The regency romances, p.8
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       The Regency Romances, p.8

           Laura Kinsale
 

  He swore. Ignoring the watch fob that the valet held ready, he strode for the door. The servant lunged after him, just reaching the knob in time to throw the portal open. Ransom burst through at a violent pace with Shelby on his heels.

  It was really quite easy to reach the wind vane. After being sent to her room—until her clothes arrived, Ransom had said—Merlin had quickly grown tired of examining the elegant furniture. She negotiated the scaffolding outside the window and carved balustrade, and only paused a few moments to puzzle over the identity of the row of sculpted figures which looked down in majestic stone-silence over the courtyard. More forebears, she decided. Ransom seemed to have a quantity of them.

  The ten feet from the balustrade to the attic story was no difficulty—she stood on an enormous stone thistle topped by a gilded crown to climb that—but the steep slope of the pediment roof required some ingenuity. She finally dragged herself up the slippery leaded surface by hanging onto the ankle of the posturing Atlas who held up a golden globe.

  The dragon-shaped wind vane that had attracted her attention stood a few feet away. Merlin straddled the peak of the roof and slid along, eager to investigate the mechanism that registered not only wind direction, but the temperature as well, on a compass and thermometer in the wall of the Great Hall so far below. She reached for her pocket, intending to locate pliers, but her hand met only the bare skin of her leg.

  She looked down, remembering for the first time that she was still in her nightgown. “Oooh… botheration,” she said. And then, because she had climbed so far for nothing, and because it sounded like something Ransom would say, she added, “Curses.”

  As if the word had conjured him, she heard his voice, faint and strained on the light wind. She looked around.

  Far below, like figures in the wrong end of a telescope, a group of people huddled together among the garden walkways. Two ran to join the group, turning tiny faces up to the heights of the house. Merlin smiled, thinking she recognized Ransom. She grabbed the wind vane and hauled herself to her feet, tottering on the peak of the roof as she waved and hulloed back.

  The Ransom figure stopped stock-still. He raised an arm. Merlin answered with another vigorous wave, but the distant man only pressed his forearm over his face and did not move again. The other latecomer gestured wildly, seeming to shout at him. Merlin dropped her hand, puzzled to see the second man tear off his coat and come running back toward the house. She caught a flash of his golden hair just as he disappeared from her view beneath the edge of the balustrade.

  Standing there with everyone looking up at her, Merlin began to feel a flush of shyness. They certainly did seem to think she was something extraordinary. More and more people gathered, and as each one arrived, several others would point and they would all stare, clustering in smaller groups and breaking up again. Only the one she thought to be Ransom stood still, his head bent and his hand still covering his eyes.

  Merlin sank onto the roof, dangling both legs over one side of the peak. She did not want to climb down now, not with everyone watching her. It was better to sit and feel the breeze and think of how fine and high she was. Perhaps they would grow bored and forget about her. The view was quite remarkable, out over the flat-roofed wings of the house, studded with ornamental parapets and towers, across the elegant gardens to the fields and the village and the high Sussex downs in the distance. In a far break between the hills, she fancied that a gleam of silver was the Channel. If she had a flying machine, she mused, she could be there in moments, sailing high above the waves.

  “Miss,” someone said. “Miss—”

  Merlin scrambled to her feet, startled by a voice so close.

  “Don’t jump!” he cried, just as Merlin spotted his blond head peering up from behind the gilded crown that topped the giant stone thistle.

  She stared at the golden-haired stranger. “Jump! Why ever would I do that?”

  He closed his eyes, panting audibly. “Thank God. Just a…just a moment; let me catch my breath. I’ll have you down in an…instant.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I don’t want to come down just yet.”

  His eyes popped open. They were very blue eyes. He was a very handsome man, with a face rather like some of the beautiful statues she had passed on her way to the roof. “You don’t want to come down yet,” he repeated blankly.

  “Not really. I hope you haven’t gone to any trouble.”

  “Trouble? Oh, no. Not at all. Nice view, ain’t it?”

  Merlin smiled. “Oh, yes. I’d like to stay up here forever.”

  He had caught his breath. He looked down at the waiting crowd. The breeze ruffled his blazing hair and lifted his lawn shirt from the dark marks of perspiration across his shoulders. Leaning with his arm around the thistle, he grinned back up at Merlin. “You know, I think I could fancy that myself.”

  “If you grab his ankle”—she pointed at Atlas—“you can get up here. I can see all the way to the water.”

  “Yes, I imagine you can.” He followed her instructions, hauling himself up to her level. “What’s your name?” he asked as he settled beside her.

  “Merlin. After the Ingenious Mechanick, you see.”

  “Do I?” He grinned again. “What a clever chap I must be. I’ll wager excellent odds that you are the pretty, unmarried female my brother brought home today.”

  “Oh, are you Mr. Duke’s brother? You’re not very like. Except when you laugh at me,” she added as his face creased.

  “I’m Shelby,” he informed her. “Look down there. Poor Damerell, he’s not laughing now.”

  Merlin bit her lip. “Do you think he’s angry at me?”

  “Oh, well,” he said airily, “not especially. I’d only advise you to stay up here for a week or so.”

  “I suppose I’ve done something very wrong,” she said in despair.

  “Unusual, Merlin dear. Unusual.”

  “I wanted to see the wind vane.”

  “Yes, well, I realize that’s one of our top attractions, but perhaps you might have asked for assistance before you tackled the summit. But there,” he added, as she squeezed her lips together to control their quivering, “it’s not such a disaster as that. Don’t cry, love…”

  “Oh,” she said on a sudden, deep sob. “I want to go home!”

  “Then you shall.” He circled her shoulders and drew her against him. “We shan’t keep you prisoner here if you don’t like it.”

  “Oh, yes, you will,” she mumbled, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve. “Ransom will. He kidnapped me.”

  The comforting weight on her shoulders lightened. “Did he now? I didn’t think he was such a villain as that.”

  She hiccoughed. “Well, he is. He kidnapped me and broke my kite and now I have to give up my flying machine to w-work on his stupid s-speaking box. And look at them.” She pointed. “They’re all laughing at me. I hate him! I want to go home.”

  Shelby was frowning. “Speaking box. What’s that?”

  “Oh, it’s just a stupid thing I made so that I could stay in my laboratory and talk to Thaddeus when he was in the garden.” Merlin sniffed. “I wish I’d never thought of it. Ransom wants it for his war.”

  “Like a telegraph, do you mean?”

  She licked a stray tear from the corner of her lips and sat up a little straighter. “No. I read about that—Monsieur Chappe’s semaphore towers with the signaling arms? I thought that was very clever, but Thaddeus wouldn’t learn the signals. So I made the speaking box, and I just talk to him.”

  “Just talk to him. Not shouting or anything?”

  “No. The electricity carries my voice through the ether, you see. Sometimes it buzzes a lot, especially if Thaddeus won’t stand still when I’m talking to him. But since I worked out how many turns to take on the coiled wire, it’s not so bad.”

  “Hmm,” he said. “’Hmm.”

  “Ransom says the French have found out about it, so he kidnapped me.”

  “Yes. I begin t
o see the light.” Shelby’s voice sounded odd. “It may be that he’s right, Merlin. You might be safer here.”

  Merlin gave him a hurt look.

  He smiled at her. “Come, what is it that you don’t care for about the place? Look around—it’s really rather nice. Pretty gardens, good food, lots of room to ride…”

  “I don’t know how to ride.”

  “Walk, then. Look at all those fields.”

  “Well,” she said doubtfully, “Ransom did say there was lots of open lawn for me to test my aviation machine.”

  “There, you see? And if I know my brother, he’ll chop you down another couple of woods if you don’t have enough space now. Where is your aviation machine? Have you brought it with you?”

  “No. Ransom said he would have it transported. But he doesn’t like it, so I’m afraid he won’t.”

  Shelby shook his head. “Don’t worry about that. If Damerell promises he will do a thing, he’ll move Heaven and Earth to do it.”

  Merlin looked down at the waiting group below. Ransom stood a little away from the others. He seemed to be staring at the ground with passionate interest, his hands pressed over his temples like the blinkers on a carriage horse, as if he did not want to see beyond. She bit her lower lip and worked at it, sniffing again.

  “Merlin,” Shelby said softly, “don’t go home. I’d like to be your friend.”

  She let out a shaky breath. “I suppose I could stay. For a little while. If my flying machine really comes, that is.”

  “It will.” He squeezed her hand. “Come down with me now, and I’ll undertake to protect you from that ogre waiting for us below.”

  “He’ll shout at me.”

  “Undoubtedly. But you must be brave, dear. He’s been shouting at me all my life, and I’m still quite intact.” He shrugged and grinned. “Physically, at any event.”

  Merlin sighed. She gathered her nightgown around her legs and launched herself down the slope of the roof. Behind her, Shelby’s cry of dismay broke off as she caught the Atlas’s ankle and swung neatly around to land on the stone thistle.

  Looking back, she saw him close his mouth with a snap. He hesitated and then waved jauntily down at the crowd below just before he matched her move with a slide and a catlike leap. He landed, slipped, and saved himself with one hand on the gilded crown. Cheers and shrieks drifted up from the ground below.

  “Heigh-ho!” he cried. “I think I hear a bit of feminine concern for my well-being.”

  Merlin scrambled down the side of the thistle and walked to the balustrade. “Yes,” she said. “Two of the ladies have covered their eyes.”

  “Hah.” He jumped wide of the thistle, landing in perfect balance and eliciting another set of cries from below. “I appreciate this, my dear. It should raise my value immensely in certain quarters. I venture to say I’ll be rescuing ladies morning and night from up here.”

  Before she climbed over the balustrade, she looked to see if he was following. He beckoned her back, and she let go of the stone railing and returned to where he stood in the shadow of the thistle.

  “Merlin,” he said with soft, sudden emphasis. He took her hand and turned it over, palm up. “Do you keep your promises?”

  “Yes,” she said. “Of course I do.”

  “Promise me one thing then, love. Promise me you won’t tell anyone else—anyone—about the speaking box.”

  “Well—Thaddeus already knows. And Ransom.”

  “Thaddeus is your gardener?”

  Merlin gave him a sheepish smile. “Thaddeus does everything I don’t want to do.”

  “A fine fellow to have around. But you won’t tell anyone else?”

  “I suppose you mean because the French want to kidnap me?”

  He squeezed her hand. “Promise?”

  She hesitated and then nodded.

  “Good.” He lifted her palm and placed a kiss in the middle of it, then rubbed it flat against his own. “Honor of a gentleman. And a lady. And Merlin”—he looked directly into her eyes—“believe me, I’ll find out if you don’t keep it. If you think you’re in trouble now…”

  Merlin bit her lip, a little unnerved by the sudden hardening of his friendly expression. He looked every bit as intimidating at that moment as Ransom had ever done. “All right. I promise.”

  He smiled, and his face changed like the sky on a windy day—from clouds to sunlight. He gave her a pat and light push toward the balustrade.

  The climb down the scaffolding went faster than Merlin had anticipated. Long before she was ready, she found herself on the ground, surrounded by strangers: neatly uniformed servants and men and women in elegant dress. They all stared at her. There was a great deal of tittering and chuckling and speaking behind hands, and Merlin was glad when Shelby took her arm and brushed past them.

  She was not so glad when she saw where he was taking her. A few yards apart, Ransom stood unmoving. He looked like one of his statues, marble-white and inhuman. Merlin set her feet and tried to pull away, but Shelby held her fast.

  “Pay your accounts, love,” he murmured. “Believe me, I know what comes of putting them off.”

  She looked up into Ransom’s eyes. There was not one trace of reason or understanding them. He made no greeting, spoke no word of reassurance, only grasped her arms and tore her out of Shelby’s grasp. “Ransom—” Shelby said in a warning voice, but his brother gave no sign of hearing. When Ransom spoke, his voice was like the whisper of steel in a sheath, so low she could barely hear it.

  “Come with me,” was all he said. The pain of his fingers made her arms go prickling and numb. He released her as suddenly as he’d taken hold and began walking away.

  Merlin looked after him, dumb with terror. Her feet took her forward, puppetlike, because she could not conceive of what might happen if she did not obey.

  They left the staring crowd behind. Ransom did not once turn back to see if she was following, not until they were inside the great house and through the arched passages and beyond the spiraling staircase. Not until he had jerked his head at a liveried footman and huge double doors had shut with a resonant thunder, closing them alone in a splendid room.

  She was aware of glitter around her, of rich blues and golds and a bed whose canopy rose up like some giant beast from a fantasy tale. But it was Ransom she watched with unnerved fascination. He turned on her, and for an instant fear bound her as he reached for her hands.

  Afterward, Merlin was not sure what she had expected. Violence of some kind, a punishing rage. His face promised that in its brutal intensity. She had scrunched herself smaller in anticipation of the noise and pain. But all that came was silence, except for the sound of his breathing, and the warm whisper of it on her skin as he clasped her hands between his and carried them to his mouth.

  He stood for a long time with his eyes closed, rocking slightly, pressing her hands to his lips.

  She looked up at him. Harsh lines edged his closed eyes. The skin across his cheekbones was white and taut. He just stood there, not speaking, clinging to her hands until her fingers throbbed with the pressure of his grip.

  If he had done as she expected, raged and shouted and bullied her, she would have pulled away from him. She would have knotted herself up in a ball and withdrawn and when her chance had come, she would have run away. But to see him like this, reduced to this terrible silence…

  “I’m sorry,” she said in a trembling voice. “Ransom, I didn’t mean to…”

  Her words trailed off into confusion. She was sorry—for what, she did not understand. Obviously she should not have climbed the roof. Obviously everyone thought it was quite criminal and peculiar. They had laughed, all those elegant strangers. They had laughed at her, and therefore in a way at Ransom, because he had brought her here. Within an hour of arriving, she had disgraced him. And Ransom was not a man who would easily tolerate disgrace.

  “I want to go home,” she said miserably. “Would you let me go home?”

  He took a dee
p breath. Like someone waking up, he opened his eyes and closed them briefly. His hold on her hands loosened.

  Merlin tried to straighten her numbed fingers. He lowered them, but kept them between his palms. His hands shook a little as he laced them with hers.

  “Merlin, I can’t send you home.” His voice sounded hoarse and unlike himself. “It’s too dangerous.”

  “But—” She wanted to argue, only she had no arguments that could possibly match his. There was a lump the size of an egg on Thaddeus’s head to prove his words. She looked up into Ransom’s eyes and said, “Please.”

  “I can’t.” He rubbed his thumbs across her hands in a jerky motion. His mouth had a distraught twist to it that gave his face a queer look, like hard stone crumbling. “Merlin, don’t. Don’t ask me anymore.”

  It sounded more a plea than a command. Merlin hung her head, defeated by that. His arrogance could be resisted. But when he spoke to her with such a tone in his voice, there was nothing to do…nothing but move into his arms and remain there, with her heart feeling weak and foolish and her body wanting his closer.

  She felt him go tense as she pressed herself nearer. He let go of her hands, and then seemed not to know what to do with his own. “Merlin,” he whispered. “Ah, Merlin. Have a little mercy. Do you think I’m made of iron?”

  She shook her head.

  “No.” He made the word a bitter sound. “I suppose you know better than anyone that I’m not.”

  Beneath her cheek she could feel his heart, a strong and excited beat that belied his stiff resistance. “I think I’ve forgotten what you’re made of,” she said. “Perhaps I’d better examine you again.”

  He exhaled in a hollow whoosh. “Damnation,” he said in a different tone, a kind of plaintive resignation.

  Merlin snuggled closer. His embrace enfolded her, drawing her hard against him. His cheek rested on her hair. He stroked her back in a rhythm that was at first simple comfort and then, with a slow drift downward, something more.

  It started as only the heat of his palm through her dressing gown. He spread his hand across her spine and began to outline tantalizing circles on the small of her back.

 
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