The regency romances, p.90
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       The Regency Romances, p.90

           Laura Kinsale
 

  I love you. I love you.

  I love you, little girl.

  Chapter 6

  The couturière thought slowly, in simple words, because she had to translate from French to awkward English before she spoke. Such concentration gave Roddy a headache. She let her mind go fuzzy as she stood amid pins and ribbons, which was a way to block not only the dressmaker’s lumbering thoughts, but also the crush of humanity from the city outside. London was noise and emotion, a confusing babble. Roddy found her talent dulled, blunted by the countless thoughts and voices that jumbled together into the city’s tumult.

  Slowly, she was learning how to cope. How to relax and think of the chaos as something like the wind: a natural force, an elemental energy that would flow around and past her if she let it. But it sapped her strength to maintain the balance. All the other changes: new life, new place, new people; they all combined to wear her soul down to exhaustion. There was only one refuge in the tempest—Faelan—and she clung to him with desperate vigor.

  He had given Madame Descartes strict instructions. The demure young ladies of the city were wearing shapeless, high-waisted gowns of luxurious fullness, made of yards of shirred material that puffed at the sleeves and below the bodice. It was an effect that Roddy was sure her mother would have approved.

  The new Countess of Iveragh, however, was to dress with no such becoming modesty. The gowns that Madame had created for Roddy were at the forefront of fashion. Flimsy tubes of sheer muslin, low-cut necklines, and tiny sleeves evoked Mediterranean sunshine rather than the English winter. Her pastel-colored slippers were no more than shaped pieces of silk with ribbons that wound up around her calves, and the matching gloves did nothing to hide her body or warm her skin. When she walked down the cold marble stair to where Faelan waited in the lofty salon, she felt that the heat of her blush alone must raise the chill of the room ten degrees.

  Madame fluttered after, trying to give an appearance of calm sophistication as she searched for words to explain Roddy’s shortcomings.

  “The hair,” she said quickly, “the pretty blond, it will cut, yes? To be—to make the curl. Now—too long, you comprehend? Short you want. Curls. But the figure—” She grinned slyly at Faelan. “Very pretty, eh, monseigneur? Very straight. Perfect.”

  “Perfect,” he agreed, and smiled at Roddy in a way that made her heart contract and her knees go liquid.

  For a week she had gone about with such wobbly knees, and they were not all the result of long days in a traveling carriage. A hundred times a day he touched her, or smiled at her; a caress in passing, a kiss on the nape of her neck as she bent over a letter to her parents or strained to read by the light of a wavering candle.

  And at night…oh, God, at night there was a whole world she had never known existed. He taught her; he made her body sing with pleasure. So now, when he asked her to dress in these scandalous fashions, she felt she could not refuse. She wanted badly to please him.

  Turning in the clinging gown, she peeked uncertainly at him over her shoulder. “Do you like it, my lord?”

  He glanced at the couturière, and the woman responded to the silent command without hesitation, gathering up the net she had been about to suggest for a veil and disappearing back up the stairs toward the bedroom.

  After she was gone, Roddy waited nervously, searching for some sign of approval, all too aware that Madame Descartes had considered Roddy’s coloring hopelessly unfashionable, with her slash of black brows against golden hair. Dark tight curls were the rage: dark hair and coolly classic features, not Roddy’s strange combination of storm and sunlight. After trying seven different styles, Madame had thrown up her hands in frustration and sent Roddy for viewing in the gown she had on, having never before encountered a face that could not be complemented, a face too striking to be softened or improved by the dressmaker’s art.

  The moment of waiting dragged into a small eternity. Roddy stared at Faelan’s boots in despair, certain that he must think she wasn’t even suitable to be presented in public.

  When the apprehension became unbearable, she hesitantly raised her eyes.

  He was smiling at her, a slow, sensuous smile that might have meant anything. It made her breath stick in her throat. Beneath lowered lids his gaze traveled from her toes to her hair, lingering at her hips and breasts and mouth.

  “A witch,” he said. “My golden witch.”

  Roddy moistened her lips in dismay. “A witch, my lord? Madame Descartes did say I was…difficult, but I hoped—”

  “Come,” he interrupted and held out his hands. He looked down at her as she obeyed him, sliding his palms up both sides of her neck, caressing her chilled skin with warm fingers. “Don’t let Madame trouble you.”

  She held his gaze, feeling his spell creep around and inside her. His fingers spread, his thumbs pressed upward under her jaw. The kiss was slow, heady, the way he had taught her. “In Ireland,” he murmured, “they’ll see you for what you are. One of the Daoine Sidhe.”

  She frowned in confusion. “Deena shi?” The strange syllables made an unfamiliar slur on her tongue.

  “The fairy folk.” His gaze wandered over her face. “The people who live between day and night, and drink the dew that’s neither rain nor river nor spring nor sea.” He caressed a lock of gilded hair. “The Shining Ones.”

  She looked up into his azure eyes, and thought that it must be he who lived between dark and light, like a demon prince. “My lord—” she whispered. “Do I please you, then?”

  “You’re mine.” The soft, certain words sent a shiver of wild music down her spine. He bent his head and brushed her mouth and cheek with his lips. “You’re mine,” he murmured against her skin. “And you please me.”

  London was empty this time of year, he told her, which made her want to giggle hysterically. Empty? The city nearly crushed her, a multitude of thoughts and feelings so enormous it had a kind of monolithic life of its own, surly and intense on days when the wind blew sleet and cold, and lighter-hearted, bubbling, on a sunny winter day like this—the first one on which she and Faelan had ventured forth from the house.

  They walked, because after the jolting trip from Yorkshire Roddy was heartily tired of carriages, and in her light dress and cashmere shawl she preferred some exertion to keep her warm.

  She could not avoid glancing back at the house as they strolled across the broad courtyard toward the iron gate. The dwelling was as rich as—far richer than—her expansive home in Yorkshire. A proud, princely house, with a double row of tall windows capped by elegant pediments. She counted the top row, and doubling that figure came to the impressive number of twenty-two windows on the front facade alone. Then there were the stables and the carriage house, set to either side of the square court, and behind it all the garden which she had seen from her bedroom window, stretching five times the length of the house to the next line of magnificent buildings beyond. Inside, there was no sign of reduced circumstances in the light and expensive French furniture or the intricate plasterwork upon the walls. She forced her gaze away from the mansion and found Faelan watching her.

  “My mother’s house,” he said, in that tone he used sometimes, that seemed to Roddy ominous in its utter indifference. “You needn’t fear that the rest of family is as destitute as I.”

  Roddy made no comment, but thought darkly that “the rest of the family” must enjoy a fine income, given the quantity of servants and the quality of the interior appointments and the fact that Banain House, as the majordomo had informed Roddy with pride, was kept open at all times, even though Her Ladyship traveled in great style ten months of the twelve.

  A fine income, for the mother of a man who had stood within a hairsbreadth of losing his estate to debt and taxes.

  Her Ladyship was traveling now; no one knew just where, or particularly cared. The generously paid servants functioned with the same efficiency under the majordomo whether the mistress was at home or not. They had their opinions on Faelan—unbounded respect
for his authority and considerably less for his morals—and a sharp curiosity about his new bride. But they hid all that behind paper-board expressions, and treated Roddy with perfect solicitude.

  As Faelan had predicted, the huge square outside the mansion’s walls was nearly empty, the manicured geometry of flowerbeds frozen in winter brown. A milkmaid, her buckets balanced from the yoke across her shoulders, hurried toward the far corner. Across from Banain House, a young gentleman on horseback had stopped to bargain over a brace of rabbits. As the vendor haggled to raise the price, his two slender hunting dogs sat eyeing the fat, dangling hares in a quandary of canine optimism and restraint. When the sale was made and the rabbits changed hands, the dogs looked after the departing rider for a long, disappointed moment before they obeyed the vendor’s whistled command and bounded away.

  “Where is everyone?” Roddy asked, confused by the solitude of the neighborhood and the great press of humanity she felt through her gift.

  “Gone home to the country, I imagine,” Faelan said.

  “But I thought—the city—” She frowned in consternation. “There must be more people somewhere.”

  He gave her a glance, a blue flash of amusement. “Are you lonely?”

  “Of course not. Only I expected more people.”

  “I fear my company wears thin.”

  Roddy looked down at the pavement. “Not at all, my lord,” she said with shy warmth.

  She was rewarded with the press of his hand on her arm. He stopped and smiled down at her, so close that their frosty breaths mingled. “Careful, little girl. I may be forced to show you to what good use an empty street may be put.”

  It was like a fever, she thought weakly as she raised her eyes to his. Like a sickness, the way he made her heart pound and her limbs shake and her mind forget everything she had been taught in her lifetime. “My lord,” she said faintly, “you may show me anything you like.”

  His hands slid to her waist, drawing her against him. He kissed her, there in full view of the hundreds of blank, staring windows, warmed her cold lips with his heat and delved deep in her mouth for the answering warmth. Roddy lost herself in him. It was cold and he was warm, warm with a fire that passed anything she had ever known. His body was hard beneath the winter clothes. She knew how it would feel against her skin. How firelight would dance on his bare arms and chest and make his eyes seem ice and flame…

  It was her shawl that broke the moment, sliding from her shoulders as she pulled her hand from her muff and lifted her arms to twine around his neck. Roddy herself hardly noticed the chill on her bared skin, but Faelan instantly let her go and retrieved the fringed cashmere. He wrapped her in it once again and resumed their walk with a faint smile playing on his hard lips.

  “Now,” he said, “we shall go and find you more agreeable company.”

  To Roddy’s country-bred legs, the walk through Cavendish Square and across broad, unpaved Oxford Street to the octagonal center of Hanover Square was no great journey. She was glad to keep a brisk pace, for the soft shawl was only moderate protection against the cold. There were more and more people about as they approached the business districts of the city, but beyond Hanover Square, Faelan veered off from the southerly direction in which they had been going and headed west. They came to another great square, and while Roddy politely expressed her admiration for the impressive prospect, Faelan kept his hand firmly under her elbow, steering her without pause toward a particular doorway.

  Messrs. Gunther, read the scrolled sign above the lintel. Confectioners. Posted discreetly beside the door was an advertisement from the Times. “Messrs. Gunther respectfully beg to inform the Nobility and those who honor them with their commands, that they are able to supply CREAM and FRUIT Ices. Also all sorts of Biskets and Cakes, Fine and Common Sugarplums.”

  “Ices!” Roddy said with a shiver as a boy held open the door and the proprietor hurried forward from inside.

  Faelan grinned and pushed her gently through. “I prefer the sugarplums myself.”

  And so he did, Roddy found.

  She watched in astonishment as Monsieur Gunther, recognizing Faelan on the instant, hastened to bring out all sorts of sweets, in jars and stacked on plates and spread across big metal trays. “A cup of chocolate for Mademoiselle?” he asked, and at Faelan’s brief nod the boy scurried to set up a table and a pair of chairs. A moment later Roddy found herself seated in front of a steaming cup of dark, foamy cocoa and a pastry, while Faelan plunked himself down enthusiastically at her side and proceeded to demolish every confection in sight.

  “Long walk,” he said, when she eyed him incredulously. As he finished off an apricot tart, she half expected him to lick his fingers like some mischievous boy, but Gunther was already holding out a snowy napkin.

  Roddy nibbled at an éclair and tried to control a giggle. She loved watching Faelan, the way his dark lashes lowered and his eyebrows drew faintly together as Gunther displayed a new tray and Faelan deliberated on his next choice, and then how one Satan-black brow snapped upward comically when he burned his tongue on the tiny cup of chocolate.

  “Try this,” he offered, holding out a cream cake. “Gunther is incomparable.”

  The hovering proprietor’s expression did not change, but Roddy could feel him swell with pride. It made her want to laugh, to find that the Devil Earl was one of Gunther’s most frequent, and favored, customers. What would her family and all those other doubters think now, if they could see Faelan’s adolescent delight in sugarplums?

  She had hardly finished the éclair when he sighed and surveyed the table, where her one lone little cream cake was all that was left of the imposing array. “Are you finished?” he asked, when she made no move to pick up the cream cake.

  Roddy nodded.

  He gave her cream cake a lingering look. “I suppose that’s more than enough,” he said reluctantly. As he stood and offered his arm to Roddy, he glanced at Gunther. “I compliment you on the cream cakes. I rather like those.”

  “Do you indeed, my lord?” Gunther was as pleased as any housewife at the mention. “A little experiment of mine. Adding a bit of aniseed to the dough, and then…”

  Faelan listened gravely to the full account of how the cream cakes had come into existence. When Gunther had finished, Faelan drew Roddy in front of him. “Lady Iveragh,” he said in mock formality, “you have just been introduced to the finest pastrycook in England. See that you remember him.”

  Gunther’s startlement at this oblique wedding announcement was kept rigorously concealed. He made a humble bow. “I beg your forgiveness, Your Ladyship. I’d not had the honor of hearing of His Lordship’s marriage until this moment. Allow me please to extend my most sincere best wishes for your happiness.”

  “Thank you. Your fare was delicious.” Hidden from Faelan, she gave the baker a quick wink. “I believe I’d like to take that last cream cake with me, if you please.”

  “Of course, my lady.” Only the faintest quiver of his lips betrayed him as he wrapped the cake in paper and handed it to Faelan. Her husband gave the small package the same kind of wistful glance that the vendor’s dogs had given the brace of rabbits. Roddy met Gunther’s eye, and a flash of merry understanding passed between them.

  “And perhaps, Gunther,” she added, “you would send round a dozen of them to Banain House.”

  “Immediately, Your Ladyship,” he said.

  Roddy felt an odd little thrill of pleasure at the first domestic order she had placed in her married life.

  She turned to find Faelan’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “You’d best not humor me,” he said. “I’ll eat all twelve of them before dinner.”

  “Thirteen.” She tapped the little package in his hand.

  “Wise of you to offer it, my dear,” he said judiciously. “I’d have had it out of you one way or the other.”

  Gunther held the door open, and Roddy gave him a special smile as she passed. He only nodded, all humility, but he had caught her mea
ning. He could count on Lady Iveragh’s patronage for the indefinite future. As Roddy slipped her arm in her husband’s and turned down the walk, a new and amazing thought passed through the confectioner’s mind. He stood looking after them.

  Why, I believe she loves him! he mused. And then: Poor child.

  Roddy blocked the baker from her mind.

  The last cream cake was long eaten by the time they reached Pall Mall. There they found a generous portion of the huge populace that Roddy felt through her gift, the bustle of carriages and strolling shoppers. It was a good-humored crowd, easy to bear, and Roddy went wide-eyed along the famous street, more impressed by the elegant shop-windows than by the prince’s new colonnade of Ionic columns that screened the facade of Carlton House. She had little interest in the silk and muslin displays, but the infinite variety of clocks and watches and carved walking sticks and tea caddies and intricately decorated snuffboxes fascinated her.

  Her nose was pressed as hard as any beggar child’s against a window to look at a large ormolu-and-enamel item that somewhat resembled the turret of a castle—though no castle had ever boasted those gay colors and that gilded peak—when a stranger paused behind her. “Whatever is that?” she asked Faelan, without turning from the window.

  It was not her husband who answered. “A music box, my child,” a new voice said gaily. “And a jolly fantastic one, at that.” As she looked around she found the newcomer’s name in the curious glance of another passerby. His Grace of Stratton.

  Roddy blinked at the first duke she had ever seen, and found herself measured, judged, and labeled in a glance as one of Iveragh’s whores.

  She went scarlet, but Faelan was already introducing her. “Good afternoon, Your Grace,” he said calmly. “May I present my wife, Roderica?”

  It was His Grace’s turn to go scarlet then. He wasn’t nearly as clever at covering his shock as Gunther had been. His double chin jerked and quivered as he choked, “Your—” He caught himself, and after a moment of struggle managed, “—Ladyship! I’m honored.” His corset creaked as he straightened himself and bowed. “Honored indeed. Well, well, Iveragh. This is a sh—a surprise. I daresay you’ve made no announcement. I just now gave my compliments to—” He stumbled, thinking of whores again, and then took another tack entirely. “Lovely music box. Lovely. Perfect wedding gift. Come in, my dear, and you shall have it!”

 
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