The regency romances, p.91
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       The Regency Romances, p.91

           Laura Kinsale
 

  He reached for Roddy’s arm. Faelan moved at the same time, an odd, sudden move that he stopped before it was completed. Jealous, the duke thought, catching the significance before Roddy did. By God, he doesn’t even want me to touch her!

  To the duke, Faelan’s unexpected possessiveness was even more of a shock than his marriage. The peculiar devil, what’s he care? Never did so before. Damned money-match, bound to be. Girl with funds and in trouble—no bloody reason to get on his high horse over her. Pretty chit, in an odd sort of way. The duke smiled at Roddy. Try my own luck, after she drops the brat.

  “Your Grace,” Roddy said, moving toward Faelan and just out of the duke’s reach. “I couldn’t possibly allow you to do such a thing.” She stared at him, to let the double meaning of that sink in, and then added, “It’s far too generous of you.”

  “Far too generous,” Faelan repeated coolly, tucking her hand into the comforting crook of his arm. She stood as close as she could easily manage without appearing to hide behind him. He added, “If you’ll excuse us, I’m afraid we have an appointment with Mr. Skipworth.”

  “Skipworth?” The duke glanced toward the shop and saw the sign. Blake and Skipworth. Jewelers and Watchmakers. “Ah, yes—of course. Do go on. I’m only in town for a sennight, myself, and not time for a bit of pleasure in it. Give your mother my devoted service. Good day, Your Ladyship. Honored. Most honored.”

  He walked away thinking: Oh, Liza, Liza, Liza, this business will sink you! And then, with a hint of malice: What devilish luck, that I should be the one to tell it!

  Roddy supposed that Liza was the duchess, and turned her attention to the more pleasant prospect of visiting the jeweler. The duke’s disagreeable reaction to Faelan’s marriage seemed better forgotten.

  The head salesman of Blake and Skipworth, who had witnessed with interest the attention of the Duke of Stratton to the shop-window, hurried forward to greet Roddy and Faelan. Though the salesman did not recognize Faelan, any acquaintance with His Grace the Duke was reference enough. When Faelan gave the man a glance and asked in a quiet, authoritative voice for Mr. Skipworth, the young man did not even hesitate, but dispatched an underling on the instant to fetch Mr. Skipworth from his office in the back.

  “Her Ladyship would like to look at music boxes,” Faelan said to the tall, angular gentleman who appeared from the depths of the shop with a skeptical lift to his white brows.

  The words “Her Ladyship” worked magic with the doubting Mr. Skipworth, and Roddy and Faelan were ushered into the private room without delay.

  “I believe you were interested in the one displayed in the window,” the salesman reminded her. “I’ll bring it directly.”

  “And some others,” Faelan said placidly. “Less…gaudy, perhaps.”

  “I understand completely, my lord.” Mr. Skipworth nodded wisely. “We’ll be happy to show you a wide variety.”

  “Gaudy, Faelan?” Roddy demanded when the jeweler had gone to hasten his salesman. “Unique, I should say.”

  Faelan lifted one eyebrow. “Gaudy,” he repeated firmly.

  “Unique,” Roddy replied with spirit.

  He only smiled, and stood back to allow the salesman past with his weighty burden.

  The turret-cum-music was a wonder. It played “God Save the King” in the keys of A and C, and when the music began, six little doors around the tower popped open to reveal tiny figures of dancing lions and unicorns, just like on the Great Seal of England, that spun clockwise in A and counterclockwise in C. The seventh door opened to extend a snuffbox mounted on a golden foot: a tiny human foot, with four perfect toes and one large, misshapen one.

  It was certainly unique.

  Faelan watched the demonstration without comment. Since he had suggested it, Roddy listened politely to the other, smaller boxes put forward for her approval, but she had already made her choice. When Faelan picked up a delicate sandalwood box that opened to play a pretty contredanse and display only an empty bed of red satin, she thought that he was teasing her.

  “No, no, that one isn’t gaudy enough,” she cried. “I like a great deal of color.”

  He set the sandalwood box down.

  “I like this one,” she pressed, winding the key of the turret again.

  Faelan glanced at Mr. Skipworth, and the jeweler withdrew with a silent nod, certain that he had sold his musical prize. When “God Save the King” had played through twice, once in A and once in C, Faelan reached over and snapped the center door shut. The music stopped.

  “Roddy,” he said quietly. “I fear this unique object may come with a high price.”

  She gave him the smile that she always gave her father when she wanted some special trinket. “Oh!” she said in a teasing tone. “Can we not afford it, my lord?”

  “You can.” He met her eyes with a level gaze. “To my great and eternal embarrassment…I cannot.”

  All her joy—her thoughtless, childish mischief—vanished on the instant. She stared at him. “My lord…” Her voice faltered and faded, unequal to the magnitude of the mistake she had made.

  In the fraught silence, he smiled faintly and brushed her cheek with a gentle fist. “It wouldn’t be a gift, you see,” he said softly.

  She turned away and snatched up the sandalwood box. “This is the one I want!” She opened it and held it up and stood listening to the metallic tune while the satin went to a scarlet blur of shame and remorse. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so stupid.”

  He took her shoulders and drew her back against him. “Don’t cry, my love. It isn’t worth tears.”

  She shook her head and turned into his arms, holding the music box tight between them. “I c-can’t help it. You’ve been so g-good to me, and I—”

  “Hush.” He lifted her chin and brushed moisture from beneath her eye with his thumb. “One more teardrop and I’ll go into hock to buy that damned monstrosity.”

  Roddy giggled wetly. “It is awful, isn’t it?”

  “Ungodly,” he said with feeling.

  She sniffed and took the handkerchief he offered. When Mr. Skipworth came back into the room a few minutes later, she held up the sandalwood box with a tremulous smile. “Isn’t it lovely?” The tears threatened to spill over again. “Oh, my,” she exclaimed. “I think I’m going to c-cry!”

  Mr. Skipworth thought he was, too, when he saw which of the two boxes she had chosen. But he rallied and called her a person of exceptional sensibility, and asked the salesman to usher her back out into the showroom while Mr. Skipworth “conversed” with His Lordship. Roddy went, clutching her prize, and paused at the door. When Faelan looked up, she thought her heart would burst at the tender smile he gave her. “I shall treasure it always,” she said fiercely. “Forever.”

  Faelan and Mr. Skipworth’s “conversation” took somewhat longer than Roddy had expected. She was still waiting ten minutes later, glancing desultorily over some bracelets the salesman had brought out, when another customer came into the shop.

  Roddy might not even have looked up, but the woman entered with her mind obsessed by Faelan.

  Roddy’s breath stopped in her throat. She dropped the bracelet she was holding and turned…to confront her husband’s mistress.

  Liza.

  The face and the name from the duke’s memory came together, and with them the certain knowledge of who she was. It was in Liza’s mind clearly, and it had been in the duke’s too, though Roddy had not understood the image at the time.

  She was different from Roddy, opposite in everything, older, wiser, full-bodied: a dark burgundy to Roddy’s clear spring water. As she entered the shop her sable-brown eyes were looking for Faelan, thoughts hard behind dark velvet. She knew of his marriage—the duke had told her—and she was burning.

  Just at that moment the door to the private room opened, and Faelan stepped out with Mr. Skipworth.

  “Iveragh!” Liza cried, going forward past Roddy as if she weren’t there, although Liza knew perfectly well that
the slender girl—the veriest schoolroom chit, Liza thought viciously—was certain to be Faelan’s bride. “How glad I am to find you still here! Stratton, that old rogue, has just been telling me the wildest tales—”

  Faelan took her outstretched hand and brushed it with his lips. “Mrs. Northfield,” he said. “I hadn’t expected you to be in the city at this season.”

  “The admiral is on shore leave,” she answered with magnificent nonchalance. “But are you married indeed, my lord? And this is your bride—what a lovely child!”

  Roddy stood miserably, damning her gift. It was all so subtle, so delicate. She would never have known without her talent. They carried it off in flawless style, Faelan and his mistress, introductions all around and the most civilized of conversation. It made Roddy sick inside. He was perfect. No slip, no seams, no single clue that he felt anything more for Liza Northfield than he would for a passing acquaintance.

  The grand Liza herself was not quite so cool. There was a faint, betraying flush on the creamy skin revealed by the décolletage beneath her filmy mantua. Her voice was a trifle higher than it should have been, concealing spite as she smiled at Roddy with the kindest of smiles.

  Roddy returned the greeting, not quite overcoming the awful dryness in her throat that made her voice come out all wrong.

  “I’m delighted,” Mrs. Northfield said. “The admiral and I have been putting forward eligible young ladies these ten years and never once would this paltry fellow do his duty.” Because I held him; because he craves me; all those other silly chits—nothing. Like you, my dear. Like you. You’ll never hold him. “Wherever did you find her, my Lord Iveragh? In the country, I’ll be bound. You were always one for unearthing diamonds from the rough.”

  “My family is in Yorkshire,” Roddy said, getting determined control of her voice.

  “Yorkshire!” Mrs. Northfield slid a gloved hand up behind her ear, tucking back a curl. She sent a glance under heavy lashes toward Faelan, preparing to go for Roddy’s throat. “And what a pretty milkmaid it is! I fear our city ways may curdle her cream.”

  There was a pause. Faelan said, “I shan’t allow that to happen.”

  Mrs. Northfield smiled at him. “Of course. You’re the very man to guard such innocence.”

  “In this case.”

  “Indeed.” A new thought came into Liza’s mind, a new interpretation. Silly dupe, stupid mouse, he never means to keep you. The others—that Ashley girl, and the little Traherne bitch—just the same; do you think he cares? The streets, that’s where you’ll be, along with that besotted Ellen Webster—he’ll grow sick of your face as he will of hers; he’ll be rid of you. The same, just the same, like the others…. She looked at Roddy with veiled speculation, pleased and aroused by the image of ruined innocence.

  Roddy realized then what drew this woman to the Devil Earl.

  It was not the Faelan that Roddy knew, not the blue eyes and rare laughter. It was the other side: the darkness. The seducer and destroyer of foolish young girls. The black image in a dawn mist. The killer. His mistress clung to him for a taste of that power, to be taken as a virgin again and again: mock struggle, imagined pain, a shadow-lover’s lifeblood soaking slowly into the ground. An image passed through Liza’s mind, a stab of purest lust as she imagined Faelan, just come to her bed from a duel.

  Roddy stood very still. She had to concentrate to keep her fingers from allowing the music box to slide from her hand. She did not want to know these things. Liza Northfield believed in Faelan’s sins; she reveled in them. She even had names for the innocent victims Roddy had convinced herself were only figments of society’s twisted imagination.

  “The admiral,” Faelan said. “May I call on him tomorrow?”

  Triumph exploded behind Liza’s brown eyes. She closed her full lips and smiled. “He has orders to Gravesend,” she purred, in a voice softened with false regret. “He leaves me this very night, I fear. At ten.”

  It was a signal between them, that question and answer: an appointment as clear as a handwritten note.

  “At ten,” Faelan repeated. “I’ll be sorry to miss him.”

  Liza smiled at the confirmation and shrugged prettily. “The sad case of a sailor’s wife. Left alone for nights on end.” She gave Roddy a pleasant nod. “You won’t have such a burden, of course, my dear. Now—I must go and see that the admiral has a proper supper before he leaves. Such an honor to meet you, Lady Iveragh. Do call on me at the earliest. His Lordship can give you the direction.”

  Roddy watched in silent misery as her husband’s mistress walked serenely out the door, making plans for what she would wear to their assignation. The blue silk, she was thinking. It slides off the shoulder and breast so—

  Roddy pushed the conclusion of that image away with frantic haste.

  It was no use telling herself that it made no difference. A week ago, she might have managed it. A week ago, she had made a marriage of convenience, trading her money for the chance to create a life of her own. But she found now that she did not want a life of her own. She wanted Faelan, the Faelan she knew, the one who smiled at her and called her lovely and stroked her softly as she fell asleep.

  She stared down at the carved lid of the music box, her spine stiff with helpless fury. Fury at Faelan, at Liza, at herself—at her own stupid, childish hopes. She’d been prepared to limit her demands, to accept his faults and his lovers, or at least pretend they didn’t exist. But he’d cheated; he’d been different from the start. He was an actor, a fraud, a fake.

  And he’d made it so achingly easy to love him.

  Chapter 7

  They rode back to Banain House in a hackney. Roddy said she was tired and didn’t care to walk. For the sake of her pride, she tried to keep a pleasant face, but every time her eyes fell on the package that contained the music box, they wanted to fill up and overflow. She spent the greater part of the ride staring resolutely out the window away from Faelan.

  The worst moment was when the hackney swung up to the doorstep of the great house and Roddy had to bear his warm touch on her arm as he helped her from the cab. One part of her wanted to turn toward him and throw herself into his arms and beg to be told that it was not true, that there was no deception in him, that the things he had said to her and made her feel were real, not pretty lies. The other part of her wanted only to get away, to escape this city and go back to what she had been, simple and protected and sure, with her gift to guide her between truth and falsehood.

  A footman held open the door for them, and Roddy entered to a familiar and unexpected touch in her mind. Geoffrey! She did not need the majordomo’s announcement to know Lord Cashel waited for them in the drawing room. She barely paused to allow a footman to open the door before she rushed past. She ran to her old friend and took his hands. “Oh, Geoffrey,” she cried, and to her utter horror the tears escaped control and her hands closed on his lapels and she found herself sobbing against his elegant shirtfront. “Oh, Geoffrey, I’m so glad you’re here!”

  “Roddy, Roddy—what in God’s name…” He held her away from him and then looked beyond toward Faelan in dawning anger. “What’s the meaning of this?”

  Roddy pulled away at that, realizing what she had done. She pushed off Geoffrey’s hands as if they burned her. Oh, God—what a mistake, what a stupid, infantile blunder, to shame her husband and herself by letting Geoffrey see her like this!

  She summoned a false and brilliant smile and exclaimed, “Oh—how could I make such a cake of myself as to cry? I’m sorry, but it’s been such a wonderful day—we took a walk, and I’ve seen everything, and my lord has bought me the most beautiful m-music b-box—” Her voice cracked again, because Geoffrey’s first interpretation of her emotional behavior was the same condemnation she had heard from everyone else. Pregnancy. “I think I should go up and change,” she said, desperate to escape. “Will—will you be staying long, Lord Geoffrey?”

  He shook his head. “A moment only, to speak to Faelan.” He hesitated,
and meeting flashed through his mind, colored by some desperate need to keep his purpose concealed. “A matter of business. I’ll be joining Lady Mary this evening, to catch the Dublin packet.”

  “Oh.” Roddy found that her friend’s sudden arrival and desertion made her more miserable than ever. Secret meetings, politics—he had no time for one confused girl in the great swirl of human affairs. She wished he had not come at all. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled.

  He took her hand and gave it a special squeeze, the kind of guilty gesture that her father often made. Her outburst had baffled and upset him, and sparked a protective anger. “Roddy,” he said, drawing her close in anxious affection. “You’re certain you’re all right, poppet?”

  She leaned on him, comforted a little by his honest concern. From the circle of his arm she looked toward her husband. Faelan held the music box in his hand, staring down at it.

  “Yes, of course, Geoffrey,” she said, barely above a whisper. “I’m perfectly well and happy.”

  “I’m glad.” He took her remark as truth, because his conscience preferred it that way. “You know you can depend on me, love,” he added, in a voice of caressing warmth. “For anything.”

  She stood away from him. “Thank you,” she said shyly. “My lords…may I be excused?”

  Faelan glanced up. His face held an expression she had never seen before: blank and vicious at once, as if he looked at her and saw something else, far beyond, and whatever it was made him murderous. “Yes,” he said. “Go on.”

  That was all. Not a touch, not a word or a look of affection. Not even “please.”

 
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