The regency romances, p.22
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       The Regency Romances, p.22

           Laura Kinsale

  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 crusts 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 trammeled 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 molding 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. I 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 unarmed, 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 a
n 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.

  She went up in front of him, turning awkwardly as he carried the end of the chain behind her. He came out of the hidden entrance and straightened, catching her arm again, moving as fast as possible with the weighty encumbrance of the steel. He’d not had time to think through the logic of where he’d found her and why she’d been there and how it was possible—he knew only that he wanted to be out of there and back in the safety of the house immediately.

  They were down the steps when Merlin cried, “Wait! Wait a moment. My hedgehog—”

  Her sudden stop made the chain go taut. Instinctively, Ransom swung his arm back, letting go of a loop rather than allowing it to jerk her forward. But Merlin had braced for the tug. The slack sent her toppling backward onto the lowest step. There was a loud crack, a puff of lichen and sandstone, and a blow to Ransom’s upper arm that made him stagger sideways.

  For an instant he stared stupidly at the chain still in his hand with a confused idea that a link had popped. He’d seen that happen once, on a towing barge. The recoil had killed a cow standing eighteen feet away on the bank.

  But the chain seemed whole. As he stood there looking at it, Merlin scrambled up and turned away, pulling it after her.

  “Merlin—never mind that.” He frowned at the stone step, where a fresh slash showed white through the weathered surface. He looked up at her. “Come on.”

  She ignored him. The chain reached its full length and lifted between them. It seemed suddenly even heavier than before—so heavy that his hand would not take the weight. It slid from his fingers. Ransom stepped forward to catch it, but Merlin was already dragging it toward her with a loud clatter, looping it as she went.

  He straightened, blinking at the link that bounced crazily along at the end of the chain. The movement woke a tiny, peculiar curl of nausea in the back of his throat. “Hurry up,” he said.

  “Just a…” She was stooping in the shadows of the temple. The steel clanked. “…minute.”

  He squinted into the little building. The evening contrast made his eyes do odd things, causing the shadows to waver and slide. She straightened and bent over again, and the late sun flashed a moment on the links of steel. He kept trying to think how the chain might have snapped, and then remembered that it had not. The sequence went around in his head like a revolving wheel.

  “Merlin.” He swallowed. There was a bitter taste in his mouth. “I’ll send someone back for the hedgehog.”

  The temple echoed with the sudden rattle of metal. “There!” she said. “Got you.” Much clinking and rustling followed.

  Ransom squinted and swallowed again, trying to compensate for the strange things the twilight seemed to be doing to his vision.

  Merlin came out of the temple, carrying the looped chain in both hands. “He’s in my pocket,” she said, as if that would be the foremost question on Ransom’s mind. She stopped when she reached him. “Here.”

  Ransom moved to receive the chain as she dumped it. The weight of it hit his arm, and dropped right through his hands.

  Bewildered, he watched it go down, just managing to catch the tail end. He heard the clatter as steel hit the steps again. He felt peculiar. Sick. As he stood there trying to make sense of the scene, something wet slid between his fingers. He turned his palm. In the last glow of daylight, brilliant copious streams of red flowed down his hand and soaked his cuff.

  “The devil,” he said vaguely.

  A sharp burst of sound exploded in the quiet air, matching the first one. But this time there was no chain falling to the stone that might have caused it. He blinked.

  “What was that?” Merlin exclaimed.

  Ransom wasn’t really listening. He was still looking in bafflement down at his palm. And at his coat, torn wide open across the underside of his arm, and the bright blood that seeped rapidly through it. There seemed to be crimson everywhere: on his shirt, on his breeches, dripping off his hand, and puddling on the lichened stone at his feet.

  “He’s shooting at us!” She sat down suddenly on the step.

  The numb place on his arm began to burn.

  “Get down!” Merlin gave her end of the chain a tug.

  The jerk sent a burst of pain through his arm as he stumbled and went to his knees. Then, because it seemed too difficult just at that moment to straighten up, he leaned his forehead on the second step and lay there, trying to catch his breath. He heard another loud crack. Merlin whimpered.

  He managed to turn his head. The world seemed to go unbalanced around him. “All right?” He groped toward her with his good hand. “Merlin…”

  “Yes, I’m all right,” she whispered. From his sideways view with his cheek pressed to the stone, he saw her turn to him. “Quick, move closer over here!” The chain clattered as she tugged at his hand, trying to pull him with her into the shelter of the sandstone slab that flanked the stairs.

  “Shooting,” he mumbled, trying to think through the dizziness. He took a panting breath and swallowed. “Shooting…”

  “Oh, my God.”

  Suddenly she was pulling on him bodily, trying to make him roll toward her. The pressure sent pain rocketing through his arm and shoulder. “Don’t—” He couldn’t seem to get enough air in his lungs to speak.

  “You’re shot! Where are you shot?” She sounded a little breathless herself.

  “Arm,” he panted. “Scratch…”

  He felt her leaning over him. She circled his chest and dragged him into a clumsy roll that forced a strangled groan from his throat. He hit his back and bit into his lower lip, wanting badly to retch and too dizzy to manage it.

  “That’s an artery,” she said, just as another cracking explosion sent a splatter of stone and lichen into the air over their heads.

  “Merlin,” Ransom croaked, and tried to reach for her.

  “Yes, yes, I’m all right.” She sounded suddenly impatient. “Don’t talk to me now.”

  He heard the chain clatter. It fell across his arm, and he winced. Then she was working away at him, the sound of scissors slicing through fabric mingling with the quick chink-chink of the manacles. He looked up at her face through his eyelashes. There was a familiar crease between her brows and that look of utter concentration in her gray eyes.

  She pulled the sleeve away from his arm. The chain clanked with every move she made. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, she was tying his arm above the wound with a pair of the gaudy tinker’s ribbons.

  She moved away, sitting up a little, digging her chained hands into the bulging pocket of her apron as the hedgehog tumbled out. A fourth shot made her duck down swiftly, but she kept
feeling in her apron. “He’s coming closer.”

  “Naturally,” Ransom whispered. His voice was hoarse. He lifted his head to see if he was still bleeding, and giddy nausea surged into his throat. “Go…back in the…temple.” He wet his lips. “Lock the…” God, he was so dizzy. “You can…lock the door.”

  She shook her head, drawing something out of her pocket. “You’ve already bled too much. You’ll fall down if you try to get up.”

  “You,” he said, breathing hard to keep his head clear.

  “I have to fix you,” she said calmly. From the corner of his eye, he could see her opening a tin box and unwrapping a bulky little package.

  “Merlin, for the love of…We’ve no way…He’ll walk—right up here…”

  “No, he won’t. He’s going to think we have a gun, too.” She tapped the package with a self-satisfied smile. “I’ve been making rockets.”

  He stared up at her blearily. His arm throbbed in swollen agony. The deep evening sky seemed to fade and brighten again every time he moved his head.

  “I’ll set them off in the drainpipe,” she said. “That should make a nice bang.” She shifted out of his line of vision, sliding up the steps, the chain slinking along with her. Through a faint singing rush in his ears, he heard rustling and tapping movements, and then the unmistakable scrape and snap of a flint.

  She moved back suddenly, throwing herself against him, her torso half-curled around his head and shoulders. Ransom bit back light-headed sickness at being jostled.

  Something above them exploded with a report that made his whole body snap to convulsive attention.

  Merlin’s arm tightened around his throat, and then she was gone, scooting back up again to rustle and strike the flint. Another sharp explosion cracked in his ears just as she threw herself against him again. It was followed by a shot from their attacker, and then the sound of movement through the underbrush.

  Ransom went stiff, trying to gather himself to rise. But he was fading, and he knew it.

  “Coward,” Merlin said.

  It took him a long time to realize she meant their attacker and not him, and that the crash of noisy passage was receding. Merlin set off another rocket. As the echoes died away, he could just hear the sound of retreat in the distance. Spurred by the disgust in her voice for the other man, he tried again to sit up.

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