Midsummer moon, p.17
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       Midsummer Moon, p.17

           Laura Kinsale
 

  "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 tender, 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."

  But whatever question he meant was lost in the ominous phrases that rang in her mind. Every night. All night. In your spare time.

  "I can't!” She pushed her way out of his arms. “I can't possibly stay with you all night!"

  He let her go. For a moment he stood looking at her. His eyes that had been golden and warm went slowly to arctic indifference. “I see,” he said.

  Merlin sincerely hoped that he did not. She regarded him warily.

  He took a step away from her, grasping the scrolled and gilded cresting-rail that adorned the top of the caned-back chair. “Well. That does not affect my offer, of course. You would naturally have a bedchamber of your own. Although I desire an heir, I assure you I would not wish to impose upon your privacy any longer than necessary."

  She looked up at him. “Necessary for what?"

  His frown deepened into terrifying intensity. “I think if you put your mind to it, Miss Lambourne, you will recall the incident which occurred between us on the night that we met."

  "Oh,” Merlin said.

  "I wish to marry you in any case, of course, since I've placed you in such a—such an untenable position. But I would like children, if you would not consider it too much of an imposition."

  "Oh, no, I—I've quite come to like Woodrow. And the girls.” She paused, and then added generously, “Even if there are two of them."

  He looked down at his hand. His fingers tightened around the rail. “That runs in the family, you know. Twins. My first wife ... there were twins...” He seemed to lose track of his thought and looked up. “But they died, you see,” he said in a brusque tone. “We shall not dwell on that."

  Merlin's mouth fell open. “You mean you've already had a wife?"

  "Yes."

  A little flare of jealousy sprang into her heart. “And why did you marry her? Was she in an untenable position?"

  "Certainly not."

  "Then why—"

  "My grandfather arranged it. She was nothing but a child herself."

  "Whereas you have always been an adult."

  He looked at her sharply. Merlin became aware that she was clenching and unclenching her hands. She clasped them tightly together behind her back.

  "I don't carry the willow for her, Merlin if that is what disturbs you. I hardly had time to know her. She caught a chill which went to rheumatic fever shortly before her lying-in. It was a long time ago, Wiz. A very long time."

  She bent her head and dropped a curtsy. “Please may I be dismissed?"

  "Prettily done,” he said dryly. “You've learned Woodrow's lessons better than he has. For God's sake, Merlin, you don't need my permission to leave the room."

  "I don't?"

  "Of course not. Woodrow is a child. You're a guest here."

  "I thought I was a prisoner."

  He gripped the back of his chair and smiled at her. “Merlin, I warn you. I am on the verge of losing my temper."

  "Well, it doesn't make a bit of sense to me. If I'm not a prisoner, why do I have to eat breakfast with you and take riding lessons with you and do everything you say? Nobody else but Woodrow has to do so!"

  "I told you. I wish you to learn how to go on in the world.” He swept his arm out. “Do you think we go through all these exercises in polite conversation merely so that I can have the opportunity to exercise my tongue?"

  Although that was exactly what Merlin did think, she decided in the face of his glower that it might be better not to say so.

  "It has a purpose, Merlin. Woodrow must be able to talk sensibly to anyone, about anything, and it won't hurt you to learn to do so, either. If I sometimes ask difficult questions and expect a sharp answer, I have my reasons. This family doesn't languish in obscurity, Miss Lambourne, and neither will my nephew. It's not impossible that one day the fate of the Empire may ride on how well Woodrow can marshal his words and use his wits."

  Merlin chewed her lip, dismayed at the idea of poor Woodrow with the fate of the Empire weighing on his slender shoulders. “Oh, dear. I'm afraid he may stammer rather dreadfully in that case."

  "I'm speaking of the future. He will overcome the stammer."

  "Oh, no. I've spoken to him about it. He's certain that it will afflict him always."

  Ransom shrugged. “Nevertheless, I believe that he will conquer it."

  This callousness brought a surge of protective anger to Merlin's breast. “I don't think you will be able to terrify him out of it with these awful lessons in conversation, if that is what you hope!"

  "No, that is not what I hope, Miss Lambourne,” he snapped. “I expect him to surmount the difficulty himself."

  "But perhaps that isn't possible."

  "It is quite possible, I assure you."

  "What if it isn't? How do you know? Perhaps you think you know everything, Mr. Duke, but you can't possibly know how it feels to try to speak and have only a string of nonsense syllables come out of your mouth!"

  "On the contrary,” he said. His expression was impassive. “I know exactly how it feels."

  Merlin blinked.

  He said steadily, “I stammered. Until I was one and twenty years old."

  She stared at him. Ransom—self-possessed, arrogant, autocratic Ransom. She could not conceive ... In a slight voice, she repeated, “You did?"

  He nodded.

  Merl
in sat down, gazing up at him. “I can't imagine that."

  He shrugged. “I don't wish you to do so. I only speak of it so that you won't encourage Woodrow to wallow in self-pity. I wish you will keep the confidence to yourself."

  She stood up. There was a lump forming in the back of her throat which somehow made it imperative that she remove herself from Ransom's company as quickly as possible. “Oh, yes. Of course. But I must go now, Or I—I won't have time to change for riding!” She went as far as the door, and then paused with her hand on the knob. She glanced back at Ransom.

  He stood there, looking just as he always looked: at ease, tall and elegant and impassive, with his hand resting on the rail of the chair. There was a large gold signet on his third finger. She noticed it for the first time because the skin around it was tight and flushed, and his knuckles showed dead-white against the metal and the ebony wood.

  Merlin let go of the doorknob. She ran lightly across the room and slipped her hand over his, sliding her fingers beneath his palm to pull it free. She bent over and brushed a warm kiss above the gold signet. Then, because she didn't have a reason why or an answer to a question if he asked, she turned away without meeting his eyes and hurried out of the room.

  Chapter 12

  Ransom lounged in a wing chair in a secluded corner of the Godolphin Saloon, listening to Blythe playing the pianoforte for a group of houseguests gathered at the far side of the room. He stared at the back of his right hand. Behind him, Shelby and Jaqueline began the after-dinner bickering that seemed to have become a recent habit of theirs. He flexed his fingers, watching the candlelight move across his signet ting. It mellowed and warmed the gold, and made him think of the way the same light had caressed the curve of Merlin's cheek as she'd sat dutifully on the settee opposite him until a few moments earlier.

  "Mamá,” he said quietly, making sure the light, tinkling notes of Blythe's music would obscure his words from the other guests. “Do you think Miss Lambourne is ill?"

  The Duchess May lifted her head from a book of Oriental poetry. “Why, no, dear,” she said comfortably. “I don't believe I think that."

 

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