Midsummer moon, p.14
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       Midsummer Moon, p.14

           Laura Kinsale

  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 nonconfrontation 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 clear 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 lower lip 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 fa
lling 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 unreadable. 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.

  Mr. Peale's desertion left Merlin with a pursed mouth and a frown. She went back to work, and for a few moments continued scratching away with her pen. The writing began to slow. She looked up. Ransom watched. It came as it always did, that reluctant transition, as her eyes left the soft cloudy vistas of thought and focused on the world at hand. For the first time, she noticed him.

  She smiled. And it seemed suddenly to Ransom that the three weeks since he'd kissed her had been three lifetimes.

  He held out his hand and spoke gently, because she seemed fragile: pale and tense and worn thin as an overstrung wire. “Merlin,” he said. “Come here. We're having tea and a bite to eat. I'd like you to meet a good friend of mine."

  "I'm sorry,” she said. “I have to work."

  "You can rest a few moments, don't you think? We'd enjoy your company. The secretary wishes to hear about your flying machine."

  "Oh.” She laid down her pen. “Of course."

  She came out from behind the writing podium, dragging a stray coil of wire that had caught in her skirt. While approaching them, she passed in and out of rope-thin shadows. Sunlight kindled a gleam in her chestnut hair. Blythe leaped up and performed the introduction while Ransom was still frowning at Merlin, disturbed by the new, slender delicacy of her, the impression that she would snap and then crumble under a careless touch.

  Blythe poured tea when it arrived, as indifferent as the well-trained maid to the odd surroundings. Ransom took three extra scones onto his plate, returning a casual smile for his sister's raised brows. He moved next to Merlin, who was already expounding on aviation to the secretary, and offered the scones.

  She glanced at him, shook her head, and went on talking. Ransom continued holding up the plate, and the secretary took one scone, eating it handily between eager questions.

  Ransom waited a few moments. He sipped his tea and watched Merlin. Behind him, Quin had engaged Blythe and Shelby in some sort of Irish blarney—which they seemed to be enjoying, if Shelby's chuckles and Blythe's huffing was any indication. The Reverend Mr. Peale had collared Jaqueline. To Ransom's amazement, the two of them appeared to be content to argue the relative merits of aluminium wire and catgut at length.

  Ransom offered the scones to Merlin again. She paused in her dialogue and shook her head. “No, thank you."

  The secretary took another one. “And the landing,” he said between bites. “How do you propose to accomplish that?"

  "Well, I've heard that Mr. Pemminey is using wheels.” Merlin frowned. “But I do believe that my skis provide more flexibility. There is the matter of wind resistance, though—"

  "I wish you would eat something,” Ransom said evenly.

  Merlin shook her head as he held up the plate again. “I'm not at all hungry. As for the wind resistance, I'm trying to calculate for that by—"

  "You look as if you haven't had a meal for days."

  She waved her hand. “Mr. Pemminey is preparing to test his model next week,” she said, as if that should be explanation enough.

  "Have you thought of a grapple?” the secretary asked. He took the last scone from Ransom's offered plate. “Something like a ship's anchor, if you see what I mean. You could throw it out and release the line as you descended."

  "But there is the weight, you see.” She worried her lower lip. “Mr. Pemminey seems to have mastered that, since he plans to carry a passenger. But I'm afraid my design could not cope. I'm moving up my test to Monday next. I cannot imagine how Mr. Pemminey has managed to advance so far so fast—"

  "Mr. Pemminey be damned,” Ransom said under his breath. He set the empty plate down on a convenient intersection of strung wires. “I have a question, Miss Lambourne,” he announced.

  His determined tone overrode Merlin in the midst of her discussion. Everyone looked toward him.

  "I was just wondering,” he said casually, “exactly how you're planning to get this apparatus out the door."

  Merlin turned toward him. She opened her mouth. She closed it. She twisted to gaze up at the huge sweep of canvas with a look of pure horror transforming her expression.

  "Oooh,” she breathed. “Oh, nooo!"
r />   There was a moment of dead silence.

  "There's a poser,” Shelby said. “Merlin, do you mean to tell you never thought of it?"

  Her throat worked. No sound came out.

  "Really,” Blythe exclaimed. “Then we did all this for nothing?"

  "Exactly what have you done, Blythe?” Shelby demanded. “Nothing Woodrow couldn't have accomplished twice as fast on his own."

  "Woodrow is a child. I was asked to monitor the accuracy of his work,” Blythe said stiffly. “And I certainly wouldn't have wasted my time if I'd known Miss Lambourne hadn't accounted for so simple a thing as transporting her apparatus outside the room!"

  "It is a terrible oversight, my dear,” said Mr. Peale. “I apologize sincerely if I've encouraged you to spend your precious time unwisely."

  "But sure, it's no problem at all.” Quin gestured toward the row of huge windows that overlooked the formal garden. “'Tis only a wee bit o’ wall blockin’ the way."

  Ransom gave the Irishman a sardonic smile. “Don't even think it."

  Merlin covered her face. She sank down onto an overturned whiskey keg. “Oh, no,” she moaned. “Oh no, oh no, oh no."

  The twins rushed to her side. “Don't cry, Miss Merlin! Uncle Demmie will know what to do!” Aurelia patted Merlin's cheek. “Uncle Demmie always knows what to do."

  "Of course.” Merlin's head came up. Her drawn face shone with relief and hope as she looked toward him.

  In the expectant silence, he cleared his throat. “I can't help you this time, I'm afraid."

  The clamor of protest made him scowl. He looked away from Merlin's stricken countenence.

  "Uncle Damerell?” a timid young voice asked. “Excuse ma-ma-ma ... me, ba-ba-ba—I have an idea."

  Ransom turned to Woodrow and struggled to lighten his expression when the boy gripped his hands together and cast down his eyes. “Yes?"

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