The regency romances, p.1
The Regency Romances, p.1Laura Kinsale
The Regency Romances
Midsummer Moon, My Sweet Folly, and Uncertain Magic
MY SWEET FOLLY
About the Author
For the fourth time, His Grace the Duke of Damerell lifted the knocker with his free hand and brought the tarnished brass crashing down on its mottled-green base. For the fourth time, the sound echoed on the other side of the oaken door, unanswered. Ransom Falconer’s mouth drew back in the faintest hint of a grimace.
He and his horse appeared to be the only civilized creatures within five square miles. Had he thought otherwise, he would never have allowed himself such a show of emotion. The overgrown Tudor walls rose above him, gray stone and neglect, an affront to the values of ten generations of Falconers. Admittedly, from where he stood on the threshold Ransom could see the romantic possibilities of the place: shaped gables and tall oriel windows and dark spreading trees, but at the very thought of such sentimentality those Falconer ghosts seemed to stare in haughty disapproval at his back. Without conscious intention, his own aristocratic features hardened into that hereditary expression of disdain.
Princes had been known to quail before such a look. There had been a few kings, too, and innumerable queens and duchesses and courtly ladies, all struck dumb and uneasy beneath the Falconer stare. Four centuries of power and politics had evolved and improved the expression, until by Ransom’s time it was a weapon of chilling efficiency. He himself had learned it early—at his grandfather’s elegant knee.
As it was, when at last the rusty lock creaked and crashed and the door opened on a complaining groan, the figure peering out from the gloom received the full force of His Grace’s pitiless mien. The young maid would have been forgiven by a host of knowledgeable Whigs if she’d turned tail and run in the instant before Ransom recalled himself and softened his expression. But she did not. She merely wiped her hands on a grimy white apron and lifted a pair of vaguely frowning gray eyes. “Yes?” she asked, in a voice which might have been testy had it not been so preoccupied. “What is it?”
Ransom held out his card in one immaculately gloved hand.
She took the card. Without even glancing at it, she stuck the engraved identification into one bulging pocket of her apron.
Ransom watched his calling card disappear, shocked to the core of his pedigreed soul at such poorly trained service. “Mr. Lambourne is at home?” he prompted, keeping his voice quietly modulated. She might be a country mouse of a maid, a shade too softly rounded to be in vogue, but she was a pretty chit with those misty-gray eyes and elegant cheekbones, made more striking by the stark simplicity of her coiled chestnut hair. Not that His Grace the Duke of Damerell was in the habit of dallying with housemaids—she was not at all in his usual style in any case—but he found no advantage in needlessly frightening her. Ransom even allowed himself a moment’s human pleasure, his glance resting briefly on her full lower lip before he looked up and lifted one eyebrow in expectant question.
She blinked at him. He found himself experiencing a peculiar sensation. Her eyes held his, but it was as if she did not even see him standing there, but looked past him at some distant horizon. Her mouth puckered. She lifted her hand, resting one delicate forefinger on that sweetly shaped lower lip.
“Square the coefficient of the diameter of the number three strut,” she murmured.
“I beg your pardon?”
She blinked again and dropped her hand. Her eyes came into soft focus. “Can you remember that?”
“I’m afraid I don’t…”
His voice trailed off as she rummaged in her huge pocket and drew out his calling card. After another moment’s search, she located a pencil lead and scribbled something on the back of his card. “There,” she said, with husky satisfaction. She dropped the card into her pocket and looked up at him with an absent smile. “Who are you?”
His earlier affront at her excruciatingly bad training returned, cooling his momentary startlement back to full reason. “I believe I delivered my card,” he said pointedly.
“Oh.” A becoming blush spread up from her modest collar, but he forced himself to ignore it. Well, not to concentrate on it, at any event. She had skin like an August peach, soft and golden and touched with pink.
She was rummaging again in her apron. The Pocket, as he termed it to himself, seemed to be burgeoning with peculiar paraphernalia. A jay’s feather, a tiny telescope, a tangled length of wire, and a flat-toothed metal disk with a hole in the center—all appeared from the depths into which his card had vanished. She looked down, poking out the tip of her tongue in a child’s gesture of concentration.
It was not The Pocket so much as the sleepy hedgehog she produced that left him nonplussed. She held the creature out to him, still fussing in her pocket with the other hand. He accepted the animal in dumbfounded silence. She located the card at last and glanced at the engraving, frowning. Then she flipped the creamy rectangle over.
“Oh, yes.” She heaved a sigh of relief. “Square the coefficient of the diameter of the—what does that say? Three? Yes, the number three strut.” She looked up at him with a small, accusing frown. “I thought you were to remember that.”
“Forgive me,” he said icily, “but I wish to see Mr. Lambourne, if it won’t tax you too much to announce me.”
She looked completely blank. He was beginning to think that she was unbalanced in her mind when she repeated, “Who did yo
He fixed his Falconer gaze with ferocious intent upon the card in her hand. After a moment she said, “Oh,” in a satisfactorily flustered way, which assured him that his Doomsday look had not completely lost effect after all. It also had the result of producing another pleasing blush.
She bit her tongue and glanced quickly at the engraving, then back at him. “Um—Mr. Duke, I think you are mistaken in your direction.”
He felt himself going pale, all those generations of Falconers gasping in absolute and utter stupefaction. “Falconer.” His voice came out with strained gentleness. “My name is Falconer. The other is—my title.”
“Oh.” She frowned at the card. “Oh, yes. I see that. But—”
“I wish to speak to Mr. Lambourne,” he interrupted, still with that disciplined softness that was compounded of exasperation and restrained impatience. The hedgehog rolled up and presented its spines to his palm. Her full breasts rose and fell lightly beneath the plain blouse. He could just see the aureoles, faint smudges against the stiff fabric.
Abruptly, he added, “Am I mistaken in believing that this is the home of Mr. Merlin Lambourne?”
“Well,” she said with round-eyed apology. “Yes.”
His sources were not so ill-informed as to allow him to fall for that sad little attempt at dissembling. Ransom treated her to the full extent of the Falconer stare. She seemed to have the way of it now, for her breasts rose and fell a little faster in agitation, and she ran her tongue over her upper lip.
“There is no Mr. Merlin Lambourne,” she said quickly.
“Indeed.” He held her with the stare, while she shifted and looked frightened, and he had the unhappy thought that it was rather like pinning a butterfly to a board. But he was on his country’s business, and unpleasantries were common enough in that line of work. He could not afford to leave here without speaking to Merlin Lambourne if the man was still alive.
It dawned on Ransom that perhaps that was what she meant. Perhaps the old man had died. It had been a week since that last ill-fated report, and the report itself had been confusing, with word that Lambourne had appeared on some days in the garden hale and healthy, and on others looking like a walk to the back gate would finish him.
Damn the man, to die before England could make proper use of him. Ransom swallowed a stronger oath and allowed his mouth to soften slightly. “Forgive me. If there’s been a recent bereavement…”
He let his words trail off suggestively, but she only looked at him without comprehension. And there was no sign of mourning in her dress. So—the old man was still alive, certainly, and she was only trying to fuddle Ransom with this nonsense. He found it ridiculously transparent and wondered that such amateur efforts had managed to prevent one of his best agents from making contact weeks ago with the reclusive Mr. Lambourne.
“Miss.” He did not hide his impatience any longer. “Mr. Lambourne has specifically requested that I call on him. I must ask you to conduct me without delay, or I fear I shall be forced to report your recalcitrant behavior to him myself.”
This was sheer bluff, but of the type at which His Grace of Damerell excelled. It seemed to work. Her eyebrows lifted, creating a little anxious furrow above her nose, and she put her finger to her lower lip in that absent gesture that managed to set his blood running in a particularly embarrassing manner. “Requested you call? Oh, dear—is that possible? But I—” She gave the card a puzzled look. “Damerell. Damerell. This is most—I’m so mortified, but I’m afraid I don’t recall…” She took a deep breath and met his eyes with the air of finally seeing him for the first time. “Damerell,” she repeated, as if trying to convince herself of the name. “Do come in, Mr. Damerell.”
“Falconer,” he corrected dryly. “Damerell as in ‘the Duke of—’” He lifted his hands, one full of hedgehog and the other full of his horse’s reins. “I’m afraid you’ll have to relieve me of my burdens.”
“Oh!” She blushed again, worse than a schoolroom miss, though he judged her to be well on the shelf if she weren’t married. The middle range of twenty, certainly, for though she still retained that pleasing trace of babyish roundness, she’d gained some tiny laugh-lines about her eyes. Ransom’s London ladies would have despaired over laugh-lines.
Ransom, perversely, found them enchanting.
She reached for the hedgehog, drew back quickly without finding a break in the spiny ball, and moved closer. She held The Pocket wide with both hands. “Just drop him in.”
Ransom looked down for a moment on the top of her head, where the shining hair was drawn into an uneven part. He had an instant’s notion of correcting that zig-zag line—a notion which brought a vision of her with the chestnut mass tumbling about her shoulders…
For God’s sake, he admonished himself. He shook off that line of thought with alacrity.
He cleared his throat and sent the hedgehog tumbling into her offered pocket with a tilt of his palm. The animal squirmed and settled, apparently content with such cavalier treatment.
“You’d best leave your horse,” she said, as if he had been about to lead the beast into the hall. “Thaddeus must have gone off. I signaled and signaled, and he never answered.”
Ransom draped the reins over the doorpost obligingly, not caring if the hired animal wandered off. It was worth the price of a job horse if he could interview Merlin Lambourne. The misty-eyed maid stood back, holding open the door.
Ransom stepped inside. It was a dark, wide passage, full of odd shapes and unidentifiable masses crowded along the walls and piled in the shadowy corners. She backed up to give Ransom room, knocking over something that fell with a metallic clang.
With little flustered mutters, she righted the object, holding it up and frowning a moment at the webbed network of wire and round weights that hung from a wooden frame. “Whatever is that, do you suppose?”
The distressed puzzlement in her voice made him want to smile. He suppressed the notion ruthlessly. “Perhaps, as its inventor, Mr. Lambourne could enlighten you.”
She looked up, squinting at him in the dim light. “Oh, dear. I thought you understood. There is no Mr. Lambourne. I’m Merlin.”
“I said,” she enunciated, with the patient expression of a person speaking to an elderly deaf-mute, “that I’m Merlin.”
“Yes. You’ll have heard of John Joseph Merlin. The Ingenious Mechanick. I’m named for him. I daresay my papa would not have liked it at all, but he was killed, and so Uncle Dorian said it was no business of his. Not that I’m the equal of Mr. Merlin, of course, but I think I’ve made some progress in my own way. Would you like to see my wing design?”
With a menace that would have made Parliament tremble, Ransom repeated slowly, “You are Merlin Lambourne?”
“Have you heard of me?” She looked enormously pleased. “I expect you read my monograph on the Aeronautical Implications of the Perichondral Tissue of Garrulus glandarius.”
“No,” he said stiffly. “I did not.”
“Oh. Well, I can give you a copy. I had five hundred printed.” She bit her lip, and then added, “There are four hundred and ninety-seven left, so you may have as many as you like.”
He drew a breath, looked at the hopeful expression in those soft gray eyes, and for a silent moment wavered between fury and reason, cursing his fool agents and the nonexistent Mr. Lambourne and everyone else from Bonaparte on down. In the lingering pause, her eager lips began to droop.
He watched her fade like a wilting flower and suddenly heard himself say, “Thank you. I shall take twelve dozen.”
“Twelve dozen!” She looked astonished, and then doubtful. He prepared to issue a gallant insistence, but she only protested, “If you’ve only the one horse, you can’t carry them all.”
“I’ll send for my man.”
“Ah.” She nodded wisely. “Will you give them to your scientific friends? You must have a vast acquaintance,
“Vast. And I shall donate a copy to each of the various lending libraries, of course, as well as the universities.”
“Shall you? Indeed! Why—Oh, that is a—Oh, my, I don’t know what to say!”
He looked down at her. Really, it was too pathetically easy. The joy on her face made him want to ask for another twelve or thirteen dozen. She took an excited little hop backward and knocked the unidentified object over again. The hall rang to a discordant clatter. She bent hastily, picking up the mysterious framework.
“Sorry.” She colored a little, clutching the contraption and peering at him from under her eyelashes with a tentative smile. “Perhaps when I see it in better light I can recall what it is.”
And His Grace the Duke of Damerell, the scourge of Whigs, the advisor of princes, the ambassador, minister, man-of-the world, looked down at her and found himself smiling back.
Merlin’s problem, Theodore and Thaddeus had always told her, was that she thought too hard.
Uncle Dorian had violently disagreed, of course. Concentration was her best quality, he’d always said. Uncle Dorian had been sure she could accomplish anything. His last words to her had been, “Keep thinking, Merlin. You can fly. The answer is…”
The answer is…what?
How like Uncle Dorian to forget what he was going to say.
For five years that unfinished sentence had haunted her. It seemed she didn’t know any answers, though she tried and tried to build a machine that could fly. Uncle Dorian’s dream seemed so close, sometimes, so near her grasp, and then a test wing collapsed or a propellant gave a vicious pop and her model was left in tatters on the ground. The corridor was lined with pieces of her failures.
She tripped on a discarded orrery, making the wheel-works that moved the miniature solar system ring. A white blur moved quickly near her ear as the duke caught a tottering axle-rod in his gloved hand before it descended on her head.
“Careful,” he said sharply.
Merlin ducked and apologized.
The Duke of Damerell, she repeated to herself. Or was it the Duke of Falconer? He seemed excessively sensitive over the difference. But she couldn’t seem to focus on anything about him, except his face and his height. Her cursed concentration again, which caught hold of a thought or an image and would not let go. Just now, she could picture him in exquisite detail as she had just seen him, when first she had opened the door. She could see his thick brown hair beneath his hat, ruthlessly trained into neatness, and the dark eyebrows just as fiercely tamed. His eyes had looked yellow-green in the dappled shade outside, and his nose and mouth as elegant and wild as a gyrfalcon’s fine-drawn markings. Perhaps that was why they had picked him as the Duke of Falconer. He looked uncannily like a smiling hawk.
The Regency Romances by Laura Kinsale / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes