Midsummer moon, p.25
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       Midsummer Moon, p.25

           Laura Kinsale
 

  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 lower 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."

  "But—can't you come visit me? I know that you'll be very busy, but...” She sat up, brightening. “You could come to my house instead of here when you don't have to be in London."

  He shook his head. “I'm afraid that would be quite ineligible, Wiz. A bachelor visiting an unchaperoned young lady—it just isn't done."

  The familiar crease appeared between her eyebrows. It did peculiar things to his heart: the miserable, anxious way she looked at him.

  "Do you mean that I'll never see you again?” she asked.

  Gratification flooded him, but he had no intention of showing it. “Next year, perhaps. You could come again next summer, as my mother's guest."

  "Next year,” she said in faint shock.

  He tou
ched her cheek. The manufactured threat of this impending separation seemed to seize him, too, entangling Ransom in his own strategy. He could not stand the thought of it, of her going away where he could not reach. He pulled her toward him and sought her lips—a fervent, possessive move, his hands tight around her upper arms, his mouth hard against the sweet, yielding velvet of hers. He kissed her; he held her and tasted her and owned her until the darkness roared in his ears and burned behind his eyes, and then, just before it claimed him, he pulled away.

  Still holding her, he dropped his head back against the chair, seeking air in great gulps. “Merlin,” he said, between harsh breaths. His head was spinning, thoughts and tactics and need tumbling together in disarray. “Marry me. Marry me, and"—he tightened his hold on her arms—"then you won't have to go."

  From beneath his half-closed eyelids he saw her face change. The dreamy confusion of the kiss gathered into a frown. She disengaged his weakened fingers from her arms.

  Even through his dizziness he saw his mistake. Her gray eyes had gone dark with suspicion; she swept back a loosened fall of hair and tossed her head. She was on her feet before he could reach to stop her. “I told you,” she said. “I won't talk with you about that."

  Then she was gone, leaving him helpless on the floor. He clenched his hands into fists, hitting the India carpet with a thud of futile rage. “I don't understand,” he shouted after her. “Damn you! I love you, Merlin. I don't understand."

  She paused at the door. “If I marry you, will you let me work on my flying machine?"

  He looked up at her, caught by surprise. He tried to think, tried to make sense out of the light-headed buzz in his mind. “Is that your condition? You want me to promise I'll let you work on it?"

  "'Promise,'” she said scathingly. “You've already told me what your promises are worth."

  He was desperate. “A bargain, then. Call it that."

  "You would find some way out."

  "Merlin—” Renewed fury sent sparkling color and darkness dancing in front of his eyes. “Is this the reason? Is this why you won't have me—because of that thrice-damned, spawned-by-the-devil flying contraption?"

  She stood silently by the door a moment. Then she said, “Yes. I suppose it is."

  He grabbed the arm of the chair, and with painful slowness levered himself to his feet. He leaned with both hands on the chairback, bending over it a little, willing away the dark. “You say you love me,” he said, hearing all the anger and bafflement and hurt in his own words. “And you choose that thing over me."

  She answered slowly, “You say you love me, and you want to take it away."

  "I don't want to take anything away!” He turned his head, managed to straighten with a deep breath. “I don't want you to kill yourself. Why can't you see that? It's because I love you, Merlin. Let a thousand bird-witted inventors jump off bell-towers and flap their arms and be smashed all over the churchyard; I don't give a tinker's damn!” He gripped the chair and closed his eyes. “But not you, Wiz. Not you."

  "Then you will take it away if I marry you."

  "We'll talk about it.” It was the best he could do, and an obvious lie. “We'll find a compromise."

  "Jaqueline told me—she said if I married you, you could force me to obey you. That you could do whatever you wished with what's mine."

  "I love you. How can you talk of force?"

  "But is it true? Is that the law?"

  He clenched his jaw. “For your protection,” he exclaimed. “Yes, if you marry me you pledge to obey me. And I pledge to love and honor and cherish you—to take care of you. I give you my home, my name—everything I have I give to you gladly; all the happiness I can humanly make for you. I want to do that. I want you with me; in my arms at night and in my house. Merlin ... I don't know what else I can...” He stopped, swallowing emotion. His knees were turning to water underneath him. “Everything—” He moved his hand in a weak sweep, leaning hard on the chair. “It's all yours, Merlin ... my home, my life ... all the years that God grants me on earth..."

  He heard her take a shuddering breath. “It shouldn't be a choice,” she cried. “I love you—I do love you—but I shouldn't have to choose."

  "What choice?” It was hard to see her through the haze. He felt befuddlement overtaking him. “What choice? I won't allow it. I want you, Merlin. You can't ... leave me."

  He said the last words to the back of the chair, with his face buried in his arms. It all kept spinning ... It made no sense ... a flying machine, a damned flying machine ... What did she want? He found himself on his knees. What could he promise? But no, no promises, she would not believe him ... but he could not think ... everything just kept spinning, and he could not think...

  "The doctor feels he must be kept under sedation,” Duchess May said, taking a seat by the fire. Rain still thrummed against the windows of the Godolphin Saloon. “He hasn't been a very good patient, I'm afraid."

  "I'm sorry, Duchess,” Merlin said miserably. “I'm so sorry."

  "Well, it is done. I should have known he would be provoking altercations the moment he was allowed out of bed. He's come to no real harm, the doctor assures me. But it is a very great strain on his heart, to become excited so soon after losing so much blood."

  "I'm sorry,” Merlin said again. “I tried to leave without talking to him. But he stood up, you see, and then he looked so very—” Her eyes began to blur, and she quickly looked down at her lap. “It's all my fault."

  "I doubt that,” the duchess said.

  "I think I should go home. Ransom said it would be safe now, and you and Lady Blythe will be going to Brighton soon."

  The duchess made a moue of distaste. “Going to Brighton? My dear, wherever did you come by that notion? ’Tis only the prince's set who frequent Brighton."

  Merlin looked up. “Ransom told me."

  "Did he? I expect he was trying to flummox you."

  "But he said—” Merlin chewed her finger. She frowned, and then frowned harder. After a moment, she exclaimed, “Then he lied. He lied to me again!"

  The duchess regarded her wisely. “I suspected this episode wasn't your fault."

  "I knew it!” Merlin sprang up and began to pace, her skirts swishing on the India rug. “He'll say anything to get his way."

  "He isn't very scrupulous,” the duchess agreed. “He has it from his late grandfather, I'm afraid. That man would have perjured himself to increase the collection in the plate at Sunday service."

  Merlin was hardly listening. “I could never marry him. Never. No matter if he promised me a hundred times that he'd let me fly. He'd force me to do whatever he pleased the instant I gave him authority over me."

  "Oh,” the duchess asked mildly, “were you thinking of marrying my son?"

  "How can I not think of it? He plagues me with it constantly. And the way he looks at me ... the things he says ... about ... about—” She turned to the older woman, her face going crumpled and out of her control. “Do you know what he said, Duchess? Do you know? ‘All the years that God grants him on earth’ ... He said that; he wanted to give them to m-me. His whole life, when he is so splendid and I'm such a maggoty-brained clunch! And I don't believe it, either. It's just another of his flummeries. If he cared about me so much, why would he take away my ... f-flying machine, which is the only thing I've ever ... d-done ... in my life that's going to be ... worth something?"

  The duchess listened to this speech, which became progressively more broken and tearier as it went along. She drew a handkerchief from her bodice. Merlin blew her nose and hiccoughed.

  "Merlin, dear,” the duchess asked, “have you ever been afraid of anything?"

  "W-what?"

  "Are you afraid to go up in the air in your flying machine, for instance?"

  "No,” Merlin said into the handkerchief. She wiped her eyes and crushed the lacy linen in her hand. “Of course not. It's not at all a matter of jumping off a cliff, as Ransom thinks. I've worked out all the equations,
and tested everything, and I know exactly how it will work. I won't try it until I'm perfectly sure it's ready."

  "You are in control of it."

  "Well ... yes, I suppose so."

  "And nothing else has ever frightened you? You've never been very afraid that something terrible was going to happen? Were you not afraid when you were kidnapped?"

  Merlin waved her hand, dismissing that. “I knew Ransom would rescue me. He always does."

  "Does he? How very fortunate for you, my dear. So you've never been a bit afraid of anything?"

  "Oh, no, you must not think—of course I have! When Ransom was shot—I was ... oh—I was terrified!"

  "Why?"

  "Why! Because I was afraid he would die."

  The duchess smoothed her skirt in her lap. “But you were there to save him."

  "Yes, but what if I hadn't been able to?"

  "Indeed. What if you hadn't? What if—when you'd tried to treat his wound—he'd fought you off and prevented you?"

  Merlin's eyes widened in horror at the thought. “If he had prevented me? I would have made him let me treat him. Besides, he was so weak; he could not have stopped me."

  Duchess May nodded. “Yes. You had the power, in that instance. And you would have wielded it against his wishes if necessary.” She smiled placidly. “For his sake. To protect him."

  "Well, of course I would have."

  The duchess tilted her head and watched Merlin, still with that calm smile.

  Merlin clasped the handkerchief between her hands, frowning down at it. “You are saying that he feels the same about my flying machine."

  "You might give that notion some consideration."

  "It is not the same,” she said. But her voice had lost some of its assurance.

  "Not from your point of view, perhaps."

  "It isn't the same! It cannot be. It didn't take anything away from him when I treated his wound. It didn't make him any less the person that he is."

  "Oh, Merlin, you don't really think that losing your flying machine would lessen you?"

 
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