The regency romances, p.14
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       The Regency Romances, p.14

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “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.

  In those moments she always thought of Ransom. And a strange, lonely melancholy would creep through her, before weariness overtook it and sent her into heavy sleep.

  “I suggest we use George Reade to speak in the House on that point,” Ransom said, and then smiled. “As it will require more than ordinary gravity to ensure belief.

  His companion chuckled. “Quite.” After jotting in his notebook, the under-secretary of the Exchequer rose. “A most productive conversation, Damerell. And I do thank you for your hospitality these several days. I shall not stop here another.”

  “No? You won’t stay until week’s end?”

  “My deepest regrets. I mean to set out for London tomorrow morning. But before I go, Damerell, I must see this marvelous winged machine I’ve been hearing about from your other guests.”

  “That.” Ransom’s smile flattened. He waved his hand dismissively. “An overlarge toy.”

  The secretary smiled. “And yet you’ve given over your ballroom to it, I understand.”

  “It entertains the children. Of all ages.”

  “Sly fellow! You know you can trust me. Are you certain that it isn’t a military triumph in the making? By God, Damerell, what an achievement it would be, to make the thing work.”

  “I’m not holding my breath,” Ransom said.

  The secretary clapped Ransom’s shoulder. “Take me to this folly, dear boy, and let me judge for myself.”

  “Certainly.” Ransom inclined his head in a slight, dry bow and gestured toward the door. He’d determined on a strategy of non-confrontation to deal with Merlin, deliberately avoiding her, trying to give her time to adjust and—more to the point—to miss his attentions. It was quite c
lear from their last encounter that he had pushed her too hard, too soon.

  So he had thrown himself into his work, isolating himself from the rest of the household. In a place the size of Mount Falcon, that was a simple task. He had only to take his meals in private with whichever guest he preferred to honor and spend the rest of his time closeted in his own spacious wing of the house.

  Now he stood back and followed the secretary from the room. “I’ve yet to see it myself, actually.” Their footsteps echoed in the long, arched corridor.

  “You haven’t? For shame, Damerell. Have you lost all pretense to youth and dreams? Upon my soul, when I think of the boyhood days I sat swinging my legs from the highest elm branch I could find and wishing I were a bird on the wind!”

  “What a delightful picture.”

  “You villain, I see you storing that confession away to use someday when you wish to plague me in the House. But it won’t wash. I ain’t ashamed of boy’s dreams, and nor should you be. Come down off your high horse and admit it, Damerell—you’d love to see this thing fly as much as I would.”

  Ransom shook his head. “I would prefer to have it dismantled and removed from my premises. But I am in love, you see.”

  “Hah. The only thing you’ve ever been in love with is that seat in Westminster Hall. Past time you remarried, Damerell. You’re becoming damned stiff-assed in your old age.”

  “Thank you for the observation. I shall endeavor to improve myself.”

  The secretary laughed and made a face at him. “Yes, I can see that you take the criticism very well. Come, come, dear friend—you’ll forgive me. I know you have the dignity of your position to uphold. And a nice little well-bred wife with no town tarnish on her will be just the ticket.”

  “Do you think so?” Ransom grinned, abandoning his solemn face. He gestured toward the door to the west ballroom. “Then allow me to introduce you to Miss Lambourne.”

  At his signal, a footman bowed and swung open the double doors.

  Ransom thought he had prepared himself. He’d been hearing for weeks about the wonderful ballroom from his nieces. It was one thing to hear, however, and quite another to see the great, graceful sweep of canvas that hung by a thousand streamers where his German-crystal chandeliers should have been.

  It filled the room, this flying machine. One wing tip touched the painted ceiling three stories above, where Leander swam the Hellespont to reach his Hero, and the other brushed the carved mantel of a Sicilian marble fireplace. A coarse wooden platform covered the intricate inlaid pattern of colored stone on the ballroom floor. Tools and wires glinted in the afternoon sun and ropes drifted everywhere, hung from pulleys and casting long, intersecting shadows through the air and across the floor.

  To Ransom’s surprise, the huge object had an unlikely beauty of its own. A living presence, as if it were some mythological beast conjured out of legend and hung as a silent trophy in his hall. Amidst the spindly forest of ropes, dwarfed figures moved in and out of the giant’s shadow.

  “Ransom!” It was Shelby’s voice, suspiciously friendly, beckoning from a far corner of the room. One tall silhouette with two smaller ones attached to it moved out of the shadow and came toward them.

  The secretary greeted Ransom’s brother with clear pleasure. He had a smile and a pat for the twins, who were too excited by Ransom’s visit to remember to be shy. They squealed and grabbed his coattails and began pulling him into the room.

  “Marvelous,” he heard the secretary say to Shelby as they followed after.

  “Yes, it is rather wonderful, isn’t it?” Shelby exclaimed. “I’ve become quite fascinated by the whole thing myself. Spend every afternoon here helping out.”

  As Ransom’s eyes adjusted to the deep contrasts of light and dark, he saw Merlin hunched over a writing stand in the corner, frowning tensely as she scribbled in a large notebook. She didn’t look up as the twins propelled him forward. Nearby, Major Quinton O’Sullivan O’Toole O’Shaughnessy was propped against the fireplace mantel, his arms raised, wrapping wire with careful moves around the lowered wing tip. Jaqueline stood by, holding the wing in position for him, craning her neck to watch.

  Mr. Peale was there, too, standing next to Merlin and reading numerical equations from a dusty text to her in a solemn, Sunday-morning chant. Woodrow and Blythe—Blythe, of all people!—completed the unlikely group, cutting strands of catgut and sorting them by length in precise rows across the floor. Woodrow was sorting, at least. Blythe was hovering nearby and pointing out his mistakes.

  Ransom swallowed his shock at the odd collection of his relatives and guests, determined by habit not to show his surprise. It appeared that half the household had adopted the flying machine as a regular entertainment. He looked around, trying to see what it was that had precipitated such unexpected devotion. Nothing he saw enlightened him.

  “What can Uncle Demmie do?” Augusta cried. “Miss Merlin! Can Uncle Demmie take us on the cat’s seat?”

  Merlin looked up into his eyes. The deep pucker was etched between her brows, and shadows beneath her cheekbones gave her an unfamiliar, hollow look. Ransom had the distinct impression that she didn’t even see him. “Yes. Yes, of course,” she said in a distant voice. She went back to her writing. “Go to Shelby for sweets. What was that last number, Mr. Peale? One hundred seventy over the square of what?”

  Aurelia and Augusta crowed and tried to pull Ransom away, but he detached himself. “Merlin,” he said.

  “Not now.” She shook her head. “Not now, if you please!”

  He stared at her tight shoulders, at the taut, slim fingers that gripped the pen so zealously. She ordered Mr. Peale to stop a moment and grabbed another notebook, brushing through the pages furiously. Holding her place with an awkward elbow, she scowled up at the aircraft. She lifted her hand to her lips in that characteristic gesture that had so often made his blood run warm. This time, though, there was such an anxious tension in the way she chewed her finger that he had another reaction to it entirely.

  “Merlin,” he said again. “May I speak to you a moment?”

  He received not a blink of response.

  “Shall I write your message down in a note, Your Dukeship?” an amused Irish brogue inquired. “And deliver it when she returns to this earthly plane of ours?”

  Ransom glanced at Quin. The major was lounging against the mantel, his coat loosened and his deep coppery hair falling in his eyes. Jaqueline coiled the last of the wire between her fingers.

  “No, thank you.” Ransom made an effort to hold on to his good temper. He smiled at Jaqueline. “Good afternoon. I didn’t expect to see you here, I must confess.”

  “Oh, I come with the children and spend all day.” She laughed and leaned just slightly toward Quin, so that her fingers brushed his sleeve. “We find this room most alluring, the children and I.”

  “I see,” Ransom said in a perfectly neutral voice. He doused his quick surge of resentment on Shelby’s behalf and resisted the urge to turn and see if his brother was watching.

  “Ah, Jackie,” Quin said, smiling down at her. “Don’t give old Quinton a bad name with His Grace. Pull those lovely claws of yours out of me heart, dearest.”

  Jaqueline released her light hold. She blew him a kiss. “Vile boy. You take all the joy out of being a fast woman.”

  Quin’s lips curved in a leering smile. “Oh, are you a fast woman, my sweet? Perhaps I spurned you too hastily.”

  “Too late.” Jaqueline neatly avoided his move to catch her. “I am a mother again.” She knelt, holding out her arms to envelop her daughters as they pressed wriggling bodies close for a kiss.

  From behind Ransom came a high and chilly voice. “Jaqueline, you don’t actually suppose such an exhibition will mislead either of my brothers? Ransom is hardly foolish enough to believe that you care so very much for your children when you have ignored them for—”

  “Blythe,” Ransom said sharply.

  Jaqueline glanced up, her violet eyes u
nreadable. She gave Augusta an extra hug before she rose.

  “It is perfectly true,” Blythe went on heedlessly. Her face was pale as she frowned at Ransom. “She comes in here every day pretending it’s the children, when all the time she only wants to flirt with—”

  “Leave her be, Blythe.” Shelby’s soft voice made them all turn. He stood with the secretary, looking as cold as one of the Grecian statues outside. In the ensuing silence, Merlin’s pen scratched and Mr. Peale went on intoning mathematical equations.

  “My lord secretary!” Blythe reddened. “I’m so sorry—I did not know you had come in! How do you do? Where would you like to sit? Oh, dear, I’m afraid there isn’t much place in here just now.”

  “Quite all right, my lady.” The secretary’s voice held only a hint of forced joviality. “I’ll only stay a moment. I wished to see the flying machine with my own eyes.”

  “But do let me ring for tea.”

  “Please don’t trouble yourself—”

  “It will only be a moment. Pull that crate up closer, Shelby.”

  “Really, Lady Blythe,” the secretary protested, “I don’t wish for a thing—”

  “Please sit down there, if you like. Ransom, perhaps you could clear this workbench of that…paraphernalia. How is your dear wife, my lord secretary? Has she recovered from her little bout of congestion?”

  “Yes, she’s quite well.” The secretary sat down and then sprang up again. He turned around and carefully removed a screwdriver and a littering of screws from the crate where he’d begun to sit.

  “I’ll take that,” Ransom said. He laid the handful of metal on the workbench. The twins rushed over and scooted up on the bench, scattering screws.

  “This is the cat’s seat,” Aurelia announced. “You can take us on it, Uncle Demmie. Miss Merlin said.”

  Augusta nodded vigorously. “Yes. Take us!”

  “In a moment.” Ransom kept his attention on Blythe and the secretary, wary of further blunders from his sister. She seemed to have decided that the situation called for a more formal grouping. She snipped at Shelby until he sat down with a sigh on a heap of canvas cloth, and then went after Mr. Peale. The reverend responded instantly to the object of his passion by politely accepting her invitation to join her upon an old carriage seat that appeared to have been exhumed from some stableyard attic.

 

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