Midsummer moon, p.33
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       Midsummer Moon, p.33

           Laura Kinsale
 

  In the dim corridor, a footman standing in a pool of candlelight came to attention. Ransom hesitated. He had an order to give, but he was afraid that his tongue would not obey him. The stammer hung at the back of his throat. He closed his eyes, gathering himself, trying to collect the pieces of shattered illusion.

  "Wake Mr. Collett,” he said finally. “Tell him that he is to place a"—here Ransom had to pause, to force his tongue around a word that nauseated him—"bodyguard ... with Lord Shelby. At all hours. My"—Ransom had to wait again, for the physical mastery of his tongue to speak—"brother,” he managed eventually, “is not to leave the house."

  The footman bowed, impassive. “Your Grace,” he said, and turned away.

  Ransom walked a few steps down the corridor. Beyond the ring of candlelight, he lost momentum. The shadows beside a marble column made a refuge. Like some mongrel dog he hid in them, leaning his cheek against the stone to suffer a wound that was only just beginning to lose its numbness and turn to agony.

  The saloon door slammed. Shelby's boot heels set up an echo in the hall. He passed Ransom, saw him, and stopped.

  "It's not true,” Shelby said.

  Ransom wanted to believe that. He wanted it so badly that he did not trust himself to speak, or move, or think straight. He simply looked at Shelby.

  "I had your bank draft delivered to Rule.” His brother stood stiffly, hands locked behind his back. The faint candlelight picked out his features in perfect profile and turned his hair to sculpted gold. “I got my notes back. I gave them to you. I did what I said I would. This—thing—you saw—” He held up the crumpled receipt. “I don't know what it is, or whence it came. I've taken no money from Rule since you told me what he was. Before God, Ransom."

  "Yes,” Ransom said softly. “It would be necessary for you to claim so, wouldn't it?"

  Shelby's mouth took on a grim curve. “Claim so?"

  "Either way. Traitor or dupe ... you have to protest your innocence."

  The grim curve became murderous. “You don't believe me."

  "Shelby.” Ransom let out a slow breath. “I cannot afford to. Not anymore."

  "Because of this?” Shelby cried viciously. He flung the paper to the floor and stepped forward. “I ought to kill you. I don't take the lie from man or mortal."

  Ransom straightened. He was an inch taller than Shelby, and he used it. In a low, snarling voice he said, “You'll take from me what I hand out, my friend. There's enough suspicion hung around your neck now to drown an ox. Try to press me, and I'll forget family honor and do my task like any other of the King's magistrates—let the evidence swallow you whole."

  "Family honor!” Shelby hissed. “Since what century have we concerned ourselves with that?"

  Ransom stared into his brother's furious blue eyes. “You tell me. You tell me, Shelby."

  His brother's gaze faltered; rose again. “Do you think I'm in Bonaparte's pay, then? Do you think for sixty thousand pounds I sold Merlin to that damned Corsican pirate?"

  "He da-da-da ... didn't!” Light poured into the corridor from the saloon's open door. Woodrow stood in the portal, his small figure throwing a long shadow across the floor. “Ma-ma-ma ... my pa-pa-papa wouldn't da-da-da ... do that!"

  "Master Woodrow.” Peale appeared in the doorway behind the boy, sounding flustered. “This won't be any of your concern, my dear child. Forgive my presumption, Your Grace—but shall I ask the boy's mother to take him to his chamber?"

  "Unnecessary.” Jaqueline glided into the corridor, taking Woodrow's hand. Instead of turning away toward the stairs, she drew him with her to Shelby's side. “I wish to hear, and Woodrow, too, these accusations against his father."

  Ransom glanced down the hall, where the whole party was crowding now into the cool marble corridor. He swore beneath his breath.

  "It's none of your affair, ma'am!” Shelby said, equally furious.

  Jaqueline lifted her head, her magnificent violet eyes calm. “It is."

  "Why?” He moved away from her a step and swept a bow to the others. “Anxious to see me hanged by the neck? State your case, brother—we've judge and jury here to try me!"'

  "Shelby,” Ransom said in a warning tone.

  "Nay—let's go at it! I'll begin myself. The suit is watertight, Your Grace; the evidence is heavy.” Shelby flung out his arm recklessly. “You said so not a moment past! There's knowledge first—there's knowing what a muddlehead like Merlin is worth and why you brought her here. There's—"

  Ransom caught Shelby's arm. “Don't do this."

  Shelby jerked away, his fine nostrils flaring with temper. “No, let them hear! They deserve to know what a viper you've held to your bosom. Listen now—the tinker's camp—who took her there? I arranged it. I dangled the bait of a pinion gear, and she fell right into that little trap, didn't she?” His blue eyes glittered. “And I drugged myself, of course! To lull away suspicion. The temple was my triumph, though. Who but you and Blythe and I knew of the temple room till now?"

  "No! Papa—” Woodrow tried to reach for his sleeve, but Shelby swung away.

  "We took an oath on that, we three. Would I hold to a childhood oath? Look at the progress of my sorry life, ladies and gentleman,” he sneered. “Look at the fact that I sank to the tune of sixty thousand under a gentleman of French connections and make your own conclusions. Oh, yes, and that amazing, incriminating hat! It's mine, you say? Well, how shall I defend against a blow like that? I haven't lost one, nay—but it must be mine. Why, the case must be rested on that point alone!"

  "So rest it,” Ransom said darkly.

  Shelby turned a scornful look upon him. “Embarrassed now? You only care to assert your accusations in private?"

  "I only care to recover my wife. And see that any bastard who put her in danger is drawn and quartered. If you're responsible, then count your days, brother. They have a limited number."

  "But he's not!” Woodrow cried. “It wasn't my papa. Everyone knew about Miss Merlin's pinion gear and how she wanted it. And he isn't the only one who knew about the temple, either! I saw Aunt Blythe there, and she was showing Major O'Shaughnessy—"

  "Woodrow!” Blythe hurried forward. “You little beast, you swore to me—"

  "I'm not carrying tales! It's important, don't you see? He thinks my papa tricked Miss Merlin and put her in the temple, and he didn't."

  "Oh, I feel faint.” Blythe put her hands to her eyes and moaned. “Shelby!"

  He looked toward her keenly, making no move to support her as she swayed. “What's this? New evidence?"

  "Mamá!” Blythe crumpled to her knees. “Oh, I'm ill. Help me!"

  It was Quin who knelt quickly beside her, cradling her head against his shoulder. “Darlin',” he soothed. “It's all right; it's all right; don't be frightened, my love."

  Blythe whimpered and clung to him, pressing her cheek to his Chest.

  "Now, see here, Major!” Mr. Peale exclaimed in a scandalized voice.

  Blythe stiffened. “No!” She struggled to sit up. “Get away from me—don't touch me! Oh, God, I can't bear—"

  "Be still,” Ransom snapped. He stared coldly at Quin. “O'Shaughnessy,” he said, “I'll have the truth from you, I think."

  Blythe moaned and buried her face in her hands. The officer tightened his hold on her quivering shoulders.

  "Your Grace,” he said. “May I—in private—” He set his jaw. A deep flush was rising in his face. “Your sister, sir, for her sake—"

  Ransom took a step forward. “I am out of patience, Major. Here and now. Did she show you the temple room?"

  "Your Grace,” Quin said in a rush, “I wish to marry Lady Blythe!"

  Dead silence greeted his announcement. Then Shelby began to laugh.

  Quin glared up at him. His face went from red to white, but he only gathered Blythe's hands and held them to his lips. “Don't weep, love. Don't."

  "How touching,” Shelby crossed his arms and leaned back against the marble pillar. “It very nearly
makes me ill."

  Quin kept his head bent, but his broad shoulders went still and tense.

  "When did she show it to you, Major?” Ransom asked.

  Still Quin did not look up. He pulled out his handkerchief and bent over Blythe, gently applying it to her cheeks. She grasped at his hands, shaking her head violently.

  "Sshh, darlin',” he murmured. “It will be all right.” He looked up finally and met Ransom's eyes. “I first went there with her not long after I arrived, sir."

  Blythe began to rock and whimper. Quin held her close.

  "I suppose I needn't inquire as to why,” Ransom said.

  Quin took a deep breath. “Your Grace. I love her."

  "Yes, I think you'd damned well better. Any other reason for your actions chills me."

  Blythe buried her face in the handkerchief. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Oh, I want to die!"

  "Lady Blythe,” Mr. Peale said in a stricken voice. “Lady Blythe. Has this criminal used you ill? Has he ruined your good name, and for no more reason than a villainous plan to abduct Miss Lambourne?"

  Quin jerked around. “You slimy little—I'll horsewhip you for that!"

  "Your paltry threats do not frighten me, sir!” Peale cried. “I'm a man of God, but choose your weapon—I'll go out with you to avenge this calumny! She is far above you, and yet you've dragged her down into the muck of your base de—"

  "Good God, Peale,” Ransom interrupted. “Take yourself off. I can't stomach a rejected suitor's hysterics right now."

  Mr. Peale gave Quin a trembling glare. “Your Grace,” he said without looking at Ransom. He turned around, and with a jerky stride, disappeared into the dark.

  The Duchess May came forward. She gave Quin a look that Ransom found unreadable. “Please help my daughter to her feet, Major O'Shaughnessy. I believe she had best retire now."

  "Oh, Mamá,” Blythe said, muffled in the handkerchief. But she leaned on Quin as she rose, and let him hold her for an instant in a tighter grip before she turned into her mother's arms.

  "So affecting,” Shelby said when Blythe and the dowager duchess were gone. Quin stared at a point near Ransom's feet, not answering.

  "I would like to hear all of this story,” Ransom said to him. “From the beginning."

  Quin's lips tightened. He glanced toward Woodrow and Jaqueline.

  Ransom nodded in mocking answer to the unspoken question. “Yes, Woodrow will stay. I need one word at least that I can depend upon."

  The boy looked up at him, eyes wide. He stood a little straighter.

  "Major,” Ransom prompted with a nod of command.

  "There's little to tell, sir. Her Ladyship is blameless."

  Ransom's mouth flattened. “So blameless that you'd hang for it? I have some choice, you know. I can believe you forced yourself on my blameless sister and then blackmailed her into telling you the key to that room, or I can believe she was not so innocent, but a willing party in a flirtation that went a bit far."

  "It's not—” Quin scowled. “I meant that—Damnation, what do you want me to say? I flirted with her, aye! It was a challenge at the start. And then, when she came to me—when I learned to see—” He paced away, stopped, and looked at Ransom suddenly. “You don't know her! No one here knows her, or looks past the damned Falconer fortress she's built around herself. She's lived in your shadow until she's almost lost her own will. That puffball Peale—that pompous little bag of air—why do you suppose she suffers him, but that he has your sanction? She would have married him a half dozen times over if I'd not begged her to think. If I'd not—” He turned his face away, rubbing his mouth.

  "Damaged the goods?” Shelby suggested dryly.

  Quin swung back. For an instant, there was murder in the air. Ransom moved a step, putting himself between them. “If you were meeting my sister at the temple, why didn't you find Miss Lambourne when she was held there?"

  "We didn't go then. We hadn't gone. Not for weeks. Apparently Mr. Peale told her he had been walking in the vicinity. She grew quite ... panicked ... over the possibility that you would find out. You saw her—that day you brought the hat to me and she thought that it might have been mine! She almost swooned.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “She was terrified. How could I have told you that I knew of the temple without explaining how and why? Without doing what she fears most in the world—lessening her in your eyes?” He set his jaw. His scattering of freckles stood out against the white lines around his mouth. “It's been a month—a full month since she's allowed me to ... meet her—in private."

  "Do you believe this?” Shelby asked scathingly. “Let me tell you a different version. This fellow made love to our sister until he seduced her. He found out about the temple from her and planted that tinker with his damned pinion gear at the gate where I come and go. When Merlin and I fell right into the trap, he made his move, and put her where no one would think to look."

  Ransom grimaced. “Shelby, what the devil is this damned pinion gear you keep raving about?"

  "Miss Merlin's!” Woodrow said. “She needed one very badly for her wing control. We all knew it."

  Ransom narrowed his eyes. “All?"

  "Oh, yes. Quin and Papa and Aunt Blythe and Mr. Peale and Mamá and I. Everyone who was helping with the flying machine."

  "I see.” Ransom frowned. He looked at Shelby. “It was a bluff. It wasn't ribbons she wanted from the tinker, then."

  His brother shifted his feet and nodded. “I should have known, of course. I thought it an odd coincidence, that the shabby fellow carried pinion gears with his pots and pans. But that's not the point! The thing's being nailed on me, Ransom; I've been made to look as black as pitch. And now—I ask you—who pulled down that book with this supposedly in it?” He kicked at the paper on the floor. “Who made sure it would be found? I am not stupid, brother. If I had something like this to hide, for God's sake, would I put it in a book in plain sight in the saloon?"

  "I don't know,” Ransom said slowly. “I don't trust myself to know."

  Shelby made a sound of furious disgust and turned away. Other footsteps reverberated in the corridor. Mr. Collett, looking disheveled, came hurrying toward them with two footmen behind him.

  "Your Grace!” He bobbed into a hasty bow. “I've men to stand bodyguard, as you asked. Something untoward has happened, I fear?"

  Shelby twisted back on his heel. He stared at the footmen.

  "A bodyguard,” he said softly. “Oh, Ransom ... Ransom ... do you think I'll forgive you for this?"

  Ransom kept his gaze hard and level. He did not, could not—would not believe that Shelby could betray him. And for that alone, for that one immovable conviction, he had to let his order stand. Because blind love made a miserable substitute for reason.

  He turned away to Mr. Collett. “Put a guard on Major O'Shaughnessy also. By my authority as magistrate they are both under arrest. Neither he nor Lord Shelby leave the house at any time."

  "But you can't!” Woodrow's high-pitched cry rang in the hall.

  Mr. Collett bowed his head. With an uncomfortable cough, he began to issue low-voiced instructions to the footmen.

  "Uncle, you don't think Papa kidnapped Miss Merlin?” Woodrow gave Ransom's coat a frantic tug. “You don't! He wouldn't do that; you know he wouldn't!"

  Ransom put his hand to his eyes. “Woodrow—"

  "No, listen to me! I'll find Miss Merlin! I'll find out who did it. It wasn't my papa. I know it wasn't!"

  Like a coward Ransom chose retreat, with no way to answer or explain, no buffer against the scared disbelief in his nephew's eyes. As he started to move away, Jaqueline stepped out of the shadows where she'd stood, half-forgotten. She placed a hand on Woodrow's arm and hushed him.

  Ransom came face to face with her, and halted.

  "I understand you.” She looked into his eyes. The faint flicker of candlelight turned her violet gaze to deep velvet. “You are a duke and a magistrate, and cannot be a man. But...” Holding her chin like an
Amazon queen, she reached out and lightly touched his chest. “There is the law"—she lifted the hand that had touched him to her lips—"and there is the heart. So. Woodrow and I, we do you the service, Duke. We take your heart with us ... to keep it safe where you wish it to be."

  She reached down and grasped Woodrow's hand. He clung to her, giving Ransom one last trembling look. But when Jaqueline slid her arm through Shelby's in spite of his baffled frown, Woodrow instantly grabbed his father's other hand.

  "Now. Come,” Jaqueline said. “Perhaps we can persuade our bodyguard to play spillikens with us until it is time to go to bed."

  Ransom watched them down the hall, the footman making a hesitant foursome as Jaqueline engaged him in bright banter as if he were a newfound guest. Shelby said nothing. But he held Woodrow's hand and he kept Jaqueline's arm, and the rigid set of his spine and jaw had gone to something less than killing fury.

  Brava, mi prima, Ransom thought. Bravissima one more time. He closed his eyes. Thank God you never miss a cue.

  Chapter 22

  "They are the French,” Merlin hissed. “Don't you know anything?"

  "Now, see here, young lady!” Mr. Pemminey's chubby mouth pursed. “I think I would know it if my sponsors were French. Why, they speak the King's English better than I."

  Merlin dropped her head back against the creaking wooden settle. She put her hands over her eyes, blocking out the cluttered, book-lined interior of Mr. Pemminey's tower room. “Of course they speak good English.” She glared at him through her fingers. “It's a secret, don't you see?"

  Wispy gray sideburns flew as he shook his head. “No, ma'am, I do not. They are high-minded, farsighted men, who have seen the value of my labors when others have laughed. Why, their generosity alone—"

  "Yes, yes, I know it's very hard when people laugh, but you can't just go off and sell your work to the enemy!"

  "The enemy!” Mr. Pemminey's round face turned as red as Ransom's crimson dressing gown. “I say, Miss—uh—what did you tell me your name was?"

 
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