The regency romances, p.17
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       The Regency Romances, p.17

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “Too damned familiar by half. I suggest you take your insolence elsewhere!”

  Quin kept his eyes focused on the floor near Shelby’s boots. “Forgive me, my lord, but I’m not here at your invitation.”

  Shelby snorted. “What, am I supposed to swallow the notion that my brother wants you here? I find that unlikely in the extreme, but if he should do, I’m quite willing to convince him otherwise.”

  “My lord.” Quin lifted his eyes. His usual cocky grin had vanished, and he looked more serious than Merlin had ever seen him. “Accept my humblest apology. I’ve overstepped my place.”

  Shelby grimaced and swung his arm in an impatient gesture: “Oh, for the love of God, you’ll gag us all on this sudden syrup. You won’t do yourself any good hanging about here, for I haven’t a feather to fly with now and well you know it. Just take yourself off.”

  “My lord—” Quin took an unsteady breath. He pressed his lips together. His green eyes left Shelby and rested an instant on Jaqueline.

  Shelby stiffened visibly. He looked at Jaqueline. She was stroking one slim finger across the back of another with every evidence of intense interest in the operation.

  “Oh, of course!” Shelby threw his hands wide in a mock bow. “Why ever didn’t I guess? He’s here at your invitation, is he, my lady Jaqueline? My apologies again. My profound regrets for thinking to spoil your affaire—”

  “Shelby,” Jaqueline said. She made the barest sketch of a warning movement with her hand in the direction where Woodrow stood silently near Merlin, drinking in every word with his grave and wide-eyed attention.

  Shelby drew in a savage breath. He shut his mouth.

  “Miss Merlin,” Woodrow said after a moment. “It will have to be me who helps you. All they are going to do is argue, I think.”

  Merlin nodded. “Yes. I can see that!”

  Shelby, Jaqueline, and Quin all began to find something singularly interesting about the walls, the ceiling, and the floor. “Now, darling,” Jaqueline said at last, “you know we only nip—”

  A gasp from Mr. Peale interrupted her. “He didn’t stutter!” the reverend exclaimed. “The boy didn’t stutter!”

  Woodrow turned scarlet. “I da-da-da…I…yes, I’m sa-sa…sure I da-da-did, sir.”

  “You blockhead,” Shelby said to Mr. Peale.

  The reverend’s mouth fell open. “I beg your pardon, my lord, but I’m certain—”

  “No one gives a fig for what you’re certain of,” Shelby snapped. “I can’t fathom what my brother is thinking, to have the bunch of you in residence! A bigger collection of gudgeons and loose screws I’ve never seen.”

  “But that is the answer, of course!” Jaqueline sat up, smoothing her skirt. “If we wish to distract the duke, we have nothing to do but convene without dear Merlin’s flying machine to occupy us. The shouting alone must be enough to drown out her construction noise.”

  Chapter 11

  “Have another blueberry muffin, Miss Lambourne?”

  Merlin started awake, to find the muffin already on her breakfast plate. Ransom offered the butter dish, watching her from beneath lazy eyelids.

  Merlin cleared her throat, blinking rapidly. “Yes, please,” she said, unable to muster a refusal on short notice.

  “Did you have a restless night?” he asked mildly.

  It was not one sleepless night, but weeks of them that made her eyelids so impossibly heavy. She broke the muffin and buttered a bite of the steaming bread without answering.

  “Excuse me, Miss Lambourne,” the duke said. “Perhaps you didn’t hear my question? I asked if you had not slept well.”

  Merlin and Woodrow exchanged looks over the delicate green and yellow porcelain flowers that adorned the lid of the Meissen chocolate pot. She should have known Ransom would not allow it to pass. A “social solecism,” he would call it, taking her to task in that abominably pleasant way of his for not responding to a civil inquiry. After ten days of her new regime, she recognized the signs.

  “Forgive me,” she said with a trace of belligerence. “It must have been that the full moon kept me awake.”

  “Ah. You didn’t think to draw the bedcurtains?”

  She shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “No. I didn’t.” She set her lower lip, staring mulishly at the crystal that sparkled in the morning sun. She might have liked these leisurely breakfasts, sitting at a small table in the pretty cornflower-blue room and listening to the pleasant, unruffled tones of Ransom’s conversation about everything from the weather to Bonaparte’s military strategies to the duke’s plans for refurbishing some abandoned lodge on the far edge of the estate. Instead, working on three hours’ sleep, stuffed with His Grace’s idea of a proper breakfast and feeling the cool morning breeze drifting through the open windows, she always found herself unbearably drowsy in the long minutes while awaiting dismissal.

  He did it on purpose, she was sure, pouring himself more coffee and sipping it with maddening slowness. He asked Woodrow about his lessons in that agreeable, interested way—as if it were only idle chatter, when both she and Woodrow knew that the boy was being grilled and his progress measured with merciless accuracy. It always made poor Woodrow stutter so that he could hardly finish a phrase, but Ransom seemed to have infinite patience to wait while his nephew stammered out an answer in complete and coherent sentences.

  Merlin thought she would have found some way to escape this torture, except that Woodrow was so pathetically glad to have her there. Not that she ever protected him—not that Ransom ever scolded the boy or even said a cross word—but she well knew that a third person was a welcome buffer to the potent focus of Ransom’s interest.

  “Yes,” the duke was saying in response to some description of Woodrow’s Latin lesson. “And that is the root of the word astral, of course.”

  “And as-tronomy,” Woodrow said, wrapping his tongue around the word with painful effort.

  Ransom nodded. “A subject Miss Lambourne undoubtedly finds fascinating.”

  Merlin sat up straighter, catching this signal that she was expected to participate. Woodrow, well-drilled in his lessons on polite conversation, addressed his next comment to her. “Do you know our family’s ma-ma-ma-motto, Ma-Ma-Ma…Miss Lambourne?”

  “No,” Merlin said, obediently taking her turn. “I don’t believe that I do.”

  “Ad as-ta-ta-ta…as-tra pa-pa-per aspera,” Woodrow said.

  Merlin hesitated a moment, searching out the words from the stammer. Then she broke into a surprised smile. “Ad astra per aspera. ‘To the stars by hard ways’! Oh, I like that. I like that very much. Perhaps I’ll make that my motto, too.”

  “No, you ca-ca-ca-can’t, I don’t think. It ba-ba…belongs to us, don’t it, Uncle?”

  “‘Does it not,’” Ransom corrected.

  “Does it not,” Woodrow repeated. “I’m sa-sa-sa…sorry.”

  “I think I should be able to adopt it as a motto if I like,” Merlin challenged before Ransom could have a chance to get back to the subject.

  He slanted a look toward her. “As you please.”

  “No,” Woodrow protested. “It’s on our ca-ca-coat of arms and everything. How ca-ca-can it be our ma-ma-ma-motto, then, if sa-sa…someone from another family ca-ca-can have it?”

  “I see your point.” Ransom took a sip of coffee, using both hands to lift the old-fashioned doubled-handled cup. “I’m sorry, Miss Lambourne. It seems you’ll have to be content with the Lambourne motto.”

  “I don’t even know the Lambourne motto!”

  “I don’t believe I recall it, either. But I saw a coat of arms above your front door, did I not?”

  “I don’t know. I never looked.”

  His mouth curled a little. “I suppose if you don’t remember it is there, we can’t expect you to remember what is on it, can we?”

  “No,” she said, with equal dignity. “I don’t suppose you can. I think it’s something silly, though. Like Semper fidelis.”

 
“A proud motto. What could be wrong with that?”

  “It doesn’t mean anything. ‘Always faithful’ to what?”

  “The country, the crown…your family. Any number of worthy causes.”

  “Hmmpf,” Merlin said. “Your motto, now—that is quite inspiring. One wishes to fly to the stars, of course, and one knows it won’t be easy.”

  “Say instead—impossible.”

  “Hmmpf,” Merlin said again.

  “You are in a pugnacious mood this morning, Miss Lambourne.” The little curl at the corner of Ransom’s mouth grew more pronounced. “Are you certain you’re sleeping well? Everything in your bedchamber is quite satisfactory?”

  The only thing wrong with Merlin’s bedchamber was that she hadn’t been in it enough. But much progress had been made in her secret nocturnal employments: the new joints had been set in the flying machine and the frame restrung with aluminium wire. The wings folded down now and tucked in just like a sleeping bird’s. She was almost ready for a test, if she could contrive to have a window removed from the ballroom front—not exactly something she could hope Ransom would fail to notice.

  Woodrow, seeing that the conversation was taking a dangerous turn toward Merlin’s nighttime activities, waited just long enough for her to answer with a flustered, “Oh, yes! Quite satisfactory!” before he sought to distract Ransom from further questions on that subject.

  “Uncle Damerell,” he said. “Ca-ca-ca…could Ma-Ma-Miss Lambourne ma-ma-make up a change to her own ma-ma-ma-motto? Then pa-pa…perhaps she would like it ba-ba-ba…more.”

  “I have another proposal.” Over his double-handled cup, Ransom lifted one eyebrow in Merlin’s direction. “Marry me, Miss Lambourne, and my home, my title, and even my family motto are all yours.”

  Woodrow’s eyes grew round. “Oh, yes!” he exclaimed. “Oh, yes, Uncle. What a ca-ca-capital notion! Then she ca-ca-ca…could live here all the—” He caught Merlin’s appalled look and stammered, “Oh! Um—I meant…that is…I sup-pa-pose it isn’t such a ga-ga-ga-good idea.”

  Merlin glanced apprehensively at Ransom, afraid he would see something suspicious in the boy’s sudden reversal of opinion. Instead, Ransom’s swift look toward Woodrow held another emotion entirely. “Woodrow—” His voice was sharp with emphatic concern. He set down his cup and reached over to grip the boy’s hand. “You musn’t think, because your parents have had such difficulties, that every marriage must necessarily be so.”

  Blood rushed to Woodrow’s face under his uncle’s penetrating frown. He opened his mouth, but all that came out was a collection of meaningless syllables. Before either Merlin or Ransom could say anything, the boy tore his hand away and pushed his chair back. It fell over with a wooden thump. Scrambling up from the floor with a new rush of “Ohs!” and “I-I-I-” and a sadly tattered “Sa-sa-sa-so sa-sa-sa-sorry!”, Woodrow clutched his hands together and pulled them apart and fled the room.

  The door slammed shut behind him, leaving Ransom and Merlin in silence.

  Softly, Ransom said, “Damn.”

  Merlin had no answer for that. She blinked at the door, and then looked at the man next to her.

  He put his hand over his eyes, massaging the bridge of his nose. His broad shoulders sank a little. “What did I do?” he asked.

  Merlin had an idea, but it did not seem possible to tell him that the full intensity of his undivided attention, focused on such a tender subject as Woodrow’s parents, was enough to send the timid boy into rout. She just shook her head.

  Ransom tapped slowly at the handle of his cup, his long, steady fingers a contrast to the delicate porcelain. “I am doing my best, you know.” He stared at his hand. “I’m doing my damnedest to bring him up.”

  Merlin kept her gaze on an innocuous bowl full of vivid pink and purple sweetpea blossoms. A wisp of breeze played with the petals.

  “Why, for instance,” be asked pensively, “isn’t he afraid of you?”

  She shrugged self-consciously. “I’m no one to be afraid of.”

  He frowned, his hard features growing even more intimidating. Merlin tucked in her chin. She fiddled with the corner of her napkin, watching a dull-coated little songbird that hopped along the windowsill.

  “Then why the devil am I?”

  His demand burst in the quiet room. Merlin started. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Because,” she said logically, “you’re scary!”

  A look of affronted disbelief came over his face. “I am not!”

  “Oh, yes, you are.”

  He tossed his napkin on the table. “Nonsense. Do I eat children? Do I have horns and a tail?”

  She met the ruthless golden-green eyes glowering at her from beneath a frowning slash of brows. “Well,” she said, “you certainly have an alarming way of looking at a person!”

  “That is the purest piece of rubbish—” he began. Then his scowl dissolved into an arrested expression. Merlin watched in fascination as his face transformed from its habitual cool intensity to a sudden grin. “Ah, yes,” he said. “The Doomsday Look. A Falconer tradition.”

  She made a face. “Every day must be Doomsday in the Falconer family, then.”

  “Of course not. I only—” He looked at her. “Am I really so daunting?”

  She nodded.

  He worried his lower lip between his fingers. The brief moment of lightness faded into his usual cool intensity as he sat lost in thought and staring at her as if she were something midway between a particularly vexing conundrum and a bedbug.

  “See?” she said.

  “See what?”

  “You’re doing it now.”

  “‘It’?”

  She picked up a silver platter, dumped the last crumbs of muffin onto her plate, and held it up before his nose. “There. Now do you see how you look? Hatchet-faced!”

  For a long moment he was silent. At last from behind the platter he said in a strangely uneven voice, “Wiz?”

  She peeked around it. “Yes?”

  “Please marry me.” He caught her wrist and drew the platter aside. “I need a dose of absurdity every morning at breakfast for the rest of my life.”

  His Doomsday frown had vanished. He was smiling at her in a way that made her throat feel squishy and peculiar. “Well,” she said, and then couldn’t think of anything else.

  “I’ve never asked you properly, have I?” He kept hold of her wrist, and to her horror drew very close as he rose from his chair and set the platter aside. He went down on one knee at her feet. He bent over her hand so that all she could see of him was the powerful, elegant breadth of his shoulders and the thick brown hair brushed into merciless neatness. “Miss Lambourne—” She could feel his breath, warm on her fingers. “Pray do me the honor of becoming my wife.”

  “Oh,” she squeaked. “Please get up!”

  He let go of her hand and straightened, still bracing one knee on the floor. “Why, that was a most proper thing to say! I do believe you’ve read this book.”

  “No, I haven’t. What book? Don’t look at me like that!”

  “What, am I being hatchet-faced?” He was still smiling up at her with a warmth that made her breathe too fast to think. “Save me, Wiz. I don’t want to become a stiff-rumped old man.”

  Merlin’s eyes widened, and she was tilting her head to survey the threatened part when he rose and pulled her up with him, backing away with a dancer’s move and holding her so that she could only see the front of him. “Oh, no—none of your verbatim interpretations. I was speaking metaphorically, my dear.”

  Merlin touched her upper lip with her tongue. Ransom drew her closer, clasping her hands against his chest. She could feel the spark flare between them, see the quick blaze of passion in those eyes which had regarded her so coolly. He did not look cold now, but alive with feeling. His lips were full and curving in warm promise, his lashes half-closed in anticipation.

  Very slowly, he lowered his head and skimmed her cheek, his skin smooth against hers: a tende
r, hot searching until he found her lips.

  Deep in her throat, Merlin made a small humming note of accord. She opened her lips to his, her hands tightening over his clasped fingers. The morning breeze skipped and played around her skirts, blowing a stray wisp of her hair across their cheeks.

  Ransom drew away and brushed it back, tucking it behind her ear. “Merlin,” he whispered. “Marry me…marry me. I want you. It’s been forever. I’m tired of stolen kisses in the breakfast room.”

  She looked up at him hazily. Always, this was tugging at the back of her mind, overwhelming her concentration, drawing her toward him on a relentless string. “I don’t know,” she mumbled. “Perhaps I—”

  He waited. She traced the firm lines of his face with a dazzled gaze: the shape of his jaw and the decisive planes of his forehead and cheeks. There was nothing indefinite about him. Nothing soft or forgiving, but only this compelling power entwined and leashed in her hands.

  “Merlin,” he said, with laughing frustration in his voice. He twisted his hand free and caught her chin. “Finish your sentence, love. Like this. Yes”—he moved her pliant jaw up and down—“yes, yes, yes!” He kissed her nose. “Yes, I will marry you, Mr. Duke.”

  “But I—” She closed her eyes as he slid his palm behind her neck and bent to kiss her ear. “Oh, I…What were you…saying?”

  “Wiz,” he murmured in her ear as he rocked her. “Just one little word. One little yes, and I won’t have to spend every blessed night staring at the damned canopy, going mad thinking about how you’d feel in my arms.”

  He chuckled, his breath a hot tickle in her ear. “Do you know what’s embroidered on the underside of my canopy? The Falconer coat of arms. Ad astra per aspera, Merlin. Say yes. Marry me, and not only will it be yours, but you can read it every night of your life.”

  She drew back a little. A thought tugged at the back of her sluggish mind. “Every night?”

  “Every night. All night.” He nibbled her earlobe. “In your spare time.”

  Merlin stiffened. Her eyes flew open. “What?”

  He smiled down at her lazily. “Never mind, Wiz. Concentrate on the question.”

 
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