The regency romances, p.12
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       The Regency Romances, p.12

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “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 glee. 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.

  He did not like it. He did not like it at all.

  Blythe slipped purposefully among the guests, answering God-knew-what in response to the polite murmurs of interest. Ransom was just moving to control his sister, whose aid was likely to be about as helpful as that of a loose cannon on a rolling ship, when a simple dogcart drawn by an elegant black pony emerged from the arched entry to the courtyard.

  Ransom paused between relief and dismay. In the driver’s seat perched a tall figure, as immaculately black as the pony except for the starched white punctuation of an ecclesiastical collar. The Right Reverend Edwin Peale brought his trap to a halt and waited for a groom to take his horse and a footman to help him from his vehicle before he spoke.

  “Your Grace,” he addressed Ransom without even a curious look toward the chaos of equipment in the courtyard. “How do you do today? But you needn’t have bestirred yourself to meet me at the door like this. I assure you I quite expected to wait if need be. I know what a busy schedule you keep.”

  “My pleasure,” Ransom said, just as if he hadn’t completely forgotten the long-standing appointment. And as if it weren’t the last thing he would normally do to come to the door in person for the likes of the Reverend Mr. Peale. However, Ransom had his hopes for the clergyman, none of which would be served by doing what he was in the mood for—giving the man the cut direct.

  Not that it would make much difference. Mr. Peale had his own hopes, and they made him devilishly difficult to offend.

  He was already in the process of advancing those hopes. After greeting Ransom, Mr. Peale sought out Blythe, taking her hand and bending over it with a bow that Ransom suspected had been rehearsed for a minimum of two hours to find just the right blend of pressing warmth and reserved dignity. Not an easy combination, but necessary for a man with dreams of both a bishop’s office and a brilliant match.

  Blythe exhibited an equally contradictory response. She turned quite scarlet, a weakness Ransom was not presently in a position to fault, and managed to put flattered pleasure on her face and annoyance in her voice, so that the overall effect was one of blushing flusterment. Merlin had done it more attractively, Ransom thought, but on the whole he was not displeased. Matrimony was imminent, he hoped, with one well-meaning and meddlesome sister soon to be removed to a happy home some distance away. India would
do nicely, he felt.

  For the moment, though, he was stuck with all of them: Mr. Peale fluttering around Blythe like a mating moorhen; Shelby and Jaqueline exchanging gay comments that did not quite mask their venom; and Merlin, who was dragging up the steps an enormous wing-like contraption that resembled nothing so much as the left half of a huge, dead bird. She brushed off the protests of Collett and his numerous underlings, insisting on handling the item herself. It stuck in the doorway, but after a few minutes of tugging and twisting and anxious maneuver, the thing tilted up like the single wing of a dying swan and passed through. The last Ransom saw of it was the white tip, sliding along in little jerks across the marble until it disappeared into the Great Hall’s gloom.

  Ransom did not have to endure Mr. Peale in close quarters until the next day. The clergyman had an invitation to stay for the month, and he’d timed his appointment with Ransom to be excruciatingly seemly—not too soon to appear overly anxious, but with plenty of time left to woo Blythe into accepting.

  Ransom met his aspiring brother-in-law at the breakfast table, in a mood mellowed by a brisk morning ride and the sloppy greetings of his two nieces, who had waited for him in the Great Hall with news of the wondrous transformation of the west ballroom. Ransom postponed viewing this marvel in person, pleading a prior appointment, and invited Mr. Peale to accompany him to his study.

  A footman held open the door. Inside, Ransom’s desk was immaculate, and the rest of the furnishings glowed with evidence of meticulous care. The ornate fire grate was spotless, the damask curtains drawn, and the tall windows polished. Perfect order reigned, the result of decades of demand by Mount Falcon’s masters. Ransom gestured toward a chair, and then widened the scope of the move in order to sweep a curled hedgehog off the seat and deposit it on his desk.

  He sat down in another chair and looked expectantly at his guest. “Now, Mr. Peale. How may I serve you?”

  The clergyman glanced at the hedgehog. Ransom met Peale’s eyes with an absolutely neutral expression. Mr. Peale cleared his throat.

  “Your Grace, allow me first to express my deep gratitude for your condescension in giving me leave to speak to you.”

  Ransom moved his hand just slightly in denial. “Come, Mr. Peale. Let us have no talk of condescension. No doubt our forebears fought side by side at Runnymede. And there have been many connections between our families since.”

  Not very subtle, that. But then, Ransom had no desire to sit in his study all morning while Peale worked his way around to a declaration without prompting.

  The young reverend swallowed. A vein worked in the side of his throat, and his long hands clenched. He was a good-looking man, light and lithe in build, with neat black hair and a frame that Ransom suspected could wield more power than was immediately evident. “If I may be so presumptuous, Your Grace,” he said, “I would like to say that I have dared to dream of another connection between our families.”

  Ransom waited. He found this careful reverence cloying. It was not as if Peale were some low-bred social climber. If the man hadn’t been of noble descent, Ransom would never have been wasting his time in the hope that his high-stickler of a sister would consider Peale’s suit. The clergyman was quite Blythe’s equal in background, with three earls, a marquess, and a cousin with royal ties to match her ducal connections. It was the misfortune of the blue-blooded Peales, however, to be poverty-stricken, while Blythe had fortune enough to support all three of the earls and leave a generous allowance for the marquess if Mr. Peale could land it.

  “It would be an honor to be associated with your family in any manner,” Ransom said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the hedgehog unroll on his desk. “Pray continue, Mr. Peale.”

  “Thank you, Your Grace. In view of my circumstances, I had feared this interview might be difficult, but you allow me to dare hope my aspirations are not beyond the realm of reality.”

  “I presume they are not,” Ransom said, “though I should be better able to judge if you would tell me what they are.”

  But this was going too fast for Mr. Peale. He took a deep breath and looked at the floor. “Might I ask your leave to present to you my prospects?”

  Ransom gave a silent sigh. “Of course, Mr. Peale.”

  In the discourse that followed, Ransom had ample time to allow his mind to drift. He knew all about the reverend’s prospects, what little there was to know. Among all those earls there was not a man who could offer Mr. Peale a living—at least not in the style to which he was accustomed. But Blythe’s portion would take care of that, and Ransom was not really so heartless as to pack them off to India. He had a position in mind at Yorkminster, where Blythe could put her energy into the advancement of a young cleric in powerful church circles. Circles which seldom intersected with Ransom’s own.

  He steepled his hands while Peale talked on, watching covertly as the hedgehog made its slow way across the polished surface of his desk. The small creature stopped to investigate an inkwell, its shiny nose twitching around a stick of sealing wax, then headed for the edge.

  “…and of course,” Mr. Peale was saying, “I have my mother’s property, which is not large, but very well kept, and I hope would bring—”

  “There is no need to think of selling your maternal legacy,” Ransom interrupted, standing up. “I’m sure that something can be arranged in the way of a position for you, Mr. Peale. I shall begin some inquiries this afternoon. I fancy that a friend of mine in York may be of some assistance in that regard.”

  “Your Grace, I—How can I possibly express my gratitude?”

  “Don’t think of it.” Ransom caught the hedgehog, careful of its flattened bristles, and drew the animal back toward the center of the desk. Its front paws made small scrabbling noises on the shining wood. “You have a fine future before you, Mr. Peale. I don’t doubt that.”

  Peale clasped his hands. His knuckles turned white. “Your Grace. That brings me then to…to my purpose in asking to speak with you.”

  Praise the lord, Ransom thought. Out with it.

  “Your Grace,” Peale said, and stopped. The hedgehog began another determined trek toward oblivion. “Your Grace…”

  Ransom closed his eyes and opened them. “I shall be the most graceful fellow in the county,” he murmured.

  “Forgive me.” Peale made a little apologetic cough. “I seem to have become quite tongue-tied.”

  “Really, Mr. Peale, there is no need to feel ill-at-ease, I assure you. Do go on.”

  “Your Grace…” The reverend bent his head, staring at the rug. Ransom reached out to catch the hedgehog before it toppled over the edge. “Your Grace, I should like to beg your permission to pay my addresses to your sister Blythe.”

  “Damn!” Ransom jerked back, sucking his middle finger.

  Mr. Peale looked up with a stricken expression.

  “Ah—” Ransom clutched his bleeding finger in his other hand. “Pardon me. You were saying?”

  “Your Grace,” Peale repeated. “I beg you to allow me to ask for your sister’s hand in marriage.”

  “Yes. My sister.” The hedgehog scrabbled again toward the edge. Ransom grabbed for it. His forefinger caught the creature under its belly.

  Instantly, it curled itself into a ball with his finger trapped inside. A hundred spines drove into his skin. “My God,” he ejaculated, before the trap tightened even more and a strangled howl closed his throat. He yanked his hand back, but the hedgehog had a death grip on his finger. A guttural sound of agony escaped him. He reached to try to tear the animal off and got a palm full of pinholes for the effort. “Get Merlin,” he ordered through clenched teeth. “Bring Merlin, quickly.” Mr. Peale stood staring.

  “Now!” Ransom roared.

  “Your Grace. Pardon me, Your Grace, but—”

  “Bring Miss Lambourne.”

  “Instantly, Your Grace!” Mr. Peale made a rapid exit from the room. Ransom sat down at the desk and pressed his forehead into his free arm. His finger throb
bed and ached, and if he made the slightest move the spines drove deeper, creating a sensation closely akin to holding his finger over a searing flame.

  He waited. Seconds passed. He made a hissing sound of anguish into the crook of his elbow. Minutes went by. He groaned and panted and cursed dumb animals. The hedgehog showed no inclination to relax its curl. Ransom gave a soft keening moan, and then with his face still hidden in his sleeve he began a muffled pleading with the hedgehog.

  “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he promised the animal. “There’s not a wolf in sight. I’ll give you a nice bowl of cream. How do you feel about worms? Do you like worms? We’ll have tea together. Where the bloody hell is Merlin? For God’s sake, oh, no—please. Don’t squeeze any harder. Please don’t. Listen to me. Worms and cream. We’ll have worms and cream. Nice, juicy worms. The gardeners are standing by. I’ll give orders on the instant. But I can’t pull the bell unless you let go of my finger—”

  “An’ would you be likin’ me to pull it for you, sur?”

  Ransom’s head came up. He winced, having caused the hedgehog to clench harder with the abrupt move. In front of his desk stood a stranger with a freckled grin and eyes of devil’s green to match his Irish brogue.

  “Major Quinton O’Sullivan O’Toole O’Shaughnessy.” The officer introduced himself with a flourishing bow. “I was just now proceeding down the hall to a visit with His Lordship Shelby Falconer, by way of inquiring about a small matter of pecuniary interest. The door was open, you understand, and the Lord above preserve me, but I couldn’t help but hear you speaking in so distressed a manner. And, sir, me blessed mother would not want her only son to miss an opportunity to be of service.”

  Ransom had opened his mouth to snarl a dismissal when recollection of the war secretary’s message and that ridiculous bon mot hit him. “What did you say you’re called?” he demanded.

  “Ah, forgive a poor son of the Old Sod, but me name is O’Sullivan O’Toole O’Shaughnessy. ’Tis a burden the Good Lord and me superior officer have asked me to bear.”

 
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