The regency romances, p.39
The Regency Romances, p.39Laura Kinsale
“Look!” Woodrow gasped.
Up the hill, an odd gust of wind had torn the flying machine away from one of the four soldiers. The apparatus was lifting, one wing rising high in the air. Unattended, the horses began to dance anxiously at the peculiar sight. While Merlin watched, everyone else started to run. The canvas expanse shuddered as it caught the wind under its full surface. In a majestic tumble the machine wheeled over.
Horses bolted everywhere. Ransom grabbed at the harness of the black mare in the phaeton’s traces. Up on the hill, someone managed to grapple a wing tip, but the wind had sway now. It snatched the machine and sent it in another graceful somersault toward the cliff. Frantic figures pursued it, clawing and clinging to any purchase. In devilish cooperation, the wind and the spread of canvas worked together to defeat recovery.
In a succession of flips and kite-wheels, the flying machine evaded every attempt to restrain it. Struts began to break, but the spread of cloth was still enough to catch and hold the vigorous wind. At the summit of the hill, where the cliff dropped down to the sea, the machine seemed to pause and hover tauntingly, one wing raised like a drunken salute.
For a moment the white surface was silhouetted against the sky. Then it fell, vanishing behind the summit. A row of human figures lined the edge, staring downward where the machine had gone.
“Aren’t you going to help?”
Merlin turned to see Ransom leaning against the phaeton’s traces, his shirt-sleeved figure white against the mare’s shiny black hide. The horse had calmed again once the flying machine had vanished. He let go of her bridle and crossed his arms.
“I don’t think there’s much to be done,” Merlin said. “Poor Mr. Pemminey! First his castle, and now this.”
Ransom looked at her in a strange, intent sort of way. Merlin touched her lip, remembered not to chew her finger, and clasped her hands behind her back. It was never very comfortable, being subjected to the Falconer stare. “What have I done?” she asked defensively.
“Get in,” he said, straightening suddenly and motioning at the phaeton. “I want to talk to you.”
Merlin wet her lips. At a second dose of the Falconer stare, she wiped her hands on her pants and obeyed. Ransom gave her a hand up into the high perch. He walked around the other side and swung himself into the seat. The carriage rocked forward.
“Are we going home?” Merlin demanded. “What about everyone else?”
“The lovebirds can ride double,” he said sourly.
She clung to the seat as the phaeton jolted on the country track. For the first time since Ransom had arrived, she recalled she wasn’t wearing a skirt. She pressed her knees together in embarrassment and hunched over, trying to hold on and cover her legs at the same time.
“Never mind that,” Ransom said. “You aren’t in imminent danger of ravishment by me, you know.”
“Oh,” she said. And then added hopefully, “Perhaps I will be later on.”
The phaeton had followed the limestone track down into a little hollow. Ransom reined to a halt. “Merlin,” he said, turning toward her, “I want to say something to you. Something important. What’s happened today has been a monstrous revelation to me.”
She nodded and smiled. “Yes,” she said. “Flying will do that.”
He took a deep breath and looked ahead. “It certainly will.” He set his jaw. “Merlin…I’m afraid I’ve forced you into a very unfortunate mistake. I—” He frowned. He rubbed the reins between his fingers. “I’ve come to see today that I would never make a satisfactory husband for you.”
Her eyes widened. “You wouldn’t?”
“No. You’ve been right all along. We shouldn’t have married.”
“I’ve tried to stifle you, Merlin. And you should not be stifled. Nor hedged about with rules and restrictions. You should always be free to go wherever your mind can take you. As high and as far…” His mouth tightened. He shook his head.
Merlin frowned down at her lap. Wind rustled the long grass around them and lifted the strands of the mare’s silky tail.
“I’ve never done you justice, Wiz,” he said. “Not for one moment. It makes me ashamed.”
She fitted her fingers together, rocking back and forth a little. “I don’t mind.”
“It flew. You said it would. It was your design—I don’t believe for an instant that Pemminey had the wit to devise it.” He stared off at the horizon. “I found out some unpleasant things about myself today. I’m an overbearing idiot. I’ve a dread of heights. I knew that, of course, but I never knew I could let it interfere with my judgment. Not so very far.”
Merlin looked up. “You’re afraid of heights?”
“You didn’t notice?” he asked dryly.
She blinked at him. “Oh,” she said slowly. “I see! And you were going to get on the flying machine, weren’t you? Until you looked over the edge. I expect it was seeing those tracks. And the cliff. Yes, I can imagine that would be very daunting.”
He cleared his throat. “I’d prefer not to discuss it.”
“I’m afraid of snakes,” she confided. “I understand.”
“Do you?” His fingers tightened on the reins. Chalk and soot mingled in smudges on his strong hands. “I was going to stay there, Wiz. I was so…beyond reason…that I was going to stay there on top of a powder keg and be blown to Kingdom Come rather than face that fear.”
“But you didn’t.”
He scowled and shrugged.
“And there was the cliff,” she said. “You stole in on that path around the cliff, didn’t you? Why, that must have been just as difficult—right there on the edge, with the cliff down below you, and the wind blowing so hard—as if it would knock you off on purpose. And having to look down at the rocks, and see the birds flying down there—I should think that would be very distressing for someone with a dread of heights. And then there was that steep ravine that one had to jump, with nothing to hold on to—”
He coughed uneasily. “Must you be so descriptive?”
“I think you were very brave.” Merlin looked up at him, at his harshly marked face turned partially toward her. “I think you’re the bravest person in the world.”
“Well,” he said. “I certainly have you fooled, don’t I?”
She leaned on his shoulder, tucking her arm through his elbow. “I’m not so stupid.”
“I am.” He disengaged her gently and moved away. “It’s taken me until today to see it. I’ve run roughshod over everyone I care for. I’ve thought I knew what was best, and I’ve used every advantage and prerogative and chance I could find to bend you to my will. To make you give up your flying machine. And look what my will has been based upon. On fear, not on wisdom. A child’s bugaboo instead of principle.”
Merlin sat up straight, faintly piqued that he would not respond to her overture. “What difference does that make?”
“What difference! All the difference. Don’t underestimate me, Merlin. I’m damned good at what I do. And what I do is manipulate and pull strings and play politics until I get what I want. I’ve been brought up to it. I’ve been told all my life that I’m the one who makes the decisions. I’ve tried my best to make the right ones, but now…I don’t know…” He ran a hand through his dusty hair. “I just don’t know anymore.”
She pursed her lips, looking at him sideways. “I’m sure no one can expect to be right all the time.”
“If I can’t expect to be right, then I’d better not be managing things.” He squinted at the horizon. “Shelby said something to me, almost the first day that you came. He said I would make you miserable. And I would. That I’d run your life to suit my convenience. I don’t want to do that, Merlin. You deserve more than that…so much more.”
“Wings,” Merlin said softly.
He looked toward her, an arrested look that softened into a brief nod. “Yes,” he answered. “Not a cage of my building.” He
“I don’t want you to change.”
“No. You’re wiser than I.” His mouth curved downward, the scowl deepened by a smear of black at the edge of his lips. “You had the right of it when you ran away from me.”
Merlin sat still, gazing at her hands. “I wish I hadn’t,” she whispered.
If he heard her, he took no notice. “I’m sorry, Merlin. I was a selfish, love-blind fool to think I could force you to live under my control.”
She felt a knot gathering in her chest and a growing dread of what he would say next.
“You didn’t force me, exactly,” she murmured.
“No. Nothing so crude.” He flicked his hand. “We have a little more finesse than that, we Falconers. I only took advantage of you when you were weak and confused, and tricked you into it.” The bitterness in his voice hardened into determination. “But that can be remedied, Merlin. I want you to know that. The marriage can be annulled. You weren’t in your right mind when you agreed to it. You were coerced. Your legal guardian knew nothing of it. I’ll have the best solicitors in the land put to work. The marriage can be dissolved, never fear.”
The knot in her chest grew to a lump. She tried to swallow it and did not succeed.
She gripped her hands together. “You mean, I would go home and everything would be just as it was?”
“Yes.” He turned toward her and took her hands in his. “Just as it was. Or any way that you want it to be. I’ll see to that. Whatever you need, Merlin; whatever you wish for—you can write to me, and I’ll see that you have it.” He looked down at her hands with a painful smile. “Even a Vaucanson pinion gear.”
“I don’t know…” she said timidly. “What if I thought that I would like to stay married?”
“That’s all right,” he said without hesitation. “That would be far easier than an annulment. But you wouldn’t be free to marry elsewhere in that case, you know.”
“If you met someone else. That might happen, Wiz.” He touched her cheek. “You won’t wish to live alone there forever.”
She kept her face lowered, blinking at the blurriness in her eyes. “But if I was kidnapped,” she said, “who would rescue me?”
He caught her chin. “Merlin, Merlin—don’t you understand what I’m saying? You have this talent, this marvelous genius—and I’d be forever in your way, trying to turn you toward my goals, the way I did on the speaking box. Keeping you from your own dreams when yours might be the greater.” He cradled her face, moving his thumbs across her cheekbones. “If you were a different person, it wouldn’t matter. But with you…I feel like a fox trying to mother a newborn chick. Sooner or later, my discipline would break. I’d swallow you in one gulp.”
“I’m not a newborn chick.”
His thumbs traced her lips. “You seem like one to me. You feel like one.”
Merlin looked up at him through her eyelashes. His face was very close, the stern set of his mouth softening. He lowered his head and brushed her lips, then tilted her chin up and deepened the kiss, sharing the taste of chalky dust and his warm skin, the familiar shape and scent of him.
“My discipline’s breaking already,” he murmured against her mouth.
“Oh, Ransom,” Merlin said, sliding her hands around his waist. Her voice had gone vague and dreamy as he pressed light kisses at the curve of her throat. “I don’t think I…want to…go home anymore.”
Abruptly, he pulled away from her. Merlin opened her eyes, an objection and a plea on her lips, but before she could voice them he retrieved the lines and slapped the mare on the rump. The phaeton bounced into motion. Merlin grabbed the seat for balance.
“Do you see?” he said, over the creak of the wheels. “You’re too damned easy, Merlin.”
“What does that mean?” she demanded.
“It means I can make you do just about anything I wish by dangling the right carrot. I don’t want that kind of power over you. It isn’t good for you, and it isn’t good for me.”
“Make me do anything!” She glared at him. “And what is it you wish me to do? Take Thaddeus and Theo home and forget all about you?”
“I won’t.” Merlin crossed her arms. The phaeton jolted over a rock, and she had to hastily uncross them again. “Do you know what I think you’re doing?” she yelled. “You’re just being a bully again. First you bully me into marrying you, and now you’re trying to bully me back out again.”
He looked at her and then at the road. “I’m not bullying you, for God’s sake. I’m trying to do what’s best for you!”
“I call it bullying.”
“I thought you wanted to go home. You packed up your bloody bandbox and left me.”
“I changed my mind.”
He gave her another glare that lasted until the carriage bounced over a rut. “You mean you’ve decided to become obstinate.”
“So—” She shrugged. “Just dangle a carrot! Or kidnap me and put me where you want me.”
He jerked his head. “Yes. And see how long you’d stay there. You and that damned peripatetic hedgehog.”
“That’s what I’ll do!” She sniffed. “Now that I’ve learned how to get on in the world, I think I’ll go and see more of it.”
The carriage slowed. “Is that right?” He gave her a narrow look. “How much more of it?”
“Where is Afghanistan?”
The black mare bounced to a halt.
“Can I hire a post-chaise?” Merlin asked haughtily.
He dropped the reins and gave her the Falconer stare.
Merlin lifted her chin. “Shelby will tell me.”
She could see Ransom’s jaw clench. He turned away from her and transferred the Falconer stare to the mare’s rump. For a long time, there was no sound but wind and the jingle and creak of the mare’s harness when she moved.
Merlin bit her lip. “Ransom,” she said in a small, hopeful voice, “if I got to Afghanistan, do you think you might come and rescue me?”
He turned his face a little away from her. “You have a few carrots of your own to dangle, don’t you?”
She flipped the trailing end of his cravat back and forth across her knee. “Would you come?”
“You left me,” he said gruffly. “You ran away.”
“I suppose it must be very hot there. Do they have tigers in Afghanistan?”
“I won’t change,” he said.
Merlin frowned at the gray-green horizon of the downs. “I would need to be rescued from tigers, I should think.”
“I’m too old to change.”
“And snakes!” She stiffened and looked at him with wide eyes. “Do they have snakes?”
“You’d rescue me from snakes, wouldn’t you?”
He slanted a look toward her. “I might. What would I get out of the bargain?”
Merlin touched her lower lip, thinking.
“Obedience?” he suggested. “Deference? Respect for my opinions?”
“All that?” she exclaimed. “It’s only snakes.”
“Yes,” he said sweetly, “but I’ll have to go all the way to Afghanistan to fight them off. And one doesn’t get there in a post-chaise, my dear.”
She cocked her head curiously. “How does one get them?”
“I don’t think I’ll tell you,” he said as he pulled her into his arms. He buried his face in the curve of her throat and began to kiss the tender skin beneath her ear. His hands shaped the outline of her body from her breech-clad hips to the base of her breasts.
Merlin tilted her head back, taking a deep, luxurious breath. “Why won’t you tell me?”
He held her chin up with his thumbs and kissed her parted lips. “Because,” he muttered between warm caresses, “I damned well don’t have the time to go.”
A harvest moon hung full and heavy over the garden, sending cool light to turn the gilded furnishings to silver. Merlin stood at the window of the darkened bedchamber. She crossed her arms, draped in Ransom’s borrowed dressing gown because she’d managed to mislay her own so badly that even the maid couldn’t find it.
She heard him move behind her and turned.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked, eyeing his unclad figure in the moonlight. “It’s November, you know.”
He put his arms around her and pressed against her back. “Do I feel cold, Wiz?”
She leaned against him. “Not in some places.”
“Mmm.” He brushed aside her loosened hair and kissed her neck. “What are you doing staring out the window, Mrs. Duke?”
He groaned. “About what?”
“Things.” She twisted a little, looking up at him. “What happened to our speaking box?”
“Ah.” He rocked her gently. “I’m afraid it’s been swallowed up in the Admiralty’s confidential files.”
“Was it never put to use?” she asked in disappointment.
“It’s the Admiralty’s secret. It may be we’ll never know.”
“I’ll wager you know,” she said wisely.
He raised his eyebrows. “Do you care so much what happened to it?”
“Well…I hoped that it would do some good. You said it would.”
He kissed her nose. Then he ran his forefinger down it and gave her a subtle smile. “Nelson won at Trafalgar, did he not?”
Merlin tilted her head. Her lips curved upward in an answering smile. “Ah. I probably saved thousands of lives,” she said. “I’m good at that.” She settled back against him and watched the moonlight. “I’m rather glad that you arranged for Mr. Peale to get away. I shouldn’t have liked for him to be hanged.”
“Merlin,” Ransom said patiently, “I wish you will not say that I arranged for him to ‘get away.’ Not in public, at any rate.”
“I won’t,” Merlin promised.
His low chuckle vibrated against her back. “The incident did have a nice Falconer twist, I must say. Full confession of activities and a list of members in his spying ring in return for dropping charges of treason. How was I to know there was a Navy press gang prowling just outside the door as he left?”
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