The regency romances, p.88
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       The Regency Romances, p.88

           Laura Kinsale
 

  She pulled her woolly cloak about her and pressed her gloved hand to her mouth to conceal its quivering, staring very hard out the frosted window until the sight and sound of the guests was far behind. It was done, irrevocably, and she felt as if she had leaped from Earnest’s imaginary cliff and now fell through the air, a long, slow fall, with time in plenty to remember every fear and regret.

  Faelan was watching her, she knew. Just watching, from his place by the other door, which made her want to cry harder. Because she was afraid. Because he was a stranger still and maybe did not understand what it was to leave the home and family that had been her shelter for nineteen years. Maybe he had never loved anyone, and never could.

  The future unrolled before her, empty of affection and laughter: no brothers, no parents, no familiar network of minds and hearts to envelop her in comfort and security. She marveled that her lips had moved to say the words that bound her to him. The folly of it, the utter folly…she would never find happiness by leaving behind all she had ever known and loved. Her need for freedom now seemed a crazy dream, with no connection to this reality of a ring and a promise and the unknown man beside her.

  Her head drooped, nodding listlessly with the motion of the coach as the long ride dragged on. Faelan was silent, and Roddy found she had no voice to speak. Even the rattle of the wheels was muffled by the new snow that covered the frozen road. The interior grew dim with late afternoon, and her clasped fingers seemed very white in the gloom.

  An unexpected movement caught her eye in the twilight. His hand touched hers, covering the pale shape with another, larger one, entwining their fingers in a gesture that was no less intimate for being muffled by two layers of kidskin. He remained silent. He did not even look at her. Though he pressed his palm to hers steadily, she sat still, afraid to misinterpret. It was so strange, to have that touch and not be certain of the thought behind it. She wanted comfort, but she was not sure, not brave enough to turn to him and lay herself open and find that she had been wrong.

  “Regrets?” he said, his voice soft amid the darkness and the creak of the wheels on fresh snow.

  Roddy looked up at him. She nodded.

  He smiled a little. “Honest child. You’ll shame me into respectability.”

  She moved her hand uncertainly, and his hold tightened, just enough to still her.

  “Roddy,” he said, with a note in his voice she had never heard before, “I want you to forget your regrets. For tonight. Tomorrow you may take them up again. I won’t blame you. But you’ve given me back my home, little girl. You’ve given me another chance. For that…” He stopped, and his fingers closed harder on hers. He said fiercely, “God—there aren’t words to make you understand what that means to me. I want to show you.” He lifted her hand and pressed it to his lips. “For tonight—forget what I am, forget what you know of me. Let me make everything perfect. This one time. Before the world comes back to haunt us.”

  She stared at her hand in his. Gratitude. It was not what she had wanted, but anything…anything that would fill this terrible void…

  “I’ll try,” she said.

  “Thank you.”

  The relief in his voice surprised her. He sat back, but kept her hand in his lap, and held it there for all the long ride to York.

  Firelight sent huge shadows against the low ceiling of the inn’s best chamber. Roddy watched them move and listened to the occasional creak of the floor under Jane’s busy feet. A simple mind Jane had, with no room for fine speculations on gentlemen’s reputations. To Roddy’s maid, a man was at worst a brute to be endured and at best a mild annoyance. Jane’s thoughts as she hustled Roddy into the bedroom, clucking around her as she changed out of the wedding dress and into a taffeta gown, were divided between sympathy that Roddy would have to suffer a woman’s duties and the hope that those duties would soon result in another child for Jane to fuss over. The maid said nothing of either, though, and kept her moon-shaped face neutral. Won’t do to frighten the girl, she was assuring herself. Only make things worse.

  Such grim presentiments made Roddy’s knees feel a little shaky. Deliberately, she called to mind another opinion, this one held by a scullery-maid: the one who seemed to be caught so often in the pantry by one of Roddy’s brothers. She had no quarrel with male importunities. She was proud of the fact that she had introduced each of the Delamore boys in turn to the delights of love. Standing there with Jane fussing about her gown, Roddy felt her face grow hot as she recalled jumbled pantry scenes that had leaked into her awareness, try as she might to block them.

  In the midst of these agitating reflections, a light knock on the door made both Roddy and her maid stiffen. Jane stood upright from buttoning one of Roddy’s lacy cuffs, pursed her lips, and stalked resolutely to the door.

  A stalwart young girl entered, carrying a tray, followed by the innkeeper’s wife with another. They arranged the dishes on a round table near the fire, lit new candles, and then retired. With one hand on the door, the innkeeper’s wife paused and looked at Jane. “If you please, I’ve been asked to see you to your room, ma’am. If you’ll come with me now?”

  Jane’s face went blank, covering her instant affront at this thinly veiled order. But its source was obvious, and she obeyed, leaving the room with her jaw set and her eyes glued resentfully to her feet.

  Left alone, Roddy stood staring into the fire a moment, and then sat down. Her hands felt cold, and though a pleasant smell drifted up from the covered dishes, all appetite had left her. She poured herself a generous portion of wine and stood up again, wandering restlessly around the room.

  The bright reflection of her hair in the dressing-table mirror made her stop. She turned, frowning critically at her image in the candlelight. There was nothing there to surprise her, nothing different from what she had seen reflected in the minds of her parents and brothers and friends all her life.

  She was not beautiful. She wasn’t even pretty. She was…intense. Contradictory. Her hair shone dull gold and angelically curly, but her eyebrows were two dark wings that tilted upward, like the faces on the demons carved in the chapel at home. Her chin was too pointed, her mouth too apt to smirk, and her eyes—well, her eyes weren’t the kind that lovers liked to gaze into for dreamy hours. There would be no lazy afternoons in a hidden bower for her. When men looked at Roddy, they didn’t see an attractive woman. They saw themselves, and it was an image that none seemed to care to focus on for long.

  She lifted the silver goblet and drank greedily, hoping the wine would warm the chill from her fingertips. At a sound from the door, she jumped, and the empty vessel fell with a soft thud onto the carpeted floor. She stooped to pick it up.

  When she rose, he was there.

  In a full-length dressing gown of midnight blue, he seemed to Roddy to be inordinately tall. As he reached back to close the door behind him, the robe fell carelessly open, revealing a shirt unbuttoned at the throat, a sprigged waistcoat, and pale breeches above soft ankle-boots and plain silk stockings. Roddy moistened her dry lips, determined not to let her voice squeak.

  “My lord,” she said, and sketched a formal curtsy.

  He gave her a slight bow in return, then stood looking at her, his dark brows raised and his lips pressed oddly together. “Shall we dance?”

  Roddy blinked up at him, and saw belatedly that he was joking. She made an effort to smile which didn’t quite work.

  “Perhaps we’d better eat,” he said.

  Roddy nodded. She sat down in the chair that he held for her. The heavy odor of warm food and his lingering presence at her back made her stomach squeeze uneasily. When he pulled his own chair close to hers, she felt positively ill with fright.

  There was a tureen of soup, from which he served them both. Roddy sat staring down at the clear broth, unable to even lift her hand and pretend to eat. Her insides seemed to press upward into her throat. It was a panic that fed on itself: the more she tried to calm her fear, the more terrified she became. She could not
even have said what she was afraid of. Strangeness. Change. Him. Herself. Not knowing.

  That was it. The uncertainty. Her life had been ordered and comprehensible, without surprises. She’d been hurt sometimes—by Geoffrey’s withdrawal, by his loving someone else—but she had always been sure.

  Now, cut adrift, she was drowning in doubt. Faelan had said to forget what he was. For tonight, just one night, to forget. But she could not forget; she didn’t know what he was. A dark man with eyes the color of the sky. That was all she saw.

  He looked at her, returning stare for stare. “Eat your soup,” he said.

  Like a chastised child, Roddy picked up her spoon. She had thought she could not eat, but the first salty taste of broth slid easily down her throat. She took another sip, and began to feel slightly better. When he tore off a piece of bread and offered it to her, she took it. The familiar, crusty smell and blandness comforted her. Before she realized she had eaten the whole chunk, he was offering her another.

  Roddy accepted that, too, and their fingers touched in passing. His eyes met hers. He smiled.

  Roddy smiled back, shyly.

  She looked down immediately, but the brief contact had been reassuring. If she could smile at him, surely she could take the next step. It was like crossing a stream on a fallen log—the more nervous she felt, the harder the task would become. She took a deep breath and made herself relax enough to face the boiled pudding.

  He uncovered a roast duck after she had finished half the pudding. It was odd to be eating without footmen to carve and serve, but she was glad of the change. It saved her the strain of keeping up appearances in front of strangers. Faelan served, after a fashion, by slicing a bite of fowl and crisp skin, and offering it to her on the two prongs of his own black-handled fork.

  Roddy looked uncertainly at the tidbit. He waited, and after a moment, she did as he seemed to expect: took it gingerly into her mouth from his fork.

  He made a low sound, a kind of masculine purr of approval from deep in his throat. It seemed to vibrate along Roddy’s spine, and she swallowed the bit of duck too fast. She groped for her wine, and took a gulp. When she emerged from behind the goblet, another bite of duck was waiting for her.

  Roddy took that one, too. And the next. The fire popped and hissed. Her fingers moved restlessly in her lap, clasping and unclasping. Something in the simple act of accepting food from his hand hinted at deeper things: yielding on levels not so safe and simple. The room seemed to be growing hot. The duck disappeared, shared in this intimate way, and then he pared an apple and cut it into neat cubes. Not even the fork intervened then: the fruit passed from his fingers directly to her lips. His thumb brushed her cheek. The touch seemed incidental, but his eyes were half closed and his mouth curved faintly upward as he offered her another bite.

  The intensity of his look disturbed her. She turned away a little, refusing. The goblet of wine was a welcome relief against her heated skin: the cool metal, and the liquid slipping down her throat.

  He touched her cheek. With a light, steady pressure, he made her face him again, and she set down the goblet with reluctance. She would not look up; she focused stubbornly on the bite of apple, as if that might make the disturbing figure behind it disappear. She closed her eyes and took the fruit, wanting anything that might cool the warmth that suffused her face. The juice ran sweet and chill on her tongue, mingling with the mustier taste of burgundy as she swallowed. Then there was another taste, another feeling—a shock as his hands gently cupped her cheeks and his lips closed over hers.

  His tongue slipped between her teeth, seeking the apple-rich flavor that lingered there. Roddy stiffened, raising her arms as if to push him away, and found in the confusion of the moment that they only curved around his shoulders instead. She felt very queer, light-headed and heavy at the same time, so that her hands seemed too much to lift once they came to rest against his neck.

  He drew his open palm down the column of her throat, bending to follow the touch with kisses. She held her breath. Her hands closed reflexively, kneading the powerful muscles beneath his robe, and he made another low sound of approval.

  In the candlelight, his black hair had taken on glints of red and gold. It brushed her cheek and lips softly, as soft as his fingers as they slid around her neck and worked the fastenings at the back of her gown. Each satin button came free with a tiny tug, down and down, until his hand had reached her hips and the gown hung open the length of her spine.

  “Sweet,” he murmured against her throat. “Sweet wife.” His fingers slid beneath the gown and moved lightly on her skin, warm in the chill air. Panic flooded her. She arched her back, trying to retreat, and found her breast pressed against his hard shoulder like an offering. She jerked away and sat up stiffly, breathing in frantic little gusts.

  He let her go. The slight smile had left his face; he leaned back in his chair and gazed at her, with a faintly quizzical look. “You’re afraid of me,” he said.

  Roddy bowed her head in misery. Yes, yes—she was afraid. She knew her duty; she tried to be brave, and yet when he touched her like that it seemed that her body was no longer her own. This stranger, this man whose mind was closed to her; he made her muscles hot and weak just by looking at her. He could control her. She could feel it, though he did not exercise the power yet.

  He moved away a little and turned back to the table, pouring himself another goblet of wine. He took a sip, watching her over the rim.

  She wet her lips. “I suppose you think I’m being ridiculous.”

  “Not at all.” He set the goblet down. “I pride myself on my ability to terrify children. Are you going to cry?”

  “Of course not.”

  “Oh.” He sighed. “That’s usually the best part.”

  Roddy sat up with dignity. “Pray do not laugh at me.”

  His lips twisted only slightly. She stared with narrowed eyes at the offending mouth, daring him to break into a smile. After a moment, the peculiar tightness left his lips and he returned her look with perfect gravity. “We seem to have reached an impasse,” he said. “I fear I shall have to ravish you.”

  Roddy looked down.

  “It’s really rather fun,” he said. “I predict you’ll like it.”

  She bit her lips.

  “As long as you don’t giggle,” he added. “It’s considered quite a faux pas at such a moment.”

  Roddy stood up abruptly and turned her back, finding it necessary to avert her face. She shoved her loosened gown up onto her shoulder.

  “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” he said. “You have a very pretty back.”

  She felt like a row of bowling pins, being knocked down one by one. The gentleness in his voice was devastating, but his demon-smile meant nothing. Just so he might have smiled at one of those gentlemen’s daughters he’d accused himself of ruining, and for that look the girl would have given away her body, her soul…everything she had. Roddy could understand that. The pull was something beyond reason. Only her doubt, her knowing so well that a face could hide the intent beneath, kept her from melting into him like a snowflake into fire. She could not read faces, not without her gift to aid her. But the lure was stronger than the doubt. Far stronger.

  “Don’t,” she said when she heard him move, and the word came out harsh with her own confusion.

  There was a silence behind her, a void she could not fathom. At last, he said, “You’re making me wonder, little girl. Do you have some reason to avoid your husband’s touch?”

  Roddy stiffened. She gripped her hands together. “You know what I’m afraid of. It’s just that I’ve never…” She swallowed hard. “I’ve never…you know.”

  “Never?”

  The skepticism in his voice mocked her. She whirled on him. “Of course not.”

  His eyes met hers, a shock of chilly blue. “You’ve never been with Geoff?”

  “No,” she cried. “Whatever makes you say such a—”

  He was on his feet. He caught her t
o him before the furious words were out of her mouth. “Shh,” he murmured. “Hush. I’m sorry.”

  Roddy stood stiff in his arms. “That was unkind,” she said to his shoulder.

  “I’m sorry,” he said again. His voice seemed strained. He bent his head, pressing his cheek to her hair. “I suppose I’ve never been jealous before.”

  A funny tight place curled in her middle. “Jealous,” she whispered. Her fingers moved uncertainly in the folds of his robe. “Of me?”

  He did not answer. He held her tighter. She missed her talent with unprecedented fierceness.

  “I’ve never been with anyone,” she said. “Not like this.”

  He groaned, rocking her softly in his arms. “Forget I said it.”

  She laced her hands together behind his back, tentatively allowing her weight to rest against him, and spoke into the muffling robe. “It’s what everyone else thinks—that I had to marry, and it made no difference whom.”

  “It’s not important.”

  “It is.” She bent her head, staring down at the play of light and shadow in the entwining folds of their robes. “What you think is important.”

  “Ah, Roddy,” he said in a hollow voice. “I’m only a man. I can’t see why you’ve done this—thrown yourself away on me. I’ve tried to think of reasons; I’ve tried every logic I can imagine, and it all comes down to one. God knows, I’ll be happy enough with another answer if you can give it to me.”

  “I need you,” she said simply. “And you need me. There’s nothing more.”

  His harsh breath ruffled her hair. “Sweet Jesus…an innocent. Don’t you know, little girl, that whatever you say can be proved or disproved before this night is over?”

  Roddy had a general idea of what he meant, from Jane’s disturbing thoughts. There was pain involved, Roddy was certain of that: the memory of sharp, tearing hurt from the maid’s mind was what had frightened Roddy most of all. But then, how often had Jane gone into wailing hysterics at a scratch that Roddy hardly noticed? People were different. Jane was a lady’s maid, not a girl who’d grown up falling off horses and out of trees and into ice-cold streams all her life.

 

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