Midsummer moon, p.24
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       Midsummer Moon, p.24

           Laura Kinsale
 

  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 slowtop,” 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 still 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."

  "Line of duty, sir,” Quin said. But there was a twist to his mouth that made Ransom stare at him blackly.

  "Continue your investigation, Major. And you may pretty well be sure I'll have your head if anything else happens to
Miss Lambourne."

  "Yes, Your Grace."

  "You may go. Collett, I want to speak to you a moment."

  Quin bowed and left the room. The secretary frowned after him. “Excuse me, Your Grace,” he said. “I thought Major O'Shaughnessy was an Irishman. He seems to have lost his brogue."

  "God knows what he is.” Ransom closed his eyes, feeling his strength on a slow drain. “You're under his orders until I can get out of this cursed bed by myself. His reasonable orders. I want to hear of any peculiarities."

  "Yes, Your Grace."

  Ransom opened his eyes. “I trust you, Collett. If I hear any faradiddle about how I was too weak to be kept informed, I'll..."

  "I understand, Your Grace,” Collett said while Ransom was still searching his sluggish brain for a suitable threat.

  Ransom nodded. He drew a deep breath. “That's all. You may tell that female creature she can return in a quarter hour and remove this wine."

  "Yes, Your Grace."

  Prune-Face elected to ignore the hint and came into the room as soon as Collett left. Ransom lifted his eyebrows at her, but he reserved energy and expressed his opinion of her company by scowling silence. He was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to lie back and hope the roaring in his ears would subside. But he sat up straighter as the old woman took the glass. “I wish to see Miss Lambourne,” he said. “Go and fetch her."

  "In a moment, Your Grace.” The nurse laid her hand against his forehead, and checked the poultice on his ann. “Are you in any pain?"

  "Not in nearly so much as you will be, if you don't comply with my instructions."

  "I can give you laudanum, if you wish it."

  "Fetch Miss Lambourne,” he ordered. “Now."

  Prune-Face nodded. “Certainly, Your Grace.” She fiddled with the bandage a moment more, just to show him that she could, probably, and then marched out of the room.

  Ransom sank back into the pillows. He lay very still, cursing his evaporating strength.

  The door opened a long time later. “Miss Lambourne refuses to see you,” Prune-Face informed him briskly. She began arranging the wrinkled bedclothes across his legs and chest. “The young lady also asked me to tell you on her behalf that she will not marry you, and you are not to think that you can plague her into doing it."

  Ransom dropped his head back. He wet his lips and stared up at the canopy.

  Prune-Face made a final tuck and looked at him with a little sympathy. “Will you take some laudanum now?"

  "Yes,” he said dully.

  Glass chinked. A spoon appeared. He put his good arm behind his head long enough to take the bittersweet syrup and then lay back again, gazing moodily at nothing. Prune-Face unwrapped the bandage, renewed the poultice, and changed the strips of cotton.

  Ransom felt the medicine begin to fog his brain. The annoying buzz in his ears receded. His eyelids drooped. “Damn her;” he said softly. “Damn her."

  Cool, efficient hands sponged the sweat from his forehead and patted his shoulder. “Just go to sleep now, Your Grace. She's a very foolish young lady, but you'll bring her ‘round. No one doubts that for a moment."

  He was doubting it, himself. A day later he sat in a slip-covered, wing-backed chair in the Godolphin Saloon like some decrepit old man, his feet propped up on a stool and a rug across his knees. Rain slid down the tall windows in sluggish currents, blurring the green and blue-gray world outside.

  She wouldn't talk to him. She wouldn't even see him. It made him want to rage and throw things, to be tied to this chair and unable to track her down and corner her and kiss her into submission. He did well enough now—his head didn't throb and his ears no longer rang, but if he tried to stand up, he was as liable to faint as to walk.

  The door opened behind him. He felt his heart begin to pound and had to fight a familiar wave of light-headedness. It passed quickly, and he turned.

  Mr. Peale was brushing a few drops of rain off his cuff, a hat tucked under one arm and another in his hand. Both headpieces glistened with a dewy sheen.

  "Your Grace,” he said, with a trace of surprise. He walked forward eagerly. “Your Grace, I'm so pleased to see you up and about! I'd not have expected you to leave your bed for several weeks after such a debilitating injury. Are you certain it's quite wise, to exert yourself so soon?"

  "I'm perfectly fit,” Ransom said. He had an irritable urge to stand up and try to prove it. Only the mortifying memory of having attempted exactly that with his mother—and ending up on the floor at her feet—kept him in his chair. Instead, he said, “How are you going on yourself, Mr. Peale?"

  The young clergyman looked uncomfortable. “Quite well, Your Grace. Quite well, thank you."

  Ransom rubbed his chin. He was wondering what had come of the marriage suit, but he wasn't going to ask, and Peale knew it. But the other man seemed to have no intention of imparting any information.

  It obviously wasn't going well, then. Which came as no surprise. Ransom felt a renewed surge of annoyance. “Forgive me, Mr. Peale,” he said when the silence had become too long. “But I can't help puzzling over your reason for carrying two hats."

  Peale looked down. “Oh—of course.” He smiled self-consciously. “That does look queer, does it not? I've just been for a bit of a stroll. I found this lying at the edge of the woods—The Wilderness, do you call it? I thought perhaps one of your guests had lost it."

  "A poor morning for a walk,” Ransom said.

  Mr. Peale shook his head. “I find much to appreciate and meditate upon in such weather."

  Ransom held out his hand. “You found it near The Wilderness, you say?"

  "Yes. Not far from that gate where poor Miss Lambourne was taken. Actually, I found it quite in the woods themselves. There is a path that's a shortcut. It's rather overgrown. But you'll know that, of course, Your Grace. I don't wish to seem familiar by presuming to tell you about your own property! Lord Shelby showed the way to me not long ago.” He handed the hat to Ransom. “I fear the thing is past recall, wet as it is. For its original owner, anyway. The housekeeper might dry it out and put it in the charity box."

  Ransom turned the sodden hat in his hands, looking at the dove-gray silk that lined it. It was a well-made hat, a gentleman's hat. The maker's name was stamped in gold on the lining.

  "I'll keep it, if you don't mind,” he said. “The twins were just looking for an old hat for one of their games."

  "Oh, yes, do give it to them, Your Grace. I should like to think I'd brought a bit of sunshine to them on a rainy day."

  "A commendable sentiment."

  Peale bobbed a little bow. “Thank you, Your Grace.” He stood a moment longer and cracked his knuckles. “I'd best leave you to rest now. If you'll excuse me?"

  "Certainly."

  "Thank you, Your Grace,” he said again. Then he paused, clearing his throat. “I—uh—I have not yet found an ... appropriate moment ... to speak to Lady Blythe. But I hope to do so in the very near future, Your Grace."

  "In your own good time, Mr. Peale."

  "Ah—yes. Well, I thank you for your patient hospitality. I fear I—that is, you see ... I'm not a clever man with words, Your Grace. I don't wish to prejudice my chances by—speaking precipitously.

  "Of course not."

  Mr. Peale looked vastly relieved. “Thank you, Your Grace. Thank you. I shall pray for your recovery."

  Ransom watched Peale leave, and decided that he himself would be praying for the man's early removal from the premises. Mr. Peale was becoming something of an albatross around Ransom's neck.

  He turned the damp hat in his hands, frowning down at it. The chill of the day outside soaked into his fingertips. He set the hat on the table at his side and rested his head against the chair wing, cursing the drowsiness that still plagued him.

  The saloon door opened and closed quietly. He opened his eyes and blinked, not sure if he had been asleep.

  "Merlin!” he said.

  She jerked around from the bookshel
f she'd been perusing, clasping her hands behind her back. “Oh! Hullo."

  "Merlin,” he said again, at a sudden foolish loss for words.

  "I didn't know you were here."

  "Didn't you?” He felt a rush of bitterness. “And I suppose you wouldn't have come, if you'd known."

  She looked at him suspiciously. “Aren't you supposed to be in bed?"

  "I assure you, I have full permission to be sitting here. No, you don't have to ring for anyone—Merlin, wait, I—” As she moved toward the door, he grabbed the arms of the chair and thrust himself out of it. “Wait.” He took a step, gulping for air as the blackness closed in. “Ah, no ... damn it, damn...” He didn't quite lose consciousness—as soon as his legs collapsed from under him and he was kneeling with his forehead pressed against the chair, the dimness began to ebb. “Merlin,” he said, not able to lift his head to see if she was still there. “Please stay. Just for a ... moment. Please."

  When he managed to turn his head, he found a skirt hem, a pair of black-shod toes, and a space of colorful East India carpet within the range of his vision. He took a deep breath. “Thank you."

  He hid his face an instant longer against the striped cotton that covered the upholstered arm—a small retreat into pure embarrassment. It was enough to make a grown man weep, this dizzy weakness that no amount of determination could seem to overcome.

  Merlin said nothing, for which he was grateful. He thought if he had to protest that he was perfectly fit one more time, he would weep.

  "Do you object to sitting on the floor?” he asked, a muffled attempt at humor.

  "Not at all."

  He heard her skirts rustle. With a slow, careful shift, he turned around and eased himself down, his back braced against the side of the chair. Merlin was watching him, sitting cross-legged on the India carpet. Her casual, open posture—not at all what he was used to among the finer ladies of his acquaintance—brought a suggestive warmth to his loins.

  She looked at him expectantly.

  "Merlin,” he said, clearing his throat, “we must talk."

  "Not about getting married,” she said immediately.

  He held back the instant argument that wanted to rush out. “All right.” He raised one knee and brushed indigo carpet lint from his pale gray trousers. “Then ... tell me, what have you been doing the past few days?"

 

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