The regency romances, p.2
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       The Regency Romances, p.2

           Laura Kinsale

  She stumbled on something that fell with a dull thump and heard him utter a muffled oath behind her as his hands steadied her shoulders. “Sorry,” she said miserably. He kept his hand beneath her elbow as she negotiated the last of the dim-lit passage and turned aside into the central hall.

  One look at the jumble that filled the large room made her realize it was no place to entertain a visitor. Merlin knew she was no housekeeper, but when had she let things come to this? A rusted steam boiler, the fraying basket of a hot-air balloon, a discarded vacuum pump, and a damaged paddle—in the pale sunlight through grimy windows the place looked like a battlefield. She picked her way through the silent confusion, bending to slip beneath the massive sweep of a broken wing that cast a shadow across the narrow path like a great, weary bat.

  The duke came behind her. He made no comment on the chaos, but she sensed his opinion in the way he inspected the caked grease that had smeared across his glove from the falling axle-rod.

  The short flight of stairs to the solar was clear, at least, if only because it provided the single passage from her laboratory to this…storage. “Put it in storage,” she’d said a thousand times to Theodore or Thaddeus, and never looked to see where the item had gone. Well, now she knew. It had gone to the great-hall and been dumped, and if she’d always been too preoccupied before to notice the accumulating mass, she certainly saw it now.

  The solar was a slight improvement. Only half the size of the great-hall, it contained crowded laboratory tables and smaller pieces of equipment, roils of wire and cases of glass beakers, and hundreds of leather-bound books strewn about in a mild degree of organization. At least she knew where a chair was. Under two feet of journals, which required several moments of exertion to remove.

  She stood back from her labors, panting slightly, and offered him a seat.

  “Thank you,” he said. “I prefer to stand.”

  Merlin blinked at him. “Oh. Forgive me. I suppose you must have rheumatism?”

  A fine curve appeared at the corner of his mouth and quivered there as he said solemnly, “I enjoy the best of health, thank you. But I was taught by a formidable nanny that a gentleman does not sit in the presence of a lady.”

  Merlin, lost in rapt contemplation of that intriguing masculine dimple, took a moment to realize that by “a lady,” he meant her. “Oh,” she said, and sat down.

  He tilted his head, surveying the cluttered room. His gaze lingered on a large wooden crate from which a tangle of wires led to a set of wheels and pulleys. He stared at the object a moment and then looked down at her with that odd half-smile. In the sidelight from the window his hair danced with gold and red. “It is Miss Lambourne, then, whom I have the pleasure of addressing?”

  Merlin nodded and hoped he wouldn’t begin calling her “Miss Lambourne” in that soft and dignified way. She had a feeling that in one of her frequent reveries she would not answer to anything but a sharply enunciated “Miss Merlin, hey!”, which was what Theodore and Thaddeus had found to be moderately successful.

  “You seem to be quite an inventress,” the duke said. “What is that object, if I may inquire?”

  Merlin frowned at the wooden crate and wires. “It was to help me string the framework for my full-sized aviation machine. It didn’t work.”

  “I see.” He looked around again, as if seeking something, and then at Merlin. His light eyes were alert and piercing. “And what have you made that does work?”

  Her shoulders drew down. Of all the questions he might have asked, that one was the least welcome. She looked at his shiny boots amidst the dust-balls on the floor. “Nothing, I’m afraid. It’s very discouraging. I believe the whole problem is weight and propulsion. And stability, of course. The models are so difficult to upscale. The wooden struts are too heavy, you see, and that makes the wing proportions far too—”

  “Quite,” he interrupted, just as she was gaining momentum in her explanation. “And you’ve had no progress in anything besides aviation?”

  Merlin raised her eyes in surprise. “Oh, no. I’ve devoted all my thought to the flying machine. And truly, I have had some little success with my models—”

  “Yes, of course.” He was frowning at various objects in turn around the room. “But nothing else? What is that, for instance?”

  Merlin looked at the carved mahogany piece that had caught his attention. He was scrutinizing it with an intensity that suggested he hoped it might hold the secrets of the universe.

  “Uncle Dorian’s old wardrobe,” she said timidly. “I keep an extra cloak in it.”

  His mouth flattened into annoyance, and she added in hasty self-defense, “It gets quite cold in here in the winter.”

  “No doubt.” The duke lowered his brows, glowering at her in a way that made her feel quite giddy. “Miss Lambourne, I must be truthful with you. I’ve come here in the utmost secrecy on behalf of His Majesty and the Lords of the Admiralty. It has come to our attention that you are in possession of a device which could be invaluable in the defense of your country.”

  “I am?” Merlin asked in a small voice.

  His half-smile returned, this time with a much more unpleasant hardness to it. “I had hoped that you would not be so foolish as to deny it. I can provide you with every necessary evidence of my identity and my position with the government, so you need not fear that you are dealing with the other side.”

  “Oh, no!” she said. “Of course not.” She put her forefinger to her lower lip, just remembering in time not to bite her nail. “What other side is that?”

  His gaze lingered a moment on her hand. She quickly lowered it and folded her fingers in her lap.

  “The French, Miss Lambourne. You are aware that we are at war?”

  “Well, yes, I—” She met the cold disapproval in his eyes and added humbly, “I’m afraid I don’t go out much.”

  “So I apprehend. Let me assure you that we are, indeed, at war and in need of every patriotic effort which our citizens can provide.”

  A heavy silence filled the room as Merlin tried very hard not to drop her gaze like a chastened child. She had a notion that the duke would not like such craven behavior. She wished that he would smile at her again as he had in the passageway below—an honest smile and not this ironic curl of his lips.

  “Miss Lambourne,” he said, “will you not help us?”

  She swallowed and nodded. He looked at her expectantly. Another long pause followed while the waiting lift of his brows gradually drew down into another frown.

  “Miss Lambourne, I beg you not to play games with me. Where is the invention?”

  “The invention,” she repeated, her eyes widening in comprehension and distress. “My invention? Oh, dear, but it wouldn’t be of any use to you at all. It’s far from ready—the wings aren’t at all satisfactory, and the body from the model won’t work in full size. I have to put all the stabilizing and maneuvering equipment at the aeronaut’s feet, and there’s very little space. I haven’t even tried it myself yet.”

  He gave a huff of impatience. “I don’t mean your damned flying machine!” He swept the room again with a frustrated glare. “There must be something else—haven’t you anything else?”

  “No, no, I told you—I haven’t wasted a minute! I’ve worked on the aviation machine since Uncle Dorian died. And I’m very close. Truly I am. I’d like to help you, but it’s much too soon to experiment with a human being. Perhaps if you could wait another few months—”

  He leaned over her suddenly with one hand on the back of her chair and the other covering her fingers in a hard grip. “Miss Lambourne—my dear Miss Lambourne—please try to understand. This is no trifling matter. A week ago a man was found dead. His throat cut. He was trying to reach my office with messages of the greatest importance. They were in cipher, Miss Lambourne, but one of them mentioned you and this—invention. It is very possible—probable—that the code was broken.”

  He looked at her with an intensity that made her feel hope
lessly stupid. “Is that very bad?”

  With a harsh laugh he let go of her. “Only if you value your life and your country. I intend to remove you and this invention of yours to a safe place, Miss Lambourne. Immediately.”

  “Remove me! Oh, I’m afraid that is impossible, Mr.—um—”

  “Duke,” he suggested. “Please don’t tax your mind with trivialities. Just gather your things and let us be on our way to a safer place.”

  She stared at him. “You cannot be serious. I can’t leave now, just on the verge of perfecting my wing!”

  “For God’s sake, we’ll take your wing with us. In fact, we’ll take everything with us. I don’t know what my agent meant by a revolutionary despatch apparatus, but he was no fool. I’ll swear it wasn’t a bloody fantastical flying machine.”

  Merlin rose instantly in defense of her dream. “I’m sure that was exactly what he meant, sir! What better way to deliver despatches than by air? Why, if it is military despatches you have in mind, just think! You could have orders across the Channel in a matter of hours.”

  “Nonsense,” he said. “More likely I could have a broken head in a matter of seconds.”

  Merlin stood up, deeply affronted. Finding herself nose-to-chest with his muscular form was somewhat daunting, so instead of tossing him on his ear as she had desired to do, she said coolly, “Shall I see you out?”

  “I’m not going anywhere, Miss Lambourne. Not without you.”

  “But that’s—But you—” She spread her hands. “Oh, this is quite stupid. There is only the aviation machine. Why should you insist on my going with you if you think it’s worthless?”

  He leaned against the cluttered laboratory table and crossed his arms with a casualness that aggravated her temper. “Disabuse yourself of the notion that it was your flying machine which so impressed my late colleague. I don’t employ agents who are prone to hyperbole. If man had been meant to fly—”

  “Thank you very much, Mr. Duke, but you needn’t repeat that old adage. I’m familiar with the sentiment.”

  “Falconer,” he said.

  “Pardon me?”

  “Ransom Falconer. Fourth Duke of Damerell. Most people call me Your Grace, but really, I believe I could come to like Mr. Duke just as well. Shall you ring for tea while I take a look round?”

  Merlin drew in a dignified breath. He appeared to have every intention of standing there against her laboratory table forever. With what she considered to be freezing politeness, she said, “Please look all you like, but you will have to move aside a step if you would like tea.”

  “Certainly.” He straightened, with a brief flash of that smile that had pleased her in the hallway below. It softened Merlin’s annoyance and made her feel suddenly shy again.

  She ducked her head and reached for a large box on the table, taking hold of the crank and sending it whirling. After a moment, she leaned over as she was cranking and carefully closed a small metal flap between two wires. A blue arc of light crackled inside a glass jar. Merlin stopped turning the crank and put her mouth close to the cone-shaped depression in the box. “Thaddeus!” she called. “Thaddeus, do you hear me?”

  From the box came a faint, steady hiss as she waited. She tapped nervously on the table, aware of her guest’s eyes upon her back. The duke would be wanting his tea, she thought, and hoped that Thaddeus would answer.

  The silence stretched, filled only with the hum of the box. Merlin doubled up her fist and rubbed it on the tabletop. A duke. She had an idea he would be accustomed to better service than this. For the first time in her memory, she looked around her laboratory and thought that it seemed a hopeless, shabby mess. The hedgehog squirmed in her pocket, and she absently reached for a sunflower seed and dropped it inside.

  The sound of the alarm bell made her jump. Thank goodness, Thaddeus had heard her signal. His voice came out of the box, faint and hissing and none too pleased. “Aye, Miss Merlin? What’s it now?”

  “Tea, Thaddeus,” she said, trying to sound very certain of herself. “I have a guest.”

  There was a fuzzy pause and a crackle and then Thaddeus’s voice again. “—tea, you say? And do—” The voice was lost in noise and then returned. “—middle of—back garden and up to me knees in mud, Miss Merlin?”

  Merlin pressed her lips together. The duke was staring a hole in her back, she was sure. “Thaddeus,” she said forcefully, “bring us tea immediately.”

  “Poo—Mi—lin—now. Ye ain’t—self!”

  “Thaddeus. Stand still. You know I can’t understand you if you carry the box about like that. Stand still, Thaddeus. Do you hear me? Stand still!”

  The voice answered, suddenly much louder. “Aye, I hear ye, Miss Merlin. You be making your own tea. I’m goin’ out to the dairy barn now. I’ll be takin’ your pesty speaking box wi’ me, but don’t you go ringin’ me little bell for no silly tea. Ye know I got the works o’ two to be doin’, what with Theo down.”

  “Thaddeus—” She said his name twice, but he was gone. She had only the hiss of electricity through the ether for response.

  With a sigh of defeat, she opened the metal switch. The blue arc sparked and died, along with the hum. Merlin turned, biting her lip in apology. “About your tea—can you wait a minute while I go to the kitchen?”

  The duke was staring at the little box and its single wire. “God in Heaven,” he said in a strangled voice. “Great God—”

  He raised his eyes. To Merlin’s astonishment he let out a whoop that rang jubilation off the old stone walls. She found herself grabbed and squashed and pounded in a bruising embrace. As she flung her chin up and gasped for breath, she had only an instant to register the softness of fine cloth on her cheek before he kissed her, full on the mouth—a rough, undignified, and consuming kiss that was all mixed up with the thumping on her back and the ache in her lungs and the really painful way he was standing on the toe of her left shoe—not that she cared, but the hedgehog might be squeezed, and, oh…oh, my, well.

  It was over before Merlin had time to realize it had started—or at least before she had time to realize that she was enjoying being mauled. He let her go and stood back with a grin that made her throat feel peculiar and trembly. “Merlin Lam—” He was as breathless, if not as bruised, as she. “Merlin Lambourne,” he declared, between pants. “By God, you are a genius!”

  Chapter 2

  It had been thirty-odd years ago, at the age of five, that Ransom could last recall having such difficulty with his table manners. Trying gamely to swallow the overcooked mutton without choking, he postponed sawing at another bite and put his full concentration on chewing. The toughness of the meat would have made scintillating dinner repartee difficult, but any hopes of mere polite conversation had been quickly put to rest by his hostess.

  Miss Lambourne sat across the ancient, scarred table from him. Reading. In the fading light from the low windows, her full lips moved softly, and that little worried furrow came and went in the smooth skin of her brow. She had finished her mutton in a quarter of the time he was taking—for which he could only admire the strength of her teeth—and now between pages she tore off chunks of glutinous bread, alternating bites between herself and the hedgehog. The creature had been deposited in a convenient bowl and placed in the center of the table—in the absence of a suitably imposing silver epergne, Ransom supposed.

  “Does it make a nice pet?” he asked, tired of battling with the mutton.

  She turned a page.

  “Yes,” he continued after a moment. “I daresay it has all kind of uses. And quite decorative, too.”

  The pucker formed between her brows, and she marked her place with a finger. “Pardon me?”

  “Does it make a nice pet, I was wondering.”

  “Pet?” Her thick lashes swept down and up. Ransom had the sudden and painful urge to kiss her within an inch of her life again, on the theory that she would surely have to take notice of him then. “What pet?”

  “The epergne,” he
said, with a little flick of his finger toward the spiny centerpiece.

  She looked at him blankly for a moment, and then, in a tone he imagined she reserved for agreeing with raving lunatics, said, “Why yes, I’m sure you must be right.”

  Ransom smiled and wished she wouldn’t stare at his mouth while her tongue teased at her upper lip in that damned provocative way.

  “Would you pass the salt, if you please?” he asked, to break the moment.

  She looked from his mouth to his plate. He could see the slow change, the dawning of common awareness. It was a fascinating process, this transition from deep dreaming to daylight—rather like the passing of a morning’s mist into full sun. But no, he thought as he watched her, not so harsh a change as that. More like the lazy rise of a full moon to light the summer midnight.

  “Oh,” she said, frowning at his laden plate. “Do you dislike mutton?”

  “With a strong jaw and the addition of a little salt, I expect I’ll manage to hack my way through.”

  She pursed her lips and looked about the table. After a moment her gaze alighted on the hedgehog. “Oh, dear.”

  Ransom lifted his eyebrows.

  “The salt cellar,” she said. “I’m afraid…”

  He looked at the hedgehog. It stared back at him with beady innocence. Yes, it seemed to say between twitches of its sharp little nose, I’m in the salt cellar, and I’m bloody pleased about it.

  The creature’s air of simpleminded spite reminded Ransom of a few Whigs he knew.

  “I’ll find some.” Miss Lambourne rose quickly, getting tangled for a moment in her skirts as she scanned the laden shelves and counters that lined the dining room walls. Ransom watched her begin to push jars and crockery about, opening lids and peering inside and adding to the general disorder in the room as she set each container hastily aside.

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