“What is it,” she finally asked, “between you and Parford? That seemed as if it were the tenth such disagreement, not the first.”
Ash wanted to ask her the same question. “When I was young, my mother began to go mad. She sold the family concerns and gave what little funds remained to the poor. We went from living comfortably with a few scattered servants to living in squalor.”
He didn’t like remembering those days. He’d been so young and helpless then. He never wanted to feel that way again.
“My sister was bitten by a rat and developed a fever. And my mother refused to have a physician in. She claimed that if God wanted Hope to live, she’d do so. So I walked to Parford Manor, laid my claim of family before the duke, and begged for his intercession. For enough to pay a doctor, some medicine…for anything, really.”
“Walked to Parford Manor? How far was it?”
He shrugged. “Twenty miles. It can be done.”
“And how…how young were you?”
“Parford didn’t provide any assistance.”
“No. He laughed at me, and told me that the fewer Turners there were in this world, the happier he would be. And then he gave me a sixpence to hire myself a bath. So I returned home. Over the course of the next weeks, I watched my sister fade away. When she was gone—when she was buried outside the churchyard, in a pauper’s grave—I vowed I would never be helpless again. I would never have to beg for my brothers’ well-being.”
She was watching him, her lips pressed together.
“What is it,” he asked her, “between you and Parford?” He took another step towards her.
Her eyes widened, but she didn’t move away. Instead, her expression darkened. “It was the duchess,” she said quickly. “I can’t bear it, some days. If he had any notion what he’d done to her, any sense of grief at her loss, perhaps I might be able to stand it. But…since he fell sick, he’s become so…so selfish. So different. I couldn’t bear to see him, unwilling to even lift a finger to help the ones he has most sinned against.” Her voice choked with emotion, and she looked up at him. “I do not want to be like him.” Her words sounded harsh. “I do not want to be the sort of person who casually abandons loved ones, merely because it is convenient or amusing to do so.”
Ash still didn’t quite understand. But in that reckless little speech, one thing had become clearer. “Who was he?” he asked.
“Who was whom?” She seemed wary and wound up, like some clockwork toy twisted to the breaking point.
“Who was he, who sinned against you?”
She did look up at him at that, and all that wary tension relaxed into sadness. “Who wasn’t he?”
“He wasn’t me, that’s for damned sure.”
Her lips parted. For one second, he almost thought she was going to contradict him. Instead, she shook her head. Her chin lifted in stubborn insistence. “If you must know,” she said in cool, clipped tones, “he was my fiancé.”
His blood stopped in his veins. When he spoke, the words seemed to come from very far away. “You have a fiancé.”
“Not any longer.”
His breath started again in painful relief.
“We were betrothed when I was nineteen. The betrothal lasted several years.”
“Isn’t that rather long for an engagement?”
“It’s a delightful length for a man who doesn’t wish to marry.”
He itched to touch her, to run his hand down her spine until her eyes warmed. “Is it churlish of me to admit I’m glad you cried off?”
“Not churlish. Just not…based in truth. A year ago, when he visited, I brought the matter to a head, to see if he ever really intended to marry me. It was not the first time I had asked. But it was the most forceful.”
“And he admitted he had no intention of doing so.”
“Wrong again, Mr. Turner. He insisted he intended to do so in his own good time. He was more than willing to give me a token of his good intentions.” Bitter disdain touched her voice.
“I take it his token was not a wedding date.”
“No. It wasn’t. His logic went something like this: once he deflowered me, I could trust his word as a gentleman that he’d do right by me. Eventually.”
“Christ.” Ash simply stared at her. He could imagine how that had transpired. It was not a true betrothal she was talking about; it was a secret one. So secret, apparently, that the man forgot to mention it to his friends or family. Nothing but an excuse to kiss her. Touch her. To have her, while sweeping her protestations under the rug. No doubt she’d been young and vulnerable when it had started, and as it had gone on, his lies had no doubt made her all the more vulnerable. No wonder she shied away from gentlemen who found her attractive.
“Pardon me,” he said. “That has to be the most mangled logic I have ever heard. I have heard men say some damnably stupid things to get a woman in bed, but that particular line could win a prize in a tavern contest.”
“And I believed him.” Margaret spoke softly, but now he could hear that line of anger in her voice. “I believed him. And then I found out—” She stopped again, briefly, and collected herself. “I found out it was all lies.”
He wanted to kiss her now. Not for pleasure. Not for the sensual joy of her. But for comfort. To tell her that not all men were untrustworthy liars. But that kiss would have been for his benefit, not hers. The last thing she needed now was more physical importunity. What she truly needed after that confession…
Ash sighed. “Was he at least any good at it?”
She choked and jerked away from him. “Ash,” she said, her voice unsteady, “I just told you I was not a virgin. Half the men out there would believe that my virtue was gone. That it wouldn’t be a rape if you took me, even if I protested.”
What an appalling sentiment. “Well,” he said after an awkward pause, “that answers my question. He was terrible.”
She looked up at him, her eyes narrowed. He simply looked back at her, and waited for her breath
to fall into evenness. See? I shan’t hurt you.
“Yes,” she said slowly, as if she were just realizing the truth of it. “He was terrible, wasn’t he? In fact, he was really, really bad at it.” As she spoke, a small smile touched her lips.
Perhaps it was the first time she’d discovered the power of words. No doubt the memory had been a source of torment for her. It always helped to be able to place the blame squarely where it belonged, instead of allowing it to eat you up inside.
“Was it painful?” he asked.
She looked down. “It was boring,” she finally admitted. “All that fuss—and once he got started, all I could think was, my God, when is this going to be over?”
Ash tamped down a smile. She wasn’t going to find it boring with him. He was going to worship her, from the smooth column of her neck to the tight rosettes of her nipples. He was going to set her aflame, coaxing every last desire from her body.
She tilted her head up to look at him. No, not just look; she was studying him, as if he were a painting whose import she had yet to divine. Her eyebrows drew down in puzzled slashes. And then, slowly, she lifted her hand.
He didn’t dare breathe. He felt as if he’d spent weeks leaving crumbs for a bird, only to have it land on a stone wall beside him. It was hell to keep still, to wait for that moment. But then she brushed her fingers down the side of his face and it was sweet heaven. Her touch was wary, as if she feared a sudden movement on his part. His hands clenched at his sides. God, he wanted to touch her back. He wanted to grab her to him, to press his body against hers. He wanted that kiss against his lips.
But it was exploration, as she tentatively stroked the line of his jaw. When she traced the contours of his lips, she was asking him a question. Am I safe with you? And no matter that he wanted to wrap her in his arms and hold her close, he could have only one answer for her. Yes, darling. Always. Even more than he needed the feel of her lush body beneath his, even more than his thumbs yearned to part the slick depths of her sex, he wanted her to be sure of him. It was as if she were seeing him for the first time. As if he’d been veiled in mists all the days of their acquaintance and she was only now making out his features.