“It is almost as if you were five years old.” She spoke calmly, but inside, she was fuming. “Do you know what happens to five-year-olds who do not take their medicine?”
He gave her a cold smile. “Let me guess. They are told to behave in a very stern tone of voice by someone who has no ability to control them?”
Margaret reached for the bottle and uncorked it a second time.
“No,” she said sweetly. “They have it administered again.”
It took seven tries and the better part of an hour to force the medicine down his throat. A year ago, she would never have been able to grapple him into submission. He would have fended her off with one hand. But now, when he brought his right hand up to push at her in annoyance, she barely noticed his efforts. The difficulty lay in forcing his lips open and getting him to swallow. On the final try, she tilted his head up, held his nose and rubbed his throat until he gagged it all down.
“There,” she said briskly, closing up the bottle. “Only slightly less exasperating than dosing a cat. You should be proud of yourself.”
He cast her a baleful glare when she finally stepped back. “I don’t want any more medicine,” he whined, his voice a thin, reedy echo of what it had once been. “I don’t want you anymore, either. You’re sacked. You’re all sacked, this entire household.”
“You can’t sack me. I’m your daughter, not your servant.”
“Hmm.” He frowned at her again as she straightened the bedclothes about him. “Well, I refuse to acknowledge you, then. I don’t have to.”
“Congratulations,” she offered dryly. “I’m so distressed.” She turned to the basin to wash her hands and her face. The last of the sticky green residue that had stuck to her eyelids disappeared in a swirl of cold water.
It was at this moment that a scratch sounded at the door. She turned in confusion, but it was already opening—Tollin, one of the footmen who was stationed outside her father’s rooms in the evening, had swung it wide.
Ash stood in the doorway. He’d shed coat and cravat for the evening, and the sight of him in white linen shirtsleeves only emphasized how broad his shoulders were. Her face felt sticky and hot all over again. She had gotten all the green liquid off. Hadn’t she?
“Miss Lowell,” he said formally. Not Margaret; not with another servant and her father present. “I’ve something I need to discuss with Parford. Do you suppose now would be a good time?”
It was coming on evening. Her father was difficult—but then, he grew in difficulty with every passing day. As if to underscore that, the duke gave a sharp, negative jerk of his head. He was alert, active and irascible. There would never be a good time.
“Of course,” Margaret said. “He would love to talk with you. I wish you the best of luck. If you can get him to converse in an intelligent fashion for more than five seconds altogether, you will have my greatest admiration and astonishment.”
“Hmm.” Ash met her eyes. “Now that would be a prize worth having, wouldn’t it?”
She had no response to that. She simply gestured him in. He entered, brushing past her as he did so. As before, he looked around the room. It hadn’t changed much. The chamber was still littered with basins and bottles of medicines. A table stood by her father’s bedside. In preparation for the evening, he’d shed the Parford signet—a gold ring, crowned by a sapphire. The blue stone had been carved with the stylized sword that graced the Parford coat of arms. Margaret had played with it, once, as a child. It had seemed large in her hands then—massive and weighty.
When Ash picked it up and turned it over, it seemed a tiny thing. He slid it onto his finger—but it stuck at his first knuckle.
“Ha!” her father said. “Sent that off to the jeweler months ago, to have it resized to fit my hands in my illness.” He spread his fingers, thin insubstantial sticks. “It won’t fit you now. Not until I’m dead.”
Ash pursed his lips at this morbid observation, but simply set the ring back on the table. “Oddly,” he said, “I’ve come to speak to you about that.”
“My death? How kind of you to inquire. When I expire, I should like to have two women in my bed, both naked—”
Margaret had never felt gratitude quite so intense when Ash raised his hand. That was not an image she wanted embellished upon.
“I came here to examine the books, to make sure the entailed properties were not despoiled before I took title.”
“What of it?” her father asked. “Why should I care?”
“Because by my estimation, the unentailed properties amount to little more than a few thousand pounds.”
So little? It made Margaret feel almost dizzy. Why, Richard and Edmund would not just be demoted to commoners—they would be almost poor. As for herself…
Ash continued, not realizing he was detailing the grim state of her possible future. “Most of the estate’s excess wealth came from your second marriage, and with that dissolved, the money returns to her family. What other provision have you made for your children?”
Her father leaned back. “Welcome to your revenge, Turner. You begged me to help your family, and I did not. Now you have the satisfaction of reducing mine to penury. There’s an admirable symmetry. Do you enjoy it?”
Ash looked at her father for a very long time. He seemed transformed from the warm, easy man she was beginning to know. Instead, his eyes glittered, hard and cold as jet. “Yes,” he finally said. “Yes, I do. I will enjoy making your pitiful children an allowance. I will relish being the one person who stands between them and penury. Every single quarter, they will know they live at my mercy. So yes, Parford, I am enjoying the chance to prove that I’m your superior. And all you need to do to guarantee their future is this: ask me for it.”
Margaret’s stomach hurt. It was so easy to forget that Ash hated her family. Her father. That if he knew who she was, he would never speak with her again—or would ask her to beg, in that cold, calculating tone.
But her father seemed unaffected. “Ask you for what?”
“Ask me for their future. No need to grovel. No need to beg. All you need to guarantee their financial security is to deliver one sentence. Consider using the word please.”
Her father looked up. He looked behind Ash and found Margaret standing in the shadows. She couldn’t imagine what he saw in her. Her hands felt cold. The color had no doubt drained from her cheeks. She knew that Ash was as good as his word—if he said he would care for her brothers, he would.
“So all I have to do,” her father mused, “is just mouth a few words, and you’ll provide for my brats?” Ash nodded.
If Ash’s gaze had seemed hard stone, her father’s was glass, clear and cutting. “No,” he said quite distinctly. “I don’t believe I will. My children are all imbeciles. I said I would sack the lot of them if I could.” He looked up at Margaret as he spoke, a faint air of triumph about him. “And look at this. I can.”
It took her a moment to understand what he’d said. What he’d done. And when she did—when he betrayed her so easily once more, for nothing but a fit of pique—she couldn’t bear it any longer. If Ash were to turn around in that moment and see her face, he would know everything.
She couldn’t stay. And so she turned and fled.
ASH TURNED AT THE SOUND of her footsteps, but he saw nothing more than the swish of Margaret’s gray skirts as she slipped through the door. He wasn’t sure why she was leaving. And he didn’t know why the few brisk steps he saw her take made him think of some palpable hurt.
It was hardly the first time she had confused him. He knew just enough to understand that he didn’t understand her. He felt as if he had walked into an opera in the midst of the second act. He was baffled by the relationships on the stage, confused as to the particulars of the plot, and unlikely to decipher what had come before, as the libretto had been written entirely in Estonian. He could only surmise that she’d been wounded—deeply wounded.
When he was around her, he felt as if he were falling. As if h
e had once misstepped, and now, no matter how hard he tried, he could never quite set things right again. He just didn’t know why.
The problem with working off instinct was that he wasn’t always certain what he was working towards. He’d known he wanted her in his bed. But he was beginning to realize that he wanted more. He wanted to rid her of those lines around her eyes. He wanted to soothe the clench of her fists. He wanted to draw her to him, as gently as he could. And once he had her there…
Ash shook his head and looked up. It had been only a moment since the door had closed behind her, but Parford was looking at him. Watching Ash watch the place where she’d been.
The duke smiled knowingly, as if he knew what Ash was only just coming to realize: he was falling. Harder and faster than he’d anticipated. “Now that,” Parford said, “is truly amusing. All that effort to set yourself above me, and what has it got you?”
Ash cast him a dirty look. “After what you’ve done to the dukedom, I could hardly sully it further.”
Parford waved his hand. “No, no. Carry on.” It took Ash a moment to realize that the hoarse wheeze that emanated from his chest was a guffaw. “Good luck, Turner.” He shook his head. “For all the good it will do you.”
Ash stared at him one moment longer. It took only that instant to crystallize what was important. Not a further attempt to bludgeon some kind of an apology from this old washed-up scarecrow of a man, but to find Margaret. She’d left because she was hurt, and a large part of that had been this man’s fault.
He left the room after her. He could still hear her footsteps in the gallery; he quickened his pace, turning the corner just as she reached the staircase.
“Margaret.” He called as loudly as he dared, which was not loudly at all.
She stopped and turned to him. She seemed a little dazed, unwilling to look at him. But she stopped, at least, staring at the painting nearest her on the gallery wall. He walked towards her, unsure how to proceed.