Midsummer moon, p.11
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       Midsummer Moon, p.11

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Merlin watched, lost in satisfaction. She did not notice Shelby walk quietly up to his brother.

  "Your Grace,” Shelby murmured. “I wish to speak to you."

  Ransom raised his eyebrows, that pointedly spoken “Your Grace” all the warning he needed to know that Shelby was not in a trifling mood. “Certainly,” he said. “At your convenience."

  "My convenience is right now."

  Ransom inclined his head. He followed Shelby to a spot a little distance from the commotion of the unloading. “I understand that wedding bells are in the air,” Shelby said, with an ironic twist to his finely sculpted mouth that made him appear suddenly much older.

  Ransom hesitated. Blythe's hints had spread rapidly, it seemed, for he knew she'd never have gone to Shelby in person with news of that sort. He watched his brother, noting the high color in Shelby's cheeks and the way the tip of his riding crop vibrated in a tiny, jerky motion, like the tip of a cat's tail as it prepared to leap upon a mouse.

  "I most sincerely hope so,” he said carefully. “Do you have some objection?"

  Shelby's smile was more like a sneer. He looked to ward the wagons where Merlin hopped about, dusty and bedraggled, getting herself in everyone's way as she anxiously examined each item as it was unloaded. “Do you really think she's duchess material, Ransom?"

  Again Ransom had to search for words, unsure of his brother's motivation. At length, he decided on lightness. “'Love is blind,’ I believe the saying goes."

  Shelby turned on him with a curling lip. “Oh, Ransom, do you speak of love? How quaint. How charming. How very, very like you to be so sentimental."

  The sarcasm hung heavily in the air between them. Ransom took a deep breath. “I've grown quite fond of her,” he said.

  "Have you? What a fortunate development. And did you discover this affection before or after you slept with her, my oh-so-honorable brother?"

  Ransom could feel the blood drain from his face and then return in a hot flush. He hated himself for that betrayal, and for the way he looked abruptly away, unable to meet Shelby's eyes. A hundred explanations rose to his lips, and he discarded them all as what they were. Excuses. Self-justification that Shelby had every right to scorn. And in the end Ransom could say nothing, only stand there and endure his brother's contempt. It was not so easy to swallow as he might have hoped.

  Shelby said softly, “I could have forgiven you almost anything. I used to wait for it—” His hand clenched on the riding crop. “God, you don't know how I've longed to see it. Some slip. Some little weakness, to show you're my brother and not some God damned walking saint. You could have cheated at cards or made a shady business deal. I wouldn't even have cared if you'd seduced one of those scheming little debutantes who're always throwing themselves at you. Serve her right, I would have said, for parading her charms and dragging a man off to dark corners in the garden. But somehow, brother dear, I don't think Miss Lambourne did any parading. I don't think she wanted you at all. I think you took advantage of her in the lowest, ugliest Way imaginable."

  Ransom closed his eyes. It wasn't like that, he wanted to shout, but his tongue wouldn't move. He stood frozen for one long breath and then shook his head, still unable to look at Shelby.

  "I wish I could say this does me good,” Shelby whispered. “I wish I could say I was glad to see you with that look on your face. But I can't. It makes me sick."

  Ransom suddenly found the capacity to speak. He slanted a vicious look toward his brother. “I'm going to marry her,” he said in a hiss.

  "She doesn't want to marry you."

  "For God's sake, what difference do you think that makes?"

  Shelby narrowed his eyes. In a mockingly light tone, he said, “Why, I suppose if it were my life, I'd rather jump off the cliff at Beachy Head than be bound to you for the rest of my days."

  Ransom stood very still, trying to contain the pain of that thrust, to keep it locked up in a hard ball like the one his fist made. “I meant,” he said quietly, “that there is no other choice. For her own protection."

  "Oh, yes. I understand completely. You must do your noble duty, no matter who is hurt."

  "I'm not going to hurt her."

  "She doesn't belong here, Ransom. She's miserable."

  He scowled. “It's only that it's new. Look at her now that her things have come."

  "Yes. And how long will you let her have them? As long as it suits your convenience. As long as Your Grace cares to play this little game of the speaking box."

  With a sharp look, Ransom said, “She told you of it?"

  Shelby nodded.

  Ransom pursed his lips. “Do you suppose she's told anyone else?” he asked.

  "No. I had her promise not to."

  Ransom managed a humorless chuckle. “She's probably forgotten all about that. With any luck, she's forgotten about the speaking box, too."

  "What do you want the thing for, anyway?"

  Ransom squinted at the play of sunlight on the stones of the courtyard without answering.

  Shelby laughed, a sound tinged with bitter self-mockery. “Never mind. I can guess. Didn't suppose you'd want to confide the whole patriotic story to your ne'er-do-well brother."

  "Shelby—"

  "Oh, no, Your Grace.” Shelby took a step back, pointedly avoiding Ransom's offered hand. “That game is over now. We've come to an end, you and I. Enough of this striving to overcome my character flaws. Enough of lectures and honor and disappointment when I fail. I shall wallow in my small sins, Your Grace. Gambling, indebtedness, the occasional willing female—I shall glory in them, knowing that someday, perhaps, they may grow great enough to match the fine example of my older brother, whom I have always so admired."

  With a cold, economical move, Shelby turned away. Ransom watched him descend the steps and stroll up to Merlin. He put his hand on her shoulder and bent to her ear. Merlin listened to him, then looked up into his face with a smile. There was complete and unquestioning pleasure in that expression. Trust. She and Shelby knelt together to examine the latest item off the wagon, and Merlin's dreamy laughter floated up to Ransom where he stood above them on the stairs.

  He held himself very still, fighting back the alternating waves of fury and chagrin. Shelby rose and held out a hand to help Merlin to her feet. He tucked her arm in his and leaned close as he guided her toward Collett. They made a striking couple. Shelby would make any pair look striking. Ransom could feel his brother's fatal charm even from this distance.

  It filled him with outrage, with that sense of foul ill-usage which had possessed him the first night Merlin had turned him down. He'd forgotten that moment of self-doubt, sure in his strategies and his success once he'd brought Merlin to his home ground.

  He had not counted on this. He didn't know Shelby. Not anymore. A tiny, unfamiliar thread of fear curled in Ransom's chest. As expert as he was at judging his peers, at manipulating and second-guessing his political opponents, his own brother was an enigma to him. He could not guess what lay behind the sneer and the cold derision, whether it was disillusionment or a twisted relief that Ransom was no better than his brother in the end. But he sensed that for Shelby, some bridge had been crossed and burned.

  Ransom had failed him. As he had failed Merlin, and honor, and himself.

  It was a bitter, bitter cup from which to drink.

  "Damerell.” A feminine voice broke into his bleak musings. Blythe touched his arm. “Whatever is going on here now?"

  He tore his eyes away from Merlin and Shelby. “Surely you can puzzle that out for yourself, Blythe. Miss Lambourne's equipment has arrived."

  She let go of him. “Yes, that's quite apparent. I meant why are you allowing Shelby to hang all over her when we're trying to encourage another story entirely? This commotion has succeeded in attracting half the house party. ’Tis you who should be playing the lover in such a scene."

  He drew in a sharp breath. “But it isn't me, is it? I'm afraid there are some elements here which hav
e escaped my control."

  "Nonsense. Shelby is just being his usual impossible self. And now—” She smiled, tilting her head toward four new arrivals on the scene. “You see? This will drive him off soon enough. I'm so glad I thought to mention to the nursemaid that the children would not want to miss all the fun."

  "Uncle Demmie!” The shrill voice of one of Shelby's twin daughters drifted down from the open door. A bundle of pink skirts and blue eyes and awkward arms and legs tumbled toward him, followed by another, identical set. In a moment they had him, one by each hand, and stood behind him peering out at the wonderful sight in the courtyard below.

  He let them hang on him, smoothing their silky hair that was as bright as Shelby's own. Above, twelve-year-old Woodrow hovered in the doorway, auburn-haired like his mother, but with Shelby's chin and eyes. Jaqueline herself stood behind him, showing not a hint of the emotion that would be boiling behind her cheerful smile.

  Shelby had not seen her yet. He was looking toward Ransom and the girls. Ransom could never fathom how Shelby felt about his children. He was affectionate and easy enough when around them, which wasn't often, but he almost never mentioned them at other times. Ransom thought they were rather like puppies to his brother: fun to pet and cuddle and easy to forget.

  Blythe moved away, greeting some of the guests who were gathering. Ransom clasped his nieces’ damp, small hands in his. “Come—it looks rather like Christmas, does it not? Let's go and see."

  The two girls hung back, but a slight pressure was enough to carry them along with him as he descended the steps. It was a wonder that two such parents as Jaqueline and Shelby could have produced three such timid children. Or perhaps, Ransom thought cynically, it was not a wonder at all.

  Down in the courtyard, Merlin looked up at Shelby's firm tap on her shoulder. “Look here,” he said. “Have you met my daughters?"

  Merlin straightened from the electrostatic generator she'd been carefully unwrapping from its cover of musty linen. “Daughters?” she repeated, and then saw the two little girls peeping out from behind Ransom's legs. “Oh. Oh, dear."

  "Augusta and Aurelia,” Shelby said.

  For such large names as those, they seemed to be very small girls. Merlin stood nervously as each one came out from behind Ransom and performed a little curtsy. After they had returned to their refuge, Merlin dipped in a curtsy, too. “I'm sorry,” she said with a trace of defiance, “but I don't have any sweets."

  They giggled.

  "They probably don't deserve any,” Shelby said. But he reached in his pocket and produced two sweetmeats wrapped in colored paper. Augusta and Aurelia came out one by one and accepted the treats with another pair of solemn curtsies.

  "My,” Shelby said, “but you have trained them well for me, Damerell. Do they sit up and beg?"

  Ransom merely looked at him, careful to keep his face impassive.

  "Perhaps I'd better think of placing them elsewhere, the poor innocents,” Shelby added casually. “Where I'm certain their virtue is safe."

  It was hard—it was a physical pain in Ransom's chest—to hold back and not react, to keep his hands loosely clasped around the twins’ and not doubled into fists to smash in his brother's face. He looked at Merlin, who was eyeing the children warily.

  "What's that?” Aurelia pointed to a tripod supporting a large gold orb in the center and seven arms with various sized balls at the ends.

  "A pa-pa-pa ... a pa-planetarium."

  They all looked up at the new voice. The slender boy who'd come silently closer flushed wildly under the inspection and glanced with wide eyes at Ransom.

  "I believe you're right, Woodrow,” he said. “It is a planetarium—is it not, Miss Lambourne?"

  Merlin frowned at it. “Possibly."

  "Oh, yes,” Woodrow said. “It is. See, this is ... Ma-Ma-Mercury, and Ve ... nus, and there is the Earth and the ... ma-ma-ma-moon ... to ga-ga ... go around it. Ma-Ma-Mars and Ju ... pa-pa-piter and ... Saturn and Uranus."

  "Why, of course,” Merlin agreed, taking a closer look. “There are the rings on Saturn and the twelve moons of Jupiter."

  Woodrow reached out a tentative hand, glancing frequently out of the corner of his eye at Ransom as if he expected to be stopped at any moment. But when no prohibition came, he took hold of the little crank. The whole apparatus began to turn, spinning the moons around the planets and the planets around the sun.

  The twins erupted in cries of awe. Merlin peered at them suspiciously.

  "What's that?” Aurelia pointed again.

  This time Merlin knew. “An electrostatic generator,” she said smugly. “Don't touch it."

  Woodrow snatched his hand back and held it behind him, glancing fearfully again at Ransom.

  "What have you been doing, Damerell—beating the boy?” Shelby exclaimed. “I can't bear all these hangdog looks."

  "I'm ... sorry ... sa-sa-sa-sir,” Woodrow said, staring straight ahead. Ransom only looked at his brother, his mouth tightened in a terrifying line.

  Merlin decided that she liked Woodrow. He didn't screech like his sisters, and he didn't seem to expect any sweets. “Ransom scares me, too,” she whispered, leaning close to the boy. “He's a duke, you know."

  Woodrow rolled his eyes toward her.

  "And he's trying to make Woodrow into one,” Shelby added in a louder whisper. “Myself having failed to pass muster."

  "Oh, no!” Merlin looked at Woodrow with deep sympathy. “How awful."

  Woodrow's clear young skin flushed red. “I'm ... sorry, ma'am,” he said.

  "Oh—” She waved her hand. “I'm sure it isn't your fault. Have you been kidnapped, too?"

  This question seemed to leave Woodrow at a complete stand. His mouth opened and shut again, and he looked miserable.

  "I'm afraid Woodrow made the mistake of being born into this position,” Shelby said. “He also is my—"

  He stopped so abruptly in mid-sentence that Merlin glanced up at him in surprise.

  "—my son,” Shelby resumed after a moment, in a voice that had gone suddenly stiff. “Mine and that lovely female's standing at the top of the stairs. How do you do, my dear Jaqueline? It has been such a very long time."

  Jaqueline, framed in the doorway, inclined her head with a smile. Merlin thought she was breathtaking—as riotously beautiful as Shelby was handsome. She seemed friendly, too, her eyes lingering on Merlin with that engaging smile.

  Merlin smiled back. She expected the lady to come down to join them all. Instead, Shelby leaned over and took Merlin's hand with a warm squeeze. He put his lips close to her ear and murmured, “Come here, Merlin. I have something to show you."

  He put his arm through hers, turning away from the others. Merlin had little choice but to allow him to lead her out of earshot of the sudden murmurs, though not out of sight of the curious glances the guests and servants sent after the two of them. Shelby stopped next to an ornamental urn full of trailing flowers.

  "What is it?” Merlin asked.

  "Only this, my love.” He picked a flower and kissed it lightly, before he reached up and tucked it into her hair. “Only this."

  Merlin looked up at him, mystified. But he made no further explanations. He only took both her hands and smiled down into her eyes, the look in his blue ones much too enigmatic to define.

  Chapter 8

  "Well, I never,” Blythe exclaimed. Her slippers clicked as she hustled to Ransom's side. “You're not going to allow him to proceed with that nonsense, are you?"

  He gave her a sour look. “What do you suggest, Blythe? Pistols at dawn?"

  "I suggest you do something instantly, before he—” Her slim body went stiff as a blade. “My stars, he's not going to ... Oh, he wouldn't dare—"

  But Shelby did dare. Under at least twenty-two pairs of staring eyes, he pulled Merlin closer and pressed a gentle kiss to her temple. No one spoke, not even a murmur—the guests too well-bred and the servants too well-trained—but the silence screamed with unholy gle
e. Ransom felt himself flushing, which was an embarrassment almost as acute as watching his brother make love to a woman who was widely rumored to be Ransom's fiancée.

  Merlin turned away from Shelby, apparently in shyness, but Ransom saw the way her eyes sought the wagons. She pulled her hands from Shelby's in a move that might have been coy or might, knowing Merlin, just have been vaguely impatient. Whatever she meant by it, the withdrawal saved her from instant and irreparable ruin. She was the picture of demure confusion as she looked helplessly back toward the others.

  Ransom grasped the opportunity without delay. He strode down the steps, calculating furiously for the best way to bend this scene to account. If only Merlin would turn to him for protection, would take his hand and look up at him...

  It did not happen. As he reached her, his arm outstretched in offered protection, she only paused long enough to take the flower from behind her ear and set it in his open palm.

  "That tickles,” she said. And left him with it.

  She made her way back to Mr. Collett and began poring over his inventory. When she looked up and asked the secretary a question with just exactly the same expression of intensity and pleasure on her face that Ransom had hoped she'd turn on him, he felt the flower stem snap between his fingers. He grasped Shelby's wrist and slapped the broken remains of the flower into his brother's upturned hand. “Keep it,” he hissed under his breath. “As a memento of my profound appreciation and respect."

  Shelby inclined his golden head in a little mocking bow. From beneath those gilded eyelashes, he seemed to be studying the base of the steps with profound concentration. Five stairs above, Jaqueline stood with a twin clinging to each side of her skirt, calmly pointing out items that might be of interest to small, wide-eyed girls. Her voice was smooth; her smile remained radiantly cheerful. For her, it would be humiliation indeed to allow the facade to slip now. Just as painful as it was for Ransom to know that he'd not managed to keep the flush from his face and the anger from his gestures.

  His undisciplined reaction fit his plans well enough, thank God—it highlighted him as a jealous suitor—but he despised the spectacle he must have made. People had always talked about him: why should they not? He had enemies who held him in hate and admirers who held him in awe, and he'd endured all the rumors those feelings implied, but he had yet to become a common buffoon for the gossip mills. It was a new experience, to see the sly smiles and faintly lifted eyebrows.

 
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