There would be no fine dresses. No house of her own. She stood and walked to the window. It was a tiny slit, cut out like all the servants’ windows from atop the roofs. Up here, the pigeons woke her in the morning with their squabbling.
It was night, and from the window she could see nothing but the thick velvet of mist, blanketing the rose garden her mother had loved. It had broken her mother’s heart to discover that her son would not inherit these lands.
And yet Margaret thought it would break something even more fragile inside herself to betray Ash’s secret in that horrible way, to expose it—and him—to the censure of Parliament. She could live without society’s blessing. She could not live with her own condemnation.
Betraying Ash’s secret would be like spilling dark paint on the picture of herself that she was only now beginning to comprehend.
And so she ended her letter to her brother with another truth—and a different kind of betrayal.
I’m sorry, Richard. I can’t help you as we had hoped.
DISCLOSING HIS SECRET incompetence had made Ash feel more determined, not less. More determined that this time, if he tried hard enough, he would break through that hazy barrier of symbols, that he would see words and sentences instead of a shifting mass of ink. He’d finished his affairs for the day, and now it was time for more vital business: keeping his promise to his brother.
Everything he’d ever set out to accomplish, he had done. And while he hadn’t been able to muster up the will to plow through an agricultural text, today he’d received something far more important—Mark’s book, the copy finally finished.
Mark was different from agriculture. His book would naturally prove different. And Ash had made a promise. If he wanted it, he told himself, he would simply make it happen. There was no other choice.
Thus far, the force of his will had only managed to give him a raging headache. It shifted behind his eyes, the letters sliding off the page before he could pin them down, until all he wanted was to sleep—and he’d only managed to comprehend the first three syllables.
Well. Never mind with the title page—that wouldn’t matter. It would all be better once he got to the meat of the argument. He flipped to the second page, ignoring the fact that it was filled with even more dauntingly squiggled ink.
He felt as if he were trying to catch pigs in the rain using only a pair of metal tongs. He barely recalled what each symbol stood for. Piecing them together into some semblance of coherent understanding was impossible.
It took him two full minutes to get through Chapter. One. Chastity. Is.
Before he could find out what chastity was, he heard footsteps behind him.
Margaret’s voice. Oh, hell. Ash inhaled in mingled hope and desperation. God knew it would take a miracle for him to bull his way through even the first page of Mark’s book. He’d surely never manage it if Margaret distracted him with her lithe figure and the promise of more kisses. He shut his eyes, as much to ward off the incipient headache swimming behind his vision as to try to fend off that extra frisson of vitality he felt in her presence.
Behind him, he could hear her breath, could imagine the swell of her chest, rising and falling.
Shutting his eyes didn’t help. He could still remember her intimate taste from last night—her mouth warmed by brandy tempered with a floral note, her body canted over his, pressing into him. But in the here and now, her hand touched his, and he reluctantly looked at her.
Even though he’d prepared himself, the sight of her still sent a little shock down his spine. Her lips were rose-pink, and oh-so-kissably full. A handful of kisses hadn’t been enough. The faint color of her cheeks was broken up here and there by a hint of freckle. Her hair was braided and bound up, tight and proper, but her mouth pursed, and that hint of impropriety made him think of unlacing her from the confines of her gown, unpinning her curling hair…
Damn. He was distracted already.
“This,” she said, tapping the pages in his hand, “is your brother’s book. He mentioned to me earlier today you’d gotten the copy. He seemed nervous.”
Ash spread the loose pages in his hands. “As you see,” he murmured, “I’ve managed to take in so much of it already.”
She bit her lip. “I thought I might read it to you.”
The blood simply stopped in Ash’s veins. His whirling thoughts came to a crashing standstill. His throat dried out, and he coughed. She looked down.
When he didn’t respond, she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “I can see I’ve offended you. I didn’t intend to imply— I apologize—”
“No.” He choked the word out, and she drew back further. “I mean, no, don’t apologize.” He was stunned, too stunned to form a response. But he caught her hand in his. Their fingers intertwined, his grip saying what his mouth could not manage. He squeezed all his pent-up helplessness, his secret shame into her fingers.
“I promised Mark,” he explained awkwardly. His inability to read was a guilty, secret part of him, something to be hidden away from the light of day under a mass of lies and misdirection. He’d invented excuse after excuse, pleaded his schedule a thousand times, ordered employees to summarize numerous documents.
But this…this, he couldn’t hide.
She’d looked into his darkest degradation and whispered that he was not alone. Maybe this was what he’d felt, that fine morning when he’d first seen her out on the steps. He’d felt an echo of this moment—as if he were somehow, finally, coming home.
He nodded at Margaret. “Very well,” he said. He knew his voice sounded harsh, almost devoid of emotion. It was merely because she had no idea how long he’d carried that burden in solitude. To think he might trust someone with his secret—and that she might offer to help, that she might bridge the gap between Ash and his brothers… He couldn’t even contemplate it. If he hid behind gruffness, it was because his throat felt scratchy, as if he were on the verge of weeping.
Not that he would.
That would have been ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as the rush of vulnerability that overtook him, as if he were some nocturnal insect blinded by the sudden light of her regard. If it had been anyone else at this moment, he might have scuttled away. But then…it was Margaret.
Instead he simply nodded at her. She took the pages from him and shuffled them into order.
“A Gentleman’s Practical Guide to Chastity,” she began to read. “By Mark Turner.” She cocked her head and looked at Ash. “A practical guide to chastity? What does that mean?”
Ash shrugged. So that was what the words on the front page had said. “I suspect we are about to discover that.” He put his hands on the arms of his seat, readying himself. It may have been a dry philosophical text of intellectual import, but it was his brother’s dry
philosophical text. He was not going to think about the juxtaposition of her full lips and the words of chastity. He was not going to make some juvenile witticism.
“‘Chapter One,’” Margaret read. “‘Entitled: Chastity is hard.’”
Ash sniggered despite himself. So much for keeping his juvenile thoughts at bay. “Yes,” he murmured. “Hard is usually how I find myself after an unfortunate bout with chastity.”
She flicked a glance at him, her lips curving upwards in amusement, and then she shook her head and read once more. “‘Too often, moralists stress the need for upright behavior. But this emphasis is often impractical in its effect. When a man fails to meet one overly rigorous standard, his usual reaction is to give up on all of them.’”
With the words spoken aloud, Mark’s book wasn’t hard to follow. In fact, it even made sense. Ash nodded, and Margaret went on.
“‘For instance, we have all heard that if a man lusts after a woman, he has already committed adultery in his heart. This admonition is rooted in good intentions—after all, one ought to keep one’s thoughts uplifted at all times. Unfortunately, the base male mind, always keen on having its own way, often inverts the principle. Well, a man reasons to himself, if I am already damned for committing adultery in my heart, I might as well have the enjoyment of committing adultery in the flesh.’”
Ash let out a surprised bark of laughter—both because what his brother said was all too true, and because he could see Mark saying those words, his face lighting with irrepressible good humor. Margaret was smiling as she read, too. Dimples had come out on her cheeks.
He liked her dimples.
“‘The truth,’” she intoned, “‘is that chastity is hard. It is particularly hard for the young, unmarried gentleman who is besieged on the one hand by admonitions that he not even so much as consider a woman’s ankle, and on the other, by invitations to avail himself of the great multitude of opportunities available to any man with a few coins to his name. For most such young gentlemen, a choice between the impossible and the pleasant is no choice at all. That is why I have written this first practical guide to chastity.’”