The regency romances, p.23
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       The Regency Romances, p.23

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “Lie down,” she ordered. “You aren’t fixed yet.”

  She held his arm, loosening the tourniquet. He smelled his own blood with every breath, a thick, heady, rusted sort of smell that he associated with butchers’ shops and the nicks he always got when he shaved himself. As she turned away and searched in her pocket again, he attempted to lift his shoulders. When she saw what he was doing, she pushed him down.

  He allowed it, not having much choice, since his head rang like the inside of a parish bell. “Merlin,” he said weakly. “Why…do you have…rockets…on your person?”

  She was leaning over his arm. At that, she glanced up at his face. Ransom could barely see her, but he thought her expression looked guilty. “I told you,” she said. “I made them.”

  She turned back to his arm and bent over, tightening the tourniquet and then doing something to the wound that brought a shuddering sob of pain from his throat.

  “Made…’em,” he gasped, trying to keep his mind from whatever torture she was practicing on his arm. “Why?”

  “There’s no saying when one might need a rocket.” Her voice held a touch of annoyance. “I told you not to talk to me.”

  He was silent then, drifting from anguish to darkness and back again. He thought he heard her say something, but the words slipped past him, meaningless.

  “What,” he mumbled finally, coming to precarious consciousness and finding that she’d left off the torture and was looking down at him. He could see her more clearly, but the light was flickering, a mellow color that danced and cast shadows on her face. “What…di’ you do?”

  “Fixed you,” she said. “They’re bringing Theo’s doctor.”

  “Thirsty.” He took a breath and wet his lips. “Who’s bringing…”

  “Quin found us.” A trace of accusation. “Ransom, you didn’t tell me we were right here at Mount Falcon!”

  He tried to smile, but it didn’t seem to work. It occurred to him that perhaps he was dying from this ridiculously minor wound. He supposed, vaguely, that if one could die from slit wrists, a slit arm was not very different. But it seemed an absurd and undignified way to go, to just lie down and trickle away.

  Merlin was still looking down at him. He became aware that she was holding his hand, and that something softer than the stone step was under his head. The chain that bound her hands together was draped across his chest.

  He wanted to ask her if he was dying, but he thought it would sound ridiculous. It seemed as if he ought to know that himself, one way or the other. Finally, having considered it from several foggy directions, he murmured, “Fixed me, Wiz?”

  “Of course,” she said promptly.

  He looked up at her, and got lost in a tangle of how pretty she was in the flickering light and how clever she’d been to chase off the kidnapper with her rockets and how he wished she would lean down close enough that he could kiss her.

  Something warm and sloppy seemed to make a hazy glow in his chest. “Merlin—” He swallowed. “Everything…y’did—” He closed his hand on hers. A long time seemed to pass, and then he remembered what he was saying. “Good girl,” he mumbled. “Good girl.”

  She nodded, with a little smile, and the chain clinked as she stroked his forehead gently.

  That worried him. It didn’t seem like the kind of gesture anybody would normally make over His Grace the Duke of Damerell. Then she sniffed. He saw something glisten on her face, and that really worried him. He struggled against the encroaching darkness. He still could not bring himself to ask, but…just in case…there was something he wanted to…

  “Merlin,” he murmured, tightening his hand. He waited until she was looking into his eyes again. A dark lock of hair had fallen loose from her pins and hung in a graceful curve over her shoulder.

  “Yes?” she said.

  He quirked his lips up a little—the best he could manage as a smile. “Love you…Wiz,” he whispered. He rubbed his thumb across her knuckles. “…all my heart…”

  Just in case…just in case…just in case…

  Chapter 15

  At three a.m., Merlin paused outside the gilt-trimmed door to Ransom’s chamber. She touched her lower lip, frowning at the door carving that reflected gold and shadow from her shielded candle.

  He’d be asleep, of course.

  She just wanted to see him. Just for a little while.

  She was feeling guilty. It was one thing to sneak about and evade Ransom’s odious orders when he might appear at any moment and take her to task for it. It seemed like another thing entirely when he’d come so near to not being there at all. Even though the doctor and Thaddeus had virtually poured a dose of laudanum down her throat and tossed her in bed as soon as it was clear Ransom was out of danger, she felt reprehensible for sleeping all day through her schedule of lessons.

  Worse, the six nocturnal hours she’d just spent installing the pinion gear weighed like iron on her conscience. And after two days in chains, she had a pretty good notion of just how heavy iron could be.

  The night nurse was an old governess of Shelby’s. He called her Prune-Face, which Merlin was fairly sure was not her real name. So Merlin hadn’t used any name in particular when she’d woken the woman in her bed in the adjoining room a few moments earlier. The old governess had roused only long enough to snort and nod when Merlin said she’d take over for an hour.

  After glancing at the little bottle half-concealed by the nurse’s pillow, and taking a sniff in the earthenware water pitcher, Merlin had decided that the nurse would be fortunate to rise before noon, having helped herself so liberally to Ransom’s medicine and spirits.

  Merlin let herself into his room as quietly as she could. Stuffy warmth hit her. There was another candle, guttering very low in the far corner, and a coal fire that seemed to be radiating enough heat to fill several rooms.

  Underneath the gigantic canopy, Ransom lay on his side, turned away from her. Candlelight and shadow slid over his bare skin above the sheet, making the bandaged poultice around his upper arm stand out in glowing white.

  She set down her candle and moved around the bed.

  He was awake, his good arm curled under his head. He made no attempt to turn toward her, but waited until she came within his range of vision.

  “Wiz,” he said softly. Merlin nodded.

  He smiled without moving, a dreamy lift of his lips. “Thought it would be Prune-Face.”

  “No.” Merlin hung a few feet away. She felt suddenly shy. “I told her to sleep.”

  “Mmm. Good idea. I much prefer the present company.”

  “You should be asleep, too.”

  He made a low, amused sound. “In this oven? I just lie here and bake, Wiz. I hope you’re not offended by my informal attire.”

  Her gaze slid over his arm and the curved, shadowed muscles of his chest, warm ivory in the candlelight. On the floor next to the bed, his nightcap made a puddle of cotton.

  He saw her glance at it and smiled again without moving. “Rebellious patient. I’ve already driven my nurse to drink.”

  She nodded. “I know.”

  A long silence engulfed them. Merlin stood fingering her skirt, wondering what to say. She hadn’t expected him to be awake. She’d just wanted to see that he was safe and comfortable. The doctor had said as much, but—she’d wanted to see for herself.

  “Come here,” he said.

  She moved forward.

  “Closer.”

  She went all the way to the edge of the bed.

  “Down here,” he said, without turning to look up at her. “So I can see your face.”

  She gathered her skirt and knelt, where she was at eye level with him.

  “That’s better.” His golden-green hawk’s eyes seemed soft and unfocused under the heavy, dark lashes. “I get a little dizzy when I try to sit up, you see.”

  “You should rest.”

  He sighed. “I’m afraid there isn’t much choice for a man who falls down if he tries to stand up.”<
br />
  “Is it very painful?”

  “No.” His mouth flattened. “Not at all. This is an embarrassingly unheroic injury, my dear. Half an inch long, clean cut, a few stitches, no fever…” He closed his eyes. “I just managed to stand about bleeding a bit too long.”

  Merlin lowered her gaze. Those terrifying minutes when she’d worked to stop the crimson flow were all too clear in her memory. She looked at the even rise and fall of his chest, watching the candles dance red highlights off smooth skin and the sprinkling of hair on his forearm.

  “You fixed me, Wiz,” he said quietly.

  The gentle depth of his voice brought a lump to her throat. She shook her head, still looking down.

  “Doctor told me.” The bedclothes rustled as he shifted a little. “Where did you learn that?”

  “Learn what?” She was watching the gold signet ring on his hand, trying to make the blur in her eyes go away.

  “I don’t think many well-bred young ladies would know how to tie off a hemorrhaging artery.”

  “Oh.” She shrugged a little. “Uncle Dorian taught me.”

  Ransom smiled. “Bless the queer old nibs.”

  “He made me do anatomy. I didn’t like it much.”

  He reached out, moving his injured arm with slow care, and laid his palm against her face. He slid his thumb back and forth across her cheekbone.

  “Ransom?” she asked.

  “Mmm?”

  “Do you remember…” Her voice was trembling a little, and she swallowed. “Do you remember what you said to me last night?”

  His fingers spread, sliding into her hair. “I was in and out, Wiz. I might not remember all of it.”

  She took a deep breath. “You said you loved me. With all your heart.”

  “Ah.” With a light pressure, he drew her toward him. “Yes. I remember that. You see, I was afraid I might not be here to tell you later.” The lazy pull brought her closer, until her breasts pressed into the down mattress. “I thought you might want to know.”

  “Ransom,” she whispered, “I love you, too.”

  He smiled with half-closed eyes. “That’s a good thing, Wiz. That’s a very good thing. Because I think, if you’ll come a little closer, that I’m going to kiss you.”

  She parted her lips, giving way to the guiding pressure of his hand. He turned a little, pulling her down until she met him. His solid warmth engulfed her instantly, though it was only his hand and his mouth that touched her. He held her in a long, long kiss; a sweet, deep exploration that made her ache for remembered sensations, for his body pressed along hers, his weight in the hot darkness.

  He eased his hold, relaxing his head back. “Dizzy,” he whispered against her skin. “Mmm, no…don’t go,” he said when she tried to move away.

  She looked down at him. His eyes were almost closed, his mouth curved in that dreamy smile.

  “Bad luck, Wiz,” he murmured. “Have the lady I love in my bedroom, and I can’t even lift my head.”

  She moved her fingertips over his face, tracing the strong line of his cheekbone, the curve of his brow. “What would you do with her if you could lift your head?”

  “This. Just…this.” He made a luxurious low sound in his throat as her fingers caressed him. “All…over.”

  “I can do that.”

  The smile turned into a slow grin. “Have at it, Wiz.”

  She stood up, touching her lower lip as she studied him and the bed. “I think it would be more practical if I sat beside you on the mattress.”

  “By all means, let us be practical.”

  She tested the down. It gave deeply under her hand.

  “You’ll slide off,” he said. “Perhaps I should move over.”

  “No. No, I don’t want you to move. I’ll go round to the other side.”

  She skirted the huge bed, kicked off her shoes, and hiked up her skirt, climbing into the down and scooting across until she was close to him. He lay on his back, his uninjured arm behind his head, watching her.

  “Do you know,” he said with a languid, sliding glance down her body to her bared stockings, “I believe you’ll make an excellent nurse.”

  “Of course. Thaddeus and I nursed Uncle Dorian, and Theo, too.”

  “Fortunate fellows.”

  “They were much more ill than you are, too.”

  “I’m not ill at all. Only a little giddy.” He closed his eyes as she touched his chest, running her palm across the smooth skin in a soft stroke. “Becoming giddier by the moment.”

  She lifted her hand. “I don’t want that.”

  “Don’t stop,” he murmured. “I’ll expire instantly if you stop.”

  She frowned at him. “Are you bamming me?”

  “No, no,” he said. He sought her hand where it was braced against the mattress, curving his fingers around her wrist. “I’m seducing you.”

  She lifted her eyebrows. “To do what?”

  “I’ll think of something, Wiz.”

  Merlin bit her lip. “I suppose you mean—you want to do what we did at my house, when you first came.”

  “Oh, God…yes,” he murmured. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, caressing the inside of her wrist with his fingertips. “Let’s do what we did at your house.”

  “You are giddy. Don’t you think that’s a bit too much excitement for you just now?”

  He grinned without opening his eyes.

  Merlin looked at him suspiciously. “I thought you said you couldn’t even stand up.”

  “You can do all the work.”

  She put her hand on his chest again, sliding it downward and up. Beneath her palm, he felt warm and alive. He took a deep breath, and his soft sound of pleasure vibrated against her hand. “I’ll do this for a while,” she said. “Until you go to sleep.”

  “Mmm.” With a little grimace, he shifted his injured arm, bending it up so that the wounded underside didn’t press on the bed. The move emphasized the curve of his muscles, throwing shadows across his skin. Against that easy, powerful flex, the stark white slash of the armband made him look both very male and very vulnerable.

  She allowed her fingers to drift across him, learning his shape and contours. He seemed to be going to sleep already, his breathing soft and even, his eyes closed and his lips slightly parted.

  For once, the relentless severity of his features had eased, revealing a surprising beauty to his face. In repose, without the dark intensity that marked his usual expression, he was equally as perfect of countenance as Shelby. It was odd, Merlin thought, that no one ever noticed that. They all said Shelby was the handsome one, the beau ideal—the beauty of the family.

  She smiled down at Ransom, feeling like she had discovered a secret that no one else knew.

  He opened his eyes lazily. “Have I swept you off your feet yet?”

  She tilted her head in question.

  “Kissed you into submission? Caused you to swoon with my passionate embrace?” He gave a velvety sigh. “This is by far the most splendid seduction I’ve ever attempted. I don’t want to miss anything.”

  “I’ve only been rubbing your chest.”

  “Oh. Is that all the farther we’ve come? When will I progress to nibbling your delicate earlobe, do you think?”

  She tried to press the smile out of her lips. “Perhaps when you’re man enough to sit up and reach it.”

  He moved his injured arm with unexpected swiftness, grabbing her wrist and pulling the support out from under her. Merlin collapsed into the down mattress beside him. “Problem solved,” he said.

  She scrambled to raise herself, but he trapped her shoulders, exerting easy strength to hold her.

  “I thought your arm was hurt,” she protested, trying to break out of his grip.

  “Yes, and if you wish for me to start bleeding again, thrashing about like a freshly landed turbot is an excellent way to achieve it.”

  She stilled instantly.

  He turned his head, brushing his lips against her te
mple. “Good. I like a girl who’s easily subdued.”

  Merlin closed her eyes. She allowed her head to rest lightly on his shoulder, careful to avoid the bandage. “Don’t you want me to rub you some more?”

  “What kind of improper suggestion is that? I’m the seducer here, if you please.” He was pressing delicate kisses over her forehead and eyes. “Don’t rush me. I’ll faint.”

  She lifted her chin, and he kissed her mouth for a very long time. When finally he broke away, he was breathing hard and deep.

  “I think I am going to faint,” he muttered.

  Merlin raised herself quickly onto her elbow, frowning down at him.

  He blinked at her. “All right,” he said a little breathlessly. “I’m all right now.”

  “I shouldn’t be letting you do this.”

  He caught at her hand as she moved away. “That’s what all innocent young ladies say as they’re being debauched. But they love it, really.”

  “You’re ridiculous.”

  “Let’s call it delirious.” He slid his hand up her arm and rested his palm there. “That sounds so much more suitable for a sick person.”

  Merlin hesitated. But she liked lying beside him; she liked the feel of his body against the length of hers, and the way she fitted into the space beneath his shoulder. After a moment, she settled back into place. He spread his fingers in her hair.

  “No kissing, I think,” he said judiciously. “There seems to be a minor but insurmountable difficulty. Lack of air. It makes my ears ring.”

  “It is not lack of air. It is loss of blood.”

  “That, too.”

  She drew her fingers across his chest, making circular patterns on the firm plane of his torso, pushing the sheet idly back and forth.

  “Ahh…Merlin…” he breathed. With his free arm he nudged her hand lower.

  The bedclothes gathered and slid away. Merlin closed her eyes, savoring the texture of his skin, the unexpected silken smoothness in the places she’d never seen or touched since that night in her great-uncle’s musty bed. Here, there was no dusty smell of neglect; the scent of Ransom filled her, tangy and warm with the heat in the room. She spread her hand and explored him more freely, pressing a little closer as a melting urgency began to spread inside her.

 

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