The regency romances, p.24
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       The Regency Romances, p.24

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Suddenly she jerked her hand away and sat up. “You aren’t wearing anything!”

  He smiled drowsily. “Yes. Shocking, isn’t it?”

  “Ransom!” She squeaked, staring down at him. “What’s happening to you?”

  He said calmly, “It’s your fault, you know, Wiz. You can’t lie down with a man and do what you’ve been doing and expect he won’t react.”

  She put her finger to her lip, chewing.

  “Really, Merlin,” he said, with a patient chuckle. “How do you think it worked the first time?”

  “The first time? Oh, you mean…” She took a deep breath. “I don’t actually remember. I’m not very good at details if I don’t write them down.”

  He cleared his throat with a peculiar choking sort of sound. When she looked at him, his mouth was twisted oddly. “I’d be happy to remind you,” he said.

  “Oh, my.” She pulled up the sheet and buried her face against his belly. “This is embarrassing.”

  He smoothed her hair, toying with a loose strand. Merlin felt him pull a hairpin free.

  She brushed at the thick curl that fell in her eyes as she turned to look up at his face. “Really, I don’t think we should be doing this.”

  He pulled another pin free, and her hair fell down over her shoulders. His fingers searched through it and worked at the first tiny button on the back of her bodice.

  “What if you faint?” she said. “What would I do?”

  He just went on unbuttoning buttons, with that subtle, musing smile.

  “Ransom,” she wailed. “If we do that—if something happens to you…”

  He stroked her skin lightly between the loosened buttons. “If something happens to me?” he prompted.

  “It would be my fault! You said it would.”

  “Ah, well. There are a few Whigs I know who’d congratulate you for putting me out of commission.” He tugged at the bow on her sash. It came untied. He began pushing the dress off her shoulders in small, caressing moves.

  “I’d die if I did something to hurt you,” she said fiercely.

  He paused. His fingers rested on her bare skin. “That’s gratifying.”

  The freed bodice drooped down to her waist.

  “Merlin,” he said. “Oh, Merlin.”

  She swallowed.

  “Come here,” he whispered, fingering the edge of her loosened dress. “Take that off.”

  Still she hesitated.

  He said, “I’ll be all right. I swear it. Merlin, you’ll drive me mad.”

  “I just don’t think—”

  He shoved the bedclothes down before she could finish, turning to reach for her. She saw the quick tightening of his lips as his injured arm hit the pillow. Then he caught her, pulling her down beside him as he rubbed his face in the thick fall of chestnut hair that curled at her breasts.

  It was unexpected. He’d seemed so hazy and languid, yet there was sudden crushing strength in his hand as he turned to his side, trapping her wrists behind her and arching the whole firm length of his body into hers. Imprisoned by his hard arm around her waist and by her fear of hurting him, she lay rigid, her mouth and nose pressed into the warm, raw-silk tickle of his hair.

  He didn’t do anything for a moment, just held her there. She suspected that it was another wave of dizziness he fought.

  Then his arm loosened a little, and he heaved a sigh. “Exactly,” he said into her hair, “where I wanted to be.”

  Merlin gave an exasperated sniff. “And you always get what you want, don’t you?”

  “Always.”

  She relaxed somewhat, seeing that no ill effects seemed to have followed the change in position. “Thaddeus says you’re a spoiled brat.”

  “But a well-mannered one. Much too polite to tell you what I think of Thaddeus.” He hooked his fingers in the opened back of her bodice and kissed the deep curve between her breasts. “You smell wonderful,” he murmured. “Where’s your hedgehog?”

  She shrugged. He took advantage of the move to turn his head and draw a lingering kiss across the swelling shape beneath his cheek. Merlin parted her lips and arched slightly. Her fingers curled around his arm.

  He drew down on the bodice, exerting pressure that made Merlin shift and turn a fraction away, allowing the persistent pull to drag her dress all the way to her waist. Instantly, she felt the rough, warm stroke of his tongue on her nipple.

  She made a small sound of agitation. But he would not let her pull away; he held her still, his fingers sprawled across her bared back, the tips pressed into her skin as he caressed and fondled and tugged at her. Her breath came shorter. She drew her leg up, sliding it along his.

  “Oh, my,” she said. “Oh, my.”

  He hugged her closer. “The dress.” His voice was husky, muffled against her skin. “Take it…off.”

  She lifted herself, feeling his fist gather fabric and slide it down over her back and hips. The dress collected in a loose bunch around her lower thighs. He left it there at the limits of his reach, smoothing his open palm up the curve of her body as he returned to kiss and suckle.

  Merlin whimpered. She was beginning to lose focus, to tumble into the net of sensation he spread around her. She slid her arms around his shoulders, crossing her wrists and spreading her fingers into his hair. The slight arch of her body brought him against her, a thrusting heat as he kicked the dress free and tangled his legs with hers.

  She pressed into him, asking for more. Ransom groaned. He was breathing hard as he pulled her across him and rolled onto his back. The bandage flashed white against his skin. The room seemed to have grown unbearably hot, but she wanted nothing more than the heat of his body against her.

  She remembered everything now; all the particulars had come flooding back in one lightning rush of passion. Easily, so easily, she answered the urgent demand and joined with him. He was looking up at her, saying her name, tilting his head back with an expression that would have frightened her if she had not felt the same dark whirl of pleasure and agony dragging her into its heart.

  He clasped his hands at her hips, moving in time, his fingers pressing deeper and deeper. Beneath her his body was glowing with a faint sheen of perspiration, his muscles tense and flowing in the shadows. She could see the pulse beating hard in his throat. She moved to come closer, to drink in all of the sweet, hot electricity that surged between them.

  “Merlin,” he gasped. He turned his head to the side. His hands gripped her convulsively for an instant as he made a strange, low sound, a whimper in his throat.

  Without warning, his eyes slid shut. His fingers dropped passively and his whole body went lax beneath her.

  Merlin clutched at him, the charge of passion transformed instantly into fear. But before she could even cry out, his eyelashes trembled. He swallowed and took a deep breath.

  “Damn,” he muttered. “I missed it, didn’t I?”

  She threw herself down on his chest. “Ransom! Oh, Ransom, you frightened me to death!”

  He lay beneath her, still breathing deeply. “Sorry, Wiz.” He brushed her back. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

  She pressed her cheek against him. His heartbeat was hard and regular in her ear. She listened to it, feeling her own pulse subside as his did. He patted and caressed her shoulder blade with a comforting rhythm. It faltered once, and she lifted her chin sharply. But he was already blinking away the instant of oblivion.

  He looked at her with a rueful smile. “Possibly I’ve been a bit premature in my choice of exercise.”

  “It’s my fault,” Merlin said miserably. “What if you’d died?”

  He slid his hand down and patted her bottom. “I assure you, my love, a man could not possibly choose a more delightful demise.”

  She scrambled off of him, in spite of his efforts to the contrary. “Laugh if you will,” she said. “The doctor said if you went into too deep a faint, your system could not stand the shock.” She sat up, wrapping the sheet around her in disgust. “I knew you
shouldn’t have any excitement. I knew it. I always let you befuddle me.”

  He caressed her hand with the back of his wrist. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. I’ve befuddled better men than you, Wiz.”

  “Yes, I imagine you have.” She glared at him. “And you think you’re exceedingly clever, don’t you? Just wait till you’re dead, and see where it gets you.”

  He lay grinning up at her. “I always enjoy conversing with you, Miss Lambourne. You make your points with such precision.”

  She snorted.

  He drew a soft pattern on the back of her hand. “’Love you, Wiz,” he said softly.

  “With all your heart,” she prompted.

  “Every black inch.”

  “Good.”

  “You love me, too?”

  “Yes.”

  His lips curved in a satisfied smile. He looked like a cat with cream on its whiskers. He rested his head back and sighed extravagantly. “And now—now will you marry me?”

  “Marry you?”

  He turned to look at her. “Yes, I believe that’s what I said.”

  She gazed into his golden-green eyes, stroking his arm with complaisant affection. “No, Ransom,” she murmured. “I won’t.”

  Chapter 16

  “I’m getting up,” Ransom snapped.

  He already had the bedclothes thrown aside. There was a rush and a scramble as his feet touched the floor, and the doctor and Shelby both grabbed for him. The doctor grappled with his injured arm, and Ransom clenched his teeth on a grunt of pain. Darkness swam in his vision; in the next moment that came clear he wasn’t standing up any longer—he was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head between his knees and all the bells of Westminster pealing in his ears.

  “Hell and the devil,” he muttered to his bare leg.

  “Slowly, Your Grace,” the doctor said. “We’ll support you if you wish to sit up.”

  Ransom took a few deep breaths. He lifted his shoulders, taking the doctor’s advice this time. For an instant, giddy cotton seemed to fill his head, and then it evaporated sluggishly. He kept breathing in deep, deliberate rhythm.

  “Very good, Your Grace. This will pass. In a few weeks you will be as fit as ever.”

  “A few weeks! A few weeks be damned.” He leaned on Shelby’s hand, lifting his head. “I’ll not lie in this bed for another day. And open the window. It feels like the seventh level of Hell in here.”

  “I’m afraid that would be courting a chill, Your—”

  “Open the window,” Ransom snarled. “It’s no wonder I can’t stand up—I’m suffocating, for God’s sake.” He sat up straight, setting his jaw against the giddiness. “You may go,” he said to the doctor. “I wish to speak to Lord Shelby.”

  When they were alone, Shelby crossed his arms and leaned his shoulder against the tall door of a carved and inlaid wardrobe. The room became silent, only the new, light draft from the opened transom moving to flutter the embroidered hangings on the bed.

  “Ransom,” Shelby said suddenly, “if you ever have the audacity to stick your spoon in the wall and leave me to be duke, I’ll—”

  “Yes?” Ransom asked, after Shelby seemed at a loss for suitable words.

  “Dig up your grave and toss you to the dogs, at the very least. What in God’s kingdom were you about, taking on those villains without even a decent sword at your side?”

  Ransom tilted his head back, resting it in an unsuccessful attempt to ease the ache. “I didn’t go out intending to take on anyone,” he said. “It was supposed to be nothing but a mild ramble through the woods. Did you get back those notes from Rule?”

  Shelby reached into his coat and took out a packet. He tossed it onto the table in front of Ransom.

  Ransom picked it up, running his thumb up the edge. The bundle of papers flipped along his finger. He put the packet down again, unopened. “The man’s a French agent.”

  “Yes,” Shelby said with a trace of bitterness. “I managed to puzzle out that much.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Why? Because sixty thousand of your money had to go to my debts? I’ll pay up, brother. You may take it out of my allowance.”

  Ransom made a low sound of amusement. “I’ll indeed have passed on to a better world before I see it back at that rate.”

  Shelby scowled.

  “Don’t be a slow-top,” Ransom said wearily. “The money’s nothing. It was a set trap. Not your fault.”

  “No one forced me to sit down at a game table with the man. I should have seen it.”

  “If you had, and not done as they wanted, you’d be dead by now. A conveniently arranged affair of honor, most likely.”

  Shelby chewed his lower lip. He looked up at Ransom. “So. How did you figure out where Merlin was hidden?”

  “Nothing but the devil’s own luck. I was just sitting on the temple steps, musing, when her damned hedgehog walked up and announced itself.”

  “But how did they find out about the temple?” Shelby asked. “I thought no one alive but the three of us knew of that old verse.”

  Ransom tilted his head, watching his brother. After a moment, he shrugged. “I’ve never told anyone.”

  “Nor I. Blythe wouldn’t, do you think?”

  “It might have been anyone. An accident. The servants may have known of it for years. Who can say?”

  Shelby looked troubled. “I’ll tell you something, Ransom. Since you found out about Rule, I’ve been thinking. This fellow O’Shaughnessy. He’s gone out of his way to put himself in my path, too. Just like Rule.” He grimaced. “I owe money in that quarter, too. I think—”

  “Ho there—rein in. You won’t be able to blame all your debts on French agents, my dear, dissolute brother. I have no reason to suspect Major O’Shaughnessy.”

  Shelby’s mouth tightened. “Aye, I can see that, the way you let the dog run tame in the house! I say to you, Ransom, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s not your man. Someone inside Mount Falcon arranged this kidnapping.”

  Ransom lifted his eyebrows, but he was growing tired. His mind was not as clear as it might have been, he knew. “What makes you think so?”

  “Look at the coincidences. It was someone who knew I always use the Sunderland Gate when I go into town. Someone who knew that I’d pass by and see the tinker. Someone who knew about the temple. Someone who made sure the tinker had what Merlin was—” He stopped suddenly and looked uncomfortable.

  Ransom rubbed his forehead. Waves of sound came and went in his ears. “Go on.”

  Shelby shoved his hands in his pockets. “Nothing. It just seems odd to me that they could count on Merlin coming out to the wagon in person.”

  “As I recall, you had a pretty active hand in her going yourself.”

  Shelby kept his eyes lowered. “Well—she wanted the damned ribbons. I didn’t mind taking her. I feel like ten kinds of a criminal fool, and you know it.”

  Ransom rested his cheek on his palm. He sighed. “Perhaps it wasn’t so finely planned. Perhaps they just hoped to catch her, and got lucky.”

  His brother’s blue eyes narrowed. He slanted a look at Ransom. “Are you feeling well?”

  “Tired.”

  “I’ll come back later.”

  Ransom started to object, and then lifted his hand in dismissal. “Forgive me, Shelby. You find me with my brain in a sorry state just now.”

  The look on his brother’s face brought a sudden rush of weakness in Ransom’s chest. It seemed to have become disgustingly common with him, this cursed euphoric emotionalism, ever since he’d woken in Merlin’s arms on the temple steps. He tightened his jaw to hide the embarrassing quiver at the corner of his mouth. “Just do me a favor, Shelby, and don’t become embroiled in any of your devil bedamned scrapes and rows for a while.”

  Shelby stood away from the wardrobe. He stopped by Ransom’s chair and gave his brother’s ear a gentle cuff. “You know,” he said, “There aren’t any words to say how glad I am that you’re sti
ll around to plague me.”

  When Ransom next awoke, his nurse informed him that his mother and Miss Lambourne had visited him while he slept.

  “Why didn’t you wake me?” he demanded irritably.

  “Her Grace wouldn’t hear of it.”

  “Send Collett and O’Shaughnessy in here.” He pushed away the glass the nurse was holding to his lips. “For God’s sake, do you think I can’t hold on to a glass of wine? Put it there on the table and be off with you. Must you act as if I’m two years old?”

  Prune-Face lifted her iron-gray eyebrows. “I shall resist taking you up on that question, Your Grace.” She cleared her throat and left the room. The secretary and Quin appeared before Ransom had even managed to finish the wine.

  “I want you to organize a search of the grounds, Major,” he said without preamble. “For evidence of these tinkers and who they are.”

  “By your leave, Your Grace,” Quin said. “I’ve already done so.”

  Ransom lifted his eyebrows. “And?”

  “We’ve found nothing of real interest, sir. A few spent powder-wads and tracks through the woods. They seem to go over the wall, but there’s quite a bit of confusion. It’s even possible your—uh—your attacker circled back around the house before escaping.”

  “You saw nothing when you came to the temple?”

  “I’m sorry, sir. It took me a good twenty minutes to locate the source of the gunshots when I heard them—by the time I arrived, the man was well gone, and...” He paused, looking embarrassed. “I felt at the moment that my first concern was to see that you had medical attention and Miss Lambourne was escorted to safety. I went back as soon as you were both in the house, but in the dark…” He shrugged.

  “Yes—I see that you did what you could.” Ransom grimaced, poking at the fish on his tray. “Damned stupid of me, wasn’t it? Stand there and be shot and then bleed like a pig.”

 

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