The regency romances, p.4
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       The Regency Romances, p.4

           Laura Kinsale
 

  It was enough, that small compliance, to make him sweep her up again and carry her to the bed. He yanked off his coat and bent over her among the pillows, grinning. He kissed her nose. “Do you know,” he murmured, “in London they say I’m not romantic. All those china-doll debutantes. I think I’m romantic. Don’t you, Wiz?” He sat beside her, caressing her cheek with the back of his fingers, letting them slide down to the buttons at her throat. “Has anyone ever been so romantic?”

  “I’m sure I can’t say.” She wet her full lips. “I really don’t go out much.”

  He stroked her skin where he’d loosed the buttons. She wore no wealth of undergarments. Only a light camisole separated his palm from the soft offering of her breast. As he touched her, her body tightened. She stared into his eyes with dawning wonder, as if he were some magical beast that had just appeared for her perusal.

  “How do you feel?” he asked playfully as he traced an erotic pattern on the warm curve of her skin. “Do you like this?”

  “What?” Her intent gaze had gone unfocused as she gazed at the base of his throat. “Oh…yes, I—oh, my. What are you doing?”

  “I’m going to love you, Wiz. I want you to feel”—he bent over her, just barely brushing her skin with his lips—“delicious.”

  In fact, Merlin felt as if she were chocolate melting under a hot sun. She drew in a deep, shuddering breath, wondering why, if this was what he meant by taking liberties with her person, anyone would ever object to such heady pleasure.

  He tugged her blouse free and spread warm fingers around her torso, sliding his hands upward, carrying the camisole along. His thumbs brushed the underside of her breasts, then circled her nipples again. Merlin jumped and bit her lip, torn between shyness and delight. But there wasn’t room for both in her mind—there wasn’t room for anything but the stunning bloom of stimulation as his tongue washed across the tip of her breast.

  Small puppyish sounds came from her throat as he leaned over, pressing her into the goosedown with his weight. “Merlin,” he whispered: “Little bird, sweet sorceress…Ouch!” He rolled suddenly to the middle of the bed, boots and all, clutching his ribs. “What the devil…”

  For a moment he frowned at her waist and then grabbed at the pocket of her apron, flipping it away from him so that the contents went spilling out onto the floor with a metallic ring. He grinned, leaning on his elbow and looking down at her. “Booby-trapped, are you?”

  Merlin just stared at him, lost in this new pleasure, fascinated by his nearness: the beguiling unfamiliar scent of him; the solid, warm feel of his body pressed against hers. She followed the line of his jaw and the laughing curve of his mouth with her eyes.

  “Ah, God,” he said. “When you look at me like that…” He made a low, velvety noise in his throat and bent over her again, his tongue a warm invasion in her mouth, his boot and thigh a hard pressure against her leg. With one hand he drew her skirt up around her waist, exposing the full length of her legs. Before she could tear her lips free to voice a belated spurt of modesty, he captured her wrist and brought it against him, sliding her open palm downward from his chest to his abdomen. He pressed her hand to the hard shape beneath his breeches, groaning against her mouth as she touched him. Suddenly his hand left hers and tore at his buttons, and then she felt his naked flesh against her palm, smooth and hot and insistent.

  Merlin whimpered, confusion and excitement surging through her. Never had she felt like this, never been this close to another person in her memory. It felt wonderful, a tingling through her limbs, a weakness like water, shyness and exhilaration and a sweet, soaring need. She wanted something, and he knew what it was. He had to, for he gave it to her when she couldn’t name it herself.

  He covered her with his body, holding her down, spreading kisses across her face and throat. His heat nestled between her legs, seeking, sliding against her sensitive skin until she moaned in answer. She arched her back up to capture more and found him waiting, felt the heavy intrusion, a response that was so perfect and unexpected that the pain of it was lost in the pleasure.

  His hands cupped her face as he pushed gently into her. He felt like sun and soft grass and summer wind, and then rougher, like gathering weather, like hard rain and howling gusts. She gave herself up to him, soaring, a wing-free hawk in the wild arms of the storm. His power rocked her and carried her to blue-lit heights, so high she could barely breathe, and then higher yet again, panting and straining, upward and upward until his lightning exploded around her and she cried out in mingled pain and joy.

  She clutched at him, as if she were falling, reeling down through the sun-shafted clouds. He gathered her close, murmuring comfort and love, warming her cheek with his heavy breath. He nuzzled her throat, burying his face against her skin. “Merlin.” It was a groan. “I’ve never felt like this. I think I—” He swallowed and made another wordless sound. “You’ll say this is impossible, and my God, it is impossible, but I think I love you.” He stroked her torso and then her face, tracing her eyebrows and her lashes. “I love you. Merlin, Merlin, I love you. Do you believe me?”

  He sounded so desperate, so suddenly human. She opened her eyes, trying to focus on the question he’d asked. “Of course,” she mumbled in confusion, taking refuge from his intensity in quick agreement. She pushed ineffectually at her skirt, but he caught her hand.

  “No,” he said. “You’re beautiful. Don’t be shy of me.” He ran his fingers along the smooth, damp line of her inner thigh. “Did you like it, Merlin? Did I please you at all?”

  Her mind felt like jelly. She could only nod again, not even understanding the question.

  He caught her hand and carried it to the joining of his legs. “You pleased me,” he said. His voice was strange and thick. “Lord, that’s the understatement of the century. Do you feel that? For God’s sake, I already want you again. Merlin, sweet Merlin—I want you. All of you. I want you to think of me and nothing else.”

  “But my wing design,” she protested. Her voice sounded weak and breathless as he shifted his weight across her. “`ave to think of that.”

  “The devil take your wing design. Must you be so bloody literal?” Stiff cotton rustled as he pulled her blouse halfway down her shoulder. He kissed the soft skin of her underarm. “Sweet Jesus, you are lovely. I can’t bear it. I have to love you again.”

  “Shouldn’t you take off your boots?” Merlin asked timidly. “Thaddeus will be furious if you get mud on the counterpane.”

  He looked up, offense and laughter chasing one another across his handsome features. “I didn’t change for dinner, by God. Why should I change for dessert?” He leaned over her. “Besides, His Grace of Damerell never has mud on his boots.”

  “Oh.” The syllable came out a gasp as Merlin felt the hard length of him penetrate her again in one smooth thrust. His hands slid beneath her buttocks, lifting her into him.

  Merlin’s body answered with a surge of excitement. She knew what to expect now, knew where the deepening rhythm led. It was as wondrous as any discovery she had ever made. In her intensity she abandoned shyness, the wing design forgotten along with the rest of the world. When he kissed her, she kissed him back. His tongue swept into her mouth, and his arms tightened around her, drawing her with him as he rolled onto his back.

  He took longer this time. Much longer. He pulled the blouse and camisole off her and caressed her shoulders and neck and breasts. Over and over, Merlin trembled on the verge of that lightning explosion. She worked clumsily at his shirt buttons and tugged at his cravat, baring the smooth, hard muscle of his chest and throat. A faint sheen of perspiration turned his skin to shadowed marble in the deep twilight.

  He pulled her down until she could taste the salt of excitement on him. “Merlin.” His voice was breathless at the base of her throat, his hands sending sparks from her breasts to her belly. Suddenly he clasped her to him hard and rolled atop her again. She heard her name in broken, whispered repetition, and then it was lost in a low moa
n, in his fingers gripping her arms and his face buried in her hair.

  She thought for a wild moment that they might die of this, that the breath would never return to her lungs and the exquisite agony would burn her to ashes. But she lived through the climax, through the burst of lightning and the long fall, and a moment later felt his thrust, prolonged and shuddering, and a sound from deep in his throat that had no meaning beyond ecstasy.

  The daylight faded, and with the last of it, Ransom’s illusions. He lay with his arms around her, staring at the deep shadow of her hair against the pillow. He felt, for a few moments, suspended: hung between the brittle heights of elation and the strangling, sickening swamp of horror.

  It was a peculiar experience, as if he saw himself—a man, with a woman, lying sated on a bed in the gathering dark. He knew himself content. He knew happiness; that much was left of the wild tide of emotion that had swept him to this moment. He knew that the quiet rise and fall of her breasts beneath his hand gave him pleasure. Simple pleasure, heart-deep. A satisfaction he had never in his life felt so completely.

  But that was the man on the bed. The man who had taken a woman as if he owned her, when he did not. Who had just violated every sense of decency and honor Ransom had upheld for a lifetime. The man lay there, in possession of an innocence still lovely in destruction—able to feel the smooth curve of her arm, to smell the warm scent of dust and love on her skin.

  Ransom hated that man. Betrayal burned through his veins, turned to raw anguish as the last moment of unreality passed and he became that man.

  “No,” he groaned in helpless fury. The crime was committed; he had done it. He had—the man who should have protected her. His duty, his morality, his honor as a gentleman…

  She turned toward him, and in the deep dusk he could see just enough to know that she smiled. Remorse gutted him. He wanted to howl with it. He laid his head back and covered his face, pressing his fingers into his skull until he ached with the strain of holding back his cry of rage.

  “Mr. Duke,” she whispered, and touched his arm.

  He grunted, unable to command his tongue.

  “Mr. Duke,” she said, a little louder. “I know I don’t get out much, but really…” There was a tone of wonder in her voice. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone quite like you.”

  Ransom began to laugh. He laughed until the bed shook with it, until she sat up and began to make ineffectual attempts to relieve him—little fluttering pats on his back and singsong “There nows,” as if he were weeping instead.

  And he wanted to weep. He could not believe it. Never in his lifetime, not raging or drunk or sober, had he discarded all control and let his passions have free rein. To act without thought was the greatest sin he could imagine. Ransom had been trained to discipline from his first rational moment, had been drilled in the consequences of power, in his duty to wield it with precision and care.

  He was human; he had his desires and his weaknesses, but to act on them to the ruination of someone else, to the injury of an innocent girl who had every right to expect all the strength of his protection…

  “Oh, God,” he said, his voice a rasp of stupefied rage. He turned his face downward into the pillow. “Oh, God,” he moaned, and curled his hands over his face. “Oh, God…” he hissed into his palms. “There was something in the salt.”

  Chapter 3

  “Never thought to see the day,” Thaddeus grumbled, thumping a plate of burned bacon and tomato down in front of Ransom. “Never thought to see a bastard eatin’ at me own table.”

  Ransom swallowed the urge to take out a few more of Thaddeus’s already scarce teeth. “Mind your own affairs,” he said stiffly. “I’ll make it right.”

  “’Tis me affair, ye bleedin’ sod.” A cup of cloudy, lukewarm tea hit the table with a clatter. “I took care of her, I did; it’s what me an’ Theo’s done for years, all right and tight, and then you come along in your gentleman clothes and smooth talk and what’s she know about it? Ain’t never seen a blighter the likes o’ you, she ain’t. Don’t know a randy sonofabitch from a mare’s hind end—”

  “Enough.” Ransom’s command would have frozen King George in his royal tracks. “I said I’d take care of it.”

  Cold toast rattled ominously in its rack as Thaddeus dropped it in the general vicinity of Ransom’s plate. “Spilt milk,” the old man said darkly. “I’d like to know how you’ll be cleaning it up.”

  “I’ll marry her.”

  Thaddeus stopped on his way to the pantry door. “Will ye now?”

  Ransom made no answer. He bit into his charred breakfast and glared.

  “When?” Thaddeus persisted.

  “When I obtain a license.”

  “Bishop Ragley’s to home, over at Barnstaple. Half an hour an’ ye can be there.”

  To his utter disgust, Ransom felt himself flushing. Ragley, for God’s sake. One of his grandfather’s oldest cronies. Ransom could imagine it, confessing the sordid story to the stiff-necked cleric, asking—begging—for a special license. His gorge rose just contemplating the humiliation.

  “I’ll ride into London and bring the license back,” he said, and then felt double disgust at the notion of explaining his intentions to a meddling servant.

  Thaddeus turned and shuffled back. “That won’t do, sir. Won’t do at all.”

  “Get on with you,” Ransom snapped. “Cursed impudence.”

  “Cursed blackguard,” Thaddeus muttered.

  Ransom thrust his chair back and roared, “I’ll marry her, damn your eyes! What more do you want?”

  “Today.”

  Ransom stared at the old man, his jaw quivering with suppressed rage. Thaddeus stood his ground, holding out a jam-pot as if it were a knight’s shining sword. In a concerted effort to gain control of his temper, Ransom narrowed his eyes and looked down. He selected the least-crumbled piece of toast and put it on his plate. After a moment Thaddeus moved forward and spooned a blob of marmalade onto the bread.

  “She’s sleepin’ like a lamb up there,” the old man said. “Like an innocent babe.”

  “I’ll speak to her when she wakes.”

  Thaddeus plopped another spoonful of jam onto the toast. “Never knowed a mother, not as she could remember. Ain’t had no proper life at all.”

  “I can see that,” Ransom said sourly.

  “Sure ye can.” A third scoop of marmalade hit the mound with a liquid plunk. “Fine gentleman like yourself, knows just how to take advantage of a trustin’ lady.”

  Ransom clamped down on a retort. Another spoonful of preserves quivered where Thaddeus dropped it and then slithered over onto the blackened bacon.

  “Her poor mother, that fine, gentle lady, she must be turnin’ over in her grave,” Thaddeus went on, spooning a further heap of marmalade onto the growing mound on Ransom’s plate. “And we promised her—lying there on her deathbed, she was—me and Theo promised her we’d take care of that little girl. And we done fine, too, until here comes Mr. Fancy Dancy”—preserves splattered across the bacon and dripped from the wrinkled tomato—“without a by-your-leave, all set to turn our Lady Claresta’s little girl into a wh—”

  “Don’t you say it.” Ransom came to his feet, shoving his chair aside. In the sudden silence his words filled the air with soft menace. “If you value what’s left of your life, old man, you won’t finish that sentence.”

  Thaddeus drew himself up, his bald head coming no higher than two inches below Ransom’s shoulder. The manservant glared at Ransom for a long moment and then began vigorously scraping the last of the marmalade out of the pot and spooning it all over Ransom’s food. “Bullyin’ meself for your own sins,” he muttered. “Hit me, hit me, see if it makes ye feel a right one. Go on, now, while I ain’t lookin’. While me back’s turned, that’s the way. Me old neck’ll snap like a twig, I warrant. I won’t feel a thing. Won’t have to worry for me poor mistress no more, won’t have to work on me hands and knees in the garden, won’t have to
—”

  “Oh, for the love of God.” Ransom flung his tattered napkin down onto the table. “Go saddle up my horse.” He kicked the chair out of his way. “On second thought, don’t touch my horse. If your cooking skills are any example, the beast would be lame before it reached the front gate.”

  “Where’re ye goin’?” Thaddeus asked, hope and belligerence mingled in his querulous old man’s voice.

  “I’m going to Barnstaple. I’ll be back with the bishop this afternoon.”

  From the window of her laboratory, Merlin watched him ride out of the dooryard.

  So.

  He was gone.

  It left a funny feeling inside her, that departure. Funny and quivery and sad, a lot like the way she had felt when Uncle Dorian had died, but worse, for this time she felt it was somehow a failure of her own, that this man who had arrived in her life like a burst of electricity had wanted to befriend her but had found her lacking. Last night he had held her in his arms, after his strange, angry laughter faded, and then when she’d awakened, he’d been gone.

  She’d bathed in cold water as usual, except this time it wasn’t usual, for she’d washed away all the traces of the astonishing experience of the evening before. She’d tiptoed to the door and heard him, downstairs with Thaddeus. An odd panic drove her away when what she’d really wanted was to see him again—to touch him, to hear the laughter in his voice.

  Merlin, Merlin, I love you. Do you believe me?

  She looked down at the leather-bound stack of papers she’d assembled. Twelve dozen, she’d counted out, and then in a burst of hope added a few extra, just in case he had more scientific friends than he had first imagined.

  But he was gone now. Merlin bit her lip and rubbed at the binding with her fingertip.

  Well, she thought. Perhaps I’ll donate them to the universities myself.

  The bell on the speaking box shrilled. Merlin swallowed the stupid lump in her throat. He hadn’t even taken the speaking box, in the end—the invention he had come for.

 
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