Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 16

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But now was not the time to indulge in fantasy—not with Strong looking on, not when he held a more tangible—if less physically gratifying—reality in his hands. He unfolded her note gingerly. Only two short words on that paper, and a signature. Ash took a deep breath—it would have been idiotic to be nervous, and he tried to avoid idiocy—and read.

Two short little words. He read them, one by one. I’m. Sorry. He read it again to be sure, and the second time it said the same thing: I’m sorry, plainly spelled out for anyone to see. The apology was followed by an M and a wavering squiggle of ink.

Margaret? Or Miss Lowell? He couldn’t tell, and for a moment he almost considered asking Strong for his interpretation. But it didn’t matter what she’d called herself. That moment when she’d lobbed that bit of dirt at him—well, he’d wanted to see her in the throes of passion. Now he had. Not the passion he’d hoped for, true, but still it had been a candid, unstudied response. There would be more of those. Many, many more. Next time she looked at him with that much emotion shimmering in her eyes, he’d have better comfort to offer than a mug of warm milk.

When he looked up at Strong, Ash felt a tight little smile on his face. Those two words had warmed him more than the thought of her bending over his desk, her skirts touching the wood paneling. Her feet had been on the floor where he now stood. She had tiptoed into his suite, in the dark of night, while he lay sleeping a scant handful of yards away.

For the past week he’d been mired in place, making no progress with his brothers, the upcoming debate in Parliament, or her.

But he felt it now, a certainty burning deep inside him. It was all going to come right, and she was the key.

“Good news, sir?”

Ash folded her note in quarters. “The best, Mr. Strong. The absolute best.”

“MISS LOWELL. HAVE YOU the time for another lesson?”

Margaret stopped in the hall. She’d not been sure how to face Mr. Ash Turner again after last night—after her outburst and his too-kind response. But his younger brother posed no such difficulties. Still, she remembered her brother’s letter.

He’s a dangerous beast. She turned to him.

“Mr. Turner—”

“Mark.” He looked as innocent and unassuming as always, and dressed in white and silver, he seemed to glow with positive innocence in the sunlight.

“Mark,” she acquiesced. “I’ve been wondering. You aren’t exactly teaching me to fight by gentleman’s rules, are you?”

He shrugged. “What use would that be? You’ll never need to use what I’m teaching you against a gentleman who follows the rules.”

“I’m merely wondering how you learned to fight this way.”

He looked at her. “My brother—my other brother, the one you’ve not yet met—and I spent a bit of time on the streets of Bristol. You learn a great deal when survival is foisted upon you. Served me a few good turns when I was at Eton.”

Mr. Turner had made the same claim, that Mark had spent time on the streets. Perhaps that was why Richard had called him dangerous. This was yet another confirmation of the unsettling disclosure Ash had made last night.

But looking into Mark’s face, she saw nothing of the street waif in him. She didn’t know what to think. “From the streets of Bristol to Eton. That must have been…different.”

“Not so much. I made an excellent target those first few months at school. All the bullies looked to prove themselves.” His smile widened, ever so slightly. “If you have to fight off five boys at once, you can’t fight fairly.”

A small knot coalesced in Margaret’s stomach. “By chance, did you ever have to fight off Richard Dalrymple?”

“Him? Oh, no.” He smiled at her.

She took a breath in relief. Somehow, if he’d struck her brother, it would make her tentative friendship with him seem all the more disingenuous.

“Just Edmund.”

Her hopes fell again. “And did you fight him fairly?”

“No.” His expression shuttered. “I fought him once, and that sufficed for both of us. After that, the Dalrymples bedeviled my brother and me in other ways.”

He looked so innocent—his hair so blond, his eyes so blue. He was like an archangel.

Did archangels advise women on the most efficacious way to pop a man’s arm from his socket? Generally, Margaret supposed, they didn’t.

“You’re perturbed by that, aren’t you?”

“The Dalrymples are my employers. It would be odd if I felt no loyalty to them.”

He cocked his head and looked at her, his eyes narrowing. “If it makes you feel better, I haven’t struck a Dalrymple in the better part of a decade. Surely, after what my brother has done to them, a little physical harm hardly signifies.”

Her brother had told her to beware this man. And yet… Her brother was not always right. Richard wouldn’t have understood last night either—why a clod of dirt and a hot drink had brought Margaret around to an understanding that even now, she was afraid to probe.

And then, it was her birthday, and Richard hadn’t even remembered. She deserved defiance—a little defiance.

And so she smiled back at Mark. “You’re quite right,” she finally said. “It shouldn’t bother me at all.”

SOME HOURS AFTER STRONG had given his reports—orally—and been sent to rest, Ash heard his brother and Margaret talking. Her laughter floated down the hall, twining with Mark’s tenor chuckle.

His thoughts of jealousy had leached from him overnight. All things considered, he didn’t disapprove of his brother making friends with her. It was just as well, and he knew Mark would pursue nothing more than friendship.

He knew Miss Lowell less well, but he could intuit that had she been the least tempted by Mark, she’d never have agreed to the lessons. She had an unfortunate, innate sense of propriety—one that Ash was only beginning to break through himself.

But now, with her apology folded in his pocket, there was no reason for Ash to wait, banished on the outskirts. Not any longer. He stood and walked down the hall. He paused by the entry to the room and peered in. The doors to the gallery were wide open. Nothing untoward could happen. And while the exercise would have been highly improper for a lady, it was merely eccentric for a few servants.

Miss Lowell and the second upstairs maid stood in the center of the room.

“You’re aiming for the nose,” Mark said from his vantage point by the side. “You have to practice bringing your elbow up quickly. Anything else, and you’ll not have the advantage of speed or surprise—a big man would simply brush off such a strike. You can’t count on being stronger than anyone, so you must be faster.”

“I can’t,” protested the maid. “Without someone there, I just can’t see where I should be placing my elbow.”

Miss Lowell cast a sidelong glance at her companion and then looked away. There wasn’t a hint of agreement in her face, not a single echo of that lament. Instead she set her jaw almost fiercely. Of course. She wasn’t the sort to bemoan her fate, Ash realized, nor to make protests or excuses. Not when she could simply set things to rights. He hadn’t heard a complaint from her, not the entire time he’d spent in the house. She simply did what was necessary.

Even last night, she’d not made excuses for her behavior or accusations about his in justification. Anyone else in her place might have done so, but she hadn’t.

There was something straightforward about her. He liked that. He already liked far too much about her, from the curve of her snub nose to the way she nodded at Mark’s criticism and squared her shoulders, as if determined to get it right.

“I agree,” Ash said from the doorway, “you need to see it done. You need to see someone smaller take on someone larger, so you can have a feel for what it ought to look like.”

Miss Lowell whirled to look at him. Her eyes widened and a faint flush lit her cheeks. But she didn’t point her finger and demand he leave. And had she been dead set against any further interaction with Ash, he

was sure she would have. Instead, she glanced at Mark, as if seeking permission.

Mark pursed his lips and looked his brother up and down. Had they grown up in each others’ company, they might have grappled together sometimes, as brothers did. But Ash had left for India when Mark was barely seven years of age; when Ash had returned he’d been a man, with a man’s body, and his brother had been a wiry, too-skinny child of eleven. In the more than a decade that had passed since, Ash had been busy working and Mark had been off at school. They’d never had the chance to do this. He’d so carefully protected his younger brother that perhaps he’d missed the opportunity to make friends with him. There’d been no scrambling; no wrestling nor boxing. Not a hint of fencing practice. None of the usual chances that an older brother had to beat his brother into benevolent harmony.

Words on a page would never bring them together, no matter what Mark believed. But this…this might.

Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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