“Come now, Mark,” Ash said. “Why don’t we show the ladies how it’s done?”
As an added benefit, perhaps Ash might show Miss Lowell a few things himself.
Mark smiled enigmatically and shook his head. “What do you think, Miss Lowell? Suppose a big man—a man the size of Ash—were to come after you? What would you do?”
That was not what he’d intended. As pleasant as it might have been to grapple with her, he’d prefer not to have an audience when he did so. And besides, the last thing he wanted her to playact with him was unwillingness.
“Mark, I can hardly strike a lady.”
“Of course not. Perhaps you might simply reach for her wrist. Gently, if you wish.” Mark dropped an eyelid in a mysterious wink, and Ash suddenly understood his brother’s ploy. It was a simple matter. He would have to steel himself for the inevitable—a slap on the cheek, perhaps even a feminine blow to the gut. She couldn’t hurt him, not if he were ready for whatever puny little punch she managed to deliver. But he could let her think she had hurt him. Build up her confidence. Build up her trust. And, in the meantime, get close enough to touch her wrist.
No possible drawbacks to that one. There was no getting around it. His little brother was a genius.
“I don’t know, Mark,” Miss Lowell was saying. “I—I really shouldn’t like to hurt your brother. I’m not the violent sort.” She glanced uneasily in Ash’s direction, as if aware that the events of last night left him more than able to contradict her. “Not usually,” she amended.
Ash hid a smile. If she could hurt him, it was surely not by laying her hands on him. “I acquiesce in a good cause,” he said soberly. “I can withstand a few bruises.” And then, because he couldn’t help himself, he added, “Besides, I don’t mind the occasional bout of violence.”
Mark nodded enthusiastically at this. “Too true. He’s a man. Men like pain. It’s how we make friends, you know.”
It was as if Mark had lifted the thought from Ash’s head. Ash grinned. “The measure of male familiarity is the degree of barbarism to which one reverts in the absence of female companionship. A man knows he’s among friends when he feels free to hoot like a heathen and bash heads like a ram.” Perhaps he was overdoing it.
“Additionally, how many nurses can say they’ve brought the Duke of Parford to his knees?” Mark added, a glint in his eyes.
No doubt that was intended as a subtle hint to Ash. Very well. He’d let her strike him, he’d stagger about a bit, then he’d fall to the floor. An easy victory for her, and his pride could withstand the blow. Especially since he would know precisely how much her victory would mean.
“You’ll be able to tell your grandchildren, one day,” Mark said.
“Let’s start this nice and easy.” Ash reached out and took hold of her wrist, pulling her to him—not harshly, but gently. She looked up into his face, her eyes wide, her lips parted, subtly. He was aware of her whole body, scant inches from his. He could feel the heat of her. If his brother hadn’t been looking on, Ash might have been tempted to lean down and touch his mouth to hers. As it was, he could almost taste her, she was so close. The sweet scent of her whispered against his lips—
Something struck his chin, and his mouth clipped shut, his teeth closing about his tongue. He tasted the tang of copper. He was blinking back the stinging pain when—
He crumpled to the floor, his knees slamming against hard parquet before he had the chance to brace himself. It took him a second to realize she’d kicked his legs out from under him.
And then he felt a touch against his groin. Not a blow, thank God, but no soft caress, either. He opened his eyes. He was splayed on his knees. Miss Lowell stood above him, her eyes sparkling.
“This,” she said, her slippered foot against the fall of his trousers, “is where I would have kicked you, had you actually meant me harm. Notwithstanding your stated preference for violence and pain, I assumed I should refrain.”
“Clever girl.” His throat was raspy; he had to gulp in air. Part of his shortness of breath he could attribute to the bruising fall. Part of it was that she’d revealed an inch of delicate, stockinged ankle. But mostly, it was the placement of her foot, a gentle brush against an organ that was all too pleased to be touched by her, even in so hazardous a manner.
Her smile was not wide, but her pleasure encompassed her in a full-body glow. She’d taken him well and truly by surprise with that elbow to the jaw. He almost pitied the man who tried to steal a kiss from her now.
“Oh, dear. Did I fail to mention that Miss Lowell was a quick study?” There was a too-innocent tone in his brother’s voice. Mark had done it on purpose—he’d put Ash at ease, set up this whole scenario, just to have him brought to his knees.
Ash could hardly disapprove.
“Miss Lowell,” Ash said, “is an entrancing little witch. As well she knows.”
She raised her chin smugly and stepped back, shaking her gown out to fall over her ankles.
If Ash hadn’t already been on his knees before her, he’d have gotten on them now. Her hair was slightly disheveled, little strands escaping from her pins. She seemed incandescent—a sharp contrast to the inexplicable grief she’d worn last night. Victory suited her, and all the more because it had been actually won, not handed over in pretense.
He shook his head and gestured to his brother. “Come and help me up,” he said. “I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“Whatever you say, older brother.” Mark strode forwards, that delighted look in his eyes. Oh, Mark had won, all right—bamboozled Ash into underestimating Miss Lowell. It was as if Mark had wrestled him to the floor himself. Ash couldn’t have been prouder. Mark reached out a hand and Ash grasped it. For a moment, it was a brotherly affirmation—hands clasped together in something akin to friendship.
Ash pulled his weight against his brother’s hand, and Mark braced himself. As he scrambled to his feet, he whispered. “Did you really believe that claptrap about my not being young any longer? For a genius, you can be terribly idiotic sometimes.”
And with one swift movement, he pushed his brother off balance, grappled his legs out from underneath him and, after a gratifying scuffle, succeeded in pinning Mark to the floor. For a second, they met eyes.
Mark smiled at him. And victory was complete.
WHEN MARGARET LEFT her father’s sickroom that evening, Ash Turner was waiting for her. He leaned against the wall, his bulk a muscled shadow clad in brown wool. She had known this moment was coming, ever since she’d left him that written apology on his desk. He was going to find her, talk to her. He might do substantially more.
But he didn’t move to do anything. Instead, he nodded at her. “Good evening, Miss Lowell.”
It was impossible for her to ignore the deep rumble of his voice, impossible not to feel the palms of her hands prickle with awareness. He had treated her with kindness. True, he hadn’t given her the prim and proper respect to which she’d become ac
customed. But he’d given her something solid and quite a bit more reliable.
She swallowed. Her toes curled in her slippers. But then, she had decided this morning what she had to do.
“Good evening.” She wasn’t finished, but she felt her throat closing about the last syllable. Before she could choke on the words, she started again. “Good evening. Ash.”
He didn’t smile at that, but his eyes lit. A little defiance, he had called that. But it was a bigger defiance than he could imagine, to flout her family and to address him with such familiarity.
He’d earned it. Twice over.
He straightened. As he did so, the light from the oil-lamp behind him caught his features. With his head held high, the points of his collar no longer cast his chin in shadow.
And now she could see it. She stepped forwards without thinking, her breath hissing out. “Oh, no.” Her thumb found his jaw; it was harsh with a day’s worth of stubble. And the skin beneath those coarse, rasping hairs was discolored. She lightly ran her fingers over that bruise. “Did I do that?”
She raised her eyes to his and only then realized how close she stood to him. Inches away. She was up on her tiptoes, caressing his face. She could smell his subtle musk—masculine and earthy, with a tang of bergamot. She could feel the heat of him against her fingertips. She should step away. Her breath was burning in her lungs, her lips tingling under his appraisal. Her whole body was coming to life, this close to his. Her breasts tightened, her thighs tensed and that bud between her legs warmed.
“Yes, Margaret.” He drew out the syllables, converting her name from a mere appellation into a verbal caress. “You did.”