Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 22

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These tentative caresses were discovery on her part. Not seduction. This wasn’t seduction.

But damn it, he was seduced anyway. She stepped in closer—so close her skirts brushed his trousers, so close that it would be the work of a moment to trap her in his arms. He had a vast well of patience to call upon. But beneath it all, a deeper current welled up. He wanted her. Not just this tremulous reconnaissance. He wanted more than the feel of her body clasping his, more than the certainty of her physical surrender. He wanted to possess all of her—from her fierce loyalty to the wary strength he sensed hidden inside her.

Her hands drifted down to his shoulders. He’d shed his jacket long before, but even through his satin waistcoat, he could feel the warmth of her fingers. They pressed down on him as she lifted up onto her toes. She leaned into him, her breasts sliding against him, her arms coming round his neck. Her lips were a light flutter against first his chin, then his cheek. He bowed his head, trading every ragged exhalation with her. If she pressed against him just a little more, she would know just how badly he wanted her. He was painfully, exquisitely erect.

And she wanted him, physically. He could not miss the signs—the flush on her cheeks, the unsteady rhythm of her breath. The sway of her body against his.

Her lips found his, and a stab of exquisite desire shot through him. Finally. Endlessly. This was what he had been waiting for, all this time. Not a stolen embrace, to be wrested from her in the dark of night. A gift, freely given. One that he would keep forever in some small part of his soul.

Damn. He wanted to grab her to him and show her precisely how not-boring he could be. His hands clenched at his sides.

She subsided onto her toes and looked up at him.

She’d been hurt—badly. So badly that tonight may well have been the first time she’d taken that memory out and given it a firm shake. It had made her feel helpless, vulnerable. Ash knew that feeling. He hated it. He also knew how to banish that feeling of powerlessness: promise that it would never happen again, and make good on that promise through action. She’d given him a kiss. He could give a gift in return.

He reached out and touched her nose. “You told me once I was the most cheerfully ruthless man you’d ever met. Well, sweetheart, how would you like to see what happens to men who bore you? Shall I destroy him for you?”

Her eyes widened. “I haven’t even told you his name.”

“Really?” He favored her with a droll look. “A years-long engagement, formed young—likely kept secret, for you not to have brought the point upon him. A gentleman, you claim. How many gentlemen have you met, Miss Lowell, here at Parford Manor?”

She blinked at him in confusion. Perhaps she hadn’t realized how much she’d revealed. It was all of a piece. What sort of man would so cavalierly treat a woman that way? There was the secrecy. The willingness to say anything, just to get a taste of female flesh. These facts all pointed in one direction.

“Oh, I can guess the identity of your hapless fiancé easily enough. It must have been either Richard or Edmund Dalrymple.”

Her lips parted, and she took a step back. “No,” she said. “Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes,” Ash said softly. “And now that I know about it, I do believe I’ll destroy them both.”

CHAPTER NINE

AS MARGARET LEFT HER father’s chambers the next evening, she could not even pretend that she’d spent the day doing anything other than thinking of Ash. He presented a confusing mix of pain and pleasure to her. Pain, because he’d taken from her everything that once she’d thought mattered—because he still opposed her brothers’ attempt to win back their place in society.

She’d done her best last evening to dissuade him from taking revenge on her brothers. But he’d lured her into telling him a piece of the truth. He’d seemed so safe, so trustworthy, that she’d almost forgotten who he was. Then he’d blamed her brothers—as if they would ever do such a thing—and she’d remembered all too well why she needed to keep her distance. But despite that pain, there was pleasure, too. Everything she’d once thought had mattered—her family name, her position—had washed away. Ash had looked past her ruin and seen someone important.

She walked through the gallery, the sunset painting the walls in variegated shadows—not dark, not light, but a dizzying blend of the two, echoing the muddle in her mind.

She wanted him to be right. She needed him to be wrong. And while that sounded as if she were confused, confusion implied uncertainty. And Margaret was dead certain that he was both the last man on earth that she should kiss, and the only one she dreamed of holding.

A little defiance. That’s what he offered her.

A few kisses. A handful of stolen evenings. A few nights in which she might rebuild her shattered confidence. And in the end, it wouldn’t matter, because their flirtation could never outlive the truth. He liked her only so long as he was ignorant about her.

The door to his chambers was thrown open to the gallery in silent, beckoning invitation. Margaret was beckoned—first by the warm lamplight, casting shadows against the walls. But as she crept to the doorway and peered inside, she was beckoned by him, too. He sat in a chair, his back to her, so that she could see nothing but the dark curl of his hair. She yearned to feel those strands against her fingers. To touch him, as she had yesterday evening. Except this time, more.

She tiptoed forwards.

He was frowning at a book. More were stacked on the table before him. As she padded up silently behind him, she could make out what he was reading: a text on agriculture—something about soil. By the pristine condition of the binding and the uncut pages, the book was new. He rubbed at his forehead testily and frowned at the page.

It was nearly nine in the evening, and far from drinking spirits, he was learning about farming. It took Margaret a moment to understand the twinge of pain that flickered through her.

Her father’s land steward had tried to impress upon him the importance of an understanding of agricultural theory. To the best of her knowledge, her father had never read any of the texts the man had offered. That, the duke had snorted, was why he hired keen young fellows to manage his operation—so he wouldn’t have to do it himself and could spend his time cultivating port instead of potatoes.

Ash shook his head, as if arguing with the words. She padded closer behind him and glanced down at the page. The addition of lime to hard-used soil—she read, before his hand intervened, cutting off her view. He spread the page flat and picked up the penknife. His hands were large, broad, long-fingered.

A wisp of appreciation curled through her, as he eased the knife into the crease of the uncut pages. There was a gentleness to his movements. Despite his size, despite the fact that his hand covered the bottom half of the book, he moved carefully. Could any man truly be as perfect as he seemed? And why had this perfect man descended upon her family, destroying everything? Why couldn’t it have been someone else?

The knife slid. But instead of parting the pages in one smooth motion, his knife slipped, the page ripped unevenly, and—

“Damn it,” he swore, sticking his finger in his mouth before the blood could well up. “God damn it.”

Margaret felt herself smile, even though she knew she shouldn’t. Well. That answered the question of whether Ash Turner was perfect. Thank God he was not.

He pulled his finger from his mouth and searched his pocket for a handkerchief. “Damn books. Damn words. And libraries and cold dark rooms can go to hell.” He slammed the tome shut against the table—and just as he did, he turned enough to catch Margaret’s eye.

He froze, his face a mask of obvious, inexplicable guilt. His fingers splayed across the book’s cover. They lay there, still for just an instant too long, before he ran his hands down the leather that covered the front chapboards. He looked as embarrassed as a man caught beating a puppy, his fingers petting the pages in an insincere, unconvincing half caress.

Margaret’s smile broadened.

He must h

ave realized how ridiculous he appeared, because he shook his head. “No, madam,” he said. “There’s no problem here. We were having ourselves a friendly fight, we were—between me and this book.” He drawled out those words, mirroring the accent of the local men, as if he were some common laborer caught by the tavern keeper in the act of raising a chair.

She converted the giggle that rose up into a ladylike clearing of the throat, and put her hand on her hip. “We won’t stand for any trouble here, sir. Must I fetch the constable?”

He glanced at the book and then back at her. Finally, he sighed. “I can tie fifteen different sorts of knots, you know.”

She wasn’t sure what that had to do with the price of tea in agricultural texts, but she raised a single eyebrow at him.

“I can whittle a linked chain out of a single stick of wood.”

“I’m sure you can.”

“I can purchase goats in twelve different dialects of native India.”

“Of course.” She glanced at him. “You must have a great many goats, then.”

He heaved himself to his feet and turned away from the book—and towards her. Her toes curled unconsciously in her slippers as he fixed that gaze on her. There was no trace of humor on his face.

“But you’ve just stabbed yourself while cutting pages in a book. Oh, dear, Mr. Turner. An imperfection. Whatever will you do?”

He didn’t smile in response. Instead, he rubbed his hands together. On another man, that gesture might have betrayed nervousness. But Margaret couldn’t imagine strong Ash—gentle Ash—confident Ash—having anything so crass as nerves.

He scrubbed his hand—his unstabbed hand, that was—through his hair. “I suppose it’s just as well you find out.”

“Mr. Turner,” Margaret started. She stopped as his eyes narrowed at her. “Ash,” she continued. “Perhaps you may not have realized this, but I have discovered that you are imperfect before. This hardly comes as a surprise.”


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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