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Authors: Laura Kinsale

Uncertain Magic

BOOK: Uncertain Magic
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Uncertain Magic

By

Laura Kinsale

Contents

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26

 

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UNCERTAIN MAGIC is an original publication of Avon Books. This work is a novel. Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.

AVON BOOKS

A division of

The Hearst Corporation

1350 A venue of the Americas

New York, New York 10019

Copyright © 1987 by Laura Kinsale

Published by arrangement with the author

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 86-90995

ISBN: 0-380-75140-2

First Avon Books Printing: March 1987

AVON TRADEMARK REG. U.S. PAT. OFF. AND IN OTHER COUNTRIES, MARCA REGISTRADA, HECHO EN U.S.A.

Printed in the U.S.A.

Chapter 1

 

Newmarket Heath, 1797

 

Roderica Delamore clutched hard at the billowing silk folds of her father's pavilion as the horses came pounding down the turf. The blood-bay stallion was in the lead, a flash of living fire, pulling away from the challenger with each ground-eating stride as the crowd's rumble gathered to a piercing howl. The noise and emotion rose up around Roddy like a breaking wave, beating at her, drowning her, crushing the barriers that she'd built in her mind. Her cursed gift laid her open to everything, the sound, the sight, the combined aggression and excitement of ten thousand screaming spectators. The intensity of emotion threatened to overwhelm her, and she tore the silk with her twisting fingers as she sought madly for some way to block it out.

Her parents had been right—she should never have come. She should have stayed home on the quiet Yorkshire estate where her father raised his blooded running stock, safe in the country solitude. She was not ready for this; she'd had no concept of what it would be like to suffer the full force of her talent in the grip of a hysterical crowd. In desperation she narrowed her concentration to the animals, pushing away the tide of human feeling with terrific effort.

The trick worked. The impact of the crowd faded and changed, becoming a background roar of sound as Roddy let herself be sucked into the mind of the stallion in the lead, the bright bay, whose will and power filled her like a flood of molten fire. Her world became the world of the racehorse: the taste of copper and foam, the smell of sweat and crushed grass and hot wind; stretching, seeking, ears flicked back to the thunder of the challenger, eyes focused on the terrain ahead; reaching and reaching and reaching forward—

The sudden pain struck her as if it were her own. It shot down the stallion's left foreleg, and he broke stride for one fraction of a second, sending the jockey's live weight forward onto the horse's shoulders. The whip flashed, not hitting, but the brandishment was enough. The stallion sprang ahead. The pain increased. It grew, spreading across the animal's chest and striking into his neck and right leg. Still he ran, defying it, his stallion's mind set in aggression and pride—stay ahead, stay ahead, damn the pain—while Roddy pressed her fists to her mouth and bit down until her knuckles bled with vicarious agony.

In a back corner of her mind she was aware of fear, a human dread of the moment when the great beast would collapse and take down his jockey and the challenger behind in a savage tangle of flesh and hooves. She'd felt this kind of pain before, at home, when an exhausted gelding had collapsed of heart failure after a twenty-mile race between parish steeples. It was death, close and dreadful, and yet the stallion drove on, opening the lead. His stride lengthened, his black-tipped legs devouring turf like the rhythmic spokes of a giant wheel. As he neared the finish, the crowd noise rose to a crescendo. The pair flashed by Roddy. She was screaming, too, hardly aware of the tears that streamed down her cheeks for the animal's pain and courage, for the will that carried him past the finish a full length ahead of his rival, for the spirit that made him toss his head and fight the restraining hand of his jockey when every single step was anguish. She broke from her hiding place in the pavilion, in the rough stableboy's clothes and the cap she'd worn to conceal her bright blond curls, and pushed with unfeminine force through the mob that closed in on the victor.

She reached the stallion just as the silk-clad jockey swung off. A groom ran forward to take the puffing animal's bridle; his hand clashed with Roddy's as they both lunged. Roddy's fingers closed first and she tore the reins away.

"
Yo
!" he shouted amid the din, and made a move to yank them back.

Roddy screamed, "Don't move him!" forgetting entirely she was supposed to be a boy. "He'll die if you move him now!"

"Are ye crazed?" the groom cried. Roddy stumbled under his shove, then gritted her teeth and held her ground.

The stallion stood still beside her, awash in pain. He lowered his head, giving in to weakness for the first time, and at that motion the protests of the groom faded momentarily. But the man's pride was aroused now, his authority questioned. Roddy felt the stallion begin to tremble in delayed reaction. The groom made another grab for the reins. He captured them, pushing Roddy aside as he led the horse forward.

The stallion faltered, and went to his knees. All around, a dismayed cry flew up, and then a cheer as the horse clambered back to all fours. Roddy gave the groom a savage look. She felt the man's antagonism, sharp and quick as a stabbing knife within the wash of emotion from the crowd. She knew before he did it that he was going to drag the horse forward again. "Damn you! Don't—" she shouted, and found herself cut short by another voice that sliced across the noise.

"Leave it, Patrick. Let him stand."

Roddy stiffened, unused to being taken by surprise. She did not turn toward the newcomer—that was habit—but opened her special gift to his mind, expecting to pluck out a name and identity before she even saw his face.

Instead, she found only blankness.

That jolted her. She focused her gift more sharply. But the other remained a silence, a void, as disconcerting as the space where a newly lost tooth should have been.

A bubble of panic rose to her throat. For the first time in her life, Roddy felt herself reaching out instead of turning away, probing for emotion or thought instead of rejecting it. When finally she turned, it was as if she could not quite see the man beside her; only a vague figure, tall and elegant in a black coat and doeskin breeches. She spared a single glance up into his face.

His features came into focus with a sudden, wrenching clarity. He stood quite still amid the clamor, watching her intently, his eyes a startling blue beneath thick black lashes—light against dark, like the bright evening sky behind stark silhouettes. The expression on his fiercely carved face was closed, set in lines impossible to read. She blinked stupidly and gaped, like a person set down in a foreign country, unable to cope with an unknown tongue.

The silence spread to the watching throng, the real silence, the one her ears heard instead of her mind. Shouts and talk faded into hush. And in the crowd-thoughts behind the silence she found a name.

Her eyes widened. She looked quickly toward the stranger from under her lashes.

Saints preserve us.

Iveragh. The Devil Earl of Ireland.

She found herself in deeper water than she'd wanted. A lot deeper. She should have guessed. Oh, God, how had she not guessed? He
owned
the beast, for the Lord's sake. Rumor had been rife that the horse would go for a fortune to Lord Derby or the Duke of Grafton if it won today.

Roddy stole another look. The man could have been Satan himself, with his hell-black hair and burning blue eyes. Every improbable tale of the Devil Earl took on believability: if anyone could be a blackmailer and a thief and a pitiless corrupter of innocent maids, this was surely the man.

People moved. The crowd shuffled and shifted, and opened way again with that instinct they had for a fine coat and a gentleman's air. She knew the newcomer this time—Lord Derby himself, eager to lay his claim to the horse.

He hailed Iveragh and pumped his hand, congratulations on the win. "We'll call this an agreement." Derby pumped harder, looking sillier than he knew against Iveragh's trenchant silence. The excited lord babbled something about the next heat, and Roddy swung round in dismay. "Don't race him again! You mustn't—"

"Gor—" The groom shoved her roughly. "Mind yer business, ye little bastard. The horse 'twere never better. Get on wi' ye."

Roddy thrust his hands away with hot indignation, remembering too late that she could hardly be taken for a lady of quality just now. She turned again to Iveragh—a look up to those uninterpretable blue eyes as steady as she could make it, which wasn't very. From somewhere she still had enough sense left to use her best country accents. "He ain't fit, m'lor'. He's sick. 'Twill kill him to run again. I've felt—" She stopped herself, knowing that these strangers would never believe in the talent that was taken for granted in her father's stable. "I've seen this before. 'Tis his heart, m'lor'."

"Sick, is it?" The groom moved a step. "Sick be damned, ye bleedin'—" Roddy felt his intention a moment before the action and stiffened—fool, fool, when she should have ducked—and the cracking blow took her across the face and sent her reeling into the solid wall of the earl's chest.

He caught her arms in a painful grip, but Roddy was too stunned by the bruising ache in her jaw to take more than passing notice. She hung a hazy moment in Iveragh's arms, then struggled up and tore herself free, going at the groom with all the fury of a wildcat, using nails and teeth and all the curses she had ever learned from her four rough-and-tumble brothers. She didn't bother to throw punches with only her puny weight behind them, but used her talent shamelessly, outguessing, dodging and biting and striking openhanded with ruthless efficiency, drawing blood more than once before she swung her leg up hard and kicked, catching the man squarely in the groin. He yelped and staggered back, bent double, and Roddy drank in his pain with satisfaction as the hisses and cheers rose up around them.

BOOK: Uncertain Magic
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