Midsummer moon, p.30
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       Midsummer Moon, p.30

           Laura Kinsale
 

  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 his 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—"

  "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."

  Ransom shrugged. “I think it's more likely yours, Shelby, though it's ready for charity now. You've lost one recently, haven't you?"

  "No."

  Ransom looked up. “No? Think again. Somewhere in The Wilderness?"

  "Of course not. You think I can't tell when a hat's on my head? I didn't even misplace my midnight-blue beaver when that villian of a tinker set upon me. Found it in the bushes."

  "You're certain this one isn't yours?"

  "Yes, quite certain. How could it be? I haven't lost a hat."

  Ransom frowned at his brother.

  "What difference does it make?” Shelby asked. A trace of belligerence had crept into his voice.

  "Some. Shelby, I'd like to know the truth."

  His brother straightened. “You think I'm not telling you the truth?"

  Ransom laid a hand on his arm. “Don't go off half-cocked, thank you. I only mean I'm not jesting, I'd like to know if this hat is yours."

  "Well, it ain't. I said it wasn't. All the hats I can afford are safely stored in my dressing room, I assure you."

  "Your valet keeps better count.” Ransom was smiling slightly, expecting Shelby to look chagrined.

  Instead, his brother looked incensed. “You interrogated my valet about this?"

  "I had my man ask around about the hat. It's your size, your tailor—you've lost one. Fine. No more to it than that."

  "Fine,” Shelby hissed. “Fine. And where was it found? The Wilderness? You think I don't see what you're leading up to?"

  For a moment Ransom looked at his brother, at the proud, angry twist to Shelby's mouth. “I wasn't leading up to anything,” he said slowly.

  "The devil you weren't.” Shelby's soft voice held a sneer. “I know you, brother. I know you well. And the case is building, isn't it? I thought for a time that all this fraternal affection was real, but I might have guessed that as soon as you were on your feet, black-sheep Shelby would be right at the top of your list of suspects!” He downed the last swallow of champagne in his glass and tossed it into the fireplace. It shattered across the grate. “Felicitations!” he said loudly, and then turned to stride out of the room.

  Before he reached the entrance, the double doors swung inward, impacting the brass doorstops with a booming crash.

  Merlin stood in the doorway. She was shaking, her gray eyes huge and wild, her despairing gaze on Ransom. In the silence that followed her entrance, she walked up to him, lifted her foot, and kicked his shin with her satin slipper.

  "You burned it,” she cried into the hush, a cry that drew out and smeared into a moan like a wounded animal's. “Oooh ... I hate you; I despise y
ou; I loathe you. How could you ... do ... this? How could you ... do ... this ... to ... me?"

  "Merlin,” he said.

  "I've remembered.” She sobbed for breath, and began backing away toward the door. “I've remembered. I never said I would marry you. It was all a trick; you tricked me and you burned it. You burned my notes—” Her voice rose in hysteria. “My flying machine and all my notes and everything that I could use to build it again."

  He walked toward her, the only thing that moved amidst the frozen company. Her reaction numbed him; the words and her frenzied expression, the undiluted rancor in her eyes sent pain so deep that he barely even recognized it except as a strange sort of detachment.

  He had not wanted this so soon. He had not wanted it at all. If she had never remembered, he would have been glad. He would have thanked God for the chance to win her freely.

  But he had not understood until this moment the breadth and depth of his mistake.

  "Merlin,” he said again, at a loss for anything else.

  She took a step backward away from his touch, a gesture of aversion that lanced through the numbness, a shaft of bright torment in arctic silence.

  "I'm leaving,” she said, and her voice was a hiss that carried all over the room. “I'm going home. I won't stay here in this house with you an instant."

  She turned away, and he caught her. She shrank from him, a frenzied twist to pull away. “I won't stay here,” she cried. “Do you hear me? I hate you; I hate you; don't touch me!"

  He let her go. He had to think to breathe; his chest seemed paralyzed in a frozen ache.

  She spun away. “I'm going ... home!” Her voice was breaking, quivering up and down in violent notes. “You've tricked me and ... forced me ... and plagued me long ... enough!” Chestnut hair fell thick and tangled over the daffodil dress. When she looked at him, wild-eyed, he did not even think she saw him. She was lost in her anguish, in furious grief. He was only a contemptible thing that was the cause of it.

  A murmur rose from the party, not quite covering the light sound of her slippers on the marble floors. Then she was gone; fled down Mount Falcon's miles of corridors, the froth of yellow dress a memory in the cold hall.

  He turned to the guests. He supposed they thought he should be mortified; he saw the shock and fascination on their faces. But that was easy to deal with. Easy. Let Blythe and his mother do it: let the fabled Falconer diplomacy smooth and distract and cozen away the scandal.

  He felt only this rising outrage, this fury at himself for playing with fate and allowing it to beat him.

  While the company still stared, be raised his glass with a feral lift of his lips and then tossed it after Shelby's into the grate. “Felicitations,” he said, a vicious mock of Shelby, the party, and himself. “I believe I shall need them."

  She was trapped.

  She had no clothes but the billowy wedding dress and satin slippers. She couldn't find her own. The wardrobe in her old bedchamber upstairs was empty, and she dared not ask the maid for fear the girl would summon Ransom. Merlin knew he had followed her out of the saloon, but Mount Falcon was an excellent place to slip down a side corridor and vanish. She'd ceased to hear the sound of his stride behind her when she'd reached the stairs and hurried up them.

  She'd thought of going to Thaddeus, until she remembered that he'd been a part of the trick, too. He'd not warned her of Ransom's treachery; never told her what Ransom had done. Her memory returned in bits and flashes: the way Ransom had ridiculed her flying machine, the times he'd bullied her or deceived her or cajoled her into obedience. He was a tyrant, worse than the worst of Pharaohs and Huns and Oriental Despots she'd read about in her great-uncle's books.

  And her flying machine...

  It was gone. He had burned it.

  Burned it. She closed her eyes, shuddering as if the flames seared her own skin.

  The walled garden where she sat hunched on a marble bench was dimming in the late sun, the big pool and neat flowerbeds sunken and hidden from the windows of the house. The fountain spun—four arcs of water that whirled languidly from the mouth of a gilded fish, catching the orange and pink gleam of sunset at their zenith, then landing with a light ripple that made shadows dance with silver on the water.

  She watched it miserably, grieving for shattered dreams.

  The fountain poured. The rotating streams of water paused, dribbled for an instant, and reversed direction, circling the other way.

  Merlin lifted her head. A trifling memory came back to her, of wishing she could investigate the mechanism that controlled the rotating flow. She lowered her chin again. Another thing forbidden, another path she was not to take. She hated it here, where every impulse had to bow to some decree she failed to understand.

  Well, she was going to leave. There was only tonight to be endured. Tomorrow, as soon as she found her hedgehog and some real clothes, she would be gone, escaped from the confines of wedding gown and satin slippers.

  She lifted her head again. And in a burst of defiance, she stood up and kicked off her slippers and stockings, and dropped her gauzy shawl, wading barefoot into the pool.

  It sloped rapidly downward, deeper than she'd realized. By the time she reached the fountain, the warm water was up to her waist, and the dress floated out like a pale yellow lilypad around her. She grabbed a gilded fin, preparing to scramble up onto the slick curve of the fountain's base.

  "Merlin."

  The word came sharply above the soft splash of water. She jerked upright. Her feet slipped, and she landed backward with a splash in the deepest part of the pool. Surprise and the dress hampered her; by the time she came up, she was gasping for air. Something hauled at the back of her dress—she choked and staggered and found her feet on the smooth marble floor, and twisted around to see Ransom in his sopping shirtsleeves.

  He gripped her shoulders and shook her. “In the name of God,” he shouted, “what do you think you're doing?"

  Merlin went limp and morose in his hold. She might have known that even the smallest rebellion would be unsuccessful.

  "Nothing,” she said sullenly. “It's no business of yours."

  "The devil it—” He stopped short, and let go of her. White linen clung to him wetly, outlining the shape of his torso in the last light of evening. The starch had melted from his collar; his lace jabot drooped on his chest. He expelled a deep breath. “Merlin,” he said, in a voice that shook amidst the slosh of water. “When I saw you there, with that dress floating out, I thought—” He drew his hand down his face, wiping water. “God, you gave me a fright."

  "Why?” She turned away from him, pushing wet hair from her face. “Are you afraid I might ruin your fountain by trying to find out how it works?"

  "Is that what you were doing?"

  "No.” She ducked as a spray of water passed. “I didn't get a chance."

  "Tomorrow I'll have it turned off. You can take it apart and see everything you want."

  "Tomorrow I won't be here."

  "Merlin,” he said, and there was quiet anguish in his voice.

  She put her hand on the golden fin, feeling tears rise. The spray passed again, a gentle ripple and a mist on her cheek.

  He touched her arm, below the sodden puff of sleeve. She barely heard him above the water's light gush as he said, “I'm sorry."

  "You burned it."

  "I'm sorry,” he repeated. “Will you let me explain?"

  She twisted, sloshing water, staring up at him through the mist that had begun to rise. “How could you explain? It's gone."

  His face was a contrast of paleness and shadow. In the twilight, his deep brown hair and eyebrows looked black, dusted with fine droplets from the lazy arcs of water that passed rhythmically over their heads. He looked at her, a long, strained look, and closed his eyes. “No. I can't explain. Not so that you would understand."

  Her lips trembled. Through a blur she saw his arm move, lifting a thin sheet of water as he touched her cheek. His fingers drifted down h
er throat, sliding on warm liquid.

  "I love you,” he said. “I wanted you to be happy."

  "Happy.” Her throat worked in a sob. “How could I be happy in this place? How could I be happy with you?"

  "Oh, Merlin,” he whispered.

  "Why?” she cried. “I don't know why you ... keep me ... here.” Her voice had gone squeaky and out of control. The words began to rush in gasps of fresh despair. “I don't know why you ... took away ... everything I've worked for all my ... life. I want to go home, I—hate you! Oh, I want to go ... home!"

  He caught her shoulders. “You can't go home. Not yet."

  "I can. Why not? I can't stand it here!"

  "You'll have to wait—for a while, at least.” His voice had grown gruff. He gave her a little shake that set water gurgling at her waist. “You're still in danger. You can't go now."

  Desolation welled up in her. She leaned back against his grip, her fingers sliding on his wet sleeves as she pushed at him for release. “I can't wait. I'll forget. I won't be able to remember everything."

  "You can't leave."

  "I'll forget,” she wailed, straggling harder. “All my notes, all my drawings. You burned it all."

  "Merlin—"

  "Let me go! Let me go; let me go.” She fought him, blinded by tears and water. “I hate you. You burned it. It's gone. It's gone ... and I tried so ... hard! I was ... so ... close...” Her voice disintegrated, tearing apart into huge, choking sobs.

  He was stronger than she was; his arms came around her shaking shoulders and drew her close against him. He kept saying her name, over and over, rocking her and holding her, his embrace sure and gentle, offering solace that no one in her life had ever offered.

  He pressed his cheek to her hair. Through the racking sobs he stroked her. He hugged her until she leaned on him, crying harder, crying suddenly for all the times she'd failed and there'd been no one there to hold her, no one there to whisper what he did: that it would be all right; that he was there; he was there; that he loved her.

  She finally held herself away, her breath short and hiccoughing. “Now I can't...” She swallowed and then moaned, pressing her wet forehead to his chest. “Now I ... can't even ... hate you."

 

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