The regency romances, p.21
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       The Regency Romances, p.21

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “If ye want it, I got it there,” he said.

  Merlin gave the tangle of junk a dubious look. “I need a three-sixty-fourths-inch Vaucanson helical pinion gear.”

  “Yeah,” he said. “I got one o’ them. Mebbe a couple.”

  She waited for a moment, expecting him to produce the requested object. When it became clear that he was going to do nothing but stand over her shoulder smelling of stale tobacco, she squared her shoulders and began pulling items out of the box.

  Merlin was used to junk, but that was her junk. She found it quite irritating to have to deal with someone else’s junk. After beginning by laying things out in neat rows on the wooden shelf, she saw that she would be all day at that rate. She started to haul things out by the handful and paw her way through them, dropping the discarded items in a pile on the ground.

  “Hey—” the pedlar snarled. “Don’t be throwin’ it all down like that. How d’you figure I’ll get it up again?”

  “Get me an empty box, then,” Merlin ordered.

  He grimaced and walked away around the wagon. Merlin looked over to Shelby and his new sweetheart. She could just see them around the tail of the vehicle. Shelby was embracing the girl, leaning heavily against her as he upended his mug. He threw it down on the grass and bent to kiss her, full on the mouth. His blond hair flashed gold in the sun, and his hand slid up her arm to her breast. Susanna lifted her hand, as if to stop him, but instead her fingers only curved around his wrist and held there.

  Merlin rolled her eyes and looked back at the box. She poked at a small tin container. The lid fell off, spewing conical-shaped objects into her hand. “Here!” she cried. “Oh, look—here they are! The pinion gears!”

  She lifted her head, expecting to see that she’d caught Shelby’s attention at last.

  But she hadn’t.

  Shelby wasn’t looking at her. He wasn’t looking anywhere. He was falling, a strange, slow crumpling of his knees. He seemed to slide down Susanna’s side and lay still on the ground at her feet.

  Merlin stuck the pinion gears in her pocket. She opened her mouth. Her nostrils filled with a sweet, sickening scent. Something hit her mouth with bruising impact, and she staggered backward into a tight embrace. A heavy cloth pressed her face. She flung her arms, fighting wildly, gagging on the smell of ether.

  Oh, no. It was the last thought she had before the darkness devoured her. Oh no, oh no. Not again.

  Chapter 14

  The gray gelding moved at an easy canter across the park. Ransom kept his hands very light on his favorite hunter’s bit—with careful self-discipline for his rising fury at Merlin and Shelby’s foolhardy tardiness. The long grass parted beneath the horse’s hooves as Ransom passed along the edge of The Wilderness, where his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ancestors had once sought relief from the geometric precision of Mount Falcon’s formal gardens.

  It was a true wilderness now, not a tamed and pampered one. It had been left to go its own way half a century before, when Capability Brown had attacked the park and reshaped it, drawing the focus to the artfully designed lawns and cascades that provided the glorious prospects viewed from Mount Falcon’s windows. The former Wilderness had become a forgotten tangle, used only by adventurous children as a splendidly spooky place to carry on childish pursuits.

  He rocked the gelding back to a trot, skirting the last outlying elms at the edge of the Sunderland drive. Beyond lay the gate itself, closed and locked. Ransom dismounted, worked the rusty chain open, and led his horse through.

  It had been years since he’d come through the Sunderland Gate. The road beyond had not been in use in his lifetime. He slapped lightly at the gelding’s nose with his riding crop when the animal dropped its head to grab at the lush grass in the clearing just outside the gate.

  There was nothing human in sight. The grass beneath his boots was crushed, and clear wagon tracks led off to the overgrown ruts that passed for a road. But Shelby’s tinker had disappeared.

  Ransom sighed. “What do you think?” he asked the horse. “’No farther than the Sunderland Gate,’ I said. You see how I rule with an iron hand.” He flicked the crop as the animal lipped at the grass again. “Leave off with that. I’d as lief you didn’t foul a good copper snaffle-bit, you oat-burning—”

  The gray hunter pricked its ears. Ransom stopped speaking as the animal threw up its head and stared off into the woods, its nostrils flaring.

  He hesitated. The gelding stretched out its neck and whickered as Ransom walked forward a few steps. The horse followed, and then stopped suddenly, shying back and prancing.

  He searched the wall of undergrowth where the animal was looking. “Hullo,” he called. “Who’s there?”

  The gelding sidled against him, breathing in loud, nervous gusts. Ransom took another step, and then he saw it.

  In the shadow behind a low-hanging laurel, a gleam of gold caught the sun.

  “Oh, God.” Ransom recognized it instantly. “Oh, God—Shelby—”

  He dropped the hunter’s reins, shoving aside the undergrowth. His brother lay bound and gagged, his head lolling helplessly when Ransom tried to raise it. He tore off the loose, lacy scrap of a gag, and threw himself down, listening for a heartbeat.

  It was there, steady and strong. Ransom pressed his hand over his eyes and took a deep, gulping breath of thanks. He felt over Shelby’s body for blood or injury, but there was nothing to be seen—only a slow, stentorous snore now that the gag had been removed.

  Ransom worked the bindings free. They required no more effort than the gag. He grabbed Shelby under the shoulders and hauled him backward, out of the bushes, ignoring the way the snores turned into a groan.

  Wrestling Shelby’s limp torso upright, Ransom propped his brother against his bent knee. He ripped up a handful of gross and drew a long, fuzzy stem under Shelby’s nose.

  His brother snorted and moaned, tilting his head back. His eyes fluttered open and rolled closed again. Ransom whacked Shelby’s cheek with the back of his hand, in no mood for compassion.

  “Where’s Merlin? Wake up, damn your worthless hide, and tell me what happened.”

  “Hul—” Shelby muttered and groaned again. Ransom shook him. The blue eyes opened blearily. “Hull…ohh.”

  “Where’s Merlin?” Ransom gripped his brother’s jaw and tilted his head up. “Where is she?”

  “Rrr—Wai…” Shelby’s head lolled. “Wait, I…what?”

  Ransom whacked him again.

  The blond head snapped back. “What?” Shelby groaned. “What…y’want?”

  “Wake up.” Ransom’s mouth was drawn back in a grimace.

  Shelby lifted a shaky hand and rubbed at his eyes. He licked his lips. “Ransom,” he said hoarsely.

  “Where—is—Miss—Lambourne?”

  “What…happened?”

  Ransom shook him in disgust. “You’ve been so doped you can’t stand up.”

  Shelby swallowed. He worked his way onto his elbows and looked around.

  “Where’s Merlin?” Ransom asked again.

  “Merlin.” Shelby frowned. He lifted one eyebrow and surveyed the clearing. Ransom saw a slow change come in his brother’s expression. “Merlin,” Shelby said again, and closed his eyes. “The—tinker. Oh, God…Ransom.” His croaking voice fell to a whisper. “Ransom. I’m…sorry.”

  Ransom let go of his brother so suddenly that Shelby dropped to his back with a thud. He groaned and rolled to his side, covering his mouth while his body jerked in a dry retch.

  Ransom stood up and walked away, swinging up onto the gray gelding. All his instincts clamored for action, for a wild, pounding pursuit down those silent wagon tracks.

  Seven hours, at least, since Merlin and Shelby had left the house. Seven hours. A tinker’s wagon might have traveled twenty miles—but Ransom had no hope they’d be stupid enough to journey so conspicuously. No, the wagon would be found abandoned, probably not two miles away.

  He spent one passionate in
stant staring at the rutted tracks, his jaw clenched and his soul in turmoil, wanting to fling himself into full-out chase.

  But his reason knew better. He gave Shelby a disgusted look. “I think you can walk home, dearest brother,” he said with silken scorn. “When you’re feeling more the thing.”

  He spurred the gelding around and cracked it once across the rump, driving the animal back through the gate at a gallop.

  Within two days, Ransom’s organized search had covered every yard of ground from Mount Falcon to forty miles beyond, in an ever-expanding radius.

  She was nowhere to be found.

  The wagon had been located—abandoned, of course—on the edge of the woods beyond the Sunderland Gate. The hounds had milled about it in confusion, crying off in five different directions. Eventually, it was clear that they were just backtracking until they came to the solid park wall of Mount Falcon itself and ranged along it in futile excitement. Ransom cursed the seven hours’ lead and the decoy scents that had been spread so cleverly.

  He did not raise his voice when the reports came in. He issued orders calmly, despatched messages, doubled the searchers, sent them out again.

  But in his heart, he was growing frantic.

  He was in the library, leaning over his desk to mark a map when the footman announced Quin O’Shaughnessy. Ransom looked up and nodded.

  The servant closed the door. Quin hesitated near it for a moment, and then came to stand in front of Ransom’s desk.

  In a soft voice, without a trace of the Irish brogue, he said, “I ask of you, sir—if you intend to furlough me from my duties, I hope you will do it now.”

  Ransom straightened. He gave Quin a level look. “Why should I intend to do that?”

  The other man’s mouth hardened. “I’ve failed to provide protection for Miss Lambourne. You’ve asked for nothing but information from me in your efforts to recover her. I can only conclude, sir, that you feel I’ve failed my trust and am not fit for more active duty.”

  “Nothing would give me more pleasure than to find a scapegoat, Major O’Shaughnessy.” Ransom lifted his eyebrows. “Are you volunteering?”

  Quin’s neck turned red, but he kept his eyes steady. “I’ve failed. I have no excuse to offer for it.”

  “I’m perfectly aware of the circumstances under which Miss Lambourne left the estate. It was with my permission.”

  “I should have gone with her.”

  “My brother went with her, as you know. It was my own error in judgment not to foresee that Shelby wouldn’t be equipped to anticipate or handle a confrontation.”

  Something subtle changed in Quin’s face. His green eyes faltered for a moment, and then held steady again. “If you don’t reproach me for my negligence, Your Grace, you are too generous.”

  “Not at all generous. Pray don’t leap to the erroneous conclusion that you stand high in my estimation just now.”

  Quin shifted his legs apart, clasping his hands behind his back. “Sir?”

  “You say I’ve asked for nothing from you but a report on your recent observations here. To be blunt, Major O’Shaughnessy, the reason is that I had an impression from that report that you weren’t imparting all you know.”

  Quin took a deep breath. “I answered your questions to the best of my ability.”

  “Major O’Shaughnessy,” Ransom said slowly, “I don’t split hairs about notions such as truth and honor, but I really dislike dealing with hypocrites.”

  The flush that had been lingering above Quin’s collar spread to his cheeks. He shifted his weight and stared at the desk between them for a long moment before he lifted his eyes again. “I’m under certain orders, Your Grace.”

  “Are you? Are you indeed? And do they include trying to bamboozle me? I shall have to have a talk with your excellent commander, if that is the case.”

  The flush gave way to white under Quin’s freckles. He managed without moving a muscle to look utterly miserable. After a long moment, he said stiffly, “Are you giving me a directive, Your Grace?”

  “Yes.” Ransom lifted the map and rolled it, fully aware that he had the officer in a corner between Castlereagh’s mysterious orders and his own demands. The war secretary’s direct commands took precedence, of course, and both of them knew it. But Ransom had his own strings to pull, and both of them knew that, too. He decided that he’d made Quin uncomfortable enough, and eased up a fraction. “As far as it doesn’t countermand your explicit orders, I want to know everything you can tell me concerning Miss Lambourne’s disappearance.”

  “I have given you all the facts I know about her disappearance.”

  Ransom caught the hint instantly. “Then give me your suspicions, Major.”

  Quin dropped his eyes. He turned aside, and Ransom saw his hands clench behind his back. “Your Grace. This is—very difficult.”

  Ransom waited.

  The officer turned back suddenly. “I believe I should tell you what my orders are, sir. Then perhaps you will understand better.”

  “Out with it, Major. Before I collapse from trepidation.”

  “I’m sorry, sir.” Quin looked at the floor and began to speak in a rush. “You’ve told me how you feel about hypocrisy. I honor that. I’ve seen in the past weeks the kind of man you are—that you don’t sneer at fellows like me, who have an odd talent that gets them put to use in what some might call…a sordid task.” He lifted his head with a proud, brief jerk of his chin. “I’m not usually ashamed of it, but I didn’t wish for this assignment, Your Grace; I didn’t like it at the first and I like it less now, having come to know you and your family. And that is God’s truth. There’s no hypocrisy in it.”

  With a controlled motion, Ransom laid down the map. “Exactly what are your orders, Major?”

  “In addition to providing protection for Miss Lambourne…Your Grace…sir…” He trailed off, and his mouth grew bitter and hard. “I was sent down to continue my investigation of Lord Shelby, sir. On suspicion of his dealings with a known French agent in London.”

  Ransom stared at the officer. “Were you, by God,” he hissed.

  “Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”

  Ransom realized his fingers had closed around the map and crushed it. Slowly, he relaxed his hand. “What kind of dealings?”

  “He is in debt to this man. Alfred Rule, sir. Sixty thousand guineas.”

  Ransom closed his eyes. He leaned a moment on the desk. Beneath his palms, the inlaid leather surface of the desk grew warm with the fury that burned through his veins, with his rage at this allegation and the desire to beat Quin’s handsome face to a bleeding pulp for bringing it.

  After a long silence, Ransom straightened. “Major O’Shaughnessy, I’ve no doubt my brother is fool enough to get himself in hock to a French spy who intended to use him to reach me. But understand this”—he glared into Quin’s unhappy face—“there is no question of Lord Shelby’s loyalty—to his country and to his family. None whatsoever. If you have any solid evidence to the contrary, lay it before me now or hold your peace forever.”

  Quin looked unhappier still. “I have no more solid evidence, Your Grace.”

  “Then you have a choice. You may take your suspicions back to your commander, along with a note telling him what I think of them, or you may accept what I tell you about my brother and stay here to assist me in rescuing Miss Lambourne.”

  Quin glanced away. His shoulders rose in a deep breath. “You know that if I remain under those terms, I violate my orders.”

  “I offer you the choice, Major.” Ransom sat down and took up the map again, deliberately leaving Quin to stand. “I don’t tell you what to do.”

  Quin’s jaw worked. Ransom could see the faint quiver at the corners of the officer’s taut lips. It was really no decision at all. Any man with a particle of sense would carry out his orders or return to explain why he’d failed.

  In a voice barely above a whisper, Quin said at last, “I’ll stay, then, sir.”

  Ransom
lifted his brows. “My terms.”

  “On your terms, sir.”

  “If I discover you deliberately looking for evidence of treason against my brother, you’ll find yourself in an infantry ditch with your shoulders stripped before you have time to say your last prayers.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Ransom narrowed his eyes. “I can do that, Major. Don’t think Castlereagh can protect you.”

  “No, sir.”

  He sat back in the chair, rubbing his jaw as he looked at the officer. “I don’t know if I’m dealing with a brave man or a fool.”

  Quin’s green eyes held steady. “A fool, I think, sir.” He gave a little bow. “I’d like to join the search party, with your permission. If you would excuse me, Your Grace?”

  An hour later Shelby strode into the library, his golden hair dark with sweat and the smell of horses still on him. “What is it, Ransom? News?”

  “No.”

  Shelby’s anxious expression darkened. He frowned toward the window where Ransom stood. “What the devil do you want, then? I was trying to head up that foot search on Potter’s Hill.” He dragged a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at his hands. “Lord, I near shot my bay’s wind to get back in such a hurry.”

  “Sit down.”

  “The only decent mount I’ve been able to keep my hands on,” Shelby grumbled. “And a stud, too. I’ll have some racing stock from him, you mark my—”

  “Sit down.”

  Shelby looked up, his eyebrows lifted. After an instant’s balk, he shrugged and sat.

  “There’s a bank draft on the desk,” Ransom said. “Sixty thousand pounds.”

  Shelby jerked around in the chair. “What?”

  “Made out to the order of Mr. Alfred Rule.”

  Ransom saw the effect that name had on Shelby—a moment’s blankness and then recognition, and after that a dawning horror.

  His brother sprang up from the chair. “He hasn’t—Good God, that fool’s never brought his damned notes to you for payment?”

 

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