Midsummer moon, p.19
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       Midsummer Moon, p.19

           Laura Kinsale
 

  "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.

  She chewed on her finger, straining to hear the sound of his footsteps on the stairs. Inside her apron pocket, the hedgehog squirmed. She absently patted the outer fabric, wincing and then sucking her finger when a stray spine pricked through the rough cotton.

  To her relief, she heard a ring of hooves in the courtyard, and then Shelby's own voice, raised in morning greeting.

  The monumental doors swung open on their silent brass wheels and tracks. Hanging back in the alcove, Merlin peered around the corner. Through the tall window, she could see Shelby vault easily from his bay stallion. He tossed the reins to the groom, who led the animals off.

  The brothers mounted the steps and came through the door together, talking horses. Shelby was spinning his top hat on the end of his riding crop. Merlin hesitated with a mental moan of trepidation, and then flung herself forward.

  "Ho, there!” Shelby's laughing exclamation echoed in the domed hall as he caught her arm. “Where are you off to in such a hurry, miss?"

  Merlin looked up into his blue eyes, and took a deep breath. “Good morning!” she said—the only line she could remember out of all she had rehearsed.

  "Good morning,” the duke said, removing his hat.

  Still caught in Shelby's hold, Merlin met Ransom's faint smile. His deep brown hair was tousled, his golden-green eyes. keen beneath the faintly inquiring lift of strong brows. They were brothers, but where Shelby's face was laughing and beautiful, Ransom's face was always a little fierce—handsome and inflexible even in a moment of relaxation.

  She managed a nod.

  "Ask me where I've been this morning,” Shelby suggested gaily—which was what she was supposed to have asked without prompting.

  "Oh!” Merlin said. “Oh, yes. Where have you been?"

  He reached beneath his coat and drew out a tumbling cascade of colored ribbons. “Buying pretties for the ladies."

  Ransom eyed the satin tangle. He tucked his top hat under his arm. “I wondered what could force you out and about so unfashionably early. A new inamorata?"

  "Two of ’em!” Shelby rolled his eyes comically. “They're both a bit short for my taste, but a man must keep an eye to the future, y'see."

  Ransom grinned. “Aye. Best to bribe that pair into compliance early. You'll have a matching set of diamonds on your hands in a few years.” He seemed to be in unusual charity with Shelby this morning, and Merlin took heart a little.

  "How beautiful,” she said, poking at the ribbons in Shelby's hand.

  His fingers closed over them. He held them away. “Oh, no! I know you females and your love of fripperies. These are already spoken for."

  "Um—” Merlin twisted her hands together, trying to ignore Ransom's interested gaze. “Are they?"

  "Yes, they are. And you needn't look so innocent—I see the covetous light of greed in your eyes, Miss Lambourne!"

  "I—uh—I only thought ... they're very pretty, you see ... and—well ... and I thought I might have some for—” She stumbled to a halt. Oh, what was it she was supposed to want the stupid ribbons for? What would one want them for? She stared at them, frowning—but all she could think of was that if she didn't remember, she would lose her chance to escape Mount Falcon with Shelby and purchase a Vaucanson pinion gear. And she'd already fallen another week behind, because Mr. Pemminey's aluminium wire had not been satisfactory at all, and she'd had to take it all down and string catgut again.

  "Developing a taste for fashion, Miss Lambourne?” Ransom gave her an approving smile that made all thoughts of ribbons and gears vanish. “You needn't worry. You shall have as many trimmings as you could wish. I'll have Duchess May's couturiere attend you and the other ladies at tea.” His keen glance traveled over her, taking in the well-worn skirt and bulging pocket of her apron. “Perhaps she could begin on an entirely new wardrobe for you."

  Merlin opened her mouth and shut it again. That was not at all what he was supposed to say! She looked at Shelby, who—with his face turned away from his brother's—was silently mouthing some instruction. He lifted his hand, moving his eyes rapidly back and forth between Merlin's face and the ribbons.

  "Oh! Oh—uh—but these...” she exclaimed. “I like these."

  Ransom waved a dismissive hand. “They're only tinker's goods,” he said, and began to walk toward the corridor that led off to the breakfast room. Merlin and Shelby trailed along. “The twins will be delighted with them, but you must have something finer."

  Merlin frowned. “I don't want something finer."

  "Wait until you've had a chance to compare,” he said with an easy confidence that made Merlin want to stamp her foot. “If you order new dresses, you'll want trimmings to match."

  "I'd rather have some of these."

  "And you shall have them!” Shelby patted her arm. “I'll take you as soon as you've finished breakfast."

  "Take her where?” Ransom asked instantly.

  "To the tinker."

  "There's no need for that.” He threw his gloves into his hat and handed it to a footman as they passed. “Besides, I don't wish Merlin to leave the estate."

  "For God's sake, the fellow's camped just outside the Sunderland Gate. Ease up a bit, brother."

  Ransom stopped. “I don't need your advice."

  Merlin saw something flicker in Shelby's face, an instant of darkness that disappeared into a rueful smile. He tucked the handful of ribbons beneath his coat. “Whatever made me think so?"

  "And I don't need yours,” Merlin said, turning on Ransom. “Why do you always have to bully everyone?"

  "I don't bully everyone,” he said in exasperation.

  "Then let me pick my own ribbons."

  "Of course you can pick your own. I only meant for you to choose from among the pretty ones."

  "I think these are pretty ones."

  He waved his hand. “Merlin, these are just cheap pedlar's trinkets."

  "I like them."

  "Only because you've never even seen any of quality, I'll wager."

  "I don't need to see any of quality. I know what I like."

  He sighed and walked on. “I can't see why—
"

  "Of course you can't see why!” She planted herself in front of him. “You can't see anything. Supposing I like cheap pedlar's trinkets. Supposing I think they're pretty. Why should you say they aren't?"

  "I didn't say—"

  She reached out and flattened her hand against his chest, shoving at him. “Don't try to mix me up with what you didn't say!” she cried as he took a step backward under the unexpected push. “I know what you said. I want ribbons like Shelby's. I don't need you to tell me which ones are pretty."

  He looked down at her as if he hadn't even seen her standing there until just then. “Merlin—there's no need to upset yourself."

  "I shall if I please!” She was nearly shouting by now, her voice echoing off the stone walls. “Why should you stop me? I'm tired of it, do you hear—"

  "Go get the ribbons, then."

  "No! I won't take any more orders from you. First you drag me here, then you steal my flying machine, then you have to tell me what to do with every instant of my—"

  "Merlin,” Shelby said.

  "—of my life! I want those ribbons. I don't want any silly, stupid, horrid quality ribbons. I suppose Lady Blythe wears quality ribbons, but I don't! I wear just—"

  "Oh Mer-lin."

  "—what I please, and no one, least of all you, Mr. Duke, is going to—Ow!"

  Shelby's hard grip towed her backward. “Let's quit while we're ahead, shall we? Good day to you, brother. I do believe Miss Lambourne wishes to take a walk."

  She was half-dragged down the corridor, stumbling to keep up with Shelby's enthusiastic pace. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Ransom standing alone where they'd left him.

  He wasn't frowning, but he wasn't smiling, either. “The Sunderland Gate,” he snapped after them. “Not one step farther."

  "Right-o!” Shelby lifted his hand in salute. Then they were out the front door, and Ransom was gone from view.

  They had passed through the huge court and under the east arch and out of the stableyard before Shelby slowed down enough to speak again.

  "I say, Merlin, you certainly can't be accused of an overabundance of diplomacy, can you?"

  "I'm an inventor,” she said, shaking off his hand and rubbing her bruised elbow. “I don't need diplomacy."

 
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