The regency romances, p.13
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       The Regency Romances, p.13

           Laura Kinsale

  Ransom glanced at the hedgehog clamped on his finger. “We all have our trials, don’t we? Who’s your superior?”

  The Irishman looked very directly into Ransom’s eyes. In a soft voice without a trace of the brogue, he said, “I believe you’ve had a note from my commander quite recently.”

  “Have I? I receive a large amount of correspondence. Tell me, Major, have you been introduced at court?”

  The officer grinned. “’Oh, Jesus,’ His Grace of York said when he heard the name. It was embarrassin’, sir, an’ me commander standin’ right there to hear it.”

  “I don’t doubt that.” Ransom managed a thin smile. “Welcome to Mount Falcon. Will you make us call you by that mouthful?”

  “Indeed, sir, an’ you may call me O’Shaughnessy. Or Quin. Bein’ a friend, like.”

  Ransom winced as the hedgehog loosened an instant and tightened again. “How long can you stay?”

  Quin shrugged. He tilted his head so that the morning light from the windows emphasized the handsome deep red in his hair. “Well, sir, among other things, such as lookin’ after those particular ladies as might need lookin’ after, I wouldn’t like to be leavin’ before this little matter of His Lordship’s bill is clear.”

  Ransom frowned, not pleased that Shelby had been used in such a way—luring him into debt to one of the War Department’s agents. Ransom would have put a rapid halt to such a ploy if he’d known about it. He filed the matter away for investigation, intending to make mincemeat of whoever was responsible when he found them out. But he had to admit that the debt made a most convenient cover. And it was comforting to know that Castlereagh had taken Ransom’s project seriously enough to send extra protection.

  As satisfied as he could contrive to be while a hedgehog was using his finger as a pincushion, Ransom nodded shortly. He shifted in his chair. “That should be an adequate reason to stay a while, then,” he said in a testy voice. “I don’t intend to advance any money on my brother’s allowance in the foreseeable future.”

  “Well, now, that is a shame, Your Excellency’s Highness. But only what I was expectin’. I had heard you was a great farthing-pinch.”

  “Yes, I am. And I’m not at all fond of levity when my finger is being lacerated by a hedgehog. I don’t suppose you have any notions on how to make the damned thing uncurl, do you?”

  Quin’s green eyes crinkled merrily. “Why, no, sir. By my soul, I can’t say that I do. But I was after calling in the gardener, wasn’t I? To be bringing tea, was it? Some beautiful juicy worms, plump as gooseberries, for Your Honor’s Noble Grace.”

  “Go away.” Ransom glowered. “I’ll deal with you later.”

  Quin laid his hand on his breast. “By the rod of St. Patrick—I never thought Quinton O’Sullivan O’Toole O’Shaughnessy’s own father’s son would be treated so uncivilly.” He looked up past Ransom toward the door. “But here now—perhaps this is a lady who needs my attention.”

  With a rush of relief, Ransom exclaimed, “Merlin, thank God—” He stopped as Blythe glided in. There was no sign of Merlin. He dropped his forehead into his free hand and groaned.

  “Damerell,” Blythe said.

  He looked up wearily. His finger had passed into a throbbing numbness. “Yes, Blythe?”

  His sister glanced toward Quin. Her hands had been balled into small white fists, but as the green-eyed Irishman grinned and bowed, her fingers relaxed slightly. “Oh—are you occupied?” she asked with sudden and unusual diffidence. “I shall come back.”

  Quin reached out and caught her arm lightly as she began to turn away. “Dear lovely ma’am,” he said. “Pray don’t take the sunlight from me poor empty life so soon.”

  Blythe’s eyes widened at this familiarity. Ransom braced himself for an icy retort. Instead, he had the astonishing experience of seeing his stiff-necked sister allow a stranger, and an ill-bred one at that, slide his hand suggestively down her arm and lift her hand for a lingering kiss. Blythe stood very still. Frozen by shock, Ransom supposed. After Quin straightened, she remained for a full half minute staring up at him before jerking her hand from his and marching out of the room.

  “That was well done,” Ransom said dryly.

  Quin winked. “Every duty has its rewards, me wise old mother was fond of saying.”

  “I can assure you that my sister’s favor will not be one of them.”

  “Your Dukeship’s Highness may say that same. But I’m thinkin’”—Quin swept a bow—“that a man might be wont to study long before acceptin’ Your Grace’s reckoning. ’Tis not meself with the hedgepig stuck on me hand.”

  “Perhaps you’d prefer a hedgepig stuck on your ar—”

  “Hold your loose tongue, sir, if you please! Yet another lady graces our humble selves with her fair presence.”

  Ransom twisted—carefully, this time—to look toward the door. Merlin stood outside, peering in, dressed in her familiar apron with the bulging pocket.

  He tilted his head back against the high back of his chair and closed his eyes with a harsh sigh of relief. “Get it off me,” he ordered. “This instant!”

  “Oh, my,” Merlin cried. “Are you hurt?” He heard her rush toward him. “Here, let me—”

  His bellow of pain drowned the rest of her words. The hedgehog reacted to her hasty attempt to pry it open by clenching with a force that thrust spines deep into his flesh—all the way to the bone, he was certain. He jerked his arm and the hedgehog out of reach. After an infinite moment of purest agony, he wrenched his eyes open to see Merlin wringing her hands.

  “I’m so sorry!” she moaned. “Your poor hand! What shall we do?”

  “I believe I shall retire, dear ma’am”—Quin began moving toward the door—“before His Dukeship becomes cantankerous.”

  “Oh, Ransom.” Merlin paid Quin no attention at all, but grabbed Ransom’s free hand as the Irishman closed the door behind him. She clutched Ransom’s palm between hers in a gesture that at any other time he would have found highly gratifying. As it was, he just managed to prevent himself from cursing her to bleeding Hades and back. “Poor Ransom,” she repeated, and slid to her knees beside his chair, holding his hand against her cheek.

  He took ten deep, even breaths. Trust fate, he thought, to put Merlin in a devoted mood when he was paralyzed by pain. He spread shaky fingers against her soft skin and muttered, “Damn the luck.”

  “What?” She raised wide, gray, miserable eyes.

  “Never mind,” he said. “Never mind.”

  She turned her head and pressed her lips into the curve of his palm. Instantly, his whole body began to sing a willing song, an ardent humming in his veins that clashed with the anguish in his arm, creating a peculiar desperation, a need to draw her close and crush her against him as if that might wipe out the pain.

  He swore again, feeling foolish and furious. He cupped the nape of her neck, drawing her up to him as he bent in spite of the searing pain in his finger. It was stupid and farcical and it hurt like the devil, but her lips were warm, impossibly soft, impossibly generous in opening to his sudden demand.

  “Curse it,” he muttered, pulling away and burying his face in his arm on the desk. “I really don’t think I deserve this.”

  “What can I do?” Merlin asked in a wretched voice. “What can I do?”

  Ransom bared his teeth in the imitation of a smile. “Very little, it would appear.”

  “But it’s hurting you. I don’t want you to be hurt. And it’s my fault. I probably left the hedgehog in here. I’m sure I did. I often do things like that.” She bit her lip. “Oh, Ransom. Can you forgive me?”

  He took a deep breath. Her gray eyes were lovely, the lashes like soft smoke against her skin. “Merlin…” He sighed. “At some time before I die, I will probably forgive you.”

  Her dusky eyebrows drew together. With pained amusement, he watched the irony go right past her, leaving that luscious, misty puzzlement on her face. She lifted her hand and touched her lower lip. Rans
om moaned. He rested his head on his trapped arm and reached out to catch her hand. “Don’t do that, please.” He clasped her fingers, keeping hold of her hand. “You make me feel quite uncivilized.”

  “I don’t mean to.”

  “I know. You never mean to, do you?” He squeezed her hand. “Just sit here with me, Wiz.”

  She looked at the hedgehog sadly. “I know exactly how it feels.”

  “Oh, really? Have you had several score of hatpins driven into your flesh lately?”

  “No. I mean I know just how the hedgehog feels.”

  Ransom sighed. “And I thought I was the sympathetic figure here.”

  “I’d like to curl up in a ball myself right now.”

  “Why don’t you try it? And then ask yourself what would make you uncurl.”

  Merlin looked up at him. He gave her a faint smile, meaning to reassure, but she did not respond. The familiar, distant look of concentration was in her eyes, that way she had of looking at his nose and at a point a hundred miles away at the same time. It made her seem infinitely vulnerable and precious, that look—like a child smiling in its sleep. A fierce sense of his responsibility for her gripped him. He had torn her out of the safe existence she had known, forced himself on her body and her life. The price of that was a commitment, and Ransom was not a man to evade his duty. He propped their clasped hands on his knee and waited intently for her to come back to him.

  “I have it!”

  “Ah,” Ransom croaked, as the sharp sound of her voice made the hedgehog flinch.

  Merlin scrambled to her feet and began searching frantically in her pocket. She pulled out a handful of metal springs and tossed them on the polished surface of the desk. Two broken pencils followed, a small mirror, and a snuffbox. She made a sound of vexation, holding The Pocket open and peering inside. Another diving search produced what appeared to be an extensive collection of clock innards. Ransom refrained from inquiring where they had come from, but he determined to look into the state of the Mount Falcon timepieces immediately.

  “Here,” she said. “Here, I can feel it…” She pressed her fingers into the very bottom of The Pocket, scrabbling for purchase on whatever item was escaping her. After a breathless struggle, she held it up triumphantly.

  “A sunflower seed,” Ransom said.

  “It loves them!” She rushed around the desk and leaned over, scooting the single seed toward the bristling ball on Ransom’s hand. “There. There. Watch.”

  A minute passed.

  “I’m watching,” Ransom said.

  She waved him into silence. He tilted his head, observing the way the sun caught her hair as she bent, staring at the bristling ball in profound concentration. Her hands were braced on the surface of the desk, her fingers spread in unconscious grace, unadorned by anything except a grease smudge on one slender thumb. The plain cotton blouse gaped slightly, giving him a tantalizing glimpse of a shadowed curve beneath.

  “Come here and kiss me,” he said. “A watched hedgehog never uncurls.”

  She looked up, brushing back an escaped lock of hair. “It doesn’t?” Her expression was dubious. “I’ve never watched one very long.”

  “Merlin, I’m in pain. Severe pain. I need distraction.”

  She frowned at him. Then a little gleam of a smile curved her lips. She examined her fingers. “I suppose…if you aren’t trying to make me do something I don’t want to.”

  “Of course not. It’s in the nature of a strategy. A diversion. I think this hedgehog is modest. It doesn’t like people staring at it. We have to make it think we’ve forgotten it entirely.”

  She moved around the desk again to his side. The little smile was gone. Her face was solemn, her magnificent gray eyes as clear and soft as moonlight. “Would that really help, do you think?”

  Her expression, her tone, the faint tension in her brows—all told him the question was utterly serious. His mouth went dry. “No,” he whispered honestly. “I just want to kiss you.”

  She lifted her hand. With her forefinger, she traced the outline of his mouth. Ransom closed his eyes. Desire was there, hot and instant and hard to control. The first fluttering touch of her lips on his made his fingers grip the arm of his chair. The fact that his injured hand was suddenly free to participate in this reaction hardly registered in his conscious mind. He lost himself in the awkward kiss, in the shy tender warmth, lifting his chin to cajole for more…

  “It worked!”

  Her abrupt withdrawal left him feeling provoked, and not a little silly.

  “Look,” Merlin said, ignoring his mumbled profanity. “I told you.”

  Ransom didn’t need to look. He was examining his freed finger, hoping that it wouldn’t have to be amputated. The punctures did not appear to be quite as deep as he’d feared, though they stung viciously and bled all over the ink blotter. He wrapped his handkerchief around them and glared at the hedgehog, which had made short work of its single seed and was waving its button-black nose in the air, looking for another.

  “I find you de trop,” he informed the animal. “Kindly proceed to your original destination, and I hope you break your spiny little neck on the way.”

  “Here.” Merlin had located another sunflower seed. “Come here.”

  She held open The Pocket and waved the seed over the hedgehog’s nose. It trundled eagerly after the lure, leaning off the edge of the desk and stretching its forepaws until gravity took over and the animal tumbled into Merlin’s apron. She dropped the seed in after, and then swept the rest of her springs and clockworks in on top. There was a faint tinkling as the hedgehog shifted about until it was satisfied with its position.

  “I hope,” Ransom said dryly, “that you’ll dispense with carrying a miniature bodyguard after we’re married.”

  The moment the words left his mouth, he wanted them back. A major tactical error—to speak as if the resolution of their controversy was a foregone conclusion. And the instant tightening of her eyebrows told him that the slip had not passed unnoticed.

  To retrieve a blunder, his grandfather had always taught him, seize the offensive.

  “Why won’t you?” he asked, before she could voice the inevitable denial.

  Her lashes swept downward. “I like my hedgehog. And perhaps I think I need a bodyguard.”

  “You know what I mean, Merlin. You were about to say you won’t marry me.”

  “You always put words in my mouth.”

  “Was I wrong?”

  “That’s not the point—”

  “It is to me. I want to know why, Merlin.” He stood up and walked around the desk to confront her, spreading his arms. “Am I too old? Not rich enough? Ugly?”

  She frowned, tucking her chin in a little as he moved closer.

  “Merlin.” He caught her arm, gently, but enough to block her escape route past him. “Don’t you like me at all?”

  Her lips worked. He took note of that and pressed his advantage, running his palm up her sleeve and caressing her cheek. “I like you, Merlin. Very much.”

  She frowned harder. Her lower lip set mulishly. “I don’t believe you,” she said under her breath.

  “Do you think I’m lying? Haven’t I kept my promises to you? Haven’t I transported your equipment here and given you a place to work and brought in the best doctor in the county to see to Theo? Haven’t I taken care of you? How can you say you don’t believe me—Merlin, for God’s sake, do you think I kiss every female who walks in the house the way I kiss you?”

  “I don’t know.”

  His hand closed a little tighter on her arm. He was beginning to lose his temper. “Allow me to assure you that I don’t!”

  Her eyes flashed up. “I’m sure you would, if you wanted them all to abandon their flying machines!”

  “Merlin, I have never said—”

  “Of course you’ve never said. Not out loud. You just kiss me.”

  “And you take that to mean I want you to abandon your flying machine.”

>   “Yes!”

  Between clenched teeth, he said, “Would you be so kind as to explain to me the reasoning behind that?”

  She opened her mouth and shut it again. He felt her wriggle and tense beneath his fingers. “Because,” she said in a burst of feeling, “you think with your head!”

  He stared at her a moment. Then he let go of her arm and rubbed his eyes. His injured finger throbbed dully. “You are beyond my comprehension, Merlin. You really are. I’m offering my house, my protection, my name…I don’t know what else I can give you.”

  “Wings,” she whispered.

  His patience shattered under the weight of frustration and hurt. “I am not going to let you kill yourself in a damned-fool attempt to fly!” He grabbed her shoulders in spite of his injured hand. “Do you hear me? I am not.”

  She endured the sharp shake without a word. He wanted to kiss her; he wanted to crush her against him and keep her safe from every possible harm. But a strategically placed hedgehog and the knowledge that she saw his lovemaking as some kind of coercion deterred him. He thrust away from her and walked to the window.

  “You live in a fantasy world,” he said in a low voice. “It’s a lovely world, Merlin, and I—I’ve felt rather privileged to share a little of it. But the real world is still here. It’s still as cruel and unforgiving as it’s ever been.” He raised his eyes and gazed out at the trimmed sweep of green lawn. “Sometimes it seems like I’ve spent my whole life trying to protect the people I care about from it.”

  “Perhaps they don’t need so much protection.”

  He glanced back at her. “Ah. A gem of wisdom from the lady who wishes to attach wings to herself and leap off a cliff.”

  “It’s not so simple as that.”

  “Is it not? You jump. You fall. You break your neck. It seems fairly straightforward to me.”

  She bent her head. But he could see the way that little pucker formed between her brows.

  “Merlin,” he said, “I’m sorry. I seem to lose all my diplomacy around you. But, my dear, I already have your innocence on my conscience. I don’t want your demise there, too.”

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