The regency romances, p.27
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       The Regency Romances, p.27

           Laura Kinsale

  They were running toward the house, still too far away to recognize, mostly men, with a scattering of ladies in hiked-up skirts. A pony—Ransom identified Woodrow’s little black mare—cantered gaily through the crowd, its rider turned back and waving a tricorne.

  Ransom squinted, caught between a frown and a smile at this strange procession. He was about to turn away toward the door when the crowd split into two groups and opened a wide path for a horse and rider that burst over the crown of the hill.

  It was Shelby, his blaze of hair and his powerful blood-bay stallion unmistakable, racing hellbent across the summit and down the steep hillside. And behind him…

  Behind him rose an apparition Ransom could never have imagined in his deepest, deluded fantasies.

  Like a monstrous white bird it appeared, dwarfing Shelby and the crowd below it, an immense pale shape that loomed for an instant on the horizon and then resolved into wings as the thing exploded into full view, launched from the hill’s crest to mount the air.

  Ransom made a wordless sound of horror. He did not wait for the footmen, but threw the window wide and vaulted the low sill, hitting the stone pavement at a run.

  The enormous object was climbing into the air at a wild pitch. It seemed to hover, like a monstrous demonic angel, casting a shadow that rippled over the crowd and sailed across the trees and lawn. A taut rope, a flimsy string at this distance, connected it for another moment with Shelby’s racing mount, and then that fell loose, leaving the thing free to soar as the stallion shied and came to a lathered halt.

  Ransom halted on the top step, frozen, staring at the flying machine as it rose and tilted in a graceful sweep over the stream, angling to pass south of the house. He could see Merlin, suspended between the wings, her skirts pressed against her legs by the wind and her features barely discernable. He lifted his arms, shouting.

  The apparatus tilted again in the other direction, soaring back toward the house, well clear of the tall chimneys that lined the roof. She was close enough now that he could hear her voice. She was laughing. Laughing! Ransom shouted at her again and again. He could not see her face for the tears of panic in his eyes.

  He was still shouting when she was almost overhead; still shouting when it happened—the steady wind gusted sharply and the machine slewed sideways. He heard a loud pop, and the great spread of wing collapsed. He watched it turn over in the air like a broken bird catapulted in a strange, slow tumble. It dropped. A tangle of canvas and wood hit the court in front of him with a sound he knew would echo through his blackest nightmares every night for the rest of his life.

  He heard what he had been crying then, heard his own shouts turned into sobs: No No No come down come down—a litany that rasped in his throat as he ran in a dream toward the wreckage of wire and cloth that lay on the gravel court.

  He reached her first, before anyone else, lying as she was with her eyes closed and her face all bloody from the streaming cut above her temple. “No,” he was saying, “no, no…” He could not seem to stop himself. All through it, through staunching the bright blood with the cravat he ripped from around his throat; through lifting her hand and finding her pulse, weak and irregular; through checking her arms and legs and cradling her head on his knees. No no no…

  Someone was talking to him, hands on his shoulders, pulling him away. He resisted, throwing them off fiercely, recognizing Shelby’s appalled face like an afterthought. Ransom turned away from his brother and bent over Merlin’s limp form, still crooning his endless denial like a broken lullaby. No No No this has not happened this is not real come down come down come back to me.

  There was the doctor then, and something to carry her on—a crowd of shocked faces that parted before them. Ransom held her hand. He clung to it. It felt small in his, and cold. Ice-cold. He snarled like an animal at anyone who touched him or tried to coax him away.

  They took her to his bed and laid her there, a small, feeble shape under the towering canopy of state. He had a vague idea that he had issued the orders himself, that they’d wanted to take her upstairs where he could not go. At this moment, it would have made him retch to climb even as high as the first landing that overlooked the hall. He felt near to being sick anyway; he had to breathe in short, harsh gulps to keep himself standing on his own feet.

  He held on to Merlin’s hand. He was afraid to let go, afraid that when he lifted it again there would be no fluttering pulse at all. His mother’s face swam out of the crowd around the bed. She was speaking to him, frowning up into his eyes, but the words seemed soundless, as if there were a glass wall between him and everything real.

  “She’s alive,” he said to his mother’s image through the wall. “She’s alive. I can feel her pulse.”

  “…the doctor…make room…let go…”

  The disjointed pleading came to him in waves, like roaring oscillations with silence in between. “No,” he said. His own voice seemed so far away. “I won’t let go. ”

  “Let Ransom…hold her…God’s sake…”

  That was Shelby. The scene seemed to break up into kaleidoscope pieces, and re-formed with Ransom on the edge of the bed and the doctor on the other side, leaning over Merlin like a black-coated spider. There was a hand on Ransom’s shoulder, a pressure and a presence at his back that was solid and real. He focused on that, knew somehow it was his brother though he could not see Shelby’s face. It kept Ransom anchored, kept him from falling into shattered fragments when he lost the thread of Merlin’s pulse for a long instant and then found it again.

  “Dislocated shoulder,” the doctor said.

  “Is that all? Then she’ll be all right?” Their mother’s voice was thin and trembling.

  The man said nothing. He leaned over and lifted Merlin’s eyelids, one at a time. He laid the back of his hand against her cheek and then took a small pinch of her pale skin, watching it as he let go. He held sal volatile beneath her nose, so pungent that Ransom’s lips curled from two feet away. He asked for water and sprinkled it over her face. He slapped her cheek lightly and spoke her name in a loud, questioning voice, asking her to wake up, to open her eyes and answer him. In the silence that followed, he pressed his fingers beneath her jaw and slipped a timepiece from his pocket. After a full minute, he looked up. He shook his head slowly. “Your Grace, I would advise you to send for her relatives as quickly as possible.”

  A dark well seemed to open up in front of Ransom’s eyes, a spinning blackness. He sat very still, bracing himself against his brother’s hand.

  “Ransom?” Shelby prompted softly.

  “No,” he said. His voice sounded strange even to himself. “No, we won’t do that.”

  There was a little pause. He was aware that everyone in the room was looking at him. The blackness wheeled before his eyes, a spiraling void with the room and the audience around the edges, as if they peered at him down a long tunnel. He clutched Merlin’s hand.

  “…severe concussion of the brain,” the doctor was saying. “Amazing if there is no skull fracture. With an injury this debilitating…there is commonly a profound depression of the vital processes—the brain subsides into fatal torpor, the blood volume is reduced, the breathing is shallow, the body grows clammy. I could profess to have a cure; I could bleed her or mix an ammoniac solution to rub on her forehead, but I will not misrepresent our state of knowledge in cases of this sort. In truth—” He looked around the room. “I’m sorry. Very sorry. There is absolutely nothing useful I or any other medical gentleman can do.”

  “She’s alive,” Ransom repeated dully.

  “Yes, Your Grace. She is. But to fall from such a height…I cannot hold out hope to you that she will ever wake again.”

  His brother’s fingers closed on his shoulder in a hard grip. Ransom looked toward Merlin, and found the blackness giving way to her face: blank, comatose, her forehead covered with his knotted, scarlet-soaked cravat and a raw scrape across one cheek that trickled blood in a dark web against the shocking white of her ski

  Out of his deadened emotion, anger began to grow—a cold power, a force that expanded inside of him and gave him mastery of his own limbs again. He took a deep breath and stood up, shaking off Shelby’s hand. “Where is Collett?”

  Someone opened the door. There was a small commotion, and a moment later the secretary stepped through. He glanced at the figure on the bed and then at Ransom, his lips white.

  “In the courtyard,” Ransom said. “The thing in the courtyard. I want everything cleared out of the ballroom and placed with it. Everything. Notes, models, tools, scraps…everything.”

  Mr. Collett drew a breath. “Yes, Your Grace.”

  Ransom waited. When Collett did not move, he said, “Immediately, Mr. Collett.”

  “Yes, Your Grace. And—and what shall I do when it is all placed there, Your Grace?”

  Ransom felt his rage do subtle work on his features, felt his mouth curl and his jaw grow tight. Something vicious rose in him, an inner roar of grief and fury that swelled and swelled until it made a rushing sound in his ears. He heard his own voice through it, like ice in the maelstrom.

  “Burn it,” he said. “Burn it, Mr. Collett.”

  Shelby came to him on the fourth day. Ransom was sitting near the shuttered windows in his room beneath the elaborate, aging curtains, staring at nothing.

  His brother paused, looking down at the still figure on the bed. He said nothing. After a long moment, he lifted his head and turned to Ransom.

  “Yes,” Ransom said in answer to the unspoken question on his brother’s face. “She’s dying.”

  Shelby drew a breath and opened his mouth.

  Ransom interrupted. “It’s not your fault.”

  His gaze lingered on Merlin, on the sunken cheeks and eyes; the faint, faint rise and fall of her chest. At first there had still been hope. At first, there had been some small chance that she might recover, that the miraculous processes of nature might spontaneously overcome the concussion to her brain. It was not utterly impossible, the doctor said. He had heard of such. But it had been four days. Four days…and she was dying now, not of the injury to her head, but from lack of the fluids and food her body needed.

  “It’s my failing,” Ransom said. “My fault.”

  Shelby came to the window. He leaned against the carved trim. “That is a pack of rubbish.”

  Ransom closed his eyes. He felt dull, unable to face the blue intensity in his brother’s eyes. “It doesn’t matter.”

  Shelby laughed harshly. “’It doesn’t matter,’” he repeated. “Yes. I can see that you couldn’t care less.”

  “I don’t blame you.”

  “Look at me and say that.”

  Ransom lifted his eyes. He tried to look at Shelby. He tried. But all he saw was the image of those great, white demon wings rising over the hill behind his brother’s stallion. “Damn us both to hell,” he muttered, and looked out the window. “I should have known. I should have stopped her.”

  “I did know, and I didn’t even try to stop her. I helped in every way I could.”

  Why? Ransom asked in silence. Why? Why? Why?

  In uncanny answer, Shelby said, “Because I wanted to cross you. Because I always want to battle you. Oh, God…” His voice began to shake. “Ransom…”

  Don’t, Ransom thought. Don’t do this to me, Shelby. He closed his eyes again, because he was afraid that if he looked at his brother, the terrible suffocation in his throat would dissolve. He would break. He felt himself that close to it: that one look or one word would bring him to his knees and release the agony that pressed with hot, prickling warning behind his eyes.

  He heard Shelby move. The footsteps went away toward the bed and stopped. When Ransom looked again, his brother was standing over Merlin with a bleak frown.

  “Too bad she’s not a damned horse,” Shelby snapped. “When it was my prize stallion down, my groom shoved a bleeding length of tubing down his throat before he let him lie there and fade away.”

  He jerked open the door. It shut behind him with a hollow thump.

  The doctor shook his head. “It would not be for the best, Your Grace,” he said kindly, leaning forward and placing a bony hand on the edge of Ransom’s desk. “Better to let her slip away quietly than to—”

  The doctor shut his mouth abruptly, dropping his eyes before the saber-silence of Ransom’s cold stare.

  “Is it possible?” Ransom asked.

  “Well, yes, I—It is not impossible, Your Grace. But I should not like to be responsible—there is the gagging reflex, the shock of food delivered directly to the digestive tract—should she choke now, while insensible—Oh, I should not like to be responsible, Your Grace. It would kill her immediately.”

  “Do it.”

  “But—Your Grace! It would not be a cure. Yes, we might keep her alive longer, but the chances of recovery are absolutely negligible.”

  “If she dies,” Ransom said, “they are absolutely nonexistent.”

  “Your Grace.” The doctor shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Your Grace, we have not discussed the possibility, but—you must understand. Even if she were to wake…”

  Ransom flexed his hand around the arm of his chair, feeling a lump of ice begin to form in the pit of his stomach. “Yes. Go on.”

  “I cannot promise…It seems most likely…that is—” The doctor rubbed his upper lip in little, jerky moves. “Even if she woke, you see—we cannot expect that she will be…herself.”

  “And who,” Ransom said with deadly leisure, “will she be?”

  “Your G-Grace—pray don’t look at me so! I have used all my professional skill in this case! It is in our good Lord’s hands now. Not mine!”

  Ransom stood up and reached for the bellrope. “You’ve come to the end of your professional skill. Very well. You are dismissed.” He glanced at the footman who opened the door. “Conduct this gentleman to Mr. Collett, and send my brother to me. Instantly.”

  When Shelby appeared only a few moments later, Ransom left his desk and strode toward the door, catching his brother by the arm and pulling him along. “Find me your groom,” he said. “It’s bloody well time for a man with some horse sense.”

  Three days later, Ransom frowned down at the fading bruise on Merlin’s temple. She no longer looked as if she might breathe her last at any moment. Her hands, so still against the bedclothes, were achingly frail, but her cheeks were full, her skin smooth and supple. She seemed unhurt. She simply lay there as if in a deep, quiet sleep.

  The salty, strong broth that the groom and Thaddeus managed to force into her with their untutored methods had saved her life. It had not, as the grim predictions had promised, brought her to consciousness.

  So Ransom waited for a miracle.

  He opened the cabinet beneath his bookcase and drew out a decanter. He poured malt whiskey into a glass, tossed it back, and poured again. Then he put down the glass with the malt still in it.

  “Merlin,” he whispered. “Little wizard. Come back to me.”

  She lay still, not a sound or a flicker, no movement but the even rise and fall of her breasts.

  He pulled the ring from his pocket, turning it over in his hands. He read the engraving to her once and then again. Louder. Ad astra per aspera.

  Her long lashes rested without motion against her pale skin.

  He moved to the bed and lifted her hand, carefully sliding the diamond onto her finger. It wobbled and slipped sideways, too large for the slender bone and wasted flesh. The knot in Ransom’s throat swelled until he could not swallow past it.

  He laid her hand down on the coverlet, arranging the pliant fingers, trying to make the pose look natural instead of the stiff arrangement of a corpse. He spent a long time over that, because his own hands were shaking and the ring would not stay upright, and sometimes the room and the bed and her face got lost in a blurry darkness that came and went behind his eyes.

  Finally he abandoned his inane efforts, vaguely recognizing that it made no
difference, that it was mostly just because he wanted a reason to touch her. He gripped her hand, ruining his careful arrangement, and leaned down until his cheek brushed the cool skin of hers. “Come back to me,” he said, his voice muffled in the cloud of her loosened hair. “Merlin, I love you. I love you. Do you believe me?”

  The ring felt hard and cold beneath his fingers, drawing no warmth from her still figure. He straightened, disentangling his fingers from hers. For a long moment he sat looking down at her pale hand and the diamond that sparkled there.

  With a little plunk, the ring slipped down and hit the satin cover.

  Ransom stood up abruptly. He strode away to the window, and then whirled and looked back at her. In the great bed she was a child, a tiny doll, a mere ripple in the bedclothes beneath the giant canopy.

  “Wake up!” he shouted. “Wake up, damn your eyes!”

  He grabbed the whiskey glass and flung it. Crystal shattered at the foot of the bed, spraying liquid across the needlework that adorned the footboard.

  Ransom did not wait to watch it soak into the fabric. He hurled himself out of the room, unable to bear the answering silence any longer.

  Chapter 18

  The voice came pounding out of a dream, thudding over and over in his aching head. He groaned. He did not want to wake up; his eyes hurt, and his mind, and his heart. He threw his arm across his eyes and opened them on streaking patterns of light and dark.

  “I’m here,” he mumbled. “What…”

  An ungentle grip tore the protecting arm from his face. Ransom scowled, trying to force his eyes open past the gritty pain that seemed to seal his lids closed. He gathered his body and rolled, bringing himself upright in one dizzying motion. His feet touched the floor and he sat, recovering.

  “Awake?” Shelby asked.

  Ransom drew a shaky breath. He put his hands over his eyes and rested his elbows on his knees. He shook his head slightly.

  Shelby’s footsteps moved away. There was a chink of glassware and a splash. Shelby came back. “Here. Drink.”

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