Midsummer moon, p.18
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       Midsummer Moon, p.18

           Laura Kinsale
 

  "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 p
ianoforte'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. Lansdun,” 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.

  Not that it would do the fellow any good. Quin might be able to take the heat, but he wasn't going to get any nourishment from that particular kitchen.

  Unfortunately, Ransom's candidate didn't seem to be doing much better. Ransom wondered, irritably, why Peale had taken to wandering off after dinner instead of engaging in a little judicious flirting. Ransom hoped the reverend wasn't stupid enough to be put off his stride by Quin's outrageous brand of lovemaking. Anyone could see that the handsome officer was only amusing himself—probably even had some guineas resting on whether he could coax a smile out of Bloodless Blythe.

  Ransom wouldn't put it past Shelby to have taken the major up smartly on odds as long as that. Blood ‘n’ hounds, Ransom thought with an inner grin, he would have laid fifty pounds on that wager himself.

  Duchess May appeared silently at Ransom's side. “I shall go to see to Miss Lambourne now,” she murmured.

  He looked down at her. “Thank you,” he said.

  She squeezed his hand, which touched an absurd soft place inside of him. It was a shame, he thought as he watched her leave, that his sister had not inherited any of that wise, feminine warmth that their mother had in such lively abundance. But Blythe—first-born—lusted after greater things than a daughter's place. If there was not real bitterness in her over the accident of her sex, it was only because she lived the Duke of Damerell's life as nearly as possible through her constant intrusion into Ransom's affairs.

  "I've found a new rose in the garden, dear lady,” Quin said, and then added belatedly, “Blythe!” when she gave him an icy glance. “Come walkin’ with me tomorrow in the morning, and show it to you I will."

  Blythe turned partially away, as if to move around him. “Thank you, but I expect it will rain in the morning, Major O'Shaughnessy."

  "In the afternoon, then."

  She looked impatiently beyond his broad shoulder. “I fear I shall be quite busy tomorrow afternoon."

  He opened his mouth as if to press her again. Before the coaxing words emerged, he caught Ransom's steady observation. The look held between them an instant, and then Quin glanced away with a wry lift of his brow. Message taken. Ransom watched as the other man made a polite expression of his everlasting disappointment and moved back, allowing Blythe free passage past him.

  Quin scanned the room and sauntered over to Ransom. “Good evenin', Your Grace."

  Ransom inclined his head.

  "The room seems thin of company tonight."

  "Miss Lambourne has gone up to bed."

  The officer glanced at Ransom. His green eyes narrowed in acknowledgment. “Yes. I keep good track of her, of that you may be sure."

  "I'm relieved. There are so many ... distractions here about."

  Quin maintained his impudent grin, though there was a dark flush at his collar. He took a gulp of brandy. “I'm after missin’ my Lord Shelby tonight. Has he retired so soon?"

  "A few minutes past."

  Quin sighed. “And so—am I deprived of all recreation this evening?” He looked toward the library door with a disgusted expression. “By the Powers, not even a hand of whist to be had for more than ha'penny a point!"

  Ransom half-smiled, amused in spite of himself at the incorrigible character of Quin O'Shaughnessy. He gave a thought to what the real man might be like, and what combination of temperament and duty would bring him to this work, which most of his fellow officers thought debased beyond comprehension. Ransom held no such prejudices, but neither was he naive. Just as any loyal soldier might prove a coward under fire, so might a man who worked secretly for one side be “persuaded” to work secretly for another. Castlereagh had sent Quin, and Ransom would trust him just that far ... which was considerably farther than he would trust any other untried agent.

  After a final swallow of port, a manufactured yawn, and another rueful lift of his eyebrows, Quin wandered off, flirting with Jaqueline for a few minutes before he let himself out of the room. Ransom frowned a moment later when his brother's former wife rose and made her excuses—and drifted through the door after Quin.

  "It's no use,” Merlin said, tossing the tangle of wires and metal back in the wooden box. “It must be exactly the right dimensions. I'll have to dismantle every clock in the house!"

  She slumped back against the mantelpiece, staring hopelessly at Mr. Peale and Woodrow, who stared back with no solutions. They all turned sharply at the click of a key from the gloom that hid the ballroom doors. The pages of a book lying open on the floor lifted in a draft. A soft, echoing boom followed as the double doors shut again. There was a collective rustle of relaxation as a golden blob that could only be Shelby's bright mane of hair materialized out of the shadows where candlelight did not reach.

  "Dismantling clocks?” he asked, with a brittle-sounding laugh. “Poor Damerell will be fortunate to have a home left by the time you're through, Merlin."

  She lifted a handful of metal and let it dribble from her fingers with a mournful tinkle. “I can't find a three-sixty-fourths-inch Vaucanson helical pinion gear,” she said tragically.

  "No!” Shelby's face lost some of its odd tension as he pressed his forehead in a dramatic gesture. “Are we doomed?"

  "Woodrow thought perhaps a clock, or the wind vane in the Great Hall, might have one."

  Shelby caught Woodrow and held his forearm across the boy's neck in mock-threat. “Hold there, you band of cutthroats! You can't go about murdering innocent clocks in the dead of night. What if the housekeeper reports the dead bodies?"

  Woodrow giggled.

  "I'll put them back together,” Merlin said indignantly.

  "Ah, but will they tell the time?"

  Merlin shrugged. “I'm sure they will,” she said. “One, at least. I'm not very good at clocks. And I don't see why one ho
use needs so many clocks in any—"

  "Sh-sh-shush!” Woodrow whispered.

  They all looked again toward the ballroom door. It swung slowly open. Merlin stood up straight, clutching her hands together as a single candle appeared, outlining the tiny, upright figure of Duchess May.

  "Mamá,” Shelby said in soft rue.

  "Good evening, Woodrow,” the duchess said. “Miss Lambourne. Mr. Peale."

  Mr. Peale cleared his throat. Before he could speak, Duchess May glided forward, avoiding the tools and scattered scraps on the floor without even glancing down at them. “Don't disturb yourself, Mr. Peale,” she said. “I'm merely looking in."

  The four of them just stared at her, caught out in the forbidden ballroom completely red-handed.

  She approached Merlin. “Are you feeling quite well, my dear?"

  "Oh, yes,” Merlin said. “Of course."

  The duchess pressed the back of her palm lightly against Merlin's forehead. “Good. I told Ransom so, but he worries for you, you know."

  "Will you—Oh—” Merlin wrung her hands. “What will you tell him?"

  The older woman smiled. “Why, I shall tell him the truth, dear. You are feeling just the thing. You are, are you not?"

  "Yes, but—"

  "That should be sufficient to ease his mind. Good night, Miss—Or would you give me leave to call you Merlin?"

  Merlin dropped an awkward curtsy. “Yes, Duchess May. Please do."

  "Thank you. Such a pretty name: Merlin. It makes me think of all sorts of nice things. Good night, Merlin. Sleep well."

  She left them and walked silently to the door. Just before she reached it, she stopped and turned. “Is it not past your bedtime, Woodrow?"

  "Yes, Ga-Ga-Ga ... Grandmamá,” Woodrow said in a thin voice.

  She smiled at him and held the candle out.

  He swallowed. With a miserable glance at Merlin, he gathered his nightdress around him and shuffled on slippered feet after the duchess. She stroked his hair briefly, then took his hand and led him through the door.

  Shelby rolled his eyes. “A narrow escape."

  "Will she tell him?” Merlin gasped.

 

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