The regency romances, p.32
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       The Regency Romances, p.32

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “Are you cold?” he asked in her ear, when she trembled under his hands, under the sensation of the polished marble at her back and his palms against her naked hips beneath the pool.

  She shook her head, feeling dreamlike, there and somewhere else at once, as if her body was his while her mind had gone far away. He moved back suddenly and an instant later pulled his shirt over his head in a cascade of white cambric and shimmering droplets. He let it go. It floated, a light roughness at her waist. He came to her with water coursing down his face and between their lips as he kissed her.

  Merlin covered his hands at her hips and slid her palms up the slick length of his arms. Near his shoulders she paused, encountering the rough width of damp linen pinned around his upper arm.

  In the darkness it was a pale slash, catching the first dim glow of moonlight above the wall. Merlin touched it, frowning. Remembering.

  The place and moment came back to her clearly—another dusk gone to darkness with him, and blood flowing free instead of water.

  Her fingers slipped over his glistening skin, following the curve of muscle that swept upward in a fine arc of living flesh to his shoulder—perfect harmony of form and strength. As beautiful as the symmetry in a curving wing. As precious.

  “Ransom,” she whispered in the ripple of water. “I have to leave, but…” I love you, I still love you.

  She did not say it. The words came from nowhere, out of memories too hazy to make sense.

  Liquid murmured as he took her in his arms. “You won’t leave. I won’t let you.”

  She did not argue with him. There would be this night to keep when he wasn’t there. This memory; this time with him when his intensity and his power did not try to crush her dreams, but flowed and blended with them the way the fountain poured into the waiting pool.

  She closed her eyes as he caught her mouth hungrily, pressing her back against the stone. She wanted what he wanted. For now.

  Ransom felt her yield, felt her body go soft and willing as she arched to fill the space between them. His own responded instantly. He was already on a violently ascending edge with the provocation of water and darkness and her sleek, warm, naked shape that had teased and withdrawn and teased again—all unknowing, all that unblinking innocence of hers that accepted his outrageous overtures as if it were the most conventional thing in nature to be undressed and ravished in a garden fountain.

  It was why he loved her, he thought recklessly. Because he’d always wanted to take his wife in a fountain, and never before known it.

  The moon cleared the wall behind him, pouring cool light over her face as she tilted it back under his caress. Her lips parted in naive pleasure. The tiny motion sent him soaring: the sharp edge of passion hit its limit like metal searing glass, diamond-hard, pouring sparks into his bloodstream and heat through his brain.

  He groaned, regretting the formal silk breeches that kept him from touching every inch of her and too impatient to get rid of them. And then, moving against her, pulling her down with him as he went to his knees with his hand between them for a hasty instant to free himself, he found the smooth material was an added sensation—water and silk and her skin like no silk ever made by the hand of man.

  He slid between her legs, with his knees braced where the fountain’s base curved into the marble floor. Water, moonlight-silver, lapped high at his chest and covered the tips of her breasts. He held her on his thighs, put his forehead against the base of her throat, and pushed into her.

  He thought he was going to explode.

  He went still for a desperate moment to prevent it. His muscles trembled a little, straining to move against his will. He turned his head, tasting her throat, catching a drop of water and sweet salty skin with his lower lip, scooping the flavor into his mouth on his tongue. He could feel her pulse, strong and fast against the corner of his mouth.

  She did not move. She gave him nothing, but waited on his advance, not having been taught the nuances of loving yet. He thanked God for it; his control was stretched to taut impossibility. But some devil of impatient pleasure took possession of his hands: he slid them upward and spread his palms under her arms. His thumb slipped over one nipple, rubbing a provocative circle around the soft swelling of her breast.

  He got what he deserved. She tightened on him, nestling and arching in his lap. Ransom closed his eyes and tilted his head back, breathing hard. She moved again, and a low moan escaped him.

  “Ransom,” she said, a faint, pleading sound, and it was not a plea he could deny. He swallowed, made himself open his eyes. He moved his thumb across her breast again, slowly. His lips drew back in savage pleasure at the way her head sank backward and her body lifted, asking for more.

  He forced himself to keep his eyes open, maintaining control by watching her. Like a sea-nymph she lifted her dripping arms and circled his shoulders, sending streams of water down his back and chest. He saw her smile, saw her throat tighten as he brushed her nipples again, rotating his thumbs around and around the tender, swelling warmth of her, setting a rhythm that she began to echo with her body.

  It was hard not to move with her. Watch her face; watch her face, he commanded himself, holding back his own response with grim humor. Her fingers worked at the base of his neck, slid down his shoulders, pulling her into him. He ceased to breathe. His muscles corded, wanting to match the rising tempo.

  The faint mists rose around them. She looked like a living sculpture, carved from the night and the moon. There were dreams in her face, in her half-closed eyes as she arched beneath his touch. Her belly slid against his in the water, demanding whatever he had to give.

  He cupped her breast and bent, licking his tongue across the tip that peeked above the water’s surface.

  The sound of her pleasure sent bright torture through his loins. He was shaking now, fighting himself. He played and tugged and caressed her with his tongue while every move she made drove shivers of reaction from his thighs to a place deep and unbearable in his chest.

  She panted, grasping at his back. He dropped his arm, crossing it under her to help her. Like a beautiful sleek fish she flexed and rocked against him, making little moans that blended with the ripple of the fountain and the tiny waves that lapped and quaked against his skin, spreading out in a web of silver across the pool.

  Her moans quickened. She wrapped her legs around him, a move that came as near to killing him as sweet agony could come. He squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in the tender, slick skin beneath her arm, every muscle in his body frozen while she shuddered against him.

  He heard his name beneath her breath, a frantic, beseeching repetition. It drew out into a long note of wordless bliss. She clutched at him. And he came up suddenly off his knees, holding her against him by the firm curve of her buttocks, shoving her back against the unyielding surface of the fountain where she could not slide away from him, where he could pump his life into her in long, deep thrusts.

  Pleasure exploded around him before the water sheeting off their bodies had cascaded back into the waiting pool. He heard himself: a luxurious groan of climax, a fierce tremor, and then he was breathing in harsh gusts in the aftermath, his weight slipping downward on the film of liquid that covered everything.

  Before that lazy slide could drown them both, he lifted himself, pushing away from the slick marble surface.

  “Oh, my,” Merlin said. “Oh, my. That was wonderful.”

  He laughed. With an excess of splashing, he pulled her up and cradled her against his chest. “Wonderful.” He rocked her back and forth, setting up new webs of ripples.

  She relaxed, slipping out of his embrace like quicksilver and leaning back against the fountain with her eyes closed and her faced tilted up to the moonlight. “I’d like to stay here forever.”

  “Not likely.” He moved next to her, leaning his elbow on the gilded fish. “I’m not spending my wedding night in a fountain.”

  She yawned. Ransom slid his arm around her shoulders and let he
r rest against him. They watched the languid streamers of water spin around them and fall in arcs of liquid light. Merlin snuggled closer and yawned again.

  He kissed the curling tendrils of damp hair beneath his chin. “You’re exhausted. Lord, I’ve pushed you hard today, and you’re barely recovered.” He squeezed her. “Come, I’ll take you to bed.”

  She let him lead her up out of the pool, where she shivered in the night air. He found his waistcoat and ran it over her shoulders and legs, soaking up the worst of the water before he draped around her the coat he’d thrown to the pavement. Merlin sat on the edge of the pool and dangled her feet as he waded back in and retrieved her gown and his shirt.

  She thought he looked like some pagan god, emerging from the pool with the white silk breeches molded to him and water glistening on his hair and chest. But he had to wring out the garments like an everyday washerwoman. Then he gathered shoes and stockings and made a damp bundle. “Here. Carry this, if you please.”

  Merlin stood up to take it. As soon as she did, he swept her up and carried her out of the garden with her bare feet dangling. He was breathing a little more heavily than normal by the time he climbed the terrace and then the single set of stairs that led to an open, floor-length window in the dark wing of the house that overlooked the gardens. He ducked through the open window and set her on her feet.

  He kissed her forehead. “Wait here.”

  Merlin obeyed, too tired even to try to peer around the room and identify it. When he came back a few moments later, he had a pair of towels. She stood passively as he rubbed her hair and his own and stripped off the sodden breeches. In a shaft of moonlight she could see him, naked, all polished planes and muscle like a work of Grecian art. In hazy curiosity she reached out and smoothed her hand over his hip, brushing the part of him that was so different from herself. He stirred as she watched in fascination; his hand tightened on the nape of her neck.

  “Mmm.” He breathed lightly on her skin, pushing himself into her hand a little. “Merlin. Come to bed.”

  When she only stood there, swaying with weariness, he picked her up again. He carried her through one door, then laid her on a bed and sank down behind her. The bedclothes smelled of lilac. He took her in his arms and curled around her, his face in her shoulder, his legs drawn up under hers so that the warm evidence of his arousal pressed lightly at her back.

  But he did not initiate any loving again. “Tomorrow,” he whispered when she asked. “There’s time enough. All my tomorrows belong to you.” He stroked her skin and curled his arm beneath her breasts. “Just sleep with me tonight, sweet Wiz.”

  She tried, experimentally, to move away from him. His embrace tightened, holding her prisoner.

  “Rest now,” he ordered softly. “Stay here and sleep.”

  She stared into the dark and pondered that command. So simple, and so crushing in the knowledge that he could enforce it. That all the power in this world was his—he was stronger than she, and slyer, and more ruthless. Like a prince in a fairy tale, he would slay all the dragons and leave none for her. She would be safe. And dull, and pointless.

  She swallowed, feeling his arm relax, his chest rise and fall in steady slumber against her spine. Then she sought his fingers, entwining them with hers.

  One silent tear fell on her hand. Another followed. One for being free of him. And one for being lonely.

  Chapter 21

  She slipped away by kissing him. There was hardly light enough to see when he half-woke as she tried to work her way out of his arms. He hugged her to him, mumbling something about no ride that morning. “Better ideas,” he murmured with a sleepy squint.

  She leaned above him and whispered, “I have to get up. I’ll be back in a moment.”

  He turned over and stretched with an indolent smile, sliding his hand around the nape of her neck and drawing her down for a slow heady kiss. Merlin’s resistance flagged. She pressed herself against the length of him, fascinated by the naked, smooth power of his sleep-warmed shape. But when he crossed his leg over hers and rolled toward her, she scrambled back, out of reach and off the bed.

  He lay with his eyes barely open, his hand outstretched where she’d evaded it. “Don’t be…” He sighed and pulled her pillow toward him instead, shoving it up beneath his head. “…gone…” His thick lashes drifted closed. “long…”

  “No,” she whispered. “I won’t.”

  She stood by the bed. It was hard to leave him. Hard. Painful to deceive. She pressed her fist to her mouth and watched him as he rested in that drowsy, sweet contentment, believing her lie.

  Knowing well that if he hadn’t, it would never have been so easy.

  In his dressing room she found clothes. They were Ransom’s, true, a pair of tawny doeskin breeches laid neatly over the back of a chair, and a voluminous shirt on the horse by the fireplace. Merlin touched her lip as she looked at his midnight-blue coat, white waistcoat, and razors, all stiffly awaiting the duke’s pleasure as if in silent attention.

  She wrinkled her nose and grabbed the shirt, pulling it over her head. The breeches came almost to her ankles and were loose at the waist, but she remedied that by utilizing a conveniently long, starched length of snowy linen as a sash. Footwear was a bigger problem. She was obliged to choose between a pair of top boots which were far too large and some knee-high leather gaiters to fasten over the satin slippers she’d worn the day before.

  She straightened from buttoning the gaiters and squinted through the early morning gloom at her figure in the mirror. With the chestnut tangle of her hair too wild to speedily tame to order, she looked absolutely indecent—like some gypsy boy about to make off with a stolen horse.

  She bit her lip, and glanced around. Ransom’s crimson silk dressing gown hung behind the wardrobe door. She shrugged into that and peered into the mirror again. Satisfied that the floor-length folds gave her a reasonable degree of countenance, she dragged the excess length behind her to the corridor door.

  A soft scraping sound disturbed the silence behind her. She paused with her hand on the knob, looking back. On a table next to Ransom’s shaving articles there was a bandbox, its lid shifting restlessly. As she watched, the paperboard cover lifted, and a beady, black nose thrust out, followed by two paws and a familiar small face.

  “Ssshh.” Merlin poked the hedgehog back into the box and swung it up by the braided strap. Gathering the dressing gown over one arm to keep it from rustling, she let herself silently out the door.

  When she reached the Great Hall, she found the huge double doors already open. The footman looked at her, looked away, and looked at her again with his eyes a little wider. Merlin nodded at him and hurried out the door. Shelby was pacing the steps, flicking his riding crop and staring impatiently into the court.

  He turned at the sound of her footsteps. For a moment he frowned at her, and then he exclaimed, “Good God, Merlin, where are you going rigged up like that? You look like a Cossack.”

  “I couldn’t find my clothes.” She started to hurry past him, but he caught her arm.

  “Where are you going?”

  “To ride.”

  He laughed, but the sound he made didn’t seem very amused. “Is that so? In my brother’s dressing gown and breeches?” He tilted his head and peered at her more closely. “And his cravat for a sash! Very fetching!”

  She pulled the gown around her. “I told you. I couldn’t find my clothes.”

  “And I suppose you’re taking along an equally fashionable chapeau in that bandbox? To embellish your mount’s equine beauty, perhaps?”

  “No, I—”

  A cheerful hail made them both turn. “Your Grace!” Mr. Peale came along the terrace from the direction of the chapel at a measured pace. “Good morning, Your Grace. I have just come from my early devotions, in which you were foremost in my prayers. May I offer you my most heartfelt felicitations and best wishes, which to my great regret I did not have the chance to proffer to you in person yesterday?”
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  Merlin looked at him blankly as he swept off his hat and bowed so low that he almost touched the step below her. The first rays of the sun over the eastern arch sent his long shadow rippling across the stone.

  “He means you,” Shelby said, with a light edge of sarcasm. “Duchess.”

  “Oh.” Merlin bit her lip. She twisted the bandbox around her wrist and bobbed in a little curtsy, holding out the dressing gown.

  Mr. Peale looked at her breech-clad legs and cleared his throat. He seemed to be at a loss for words for a moment. Then he said, “And where might you be off to so early on this fine morning, Your Grace?”

  “Oh,” Merlin said. “Nowhere in particular.”

  “I can’t think how I come by the notion,” Shelby said in ironic tones, “but I have the distinct impression that the duchess is leaving her husband.”

  She frowned at him.

  “I beg your pardon, Lord Shelby.” Mr. Peale gave him a repressive look. “I believe your attempt at levity must be found by any person of sensibility to be in exceedingly poor taste.”

  “Ah. Yes, I see that you must be quite an expert on levity, Mr. Peale. How unfortunate that I was serious.” Shelby regarded Merlin and her bandbox with a speculative eye. “Indeed, I’d advise Her Grace that if she has the good sense to want to desert my brother, she’d do better to let me hire her a post-chaise at the village than go haring off across country in a dressing gown.”

  “Now see here!” Mr. Peale moved up a step. “You can’t do that!”

  “Can’t I? Why ever not?”

  “But she’s married to the duke now,” Peale blustered, as the sound of horseshoes rang in the early morning silence of the court. “She cannot leave without his permission.”

  Shelby swung his crop dismissively. “Don’t be gothic, Mr. Peale. The lady’s not a prisoner here.”

  “Oh, yes, I am.” Merlin looked at the prancing bay stallion that a groom struggled to control as he led it toward the steps. “Can I borrow your horse?”

 
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