Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 11

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Brothers. Ash shook his head.

Ash wished he’d had the bright idea to teach Miss Lowell how to hit a man. There were so many opportunities for touching. But then, that was why she would never have accepted. Not from him. Not yet, at least. Everything worth having, he reminded himself, was worth waiting for. Every day that passed in which he did not importune her worked in his favor. She would learn that he could be trusted, that he wasn’t going to harm her. That wariness would eventually leave her eyes. Patience won all battles, revealed all secrets. If he could figure out how to reach her once…

Instead, Mark was the one reaching her. Or, rather, being Mark—he was not reaching her at all.

Because Mark wouldn’t take advantage of any of those delightful opportunities to fold his hands around hers. Ash had purposefully walked by the parlor during Mark’s lessons several times this past week. He’d walked as if he hadn’t cared one whit about what his brother was doing with Miss Lowell. Still, he’d managed to ascertain a great deal from the corner of his eye.

They’d thrown open the broad double doors, for propriety’s sake. So far as Ash could tell, Mark had never laid so much as a fingernail on Miss Lowell. Instead, he stood a proper three yards distant. Two of the upstairs maids had joined them—at first, to serve as reluctant chaperones. But as the days had passed, they’d joined in earnest as giggling participants. If Ash judged the matter right, the maids were giggling, willing participants, who wished Mark would do more than instruct.

It was just like Mark, to be surrounded by women, and yet to take no advantage.

Ash wasn’t sure if he was more annoyed at Mark, for stealing time with the woman who had riveted his attention, or jealous of Miss Lowell herself. After all, he’d planned these weeks as a way to spend time with his younger brother. A way to build common experience, to finally forge a connection that would bridge the many differences between them. But when Mark wasn’t teaching Miss Lowell effective ways to bring a man down, he buried himself to his neck in books. The summer contained no horseback ambles across wide fields, no lazy trips to the river armed with fish hooks and bait. There were no evenings spent drinking port and discussing politics.

No; the only place Ash ever met his brother was here in the library. And to put it mildly, libraries had never been Ash’s specialty. In point of fact, he would rather dig a well for Parford Manor using a spoon made of cheese than read about—he turned the volume over in his hands—Practical Agriculture. Looking at the table of contents alone made him feel exhausted. An incipient headache formed at his temples. But he stayed here with the damned book, because when Mark was finished with Miss Lowell, he would come into the library. And before his brother threw himself headlong into his work, Ash would have a narrow opportunity to speak with him.

So he sat here, pretending to make sense of subtitles on soil.

It was another fifteen minutes before he heard Mark bidding Miss Lowell farewell. She left first, walking past. She didn’t even glance into the library as she went by. It had been like that for nine days, now. Ever since he’d talked to her on the path, she had flatly ignored him. For nine days, he’d been forced to listen to the two most interesting people on the estate make friends with each other. Ash let out a small growl of frustration.

At that moment, Mark sauntered into the room. He took one look at Ash and shook his head.

“Don’t be ridiculous, older brother.” His voice was annoyingly cheerful. Ash was convinced he put on that bright expression on purpose, just to annoy him. He became even more sure when Mark leaned over the arm of his chair and favored him with a brilliant smile. “I’ve never even touched her, you know.”

“It hardly matters. Neither have I.”

“That was rather the point.” Mark pushed away from Ash’s seat and turned around. “Come now. Chastity builds character.”

Ash held back a rude noise. He’d wanted to spend time with his brother, not antagonize him further.

“If you must know,” Mark continued, “she reminds me of Hope.”

A brief band of pain constricted about Ash’s chest. “She’s nothing like Hope.” But his brother’s words brought to mind a picture of their sister, her hair long and dark, her smile fragile. It was an image he couldn’t forget, even had he wanted to. She should have been a grown woman now. She would have been, if Parford had acted when Ash begged him to do so.

“What do you remember of her, anyway?”

“Not enough. Her hands. Her laugh. I remember that after she died, everything seemed to change so quickly. It was as if she had been the gatekeeper to all that was good in the world, and with her gone…” Mark shrugged again. “But all that’s over. Still, I remember enough of the nightmare that followed to know that it’s a hellish thing to be alone in the world, unprotected.”

“Miss Lowell doesn’t need protection from me.”

“She’s employed by the Dalrymples, Ash. What do you suppose will happen to her when we leave and Richard and Edmund return? Do you fancy leaving her to their tender mercies, then?”

He hadn’t fancied leaving her behind at all. But if he said that, Mark would tease him all the more. “I hadn’t thought what would happen when we left,” Ash said stiffly.

“No. You wouldn’t.” Mark spoke this piece of brazen treachery with an utterly matter-of-fact manner.

Ash flinched. He could not make himself look away from his brother’s gaze. He spent half the days wishing Mark would talk to him. It was in moments like this that he wished to take it all back. He wished he could push his brother away. That he could forget what he had done to his brothers—or rather, what he hadn’t.

“Christ, Mark.”

“You don’t always think about others the way you should,” Mark said simply.

That criticism cut more deeply than the reference to Hope. Mark stated it so mildly, making the wound sting all the more. Mark’s gaze was as piercing as only someone who had survived the precise contours of one’s faults could be.

“I think about others every damned second of the day. It’s because of you that I’m here, after all, because of what I wanted to give you—”

“And still you stomp about, leaving little eddies of destruction in your wake.”

Hell. Guilt was bad enough, without having his brother point out his every flaw. Ash had been the one to solemnly swear that he would protect and defend the younger children. He had been the one who had nodded as his father told him that their mother was given to excess. He’d solemnly promised to temper her zeal.

He’d failed. A few years later, despite his best efforts, his sister had died. A few months after that, Ash had left for India, determined to make his fortune and thus undo everything their mother had done.

But he’d left his brothers behind. He would never be able to forget the sick sensation he’d felt when he found Mark and Smite on his return, pale and thin, alone on the streets of Bristol. It had made so much sense to leave them. But

nothing he did could repair what had happened to them in his absence. They wouldn’t even talk of those years, not to him.

And that hadn’t been the only time he’d abandoned Mark. Just the first.

“Very well,” he said stiffly. “You are quite in the right. I should never have left. I failed Hope. I failed you.”

A puzzled look flitted across Mark’s face. “How is it that we are talking about me, then?”

“Every time I look at you, I recall how I’ve failed you. There. I’ve admitted it. Are you happy now?”

“Happy that you look at me and see failure?” Mark’s voice was tending towards scorn now, and his lip curled. “Hardly.”

Christ. He was cocking it up again. “I know you’re not a failure. You took a first at Oxford.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed,” Mark said hotly, “I’m a good deal more than that. Granville himself said I was the brightest student he’d seen in the thirty-five years he’d been in philosophy. And this—” Mark gestured at the pages that lay on the table in front of him “—this will show everyone what I can do. Even you, Ash. Even you. So don’t look at me and see failure. I haven’t failed anything.”

This had all gone horribly wrong. “Don’t get so upset, Mark. I’m not questioning your intelligence. Or your capabilities.”

“What are you questioning, then? It can’t be my principles, seeing as how you have none of your own to speak of.”

“Oh, it’s my principles you object to, then?” Ash felt the whole bitter weight of his responsibilities shift restlessly. He’d done everything for his brothers—everything. Mark was his principle. And if Ash’s hands were a little dirty, it was because he’d wanted to keep his brothers’ clean. “They’re a hell of a lot more honest than your own,” he snapped.

He wished he could take the words back as soon as he’d said them, because Mark actually gasped in surprise.

“What do you mean by that?”

Ash didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to let Mark know that there was yet another barrier between them, another one of Ash’s many failures. But Mark gestured, and the words tripped out anyway.


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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