Midsummer moon, p.27
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       Midsummer Moon, p.27

           Laura Kinsale

  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 conciousness.

  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 clown 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."

  Supporting his head with one hand, Ransom took the glass and upended it without looking. He had expected strong spirits. What he got was lukewarm water. He spluttered, and then swallowed a gulp. His insides trembled.

  Shelby took the glass back. Ransom managed to open his eyes just enough to see the pale light of a single candle that lit the small gentleman's bedroom where he'd been sleeping. His lashes clung together, his eyelids too swollen to open more. He stood up, groping for the curved wooden head of the narrow campaign bed.

  "You look like hell,” Shelby said. “Been drinking?"


  Shelby frowned. Ransom stared at his brother from beneath half-closed lids.

  "What is it?” Ransom said. His head throbbed. He sniffed. He felt in the pocket of his rumpled coat for a handkerchief and blew his nose.

  Shelby just stood, looking at him in that peculiar way.

  "What's the problem?” Ransom shifted with a show of impatience, turning away from his brother's gaze. He pretended to examine his slept-in coat for damage.

  "No problem,” Shelby said softly. “I just didn't believe you had tears in you anymore, big brother."

  "Go to the devil,” Ransom snarled. “You never woke me up to say that."

  A little smile curled at the corner of Shelby's f
ine mouth. “No. Of course not. It's Merlin—"

  Ransom stiffened.

  "Don't,” Shelby said, reaching out. “Don't panic. There's no change for the worse."

  "What, then?"

  "She's been moving. She shifts her hands when someone speaks to her."

  It seemed to Ransom that he swept upward while he was standing still, carried on a sickening surge of hope and despair. He felt his stammer hovering behind his tongue, and remained silent for an unbearable instant to control it. After a pause, he managed: “I ... should ... I want to ... be there."

  Thaddeus had the room in a blaze of candle and firelight, reflecting deep velvet blues and crimson embroideries from the gilded mirrors and picture frames.

  "Lookat ‘ere, Miss Merlin,” he said from the end of the bed. “If it ain't his fancy lordship, come to see ye."

  Ransom glanced at the old man, but his eyes were drawn away instantly to Merlin's frail figure. Her fingers curled, as if to clutch at the setting of the ring which had slipped inside her palm. She turned her head a fraction of an inch.

  Ransom stopped breathing. It felt as if someone had delivered a heavy blow to his chest: the wave of shock and dizzy hope. He strode over to the bed and clutched her hand. “Merlin,” he said. “Can you hear me?"

  Her fingers curled, an unmistakeable pressure on his own.

  "Oh, God,” he said, staring at her still face.

  "'Bout time to rise ‘n’ shine, lazy miss!” Thaddeus said. “I'm tired enough o’ doin’ fer ye, I'll say that. Runnin’ me to a nub, ye are, ‘twixt you an’ that slugabed Theo."

  If Ransom had not been staring at her face, he would have missed the tiny quiver of her lashes. “Thaddeus,” he exclaimed. “Her eyes!"

  "Aye,” the old servant said in gruff agreement.

  An odd panic struck Ransom, that she would open her eyes and the first thing she would see was him—like this: rumpled and unshaven and wild-looking, with his hair in tangles and his cravat pulled free and dragging. He let go of her hastily and stood back. “I'm going to clean myself,” he said. “I won't be long."

  Thaddeus gave him a jaundiced look. “Nay, ye won't want her to catch ye with a wrinkle in yer hankie."

  "Leave off, you old makebate,” Ransom snapped, swinging open the door. “Like as not she wouldn't even recognize me like this."

  Thaddeus chuckled. “What, a dukely fellow like yer-self? Nay, nay, who could not?” He gave Ransom a toothless grin. “But best bring one o’ them callin’ cards back wi’ ye."

  Ransom closed the door with a thump.

  He rushed through his ablutions with all the haste and anxiety of a green girl preparing for her London debut. It was stupid, Ransom knew that; he wasn't even certain if she would really wake. But there was hope, and that was something he had not had for days that seemed endless.

  When he reached the state bedroom again, he paused in front of the paneled door. What if she was awake already? What if he walked in and she was sitting up in bed? What should he say? What should he do?

  He felt the stammer threaten for an instant, and drew a breath, reasoning consciously with himself. Even if it were true that these signs meant recovery, like as not it would take hours for her to come fully to awareness.

  He opened the door.

  "Un ... cle?"

  Ransom froze at the faint, querulous sound of her voice.

  "Uncle Dor..."

  The word drifted off. Ransom stood by the door, his heart pounding.

  "Mr. Dorian ain't here,” Thaddeus said in a kind, rough tone. He leaned over her where she lay propped up on several pillows. “Open them peepers, Miss Merlin, now. Time you woke up."

  "Tired...” The word was a whisper. “So ... tire..."

  She lay still again, her hand relaxing on the coverlet. Thaddeus looked up and shook his head.

  "I dunno,” he said. “She won't wake up ‘nuff to feed her. An’ now, half-driftin’ this way, she's like to choke if I try to put that blasted piping down ‘er throat."

  "Wait a bit, can't you?"

  Thaddeus touched her forehead. “Fever. I ain't been able to get nothing down ‘er for eight hours. I don't like it none, I tell you. She's dryin’ up, like she were before when she went that time wi’ no water.” He looked down at her gloomily. “We was better off the other way."

  "The devil we were.” Ransom strode over to the bed, grabbing the whiskey decanter from its little Pembroke table as he passed. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wet it with the golden malt. At the touch of the burning liquid on her lips and tongue, her fingers curled.

  "Miss Lambourne,” the duke said in his most biting autocratic tone. “Miss Lambourne, open your eyes! I'm in no mood for trifling, I warn you."

  "Mmm...” She turned her head, as if to evade him.

  "Miss Lambourne.” Ransom took her chin between his fingers and leaned down close to her face. “Have you heard what I said? Open your eyes."

  She whimpered. Her lashes fluttered and sagged. Ransom tightened his grip on her chin.

  "Do you know who I am, Miss Lambourne?” he demanded through clenched teeth. “Do you know what will happen if you don't obey me? Open your eyes! I warn you, Merlin. You cross me, and you won't like it."

  Her breasts rose and fell rapidly, and a series of agitated moans came from deep in her throat.

  "Wake up,” he commanded. “Now."

  With a trembling breath, she lifted her eyelids.

  "Oh, no you don't,” Ransom warned when they threatened to slip closed again. “Look at me!"

  She groaned. “Uncle...” Her eyes came full open, and she stared with blank weariness at Ransom. Thaddeus sat down on the other side of the bed, and she followed that movement. A slow focus came into her face. “Thaddeus,” she murmured hoarsely.

  "Aye. I'm right by, I am. Are ye thirsty, miss?"

  Her brow wrinkled slightly. “Uncle..."

  "Nay, yer Uncle Dorian ain't here. He's gone, Miss Merlin. Gone these five years an’ more."

  She closed her eyes, but they came open again almost immediately. “Died. Yes, I...” Her husky voice drifted. “...miss...” The heavy-lidded glance slid to Ransom. She stared at him again.

  Thaddeus lifted a kettle from a tripod by the fire. He poured hot broth into a bowl and lifted a spoonful, testing it against the back of his gnarled hand. “'Ere ye go, Miss Merlin. Open the hatch."

  Obediently, she let Thaddeus spoon liquid into her mouth and swallowed, her eyes never leaving Ransom's face.

  Ransom smiled at her tentatively. “Good girl."

  She simply looked at him.

  Thaddeus offered another spoonful. She swallowed it, and her eyes sank closed again. She seemed to lapse back into stupor. Thaddeus's third spoonful hovered uselessly at her lips.

  Ransom frowned. “Merlin!” he ordered sharply. “Wake up. This instant!"

  Her eyes rolled open. She looked at Thaddeus and sipped the broth. And they went on like that, with Merlin drifting off after each few swallows and Ransom barking commands at her to open her eyes—until Thaddeus was satisfied that she had consumed enough.

  She kept her heavy lids open a few more moments, blinking at Ransom. He smiled at her. A small frown creased her brow. Her eyes closed, and she took a deep, peaceful breath. Her head nestled on the pillow.

  "Merlin!” he demanded, afraid each time she shut her eyes that words might not bring her back again.

  Her body jerked at the sound. Her long lashes snapped open.

  She looked at Ransom as if she could not quite understand why he was there, and then at Thaddeus. “Up,” she whispered, and began to move, pressing down with her arms.

  Both Thaddeus and Ransom jumped to support her. Thaddeus took her weight and gently pushed her down. “Nay, Miss Merlin, not just as yet. Ye've been sick a mite, if y'know what I'm saying."

  "Thaddeus. I need to ... get up."

  "Like as not y'do, but ye ain't going to be using the chamber pot on yer own for a while,
the old servant said inelegantly.

  "But I...” Her glance slid to Ransom. The faint frown returned.

  "Aye, I know,” Thaddeus said. “His Gracefulness ain't much at takin’ a hint."

  Ransom sat up straight. He cleared his throat and stood up. “I'll wait outside."

  "Good idea,” Thaddeus said. “What a noggin the man's got on ‘is shoulders."

  "Excuse me.” Ransom bowed, absurdly self-conscious beneath Merlin's solemn gray gaze. “I'll—um—return later.” He tugged at his cuff, aware that she watched him all the way to the door.

  He'd opened it and started out when he heard her thin voice behind him.

  "Who is he, Thaddeus?” she asked in a plaintive tone. “Was that the doctor?"

  "If she's still very disoriented,” Duchess May said to a crestfallen pair of twins, “then perhaps we should give her a few more days to recover before you visit."

  "Yes,” Woodrow added. “Uncle says we ma-ma-ma-must ba-ba-be very ka-ka-ka-kind and ka-quiet!"

  "But I want to give her this,” Augusta cried, holding up a small, perfectly shaped wren's nest.

  "And this!” Her twin dug inside the pocket of her smock and brought out a limp and much-folded mulberry leaf. “Nurse was going to put it on the dustheap, but I saved it for Miss Merlin!"

  Ransom pushed his chair back from the breakfast table. “May I take them to her, and tell her that they are especially from Augusta and Aurelia?"

  With breathless agreement, the bird's nest and leaf were placed reverently in his offered hand.

  "Wait, pa-pa-please—Uncle, ca-ca-ca-could you wait? I have something, ta-ta-ta ... too."

  "Certainly.” He leaned back in his chair, smiling at his mother and Jaqueline as Woodrow and the twins raced out of the room. The door opened again a moment later. The butler walked in with a small bandbox and a huge spray of pink and yellow roses.

  "The items you requested, Your Grace.” He placed them on the table next to Ransom with a stilted bow.

  Ransom nodded, hoping that the females would not notice either the twitch at the corner of the butler's mouth or the flush Ransom felt growing in his own cheeks.

  "How sweet,” Duchess May said serenely. “Roses."

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