“These books,” Margaret said dryly, “you, too, could study.”
“Oh.” He glanced at them again and then back at her.
Margaret crossed to stand before him and then leaned and took a tumbler. She poured an inch into the glass and held it out to Ash.
“Here,” she said. “This is the education most gentlemen receive at Oxford.”
He stared at the glass in her hands for a few moments, and then shook his head. “No. I don’t believe I will. I’m no Dalrymple, to put pleasure before duty.”
She’d almost become inured to those comments about her family. “A shame,” she said calmly. “I am.”
“Putting pleasure before duty?” he asked quizzically.
No. A Dalrymple. But the moment passed, overtaken by her hesitation. Instead, she raised the glass to her own lips and took a sip. The taste of brandy overwhelmed her—dark, tawny, heady. The alcohol volatilized in her mouth. She swallowed, and it burned on the way down. Just one taste, but it was enough to sweep away her last lingering inhibitions. She set the glass down.
Before he could say anything, she leaned over him in the chair. She set her hands on the linen of his shirt, feeling the roughness of the fabric. She could feel the whisper of his breath, and it was sweeter and more invigorating than her sip of spirits.
Last night, she’d kissed him because he’d made her smile. Tonight, she kissed him to make him laugh. Her lips found his. He exhaled as she did so; she felt it, more than heard it, felt his chest heave under her hands, his lips part beneath hers. His hands came to her side, clasping her waist.
The kiss last night hadn’t lasted long—just a brief, heated exchange of air, their lips mingling for a few seconds. This was more. His lips parted for her. His tongue slipped into her mouth.
He was a heady mixture of taste and scent. She could feel the hard planes of his chest, the muscles beneath her hands. She forgot about everything that had transpired between them. She forgot that anything stood between them, besides the fabric of his shirt, separating her hand from the thud of his heart. The brandy had entered her blood, and it rose, warm and pounding, to flush her cheeks.
Another caress of his tongue on hers. His hands drifted up her sides, awakening a deep yearning inside her. It was a want so fundamental she could not imagine how it had remained dormant in his presence until now. A need to have him close. To press herself against him.
He drew her down to straddle him in his chair. Her skirts tangled about her; her knees brushed his thighs through her petticoats. It shouldn’t have been possible, but her want intensified to a primal thing, one that couldn’t be satisfied by just his caress against her ribs.
As if he could taste her desire on her lips, his hand inched up, slowly, until he cupped her breast. Thumb and forefinger rolled; she felt that touch clear through the layers of fabric. A shot of pleasure went through her. It was almost too intense, too intimate for her to bear. She pulled away, just so that she could steady her hands on his shoulders.
He stared up at her, and then slowly, slowly, he gave her a brilliant grin—one that lit the darkest corners of her wary soul. He was all light, no darkness. It was Margaret herself who cast shadows.
“I take it,” he murmured, “this means my secret is safe with you.”
She couldn’t answer. Instead, she reached out and placed her fingertips against his lips. His breath heated them with a kiss. Before he could do more than give her a gentle nibble, she took them away and curled her hand into a fist. As if she could somehow protect that newfound intimacy from the cold world out there.
“I can’t read books,” he whispered, “but I have other skills. An instinct, if you will—this ability to know things, people, in the blink of an eye. It’s how I made my fortune. It’s how I knew, when I first saw you…” He trailed off, and reached out and deliberately ran a finger down her arm. “I knew I could trust you,” he explained. “Instantly. Irrevocably.”
But she had made no promise.
Her heart constricted. How could he make her feel so warm and so cold, all at the same time? She gazed at him, her thoughts floundering somewhere between desire and despair. And then, because she had no answer for him, no answer even for herself, she leaned down and kissed him one last time.
I TAKE IT THIS MEANS my secret is safe with you.
Even half an hour later, seated alone in the tiny garret she’d adopted, Margaret could feel his body pressed against hers, his mouth on hers.
Until that evening, she’d never quite understood his smile. She’d thought his expression arrogant, overly familiar, assuming. Against her better judgment, she’d also found it attractive. But until that evening, she hadn’t understood precisely how much uncertainty he hid behind it. She’d never before realized how much vulnerability he harbored.
But with her lap desk laid atop her knees, she was about to puncture those vulnerabilities, to betray that trust. The steel nib of her pen stood poised above her paper, ready to spill his story in India ink. A drop balled on the tip and fell to splash, deep black, against the page below.
Her brother. Her own brother. She’d grown up beside him. When she had been still in pinafores, his friend had called her a scraggly little thing, and Richard had punched him. If anyone in the world deserved her loyalty, it was Richard. She had to write this letter.
The next sentence would have been so simple.
Mr. Ash Turner is essentially illiterate.
If only she could write that down, her life would right itself. The Act of Legitimation would pass. She would be Lady Anna Margaret once more, and the dowry she’d been supposed to receive from her mother would be hers again. She could rejoin society; even if she never married, she need not live as her brothers’ dependent for the rest of her life. A few droplets of ink, a little sand… Such tiny things could not amount to a betrayal. Not when it was her own brother she fought for. She dipped her pen with trembling hands.
There is something you need to know about Ash Turner. He is—
She set her pen to the paper to form the next word. But the nib would not move. A dark blotch of ink formed at the tip and spread, little threads of black weaving into the paper, mocking Margaret’s inability to continue.
There was a reason she couldn’t finish her sentence. It was because it wasn’t true. Oh, the letter would be composed of entirely true things. But the import—that Ash Turner was incapable of serving as a duke—would be entirely false. It felt disloyal for her to reveal what he’d told her. It would have been wrong to betray his trust. Not when he’d looked at her and seen…everything.
I want you to paint your own canvas.
The paper waited patiently, ready to absorb her words. Whatever she wrote next, she would be painting it over, indelibly declaring her loyalty. It seemed utterly wrong to fill this space with lies about Ash. After all, he’d told her that she mattered.
He’d trusted her.
He’d broken her into pieces, and with one smile, he’d knit her back together again. There was no path of honor for her to tread, no way to be true to both her brothers and her own burgeoning sense of self-discovery. There was nothing left for her but a little defiance. Nothing left but to tell the truth. But whom would she defy? And, if she was picking amongst truths, which one could she pick for herself?
She stared at the inkblot spreading on the page, hoping to see some secret in its tangled darkness.
And when she dipped her pen again, what she wrote was this: Ash Turner is a more conscientious man than Father ever was.
She hadn’t intended to write that sentence until her pen moved. But there it was, in solid letters on the page. It was truer than anything else she could have written. And she wasn’t going to take it back.
In his first three days here, he solved that awful land dispute between Nelson and Whitaker. The land steward reports that he has already come up with a plan to modernize planting procedures. I know you hoped I
would uncover some grave deficiency on his part, but we must face the truth. A man capable of building a financial empire from nothing has little to fear from the demands of the dukedom.
In fact, Margaret was beginning to entertain the sneaking suspicion that Ash would be a better duke than her eldest brother. Richard had always assumed that the ducal mantle would one day settle upon his shoulders; Ash had worked for everything he’d achieved. Richard believed that the running of the duchy was in his blood; Ash had no such preconceptions.
One could push a pack of truths together to make one despicable falsehood. She’d seen it, when it was done to her. Society had torn her reputation to tatters, starting with the truth that she was a bastard, and ending with whispered conversations, just loud enough for her to hear, stating, “I always knew there was something wrong with her.”
Margaret set her pen down and shoved her lap desk to the side. This cramped room, practically in the rafters of the manor, was the best she could expect for her future, if her brothers’ suit did not prosper. Duke’s daughter though she was, she would likely have to enter service. She would become a governess, a companion, a nurse in truth.