The regency romances, p.10
The Regency Romances, p.10Laura Kinsale
“Yes, Your Grace.” Collett disappeared. A moment later a vision of feminine height and beauty burst into the study, flashing eyes of gemstone violet.
“I want my children,” Lady Jaqueline announced in her gorgeous voice, that voice that still throbbed with the French vowels of her childhood. She stopped in front of Ransom’s desk, poised in a theatrical posture that would have been ludicrous on any other woman. But not on Jaqueline. Magnificent as a goddess, she stared at him like Diana on the hunt.
“I believe your daughters are in the nursery at this time of day.” Ransom rose with a studied degree of politeness. “Woodrow might be there also, as he has no lessons this afternoon.”
“You know what I mean. I want them with me!”
“Of course. I hope you will spend as much time with them as you wish.”
She tossed her head. An amethyst that matched her eyes sparked in the russet depths of her hair. “Your Grace. You are as cold as the fishes in the sea. You steal my children from me just as you wrenched away all my other rights.”
“I’m not withholding the children from you. I’ve made it clear, more than once, that you are welcome to live here with them.”
“Live here?” Without moving, she managed to drench her lovely figure in revulsion. “Impossible.”
“It’s not impossible. You could avoid Shelby if you wished.”
She drew in a hiss of breath at that name—the name that had hung in the room unspoken since the moment she had entered.
Ransom shrugged, deliberately casual. “God knows, the place is large enough. You could miss one another for weeks at a time. And he’s only here at the end of each quarter”—his lips twisted in brief ruefulness—“when his allowance runs out.”
“You are cold,” she said again. “I want my children. I will take them out of this place to somewhere that the light can reach their poor hearts.”
“No,” he said calmly. “You will not.”
“I must.” She raised a tragic hand to her breast. “It is my mother’s duty.”
“As it was your mother’s duty to abandon them in an opera house in Florence seven years ago?”
“That,” she said, and swung her pale hand in dismissal, “that would not happen again.” Then she clasped her fingers and raised them toward him. “I swear it.”
He shook his head, drawn against his will into a faint smile at her theatrics. “Jaqueline, you know I cannot trust you.”
“But I swear it!” she cried in her throbbing goddess voice. “How can you doubt I would walk through Hell for them, my little ones, that I would never let their sweet faces from my sight?”
“Do forgive me. But I doubt it.”
One perfect tear appeared, glistening on her pale cheek. “Oh! I said you were cold. Now I say you are ice. You have no life in you. No love. Have you never known passion once in all your frozen days?”
He let out a slow, careful breath, holding back the rise of anger. “Perhaps I simply prefer to keep my passions in check.”
“True passion cannot be held in check.” Her chin came up in a scathing tilt. “True passion burns here”—she pressed her heart—“where you have nothing.”
“Brava. May we bring the curtain down now, if you please? I have a considerable amount of work before me.”
“So. You will deny a mother her children?”
Ransom sat down and picked up his pen. “Jaqueline, I give you every child in this house. As long as you don’t take them past the outer gates.”
Still she hovered like a breaking storm, the sound of her deep, offended breaths blending with the scratch of his pen. After a moment, he added without a pause in his writing, “And you know, of course, that the place is far too heavily guarded for you to have a chance of spiriting them away. Not to mention the legal consequences should you attempt to do so.”
True silence descended then. Ransom finished a page, writing nonsense, anything, just to maintain the fiction that he did not fear she might try to do exactly what he warned against. Jaqueline was passionate—no question of that. It was only a question of which passion gripped her at a given moment.
He took his time, sanding the paper, brushing it clean, just as if there were real meaning in the words. When at last he looked up, he saw which way the wind had turned.
She was not crying. The crocodile tears which came to her so easily never showed when she was truly moved. In real sorrow or pain, Ransom had never seen that magnificent face disfigured by common sobs. Instead, her perfect lips had softened, and her eyes had grown clear and dark with bottled misery.
“I could not,” she whispered. “You know I could not. It would hurt them, to take them away like that. And they have been hurt so much already. I only wish…” Her fine voice faltered, impossibly pure even in breaking. “It’s only that I am so lonely sometimes. Ransom…can you understand that? That I’m in the midst of a crowd always, and yet I sleep alone and wake alone and think of…” She hesitated. “I think of…” But she did not say it. She made a sound, a little aching sound of pain, and turned away.
Ransom rubbed his forehead. He shaded his mouth with his hand and leaned on his elbow. “Jaqueline,” he said, “what can I do to help?”
She looked over her shoulder. “Ah, yes. Help. The Dukes of Damerell. Always wanting to do something. To meddle. It was your meddling that dissolved our marriage.”
“It was no work of mine.”
“You, your grandfather—what do I care? You’re all the same. Dukes.” She made the title an epithet. “What chance have I against men who bend Parliament itself to their will with the flick of a finger?”
“Would it were so easy,” Ransom said with a grim half-smile. “And if recollection serves, you brought the divorce and”—he paused, and then said them bluntly, the words that had branded his brother an adulterer—“the accusation of criminal conversation yourself.”
She whirled, and light glanced off the jewels in her hair. “At your grandfather’s urging! It would bring Shelby back to me, he said. It would make him see his duty. It was never, never to go so far—” She stopped suddenly, twisting her hands together. “It was a trick. Your grandfather hated me. You know he did,” she said as Ransom opened his mouth to protest. “I am an opera singer. One might as well say I am a whore.”
Ransom sighed. “I suspect that, to my grandfather, opera singer said quite enough.”
Her regal head went up. “He did hate me, then.”
“He only thought you should have loved your husband and children more than you loved the stage.”
“I tried that! Do you think I did not try? Where was Shelby those years when I stayed home and played the wife? Gaming. Every night. Gaming and flirting and worse. God knows, I found out there was worse at the court proceedings. And for that…for him…I gave up my career. I gave up everything I loved. I bore his children. I lived in poverty. I watched him gamble away my own money—my money, and my shares in my father’s theater! And then I must needs hear chambermaids testify as to who he had spent it on.”
Ransom met her accusations with silence. He had no answer to them.
“Well,” she said finally, “I shall go. I don’t wish to see the children now. I cannot laugh with them as I should.”
He stood up and went to her as she fumbled with her reticule. Her perfectly shaped lower lip was full and trembling. He took her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t run away, Jaqueline. Not as Shelby does. Please. That’s your gift, is it not? To make us all laugh when we would much rather cry?”
She raised her eyes, dark and magnificent with those real tears she never shed. “Do you feel like crying sometimes?”
He gave a small shrug. “I’m too old for that, don’t you think?”
She bit her lip. He saw her swallow convulsively, as if a silent sob had almost escaped.
“We both know our parts very well, don’t we?” He gave her cheek a gentle pinch. “You and I. We’re not the ones who weep. So go and make those young ones of yours l
It was a challenge impossible for her Thespian soul to resist. She was a trouper to her toes; it was bred in her blood to answer her cue—no excuses, no sentiment, no time for the silly weakness of defeated dreams. For an instant she composed herself, and then her lips curved in that legendary smile, the one that had brought a hundred men crawling to her feet for favor. It was no task to understand why Shelby had worshipped her. It was harder to know why she’d accepted him. More money, greater titles and positions had been offered her in plenty. But it was Shelby she had chosen—penurious, volatile younger son—and Ransom could only account for that one way.
If she loved his brother yet, he forgave her all her passionate mistakes. Even the children, even her attempt to use them, that false abandonment in Florence made in hopes that Shelby would come to their rescue. Ransom knew the truth, though he would never let her realize it. He had been the rescuer in place of his brother. He knew how well she’d seen to their care before her “disappearance.” But he’d brought Shelby’s children home for good from that adventure, unwilling to risk more. It was war between them now, Shelby and his Jaqueline, and Ransom would not leave innocent lives in the breach.
But she was here. It always happened like this. She stayed away as long as she could stand, and then she had to see her children.
“Bravissima, cara mia,” he murmured, with a nod for her manufactured smile and a vast, unspoken respect for her gallantry. “You are without equal.”
“Yes. I am a performer nonpareil, am I not?” She turned without waiting for an answer, her voice trailing behind her like a velvet cape.
After the door had closed, Ransom sat down. He lifted his pen and toyed with it, staring at nothing in particular for a long, long time. Then he squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his eyelids with unsteady fingers. “Yes, you are,” he said to the empty room. “And so am I, Jaqueline. So am I.”
Merlin was concentrating. She was sitting on the huge stone steps of Mount Falcon, hugging her knees and thinking about Ransom and the possibility that he was lying. Not only with his words, which wasn’t such a strange thing—Merlin had been known to tell a fib or two herself in her life—but with his smile.
And worse…with his kisses.
She tried to make it into a problem of logic, as if it were some equation she could master, some whim of natural law that had eluded her. But she knew she was failing, that the deep ache in her throat was muddling her reason and making her conclusions nonsense.
She wished she could fly.
It seemed more important than ever now. More beautiful and simple to be able to soar away from these new emotions that plagued her. To be able to ride the air on the strength of logic and mathematics, instead of struggling on the ground with thoughts which made her blood grow warm and her eyes go blurry. She had been happy enough in her solitude, until Ransom had come and shaken her out of it like a windstorm would shake a baby bird from the nest. It had happened too soon for her, this being flung from her refuge into the greater world. She’d been left on the ground without wings.
She could not imagine why he wished to marry her. She had heard all his reasons, his talk of her reputation and his duty, but after the past few days at Mount Falcon it was blindingly clear that she could never be anything but an embarrassment to him. The rules of his world were impossibly alien. She could not speak or look or move without breaking one of them—without glancing up from her investigation of a cleverly hidden mousetrap behind the sideboard to meet the shocked gaze of some guest whose name she could not remember, or scrambling out from examining the axle design under a carriage in the courtyard to find the coachman looking at her as if she had just sprouted a beard and pointed ears.
Then there was the fountain in the center of the east garden whose intriguing rotating mechanism she dearly wanted to investigate. Fortunately, she had managed to stop herself while still teetering on the marble edge of the pool, with only one bare foot in the water, before the elegant couple strolling among the roses had turned too very pale. Now she just sat, with a damp hem, not daring to do anything at all.
She looked up at the echoing sound of horseshoes on cobblestone, and saw Shelby trotting under the arch and across the great courtyard toward her. His bay mount danced to a stop as the smooth, silent wheels of Mount Falcon went into motion and a groom appeared from nowhere to take the horse as Shelby dismounted. He came up the steps two at a time and sat down next to Merlin, ignoring the footman who stood waiting above to open the huge front door.
“Hullo,” he said, bending a little to look into her face. “What’s to do?”
“Nothing,” Merlin said glumly.
“Ah.” He leaned back with his elbows propped on the next step. “Bored?”
She nodded and rested her chin on her hands, staring out across the countryside beyond the open end of the courtyard, where the grassy lawns fell away from a steep stone wall down to an elegantly designed lake and a stream. “I don’t think my equipment is ever going to come.”
“Oh”—he swished his riding crop idly back and forth across the steps—“I imagine it will.”
She could hear the smile in his voice. She looked sideways at him, her lower lip set contentiously. “Why? Because Mr. Ransom Duke promised?”
The smile became a grin. “My brother keeps his promises.”
“I’ve been here three days.”
“Well, give him a little time to work. He’s not God Almighty. Much as he’d like to think so.”
Merlin turned back, crossing her arms under her chin and hunching in a smaller ball. “I don’t think it’s going to come. I don’t think he wants me to work on my flying machine.”
“He gave you his word.”
“Hmmpf. He also kissed me.”
There was a sudden shift in the relaxed body sprawled beside her. “Did he indeed?”
“Yes,” she said. “And I’ve figured it out. It’s his way to lie, you see. He doesn’t want to lie with words, because he wants everyone to say what you do—that he’s so honest and noble and everything—so he smiles at me and kisses me to make me think something that isn’t true.”
Shelby sat up very straight. “To make you think what, for instance?”
“Oh…that I’m going to marry him. That he kisses me because I’m…nice, or something. When he really just does it so I’ll do what he wants.”
“And just what is it,” Shelby said in a voice that had suddenly gone low and vicious, “that he wants?”
Merlin blinked, startled by the tone. “Why, to make me work on the speaking box, I suppose. I can’t think what else it might be.”
“Can’t you?” His blue eyes glittered with that cold threat she’d seen in them once before. He swung the riding crop in a savage sideways cut at the air. “I’m afraid I can.”
Merlin wet her lips. “Oh?”
He looked uncomfortable suddenly. The riding crop flicked from side to side. “Merlin, this isn’t the kind of thing a fellow usually speaks about to a lady, but you’re rather—unprotected, just now. I mean, there’s no one else who’s going to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“Listen, Ransom is…” Shelby shook his head, and the grim frown faded to something not quite so angry. “I mean, my brother does his damnedest to be some kind of bloody hero—and don’t think I don’t appreciate it sometimes, even if I hate his guts for it more often—but the fact is, he’s a male. He has…desires, just like the rest of us. At least, I suppose he does. Hellfire, I know he does. He frequents a stable of high-flyers in London that would give a lesser man altitude sickness.”
Merlin’s mouth dropped open at this news. “Then why won’t he let me fly?” she cried.
Shelby looked around at her, shock in his gilded blue eyes. Then abruptly he began to laugh. He threw back his head and covered his face, howling with it. Merlin sat waiting, offended but resigned. She was growing used to this reaction.
She lowered her chin onto her crossed arms again. “That’s what Ransom says.”
Shelby sobered. After a pause, he said in a different, tighter voice, “Damn. I never thought I’d be so disappointed to find out he was a bounder like the rest of us human beings.”
“What’s a bounder?”
Shelby’s eyes narrowed. “It’s a low-down, underhanded, slimy snake, that’s what it is. Curse him, with all that self-righteous cant about ‘bettering his stride,’ and you being ‘out-of-bounds.’ Out-of-bounds to poor old black-sheep Shelby, of course, while he plots and connives at bringing you to ruin!”
“Oh, well.” Merlin moved her hand in dismissal. “He’s already done that.”
Once again, Shelby turned to her with his blue eyes widened by shock. “You’re joking.”
“If you mean when he carried me upstairs and stayed with me all night—” Merlin found herself blushing at the way he was staring at her. “And he—and we…Oh, dear.” Shelby was growing bright red, except for the white spots over his cheeks and at the corners of his mouth. “Was it really such a bad thing?”
“Oh, my God,” Shelby groaned. He ran his hands through his hair. “Oh, my God, Ransom—you black-guard—you dirty, filthy, rutting beast, you didn’t…”
Merlin pressed her lips together. She buried her face in her arms and said in a muffled voice. “I can’t see why everyone thinks it was so terrible.”
“I don’t believe it,” Shelby said, his voice rising. “My brother. Ransom. I always thought it was me who was the villain, because the damned gaming has me by the throat. But I never did anything like this. I never hurt anyone. All those lies they told about me at the trial, and Ransom sat there beside Grandpapa looking so bloody…empty. As if it were killing him inside and he couldn’t show it. As if he cared. God, what an actor. What a genius! Making me feel like the lowest wretch alive for things I hadn’t even done, while he was probably out ravishing innocent girls right and left without ever a crack in that poker face of his!”
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