No. She deserved better than that.
“I know. That is to say…” Ash heaved a great sigh. “You’re entirely right, Mrs. Benedict.” He’d promised the housekeeper he wouldn’t despoil the staff. He’d promised himself the same, because these people were his dependents. He couldn’t just debauch Margaret. And yet now that she was willing, keeping his hands off her would prove nearly impossible.
He shook his spinning head, trying to find his way out of this mess. And then he knew—simply knew, with an intensity that rattled him—how he could set this all to rights. How he could have Margaret, and his tumble, too. Of course. Of course. He’d already understood it in some corner of his mind, since the day he’d seen her on the steps. He’d just needed to realize it.
“Of course I’m right.” She set her hands on her hips and glowered at him. “But I was right the last time I admonished you on this score, as well. The only thing I need to know is what you’ll do about it.”
She wanted more than a promise.
“If I stay here…” Ash swallowed and shut his eyes. He might pontificate about honor all he wanted, but the next time he caught a glimpse of Margaret’s ankle, he might well lose his head again. “I’m going to London. Tomorrow. Don’t expect me back for at least another week.”
IT WAS NOT QUITE NOON the next day when Margaret ducked out of her father’s chamber. The sun was shining so brightly that its rays bounced through the gallery, the windows almost alight. And deep inside her she felt a fierce, almost tremulous desire.
Desire—and defiance. Even if nobody else wanted her, Ash did. This was a space of time, carved out for her, a defiant little story she might tell herself during these summer weeks, one in which the scullery girl got the prince for at least one fleeting moment.
It was a pretense—he wanted her the way all men wanted a pretty woman—but what did that matter? She’d had enough taken from her to realize that happiness never lasted. She’d savor these moments while she still had them.
For now, she could feel a fierce, evanescent joy about what had transpired the prior evening. She would pay the price for it—eventually, when he discovered who she was.
But until then… As Margaret was well and truly ruined, she had little to lose. They neither of them did; Margaret had no true reputation to think of, and even though Ash would undoubtedly despise her the instant he knew her true identity, affairs of this nature were ephemeral things. They didn’t last. His affection for her would waver soon enough, especially as she was the daughter of his enemy.
As she passed by the chambers that Ash had taken over, she found the doors to the suite closed and locked forbiddingly. No sounds issued forth from within, and in Margaret’s experience, in the late morning, Ash always had his men in there, arguing.
Perhaps they’d gone out to meet with tenants. Or to catalog the oaks.
Margaret shook her head and descended the main staircase.
The entry was flooded with light. That, Margaret realized, was because both doors were thrown open. Out on the gravel of the drive, a pair of footmen maneuvered a trunk into the boot of a carriage. Two valises stood beside them, waiting to be loaded. And standing next to them, dressed in sober brown traveling attire, was Ash.
He should have been wearing the brown hat he carried, but instead he’d tucked it casually under one arm. He was laughing, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Standing next to him was his brother. Mark spoke with him, shook his head and then waggled a finger at him, mischievously.
Margaret stood at the foot of the stairs, hidden from view by the relative shadow of the entry. Ash clapped his brother on the shoulder and then, without a backward glance, stepped into the carriage. She stared, her chest hollow.
She’d known his affection for her would fade. She hadn’t realized quite how fickle it was, that he could touch her the way he had last night and then leave the next morning without saying a word to her in farewell. Margaret swallowed, but her throat remained dry.
It seemed she was to lose this, too, before it had even been found. In that too-bright sunshine, the driver leaned forwards; the reins jiggled and the team trotted off, smartly stepping down the circled drive, the carriage swaying slightly.
Well. Perhaps she didn’t matter to him as much as he’d said.
The thought should have depressed her. But it didn’t. Instead, her mouth curled up in amused chagrin. She had only to listen to herself. She didn’t need Ash Turner—Ash Turner, of all people, who had destroyed her life—to tell her she mattered. If she was important, she could be important without him.
She dry-washed her hands and turned away. “Good riddance,” she muttered, wishing that she meant it more.
“Pardon? What was that?”
Margaret jerked back. Mark stood, silhouetted in the doorway. “Nothing. I said nothing.”
He shrugged and stepped forwards. “Ash wanted me to convey a message to you, Miss Lowell.”
Margaret’s heart gave a treacherous little skip. No. She’d just decided she had no further need for him. But it wasn’t merely need she felt now. She wanted to know. And so what slipped out was: “Oh? What did he say?”
“He apologized for not saying farewell in person. He’ll be back. And he said he would have left you a note to that effect, but…” Mark shrugged again.
Margaret looked about to see if anyone was listening, and then dropped her voice. “Well, naturally he wouldn’t leave me a note.”
Mark snorted and shook his head. “It’s not what you suppose,” he said dryly. “Believe me. I know. Ash might be aware that it would be highly improper to send an unmarried woman correspondence, but he is unlikely to care.”
Perhaps Mark didn’t know his brother had revealed his secret. “I had something else in mind, actually. He told me—”
“Ah. Did he feed you the excuse he always gives me? About how busy he is? Don’t believe it. The truth is, Ash makes an extremely poor correspondent.”
“Well, of course he does. After all—”
“Don’t you defend him, too. When I was at Eton, for years I used to send him lengthy letters. He’d respond—with a letter written by his secretary. At the end, he’d generally scrawl a few words in his own hand, as a poor pretense of closing. In fact, he had only two or three short phrases he used. They rarely changed. Smite and I used to make a game, guessing which phrase he would slap on to the end. ‘All my love’ was one. ‘Be well’ was another. They don’t mean anything, when they’re offered by rote. No. I have no illusions about my older brother. You…you shouldn’t either.”
No doubt Mark thought he spoke out of kindness, to spare her feelings. But his disclosure had the opposite effect. All her fantasies of impermanence went up in smoke. Mark didn’t know. He didn’t know that Ash couldn’t read, couldn’t write. Her talks with Ash had seemed such harmless flirtation—heated, of course, and filled with pretty words she wanted to believe. She’d been telling herself he whispered sweet nothings all this time.
She couldn’t think it any longer. Ash adored his brother. But it was Margaret he had trusted with his secret. That didn’t smack of a temporary love affair. She had no notion what he intended at all any longer.
Her infatuation had seemed harmless and bright, when it couldn’t last. It was just a little defiance, one that would hurt nobody at the end of the day.
Now her emotions felt too large to fit in her tight skin. This wasn’t supposed to mean anything. Her relationship with Ash was supposed to draw to a close.
“I tell you this because you should know not to do anything irrevocable. I know Ash can be overwhelming,” Mark said conspiratorially. “But—really, there’s no need to be overwhelmed. He’s human, just like the rest of us.”
As he spoke, Margaret realized that Mark couldn’t have known. He’d mentioned to her the other day that Ash had begun to read his book. If he’d had any notion of the truth, he’d have realized how impossible that was. No; until two days ago, Ash had kept his secret entirely to h
imself. He’d been alone.
Alone, and still determined to reach out to a brother who wanted him to communicate via letter.
“He makes mistakes. He’s fallible.” Mark glanced sideways at her. “I overheard the maids talking about him, and based on their chatter, I wanted to make sure that you understood.”
So the maids were talking about Ash. She knew Mrs. Benedict had threatened dire consequences on any who let slip the truth of Margaret’s identity. But that charade could last only so long. She could feel her sunlit summer drawing to a close, even now.
“It’s easy to forget,” Mark continued. “I do it, too. When I’m in his company, I simply cannot remember anything else. He’s warm and kind. It’s only when he’s absent that it becomes obvious from his conduct that he’s not sparing me another thought. I’m out of sight, and thus out of mind.” He shrugged and glanced back at her. “I barely notice, these days.”
It took Margaret a moment to realize that his last words were a lie. He didn’t even try to hide the unhappy quirk of his lips.
“After all,” he continued, only a trace of bitterness leaching into his voice, “a few scribbled words, in his illegible hand—well, at least he remembers I exist, some of the time. Even if all I get is a half-legible promise of his brotherly affection, attached to someone else’s impersonal reply.”