The regency romances, p.29
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       The Regency Romances, p.29

           Laura Kinsale
 

  The crease appeared between her eyebrows. Slowly, she shook her head.

  “Can you tell me,” he asked softly, “what it is that you last remember, before you woke up?”

  She bit her lip. “Someone shouting at me—to open my eyes.”

  “Before that, Miss Lambourne. Before that.”

  She frowned deeply, lifting her finger to touch her lower lip. Her face seemed to screw up and then turn petulant. “Thaddeus,” she whimpered. “My head aches.”

  “Serves ye right, miss. Mebbe ye’d best answer the old duke here.”

  “But—”

  “Nay, Miss Merlin, don’t fishtail aboot. He’s took a sight o’ care for ye, and ye kin answer an honest question.”

  She worded at her lower lip, all painful concentration. It made Ransom want to gather her up in his arms like a child.

  “I don’t know, really. Nothing…special,” she said at last in a small voice. “Just being at home. Working on my wing design.” She looked up at Ransom. “I’m inventing a flying machine, you see, Mr. Duke. Perhaps you would like to look at the plans?”

  In his memory’s eye he could see her—with just that same look of shy hope on her face, standing in the dusty passage of her home, saying to him: “…you may have as many copies as you like…”

  “I know!” she exclaimed suddenly. “That scaffolding in the barn fell on me, didn’t it? I knew I should have dismantled it when you told me to, Thaddeus. What a whopstraw I can be!”

  “Aye,” Thaddeus said gloomily as he met Ransom’s bitter smile. “Ye kin certainly be that, miss.”

  “But I still don’t know why I’m here in Mr. Duke’s house,” she added with a timid glance at Ransom. “Though it was very kind in you, I’m sure.”

  He didn’t answer, but instead walked over to the window and stood there, staring out at the rose garden and trying to collect his wits.

  It was a blow—and a peculiarly, sharply painful one—to be forgotten. Irrationally, it struck at his pride; it hurt him personally, as if somehow he’d not meant enough to her for her memory of him to survive.

  Thaddeus she remembered, and her home and her scaffolding and her hedgehog, even. But not Ransom.

  But nor, he reminded himself, did she recognize Woodrow’s name or the twins or Mount Falcon. In fact, it seemed apparent that the head injury had robbed her of a whole block of recollection, since some vague date before he had even entered her life…

  He turned and looked back at her. He could not help himself—the advantages of the situation were too clear. A lifetime of reflex, of training in when to seize the initiative commandeered his higher impulses. Ransom was not his father’s and grandfather’s son for nothing. He recognized a golden opportunity when he saw one.

  With sudden resolution, he pulled a chair up next to the bed and sat down, lifting her hand and clasping it gently between his.

  “Merlin, I know how you must be feeling. It’s confusing…it’s even a little frightening, isn’t it, to find yourself here in a strange place?”

  Her fingers curled between his. She cast down her eyes. “Well…a little.”

  He stroked the back of her palm with his forefinger. “You had this accident, and you’ve forgotten some things, you see. Quite a lot of things. You realize that, don’t you?”

  She glanced toward Thaddeus under her lashes, as if to confirm that. The old man said nothing. After a moment, she nodded.

  “You don’t recognize me,” he continued with a little wry twist to his words, “and that is rather…embarrassing. Would you look at me, Merlin? Look at me very hard, and make sure that you don’t remember anything about who I am and why you came here.”

  He lifted her chin with the tip of his finger, gazing solemnly into the misty depths of her eyes. For an instant he lost himself, forgetting what he was doing in the aching urge to gather her up in his arms and kiss her.

  She stared at him. She closed her eyes and opened them. The crease between her brows appeared, until she looked so distressed that Ransom broke the moment himself, squeezing her hand as he looked down.

  “You don’t remember,” he said.

  She bit her lip. “I’m trying. I’m not very good at faces.”

  He drew an aimless pattern on the back of her palm, and then slid his finger between hers, working the ring upright to view.

  “I gave you this,” he said huskily—and began the calculated tangle of truth and lies that he was sure would bring him what he wanted.

  Chapter 19

  “This ring?” Merlin asked, gazing down at the stone that held all the colors of a moon-drenched forest glade in its smoky depths. “You gave it to me?”

  The man nodded. Merlin met his eyes, fascinated by the golden-green intensity there. Everything about him interested her, drawing her scattered attention into a single focus. He was a presence in the room, even when he was not speaking. He disturbed her: tall and mercilessly immaculate, as if not even a thick lock of his dark brown hair would dare to curl out of place. The slash of his brows intimidated her whether he frowned or not, but then sometimes he would smile—and the strong jaw and ruthless features became something else…something that sent hot agitation boiling through her already tattered composure.

  “Thank you,” she said, and felt color rise in her cheeks. “But did you really—I mean, no one ever…” She ducked her head in confusion. “Did you mean for me to keep it?”

  He touched her cheek. “Yes. Of course I did. I mean for you to keep it forever.”

  Merlin frowned. “And did I give you something in return?” She glanced at the bed, and said suspiciously, “I didn’t give you my hedgehog, did I?”

  His mouth quirked. He shook his head.

  “Not that you couldn’t have it, if you wanted,” she added quickly. “I mean, you’ve been so very kind and everything. It’s just that…perhaps I could show you how to catch your own, if you really need one. Mine is very attached to me.”

  “Yes, I can see how affectionate it is.”

  Merlin peered at him, not sure of the gleam in his golden eyes.

  “But you see”—he played with the ring on her finger—“there’s no need for me to find my own hedgehog. We are engaged to marry, Merlin. You and your hedgehog are going to live here with me.”

  “We are?” she said.

  “Yes.”

  “Engaged! We are engaged?”

  He lifted his eyes and looked directly into hers. “Yes.”

  Merlin drew a breath. “Oh, my—I don’t remember that!”

  His mouth twisted a little. “I know.”

  “But…married! Do you mean you want to marry me?”

  “Very much.”

  “Whatever for?”

  He left off playing with the ring on her finger and lifted her hand, tilting it back until his palm lay pressed against hers. He kept his face averted, looking down at their clasped hands. “Because,” he said in a strange, muffled voice, “it has become painfully clear to me that I cannot live without you.”

  “Oh,” she said.

  “Merlin,” he said, looking up again, “you would not change your mind, would you? You would not—cry off?”

  “Oh, well—” The sudden concentration in his gaze took her aback. “Well…ah—”

  He let go of her hand and stood up, turning away. “I knew it,” he said roughly. “God…I knew it.”

  “Knew what?” Merlin cried, distressed by the abrupt violence in his tone.

  He looked over his shoulder, his elegant figure stiffly erect. “I cannot hold you to it, can I? I can’t hold you to a promise you don’t remember.”

  “A promise—”

  “You said you would marry me.”

  Merlin bit her lip.

  “But you don’t remember.” He flung out his hand. Merlin winced in preparation to see the spirit decanter go flying, but he checked himself an instant before he hit it. “You don’t even remember me.”

  “Perhaps if I try harder…”

>   He turned back, his face harsh and handsome in the morning sun. “No. I release you. I am that much a gentleman, at least.”

  “Wait,” Merlin exclaimed. “Wait, I—”

  He shook his head. “You cannot marry a man who is a stranger to you.” The set of his mouth turned bitter. “After all we’ve shared, and now—what do you know of me now? Only what you see—a face and a shape, the clothes I wear and the room where I sleep. How could you commit yourself for a lifetime on so little as that?”

  “But I like your face,” Merlin protested. “And your shape, too. And your clothes are very smart, although I don’t think you could keep them so clean if you stayed around me very long.”

  “Merlin, you know I care nothing for that, if only—” He stopped. He spread his hand over his eyes as if they pained him. “But you don’t know, do you? How can I tell you of my feelings? ’Tis farcical, to come as a stranger and say that I love you. To tell you that you loved me, too; that when I asked you to do me the honor”—his deep voice broke a little—“the very great honor of becoming my wife, you looked at me with joy in your eyes and said yes!”

  “Oh.” Merlin bit her lower lip. “I’m truly sorry to have forgotten that.”

  He made an odd sound and turned away, looking out the window. “I’m sorry for it, too.”

  “Perhaps if you gave me a hint,” she suggested. “Where did this conversation take place?”

  His broad shoulders straightened: Without turning, he cleared his throat. “Just there—” He lifted his hand and gestured out the open window. “Beneath the rose arbor. It was morning, a moment after the sun had touched the blossoms and turned the dew to perfume.”

  Thaddeus gave a derisive snort.

  “I think it sounds very nice!” Merlin frowned at her elderly retainer.

  The stranger turned, and she felt a little thrill of pleasure to observe his strong profile as his gaze locked with Thaddeus’s for a long moment.

  “I know,” the duke said to Thaddeus in a low voice. “You’ve never championed my cause.”

  Thaddeus harrumphed. “Much ye care what I think.”

  Merlin looked uncertainly at her old friend. “You don’t like Mr. Duke?”

  The manservant busied himself with the tea tray. “He’ll do. I seen worse rapscallions.” He stacked the plates and added darkly, “But they was lurkin’ behind a Punch ’n’ Judy at the horse fair.”

  Merlin glanced at the duke, afraid he would not take kindly to the disparagement. But the tall man only looked at Thaddeus a moment more and then lifted his hand to cover a light cough as he turned away and stared out the window again.

  She bit her lip, still frowning in question at Thaddeus. He shrugged. “I tol’ ye he’ll do, Miss Merlin. A duke, an’ all that.” He dropped a spoon onto the tray with a clatter.

  That was high praise and strong recommendation, coming from Thaddeus.

  “Excuse me, Mr. Duke,” she said. “But—um—could you tell me…had a date been set for—ah—”

  “Today.”

  He didn’t even turn around as he said it, but the word hung in the air between them.

  “Oh,” Merlin said.

  “Of course, there’s no question of it now.”

  “There isn’t?”

  He stretched out his arm, bracing against the window frame. In a harsh voice, he spoke downward to the cushioned windowsill. “You need time to recover. Time to know me. Perhaps I can—perhaps you might come to—” He straightened and twisted around. “I will win you again. I must. It’s only that I’ve waited so long, been so afraid you were lost to me. To see you lying here, fearing for your very life…and then, when my prayers are answered”—he gave a bitter laugh—“to find I’ve lost all!”

  Merlin touched her lip. “Yes, I can see how that would be vexing.”

  “Vexing!” His green-gold eyes narrowed. He took an abrupt step toward her. “You have indeed forgotten me, if you think that is all I feel.”

  She tucked in her chin as he neared, not quite certain how to interpret the decisive set of his jaw. He dropped to his knees by the bed and took her hand, pressing it to his mouth. “I’m not a patient man.” His breath brushed her skin, his lips moving against the back of her palm. “I’m not. I’ve waited—ah, God, it seems so long! But somehow”—his fingers closed painfully on hers—“somehow I’ll wait longer.”

  “Well, really, Mr. Duke…if you feel that strongly about it…”

  He let go of her as suddenly as he’d taken her hand. “No! I must give you the chance to decide for yourself. It would be selfish—dishonorable—to do less. I could not face myself in the mirror.”

  “Surely it wouldn’t be so bad as that.”

  He came to his feet. “I shall go away. You must have time; you must. I can’t trust myself. I might—” He lifted his eyes, gazing at some unfocused point in the distance. “I might lose what little endurance I possess.”

  “Oh dear—Go away? But where?”

  He shaded his eyes with one broad hand. “I don’t know. Italy, perhaps, or Brazil, but I must think. Let me think.”

  “How ’bout Cheltenham?” Thaddeus suggested. “I hear they likes a good hair-pullin’ tragedy.”

  But the duke did not answer, engrossed in his own dark deliberations. At the words, his expression tightened queerly, and, he raised his other hand, covering his face entirely with his palms. For a moment, his powerful torso seemed to shudder with distress.,

  “Now—see what you’ve done, Thaddeus! Please, Mr.—”

  “The army,” the duke said, dropping his hands. “I’ll buy a captaincy.”

  “The army?” she squeaked. “But aren’t we at war?”

  “Yes, of course. That French fellow. ’Twould be a great relief for my suffering to run a saber through his black heart.”

  “But you could be hurt. Killed, even!”

  Suddenly his fierce yellow-green gaze focused on her. “Would you care?”

  “Well, I—uh—yes, I would! I haven’t even gotten to know you yet.” She looked down, worrying the ring on her finger, unable to hold in the face of his golden intensity. “That is—I mean, again.”

  “Ah, Merlin,” he said. “I do love you.”

  It was spoken so softly, with such a keen, gentle warmth, that she almost doubted her own ears. She looked up from under her lashes.

  It seemed too incredible—this man, this room…and between the two, more physical grandeur than she’d seen in her life. If Thaddeus had not been there, she would have called it all a dream and drifted back to sleep.

  But here was this duke—amazing, intimidating, magnificent creature that he was—looking at her like that, and saying that he loved her…

  He broke the moment with a sudden move, turning toward the door. “I cannot stay. You see, already I press you too hard.”

  “No, wait,” Merlin said.

  His hand was on the knob. “I can’t wait, Merlin dear. If you value your freedom to choose, you will not ask me.”

  “But—”

  He pulled the door open. “No! No. Let us say no more. I cannot bear it. Goodbye, my love.”

  “Mr. Duke—”

  “Wish me Godspeed.” He was halfway out, pulling the door shut behind him.

  “Wait!” Merlin struggled with the bedclothes. “Wait! Just a moment—oh, please, wait!”

  Half an inch from closing, the door paused in its swing. It hung there a moment, and then silently reopened a few inches. “What is it?” he asked roughly.

  “Please wait, Mr. Duke. I’ll marry you.”

  The door opened another few inches. “You will?”

  “Yes, I—today. I mean, if I’ve already made you a promise…”

  He moved into the room and leaned back against the door, both hands behind him on the knob. “I released you from that promise.”

  “Well, I don’t release myself.”

  He took a few steps toward her and stopped. “You’re certain?”

  “Yes.


  “You must be sure.” He moved closer and hesitated again. “Merlin, you must not feel that I’m forcing you.”

  “No. No, I’m sure that if I said I wished to be your wife, then I still wish it. Truly.” She felt shy, and looked down at his shoes. “I can understand…why I said yes the first time.”

  “Merlin.” Suddenly he was at the bedside, on his knees again, kissing the ring on her hand and speaking in that husky, warm murmur. “You’ve made me the happiest man alive.”

  She bit her lip, melting into rivers of wax inside.

  He squeezed her hand. “Today! Truly? Oh, God—where are my wits?” He stood up. “What must I do? The minister, witnesses—we’ll have the ceremony right here, of course. I won’t have you press your health.”

  Merlin watched as the bemusement on his face gave way to something else. He let go of her hand.

  “Thaddeus—” A new snap came into his voice, a tone of command that she hadn’t heard before. “Ring for Collett, and send a message to the Duchess May. I shall see them both in the library immediately.”

  “Hmmpf,” Thaddeus said, and shuffled toward the door.

  “No, leave that tray,” the duke ordered, escorting the old servant out. “Send a maid for it. I shall want you to verify your mark as witness on that special license, and…” His voice was lost as the door shut on the two of them, leaving Merlin alone. She gazed at the back of the door for a moment, and then looked down at the smoky diamond on her hand.

  She closed her eyes, and hoped sincerely that this man who’d decided to be her husband would not always make her head ache so.

  Ransom stopped outside. He allowed one corner of his mouth to curl a fraction as he lifted a brow at Thaddeus.

  “Gi’ me a rotten egg to pitch,” the manservant grumbled. “Silliest damned moonin’ about I never hope to see.”

  “It worked, did it not?” Ransom could not contain his grin.

  “Only because she ain’t got the common sense God gave to a peahen.”

  “Jealous?” Ransom cocked his head. “Never mind! You may give away the bride.”

 

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