“Maybe you’re too young to remember what it was like before father died, or what happened in those years afterwards. You might not remember the day Mother decided to take to heart the Biblical command that one should sell everything one had and give it all to the poor. Nice, in principle; in practice, it leaves your own children starving, housed in rat-infested penury. We lost everything we should have had—modest comfort, education. She traded a secure competence for some stupid words she didn’t even understand.”
“You’re the one who never understood Mother,” Mark said.
“As if I could. She was mad, Mark. Plain and simple.”
Mark’s lip curled. “There was nothing plain or simple about her insanity.”
“Maybe it doesn’t seem that way to you. But I was supposed to protect you—all of you. Her principles killed Hope. They almost killed you and Smite. And throughout it all, Mother clung to dead words in a dead book, paying no attention to the living around her. Maybe you can understand why I mislike the notion of my youngest brother clinging to more dead words. Maybe you can understand why I wince, knowing that my little brother, who spent his childhood with a woman who quite literally went mad with her principles, is spending the summers of his youth practicing the same sort of abstemious insanity that he grew up with. Do you want to know why I’ve failed you? Because I haven’t been able to save you from a woman who has been dead these past ten years. I haven’t saved you from anything.”
Mark stared at him, his hands curled into fists. “You don’t know anything,” he spat. “Not about me. Not about Mother. You can be such a great oaf sometimes.”
“Oaf? Is that the best insult the brightest student in thirty-five years of philosophy can muster? Call me a damned bastard. Curse me. Consider a little blasphemy, Mark. It would make me feel a great deal better, knowing you were capable of even a little sin.”
“Far be it from me to leave you unsatisfied. Ash, you can go to bloody hell. It is the height of hypocrisy for you to criticize what I choose to do with my time, when I know for a fact that you haven’t even bothered to read my work. Not one word.”
Despite the finality ringing in his voice, he looked at Ash with an expectant hope in his eyes. And Ash knew what his brother wanted. He wanted to be contradicted. Wanted Ash to spit out that he’d read the carefully bound essays his brother had so proudly sent to him over the years.
But Ash’s best effort—“I stumbled through the introductory paragraph, before I threw up my hands in despair”—would hardly mollify his brother. The truth choked him, and if it were to come out, it would destroy Ash’s last chance of forging any sort of connection with Mark.
When he remained silent, Mark shook his head. “I don’t know why I bother. Some days, I think Smite has the right of it.”
The final sally, and Ash had nothing to say in response. Mark swept his gaze around the room at his books, stacked in neat arrays along the table near the window. Finally, he picked the top two from the pile and walked out.
He didn’t even stamp his feet as he left.
MARGARET ENTERED THE room where her father stayed. His breathing, thin and reedy, echoed. He lay on the bed, his eyes closed, his skin as translucent as bone china, and looking nearly as fragile. It made her feel breakable herself, to see him so vulnerable. She closed the door behind her, and the curtains at the window fluttered weakly.
In her pelisse, she had tucked the letter that had been brought up from the vicar’s wife this morning. Richard had finally written her, and until this moment she hadn’t had a chance to look at the missive in private. Not that he’d been in any rush to communicate with her; it had taken him a full week and a half to send his first message.
She could hardly have broken the wax seal standing in the marble entry, after all. She might have run into Ash Turner. He might have simply plucked the pages from her hand. And then he would have known that she was one of the Dalrymples he so hated.
And then her imagination well and truly carried her away. It had been nine days since she’d so forcefully told him to leave her alone. And in that time, he’d subjected her to an ardent, soul-grinding, will-destroying campaign of…nothing. No attempted kisses. No conversation. No endearing little compliments, designed to erode her will into submission. It was almost enough to make her grant the man a grudging sort of respect.
She saw him daily. She could hardly help it; he’d taken over the suite of rooms off the gallery on the second floor, and she passed by his chambers several times each day on the way to her father’s sickroom. But he was so often surrounded by the men he’d brought up from London. The estate was aswarm with them; she supposed that diligence was necessary when a man was in trade.
It was discomfiting, to say the least, to discover that he so diligently performed his responsibilities.
Margaret shook her head and broke the seal on her brother’s letter. It separated into two sheets of paper. One page, covered in both sides, written in a dense hand, was labeled as information for her father. She set it to the side.
The other was addressed to her, and she felt a small thrill of pleasure at being remembered. Richard was a handful of years older than she. He’d always been kind. He, no doubt, knew how difficult it was for her to pose as a servant on the estate where she had once been in charge. He knew how irascible their father had become. And perhaps he had waited so long before writing because he remembered that tomorrow was her birthday.
The very thought brought a wash of loneliness. This year, after all, there had been no stream of birthday wishes from friends. It would be nice to know that one person in the world besides Ash Turner did not take her for granted.
She unfolded the sheet. It was depressingly void of content, except for a few short lines.
Received your letter. A. Turner’s presence is bad enough. But I am alarmed to hear M. Turner is present. Beware. He’s a dangerous beast. Don’t spend time alone with him.
He’d signed with a flourish. She stared at the words, her lip curling in dismay.
That was all he had to say? No words of encouragement, nor of thanks? No other response to the missives she’d sent his way? She could have read him quite a lecture. But it was pointless remonstrating with a man who was many miles distant. Richard was busy and no doubt just as taken over by worries as she was. He’d focused on what he thought was the most important point: her welfare. She couldn’t fault him for that.
And yet…Mark Turner, dangerous? The notion seemed laughable. Richard couldn’t have been talking about the Mark she knew, with his philosophical writings about chastity. He couldn’t have heard Mark’s quiet, careful, educated speech. Mark had been teaching her a few ways to avoid unwanted advances. He was the last man she might ever imagine as dangerous.
Come to think of it, there were those lessons. She’d seen her brothers box together on occasion. There had been a strict code to the blows allowed—fists only, aimed at the torso and definitely no lower. She doubted very much gentlemen discussed the precise angle at which to punch a man, so as to most effectively break his nose.
How on earth had gentle, quiet Mark learned such ungentlemanly tricks?
She sat back, dissatisfied. At that moment, her father gave a quick snort; the tenor of his breathing changed from the even ebb and flow of sleep to the harsher arrhythmia of wakefulness. He gave a rasping cough.
Margaret stood and walked over to him. It took a few minutes to see to his physical needs—a little soup, some barley water—that was all he would take. As he ate he shut one eye and looked at her, a hint of confusion on his face.
Blink. Blink. He shook his head, and then blinked again.
“Is something the matter?”
“No. I feel delightful. I might be ten years old. I’m staying in my bed for the sheer enjoyment of laziness, don’t you know.” He let out a puff of breath. “Yes, something is the matter, you foolish gi
rl. I’m dying, and it’s awkward and not particularly entertaining.”
There was no response to be made to that piece of impoliteness. He was still her father, but since the day he’d awakened and found himself unable to stand without assistance, he’d become more belligerent. Crueler, harsher. The same man, and yet vastly different. He’d always been so controlled; being bedridden likely didn’t agree with his nature.
“Besides,” he muttered, “it will pass in a few minutes. It always does.”