The regency romances, p.19
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       The Regency Romances, p.19

           Laura Kinsale
 
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 house 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.

  “No, of course not,” Shelby said. “She so much as said so.”

  “Poor Woodrow,” she moaned. “He said they would confine him to his room if anyone found out.”

  “Well, not Mamá, you may be sure. She don’t hold with that sort of thing. She just looks at you”—Shelby made a face—“and you suddenly feel like the scurviest wretch alive.”

  “I agree that our secret appears to be safe with the duchess,” Mr. Peale intoned. “But what of the necessary gear? Let us—”

  “An’ what gear would that be, me gentle friends?”

  Merlin didn’t even jump. She was becoming used to Quin’s ability to appear silently out of the dark. She brightened hopefully at the resourceful Irishman’s entry. “A three-sixty-fourths-inch Vaucanson helical pinion gear.”

  “Ah,” Quin said.

  Shelby leaned against the mantel, arms crossed. “Don’t happen to have one on you, do you, old man?”

  Quin’s green eyes went wide. “I, my lord? I’m just a poor peasant, I am.”

  “Oh, but you can find things so well,” Merlin exclaimed. “There was the bottle-jack you located for me, and that cleverly shaped piece of metal from the fireplace tongs in Lady Blythe’s bedroom—”

  “Lady Blythe’s bedroom!” Mr. Peale stiffened. “Now see here, Major!”

  “She weren’t in it at the time, my jewel,” Quin said. “’Twas a scoutin’ mission, merely. On Miss Merlin’s account.”

  Shelby snorted in disgust. “Good God. That my brother allows you to slink about the house in such a way absolutely defies comprehension!”

  Quin shrugged and smiled sweetly. “Will you be after askin’ him to toss me on me ear, my lord?”

  “I did.” Even in the candlelight, Shelby’s reddening was visible. “And he wouldn’t, as you well know.”

  “I believe His Grace was quite proper in what he told you, Lord Shelby,” Mr. Peale admonished. “You owe Major O’Shaughnessy a gambling debt. For myself, as a student of both the classics and Christian theology, I found the duke’s description of Major O’Shaughnessy as your ‘nemesis’ most intriguing. As His Grace pointed out, retribution for one’s sins can sometimes be visited in strange forms.”

  “Oh, yes, my brother’s a knowing one, ain’t he?” Shelby rolled his eyes. “I only hope his ingenious sense of humor holds so well when he finds the family jewels gone missing!”

  The dull sound of the ballroom door caught their attention again. Jaqueline came to stand by Quin, taking his arm.

  “Do you have a three-sixty-fourths-inch Vaucanson helical pinion gear, me dearest?” he asked, patting her hand and lifting it to his lips.

  Jaqueline raised her fine eyebrows. “A moment. I must have a moment to think.”

  “Think an hour, Jaqueline me love.” He slipped his arm around her waist and pressed her against him while Shelby turned from red to white. “I’ll stay right here to help.”

  “Never mind,” Merlin said glumly. “I know she won’t have one. Nobody has one. I might as well give up on beating Mr. Pemminey right now.”

  The Duchess May returned to the saloon after all the other guests had retired. Ransom stood gazing down into the coals of the fire, waiting for her. He looked up at her entry.

  “Miss Lambourne is quite in good health,” his mother said, seating herself near him.

  He stirred at the coals. Long shadows danced across the portraits and heavy draperies. “Is she? You’re certain of that?”

  “Very certain, my dear.”

  “Then why—” Ransom began, and left off, staring moodily into the red glow.

  “I agree that she seems overly tired. Perhaps she’s pining for her home.”

  He slanted a sharp look toward her. “Did she say so?”

  “No. Not to me.”

  “I suppose you think it is because I’ve forbidden her that damn—excuse me—that cursed flying machine.”

  “Yes.” She tilted her head. “I believe that might have something to do with her distress.”

  He stabbed at the charred end of a log, and then thrust the tongs aside with a clatter.

  In a quiet voice the duchess added, “It was not the most diplomatic thing you’ve ever done, Damerell.”

  “She’ll kill herself,” he said savagely.

  His mother folded her hands and watched him.

  “What else should I have done?” he demanded. “I can’t send her home—her life would almost certainly be forfeit. I don’t need to explain the details for you to believe me when I say so! And this flying machine…for God’s sake, I’ve not brought her here for her protection, only to have her break her head with that lunacy.”

  “I can’t really see the difficulty. Why haven’t you let her continue her work? Simply forbid her to try to actually fly the thing while she’s here.”

  Ransom thought of the cat’s seat, thirty feet above the floor. He repressed a shudder. “It is out of the question: She cannot work on it.”

  “But eventually she will go home, will she not? You cannot stop her then.”

  He made a sound of denial deep in his throat.

  “You still wish to marry her?”

  He looked at her with narrowed eyes. “You know very well that I must.”

  She lifted her shoulders. “But surely anyone must feel you have done all that is humanly possible to rectify your…lapse of honor. You have attempted to fulfill the obligation you incurred as best you can. She has turned you down—more than once, has she not?”

  “She is a child. She does not understand.”

  “Understand what?”

  He whirled on her. “How can you ask? She doesn’t understand that I’ve ruined her. That she cannot hope to marry as her station should deserve. That she’ll spend her life locked away from good society. In seclusion. As if she were a nun in a damned nunnery, with no prospects of a husband and a family and a future of her own!”

  The fire popped softly in the silence.

  “Ransom.” His mother sighed. “Can you honestly believe it was ever different for her?”

  He turned away. “That doesn’t matter.”

  “Ah.” Her skirt rustled as she smoothed it in her lap. “You are not often so inexpedient.”

  “I don’t often have a well-bred female’s innocence on my conscience.”

  “No?” she asked with a soft chuckle. “What of the ill-bred ones?”

  His lip curled. “Don’t mock me. Not over this.”

  “Dedeo!” she murmured.

  Ransom realized his fists were clenched. He relaxed them with an effort. “Oh—you yield, do you? Long-suffering duchess. Forgive me,” he said. “I don’t wish to pull your hair.”

  “And I should not tease you. You are such an admirable son. I sometimes forget that the offspring of a lion must have claws.”

  He gave her a rueful, sideways grin. “Do you think I am admirable, Mamá? While I pride myself on my infamy!”

  She nodded judiciously. “That would be your grandfather in you. But tell me, Ransom. Are you in love with Miss Lambourne?”

  “Am I—” He thrust his hands in his pockets and lifted his eyes to the ceiling. “Oh, it’s to be a romance now, is it? Don’t be a mooncalf. How could I conceivably be in love with someone like Miss Lambourne?”

  “It does seem out of character.”

  “Extremely so. I haven’t been ‘in love’ with a woman since—”

  His mother raised her eyebrows expectantly when he broke off. Ransom cleared his throat and turned back to the fire.

  “I know!” the duchess exclaimed when he did not go on. “It was that summer you turned fourteen, was it not? I remember it well. That lovely woman…what was her name?”

  “Leave off, Mamá. This discussion is nonsense.”

  “But what was her name? I can’t recall…”

  Ransom scowled down into the fire.

  “Oh, this will
plague me now all night! I can see her face as if she stood in front of me—so beautiful and calm—”

  “Lady Claresta,” he snapped. “As if you didn’t know full well! It was a schoolboy infatuation, and a monumental coincidence that her daughter is Miss Lambourne, I assure you.”

  “I’m only trying to understand why you are so determined to marry the poor child,” the duchess said reproachfully. “I can’t think of a more mismatched couple.”

  “Certainly it’s not because I’m ‘in love’ with her.”

  “Then I cannot understand why you are being so stubborn about it.”

  Ransom drew in a sharp breath and faced his mother. “You want to know why? You truly wish to know?” He threw out his hands in a violent move. “Because your oh-so-admirable son lusts after her, that’s why. Because I’m going crazy with it. Because I can’t work and I can’t eat and I can’t sleep, and I’m bloody well pushing the end of my endurance! Is that a satisfactory explanation for you?”

  But he did not wait for an answer. With his face flaming, he shoved himself away from the fireplace and strode to the door.

  A moment before it closed behind him, he heard the duchess murmur in her imperturbable voice, “Really, Ransom. What a topic to bring up with your mother!”

  Chapter 13

  Merlin was nervous.

  She became very foolish when she was nervous. She knew it. She’d tried to tell Shelby that, but he’d just waved his hand and said “Poo!”, which was kind but not very reassuring. When she was nervous, her heart did funny things, and it seemed to interfere with the normal processes of her brain.

  She and Shelby had agreed to act out their scene in the Great Hall, where Ransom always passed on his return from his morning ride. Merlin had to calculate the time of her morning trek to the Blue Room for breakfast just at nine o’clock, so that she and Shelby and Ransom would all meet in the Great Hall as if by accident.

  She was early. She squinted up at the huge clock face imbedded in the stone wall, and hastened back into the side corridor when she heard Ransom’s voice, carried from outside on the clear summer air through the open windows. Fortunately, he seemed to be lingering out there, engaged in some conversation with the groom over the shoeing of a favorite hunter.

 

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