The regency romances, p.98
The Regency Romances, p.98Laura Kinsale
“Jane,” Roddy said sharply. She sat up and frowned at her maid. “Bring my dressing gown. And call the charwoman to clean this up.”
“Yes, m’lady.” Jane dropped a quick curtsy and obeyed. Roddy stayed abed until the mess was cleared and a new mirrored dressing table brought in from a guest room. Jane fussed about, taking things out of drawers and rearranging them, and then helped Roddy into her dressing gown and followed her to the vanity, beginning to brush Roddy’s hair without a word.
After a few silent moments, Roddy said quietly, “I know you don’t want to go to Ireland.”
Jane’s hand didn’t pause in its even stroke. She was long accustomed to Roddy’s uncanny understanding. “No, m’lady,” she said, and shut her lips tight.
This was her stoic act, but Roddy had no patience with it this morning. “Then you shan’t go,” she said.
That time Jane’s hand did falter, but Roddy countered the maid’s relieved misunderstanding immediately. “I’ll go without you. You may return to my mother.”
Instantly, Jane reversed her stance. “I’ll do no such thing, m’lady! Why, I’d ne’er go back and tell your sweet mother that I left you to that—” She stopped her tongue in time, but Roddy knew the rest well enough. Jane began brushing again, refusing to meet her mistress’ eyes in the mirror.
“I shan’t tolerate disrespect for my husband,” Roddy said softly, and nearly stopped there, for Jane was already crushed by such unfamiliar harshness as an open reprimand. But Roddy had made up her mind. She said as gently as she could, “You can’t go with a glad heart, Jane, and therefore, you shall not go at all.”
“No.” She finally met Jane’s eyes in the glass, and felt the shock and quick recoil in the maid’s mind.
Jane bowed her head and began to brush vigorously. There were tears pricking her eyes, but her lips were pressed together desperately tight.
“I’ll send a letter to my mother,” Roddy said, addressing Jane’s greatest fear. “You may be sure there’ll be nothing but praise in it.”
“And who will take proper care of you, m’lady?” Jane asked stiffly.
“I shall take Martha.”
“Martha…” For a moment, Jane could not place the name. Then her bosom swelled. “The chambermaid? Oh, m’lady, I couldn’t—”
A sound at the dressing-room door forestalled further argument. Faelan strode into the bedchamber. He stopped behind Roddy and gathered up a thick fall of her loosened hair. He said nothing about the new dressing table. He did not even look at it. With a smile that held no hint of the night before, he lifted the curling strands to his lips. “Laggard. You aren’t dressed.”
Jane withdrew, silently. She was suddenly quite glad to be given a reason not to go to Iveragh. His Lordship in the shadowy candlelight looked like Satan underlit by hell.
Roddy found it was easy to respond to him, to pretend to go on just as they had. Far easier than acknowledging the darkness that underlay her airy words. “As it isn’t even dawn yet, my lord, you’re fortunate to find me awake at all.”
“Your time of day, cailin sidhe. I’ll go down to the garden and bring you back a cup of fairy wine.”
Roddy made a face. “Strong tea would be more the thing.”
She looked at him in the mirror. His teeth flashed white in a lecherous grin. He bent over and crossed his arm beneath her throat, forcing her chin up for a deep and lingering kiss. For just a moment, his forearm pressed too hard into her windpipe, and then the kiss broke and she could breathe again. “Good morning, little girl,” he murmured, resting his forehead on his encircling arm, trapping her with him into a small, close world. She could feel the cool dampness of his cheek against hers and smell the lingering tang of shaving soap. His arms were heavy and warm on her shoulders.
I love you, she thought, with a sudden fierceness. You are not mad. You cannot be.
He turned his head and took a deep breath in the mass of her hair. His arm tightened for just a moment, and then he straightened and stood back. “We leave at half past nine,” he said, starting for the door.
Roddy looked after him, surprised. “But your mother won’t be up.”
“Will she not?” He smiled wryly. “I’m prostrate with grief over that circumstance.”
He did contrive to look a little guilty, which made Roddy laugh. He went out the door with an answering grin.
Three hours later, in her traveling dress, Roddy was helping herself to eggs and deviled kidneys from the sideboard in what was whimsically called the “small” dining room, a silk-hung cavern that Roddy estimated to be the size of one of her father’s horse barns. The sun was full up and streaming through the tall windows. In the morning cheerfulness, the scene with Faelan the night before seemed like a dream, and just as easily dismissed. She filled her plate and rang for tea, sitting down and beginning to eat without delay, since it was already quite close to the time declared for departure.
In the courtyard below the windows, all was calm and organized haste, the last-minute loading of trunks and adjusting of harness, the eagerness of four fresh coach horses and the soothing, nonsensical babble of experienced grooms with their charges. Faelan was there, standing at the top of the front steps, not giving orders, but just watching—Roddy knew that because the earl’s presence made the head coachman especially careful and efficient with his orders.
Roddy sensed the stranger before anyone outside noticed him. The blast of emotion was like an unexpected summer storm—a gust of anger from a distance, then a growing rumble and the electric shock of hysterical fury so close that it made her start. She stood up quickly and went to the window. A tall gentleman strode across the gravel yard, a figure who had not lost his gangling, youthful gait—or whose walk was rendered jerky and awkward by his agitated state. His eyes were pinned with malevolent hatred on the carriage emblazoned with Iveragh’s crest, and his thoughts overrode every other.
Run, will he? Bastard—bloody, stinking bastard—Kill him. Cut his rutting heart out and let the pigs eat his—The young man saw Faelan, and the mental litany lost coherence and exploded into rushing images of violence and obscenity. He almost broke into a run, but a last shred of rationality made him hold on to his pride. He stiffened to a measured tread, heading for the steps of Banain House with white face and set lips.
Roddy ran out of the dining room and into the hall. She reached the front door and stepped out just as the stranger halted at the foot of the wide limestone stairs.
The bustle in the courtyard had come to a stop. “Iveragh,” the young man hissed, in a tone that rang in the suddenly silent yard. “Name your friends!”
Roddy saw only Faelan’s profile. He did not move, but it seemed to her that he changed, grew dangerous and still, staring down at the other man as a great baleful wolf would eye the terrier snarling at its feet: in contempt and affront and the certain knowledge that one slash of its yellow fangs would send this puppy broken and dying out of its path.
“I have no friends,” Faelan said softly.
It was an insult, that departure from formula, and the young man lost his battered wits. He took a half step onto the lowest stair and cried, “Name them, you blackhearted son of a bitch, or I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
He moved to reach inside his coat, but the heavy coachman was already on him. The pair fell back a disorganized step, struggling.
“Let him go.” Faelan’s voice cut the sound of the scuffle and the morning air. “There’ll be no killing.”
The coachman obeyed that commanding tone on instinct. But he gave his captive a little shove as he was released, a reminder that there was force standing close behind. The coachman judged a man by the way he treated his horses, and the Earl of Iveragh had the servant’s unreserved devotion. No killin’, the coachman snorted to himself as he eyed the intruder. Damn right.
Through her gift, Roddy felt the stranger’s furious humiliation: all the power of that slight, scornful curl of he
“Mr. Webster, I collect,” Faelan said calmly.
“You may keep our name out of your filthy mouth.” Mr. Webster’s blustering words shook noticeably, but he refused to acknowledge it. “Do you deny my right to demand a meeting?”
Faelan smiled lazily, but Roddy saw the slight narrowing of his eyes and the way his jaw grew taut. “Your rights are a matter of complete indifference to me, Mr. Webster.”
The young man struggled for some rejoinder which would convey the intensity of his threat, but could only find sense enough to shout, “I’ll have satisfaction!”
“Satisfaction for what?” Faelan asked silkily.
My sister! Mr. Webster’s mind howled. I’ll kill you! But he kept his mouth closed in front of the servants. His eyes flicked to Roddy and registered a gentlewoman’s dress, but his thoughts were all on Faelan’s perfidy. He mastered his voice and said harshly, “For your presence at the house called Pelham Cottage these four nights past.”
“I’m afraid that you’re misinformed.”
Mr. Webster shook off the coachman’s hands. “And you’re unspeakable vermin.” He spat on the step below Faelan’s boots. “Come down, Iveragh, and let me spit in your face if you’re afraid to meet me honorably.”
An unearthly silence filled the courtyard, and suddenly the young fire-eater was frightened of what he had done. He thrust his chin out and looked up at Faelan, defiance and terror quivering on his lips.
“Mr. Webster,” Faelan murmured, “I’ll not murder a promising gentleman such as yourself for the sake of your lying whore of a sister.”
Mr. Webster lunged forward, but the coachman was there to hold him before he took a full step. “You—” He almost choked on his emotion, and then screamed, “You filthy, blackguarding fiend!” He drew a sobbing breath and gasped, “The law will give me redress in this!”
Faelan moved for the first time, descending the steps and jerking Webster’s chin up with a black-gloved hand as the younger man stood pinned in the coachman’s burly grip. “I daresay it might, if you cared to place your sister’s name on a level with mine.” When Faelan’s hand came away there were red marks of pressure on Mr. Webster’s smooth cheeks. “I advise you to resist the temptation. Your sister is lying to you, my friend. I have any number of witnesses who can testify that I was in Hampshire until yesterday noon.”
Webster half stumbled as the coachman let him go. For a moment he almost threw himself at his adversary’s throat. But pride and a sudden doubt saved him from another useless defiance. She told me; she named you—conniving, slimy son of a bitch—witnesses! And Ellen—A vision of his sister displayed to public ridicule in the courts and in the press made bile rise in his throat.
He drew himself up. Somewhere in the frenzy of hate and defeat he found the only recourse left to him: a gentleman’s weapons. He slid a look of pure loathing from Faelan’s boots to his face, and then settled that contemptuous gaze deliberately on the hand that had touched him.
“Permit me to take leave, then.” His lip curled with venomous hauteur. “I wish to return home and bathe.”
Faelan sat slumped in silence, his extended leg swaying slightly with the roll of the carriage. He had not said a word for four hours. They were nearing Gravesend; Roddy knew so because the coachman, perched on the box and sharing a rug with Martha—who was hogging it—was thinking warm thoughts of mulled ale and a meat pasty.
Roddy hated the silence inside the vehicle. She hated the way Faelan had changed, from the laughing devil of the morning to this grim remoteness. There was a violence to the set of his mouth, a vacant and haunted look in his eyes that frightened her.
This morning it had been easy to be sure of him. He had seemed so much the man she loved. The man she wanted him to be.
She watched him from the corner of her eye, phrasing and rephrasing empty words of comfort—words mocked by the questions that burned through her mind.
Ellen had lied, she had made it all up.
But I know that she didn’t.
He was in Hampshire. He has witnesses.
But she had a note from him.
“My Darling,” that note had said, “My Darling little girl.”
Oh, God, he is not mad. I would rather he was lying.
But she looked at him, silent and dark and unmoving, and saw again the inhuman tension that marked his mouth and eyes.
She remembered what he had done once for her in a dim-lit, rocking carriage, and she reached out her hand and touched his. He turned his head at the move, looking down at where her glove overlay his own. For a moment, she thought he would pull away, but then his large hand shifted. He gripped her fingers in a fierce and awkward squeeze.
She returned the pressure of his hand. “I believe you.” She spoke just loud enough to be heard above the sound of the wheels.
He smiled, bitterly. “Believe me? Believe what?”
“You never went to Ellen Webster. You were with me last night. You were in Hampshire before that. And if you have friends there who can prove—”
“Witnesses?” His laugh was short. “If you believe that, you’re as easy as young Webster. I can’t produce any witnesses, my dear.”
She felt her heart drop in her chest.
He released her hand and turned away to the window. “I went into Hampshire…anonymously, shall we call it that? It was a business convenience. I was interested in the auction of a particular lot of breeding stock, and—” The line of his mouth deepened. “To put it politely, there are those who won’t deal with the Devil Earl.”
She felt a surge of wifely indignation. “Won’t even sell you cattle?”
“I fear not.” His winter-blue gaze slid toward her. He said softly, “You see, I killed the consignor’s son.”
Roddy stared at her hand, still resting on the seat between them.
“You needn’t worry for your husband, my love,” he said with cold irony. “I shan’t be forced to flee the country. It was a long time ago, and neither the seconds nor the doctor have ever talked. My reputation is of some effect in these matters.”
The carriage jolted over a rut. Roddy shifted and grabbed the strap, seeking that small stability in a world that seemed to have lost all balance.
“But you were in Hampshire,” she said doggedly. “You know that.”
“Does it exonerate me?” His look mocked her. “Yes—of course. If you’ve been to this Pelham House, it must be in the city. Therefore I must be certain I haven’t been there recently.”
She dropped her eyelashes in discomfort.
“I’m greatly relieved,” he said dryly. “I’m sure I haven’t a broomstick fast enough to carry me between Salisbury and London in the space of a night. But then, perhaps I only imagined I was in Salisbury. One can have such odd fancies sometimes.”
She frowned. “Don’t be ridiculous. If you were there, you were there.”
“Ah. While at the same time Miss Webster dallied somewhere in London with a man she mistook for me.”
Roddy pretended to look out her window, not wanting him to see the doubt in her eyes. She knew—oh, she knew—that Ellen Webster would never have mistaken another man for Faelan. “She just thought you would come,” Roddy said sharply. “She had that silly note, and she thought…” Roddy waved her hand helplessly, lost between what she knew of Ellen’s thoughts and what flew in the face of all logic. And the note, the note itself—
“Can you recognize my handwriting?” Faelan said suddenly.
Roddy jumped, caught out in her own speculation. She gripped her hands together in her lap and shrugged. “I doubt it,” she lied. “I haven’t seen it often.”
“Did you see the note?”
F.S. burned before her eyes, the telltale slash and curve of letters like none other, and no figment of Ellen Webster’s imagining. “No,” Roddy said. “I didn’t see it.”
He was silent a moment, and then said in a different voice, “So you think she was lying?”
Anything, anything to keep from facing the alternatives.
“Yes,” she said with feeling. “I’m certain of it.”
She felt his eyes on her. To refuse to meet that look was to admit her doubt. She thought of him the night before, standing amidst the glittering remains of the mirror, his body taut with a perilous vibrancy, like a thread stretched within a hairsbreadth of its strength. Against that floated better memories: his laughter, precious in its rarity, and his kisses, just as priceless in their abundance.
She could doubt him and lose him for certain. Or she could go on hoping.
The choice was so simple that it surprised her. She lifted her eyes and smiled into his, a fierce smile, made of loyalty and determination in place of pleasure.
He did not answer it at first. Then the carriage rolled again, leaning her toward him and away. He caught her as she swayed and drew her hard against him. His arms curved around her shoulders and under her breasts, crushing her back into his chest as he bent over and buried his face in the curve of her throat. He said nothing, only held her until the tightness of his embrace made foggy insensibility hover at the edges of her vision. She said his name, faintly, and gasped a quick breath when his hold loosened.
He moved back, pulling her with him into the corner of the rocking coach, so that she sat in his arms, her spine braced against his chest as he took her hands in his and locked their fingers together. They sat so for a long time, not speaking. Finally he pulled one hand away a little and caressed her skin above her glove.
“Roddy,” he said softly. “Do you know why I refused Webster’s challenge today?”
She wet her lips. Please, she thought. Please don’t say because he was right.
The Regency Romances by Laura Kinsale / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes