The regency romances, p.25
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       The Regency Romances, p.25

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “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 i
n 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 bookshelf 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?”

  Her misty eyes widened a little. “Nothing special,” she said.

  “I heard that you came to see me when I was asleep.”

  She clasped her hands in her lap. “Well. I wanted to know how you were.”

  “Why didn’t you come when I was awake?”

  She shrugged, staring down at her fingers.

  “I wanted to see you, Wiz. I missed you.”

  Her slender hands squeezed and unsqueezed restlessly.

  “It was wonderful,” he said, “when you came that first night. I was so…” He paused, taking a moment to overcome another of the flooding surges of emotion that swamped him so often now. “I was happy, Wiz. Even if I was a bit…light-headed.”

  Still she didn’t say anything, just sat looking down at her hands.

  He began to feel a little desperate. It had been such a revelation to him, there on the temple steps—this discovery that he really did, in all truth and honesty, love her. A brush with mortality could do that, he supposed—shock one into recognizing truths so simple they’d been lost in the relentless cycles and confusions of daily living. He’d thought his offer of marriage was a matter of duty, of taking responsibility for errors committed—and never questioned why he’d persisted in it past all reason and rebuff.

  Well, now he knew why. The explanation sat patiently on the carpet in front of him, with chestnut hair and cloudy gray eyes and skin that glowed like soft midsummer moonlight. He loved her; he wanted to stand beside her forever, be the man she turned to for comfort and companionship; the one she went to first with those crazy, clever notions of hers; the one who listened and smiled and knew when to laugh—who recognized the difference between her accidental absurdities and the rare times she made an authentic quip in that quiet, ingenious way she had.

  He tapped his fingers on the side of his knee and rubbed at an imaginary spot there. He wished she would say something—make some response—anything that indicated she felt as he did. He was beginning to believe he had dreamed those moments in his canopied bed.

  At his age, with all of his position and advantages and experience, the awful possibility that he might have given his heart where it wasn’t wanted precipitated an unpleasant sinking sensation in his chest.

  So he sat there, contemplating his knee. After a while, looking down, carefully casual and steady, he murmured, “Still love me, Wiz?”

  “Oh, yes,” she said. “Of course I do.”

  He closed his eyes. Relief that he managed to hide rushed through him. He said, “I love you, too.”

  It was preposterously difficult to keep his voice from cracking.

  He ventured a look beneath his eyelashes. She was smiling at him fondly. He began to feel better. But he had to tread softly—that he knew. Taking an oblique tack, he said, “I’ll be conveying your speaking box to London soon.”

  She nodded. “I hope it works properly.”

  “I think it will. You’ve done beautifully with it. The Admiralty will be most impressed.” He gave her a wry smile. “In all likelihood, the poor old codgers will be utterly confounded.”

  She looked at him dubiously. “But it’s quite simple to operate. Are the admirals very stupid, do you think?”

  “I believe I can explain everything to them adequately. And if the tests work as I hope they will, the speaking boxes will be placed on every British ship over the next year. Within the range of the boxes, we’ll have instant communication, even in the thickest weather. You’ll be responsible for saving many a loyal seaman’s life, Merlin.”

  “Yes. I’m becoming rather good at that, aren’t I?” She smiled, peering at him sideways with a sly tilt to her chin. “The doctor said I saved your life.”

  “Undoubtedly. But then you might keep in mind that I was injured in the process of rescuing you, ungrateful wretch.”

  “Well, that is your avocation, is it not?”

  “What, rescuing ungrateful wretches? Certainly not.” He leaned his head back and watched her out of narrowed eyes. “I expect a full measure of gratitude from every wretch I rescue. And I don’t believe I’ve received a bit of yours, young lady.”

  “You fainted away in the midst of it and have forgotten.”

  He did not try to hide the grin that crept across his face. “I demand an encore, then.”

  She looked at him, an age-old look beneath her lashes, which must have come to her by instinct. He could not imagine, with Merlin, that it was meant as a deliberate flirt. But the effect was the same either way.

  His heart began to quicken. Beneath the simple dress she wore, he could easily find the soft outlines of her body. He swallowed, wanting to shake his head and clear away the resonating hum in his ears.

  With the easy trust of a friendly puppy, she uncrossed her legs and slid nearer, nestling into the curve of his arm and laying her cheek against his shoulder. “Yes,” she said, resting her hand in a place on his thigh that made him go hot and dizzy, “I should like to do an encore with you.”

  Ransom sat there a moment, trying to gather his ringing wits.

  Finally, he said unsteadily, “Not on the saloon floor, I think.”

  “Of course not. When you’re better. In a few weeks, the doctor
said.”

  Ransom hoped she had not asked the doctor for that information point-blank. But he curved his arm around her shoulders and caressed her cheek. The comment had given him the opening he’d needed. He bent his head a little, brushing his lips against her temple. “You know, Wiz,” he murmured, “I’ll miss you when you aren’t close anymore.”

  She patted his thigh. “Oh, well—you will be back from London very soon. And then we shall have our encore.”

  Ransom laced his fingers with hers, as much to limit the distracting stroke of her hand in touchy places as to command her attention.

  “But you won’t be here when I come back from London, you know,” he said. “You will have gone home.”

  The announcement had all the effect he could have hoped. She sat up straight and stared at him in dismay. “You’re going to send me home?”

  He looked into her eyes and mixed lies and truth without compunction. “Of course. The speaking box is finished. You’ll be safe enough from foreign interests when it’s transferred to the Admiralty. And I can’t keep you here indefinitely. People have already begun to talk.”

  “Talk about what?”

  “You’ve been here over two months, Merlin. There’s no particular connection between our families to account for it; I’m not your guardian, nor related to you at all. As long as my mother and sister are here, it’s permissible”—he paused—“if a bit odd, in the eyes of society. But Bonaparte’s withdrawn from the French coast, and it’s safe enough to visit Brighton. They say the company is brilliant there this season. The duchess and Blythe are wild to be off. They’ll be leaving for the shore quite soon, and then you must either go with them…or go home.”

  “Oh.” She touched her lip. “Are you going with them?”

  “No, indeed. Do you think I have time to while away at sea-bathing? I shall be traveling between here and London. We’ll close up most of the house until autumn, except for my wing.”

  “Oh,” Merlin said again. It was a rather small “oh” at that.

  Ransom followed up his advantage. He drew her back against him. “I’ll miss you, Wiz,” he repeated, a soft whisper into her silky hair. “I love you.”

 

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