The regency romances, p.9
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       The Regency Romances, p.9

           Laura Kinsale
 

  She tilted her head up, recognizing this for what it was. His cheek slid against hers, very smooth, smelling faintly of soap and mint. His arms tightened, just slightly. Sweet and subtle, the touch of his breath on her neck became a light kiss.

  Merlin sighed, curving her neck with all the pleasure of a cat stretching beneath a stroking hand. Her lips parted. She held her breath. It was like the brush of rose petals on her skin, like the beat of a captive bird’s wing, but more than that. Warmer. Stronger. She made a small sound of aching pleasure.

  “What a shameless hussy you are,” he whispered, and she could hear the smile in his voice. “What am I going to do with you?”

  She bit her lip, pulling back in mild surprise. “Oh, dear. You haven’t forgotten?”

  “Don’t look so dismayed.” He looked down at her with a sleepy, sensual grin. His hands moved down her back, rocking her against him. “I haven’t forgotten, Wiz. I remember all too well.”

  She smiled. “Well…actually…so do I.”

  He covered her mouth with a hard, sudden kiss. “You’d drive a saint to distraction,” he growled against the corner of her lips. “And I am not a saint.”

  “Oh, no,” Merlin agreed. “You’re a politician.”

  He stopped the delightful play of his tongue at the edge of her. mouth and looked down at her. Humor made boyish crinkles at the corners of his eyes. “At least you know what kind of low company you’ve fallen in with.”

  “Low company indeed!” A new voice brought ice ringing in the soft air. Merlin jumped, half-turning in Ransom’s arms. His sister Blythe stood in the doorway, her hand still on the handle of the silent, well-oiled door. She looked shocked and shaken, but her lips trembled with dawning rage.

  “Blythe,” Ransom began, but his sister interrupted him, stepping into the room and closing the door with an echoing bang. Just before it shut, Merlin caught a glimpse of hovering figures outside.

  “I had thought to offer my presence to avoid a scandal, since you had so obviously forgotten the proprieties after that incident outside,” Blythe said. “But, Ransom, I never expected—” Her voice broke on a shaky squeak. “Oh, Ransom, how could you? It was bad enough that you marched her to your bedroom, but I managed to smooth over that. You were beside yourself, everyone could see that. But t-this—”

  Merlin had begun to try to wriggle out of his arms, but his hold on her tightened.

  “I’m sorry,” he said in a calm voice. “You’re right, of course, Blythe. I shouldn’t have left you with awkward explanations to make.”

  “Awkward! Ransom, do you realize you could lose your privy appointment over this?” Blythe paced into the room, chafing her thin hands. “The King has already made it clear that he disapproves of your association with Mr. Fox—”

  “Friendship with Mr. Fox,” Ransom said deliberately. “Of long standing.”

  “Nevertheless, it would be far too easy for you to be tarred with his brush. Everyone knows he’s just lately married that woman who’s been his…” She hesitated. Merlin saw a frown begin descending on Ransom’s face. “…his concubine,” Blythe rushed on. “For decades. And now for you to be involved in a scandal like this—for God’s sake, Ransom, only think of what it will do to your prospects! Everything we’ve worked for will be ruined.”

  “I really don’t think my career has been a joint project, Blythe, as much as you wish it were so.” He let go of Merlin, only to take her hand and hold it firmly when she tried to move away. “And I don’t believe this ‘incident,’ as you put it, need be blown into a scandal.”

  Blythe tossed her blond head. She narrowed her eyes and looked with distaste at Merlin. “We’ve seventeen houseguests here presently, and at least fifteen of them saw you drag Miss…Lambourne into your bedroom. I didn’t count how many were standing behind me when I opened the bedroom door.”

  “Without knocking.”

  “I didn’t expect there would be a need to knock,” she said icily: “I was trying to make that very point to my observers.”

  “Well, Blythe, I would advise you to turn about and inform your ‘observers’ that a man in love must be allowed a little room for eccentricity.” Ransom’s hand closed very hard on Merlin’s. “Miss Lambourne and I are engaged to be married.”

  Chapter 6

  “We certainly are not!” Merlin cried. “I told you I couldn’t marry you.”

  “Engaged,” Blythe exclaimed, as if Merlin hadn’t spoken. “Ransom, you cannot—You wouldn’t—Not to this…person?”

  Merlin waved her arms as if she could blow the very notion away. “Of course not! I’m going to work on my flying machine.”

  Blythe didn’t even look at her. “Why—we don’t know who she is! It’s insane. Lady Edith Massingill I could countenence, or even that Jennings girl that the Spencers have been pushing on you, but this—”

  “I’m not a this, if you please,” Merlin interrupted. “And I want to go home immediately.”

  Blythe gave Merlin a look of disgust. “By all means, Miss Lambourne. Take yourself off at once.”

  Ransom stood silent, one eyebrow raised. His grip tightened on Merlin’s hand as she tried again to pull away.

  “I want to go home,” Merlin insisted. “I hate it here.”

  “Well, you may rest assured that you certainly aren’t wanted—”

  “Blythe.” Ransom’s warning tone cut his sister short. “Stop your tongue, before you find you’ve said something yet more stupid.”

  Blythe turned. Her mouth went to a sharp, quivering line. “Stupid,” she said, in a thin voice. “Is it stupid for me to want to help my brother?”

  “Certainly, when you’re in this emotional state. God knows what you’re thinking with, but assuredly it isn’t your head.”

  Merlin frowned, struck by the concept that a person could think with something besides his head. Her own skin was flushed with anger and her tongue wanted to say things that admittedly didn’t seem to be arising from a rational consideration in her brain. She decided, after a moment, that she was probably thinking with her spleen.

  Following that logic, she glanced at Ransom. It was clear that he was thinking with his head right now, but a few moments earlier…

  Merlin tilted her head. She liked it when things began to make sense. Ransom’s actions fitted nicely into a pattern. She suspected that she might have a much easier time understanding his reasonings and rages if she guessed which part of his body he was thinking with at the time.

  And understanding that, Merlin saw that Ransom had left himself wide open to a counter-accusation by his sister on just what part of him had been in control of his wits when he took Merlin into his bedroom and into his arms and kissed her.

  But Ransom apparently knew his sister better than Merlin did. Blythe simply stood as if he had delivered a devastating blow. Her shoulders drew inward, and she clenched her hands. In a low voice, she said, “I’m sorry, then.”

  Ransom’s hand relaxed its grip on Merlin’s. “Blythe,” he said gently, “I’ve been stupid, too. Very stupid. But if you want to help me out of this pinch, then you’ll have to use that brain of yours.”

  Ah, Merlin thought. Clever. She could see the effect Ransom’s sudden softening had on Blythe. She still wasn’t thinking with her head. It was her solar plexus now, Merlin guessed, that little spot above one’s stomach where pride and hopefulness curled. Blythe looked up at Ransom like a dog would look up at its master, chastised and eager to correct its mistake.

  “You’re right,” he went on. “I’ve made a serious blunder, for myself and for Merlin, too, by bringing her in here. I’ve risked my own reputation, and I’ve no doubt ruined hers. So…” He paused. He didn’t sound upset. Instead, his voice had taken on a familiar quality, a certain rhythm and emphasis. “What is the situation?” he asked in a rhetorical tone that Merlin recognized as the same one Uncle Dorian had used when he’d wanted her to follow him in an intricate line of reason. “We have to live with the mistake tha
t’s already been made. We can’t pretend that no one else knows of it. We can’t hope that our witnesses, left to themselves, will interpret it kindly, or simply forget about it, or refrain from spreading the story. Some of them might, but numbers are against us. Among seventeen houseguests, there are bound to be at least a dozen confirmed gossips, any one of them with connections that might lead back to the King or Mr. Pitt.”

  “Yes.” His sister looked bleak. “Lord Parrymore and Mr. Littlejohn are dining at St. James’s two nights hence.”

  Ransom seemed unperturbed, though his words belied it. “Worse and worse. Parrymore’s after my hide for siding with Mr. Fox over the slavery issue.”

  “Oh, Ransom,” Blythe wailed. “I just can’t understand why you allowed this to happen.”

  “But that’s no longer the point,” he said patiently. “You waste your thought and energy over what’s too late to change. Think forward, Blythe. What now?”

  Blythe pursed her lips. “If we can’t change it,” she said as if reciting an old formula, “we must turn it inside out.”

  Ransom was silent, not answering the quick glance that asked for approbation.

  “Well,” Blythe went on after that slight, hopeful hesitation, “that must mean making people approve instead of disapprove.”

  Ransom waited.

  “Yes…of course,” she said thoughtfully. “Turn a scandal into a romance.”

  Ransom lifted Merlin’s hand and bent over it with a sweeping bow.

  “But it must not be announced immediately,” Blythe said. “That would look too much like a forced affair.”

  Ransom inclined his head to this wisdom.

  “I’ll manage it,” Blythe said crisply. “Just a hint in the proper ears, I think, for now. Perhaps it need never go farther than that.”

  “Perhaps not. I might be quietly jilted at some later date.”

  Blythe smiled. “Yes. Yes, I see that you might.”

  “I’m sure you’ll know just what to say.”

  Blythe started for the door. Merlin managed to get a small sound past the lump of fury in her throat. Both Blythe and Ransom turned in her direction.

  “I am not engaged,” Merlin said very clearly and evenly.

  Blythe stiffened into a militant pose. “Miss Lambourne. My brother’s political career is at stake here. I’m sure he would thank you to cooperate.”

  “He certainly would,” Ransom said mildly.

  Merlin took a deep breath. “My spleen,” she warned, “is trying very hard not to think.”

  “Indeed?” Blythe said. “Does it trouble you often?”

  Merlin ignored her and looked at Ransom. “This isn’t fair.”

  His jaw tightened just perceptibly, and his eyelashes swept down and up. An instant later the expression was gone, uninterpretable, vanished into a slight, practiced smile. “Love and war, my dear. I’m afraid we haven’t a sufficiently comfortable margin for fairness just now.”

  She pressed her lips together. Ransom’s simple lesson in politics for Blythe had not been wasted on Merlin. Blythe was going to spread word of the engagement. There would be no stopping her, clearly, as long as she thought it was in her brother’s interest. And Merlin didn’t believe for an instant that he would allow himself to be jilted. She began to suspect he had planned the whole scene to bend matters to his will. Perhaps, just perhaps, he had been thinking with his head all along…

  “Come with me, Miss Lambourne,” Blythe said, dragging Merlin with her in a commanding sweep toward the door. “You must be made presentable. I want to brush over this incident and begin introducing you as soon as possible.”

  Merlin allowed herself to be pulled along. She’d already forgotten Blythe in concentration on this new suspicion of Ransom, this new understanding that what he appeared to feel might not be what be felt at all. As she passed through the door she looked back at him. He smiled at her, another smooth and reassuring smile. And suddenly, for the first time in her life, she questioned the value of the evidence before her eyes.

  It was a lie, that smile. It was not the truth.

  Merlin worried her lower lip. She did not smile in answer as Blythe led her away.

  Ransom closed the door behind them and turned back to the tall windows. He held out his hands, examining them. They seemed reasonably steady—a complete contrast to the shaking mass of nerves inside him.

  The image of Merlin’s silhouette against the sky still burned behind his eyes. Every time he pictured the moment, it got hard to breathe and harder to think. His mind had gone to jelly; he had no clear recollection of how she had gotten down or how they had ended up in his bedroom. He had a better idea of how she had wound up in his arms—that was obvious enough. He thanked God that Blythe had interrupted when she had, or he’d be in that bed with Merlin right now, seventeen houseguests and Mr. Pitt be damned.

  He shifted, uncomfortable in his visions, in his blood that ran hot and cold, thinking one moment of Merlin soft beneath him and the next so high—so appallingly high—above. He pulled his open palms down his face and shuddered.

  At least something had been salvaged from the wreckage. He’d hemmed in Merlin a bit closer on his determination to make her an honest woman. And she knew it. She’d given him that look, those beautiful gray eyes all solemn and accusing, as if his effort had been a crime instead of an honor-bound duty and an opportunity no other woman in the kingdom would resist. And for the love of God, he’d wanted to go down on his knees and say he was sorry for it. Sorry for his scheming and his machinations that came to him as naturally as his heartbeat. He looked for advantage and struck, on instinct, because that was what he had been taught to do all his life.

  But he’d never before met someone who saw through him and said nothing. Who only looked at him in that misty-eyed vague way, like a fawn would look at the wolf who had orphaned it.

  “A pox on her,” he muttered as he stalked toward the door. “You’d think I was offering her a carte blanche, instead of honest vows.”

  “Your Grace,” said the voice, without a trace of impatience, a day later in Ransom’s study. “Forgive me, Your Grace.”

  Ransom drew a breath, admitting the intrusion to his conscious mind on the fifth quietly spoken “Your Grace.” He looked up from the papers in his hand. “Yes, Collett?”

  His secretary laid an envelope on the soft leather surface of the desk. “For your immediate attention, Your Grace.”

  Ransom scowled as he sat up and reached over, recognizing the seal of office that marked the message. “Yes, of course. You did quite right.” With a nod of dismissal, Ransom sent his man off. Collett was obviously relieved that this monstrous breaking of the rules had been justified.

  Every living soul at Mount Falcon knew that during his five afternoon hours at government business—reading and writing bills, studying strategy, practicing arguments and counter-arguments—Ransom was not to be disturbed on pain of unknown but undoubtedly horrific tortures. He had been particularly jealous of his privacy this day, when the last three had been spent rescuing Miss Lambourne from French spies and watching her climb unnervingly high roofs.

  If he was truthful with himself, which he generally tried to be, he had to admit that his usual intensity of concentration had been cut up considerably this afternoon. His political propositions had frequently dissolved into annoying speculations on the length of Miss Lambourne’s eyelashes and the way that one little curl of hers kept escaping her silly spinster’s bun to lie in tempting silkiness against the soft skin beneath her left ear. He was descending rapidly into a state of dangerous irritation.

  He broke the seal and flipped open the folded parchment. The message, as he’d expected, was innocuous. “My dearest lord duke,” it said. “I beg you to stay in the country and continue your own work, as there is nothing to occupy you here during the Recess. Though your offer is kind, you cannot rescue me from the exigencies of new office. It pleases me more to think of you in that great ridiculous palace of yours
, desperately plotting ways to communicate from one end of it to the other in less than a sennight. Your servant, Castlereagh.” At the bottom of the page, in a different ink, the writer had added, “Postscriptum. A very good bon mot makes the rounds these days, told on the Duke of York, that when an Irish officer was introduced at the levee, as Major O’Sullivan O’Toole O’Shaughnessy, the duke exclaimed, turning up the whites of his eyes, ‘O J—s!’”

  Ransom rubbed his chin. The new secretary of war’s oblique approval of his encoded message concerning the development of Merlin Lambourne’s speaking box was satisfactory, but the significance of the bon mot was not immediately clear. His Royal Highness the Duke of York was not known for his wit, but Ransom doubted the Irish-bred Castlereagh took such an exceptional delight in this particular manifestation as the postscript implied.

  He refolded the note and tapped it against his palm. After a few moments, he lit a candle and held the paper over the fireplace grate, turning the note until it was well alight before he dropped it, making sure it had gone completely to ashes before he went back to his desk.

  He settled into his familiar chair. Silence descended on the study again, except for the comforting tick of the mantel clock. He had finally succeeded in composing a paragraph that had eluded him for half an hour and was preparing to put pen to paper when the discreet “Your Grace” whispered again through the quiet room.

  Ransom threw down his pen. “Yes?”

  Collett turned white around the lips. “Forgive me, Your Grace. But the Lady Jaqueline…Your Grace, I’ve tried…but you must know—that is…” He spread his hands and clenched them. “She rather insists upon seeing you, Your Grace.”

  Ransom pressed his steepled fingers against the bridge of his nose. He searched for the words of that elusive paragraph. They were lost. He let out his breath in an explosive sigh. “See her in,” he snapped, not in the mood to let Collett off the hook by moderating his tone.

 
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