The regency romances, p.7
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       The Regency Romances, p.7

           Laura Kinsale
 

  She came upright, flushed and so distressed that he was ashamed of himself.

  “Merlin, Merlin—” He shook his head and touched her cheek. “What an ogre I must be, to have you look at me so! Your hedgehog is perfectly safe. So are Thaddeus and Theo. I’ll have them all transported to Mount Falcon as soon as may be.”

  Merlin tripped on her nightgown as she descended from the carriage. Ransom caught her by one arm, and a strange man in a wig and a frilly coat caught her by the other. She stood favoring her stubbed toe, gaping up at the structure before her.

  “Where are we?” she asked in a voice that seemed tiny in the enormous courtyard, standing at the foot of the colossal stone steps that led upward to the huge columns that held up a gigantic portico which overshadowed the monumental door.

  “Mount Falcon,” Ransom said.

  “But I thought—I thought we were going to your home.”

  “This is my home.”

  “Oh,” Merlin said, and stared. “Oh, my.”

  Ransom chuckled. “I’ve heard stronger opinions, I assure you.” He glanced at the man in the wig. “I’ve had to bring along a criminal, I’m afraid. Remove him from the carriage and lock him in one of the empty strong rooms.” His mouth quirked a little at the servant’s impassive expression. “No need to treat the rascal kindly, I assure you. If you care for your position, you’ll keep a constant guard. I will deal with him later.”

  There was a crash of metal on metal, loud from as far away as where they stood at the foot of the steps. The great front door swung silently inward. Another lace-cuffed servant bowed and stood back to make way for the upright, slender lady who glided through the opening and came to stand at the edge of the portico.

  “Damerell,” she said. “What is the meaning of this?”

  Her voice sounded small and thin, sharp as steel, but dwarfed by the massive columns and the ponderous architecture that spread away from the portico and curved back in stately wings around the forecourt. As the bewigged footman passed her and descended the steps, Merlin saw that neither he nor the woman were as tiny as they had first appeared against the monumental scale of the building. The servant stood shoulder height with Ransom himself, and the lady only a hairsbreadth shorter.

  “The meaning of this,” Ransom repeated in a bemused tone. “I must say, Blythe, that a simple answer to that question escapes me at the moment. Would you care to meet our new guest?”

  “Damerell,” the lady said, never taking her eyes from Merlin as Ransom began to lead her up the steps, “are you inebriated?”

  “Merely because I’ve taken to bringing home pretty girls in their night rails? Come, Blythe, you don’t doubt this is government business! May I present to you Miss Merlin Lambourne?”

  Blythe’s blond eyebrows lifted. Merlin tried a curtsy, her second in two decades, and left off when the footman grabbed at her as if he thought she were swooning.

  “I was under the impression that the person you intended to bring back was a man,” Blythe said.

  “As you see, she is not. Merlin, I give you my sister, Lady Blythe. She keeps us all on the straight and narrow path to Heaven. Never an easy task, I fear.”

  “Hullo,” Merlin said shyly. “I’m sorry I’m not dressed, but I was in bed when Ransom came and got me.”

  Blythe’s blue eyes widened. Her eyebrows climbed higher. “This is some joke, I assume. In poor taste, at that. Damerell, Duchess May would like to see you in the Godolphin Saloon. Miss…Lambourne may come with me.”

  “That’s very kind of you, Blythe, but I would like Miss Lambourne to be introduced to our mother immediately.”

  For a moment Lady Blythe pursed her lips, her fine, pale skin suffusing with bright spots of color. “I find this offensive, Ransom,” she said in a low voice. “Pray remember there are servants present.”

  “Exactly,” Ransom said. “I wish for everyone to understand fully Miss Lambourne’s position as an honored guest at Mount Falcon.”

  Blythe looked Merlin up and down, her mouth curled and her nostrils flaring as if she scented some unpleasant odor. “At least make her decent before you take her in to Duchess May.”

  “Tactics, my dear sister. I quite know what I’m doing. Come along, Wiz. They’ll have raised the ducal standard at the gate as soon as we came through. My mother keeps a sharp eye out for that. She’ll be waiting.”

  Happy to escape the withering stare of Lady Blythe, Merlin tagged at Ransom’s side through the door and into the Great Hall. She stopped, craning her neck to follow the tiered arches upward three stories to the ceiling, where frescoed angels battled red-eyed demons for possession of a golden coronet held out by a man in a Roman toga.

  “Painted by Antonio Verrio,” Ransom said. “A nice comment on my illustrious forebear’s politics, I think.”

  “Oh.” Merlin wondered if his forebears had been Italian orators. Before she could ask, he was guiding her up the steps through the largest arch and down a long vaulted-stone corridor where the echo of his boots mixed with the scuff of her slippers. She looked back and forth at the pairs of marble busts that stared at one another across the corridor in endless procession. More forebears, she guessed, all draped in their togas.

  A footman stepped forward and bowed, holding open a tall door. Sunlight poured through into the chilly hall, and Ransom urged her ahead of him into the pool of light.

  “Mamá,” Ransom said, and strode to take the hand of the lady who rose from her chair. As he leaned to greet her, both of them became silhouettes against the sun streaming through the great windows. Merlin lingered near the door, not at all anxious to face another freezing perusal.

  “Good afternoon, Damerell.” The lady’s voice was firm and pleasant, very like Ransom’s own. “You’ve brought us a guest.”

  The silhouetted duchess held out her hand toward Merlin. Miserably aware of her frayed dressing gown and tumbled hair, Merlin clenched her fists and bobbed in place, wishing she could duck behind the huge door and hide.

  The dowager duchess moved forward out of the sunlight. Merlin squinted against the contrast. She stood helplessly and tried to smile while Ransom’s mother looked her up and down.

  As her eyes adjusted, Merlin saw the duchess’s serene face change—not to a frown, but to delight. “I have it!” she exclaimed, reaching for Merlin’s hands. “Claresta’s daughter. My very dear! Oh, my very dear. You are the image of her when you smile.”

  Merlin found herself smothered in a sweet-smelling embrace—as smothered as she could be by a lady so much smaller than herself. The duchess gripped Merlin’s hand and drew her imperiously back to Ransom.

  “Wherever have you found her, Damerell?”

  He smiled. “You’ve guessed who she is. Shall I take all the pleasure out of your life by telling you the rest?”

  “Of course not.” The duchess’s voice rang with indignation. “It was a rhetorical question. I shall put my mind first to determining why she has arrived in her dressing gown and slippers, and then to why you have brought her. You look the veriest waif, my dear. Come, will you sit here?”

  She guided Merlin to a gilded chair upholstered in flowery needlepoint. Merlin sat perched in the middle of it, afraid she might smudge the creamy armrests with the leftover laboratory grime on her fingers. She could see the rest of the saloon now that she wasn’t looking into the light. The scale of it daunted her. The sitting room was larger than the great-hall at home, dominated by a life-sized painting of an Arab horse and faded tapestries of hunts and battles. A crystal chandelier sent red and blue and yellow rainbows spinning across the rich carpet.

  The duchess startled Merlin out of her openmouthed study of the grandeur. “Oh, Damerell—tell me the poor child doesn’t suffer as her mother did!”

  “Not at all,” Ransom said cheerfully. “I’m sure she’ll speak quite lucidly, now that she’s decided not to catch flies on her tongue.”

  Merlin shifted and blinked under their combined looks. There was a lengthy si
lence. “I believe frogs are quite good for controlling flies,” she offered, since they seemed to expect some comment from her on the subject.

  Ransom got a peculiar pucker around his mouth. The dowager duchess looked from Merlin to him and back again.

  “What is your name, my dear?” the duchess asked.

  “Merlin Lambourne, ma’am. I’m named after John Joseph Merlin.”

  “The Ingenious Mechanick,” Ransom supplied, when his mother looked blank. “I believe we have one of his ingenious clocks hereabouts someplace.”

  “Do you, indeed?” Merlin sat up eagerly. “May I see it?”

  “Of course you may. Not just now,” he added, as Merlin leaped to her feet. “You’re taking a holiday from mechanics, remember?”

  Merlin’s protest was lost in the duchess’s exclamation. “I have it! I have guessed it. You are engaged to be married.”

  Merlin turned in astonishment. Ransom inclined his head toward his mother, but did not look so pleased as he had at her earlier successful conjecture. “A very near miss, Mamá,” he said quietly. “I have asked her.”

  The duchess frowned, her eyelashes fluttering in concentration. She looked back and forth between Ransom and Merlin. Her son started to speak, but the duchess waved him into silence. “No, don’t tell me anything. I shall consult my cards.” She stood and took Merlin by the elbows, brushing her dry, smooth cheek against Merlin’s. “Welcome, my dear. Do go and settle in. I’m sure your baggage will be following you shortly. Damerell never forgets that sort of thing.” She smiled mischievously. “Not even in the midst of capturing French spies and rescuing young ladies out of their beds in the wee hours of the night.”

  Merlin found herself ushered out the door, along with Ransom.

  “How does she know about that?” she asked. “How does she know my mother’s name?”

  He shrugged. “She claims it’s feminine intuition.” There was a tinge of annoyance in his voice. “It’s rather her hobby. She loves to prove that while we benighted men must muddle along on nothing but our own reason, she can guess anything on the slightest of evidence.” He stopped at the foot of a spiraled staircase where a maid waited to escort Merlin up. “She’s a bit too bloody good at it sometimes, too.”

  Chapter 5

  Ransom took secret pleasure in the timeless rhythm of being dressed by his valet. It was not something he mentioned, to his valet or anyone else, any more than he would have explained publicly why he used the state apartments of his huge ancestral home as his living quarters. When everyone else had removed to the fashionably, and luxuriously, redecorated bedrooms upstairs, Ransom had stayed in the drafty state chambers below. Not because he particularly reveled in the chill grandeur, or because he had shared the ducal quarters with his grandfather from the age of eight, or even because he was now, in fact, the duke himself.

  No, he preferred the state bedchamber because it was on the ground floor. Not something which could be admitted. Ever. To anyone. Better to be ridiculed in the papers and teased for having a pompous mind than to reveal his fear of heights. It was his one unconquerable weakness, the hidden source of every mysterious eccentricity that had made the rounds of gleeful gossips. No one had guessed, and no one would. Weaknesses were not a thing the Duke of Damerell allowed himself. Besides, after meeting Merlin Lambourne, Ransom was beginning to suspect that perhaps he did have a pompous mind.

  An hour after he had sent her upstairs, he sat back looking up at the gilded plasterwork on the ceiling, relaxing under the even stroke of his valet’s razor. It was Ransom’s only real leisure, this half-hour period that occurred three times a day. Riding, breakfast, luncheon, dinner—top boots, trousers, frock coat, silks; they followed one another with comforting regularity. In town or in the country, the nature of his business might change, but the procession of clothing stayed the same.

  Ransom allowed his eyes to ease closed. Miss Lambourne had caused a rift in the daily routine. It felt good to settle back into it, taking this chance to go blessedly blank. A man needed such times to relax without thinking, to have a moment without responsibility, a moment of self-indulgence, without the weight of politics and decision pressed on him—

  “’Pon my honor, big brother, here you are snoring away while the country goes to rack and rain!”

  Ransom tilted his chin so his valet could reach beneath his jaw. Footsteps and a laugh drifted closer to his chair.

  “The French have landed! The King’s made Fox his prime minister. Wake up, Damerell. I’ve been elected MP for Cork-in-the-Cowbyre.”

  Ransom opened one eye. “Good God,” he murmured. “We’re in it now.”

  “’Tis a respectably rotten borough.” His brother Shelby cast himself into a chair. “Only myself and a herd of prize Jerseys to please.”

  Ransom sat up, glancing in the mirror and indicating a fleck of foam beneath his ear that the valet had missed. “I suppose now you’ll forever be urging the dairy cause.”

  “Jerseys are dun cows.” Shelby looked struck. “Be-gad, a seat for dun territory!” His shout of laughter over his own pun rang in the huge room.

  Ransom ran his thumb across his jaw and stood up, nodding to the valet, who whisked away the towels and basin. “How deep in debt are you this time?”

  “No worse than usual.” Shelby began a restless prowl of the room. “Where’ve you been, you scurvy fellow? I’ve been hearing dark tales from Blythe.”

  Ransom shrugged into his shirt and began buttoning it.

  “Hah!” Shelby said. “I know that black-hearted smile. Who is she, brother? Is she pretty?”

  “Very.”

  “Unmarried?”

  “Presently.”

  “Rich?”

  Ransom sat down to pull on his boots. “Is this interrogation leading somewhere?”

  “Certainly it is. You know what excellent use of a pretty, unmarried heiress I might make.”

  “Only too well. Miss Lambourne is strictly out-of-bounds.”

  “Too good for me, eh?” Shelby lounged against the window frame with the afternoon sun turning his hair to molten gold. “Well, I don’t doubt that. I’m a damned paltry fellow.”

  “You’re a damned wastrel,” Ransom said, accepting his cravat from the valet. “Beyond that, you’re sharp-witted and pluck to the backbone and the handsomest devil on two legs, and it’s my heart’s wish that you’ll quit the gaming tables and make a man of yourself.”

  Shelby drew in a breath. His ready grin faded to a bitter, lopsided smile. “As I said, a damned paltry fellow.”

  Ransom paused in the motion of folding. He looked toward his brother. “Shelby—”

  “No, don’t!” Shelby exclaimed. He shoved his hands in his pockets. “One of these days you’ll tempt me too far, and I’ll take your infernal gift money and make you promises I never mean to keep.”

  For a long moment, Ransom frowned at his younger brother. Daily, he asked himself what demon it was that inhabited Shelby, that forced him to spend all that brilliance and wit on deep play, instead of using the limitless prospects with which he’d been born. He might have made an extraordinary military man—a master of tactics—or a shrewd and charming diplomat. He could have been a dazzling speaker in the House of Commons or at the bar. He might have managed Mount Falcon—a responsibility Ransom would have been only too glad to share—and brought it to a peak of production, instead of gambling away four of the five estates that had comprised his generous inheritance. That he had an income at all was because their grandfather had seen the handwriting on the wall and left the fifth and richest property wrapped up in a neatly entailed trust with Ransom as the trustee. Ransom doled out a small allowance to Shelby and then did his damnedest to hold what was left in prime condition for the benefit of Shelby’s three children.

  But the waste, Ransom thought. The things that might have been. It drove him to distraction, the bloody waste of a life…

  “Stop looking as if you don’t know where to bury me,” Shelby s
aid. “Do I stink so much?”

  Ransom set his jaw against the rush of love and frustration. “Foully,” he said, resuming the task of folding his cravat.

  Shelby’s mouth tightened. “Must everyone march to your lockstep, big brother? Be satisfied I let you bully poor Woodrow into trying to match your stride.”

  “I’d rather have you. To better it.”

  “Well.” Shelby tilted his head back against the wall, stretching with elaborate casualness. “Well, well. Haven’t given up on the black sheep yet? Will you never learn, Ransom?”

  Ransom turned a level gaze on his brother. “Never,” he said softly. “Shelby. Not ever.”

  Something came into Shelby’s face, blunting the sharp edge of insolence. His lips quirked as he stared at the toe of his polished boot. “Damn you, Ransom. I said don’t.”

  Ransom kept his look steady. Sometimes he came so close, it seemed, so near to the key. Thirty-four years old, Shelby was, with his son Woodrow and two daughters and a future. There was still a future there. Ransom would not allow it to be otherwise.

  Shelby frowned at the floor for half a minute before his handsome face slipped into a lazy sneer. He looked up into Ransom’s waiting gaze. “Watch yourself, my lord. You’ll drive me back to London’s card tables tonight.”

  “Touché.” Ransom turned back to the mirror. “Consider the topic closed.”

  Shelby made an inelegant sound and turned to the window. Ransom continued dressing in silence. Just as the valet gave his midnight-blue frock coat a final brash, his brother straightened up and said, “What the devil…”

  Shelby leaned toward the window, staring outside. Ransom moved forward, looking through the transparent ripples of the window glass into the formal garden. Among the roses and lavender a knot of houseguests and servants was gathering. He could hear the nervous laughter and shouts of warning, could see that the pointing fingers were focused on a spot somewhere on the roof above his head.

 
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