Midsummer moon, p.13
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       Midsummer Moon, p.13

           Laura Kinsale
 
"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. Ransom 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 crash 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."

  "I don't think my demise is any of your concern,” she said to the floor. “I'll do what you like on the speaking box, and then I'll go home. I am not your responsibility, Ransom.” She turned away from him, toward the door, and then stopped and looked back. There was an expression of clear determination on her face which he had never seen before. “I suppose if my ‘innocence’ is on your conscience, it will just have to stay there. Perhaps I do live in a fantasy world, but I'm not going to marry you and give up my aviation machine so that you can keep your good opinion of yourself."

  Chapter 9

  It was Woodrow who brought the awful news to Merlin. He dropped it innocently a week later, in the west ballroom, staring up at the wing framework she was stringing.

  "Mr. Pa-Pemminey uses aluminium,” he said matter-of-factly.

  Merlin turned around. “Uses aluminium for what?"

  "For wings. He said that one needs the strength of ... sh-sh...” As always, Woodrow lowered his eyes, and his stutter worsened whenever she looked straight at him. “Sta-sta ... s-stretched aluminium wire."

  "Strength! The strength is in the canvas skin. Stiff wire is a poor trade for the elasticity to be found in catgut. And who is Mr. Pemmican?"

  "Pa-Pa-Pa-Pemminey.” He took a breath. “He lives in a ... tower on the ca-ca-ca ... cliff at Ba ... Beachy Head. I ride there sometimes. He's ba ... building a flying ma-ma-ma ... machine ... too."

  She gasped. “He's building—” Her mouth worked like a gaping fish. “And he's using aluminium wire!” She grabbed Woodrow's thin shoulders. “He's not tested it yet?"

  "I don't think so. Pa-please, Ma-Ma-Miss Lambourne, don't ba-ba ... be angry! I'm sure he hasn't ... ca-ca-ca ... completed it. He ca-came to Uncle Damerell last fall and asked if the ... ga-ga-ga-government wanted to ... ga-give him funds to finish. Ba-but my uncle said he was ... ca-ca-ca ... crazy."

  "Last fall!” Merlin moaned. “Last fall! Why, he will have flown it across the Channel and back by now."

  "Oh, Ma-Ma-Miss Lambourne, pa-please don't ... ba-be upset. I'm ... sure he hasn't. I ga-go to ... see him almost every fortnight. It isn't far. And he was very angry with Uncle Damerell. He ... said it was a ca-ca-ca ... crime, that the ga-government would allow Ba ... British genius to ... starve. I don't think he has very ma-much ... ma-ma-ma-money, you sa-sa-sa-sa ... you understand. And aluminium wire is expensive."

  "But last fall! He must have found another sponsor by now. Not everyone is such a cod's head as your uncle, Woodrow!"

  Woodrow cast down his eyes again. He shuffled his feet. “I'm ... sorry. I don't know. Mr. Pa-Pa-Pemminey did ... say, last ... time I went, that he'd been ... ta-ta-talking to-to ... some interested pa-pa-pa ... parties."

  "Interested parties.” She made a sound of dismay. “Oh—were they very interested?"

  "I don't know. I'm really ... sorry. That's all he ... ca-ca-called them. ‘Interested ... pa-parties.’”

  Merlin chewed her knuckle. And then she squared her shoulders and turned around and went back to work with a vengeance.

  Very early each morning before anyone else was awake, she reserved two hours, because she'd promised, and worked on making the improvements Ransom had requested for the speaking box. The secretary Mr. Collett was always at her service during those times, ready to fetch anything she needed on the instant, to transcribe her notes himself and lock them into a box he carried in and out of Ransom's study.

  It was communication over greater distance that Ransom had asked for. Distance and power. She built a battery with more cups and plates, and refined the coiled wires. In some of the cool summer dawns Collett carried the portable portion of the box off to a far corner of the estate, and they learned together that the voice came clearer through the ether when one partner was high—speaking from the third floor
of the house or listening on a distant hill. Merlin began to contemplate ways to catch the effect without the help of hills and houses.

  She dutifully thought about the speaking box all through her solitary breakfasts, planning ahead to the next day's work, and then turned her mind to her real goal. By the time she reached the west ballroom she was focused entirely on the flying machine, tense and frowning in anticipation of the enormous job ahead. The only thing that interrupted her concentration was her daily meeting with Ransom, whom she passed in the Great Hall every morning as she left the breakfast room.

  He had not spoken to Merlin for three weeks. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. Most of the time it was very convenient, since it meant she had no distractions, no one pestering her over stupid notions like Duty and Reputation and The Honorable Thing To Do.

  He was always in riding clothes, just coming in the door from outside. He would stop when he saw her, and every day her insides would give an odd little squeeze at the sight of him, so fiercely elegant in his polished top boots and immaculate coat while she still had jelly on her fingers and mud clinging to her hem from a dawn excursion with the speaking box. She was learning to notice things like that. To notice the way his breeches were never smudged or torn, but fit his thighs as his coat fit his shoulders—without a wrinkle, completing the tall, masculine silhouette.

  He'd bid her good morning the first few times they'd met there in the hall, but Merlin found any encounter with him, even a simple greeting, too much a threat to her concentration, so she only nodded and thought harder about the flying machine and hurried on.

  Now he only nodded, too.

  She worked all day and into the nights, with the image of the mysterious Mr. Pemminey always hovering over her. Woodrow had ridden his pony to visit her competitor again, and his report was alarming. Mr. Pemminey had indeed found a new sponsor, and he was hard at work on his project—not simply an aviation machine, but one that would carry an aviator and a passenger, too! Merlin was appalled. She threw herself into frantic work.

  At the morning stroke of three from the clock in the Great Hall she would finally give in to the ache in her shoulders and the scratchy droop behind her eyelids. In the deep-night silence, she trudged alone up the huge staircase and lay down in her clean, freshly aired bed that smelled of violets. For just a few moments she would stare up at the elegant canopy and allow herself to forget the speaking box and the flying machine.

 
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