The regency romances, p.18
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       The Regency Romances, p.18

           Laura Kinsale
 

  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 small voice, she repeated, “You did?”

  He nodded.

  Merlin 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 ring. 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.”

  “She doesn’t look as well as she did when she came here.”

  “Does she not?” Duchess May glanced around, her nose tilted up to support her spectacles, which gave her the appearance of a Blenheim spaniel testing the breeze. “Oh, she’s gone up to bed already, hasn’t she? Well, I daresay you would be the one to know, my love, if her looks were to go
into a decline.”

  Ransom took a sip of port. “I fear—” He stopped, not quite ready to give his fears so concrete an expression as to say them aloud. He settled for: “It seems she isn’t resting well.”

  His mother gave him a keen look. “And how are you resting, Damerell? You look a bit peaked yourself. I don’t make a secret of it—I’ve always thought you would be more comfortable if you were to move out of those draft-ridden state chambers and into a cozy suite upstairs.”

  “I’m perfectly well, and you know it. It is Miss Lambourne who concerns me.” He frowned into his glass. In a very low voice, he said, “You’ve never asked me why she is here, but you must have guessed that I’m forced to keep her—against her will, more or less. I’m doubly responsible for her. If she were to become ill…”

  Again he left the sentence unfinished. Duchess May closed her book and laid it on the side table. She reached over and touched his hand. “What would you like me to do?”

  Ransom lifted his eyes, grateful that she didn’t question his motive. “Might you look in on her? Tonight.”

  She tilted her head. There was no emotion he could detect in the golden-green eyes that matched his own. On the other side of the room, Shelby made a sarcastic snipe at Jaqueline, and she instantly returned the comment with a well-aimed barb. Blythe increased the volume of her playing in a vain effort to cover their words.

  The duchess glanced in that direction. “We are a civilized family, aren’t we, Damerell?”

  Ransom’s mouth tightened. “Have no fear. I’ll stay and see to it that no blood is spilled on the carpet.”

  “I believe they enjoy it,” she said.

  Ransom lifted his eyebrow, watching his younger brother launch into a tirade on Jaqueline’s old circle of admirers. “…a bigger pack of scoundrels I’ve never seen,” Shelby was exclaiming, his voice quite clear over Blythe’s playing.

  “This is nonsense you speak,” Jaqueline snapped, her lovely face animated with color as she arched her brows and stared up at him. “Not old Coudry and Mr. Kettering?”

  “Hah!” Shelby took a pace away from her and whirled back with a theatrical move that would have done Jaqueline herself justice. “What of that Italian devil, and—whatever was the ruffian’s name—ah, yes…Winterbourne! Those two rascals ran tame in the drawing room, my lady. You won’t deny it.”

  “I will! I do not even remember them, those two.”

  Shelby stopped his melodramatic pacing. “Among so many,” he sneered. “What else could I expect?”

  “Perhaps if you had been there, my lord, you might have seen there were not so many.”

  Blythe came to the end of her piece. Shelby flushed, and his voice carried with utter clarity throughout the room. “And when I was there, what did I hear? Endless questions. Where had I been? What was I doing? Who was I with? It was enough to drive any man out onto the street.”

  “If you had cared, you would not have gone,” Jaqueline cried. “You would not have spent this time in gaming and—”

  Blythe launched into a vigorous country tune. Ransom started to rise. He always intervened at this point, when the skirmish—which always seemed cattily playful when they began it—started to grow serious. Then he stayed near for the rest of the evening and deep into the night, playing referee, keeping them from one another’s throats when they stubbornly showed no sign of a cease-fire. It was some strange phase in their turbulent relationship, he supposed—that since they had actually begun to speak to each other again they seemed compelled to air their soiled laundry in public this way. He would have thought they’d had enough of notoriety.

  His mother caught his arm as he rose. “No,” she said softly. “Do not interfere.”

  Ransom cast her a questioning frown. The Falconer name had already been dragged through the mud in Shelby’s divorce. He could not believe his mother would approve of this renewed bitterness before her guests.

  “And what else was I to do?” Shelby demanded above the bright, brittle sound of Blythe’s rendition of the schottische. “Knowing I had no way to provide for you as I wished to do?”

  “Lies, lies! Lies and excuses. You know you will not stop. You would never stop. Don’t tell me that you gambled for me, for your family! Have you stopped it now? Now that your brother takes in the children that are yours? Now that he pays for your responsibilities?”

  Ransom went still for an instant, not daring to look openly toward his brother. He busied himself with lighting another candle. Blythe gave up trying to cover the combat with music and rose, closing the keyboard and drawing the cloth over the pianoforte.

  “Lady Harding,” she exclaimed, approaching the matron whose ears had been pricked the hardest. “How could I have forgotten that just this morning dear Mr. Winston told me he so wished to have a game of chess with you! And here is the board—” She gestured to a pallid young gentleman, who quickly erased his sly smile. “If you would just move this table a bit closer to the fire, sir. It does grow chilly in the evenings even in the summer, does it not?”

  Ransom glanced toward his brother. Shelby was standing over Jaqueline, talking in rapid, low tones. He had an unpleasant look on his face.

  “Let me get you that volume of Tacitus that you were wishing for, Miss Montagu,” Blythe said. “Mr. Lansdun shall read it to you, won’t you, my dear? You have such a grasp of the classical historians.”

  The argument began to escalate again, and Jaqueline’s voice carried over Blythe’s in notes of vibrant passion. “I don’t believe it! Never a moment’s thought did you give to us!”

  “That’s not true, Jaqueline. Constantly, I swear it—” Shelby made a violent move with his hand. “But you wouldn’t understand. You never try.”

  “Understand? What is there to understand about a man who gambles away his wife’s inheritance—”

  “A game of whist!” Blythe cried, as if the thought had struck her with blinding force. “That would be just the thing.” She bustled about announcing that more card tables were being set up in the library. With her officious hospitality, a trait for which—for once—Ransom blessed her, she herded the rest of the unoccupied guests out of the saloon.

  “You don’t understand,” Shelby said. “I was winning. You might have had half of Sheridan’s Drury Lane!”

  “And instead, he has all of my theater!”

  Ransom nodded to several guests as they passed him, declining to join in a foursome. He kept his smile pleasant, refusing to acknowledge the existence of the quarrel that raged behind them.

  “I’m sorry for that,” Shelby said. His voice went lower, almost lost in the sound of Mr. Lansdun clearing his throat and beginning to read. “Oh, God, you don’t know how sorry—”

  Ransom closed the door to the library. He looked at his mother, a silent question, asking leave to put a stop to it. The duchess only smiled at him.

  Jaqueline cried, “Sorry!” She stood up. Mr. Lansdun read louder. “Sorry,” she hissed, a sound which carried even better than her normal voice. “You ruin my life; you gamble away my fortune, you set me aside for another woman. For this, I will never forgive you. Never.”

  They stood glaring at one another like Apollo and Diana—magnificent even amidst the wreckage. In the sudden silence, Mr. Lansdun’s voice trailed off.

  Shelby never took his eyes from Jaqueline. “I gamble,” he said softly, “and I lost what was yours, and for that I will be ashamed until the day I die. But the rest…as for the rest: that I was false and unfaithful and put another in your place…” His finely shaped lips drew taut in an expression Ransom had only seen on them once, in a courtroom, in the defendant’s chair six years before. “Jaqueline, there is one thing that I, too, can never forgive. You believed it.”

  He turned away, kicking the pianoforte’s bench aside with a scrape of wood that rang in the quiet room. When the echo of the closing door subsided, Ransom turned to the shocked faces of Miss Montagu, Mr. Lansdun, and the chess players. “Pray continue, Mr. L
ansdun,” he said. “I’m afraid it appears that the second act will be postponed.”

  Amidst the others’ uncertain smiles, Jaqueline gave him a look which would have done more credit to Othello than Desdemona in its violence. It lasted only an instant, and it was for Ransom alone. Then she shrugged and widened her lovely eyes at the huddle of guests. “Forgive me,” she said with utter calm. “Have I disturbed your reading?”

  Mr. Lansdun cleared his throat. “Indeed not, I—we were just preparing to begin.”

  Jaqueline gave him a spellbinding smile. “Then I will join you.”

  Ransom placed a chair for her. Just as she settled in with a liquid look toward Mr. Lansdun, the saloon door opened again. Blythe entered with Quin strolling behind her, a glass of port balanced between his first two fingers as he held the door.

  “And where,” he was saying, “would your fine Mr. Peale be languishin’ at present?”

  Blythe looked flustered, but she nodded at Mr. Lansdun, who had interrupted his reading once again. “Pray go on, Mr. Lansdun,” she said. She pulled her hand away from where Quin had caught her fingers to detain her. “Mr. Peale prefers to do his daily meditation and devotions after dinner, I understand.”

  “Most obligin’ of him.” He smiled and touched Blythe’s cheek, a move which turned into a mock-bow when she drew back in affront. “To leave the field clear.”

  “Major O’Shaughnessy,” Blythe said in a tone which Ransom thought ought to be enough to give any man pause.

  The major only slanted a look toward her, his eyes green and mischievous. “Dear lady?”

  “I expect”—her small bosom rose—“to be addressed in a proper manner, Major O’Shaughnessy!”

  “Dear Lady Blythe?” Quin revised.

  Ransom started to look away, and then glanced back at his sister, mildly surprised to note that she was in high looks tonight. Her rage at Quin’s impudence seemed to lend color and an unfamiliar sparkling snap to her pale blue eyes, and the way she was pursing her lips made them look soft and full.

 
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