The regency romances, p.3
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       The Regency Romances, p.3

           Laura Kinsale

  When Ransom had invited himself to high tea, he’d imagined that the service would be rustic. He’d not been completely prepared for an inedible meal served by a grouchy old man with a head as bald as a baby’s, who seemed to think it the height of effrontery that he should be asked to clear off the dining table so that his mistress and her guest could eat in such unwonted elegance.

  On the other hand, Thaddeus Flowerdew seemed to have no qualms about the propriety of the situation. He left Miss Lambourne in the room with Ransom as if it were an everyday occurrence for an unchaperoned lady of the finest breeding to dine alone with a strange man. A few probing questions and Miss Lambourne’s usual vague answers had assured Ransom that her situation was shamefully irregular. The fact that it made his own mission much easier to have no proper guardian present did not obscure the fact that Miss Lambourne deserved far better than this.

  From the moment when she had mentioned her Uncle Dorian, Ransom had placed her in the social hierarchy. His original assumption that Merlin Lambourne was some obscure country squire had been instantly dismissed when Ransom had realized that he was dealing with the Lambournes, allied to crazy old Sir Dorian Latimer by marriage to a niece. The intricate web of connections formed in Ransom’s mind in utter clarity. As easily as if he’d had a map before him on the table, he could trace the lines of descent and alliance and place each player in proper perspective.

  Miss Lambourne’s father would have been the Colonel Winward Lambourne killed under Cornwallis at Yorktown, and her paternal uncle the late Lord Edward of Cotterstock, which meant the present Lord Edward—handsome, stupid poet that he was—was her first cousin and legal guardian.

  And her mother—her mother must have been the tragically famous Lady Claresta, the beauty of her age. Ransom had seen her once, when she’d visited his grandfather at Mount Falcon. Ransom had been no more than thirteen at the time, but he remembered. Ethereal and lovely, the bluest of blood and the richest of dowries—and deaf. Stone deaf and completely mute. To this day Ransom recalled her smile. He could see it in her daughter: wistful, kind and dreamy, a smile that had made a thirteen-year-old boy groomed to power and position forget his pride and spend an entire week at her service. On his knees. He had loved her—that sad, silent lady—as only an adolescent could.

  He looked at Miss Lamhourne, on a stool now, reaching toward the highest shelf with her pretty ankles plainly visible beneath her skirt. He felt a rush of disgust for the relatives who had buried her here. She’d already been born when her mother had visited Mount Falcon, Ransom calculated. And no one had mentioned a daughter. He would have remembered. He never forgot that sort of thing.

  “Miss Lambourne,” he said abruptly. “Has your family done nothing to provide you with a proper female companion since your mother died?”

  There was a clatter of metal as a rusted spoon slid off the top shelf and bounced on the floor. “Botheration,” she said, and left it there. In a voice muffled by her upraised arm she asked, “What did you say?”

  “A companion,” he repeated patiently. “You should certainly have a respectable lady living here with you.”

  She dropped her arm and looked around at him. “Whatever for?”

  “To uphold the proprieties, of course. No young lady of your age and connections lives alone.”

  “Oh, I don’t live alone! Thaddeus and Theo—”

  “—are of no consequence whatsoever in this instance. You should have a proper chaperon, a lady of decent breeding. For your own protection, if nothing else.”

  Her gray eyes were wide and soft in the dimness. “Protection from what?”

  He could guess what Miss Lambourne’s life had been. Shuttered up with her eccentric great-uncle, who probably had been the only one of the family who would take Claresta and her little girl after her husband had died. Locked up and abandoned, her considerable fortune “administered” by a guardian who had undoubtedly forgotten her existence—it made Ransom’s jaw tighten in a way that those who knew him would have considered ominous.

  “From all sorts of things,” he said harshly. “Any rogue could barge in here and take whatever advantage of you that he liked. Look at the freedom you’ve allowed me, and never demanded the least evidence of my credentials.”

  She turned around on the stool, leaning with her hands braced behind her against the shelves. “Yes, we did have a fellow who stole some of Thaddeus’s garden tools once. But that was years ago, and Thaddeus and Theo beat him to an inch when they found him. No one’s bothered us since.”

  “I didn’t necessarily mean thieves. There are worse dangers which threaten an unprotected lady, if you take my meaning.”

  Her forehead furrowed. After a moment she said, “I don’t believe that I do.”

  “Miss Lambourne, I know you’ve lived a sheltered life, but you must be aware that there are men in this world who would not hesitate to…to…”

  She watched as he stumbled, her gaze as innocent and interested as a wild sparrow’s.

  “Who would not hesitate to take liberties with your person,” he finished brusquely, deciding that the case required strong language.

  With an expression of utterly naive curiosity, she asked, “What kind of liberties?”

  Ransom closed his eyes and released an explosive sigh. “Really, Miss Lambourne, it would not be at all proper for me to discuss such a thing with you. But you may take me at my word. You need a chaperon.”

  She stood frowning at him a moment longer, and he knew he had not made the least progress in impressing the dangers of her situation upon her. He lifted his goblet and took a swallow of the bitter wine as she turned back and scanned the shelves. She tilted her head back and mumbled, “What was I looking for?”


  “Oh. Yes.” She stood on tiptoe and reached once more for the top shelf. In the midst of a thumping and shuffling of jars, she asked, “Are you going to take liberties with my person, Mr. Duke?”

  Ransom choked on his wine, having been caught observing the trim turn of her ankles again. “Most certainly not!” He set down the glass and added in a more controlled voice, “As a gentleman, I do not go about ravishing unprotected females, I assure you.”

  “Oh,” she said, without much interest. She stuck her nose in an open jar and sniffed loudly.

  Ransom watched her, amused in spite of himself. She clearly had no notion of what he was talking about. He found her attitude rather pleasing after years of experience with hard-eyed courtesans and simpering young misses who contrived to swoon at the mere mention of a stolen kiss.

  He sipped at the wine again and then set it down with a grimace. He was determined to find a way to rectify the shameful neglect of her station here. He could be certain, at least, that her cousin’s irresponsibility was not deliberate. Lord Edward Lambourne had fortune enough of his own, and a brain too small to leave room for more than folly and fashion. No, it was pure self-centered preoccupation that had resulted in this travesty of common familial duty. And as much as Ransom abhorred it, he could see possibilities in the situation which could work to his own advantage.

  Miss Lambourne was proving distinctly difficult to dislodge. He’d spent the afternoon attempting to reason with her, but had succeeded only in gaining permission to take the speaking box and use it for whatever patriotic purposes he might be able to imagine. He could imagine quite a few. Indeed, he wanted to shout in triumph every time he thought of the speaking box and the infinite possibilities of communication through thin air.

  But he needed Miss Lambourne, too. Not only to begin work to improve the instrument, to adapt it to use at sea or on a battlefield. And not only to prevent the secret from falling into French hands. No, it was more than that which made him want to remove her from this place as soon as possible.

  He was afraid for her life. He had not exaggerated the way his agent had come to a violent end. She was in danger, he was certain, and that was why Ransom was sitting here chewing tough mutton and making h
imself a nuisance to an elderly grump and his muddled mistress. And why he had no intention of leaving without her.

  She gave a crow of success from her stool and hopped down with a dusty jar balanced precariously in one hand. As she set it before Ransom, he could read the large initials N.A.—C.L. on the label, but the quantity of spidery writing underneath was illegible. Miss Lambourne handed him a spoon and sat down, pink and a little breathless from her exertions.

  “N.A.—C.L.” He frowned at the white crystals. “Are you certain this is salt?”

  “Oh, yes. That would be the chemical formula, you see. Sodium chloride. Uncle Dorian often labeled things that way. He was a great chemist, you know.” She seemed to realize that her reassurance might not be quite the thing to make Ransom completely easy in his mind, and added, “But of course, he would never have kept anything poisonous in the dining room.”

  “Of course.” Ransom peered dubiously at the label, where among the faded script the words “Salt” and “Co. Lvs.” were legible, along with an abbreviation. “Dare I ask what this ‘Aphro.’ signifies?”

  She squinted at the lettering and waved a vague hand. “I expect that means that it’s African salt.”

  He sprinkled a little on his forefinger and touched his tongue to it. The familiar rich and bitter flavor filled his mouth, unmistakeable. He nodded, satisfied, and spread a generous amount over his mutton, hoping to disguise the meat’s blandness if not its texture.

  “I believe we’ll reach Mount Falcon by mid-afternoon tomorrow.” He attacked the mutton once more, taking advantage of her momentary attention by employing the old “assumption-of-success” tactic to advance his ends. “We’ll carry the speaking box with us, and I can arrange to have several trustworthy fellows pack up everything here and follow directly. You won’t be separated from your work for more than a day or two.”

  She took a deep breath—a bad sign, Ransom knew. “Mr. Duke, I’ve been trying to tell you that I can’t leave.”

  “Yes,” he said, taking another diplomatic tack along with a salty bite of mutton. “But you haven’t told me why.”

  “Indeed, but I have. There’s my wing—”

  “—which you can test at Mount Falcon. As I said, all of my resources will be at your service. The west ballroom will be entirely yours, and we have no end of open lawn and steady wind. Much better than what little cleared ground you’ve got here.”

  She bit her lip. A faint sign of progress, to Ransom’s keen eye. He waited, ready for the next objection.

  It came as predicted. “But to move everything,” she said. “It will take months to reorganize.”

  Ransom refrained from commenting on her concept of organization. “I’ll assign you my personal secretary.” He took another bite of mutton. “The man’s a genius at making order out of chaos, I assure you. Everything will be at your fingertips.”

  She looked tempted, and then sulky. “But the speaking box. You’ll be wanting me to work on that instead.”

  “Indeed not—not unless you insist. I would like you to explain its functioning to my secretary, and I’m sure”—here Ransom stretched the truth considerably—“I’m quite certain that he can adapt it to our needs with very little further help from you.”

  “And then there’s Theo,” she said, as Ransom continued stubbornly with the mutton. The salt had somehow made it surprisingly flavorful. “He’s been ill for the last three months. Thaddeus would never leave without him.”

  “Yes, of course.” Ransom put a tone of deepest empathy in his voice. “Identical twins. They won’t want to be separated, naturally. That’s why Thaddeus will have a room right next to Theo’s, where he can be available to carry out the doctor’s smallest instruction without the burden of all this other work the poor fellow’s been carrying.” Ransom shook his head dolefully as he finished off another bite of mutton. He was beginning to enjoy himself. Yes, he was beginning to enjoy himself indeed. He felt exceptionally—astonishingly—well. “Thaddeus has been doing the work of two. I don’t see how he’s managed. And now if you stay, he’ll have to be keeping a strong guard over you in addition to everything else.”

  “A strong guard?”

  “Why, yes, of course, Miss Lambourne.” Ransom smiled at her, finding that in the lingering light from the window she looked lovelier than ever. His pulse began to quicken, watching the mobile curve of her lips, and the fine, soft line of her throat. “French agents,” he said, but somehow the perilous urgency of that thought was fading. She was so ripe and perfect, so adorably kissable. “If they’ve cracked our code—” He lost the thread of that particular sentence and kept smiling at her, fascinated and elated by the shy dip of her head as she glanced at him. “How lovely you are,” he murmured. “So soft…”

  He saw her chin come up and her misty eyes widen. “I beg your—”

  “Ah—I suppose I shouldn’t say so.” He had no idea why he had said so, except that a feeling of vast happiness was expanding inside him. He took another delicious bite of mutton, and another, and looked down to find that he had finished it off. “Blast,” he said. “Is there more of that?”

  She was staring at him, her lips slightly parted. At his question, she looked startled and began to rise. “I’ll ask Thaddeus.”

  “No.” Ransom stood up, too, and caught her arm as she turned toward the door. “No, don’t bother with that. I want…” He paused, looking down into her beautiful eyes. He slid his arms around her and drew her against him. Happy; he was so happy, reveling in her soft shape, her body in his arms. “I want you,” he whispered, bending to her ear. “Come with me.”

  “Mr. Duke,” she said in a breathless voice.

  He laughed. “Call me Ransom.” He rocked her gently, drawing her closer. “Little Merlin. Lovely Merlin. Wherever did you get such a name?”

  “My—my uncle—” She straggled, but he held her easily, like a tiny bird in his hands.

  “I’ll call you Wiz,” he said, kissing the corner of her mouth. “My own wizard. God, you make me feel so good.”

  “I don’t mean to,” she said in a small, muffled voice. She was wriggling, trying to get her hands against his chest. “Oh, dear—are you going to take liberties with my person?”

  “Yes. Oh, yes. I’m going to be wickedly improper. But I don’t care.” Elation and desire sang through him. He caught one of her hands and kissed her palm. “I’ve been proper all my life. I want to make love to you.”

  “Oh,” she said. “Dear me.”

  He smiled into her palm. “Beautiful, silly Wiz. Come with me. Let me love you.”

  “This won’t change my mind,” she mumbled, and then drew in her breath as he kissed the soft skin of her inner wrist. “I won’t leave.”

  “You don’t have to leave. I can love you right here.” She made a small sound, which might have been “Oh” but came out more like a sigh. Ransom recognized that feminine music from a thousand amorous encounters, but this time it filled his soul with special joy. He squeezed her in a burst of adoration and then bent down to lift her. She seemed less substantial than a feather, easy to kiss and cuddle as he strode through the door and turned toward the spiral stairs.

  He had a moment’s thought of Thaddeus, but it only made Ransom chuckle to think of confronting the ancient retainer with Miss Lambourne in his arms. He felt confident, daring; he felt positively heroic. He kissed her and pressed her head against his shoulder, subduing her faint wriggling protests and ducking to miss the stone ceiling as he mounted the stairs.

  His mind seemed to be exceptionally quick and clear. He impressed himself with his quick identification of the bedrooms, based on some long-ago lesson in late medieval architecture. The room he chose held a four-poster bed hung about with thick curtains of an awful, heavy green. He kicked the strap-hinged door closed behind them and leaned his shoulders against it, letting her struggle and slip down to her feet.

  She tried to pull away, but he held her close, burying his face in the curve of her shou
lder, sliding his hands up and down her arms. She smelled like dusty sunlight, warm and human, not perfumed and pomaded like other women he had known. Lord, oh, Lord, he wanted her…He said so, his voice a low groan against her skin, and then hugged her to him in sheer delight. He wanted to laugh. He wanted to hear her laugh. He lifted his head and tilted her chin up, kissing her nose and her eyelashes, smiling down at her.

  “Mr. Duke,” she stammered. “R-Ransom, I don’t at all think you should be doing this.”

  “Ah.” He nuzzled her temple, breathing her special scent. “There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”

  She caught her lower lip in her teeth, and a surge of heat went from his chest to his feet in response. He bent and ran his tongue across her mouth, teasing her lip free and nibbling at it himself. Her breath came faster, warming his cheek. She squirmed in his hold.

  “Don’t you like it?” he murmured. “Oh, Merlin, sweet wizard, let me show you some magic. You’ll think it’s wonderful. Have you ever felt like this before?”

  “No, I—” She gave a little gasp as he circled her nipple with his thumb. Her gray eyes widened, and then she ducked her head against his shoulder.

  He chuckled and held her close. “Don’t be shy, pretty Merlin. I want to see your face when I touch you.”

  “Oh, my,” she said to the depths of his coat. “I do believe there was something in the salt.”

  “Something in the salt—” He nipped at her neck with a playful growl. “Something in the salt, hmm? A love potion, Wiz?” He caught her face in his hands and tilted it up to him. “You don’t need potions. I wanted you from the moment I saw you.”

  He kissed the shocked “O” of her lips, slid his fingers into her hair, and held her hard against his mouth: a deep kiss, a man’s kiss, to brand her his by force. He felt her resistance and then, slowly, her softening.

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