The regency romances, p.92
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       The Regency Romances, p.92

           Laura Kinsale
 

  She spent the remainder of the afternoon huddled on a bench in the farthest reaches of the garden, alternately promising herself that her husband was not worth a single tear and then weeping over crushed hopes like the silliest babe. It was well after dark before she returned to the house, driven by the cold to desert her refuge. Her steps were slow and reluctant as she slipped in through the side door by the vegetable garden, knowing through her gift that the hall from the servants’ quarters was empty.

  It was London, she had decided. London was to blame for it all. It was the press of the city that unbalanced her, made her into a vulnerable, romantic idiot when she should have been wise and cold.

  She had known what Faelan was, and stupidly allowed herself to forget it. She had been foolish, this past week, to interpret his attentions as anything more than well-bred politeness. And the humiliation of meeting his mistress in public—he could hardly be blamed for that. No one could have foreseen such a coincidence. He had handled it in the only possible way. With faultless discretion.

  What could I expect him to do, Roddy asked herself, stand out on the street and renounce the woman?

  Even his assignation—Roddy couldn’t even object to that. She was not so naive. Faelan was a man, a sensual, vital man—it was in every move he made, the way he kissed and touched and held her. After the sophisticated life he had led—that she had known perfectly well he had led—she could hardly expect him to be satisfied with her untutored caresses.

  She had vowed to herself that she would not object to his infidelities, and meant to keep that vow. It was to be a marriage of convenience, not love.

  But she had her own pride. Stupid she had been, there was no doubt of that. Helpless fury and hurt filled her when she thought of how she had melted for him, had given gladly what he could come by so easily elsewhere. She was his wife, but she did not have to be the pliant, panting wanton he had made her. Things would change now.

  His heart was not engaged, and she’d been a fool to entangle hers. And the first step back to rationality was to extricate herself from the drugging influence of his lovemaking. He could go to his mistress, with Roddy’s blessing. Let him spend his passion elsewhere, and not drag her down into that net of blind unreason.

  I wanted children from him, Roddy reminded herself fiercely. Not love. Let him go to his precious Liza for his kind of love.

  As Roddy entered the main hall she met Minshall, the majordomo, emerging from the library. He did not see her at first, being absorbed in the direction scrawled elegantly on the envelope in his hand. Mrs. Northfield. Number 8 Blandford.

  He tucked the note into his pocket, made a mental note to inquire before dinner when His Lordship would want the carriage, and looked up. It was only his years of training that kept him from showing his guilty start.

  “My lady,” he said, since she stood in the dim, candlelit hall apparently waiting to speak to him. “How can I be of service?”

  “His Lordship—is he in the library?” she asked hesitantly.

  “Yes, my lady. I might add that he has instructed me to put back dinner an hour, since you’ve been walking in the garden later than usual.”

  An hour! Faelan would have to hurry if he were to meet Mrs. Northfield at ten. But perhaps it was only Roddy’s dinner that had been postponed. “Am I to eat alone, then?” she asked.

  Minshall was surprised. A trace of pity touched his mind as he thought of the note in his pocket. “His Lordship did not mention it, my lady. In the absence of orders to the contrary, I assumed that you would be dining with him en suite as you have been. I will inquire, if you like.”

  Roddy moistened her lips. “Perhaps you’d better do so. He mentioned to me that he might be…going out tonight.”

  The majordomo looked at her more closely, noting the slight puffiness around her eyes. Poor child, Minshall thought. Damn him—can’t he wait? It’s a bleeding shame if he’s let her guess. Aloud, the manservant said, “I shall speak to him, Your Ladyship. Do you wish to join him now?”

  Her throat went suddenly dry, but she managed a nod. The majordomo scratched lightly at the door and then held it open for her.

  Faelan was far across the huge, dark room, in a wing chair by the fire, the reflection of the flames dancing off the polish on his crossed boots. He turned his head at Minshall’s restrained cough, and stood up without setting down the drink in his hand.

  “Your Ladyship,” he said, in that tone that told Roddy nothing. “Good evening.” Silhouetted by the fire, his face was too shadowed to reveal his expression.

  Roddy went resolutely forward, followed closely by Minshall, who placed a chair and fire screen for her. She sat down. After a moment of silence, Minshall said softly, “The dinner arrangements are to be as usual, my lord?”

  Faelan looked up from his contemplation of the glass in his hand. “Put back an hour, Minshall. I just told you, did I not?”

  The majordomo bowed, reminding himself that the lord had a right to sound as if Minshall were slightly lacking in wit. “Yes, my lord.” He hesitated, trying to decide if he had a clear answer or not, and then added, “Her Ladyship had expressed a question as to whether or not you would dine with her.”

  From the startled half-turn of Faelan’s head, Minshall surmised smugly that His Lordship had never intended otherwise. A rake and a reprobate the earl might be, but he had manners enough to dine with his new bride.

  Faelan said, a little abruptly, “Do you not wish it, Lady Iveragh?”

  Roddy was caught, unable to repeat her fib that Faelan had told her he was going out, and with no other excuse for why she would question the established custom. “I have a touch of the headache,” she improvised, “and thought perhaps I should go to bed directly.”

  He looked toward her, his face profiled by shadow and fire. After a moment, he said, “I shall eat in the dining room, then, Minshall. Her Ladyship will have a tray sent up.”

  Minshall bowed again, turned to go, and then paused. “I beg your pardon, my lady. Did you intend the cream cakes to be served this evening?”

  She looked down at her hands in a flush of misery. “Yes,” she said in a small voice. “If Lord Iveragh would like them.”

  “I would,” Faelan said, in a warmer voice than he had used before. “Very much.”

  The majordomo nodded and left the room, thinking that it would have been most indiscreet to inquire about the carriage just at that moment when my lord was looking at my lady with that rare smile softening his dark features.

  Minshall might have been fooled by a smile, but Roddy was not. Not any longer. When Faelan came to stand beside her and brush his fingers along the curve of her throat, she knew it for the sham it was. But her pulse began to pound under the light caress.

  “Do you require assistance to your bed, my lady?” he asked softly.

  She moved away from him a little. “No, thank you.” Her voice was slightly breathless.

  The fire popped, flaring. Faelan curled his fingers and withdrew them.

  “Did you enjoy your sojourn in the garden?” he asked. The warmth had receded from his voice, replaced by an odd, taut note. “I noticed that you didn’t return to bid Godspeed to Lord Geoffrey.”

  Roddy heard the irony in his tone, but she was too agitated by the things that she wanted to say to resent it. She said unsteadily, “Geoffrey understands. It would have made me cry again, I think.” She cleared her throat, and added in a firmer tone. “I wished to speak to you.”

  He sketched a bow. “I’m at your service, Your Ladyship.”

  The faintly insolent formality made a hard task harder. She could find no words to say what she intended.

  “What did you wish to speak to me about?” he prompted after a moment.

  She clasped her hands together. Her brain seemed slow and stupid and her tongue stuck in her mouth.

  “Are you situated comfortably?” he asked, when the silence had stretched again. “There’s nothing wrong with your room?”

&
nbsp; “No.” Roddy knew he was mocking her. “Of course not.”

  “Some problems with the servants?” he taunted gently. “A difficulty with your pin money? You want a music box, perhaps. Come, my dear, you needn’t be afraid to speak to me.”

  “Faelan.” She took a breath. “It’s about our—circumstances.”

  “Ah.”

  “With respect to each other,” she added.

  He walked back to his chair and set his glass down on the little table. “I’m not certain I understand you.”

  “It’s just that…I’ve been thinking. About our marriage, and—and our, um…our relationship. Our married relationship, I mean. And I believe, my lord, that it’s my duty to…” Her voice almost failed her, and she squeezed her eyes shut. “—to…submit…to you—when necessary—for the purpose of having children, but as to what…what we’ve been…” She swallowed, and said in a desperate rush, “My lord, I don’t think I can bear that anymore!”

  She opened her eyes and looked toward him. The faint smile had vanished from his face. He stood and stared down at the glass beneath his hand. “Roddy,” he whispered. And that was all.

  “Please don’t be angry!” She was half frightened by the way his palm tightened over the fragile crystal. “I can’t expect you to change your—your way of life, I know! But I thought that if you realized…if I made you aware…that I would perfectly understand and approve if you should…prefer to go elsewhere for…your pleasure…” Her voice trailed off in mortification.

  He did not say anything. He only stood rigid for an excruciatingly long moment before his fingers curled around the glass. With movements that were more stilted than his usual easy grace, he poured himself another drink from the decanter on the table. He took a swallow, and turned to her. “I am to go elsewhere,” he repeated coolly. “I collect I am also expected to extend to you the same…permission?”

  Roddy blinked in shock. “No, my lord. I wouldn’t—”

  “No,” he agreed, with dangerous mildness. “You wouldn’t, my dear. That I assure you.” He finished the drink in another swallow and took a step toward Roddy. She flinched back a little, afraid of how her body might betray her if he chose to exercise his lethal magic. He stopped, his blue eyes quick to catch the tiny movement. “I beg your pardon. I misunderstood. I am to go elsewhere and leave you in peace.”

  “Yes!” Roddy came to her feet. God, how she hated this—how she wanted him to hold her and stroke her hair and kiss her until she could not stand. But there was Liza. There was Liza, waiting for him. Roddy turned her back. “Leave me in peace!”

  There was silence behind her. And then: “For how long?”

  Forever. Never. Oh, now, she thought helplessly. Love me now. She opened her mouth, but no words came out past the knot in her throat.

  “Second thoughts, little girl?” he asked bitterly. “Have your regrets caught up with you this afternoon?”

  She flinched at the sneer in his voice, not knowing how to answer.

  The silence stretched, dark and painful. After a long time, he asked harshly, “Are you thinking of divorce?”

  Roddy gripped the arm of the chair and shook her head.

  “Good,” he said softly. She heard his footsteps, long strides toward the door. He stopped, halfway there, and looked back at her.

  “Good,” he said again, out of the shadows. “Because I warn you, my love. You may talk of peace, but I’ll hold you by force before I’ll let our marriage be dissolved.”

  She lay awake all night listening for the carriage, but if it came or went in the court below her window, she did not hear, or feel any stirring among the servants through her gift. Alone in the great, cold bed—alone for the first time since she had left her home—she stared at a shaft of moonlight between the bed-curtains as it drifted across the other pillow.

  Regrets. She had a hundred of them. A hundred thousand. Regrets tumbled around in her head and lay next to her on the bed and piled chin-deep against the windowpane watching for a carriage.

  “Did your regrets catch up with you this afternoon?” a demon-voice whispered through her waking dreams. “Regrets,” the walls answered as she twisted and turned and tangled in the bedclothes. “Your regrets. This afternoon.” The night echoed with the words. “This afternoon. This afternoon.”

  She knotted the pillow and buried her face in it.

  What did he mean by that?

  Liza. He might have thought Roddy knew the truth, that Liza was his mistress and he meant to keep her. He might have meant that Roddy had been warned. “Say you won’t marry me…” It had been her choice, for better or for worse. And now her regrets had caught up with her.

  But he had been so angry. Since that moment she had turned in Geoffrey’s arms—

  Roddy sat bolt upright in the bed.

  Geoffrey.

  A crystallized vision burst in her mind, of that moment when the Duke of Stratton had reached for her and Faelan had moved to stop him. The same look—it had been the same look on his face: a primeval rage, come and gone in an instant, too quick for Roddy in her inexperience to see. But the duke had caught it, and known it for what it was.

  Roddy struggled out of the bed, pushing back the curtains to find the first chilly light of dawn in the room. She dressed by herself in her country clothes—flannel undergarments, a warm woolen calash, and sturdy wooden pattens over her shoes. The house servants were just awake and beginning to stir, but when she reached the stable she found the horses all fed and the undergrooms already at work slapping the circulation into their charges’ coats with braided wisps of straw.

  She smiled good morning at the head coachman, and complimented him on a well-run stable. “Quite as excellent as my father’s,” she said generously, and defused his astonishment at finding the new young mistress unannounced in the stableyard at dawn by engaging in a detailed description of how her parent’s famous operation began each day.

  By degrees, she led him into a discussion of the daily routine of the Banain House stable, and finally found an unobjectionable place to insert a question about which horses were used when the carriage went out after dark on such a chilly night as last.

  She did not even have to use her gift to interpret his ready answer.

  “Oh, that’d be Dogs and old Charlie, m’lady. They go on great guns in the cold. Blest if the two of ’em warn’t disappointed when the House sent round last night to say that His Lordship wudn’t a-going out after all like Mr. Minshall ’ud thought. They gets an extra measure of oats if they go in the dark, and they do know it, m’lady. Animals is smarter than some people thinks, as you needs must know, ma’am, bein’ so familiar with Mr. Delamore’s stable an’ all.”

  Roddy blinked at the beefy coachman. Faelan changed his mind. He didn’t go to Blandford Street.

  And he was jealous of Geoffrey.

  “Without a doubt,” Roddy agreed joyously. “Without a shadow of a doubt, Mr. Carter. I’d better go back inside now. Good morning to you.”

  The great entrance hall was empty when she slipped off her pattens and tiptoed in. At the far end, the door to the library stood partly open, and through her talent the soft voices of the two people inside were clear in her head.

  “’Twere here when I come in, mum!” a young and anxious maid was saying. “I fetched you, mum, on the quick—I didn’t do it, on my grave! I never done nothing but opened the door and went to trim the candles, and I saw it then, mum. I come right away to find you!”

  “Fetch a broom, then!” It was the housekeeper, flustered and trying to hide it. “’Tis plain you didn’t break the thing. But for pity’s sake, clean it up and have it out of here.”

  “Yes, mum.” The maid scurried for the door. “Yes, mum.”

  Roddy drew back into the wide doorframe of the drawing room as the housekeeper and the maid came out in the hall and disappeared in silent servant fashion behind the curving stairs.

  After they had left, Roddy set the wooden clogs down and moved
toward the library door. She did not want to. She knew what she would find; what the two servants had seen that had put them into such a flutter of dismay. She went halfway into the room and stopped, her eyes fastened on the white marble hearth and the cold ashes within.

  Shards of broken crystal covered the stone, flashing prisms of color in the red light of the rising sun. Across the dark wood of the mantel, a vicious scar showed raw and pale above the broken neck of the decanter that had struck it.

  But worse, far worse, was what lay smashed among the dead coals.

  Her music box.

  “M’lady,” said a horrified voice. The young maid hurried into the room with her pail and broom. “Oh, m’lady, I beg your pardon, but I didn’t do it. Mrs. Clarke, she kin tell you, m’lady.”

  Roddy slowly tore her eyes away. “Of course you didn’t do it.”

  The maid stared at Roddy, and then ducked and began to sweep vigorously at the broken pieces. The girl knew she was not supposed to speak to the young mistress unless spoken to, but in her fright her mouth would not be still. “I’ll have it gone in an instant, m’lady. ’Twere a terrible accident His Lordship had,” she explained breathlessly, stooping to retrieve the music box. “A terrible, terrible accident—”

  “I’ll take that,” Roddy said, holding out her hand.

  The maid looked up. “Oh, my lady,” she said in a stricken whisper. “It is yours?”

  Roddy did not answer. She did not have to. The girl laid the charred and broken remains of the music box reverently in Roddy’s hands.

  “I’m sorry, m’lady.” The maid’s voice was soft and miserable. “I’m so sorry. Such a pretty box…” She raised her eyes, and they were glittering with tears. “I’m sure it were an accident, m’lady. His Lordship—he wouldn’t…oh, mum—such a pretty, pretty box.”

  “Yes,” Roddy said.

  And they both knew it had not been an accident.

  The maid finished her task hurriedly. With a quick, anxious curtsy, she scuffled away toward the door. Halfway there, a frightened “Oh!” escaped her, and she dropped into another panicked curtsy, clattering her pail loudly on the floor. “Beg pardon. Beg pardon, m’lord,” she squeaked, and slid out and away into the nether regions of domestic safety.

 

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