The regency romances, p.16
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       The Regency Romances, p.16

           Laura Kinsale
 

  She found it locked.

  The footman standing outside the door bowed to her, his wig a light-colored blob in the early morning gloom.

  “His Grace wishes to see you, Miss Lambourne.”

  “It’s locked,” she said.

  He looked at her impassively.

  “Do open it.”

  “Forgive me, Miss Lambourne. I am under a specific injunction from His Grace not to do so.”

  Merlin stared at him while her heart slid slowly to her toes.

  “In his study, Miss Lambourne,” the footman prompted. “Immediately.”

  She had a moment of wild rebellious courage, in which the scientific merits of the various possibilities of storming, burning, blasting, or beating down the door passed through her mind. As she paused, the broad-shouldered footman looked down at her with his eyebrows lifted in a faint but unyielding smile.

  She saw where she stood in the order of things.

  With a deep, shaky breath, she turned away. She went down the corridor a distance, then stopped, turned, and went back. “Excuse me,” she said to the footman in a small voice. “But could you point out the way?”

  He escorted her, walking ahead down the long archways and around the many turns. At Ransom’s study the servant did not pause for permission to enter, but simply opened the door and announced her.

  Ransom stood up from his desk. He glanced at a chair, which was enough to make the footman draw it forward for Merlin. The servant seated her, and then—apparently under the order of another ducal blink—disappeared silently from the room. Ransom rested against the desk, his arms crossed, looking down at her.

  Merlin hunched her shoulders. She felt like one of the twins called down for disorder.

  “Good morning,” he said in a voice that strained a little too hard for pleasantry.

  She looked up at him. He was very tall. She had a sudden urge to press herself against his immaculate shirt-front and cry.

  Instead, she said, “It isn’t a good morning at all.”

  His thick brows lowered slightly. Merlin felt as if she had not seen him for years. He looked different. Not quite so typically self-assured and overbearing, but edgy and somehow more dangerous—like a hawk threatened into challenge. The line of his jaw was taut, his yellow-green eyes dark and dilated.

  “I’m sorry you feel that way,” he said.

  Merlin thrust out her lower lip.

  “I understand you’ve nearly finished with work on the speaking box.”

  “Yes, Mr. Duke,” she said, with what she hoped was killing formality. “I shall be able to go home soon.”

  “How long?”

  “Soon. Another week, perhaps.”

  “You might have been done a week past, if you had concentrated on that alone.”

  She said nothing, surprised and a little hurt by this unfamiliar abruptness.

  Even more harshly, he said, “My mother and her crystal ball claim you’re not increasing.”

  Merlin blinked. “Increasing what?”

  “The number of my offspring.”

  “Offspring!”

  “Yes.” He looked away from her, out the window. His fingers tapped a hard rhythm on the edge of the desk. “Children, you know. I believe we discussed this.”

  “We did?”

  He closed his eyes briefly and opened them again. “Since you’ve been here at Mount Falcon…have you been quite on schedule?”

  “I’ve tried.” She was astonished and pleased at this unexpected show of interest. “But no matter how hard I work, Mr. Pemminey seems to stay ahead.”

  He looked at her dryly. “Will the wonders of nature never cease? I meant, you mooncalf, have you had your monthly cycle?”

  Merlin searched her brain for what he could be talking about. “Oh,” she said at last. “Do you mean my menses?”

  “If you wish to put it in good blunt Latin…yes. Will you answer my question?”

  She nodded. “Just after I arrived.”

  There was a change in his face, far too subtle to be interpreted. He nodded. “That’s some solace, I suppose.”

  Merlin could not imagine why. She started to tell him that the event occurred with monotonous regularity and was really nothing to be especially pleased about, but he had turned away and was rifling among some papers on the desk.

  He held up a sheet. “Here’s another schedule,” he said. “Your new one.”

  Merlin took the offered paper. As she read through the list of lessons in riding, deportment, and conversation, her jaw grew slack and her eyebrows drew down. “I can’t possibly do all this!” she cried. “I don’t have time!”

  “I can’t agree with that objection. As you see, the times have been carefully calculated by Mr. Collett. You should have ample periods of rest and digestion. It’s rather an improvement on your present agenda, I think.”

  “But my flying machine! That isn’t provided for anywhere!”

  He toyed with a pen. “You see how many hours there are in a day when one dispenses with frivolities. There is no need for you to work yourself into a decline, you know.”

  “Ransom!” she wailed.

  He lifted his eyelashes, giving her a look as chilly and green-gold as a hunting falcon’s. “The ballroom is locked.”

  “It’s not fair! It’s not fair! You promised I could work on my flying machine, as long as I built the new speaking box, too.”

  “I never made any such bargain.”

  “You did.”

  “No—”

  “Oh, that is a foul lie, Mr. Duke! You said I could test my wing design here. You said there was no end of open lawn and steady winds.”

  He pursed his lips. “I did not understand all the ramifications at the time.”

  “A promise is a promise.”

  He made a sudden move, catching her arm and pulling her up out of the chair. “And a life is a life. I’m not so jealous of my honor that I’ll jeopardize your silly neck on account of it. I made you a promise, you say? Well, I’m breaking it.”

  She stared up at him. Her arm hurt where his fingers dug into her sleeve. One of the buttons on his coat pressed into her skin. “Just like that? I thought that was all you cared about—your honor.”

  “Think again, my girl. Expedience is my maxim. I’ve spent my life in politics, remember?”

  She tried to wriggle away from him. “And that gives you leave to go back on your word?”

  “A time-honored tradition among politicians.” His mouth angled in a caustic smile. He held her without effort, in spite of her straggle. “The means be damned; it’s the ends I care for. If a lie will save some stupid commander from wasting half his troops in a harebrained tilt at honor, you may be sure I’ll tell it, and tell it well. I need your speaking box because I think it will save British lives, and I want you here so I can protect yours.” His grip on her tightened. “If I made a promise in order to effect those goals, it wouldn’t be very bright of me to stick with the promise and throw away the goals, would it? I want the speaking box, Merlin, and I want you safe.”

  “I’m safe! I’m here, aren’t I?”

  “Yes. And much good you’ll be when you fall off that damned cat’s seat of yours and kill yourself!”

  She glared up into his eyes. “Is that what you’re angry about?”

  His fingers shifted on her arm. “What?”

  She saw the way his look faltered, just for an instant. “The cat’s seat!” She tore herself out of his grasp. “You’re angry because of the cat’s seat! Why? Are you too dignified to have any fun at all?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous.”

  “I only wanted you to have a chance to understand! To see what it’s like.”

  His face grew still and peculiar. The look he gave her was ferociously cold. “Oh,” he said, “I saw what it was like. Never fear.”

  She bit her lip. Merlin was no match for that intensity; she knew she wasn’t. It was one thing to battle an equation on a piece of paper and anothe
r entirely to face down a living, breathing duke who’d been born and bred to command the awe of lesser beings like herself.

  He made no move to catch her back, but her arm still throbbed where his fingers had bruised her. His instant of weakness had vanished; impossible even to imagine now as he regarded her with that golden chilly gaze. Merlin felt her resolve begin to wither under it.

  “It’s not fair,” she mumbled yet again, unable to think of anything more persuasive when he was staring her down like that.

  “The devil take fairness,” he said.

  Merlin plopped down in her chair. She brushed back a strand of hair that had fallen in her eyes. Once again tears threatened. She struggled with them a moment, unwilling to surrender her pride, but then recollected that tears could be quite effective with Theo and Thaddeus when she wished to bend them to her will. She lifted her face, feeling one warm drop slide down her cheek.

  For a moment Ransom’s expression seemed to change, just the faintest relaxing of his mouth, the slightest clouding of his eyes. Merlin added a loud sniff for effect.

  His brows lowered instantly. He straightened up from his position against the desk and produced a handkerchief with a brisk move. “Save yourself the trouble. I can get a much more professional performance from Jaqueline.”

  Merlin slumped back in the chair. She rubbed her eyes with the crisp linen and then balled it in her fist. Clearly, there was no coaxing Ransom out of his sudden decision. None that she could manage, anyway. But the tears had given her another notion. Perhaps she could not fool Ransom in front of his eyes, but he could not be everywhere all the time. This schedule he’d had made up for her—it only included him for a few hours a day. The rest of the time…

  “Well,” she said abruptly. “I suppose I have no choice.”

  “None whatsoever.”

  Merlin stood up. She squared her shoulders and glared up at him. “If I ever get to be a duke, I won’t be as big a bully as you are, I can tell you that!”

  “Since you are exceedingly unlikely ever to get to be a duke, I don’t think we need concern ourselves with the prospect.”

  “One just never knows, does one?” She held out her skirt and turned from him with a flounce. When she reached the door, she stopped and looked over her shoulder. “And if I should, I shall expect you to address me properly. It will be ‘Miss Duke’ to you, you may be sure!”

  A half hour later, in the sharp, slanted light of an early sun through the saloon windows, Merlin faced her troops. They were a sleepy and out-of-sorts collection, but she had no time for patience. At half-past seven, Woodrow and Mr. Peale looked reasonably alert, but if she’d waited until Shelby, Quin, and Jaqueline would normally have arisen, she’d have been halfway through her riding lesson and a day behind, lost to Ransom’s crazy whims.

  “We must take emergency measures,” she announced. “Ransom has locked the ballroom.”

  Shelby yawned, lounging in one of the needlepoint chairs with his leg thrown over the gilded arm. “Well, so he said he would. Can’t you talk him out of it?”

  “I tried. He gave me this.”

  Shelby took the sheet of paper that she waved under his nose. As he scanned it, his fine eyebrows lifted. “He must be serious indeed.” Then he scowled. “I suppose this is some plot to whip you into proper shape to be his duchess.”

  “Duchess!” Merlin echoed. “Is that like being a duke?”

  Quin stretched deeply and lowered himself onto the foot of the chaise where Jaqueline reclined. “Female duke, as it were.”

  “How do I get to be one?”

  “By marrying my brother.” Shelby appeared to be engrossed in some scene outside the saloon windows as he spoke, but his mouth tightened when Quin moved his hand so that it brushed against Jaqueline’s ankle. With a twist of his lips, Shelby added, “Not a state I would recommend entering into with anyone. Least of all a Falconer.”

  “With respect, my lord,” Mr. Peale intoned, “the holy state of matrimony is twice blessed.”

  “Hah,” Shelby said.

  “Twice blessed?” Merlin cocked an interested look at the reverend.

  “Yes, Miss Lambourne. And not to be entered into without the most rigorous thought and prayer concerning the object of one’s hopes. I myself have spent many hours examining the character of my beloved, whose pure spirit and gentle character are not to be improved upon—”

  “Yes, but—could I order everyone about then, like Ransom does?”

  “Everyone except Ransom,” Jaqueline said languidly, “who would then have the legal right to order you about, and do whatever he pleased with all your earthly possessions.”

  Shelby slanted a look toward her, his blue eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.

  “He already orders me about,” Merlin said.

  “Does he now? I’d call in the constable, darlin’,” Quin said.

  “What for?”

  “Why, to have him arrested! There’s men enough in Parliament to see that the rogue went to the scaffold for his crimes, I’ll wager.”

  “Aye,” Shelby said darkly. “I know a few myself.”

  “Arrested for what?” Merlin cried.

  “Ah, you’re too modest, me love. For kidnapping your sweet self, dear. For stealing your flying machine and various other instruments of great scientific value. I don’t doubt all those fellows in Parliament who’d like to see the last of him could come up with a few more hanging offenses.”

  Merlin gasped. “Hanging! Are you saying they would hang him for kidnapping me?”

  “Naturally.” Quin was watching Shelby as he spoke. “They’re not likely to be showing mercy to such a villain as Damerell. All you have to do is call in the law.”

  “Hang him,” she said. “I won’t allow that!”

  Shelby threw back his golden head and laughed. “What a capital farce. The Duke of Damerell, arrested and finally brought to book for running other people’s lives!” He glanced toward Jaqueline, and the laugh distorted into something less pleasant. “Time and past. Hanging’s too good for ’im, I say.”

  Quin stood up. “I’ll ride into the village to send for the authorities right now.”

  “No!” Merlin cried. “You can’t do that! I’ll lie! I’ll never admit Ransom kidnapped me! I’ll say I gave him the flying machine, and everything else!”

  Quin paused. He looked toward Shelby with a questioning lift of his brows.

  Shelby waved his hand. “For God’s sake, you can’t think we’re serious. Do sit down.” His tone was pleasant, but he gave Quin a very queer look, a quick, penetrating glance that reminded Merlin very much of Ransom for a moment.

  “Major O’Shaughnessy,” Mr. Peale said, “may well be too much given to odd fits and starts.”

  “Among other things,” Shelby said sourly. When Quin winked at Merlin and sat down again near Jaqueline, Shelby’s face became a handsome mask. He tapped the chair arm, his fingers picking out a careless, complex rhythm. “Perhaps there’s some less drastic way to allow Merlin access to her flying machine.”

  “Yes,” Merlin said. “That’s why I wanted to talk to everyone.” She whisked Ransom’s schedule off the floor where Shelby had dropped it. “It says here that I’m free between the hours of eleven at night and nine in the morning. If I can find a way into the ballroom, and someone can keep Ransom well occupied for that time, then I can keep working without his ever knowing.”

  “Well occupied between the hours of eleven and nine,” Quin mused. He grinned lazily at Jaqueline. “Now—I wonder who in heaven could manage that?”

  “You Irish bastard!” Shelby came up out of his chair with one swift shove. “Just what do you mean to imply by that comment?”

  Quin looked startled. “Nothing whatsoever, my lord. It was just an idle speculation.”

  “Then I’ll thank you to keep your eyes off my—off of Lady Jaqueline when you’re making insinuations.”

  “Really, Shelby,” Jaqueline said. “You do not have to defend m
y honor, my dear. You never did so when we were married.”

  Shelby turned away sharply, resuming his stare out the window. “Of course,” he snapped. “I forget myself. Do forgive me. Call her a sailors’ doxy if you damn well please, Major. I’m sure it’s no business of mine.”

  Merlin looked from one to another with knitted eyebrows. She blinked at Jaqueline. “Is there really something you could do to engage Ransom all night?”

  Jaqueline laughed softly. She took Merlin’s hand and gave it a motherly pat. “Nothing another woman could not do.”

  “Oh,” Merlin said. “Oh, you mean…that.”

  “Quite.”

  “I don’t think I care for that idea.” She chewed her nail, trying to imagine Ransom lying in bed with someone else, touching some other as he had touched and caressed and loved her. She twisted the schedule in her hand. “I don’t think I care for that idea at all.”

  “Guileless child!” Jaqueline said. “But about me, dearest Merlin, you must not concern yourself. The duke and I are not at all likely to become lovers. He’s far too toplofty and I’m far too spoiled for that.”

  For once, Merlin found herself rather glad of Ransom’s toploftiness. She said diffidently, “Do you have any other ideas, then?”

  Quin stood up and sauntered over to the door. He bent and examined the engraved brass lockbox and shining knob. “As for breakin’ into the ballroom—by my sainted mother’s blood, you may consider that problem as good as solved.”

  “I might have guessed you’d be a lock-pick!” Shelby exclaimed, swinging around to face them. “Why the devil is a rogue like you hanging about the Mount, anyway?”

  “You owe me money, my dear fellow. If you will recall.”

  “Oh, I do, do I?” Shelby retorted sharply. “The world’s full of my duns, but they don’t all haunt my house and call me their dear fellow, by God!”

  Merlin blinked, taken aback by the sudden transformation of Shelby from his usual amicable self into a man who looked rather dangerously aware of the consequence due to him. Quin inclined his head in instant submission.

  “Allow me to apologize if I’ve been overly familiar, my lord.”

 
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