The regency romances, p.6
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       The Regency Romances, p.6

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “Yes,” she said. “Now I know how to fly.”

  Humoring her, he’d judged it best to say nothing to that. And after a moment, giving him a long, deep look from those mist-colored eyes, which seemed unexpectedly to penetrate to the very heart of him, she’d said, “I cannot marry you.”

  Ransom clenched his jaw and leaned forward, burying his face in his arm. It was the failure that galled him. He did not like to fail, and the state of his physical passions made this debacle a particular torture. He’d not felt so hurt, so angry and ill-used, since he’d been falsely accused of stealing Latin noun declensions from his younger brother’s phrasebook.

  He leaned back and closed his eyes. Lord, but he was tired and frustrated, to become as sensitive as a schoolboy over the befuddled Miss Merlin Lambourne. He tried to relax, to clear his mind, but the moment he drifted toward sleep he began to dream of Latin grammar, and of kites that tangled on the ground and would not fly.

  He wrenched his eyes open on a low moan. The room was quiet. Outside, the moon had set. The fog had risen, blotting out the night sky. He nodded off again, this time to a nightmare of flying, on a kite that took him ever higher, horrifyingly high, so high that he could not even imagine the ground, until suddenly the kite dissolved and he began to fall—his worst fear, his personal terror—and he had no breath to scream, no hope—

  He came awake in a shivering sweat. The diamond-shaped windowpanes were cool and hard against his face. He lay against the glass and metal network, holding his breath while his heart thudded in his ears. At first the other noise seemed part of that, only a distant echo of the sound of his own night fear. He exhaled slowly.

  As he took his first conscious breath, his mind and body snapped to full awareness. He froze. The pounding of his blood rang in his head, but it could not conceal the sound he heard.

  Footsteps.

  There was someone else in the room, and the still air was laden with the smell of ether.

  Chapter 4

  It was the sickening-sweet smell that penetrated Merlin’s consciousness first. In some dreaming, deep corner of her mind, she recognized it from long ago days in her great-uncle’s laboratory. She turned over with a groan and lifted her head, mumbling, “Uncle Dorian?”

  Darkness and silence answered her. Awareness prickled, pulling her from the edge of sleep. She struggled up with her hands braced in the depths of the down mattress. “Uncle…”

  It came to her suddenly that Uncle Dorian was long passed away. The chemical odor burned in her nose, nauseatingly strong. She fumbled for the counterpane in the pitch blackness and threw the bedclothes back.

  The rude impact against her face caught her completely by surprise. Her scream choked into a gagging whimper under the saturated cloth and strong hands that forced her mouth and nose into the strangling muzzle. She kicked out, once and hard. Her foot connected with yielding flesh. The answering grunt of pain seemed distant as thickness smothered her thoughts and dragged her down, until she was lost in emptiness and the stench of ether.

  When she came to awareness, she was afraid to open her eyes. Sickness pressed in her throat, aggravated by the rolling motion that rocked her body from side to side in a warm cradle. She lay as still as possible, glad of the firm support that at least held and protected her from the worst of the motion. As the nausea receded, her mind struggled to shake off the lingering effects of the ether. She pieced together the movement and the sound of horse’s hooves and the rhythmic squeak of wheels and decided that she was in a carriage.

  With a sense of detachment, she concluded that she had been kidnapped. For a while, it seemed unimportant. It was enough to overcome the last waves of sickness and meditate vaguely on the notion that her abductors were rather thoughtful to press a cool, sweet-smelling cloth to her forehead.

  Eventually, though, she began to come to her full senses. Detachment tightened into a knot of dismay. It had happened, just as the duke had warned her—the enemies of her country were dragging her off against her will, to be forced to work on their nefarious projects, or to be tortured, or to have her throat cut, or…or…What had Ransom said would be worse than that? She couldn’t remember, but she was sure it must be horrible. She stifled a moan and peeked beneath her lashes at her surroundings.

  It was daylight, the gray and watery sun barely illuminating the elegant red satin interior of the carriage. She was being supported in a surprisingly comfortable position across one seat. The opposite seat was occupied by another victim, a man laid out bound and gagged, still unconscious, his bruised and bleeding head lolling helplessly with the motion of the coach. The sight of his injury made Merlin cravenly glad that she had not had the chance to put up serious resistance to her captors.

  The bound man was no one Merlin knew. She hoped that Thaddeus and the duke and Bishop Ragley had escaped safely. The fear that they had not made her go weak and trembling and awful inside. She lay thinking warm, miserable thoughts of how they had only wanted to take care of her, especially Ransom, how his shouting at her had only been concern, and she had been too stupid and obstinate to listen.

  Oh, but she should have listened to him! He would be beside himself when he found out she’d really been abducted. The thought of how furious and frantic he might be made a hopeful lump rise in her throat. Perhaps he would rescue her. She would forgive him for shouting at her if he did. She would even forgive him for breaking her kite.

  She began rehearsing suitably grateful and contrite phrases under her breath, such as, “Mr. Duke, I can’t thank you enough for saving my life, and I know you didn’t mean to ruin my experiment.” Or, “It really doesn’t matter that you made fun of my flying machine, Mr. Duke, not since you risked your life to rescue me.” Or, in response to his abject apology for destroying her kite, “It’s nothing, Ransom. Really it doesn’t matter. I can make another one, I think. Yes, yes, I can, I’m sure of it. Almost sure of it. Oh, Ransom—” She sniffed, suddenly overcome by the realization that most probably she would never see Ransom or Thaddeus or Theo or her flying machine again. “Oh, Ransom,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to you.”

  “Are you indeed?” he said. “I’m bloody glad to hear it.”

  Merlin jumped, so abruptly that she nearly slid off the seat with a deep sway of the carriage. She scrambled upright, catching the lavender-scented compress as it fell from her forehead. “Ransom!” she gasped. “Whatever—I was afraid you—But what are you doing here? Oh, no,” she wailed, “they’ve captured you, too!”

  He had been grinning at her, resting casually back against the seat with his beaver hat cocked, but at that he looked indignant. “They most certainly have not. That fellow in the other seat turned out to be a poor hand at fisticuffs in the dark. Dropped him with one good right.”

  He looked pleased with himself. Merlin sat holding her forehead and trying to puzzle out the sequence. “So you have rescued me already,” she said.

  “In a manner of speaking.”

  “My,” she said wonderingly, “I must have been carried a long way for you to have to bring a coach to fetch me home.”

  His self-satisfied smile turned grim. “You aren’t going home. Not just yet.”

  “I’m not?” She pursed her lips. “Well. I suppose I might wait a day or so, if you think it necessary. But I hope I can remember how I made the kite that long.”

  “I’m afraid a day or two won’t suffice, my girl. I’m taking you to Mount Falcon for an indefinite visit.”

  She sat up straight. “You can’t do that. I don’t want to go.”

  “Consider yourself abducted, then.”

  “I will not! You’ve rescued me.”

  He smiled. “Actually, I fear I’m the one who kidnapped you. You didn’t recognize my shriek when you nearly unmanned me with that gallant kick last night?”

  Merlin blinked. She frowned at him, and at the unconscious man on the opposite seat, and pressed her aching temples. Finally she said in a glum voice, “I do
n’t believe I understand.”

  “Poor Wiz.” He slid his arm around her shoulders and drew her close. “You don’t have to understand. Just let me take care of you.”

  She resisted him for a moment and then gave in to the steady, comforting pressure of his embrace. She drew in a shuddery sniff and blew her nose on the lavender cloth. “That seems altogether too s-simple.”

  “Does it?” His breath ruffled her hair. “It’s begun to seem quite perfect to me, Wiz.”

  She said tremulously, “I suppose you still want me to marry you.”

  He rubbed the back of her hand, a gentle touch that made the knot in her chest go queer and melting. “I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s a hard world, Wiz. I wouldn’t want you to suffer for my sins.”

  “I liked what you did,” she said in a small voice. “I think Bishop Ragley is stupid to call that a sin.”

  He was silent for a long moment. His finger traced the bones in back of her hand. He took a deep breath and let it out harshly. “Some times and some places, it is most definitely a sin. It was unforgivable, what I did. I’ll live with it all my life.”

  Merlin bit her lip. “Will it make you very miserable?”

  “Ashamed,” he said softly. “Unspeakably ashamed, to have hurt you.”

  “But you didn’t hurt me.”

  “In the eyes of the world, Wiz, I’ve ruined you. I know you don’t understand that. I hope you never do. I hope you let me make the only reparation I can and allow me to marry you.”

  “But my flying machine…” Merlin hesitated. “You don’t like it.”

  His fingers paused in their gentle rubbing. “I never said I didn’t like it.”

  “My ‘damned flying machine,’ you called it. ‘A bloody fantastical flying machine.’ You said I would most likely break my head.” She swallowed. “That’s what you said. I remember.”

  “Well, most likely you would break your head,” he said in a reasoning tone. “I wouldn’t stand by for that any more than I’ll let you be condemned for what I’ve done to you. I’ll do my best to keep you from hurt, Wiz. I swear it.”

  “But you don’t understand.” She shifted in restless frustration. “I’m building a flying machine. It’s going to fly, not fall.”

  She felt the deep breath he took and held. “Merlin,” he said gently, “people don’t fly. Birds fly. If people launch themselves off a cliff with a pair of wings attached, they fall. They’re killed.” His arm tightened around her shoulders with a faint shudder. “I don’t imagine it’s a very pleasant way to go, either.”

  “You don’t understand,” she said despairingly. “You don’t understand. Wouldn’t you like it, to be able to fly? To go as high as you could and see everything; to go as far as the wind goes, as fast…” She sat up away from him. “I can do it. I know I can. It’s more than just attaching a pair of wings. Oh, it’s much more than that. It will work. Someday. I’m certain of it.”

  He had a very odd expression on his face, dismay mixed with amusement and something else, something warmer and more affectionate. “Then at present I fear that we shall have to agree to disagree.”

  Merlin looked at her lap, disappointed in his lack of response to her dream. “I suppose so.”

  She felt his gaze on her, alert and probing. The carriage rocked along in silence. At length, he said, “But you wish not to marry, I take it.”

  She did not answer.

  “Merlin,” he said softly, “your flying machine isn’t you. Don’t let it overwhelm what’s really important.”

  “But it is important!” she burst out. “It is me. I mean…” She paused, struggling for words. “There’s nothing else to me but that. It’s what I am. I’m going to invent a flying machine that works. Uncle Dorian always said so.”

  He scowled, leaning his elbow on the windowsill and pinching the bridge of his nose. Merlin watched him from beneath her loosened hair, noting the way the vague sunlight picked out his strong cheekbones and the clean, commanding line of his jaw. Though he frowned, there was still that touch of warmth about his mouth, amusement mixed with impatience that softened the unyielding angles and planes of his face.

  He was like no one she had ever seen before—completely composed on the outside, perfect, immaculate in his dress and manner and yet radiating energy, a focused power that would sweep every obstacle from his path. It dawned on her that he really had kidnapped her, that he was carrying her away against her will, and she had not made the least move to stop him after that first instinctive kick. Which hadn’t, she thought gloomily, appeared to have hindered him in the slightest.

  He toyed with her fingers, lifting each one separately and letting it fall with the sway of the carriage. “I think,” he said finally, “that it might be best if you left off with your work on the flying machine for a space.”

  Merlin stiffened, pulling her hand away. She stared down at her balled fist. “That’s impossible, Mr. Duke.” She heard a very faint breath of amusement from him and corrected herself quickly. “Mr.—um—Ransom, I mean.”

  He lifted her chin. “That’s very nice,” he said. “To have you use my Christian name. I don’t hear it very often.”

  “It’s easier to remember.” She tucked her chin in, trying to evade his touch. It was hard enough to keep her mind clear without having him look at her in that disturbing way. “And I’m very sorry, but I cannot stop working on my aviation machine in favor of the speaking box.”

  “Well, then,” he said easily, “don’t work on either. Think of your stay at Mount Falcon as a holiday.”

  She bit her lip, frowning stubbornly.

  “Merlin.” His voice was very soft. “It grieves me to hear you say that there’s nothing else to you but your great-uncle’s fanciful dreams. It’s not true.”

  “It is. What else have I invented? Oh, once I made a kettle that would boil water with electricity, and there’s the speaking box, but who would care about something like that?”

  “I suppose there might be some harebrained fellow who’d take an interest in a speaking box, but I wasn’t talking about inventions. There’s more to life than mechanics and chemistry.”

  “I like mechanics,” she said. Then, in a burst of honesty, she added, “I’m not very partial to chemistry, though.”

  “There are children, for instance. Have you never wished for a family?”

  Merlin opened her mouth. She closed it. She thought of the house where she had been brought up—quiet when her great-uncle had been there and quieter still after he had died. Her chest felt hollow, and her lips went quivery and out of her control. “No!” she said defiantly. “Uncle Dorian said children were quite a nuisance. Noisy. And always wanting a sweet when one is trying to concentrate.”

  He studied her. “I see.”

  “No,” she said more firmly, “I don’t care for children in the least.”

  “Have you ever actually met one?”

  “Perhaps not, but Uncle Dorian told me all about them. He preferred to keep hedgehogs.”

  Ransom glanced at the bound stranger on the opposite seat, making sure the man’s injured head still lolled without conscious volition. He took Merlin’s hand and leaned near her. “Wiz,” he said, making his voice as gentle as he could, “do you understand that because of what happened between us, there is a possibility that you might bear a child?”

  Her eyes widened. “But I don’t want one.”

  He found, to his chagrin, that her answer cut him far more deeply than was reasonable. He swallowed the angry retort that rose to his lips. “I’m afraid,” he said carefully, “that it is no longer a matter of what either of us wants. If I—If you carry my child, then—” He broke off, overwhelmed suddenly by a vivid image of the chapel and crypt at Mount Falcon—two small marble memorials and a larger one above them.

  His throat closed on old and familiar emotions: guilt and frustration and grief for things that had never been. He had not married for love. He had never expected to do so. Yet
somehow his gay young wife of ten months—his grandfather’s choice—had left a space in him that had remained empty for twelve years. He had not really known her. He had not known the twin daughters who lived three hours longer than their mother. And abruptly the thought that Merlin Lambourne did not care to have his child brought a wave of profound and unexpected desolation.

  He glanced away and let the hurt roll over him, waiting for common sense to reassert itself. Outside, a sheep-dog in a nearby pasture bunched its woolly herd and worried them through a gap in the hedgerow. Ransom watched until the little scene dropped out of sight and then said with his best diplomatic neutrality, “I suppose we need not address the problem unless it arises.”

  Merlin did not appear to share his complacence. She was frowning at him with her full lower lip set in a pout. He supposed she could have no idea how seductive she looked, sitting there wrapped in a wildly rumpled dressing gown over the night rail she’d had on when he’d stolen her out of her bed.

  That had been rather dashing of him, he thought with a revival of humor. He wished he were carrying Merlin Lambourne off to a desert island where he could spend the next decade or so ravishing her.

  His intense physical attraction to her still surprised him. He had thought that after two days the effect of the aphrodisiac could not possibly still linger. But there it was. Since that triple funeral twelve years before, there had been no pressure for him to remarry. No more important family alliances to be made, no lack of male heirs in the direct line, with his younger brother Shelby and Shelby’s son. There had been no reason for Ransom to even contemplate burdening his active and ordered life with marriage—until his baser instincts had entrapped him and he had found to his chagrin that he was not so very sorry to be caught.

  “Just where is my hedgehog?” Merlin demanded suddenly. She bent double, stretching her neck to see under the seat. Her thick hair fell loose and tangled over one shoulder as she made little huffs of exertion trying to reach into the back corners.

  Ransom bit his lip, wanting to close his fingers around that tender nape, torn between kissing and strangling it. “Left behind as a hostage,” he said. “It was a difficult choice, but I could only save one of you.”

 
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