The regency romances, p.20
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       The Regency Romances, p.20

           Laura Kinsale
 

  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.”

  “That’s a damned lucky thing. Here, we’ll take this path through the park—it cuts a half mile off the drive.”

  She followed him into the tall, unscythed grass at the edge of the manicured lawns, picking a fuzzy caterpillar from a green stem and dropping it into her pocket for the hedgehog. “Do you really think this tinker will have a proper gear?”

  He shrugged. “You’ll just have to look and see. He told me he did, but then I wouldn’t know a helical pinion gear if it came up and asked me for a waltz.”

  “I’ll bet he doesn’t,” she said glumly. “It’s too good to be true. I couldn’t believe it when you said you found him yesterday, camped right outside the gate.”

  “Worth the walk, anyway. Just to see.”

  “I suppose so.”

  He came to a halt and looked at her. “What’s this? Losing interest at the prospect of a bit of exercise?”

  Merlin tugged at a weed. She frowned and walked on past him, shaking her head.

  “What, then? By God, I thought you were living for an opportunity to find this blasted gear.”

  “Now you’re angry with me, too.”

  He sighed. “I’m not angry, Merlin. Just puzzled.”

  They walked along a few moments, the only sound the swish and slap of grass against Shelby’s boots.

  “Why does he want to change me so much?” she cried suddenly. “Aren’t I good enough as I am?”

  Shelby looked toward her. She bit down on her lip, quickening her pace. The path left the open meadow, entering a tangle of woods.

  “Merlin.”

  “Never mind!” The path took a sudden turn, passing between two ancient yews, and broke out into a slash of sunlight. The footway wound down a long, unnaturally straight avenue flanked by overgrown shrubberies and choked with weeds and wildflowers.

  Shelby caught her arm. “Merlin,” he repeated.

  She shook free. “What do I need with a new wardrobe? I hate new clothes. They itch!”

  Shelby smiled.

  She glared at him. “Yes. Laugh at me. Everyone laughs at me. They think I don’t notice. Well, I notice. I just don’t have time to…to…”

  “Murder them?”

  She swung her arm. “What’s wrong with my dress? What’s wrong with my hair? What’s wrong with my conversation? I don’t want to learn how to go on in the world.”

  The abandoned avenue ended at a crumbling edifice, a little round temple half-eaten by vines. Shelby put an arm around her shoulders and drew her close to his side. “Don’t cry.”

  “I’m not crying!”

  He touched her cheek, tracing a damp path downward.

  “Oh,” she said.

  He pressed her down onto one of the stone slabs that flanked the temple’s steps and knelt in front of her, offering a handkerchief. Merlin blew her nose.

  Shelby cocked his head, watching her.

  “I want him to like me,” she said.

  “I know.”

  She touched her lower lip with her forefinger. “It’s useless, isn’t it? He never will.”

  The corners of his mouth turned up just a little. “Oh…I don’t know about that.”

  “Mr. Collett and I are almost finished with the speaking box. I just have one more test to make. Maybe I can go home soon.”

  Shelby looked up at her. “Won’t you be lonely at home?”

  Merlin’s throat closed on a sudden rush of fresh tears. She nodded, burying her nose in the handkerchief’s crisp folds·

  “Don’t go, then,” he said softly. “We’d miss you here. All of us.” He paused, and then added with a little grimace, “My brother included. My stupid clunch of a brother most of all, I think.”

  “Yes,” Merlin agreed. “He is a s-stupid clunch.”

  Shelby rose to his feet and held out his hand with a grin. “One of the stupidest. Come along, Miss Merlin the Inventress, or that stupid clunch will have his stupid minions out to hunt us down before we can obtain this most necessary gear.”

  She slid off the stone slab, feeling somehow better, even though nothing was different. Shelby always managed to make her smile.

  She followed him along the path, skirting the odd little temple that sat silently in its clearing in the midst of the tangled woods. The ancient trees closed around them again, but soon they broke free, emerging just a few feet from the great stone wall that surrounded the duke’s vast park. Ahead lay a neatly raked drive and a pair of iron gates.

  The gates were closed and locked. Unlike Mount Falcon’s main entrance, with its triumphal arch and liveried guards, this gate was unmanned. Shelby produced a cumbersome iron key and waved Merlin through, locking the chain behind them.

  She spotted the tinker immediately, only a little distance away, his wagon decorated with examples of the gaily colored ribbons and a collection of copper pots. He was sitting on a log outside a lean-to that had been erected against the estate’s wall, tapping with even strokes at the iron handle of a coffee mill. There was no one else nearby—the gravel drive from Mount Falcon’s park seemed to end at the disused gate, dying out to a dirt track surrounded by woods. The tinker looked up as Shelby and Merlin approached.

  “’Mornin’.” He came to his feet with a grunt, a tall, skinny man with a streak of silver-gray in his hair. “Ma’am. Sir. Top o’ the mornin’ to you.”

  “Papa? Is that…” A young woman poked her head from the lean-to. “Oh, yes. The man who bought ribbons.” She swept the canvas back and stood straight, her slender figure accentuated by the generous exposure of pale bosom above her bodice. She wore her black hair loose, which made its streak of silver-gray that matched her father’s appear quite striking. Merlin thought she was very pretty.

  “Susanna,” Shelby said. “A pleasure to see you again so soon.”

  “M’lord.” She dropped a curtsy, making it more playful than respectful, and whisked across the grass to the wagon. “More ribbons for your lady, m’lord?”

  “Nay!” He laughed. “You talked me into three dozen beyond what I wanted the first time.”

  Susanna cast down her eyes as he ambled past the pedlar and leaned against the wagon near her. “’Twas your own choice, m’lord. They were all so pretty, you said.”

  “I said they all were so pretty on you.”

  Susanna rubbed the peeling paint on the wagon with her finger, looking under her eyelashes toward Merlin.

  “Miss Lambourne has come to see if you have the pinion gear I asked you about,” Shelby said.

  “Aye.” The tinker gathered his lanky frame into action. “I’ll get out what I have directly.” He disappeared around the wagon.

  Shelby looked back at Susanna. His golden lashes lowered, and he gave her a smile. “Have you done your chores, Susanna?”

  She continued rubbing at the patch of weathered paint. After a moment, she nodded. Shelby reached out and chucked her under the chin.

  “A glass of that Portuguese wine would go well.”

  The girl tilted her head in a move that even Merlin recognized as coyly enticing. “Would it now, m’lord? And the lady?”

  “No, thank you,” Merlin said.

  Susanna turned in a whirl of dark skirts and disappeared again inside the lean-to. Shelby stood looking after her with that particular smile still lingering on his lips.

  Merlin frowned. Susan
na was pretty, but Jaqueline was beautiful. The spark of interest in Shelby’s blue eyes when he gazed after the tinker’s daughter caused Merlin a surge of annoyance. She moved closer and pretended to examine a dented pot that hung from the wagon.

  “Do you like her?” she asked nonchalantly, her voice covered by the clatter and scrape of the pedlar’s wares as he rummaged on the other side of the wagon.

  Shelby looked around with a grin. “I’m completely besotted, I’m afraid.”

  “She isn’t very nice.”

  “No?”

  “She didn’t even say good morning to me.”

  “Ah.” He leaned his elbow on the wagon. “But it wasn’t her manners that impressed me, you see.”

  “Jacqueline is much nicer.”

  Shelby gave her a dry look. “To you, perhaps. She ain’t nice to me at all.”

  “Much prettier, too.”

  He shot her a damping frown as Susanna emerged again from the lean-to, carrying a bottle and a pair of earthenware mugs. The pedlar’s girl stopped at the corner of the wagon and leaned against the side, her hair falling across her face. “Come round here, m’lord,” she murmured, “whilst Papa shows m’lady her trinkets.”

  Shelby moved willingly, hesitating only when Merlin said under her breath, “Stupid clunch.” She saw his shoulders stiffen for an instant, but then he slid his arm playfully around Susanna’s waist.

  “My wine, love,” he said, reaching for a mug.

  But Susanna held her hand away. “Greedy, m’lord,” she said huskily, turning just enough so that her midnight hair fell across Shelby’s shoulder. As Merlin watched in disgust, he bent and nipped at Susanna’s white throat as he reached again for the mug. His hand closed over hers.

  “Aye,” he growled. “Greedy.”

  Merlin made a face. She heard the tinker come around the other way, the box he carried rattling with each step. The man ignored the outrageous flirting occurring behind the wagon and hefted the box, loosening one of the wooden panels on the wagon. It dropped with a squeak and a thump, creating a platform of convenient height. He shoved the box full of metal scraps on top and stood back.

  Merlin listened to Susanna giggle and looked reproach fully at the tinker. The man looked back at her with bland eyes and jerked his head toward the box.

 
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