The regency romances, p.26
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       The Regency Romances, p.26

           Laura Kinsale

  “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 touched 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 h
im 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?”


  “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! 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?”

  Merlin turned on her. “You don’t understand, Duchess. No one here understands!”

  “I understand the difference between a person’s own worth and the things that person is trying to accomplish. Achievements are things, Merlin—they’re not the heart and soul that make you who you are.”

  “How can you say that?” Merlin cried. She spread her arms wildly and began to pace again. “Duchess May, have you never dreamed? Have you never wished to see what even the smallest bird can see? To take the gift—to learn the secret that’s been right before our eyes since the world began!” She crushed her hands into fists and lowered her voice to passionate softness, staring into the fire. “It is what I am. The machine in the east ballroom will fly. I know it will. I’ve spent all my life building it. It is my heart and my soul, Duchess. And no one…no one is going to take it away from me.”

  Chapter 17

  Ransom sanded the last of his letters a little more hurriedly than usual. A smile played around the corners of his mouth, though he tried to maintain a dignified gravity as long as Collett still lingered for the out-going correspondence.

  After a fortnight’s absence, there was an impressive pile of work waiting. One week had been wasted while he’d been dosed into oblivion by his well-meaning but half-witted physician and relatives. The next week—after he’d shaken off the effects of the opiate—he’d gone directly to London, not taking any chances on further delay with the speaking box. The secret briefings had proceeded quite satisfactorily, and Ransom was in an exultant mood.

  As a self-disciplinary measure, directly after breakfast this morning he had come to his study to deal with the most pressing matters, only slightly disappointed that Merlin had slept late and missed the morning meal. He’d been looking forward to surprising her with his pre-dawn return.

  It was just as well, he thought. At least he knew she was getting her proper rest and not driving herself to exhaustion over that damned flying folly of hers.

  He smiled. Not that the aviation machine would be a problem between them any longer. The answer had come to him somewhere in those narcotic dreams, though it had taken Ransom several days of clear-headed thinking in London to realize it.

  He would let her finish her flying machine. He would encourage it. And when she was ready, he would hire someone else to fly it.

  It was so simple.

  At breakfast, the table had been empty except for Ransom. Not even Woodrow, who was usually up and about quite early enough to breakfast with his uncle. Ransom shook his head. His mouth twisted in rue. Travelers who arrived home a day early should not expect a rousing welcome. What matter if his throat hurt from a full day’s arguing at Whitehall and his mouth still tasted of road dust and his eyes felt gritty and his back ached from driving until four a.m.? The horses in the stable probably felt better than he did.

  But the smile still tugged at the corner of his mouth, widening when a beady black nose and a pair of solemn eyes regarded him from inside the deep-sided stationery box as he lifted the lid.

  “Good morning,” he said. “How do you do?” He nodded at the hedgehog that huddled in the depths of the box. “Why, yes indeed, I had quite a successful trip, thank you! And I quite agree, the road south of Sevenoaks is atrocious. I’ve written a letter to the commissioners just this morning. Oh, you’d like to sign it, would you? Come out then—careful there, we don’t want another unfortunate incident, do we? Now—paw in the inkwell. Quite. Just there. Excellent, excellent. That should command their attention immediately. And Collett undoubtedly has a handkerchief available if you’d like to clean off the ink.”

  “Will you be retiring for a rest, Your Grace?” The secretary extended a square of plain white linen. “I fear you’re exhausted from the journey.”

  “No, whatever makes you think so?” Ransom grinned, flexing his arm. Some soreness still lingered. The plaguey dizziness had vanished, leaving only a slight tendency to tire more easily than he ought. But this morning that trace of fatigue meant nothing. He stood up and walked to the door, pausing with his hand on the knob. Collett tarried by the desk, examining his ink-stained handkerchief.

  “The housekeeper will have a replacement for you, I’m sure,” Ransom said. “And when you’ve copied and posted all this, why don’t you take a week’s holiday, my man? We both need the rest.”

  Collett looked up. “Your Grace?”

  “Oh, I’m quite serious. A week should do nicely, but if you’ll leave your direction with Mrs. Tidwell I’ll have her notify you if I decide to extend it to a fortnight. With full compensation for you, of course.”

  Collett cleared his throat, not quite managing to sound as if being given a week-long paid holiday on a moment’s notice was an everyday commonplace in Ransom’s employ. “Certainly, Your Grace. I will make sure to do so.”

  “Good day to you, then.”

  Ransom strolled
out into the corridor, feeling rather like a child who had just given himself the day off from school. He stuck his hand in his pocket and stroked the small velvety box there, tracing the embossed name of London’s finest jeweler. He visualized for the thousandth time a face with a dreamy, sweet smile. He was being foolish, he knew—foolish and besotted and enormously pleased with himself for falling in love with a muddled miss and her preposterous ways.

  He paused at the foot of the staircase. It was after eleven. He’d left word with the head footman to send her to him when she came down to breakfast. He pursed his lips, feeling impatient, wondering if it would be too obviously fatuous to have a maid sent up to wake her.

  It was hard, being a grown man with suddenly juvenile impulses. He crushed the desire to yell up the stairs a loud demand for her to appear immediately, bedamned to her state of dress. Or undress.

  He grinned to himself. Really, the less dress the better. He drummed his fingers on the carved newel-post and sauntered into the hall, feeling about seventeen years old.

  His boots echoed on the marble floor, loud in the churchlike silence. He stopped in the center, looking around at the huge stands of candelabra—taller by far than he was—and at the laughing statues of nymphs and satyrs lined along the wall. Where the bloody hell had everyone gone? Two footmen stood at attention beside the great front doors, but Ransom was damned if he was going to ask his servants where all his family and guests had got off to.

  It was as he stood there in the massive silence of the Great Hall that he heard the first faint shouts. He turned his head toward the doors.

  The footmen stood unmoving, eyes cast down. Ransom saw one of them tilt his head a little, sliding a glance toward the open window to his right. The shouting came again, louder. Ransom strode to the window.

  Outside, the immense courtyard was empty. But people were shouting, somewhere. He could hear them, long, joyous cheers that floated closer and closer. Suddenly, out on the lawns beyond the court, where the ground sloped gently down to a stream and then pitched up again to the sharp brow of a hill, figures appeared at the top of the rise.


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