mind, and Roddy marveled at how amusing their hot-tempered sibling appeared, in the midst of a tantrum, through his elder brother’s eyes. Earnest looked up and caught the smile that quivered on her lips. He grinned, making the picture in his head more and more absurd, distorting poor Mark’s imaginary features until both of them burst out laughing.

  “I think I shall go into print,” Earnest said.

  “And have your life forfeit in ten counties,” Roddy predicted. “I know what pictures you’d draw of all our neighbors.”

  “Perspective, my dear sister. A simple matter of perspective. As I’m sure you well know.”

  Earnest was the only one who took her gift so matter-of-factly. She was silent a moment as caricatures of half the local personalities formed and changed and vanished from his fertile and energetic mind.

  “Earnest,” she said shyly, “I wanted to tell you something.”

  He abandoned his amusing meditations in an instant. “And what might that be, love?”

  She twisted her hands together. “I’m engaged to be married.”

  For a moment he just looked at her, his mind a stunned blank. Then the thought and the words erupted simultaneously. “Engaged! To whom?”

  She pulled away a little. “I don’t suppose you know him. He’s one of Geoffrey’s friends.”

  “Engaged,” Earnest repeated. “I never thought you—” He stopped, but the completion of that sentence was clear to Roddy.

  “I know,” she said, and pulled away entirely. She went to the window and tugged nervously at the heavy damask drapes. “My talent. But you see—I want—” She dropped the curtain and turned. “Oh, Earnest, my gift doesn’t work with him! It’s just like normal people.”

  “Doesn’t work.” He frowned at her. “Are you certain? That’s never happened before, has it?”

  “No. But I’m certain. There’s nothing. He’s like—I don’t know. Silence. With everyone else it’s a babble, and I have to work to keep them out. When I’m with him…I don’t have to try. I can’t feel him if I do try. It’s wonderful, Earnest. So peaceful and calm.”

  “Who is this fellow?”

  “He’s an Irish peer,” she mumbled quickly, as if by speaking too fast she might somehow slide over the truth. “Lord Iveragh.”

  “Iveragh!” Earnest’s dismay hit her like wall of falling bricks. “You’re joking!”

  “No, I—I’m not. And I know what you must have heard of him, but—”

  Earnest had lunged to his feet. “Heard of him! Holy hell, girl, are you raving mad? The man’s a killer!”

  “I don’t think—”

  “Does Papa know of this?”

  “Yes, he—”

  “Why didn’t he call me back?” Earnest flung himself into pacing the room. “I could have told him—oh, God, oh, God, how did he let this happen? Has a contract been written yet?”

  Roddy summoned a trembling breath. “Last week. And Faelan isn’t a killer. I mean—they were honest duels, and fair, and they were forced on him. Geoffrey acted his second.”

  “Faelan,” Earnest sneered. “It’s Faelan, is it? The bloody bastard—I suppose he knew just how to twist a pretty child around his finger! I suppose he asked you to call him Faelan, and he called you my love and darling, and expected you to fall down at his feet. Has he kissed you?”

  Roddy drew herself up. “That isn’t your affair.”

  “Roddy.” He caught her arm. “He’s a murderer. He killed his own father in cold blood.”

  She twisted away. “That’s not true!”

  “The devil it isn’t. I suppose he told you that, too.”

  “He said it was a rumor. And why wasn’t he hanged, if everyone is so certain he’s a murderer?”

  Earnest waved his hand. “Because his mother got him off somehow. The deluded woman stands by him to this day. She’s the only reason he’s received anywhere in London, and she won’t hear a word against him.”

  “Perhaps she’s right.”

  He took her by the shoulders and shook her. “He wants your money, Roddy. Don’t you see that?”

  “Of course he wants my money,” she cried defiantly. “He’s going to lose his estate without it.”

  “Why?” Earnest pleaded. “Why marry him? There are any number of gentlemen who—”

  She struggled out of his punishing grip. “You know why, Earnest! I told you! My gift—”

  He looked at her for an arrested moment as the piece he had forgotten fell into place in his mind. Then he threw back his head with an ugly laugh. “Like a damned stupid ostrich. You can’t see the evil in him, so you think it isn’t there.”

  “He isn’t evil. He’s Lord Geoffrey’s friend.”

  “Yes. And a worse judge of a man than Lord Geoffrey I’d like to see. His Lordship’s damned notions of loyalty will be the death of him one of these fine days.”

  “Just because—”

  “Just because Geoffrey’s some kind of bloody philosophical saint, you don’t have to send yourself to perdition by the same road. He thinks Iveragh saved his life when they were a couple of scrubby schoolboys; that’s why Cashel holds with the man. It was some boating accident…ancient history. The last decent thing Iveragh ever did, and it happened before I learned to walk. You weren’t even a gleam in Papa’s eye, you little twit.”

  “You don’t understand.”

  He sat down heavily. “No. I don’t. Roddy, I can’t let you do this. For all we know, the next we’d hear of you after you went off with Iveragh was that you’d fallen from a sea cliff and been killed like his father was.”

  Roddy caught a chilling vision along with those words, of a body tumbling from a cliff—a man’s body, that twisted and changed to her own. She shoved away Earnest’s horror. “Stop it. You’re being ridiculous. I hope I’d not be so poor a wife that Lord Iveragh would feel he had to push me off a cliff.”

  Earnest bent his face into his hand. “I can’t believe Mama and Papa have agreed to this.”

  “Well,” she said, “they have.”

  “And when is the wedding to be?”

  She hesitated, wary of another outburst from him. “The banns are already posted. The ceremony is to be in two weeks, when Fae—when Lord Iveragh returns from London.”

  “Oh, God,” he said, his voice muffled. “Roddy—don’t do it. There must be any number of ways to break the contract. His character alone—”

  “I’m not concerned with his character,” Roddy said sharply. “Don’t you see, Earnest? My gift. How can I make you understand what it means to find someone who isn’t afraid of me? Who doesn’t flinch when I look at him? Maybe I am an ostrich, but that’s better than being an outcast all my life!”

  Earnest looked up in sudden suspicion. “Does Papa know your talent has failed with Iveragh?”

  She set her chin. “No, he does not. And you won’t tell him, Earnest, because if you do, I’ll run away with Iveragh. I swear to God I will.”

  He stared at her, judging the seriousness in her stony expression. “Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes, I see that you will.”

  A sudden trembling took her lower lip. “Just wish me happy, Earnest,” she whispered. “Please.”

  He stood up and drew her into his arms, closing his eyes in anguished defeat. Oh Roddy, he said in silence. I do. You know how much I do.

  Chapter 5

  An early winter struck on the morning of the wedding, leaving the parish church frigid with the first deep snow of the season. Even the crush of guests did not warm the gray stone walls or the chilly air. In her stiff white muslin gown, Roddy’s toes were cold and her fingers were frozen around her noseg
ay of satin ribbon and evergreen, but her face burned with shamed agitation as she walked down the aisle under the prurient interest of everyone present.

  The general opinion was pregnancy. The hotly debated topic was who—Lord Iveragh himself, or some undergroom whose get the earl would claim as his own in order to gain control of Roddy’s portion. Odds ran heavily in favor of the groom, since Iveragh had been known to come into the country only a bare few weeks before.

  Still, there was wild speculation about the man who stood silently waiting at the front of the chapel beside Geoffrey. Tall and fiercely handsome, black hair and black cloak and eyes as blue as the sky beyond a soaring hawk—Faelan’s unholy allure was as strong in church as without. As she walked toward him Roddy was treated to some lascivious inspirations from the imaginative ladies of the East Riding concerning her future husband.

  The images made goose bumps of cold and fright stand out on her arms. She reached Faelan and would not look at him. Only his solid warmth, so close as they turned to face the altar, made him seem human to her at all.

  His voice, that rich and seductive voice that she had almost forgotten in the three weeks since she had seen him, repeated the vows with steady certainty. Her own words quavered pitifully, as fleeting as her frosted breath. It was suddenly becoming real, this ceremony. She stood there and thought: What am I doing? Every warning, from her father and mother and Earnest—from Faelan himself—all came back and tumbled around in her head until she thought she would crumple to the floor where she stood.

  Faelan touched her arm, and suddenly it was already over, already too late to change her mind. He took her hand and worked her glove free. The ring slid onto her trembling finger, as smooth and cold as the closing of a trap.

  Without the support of his offered arm, she doubted she could have made the walk back down the aisle. She looked toward her family as she passed, and saw not a flicker of the discomposed emotion beneath those unmoved faces. Even her mother did not cry, too frozen in unhappiness for tears.

  It was Roddy who wept as the door closed on the carriage. In the cold light of dawn that morning, she’d visited the stables before she left home, fed her old pony an apple in small pieces, so his worn-out teeth could manage it. She’d gone to all the rooms in the house and the secret places in the garden where she had played as child, gathering precious memories amid the bare, silvered branches.

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