The regency romances, p.28
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       The Regency Romances, p.28

           Laura Kinsale
 

  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?”

  “No.”

  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 fine 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.”

  “Tres bon,” Jaqueline agreed. “You become a romantic, Duke.”

  Ransom robbed the bridge of his nose with a forefinger. “To brighten things up in the sickroom,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant.

  The lid on the bandbox lifted and dropped with a soft bump.

  Jaqueline eyed it. “No,” she said resolutely. “I do not ask.”

  The door burst open, and Woodrow flew in. “H-h-here. Here it is, Uncle!” He stopped short at the sight of the profusion of dewy roses, and looked down at the drooping posy of violets and strawflowers in his hand. “Oh. You already have sa-sa-sa-some.”

  “Your grandmamá wished to put roses in the Godolphin Saloon,” Ransom said smoothly. “Have you picked these for Miss Lambourne?”

  Woodrow nodded, brightening.

  “A very handsome gesture! Here, shall we put them in this vase for me to carry?”

  Woodrow’s face broke into an eager smile.

  So it was that Ransom entered the sickroom a half hour later laden with a bird’s nest, a wrinkled and oft-folded leaf, a handful of wilting wildflowers, and a hedgehog in a bandbox. He was prey to a strange combination of sheepish elation and anxiousness—a set of feelings he had not experienced in a very long while.

  Merlin was sitting upright in bed. Ransom had not expected that so soon. He paused in the doorway.

  In the six hours since she had regained consciousness, she’d undergone a startling transformation. No longer did her eyelids droop in lassitude, or her hands lie still as death against the bedclothes. Instead, she was sipping at a steaming cup, and finishing the last of a toasted crumpet from a tray in her lap.

  She looked up. Ransom summoned a smile.

  “I’m glad to see you looking so well,” he said. “How do you feel?”

  She set down the cup. Her answering smile was polite but wary. “Better, I think. Thank you.” She blinked at Ransom, and then looked toward Thaddeus uncertainly.

  The old man leaned over and removed the tray. Without glancing up, he said brusquely, “That there’s the duke.” Then he turned away.

  “Oh.” Merlin turned back to Ransom. “You are the one who is to tell me everything, then.”

  He caught himself beginning to frown, and made a conscious effort to lighten his features. “What is it that you wish to know?”

  “Everything. Where I am. How I got here. What happened to me. Thaddeus says you will tell me.”

  Something icy coiled and grew in Ransom’s chest. “You are in the state bedroom,” he said in an even tone. “It is mine, normally, but I have vacated it temporarily.”

  “Yes, but—”

  “May I give you these things first?” Ransom asked. “I’ve brought some gifts for you. From your friends.”

  She tilted her head like a curious sparrow. Ransom took that as approval and moved near the bed. “These are from Woodrow. He says that you will know exactly where he picked them.”

  She took the flowers. Ransom waited. After looking at them for a moment, she said, “They’re very pretty,” and held them out to where Thaddeus stood on the other side of the bed. The old man took the vase and set it on a table.

  Ransom took a deep breath. “From Augusta,” he said, laying the little bird’s nest on the coverlet near her hand. “And Aurelia.” He smoothed the mulberry leaf open and placed it by the nest.

  Merlin looked at them. The familiar crease appeared between her eyebrows. At the blank puzzlement in her eyes, a shaft of bright pain went through Ransom’s heart.

  “And this”—he put the bandbox on the bed and lifted the lid—“is courtesy of myself.”

  A round black nose appeared at the rim of the box, twitching. It disappeared again.

  “Oh,” Merlin exclaimed. “My hedgehog!” She reached for the bandbox and drew it toward her. “Thank you so much. Where did you find him?”

  “In my stationery box.”

  “I can’t imagine what he was doing there. Why would he be in your stationery box?”

  “I confess myself equally baffled.”

  She lifted the hedgehog out and set it on the satin coverlet. It began to trundle away, scrabbling at the slick material, but she grabbed the bandbox and turned it over on top of
the animal. The box scratched along a few inches and stopped.

  “There,” she said. “Is that all you have for me?”

  “For the moment.”

  “Then you will tell me where I am, if you please, Mr. Duke.”

  Ransom glanced at her sharply, his spirit lifting at the familiar misnomer. “As I said, you are in my…in the state bedroom.”

  She nodded, as if that were part of a lesson already learned. “Yes, I understand that. But where is this state bedroom?”

  “We are at Mount Falcon, of course.”

  “And where is Mount Falcon?”

  Ransom looked away, staring at the intricate blue and gold embroidery while he tried to gain control of the painful plunge of his emotions. “Mount Falcon is in Kent, Miss Lambourne,” he said tonelessly. “It is the seat of the Dukes of Damerell, of which I am the fourth. My given name is Ransom. My surname is Falconer. Do you remember none of this?”

  She had been gazing at him with wide eyes. At the abrupt question, she ducked her head in a gesture that was so familiar that a new knot formed in the back of his throat. “No. No, I don’t think I knew any of those things.”

  “What is your name?” he asked suddenly.

  She raised her head. “Oh, has no one told you? I’m Merlin Lambourne. And this is Thaddeus Flowerdew, who has been with my great-uncle for…oh, for lifetimes! He and his brother Theo. They’re twins, you see. But Theo has been rather ill lately, and so Thaddeus must do all the work. He doesn’t like that much, I’m afraid. Do you, Thaddeus?”

  “Nay, Miss Merlin, I don’t. I’d a sight rather lay aboot the place and drink tea wi’ me pinkie in the air, like they does here, I’ll tell you that.”

  Thaddeus’s voice was its usual grumpy grate, but he met Ransom’s eyes across the bed with reluctance. After a moment, he shrugged helplessly and looked down.

  “Well,” Merlin said. “I’m very sorry for falling ill on you, and I think it’s excessively kind of Mr. Duke to take us in, especially considering that he didn’t even know my name, but I’m feeling much better now, I assure you. I think I should like to go home as soon as I may.”

  Ransom started to push his fingers through his hair, before he remembered how carefully he had insisted his valet trim and brush it earlier that morning. He cleared his throat. “You don’t recall your accident?”

 
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