Midsummer moon, p.21
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       Midsummer Moon, p.21

           Laura Kinsale
 

  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 hut 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?"

  Ransom looked at Shelby. Hard. And all he saw was his brother—wild and brilliant and fiercely loved.

  He walked over and stopped, so close to Shelby he could smell the sheen of dust and perspiration on his brother's skin. “Pay him off. Don't wait a day. Don't wait an hour. Take that draft and get out of here, and don't come back until you have the notes."

  Shelby's chest rose and fell. For a moment Ransom thought he would argue. Never—never once had Shelby let his older brother pay his debts. Not once had he asked or accepted rescue from the disaster he'd made of his life. It was some crazy point of honor with him, a quirk that made Ransom alternately proud and exasperated.

  But this time ... this time Shelby's blue eyes held Ransom's and then faltered. He set his mouth and looked away.

  "All right,” he said. “I'll pay him off.” He turned around and swept the sealed paper from the desk, not glancing back as he strode to the door.

  A thought struck Ransom just as his brother reached for the doorknob. “Shelby,” he said sharply. “Don't meet with Rule yourself. Don't go near him. Send your man with the draft and a pistol to get back those notes."

  Shelby stood motionless by the door for an instant. His expression did not change. “As you wish,” he said curtly, and was gone.

  It was early twilight, but the ancient trees already cast thick shadows against the pillars of the little vine-clad temple. Ransom paused in his aimless walking and gazed at the columns, where lichen-stained crests flaked off the decaying stone.

  He sat down on a flat sandstone slab that bordered the stairs, resting his boots on the two lowest steps. The forest was quiet. Only the distant baying of a hound floated on the still air. He listened to the silence, to the hush that was so deep he could hear the subtle hum of his own blood in his veins.

  Detachment was what he sought. He needed to not care, to set aside his trammelled emotions and find the threads of logic that he knew were there. He was furious at the situation—at Merlin and Shelby and himself—and straining under the weight of a dread that seemed to have gone all the way to his bones.

  In the cool light of evening, he stared at the play of rosy gold color on the stone. As a child he had come here to hide and dream, safe in this secret place from tutors and dancing masters and instructors of elocution. They might have followed him here, those plagues of his childhood, but they never found him. For those with the key, the innocent little temple in its sylvan glade was an impenetrable fortress.

  He smiled to himself, recalling the beginning of that half-forgotten oath. A swallow-flight, a fair wind's run; five steps to the setting sun...

  Too many decades of adult concerns obscured his memory of more. Perhaps Shelby recalled the rest of it. Ransom hoped so. It was Shelby's to pass along to his son. Woodrow was twelve already—he should have been given that gift years ago.

  Ransom's half-smile faded. He'd find out if Woodrow had been told of the temple and the oath as soon as Shelby returned. It was a silly thing, maybe, but The Wilderness and the temple were precious in odd ways. It was the trust implicit in that shared secret, perhaps: the assurance of unbending loyalty. Ransom, Shelby—even Blythe: their oath was a bond of blood and faith in one another.

  As the sun began to set, the orange rays pierced a glowing slice between the columns of the small, round structure. Five steps to the setting sun, Ransom thought. The snow, the spring, the circle closed...

  He looked over his shoulder into the smooth-floored interior. The small night creatures of The Wilderness were already beginning to emerge and forage: there was a flash of movement as a field mouse scuttled across the stone, and a hedgehog rummaged among the pile of moulding leaves at the base of a pillar.

  Ransom turned back, steepling his hands and resting his chin on them. His only comfort was that the speaking box and her notebooks about it were still safely locked in the vault at Mount Falcon. That meant that the kidnappers needed Merlin. Her life was assured, as long as that need lasted. As long as she did not tell them what they wanted to know.

  But his blood ran cold when he thought of the kind of “persuasion” she might encounter.

  Time was inexorably against him. The net of men and dogs he'd flung out in two days’ hard ride in all directions had closed on nothing. She would either speak and then be murdered, or hold her tongue and suffer the consequences. And he doubted the French agents who'd taken her were men who'd be willing to listen long to Merlin's idea of rational conversation.

  He locked his fists and chewed on his knuckle. He knew what would happen. He could see it. They would think she was trying to confuse them with nonsense, and retaliate by...

  He made a vicious sound in his throat.

  All right. Enough. Enough of that. He closed his eyes and refused to be drawn into a circle of thought that would only lead him to a helpless frenzy. Deliberately, he made his mind blank again, trying to recapture the moments of calm he'd known before. He stared at the temple steps.

  The leaves rustled behind him. Ransom turned a little, and saw the hedgehog trundle across the temple floor, stopping occasionally to examine cracks and likely crevices for food.

  He watched it idly. The temple grew dimmer. Like an annoying bit of song, that half-forgotten childhood oath went around and around in his mind: The snow, the spring, the circle closed—then opened for the one who knows.

  The hedgehog snuffled through one last chink and ambled over to the steps, nosing out along the sandstone slab where Ransom sat. It came to his hand and stopped, lifting its black, button nose and weaving it back and forth in the air.

  He frowned at it.

  The small, spiky beast lowered its head and turned around, waddling back into the temple.

  Ransom stood up. “Good God,” he whispered.

  A swallow-flight, a fair wind's run; five steps to the setting sun...

  He found himself at the center of the symmetrical building, counting steps. Only three brought him to the western pillar, but he'd been smaller then. The snow, for one pillar north; the spring, for the little alcove where a statue of Persephone had long since vanished; the circle closed...

  He reached up, sliding his palms down the stone curve of the alcove, seeking the faint indentations for his fingers. It took him a moment to find them—another shock, to see how low they were; how they seemed too small for a man's broad hand. He fitted the heels of his palms against the stone, his feet spread in a long-remembered stance, until his arms and the wall of the alcove formed a circle.

  He took a breath, blinking at the featureless wall in front of him. A swallow-flight, a fair wind's run; five steps to the setting sun. The snow, the spring, the circle closed—then opened for the one who knows. 1 keep this rhyme for future times, for I and mine, not thee and thine. My line and name I never fail; I swear by blood I will not tell.

  He shifted his weight. Without even a squeal of protest, the false wall gave beneath his push, swinging silently aside in an arc to reveal the narrow doorway in the stone behind. Damp, mossy air moved past him in a light breeze.

  He did something stupid, then. He bent over and plunged into the black doorway, and he was halfway down the familiar, spiraling stairs before he realized just how asinine a move it was for an unarm
ed, unprepared man who was making all the noise it was probably possible to make. He stopped on the fourth step, exclaiming, “Drop your weapon!” in a commanding voice, and knowing he was going to feel exceedingly foolish when it turned out there'd been no one in the hidden chamber for years.

  Utter silence met his words. He could just see the stairs in what was left of daylight, but the stone newel hid the room itself from his view.

  "Ransom?” came a very small voice from the dark.

  He let out a huge, harsh breath. “Merlin! Thank—"

  Then he almost made the same mistake again, throwing himself down the stairs blind. With a silent curse, he caught himself, hanging on the stairs in sudden realization that an ill-conceived move could cost both their lives if one of the kidnappers was waiting out of sight for him below.

  Silence reigned again while he racked his brain for a plan.

  There was a faint rustling noise from below. He went still and tense, gathering himself for a spring.

  A sad little sneeze sounded in the dark. “Ransom?” she asked in that small, wistful voice. “Aren't you going to rescue me?"

  His muscles relaxed. “You're alone?"

  "Yes.” The rustling came again. “My hedgehog got away."

  He descended the last four stairs, squinting into the dimness. A very faint, green-tinged light came from a moss-lined crack in the ceiling. She was sitting on the stone floor, her hands manacled by two feet of light chain, fastened in turn to a length of far heavier steel that was padlocked to the wooden handle of a huge, ancient chest. The rest of the circular room was empty except for some dusty chairs and abandoned toys that were streaked with age and chipping paint.

  "God damn,” he hissed, striding to her side. “I'll kill them."

  With one savage kick, he smashed the handle from the chest. The chain fell free with an echoing clatter.

  He picked it up, and the weight of the thick links sent red fury through his veins. “Come on.” He hauled her to her feet by the elbow and pushed her toward the stairs, looping the heavy shackles in his hand.

 
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