The regency romances, p.30
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       The Regency Romances, p.30

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Thaddeus grunted. “’Bout bloody time.”

  Ransom just tucked his hands in his pockets and sauntered down the corridor, whistling a wedding march.

  Merlin had never imagined getting married. At least, if she had, she didn’t remember it. It was all quite bewildering. She sat in a chair waiting for the ceremony, dressed up in a pretty lemon-yellow gown and a lacy white shawl provided by a very nice, very petite lady who hugged her and kissed her cheek without saying much except that she knew Merlin would make her son happy. She also promised, three separate times—as if she weren’t sure that Merlin believed it—that he would make Merlin happy, too.

  Merlin concluded that this lady was the duke’s mother.

  He had a brother, too, who looked like one of the gods in Uncle Dorian’s illustrated volume of Greek mythology. And a sister and nieces and nephews and friends, who all seemed to want to crowd into the magnificent bedchamber and smile and laugh and stare.

  Merlin was glad that Thaddeus was there. And Ransom—that was his name, this man she was going to marry—she was glad he was there to stand beside her, too.

  It was all over very quickly. Thaddeus helped her out of the chair at the proper time, and led her the short distance to where a clergyman and Ransom and his brother waited near one of the great velvet-hung windows. Just when her knees were shaking a little too much to stand up, Ransom took her arm, and somehow made her lean on him without seeming to. She could feel him through the fabric of his coat—solid warmth and easy strength. Then he turned, lifting the little scrap of veil someone had pinned in her hair, and held her by the shoulders and kissed her.

  Not a long kiss. A brush of his lips on hers, a light pressure, but his fingers went tighter on her arms and his body seemed to grow taut beneath the formal clothes as he bent his head. He made her feel small and light, as if she might blow away in the faint breeze from the open window. But he was the anchor, his hands on her shoulders and his golden-green eyes that looked down into hers with a promise that her body seemed to long to answer.

  She swallowed. He made her nervous. She felt positively giddy when he looked at her like that.

  Afterward, she had to sign a paper, and then there was a great outbreak of conversation and laughter as the other people tossed things over them, satin slippers and rose petals, which seemed odd and silly to Merlin. But she could tell that it pleased her new husband, for he held her arm very tight and kissed all the ladies on the cheek and grinned the whole time. She thought he was wonderfully handsome, and he seemed to know exactly what to say to everyone while Merlin could only stand there and cling to him and nod as often as possible. She had her own share of kisses, and not all on the cheek—but none of them were like Ransom’s.

  After cakes and tea and much raising of glasses of champagne while predictions on future happiness were made, Ransom announced with calm authority that Merlin was exhausted and the reception was over. She opened her mouth to protest. She was a little tired, but all the laughter and company fascinated her. She was enjoying it, and besides, she wanted another of the delicious little cakes with a glass of champagne.

  She looked up at him, where he stood beside her chair, and said, “I’m not exhausted at all. Can’t they stay longer?”

  He smiled down at her, not even answering. He continued to accept the final-sounding congratulations that everyone made before they left the room.

  Even Thaddeus left, with a pat on Merlin’s head and a gruff “High time you was made an honest woman,” a comment which brought a quick scowl to Ransom’s face. The frown lingered when they were alone.

  “What did he mean by that?” she asked.

  “Nothing.” Ransom stood behind her, unpinning the veil. “He just likes to take a poke at me whenever the chance arises.”

  “Yes. Thaddeus is that way. But I think he must like you, or he would have told me not to marry you.”

  The veil came free, along with her coiled hair. He slid his fingers into it, caressing her nape with the back of his hand. “Merlin,” he said softly. “Do you want to rest?”

  “No,” she said. Her breath came a little faster. “I’m tired of resting. Why did you make everyone leave?”

  He gave a low sound of amusement. “Hmm. Pure selfishness.”

  “I wanted another cake.”

  He cupped her cheeks and tilted her chin upward, bending over to brush kisses along her forehead and down her nose. “I should put you to bed and let you rest. You don’t know how much strength you’ve lost.”

  “I feel fine,” she said—a small fib. She did feel weak, but the way he was moving his lips in a whisper of warmth across her temple, over her eyelashes, down to the curve of her throat was enough to make anyone feel like jelly. “Oh—” she mumbled. “Whatever are you doing?”

  “Loving you, Wiz.” He lifted her hair, his jaw smooth and warm against her cheek. “Just…loving you.”

  “Why?” She took a deep breath. “Because we’re married?”

  “Mmm…the other way ’round. ‘Better to marry than to burn’—have you never heard that? And I’ve been burning, Wiz.”

  A funny, small whimper escaped her as he slid his hands downward and rested them under her breasts, enclosing her in his embrace. She tilted her head back against his shoulder. His arms tightened. He pressed his mouth to the base of her throat.

  Yes, she thought, as sensation spiraled through her body from the point where his lips touched her skin. Much better to marry.

  He drew his hands away and straightened. “I’ll come back later. I want you to rest.”

  “Rest?” The word seemed to have no context, no relation to the pounding in her blood or the way her throat tingled as if he were still kissing her. “But I like what you were—” She looked up at him. “I don’t want to rest.”

  “I’ll send my mother’s maid to help you change.”

  “But, Ransom—”

  He opened the door. “Rest,” he ordered. “Take a nap.”

  “A nap!”

  “Merlin,” he said huskily. “I’m going to come back tonight.”

  There was a promise in his look, a glimmer of flame in his golden eyes. Merlin wet her lips.

  “Will you stay longer then?”

  He smiled. “I believe,” he said slowly, “that I could manage that.”

  Ransom walked down the corridor, heading for the saloon where he reckoned the guests at his hastily arranged wedding would have migrated to continue their celebration. He’d given instructions to Collett that Mount Falcon’s legendary hospitality should not fail them. He had a notion he could stand a few glasses of champagne himself. Leaving Merlin, all soft and misty-eyed from his caresses, had taken almost as much as Ransom was worth. But she needed the time to relax and adjust. He could tell that; could see the way her face had grown more and more bewildered as the ceremony proceeded.

  Besides, he’d be a laughingstock if he closeted himself all day and night in the bedchamber like some half-grown stag with his first doe.

  Burning. He closed his eyes with a self-conscious grin. You’re smoking like a chimney. Get a grip on yourself.

  He ought to be thanking God she was alive and awake. And he did. Oh, he did. And then he thought of her full lips parted beneath his and his hands in her hair, and his blood ran hot as ever.

  He met his valet emerging from the room where Ransom had been sleeping temporarily.

  “Your Grace,” the man said. “Congratulations, Your Grace. And we’re all happy as tuppence that Miss—ah—Her Grace the new duchess has recovered. Shall I be moving your things back into your own dressing room?”

  Ransom nodded thanks. “Yes. Miss—” he began, and stopped himself. He shared a grin with the valet. “’My wife is resting now. I think we can put off major removals until tomorrow morning. Wait on me in my dressing room then.”

  “Your Grace. Oh, and there is something else—in all that’s happened, I hadn’t wished to bother you with trivia. That hat you asked about…it most p
robably belonged to Lord Shelby. Or possibly Major O’Shaughnessy—it so happens they both use the same haberdasher and wear the same size. But His Lordship’s man said that one of his beavers had turned up missing lately. The major has no valet, so I couldn’t say for certain there.”

  Ransom cocked his head. “Do you have the hat?”

  “Yes, Your Grace. It’s with your things.”

  “Bring it to me.”

  The valet bobbed and disappeared back into the bedroom. He emerged a moment later with the hat. Ransom took it, turning it over and examining it again.

  Yes—Shelby’s, in all likelihood, and so a false lead. His brother might have lost it in The Wilderness anytime in the past two months. But it was an intriguing circumstance that Quin wore the same size and make…and even more intriguing that Quin had been so prompt in beginning an immediate search of Mount Falcon’s grounds after the kidnapping.

  Ransom spun the hat on his finger. He headed again for the saloon, glad to have a little fishing to do, to take his mind off the amorous messages that his impatient blood kept pumping.

  “Hullo,” Merlin said to the slender boy who’d knocked shyly on the bedroom door. “Who are you?”

  His mouth dropped open. “Ma-Ma-Miss Ma-Ma-Merlin! I’m Woodrow!”

  She put her finger to her lip. “I’m sorry. Are you a friend of mine? Ransom says I’ve forgotten things. I suppose I’ve forgotten my friends, too. I’d even forgotten him.”

  “Forgotten ma-ma-my uncle?” Woodrow stared at her. “I ca-ca-can’t imagine anyone da-da-da…doing…that.”

  Merlin shrugged apologetically.

  “Well,” Woodrow said, “it’s a ga-ga-good thing I’ve ca-ca-come. You haven’t forgotten the flying ma-ma-ma-chine, have you?”

  “Of course not. I’m going to go back to work on it immediately. The wings are almost ready to be tested.”

  His eyes became round and distressed. “Oh, ba-ba-but—have you forgotten that, too? The ca-ca-crash?”

  “Crash?”

  “Yes. Your accident. You da-da-don’t remember it?”

  She shook her head, frowning. “Do you mean—You can’t mean I had an accident in the flying machine?” she exclaimed.

  Woodrow looked at her, chewing his thumb. He started to speak and then hesitated. “Uncle Da-Da-Da-Damerell hasn’t told you?”

  “No, I—All he talked about was that we were to be married.”

  “That’s why you’ve ba-ba-ba-been sick. You fell from a very ga-ga…great…height, and hit your head, and you’ve ba-ba…been sleeping ever since.” He moved closer to the chair and took her hand. “It was horrid. Everyone was afraid you would never wake up!”

  “I was flying? I was flying in my flying machine? But I don’t even remember bringing it to the point of being tested!”

  “Yes, you da-da-did! And it flew, Ma-Ma-Miss Ma-Ma-Merlin. It flew! You ba-ba-ba…beat Mr. Pa-Pa-Peminney!”

  “But I don’t remember Mr. Pem—whoever. You say I beat him?”

  Woodrow nodded vigorously. “Yes! It was flying, and it da-da-didn’t ca-ca…crash…ba-ba-because it wouldn’t work! It was da-da-da…deliberate!”

  “What?” Merlin cried.

  “I sa-sa-saw it! There was a ba-ba-ba…break…in the na-na-number taa-ta-ta…two strut, and I know it had ha-ha-been weakened with a ca-ca-copper screw, ha-ha-because I pa-pa…put…the steel one in ma-ma-myselfl I ta-ta-ta…tried ta-ta-to ta…tell Uncle Da-Da-Damerell, ba-ba-but he was so…oh, he was horribly upset about you, Ma-Ma-Miss Ma-Ma-Merlin. He wouldn’t ta-ta-talk ta-ta-to ma-ma-me.” Woodrow bit his lip. “I think maybe…he even ca-ca-ca…cried. It was scary.”

  “But I don’t remember! I don’t remember any of this! You’re saying that I flew, and I don’t remember?”

  “Oh, yes. You da-da-did! Right here at Ma-Ma-Mount Falcon.”

  “Here? I worked on my flying machine here?”

  “In the west ba-ba-ba-ballroom.”

  Merlin stood up resolutely. “Take me to see it.”

  Woodrow’s eyes widened, and then dropped. “Ba-ba-but…it isn’t there anymore.”

  “Where is it?”

  The boy looked at the floor. He clasped and unclasped his hands nervously.

  “Take me to the west ballroom, please.” Merlin walked to the door and opened it, waving Woodrow through. “I want to see it.”

  She saw it. And the sight of the huge, silent, empty room, the painted ceiling, and the trailing strands of hemp that cast long shadows in the afternoon light…Like a mist dissolving to reveal the sky, the fog on her memory began to lift.

  Her flying machine; her beautiful white wind-dream made real…

  “Where is it?” she whispered.

  “Ma-Miss Ma-Merlin…” Woodrow’s voice was painful, small, and grieving in the echoes. “He burned it.”

  Chapter 20

  The Godolphin Saloon glittered with celebration, with hastily donned elegance—bejeweled ladies and high-collared men who succeeded admirably in their determination to make this wedding as worthwhile as any event that had been planned for half a year. Ransom walked in with the hat on his fist, playing with it a little, accepting more congratulations, allowing some slightly tipsy guest to prop the misshapen beaver on Ransom’s head at a rakish angle. He left it there in what he modestly judged to be a masterful imitation of sporting good humor, and worked his way around the room toward Quin.

  Somehow—oddly enough—he tilted his head and the hat fell off as he reached the little group where Quin stood talking to Mr. Peale. Quin caught the headpiece just as Blythe glided up to take Ransom’s arm.

  “Damerell,” his sister said. “I hope you know you look ridiculous.”

  “Thank you, Blythe. But I’ve just gotten married, you see.”

  “I fear your new bride’s personality is already rubbing off. Wherever did you get that disgusting soiled hat?”

  “Do forgive me, Lady Blythe,” Mr. Peale said in a pained voice. “I’m afraid I gave it to him.”

  “Mr. Peale, by the Powers!” Quin said. “I’m shocked, that I am.”

  The reverend blushed, “It was not meant as a—a common jest, of course. I merely found it. Several weeks ago, in fact. Just after His Grace’s new bride was abducted. Of course, she was not his bride at that time, she was Miss Lambourne, but—”

  “The heavenly Father,” Quin said. “I do believe this is my hat.” He popped it on his head and grinned.

  “Perhaps it is, sir,” Mr. Peale said with heavy dignity. “I apologize if you feel I was remiss in not returning it directly to you, but I did not know to whom it belonged. I was going to make inquiries before I put it in the charity box, but His Grace wished to give it to the little girls to play with.”

  “Is it indeed your hat, Major O’Shaughnessy?” Ransom lifted his eyebrows.

  Quin took the hat off and glanced inside it. “Bekins and Sons, Haberdashers.” He clutched his heart with a theatrical grimace of surprise. “Faith, can there be another gentleman in the whole of the King’s realm who knows just where to steal a fine hat for a song? Howsomever”—he handed the hat back to Ransom—“not havin’ lost one to me knowledge, I daren’t try to claim this beauty. Where was it found, now?”

  “The Wilderness, did you say, Mr. Peale?” Ransom set the hat back on his head at the jaunty angle. “Several days after I located Miss Lambourne.”

  Quin looked at Ransom, rather too quickly. Ransom smiled. There was an instant of some emotion in the officer’s face—a flow of confusion in the green eyes, a trace of tightening between his brows. He dropped his gaze, but not before Ransom recognized the faint, faint signs of guilty discomfort.

  He’d expected that. Even if it weren’t Quin’s hat, which seemed most likely, Peale’s find showed the officer as a poor hand at the investigation Ransom had assigned him.

  But Ransom merely nodded, and turned to speak to Blythe, preparing to use his sister to ease away. As he shifted to take her arm, she looked up. Her pale face had
turned to chalky white; she looked at Quin, and at Mr. Peale, and then at Ransom with eyes gone huge with distress.

  “Lady Blythe—” It was a chorus of male concern, with Quin and Peale and Ransom all reaching at once to support her. She clutched at Quin’s arm.

  “Oh, my,” she said weakly. “I feel quite faint.”

  “Lean on me, darlin’,” Quin said.

  He caught her around the waist, but Blythe struggled upright, pushing him away. “No! No, Major, I—mustn’t! Ransom—”

  There was a frantic tone in her voice, a plea that Ransom answered in spite of his exasperation at this excess of prudish sensibility. “Never mind,” he said with soothing gruffness, supporting her as she flung herself away from Quin. “Major O’Shaughnessy won’t eat you, I’m sure, but Mr. Peale and I will escort you—”

  “No!” Her lips worked. She made an effort to straighten, but he could feel her trembling. “I’m quite all right now. I don’t need any help from Mr. Peale. Just let me sit down, Ransom. I want to sit down.”

  He led her to a chair. The commotion had attracted his mother and some other women; thankfully, he left Blythe in the midst of ardent female care. He strolled over to Shelby, who stood sipping champagne near the door, beneath the huge portrait of the Arabian stallion that had given the saloon its name.

  Ransom swept off the battered hat and placed it in his brother’s hands. “Yours, I believe?”

  Shelby slapped the hat on his head and took it off again, grinning. “No. Not in my style at all, I’m afraid.”

  “Isn’t it? I understand Bekins and Sons make your hats for a song.”

  “Aye. Otherwise they wouldn’t be making them at all. Who told you that?”

  Ransom took a glass of champagne from a passing footman. “O’Shaughnessy,” he said pleasantly. “The two of you share an excellent haberdashery, it would appear.”

  Shelby looked puzzled. He turned the hat and examined it. “Ah. Well. Perhaps Bekins is coming down in the world. Give it back to Quin, then, and advise him to take better care of his furnishings.”

 

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