Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 29

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The truth clutched at Margaret’s throat.

I’ve learned to pen a few phrases—if I shut my eyes, I can scrawl them out by memory. But it took so long, just to learn a handful of words. I’ve only bothered to memorize the ones I can’t get by without. She knew how much those few scrawled words had cost Ash, even if Mark did not.

“I’m sorry,” Mark said. “I’ve upset you. I didn’t intend to. Truly, I thought it was kinder for you to learn this way.”

The truth itched at her. She wanted to scream it out, to shake Mark, to make him realize just how hard it had been for Ash to etch out his love on the bottom of his secretary’s letters. How could he not know? How could he not realize?

But then, she’d fooled herself, too. She wasn’t sure what she was to Ash. Not his lover, at least not physically. But she was something more frighteningly intimate than she’d supposed.

He’d been telling the truth to her all along, and she had been the one spinning falsehoods. She looked at his brother, at that half-defiant smile on Mark’s face, as if he were daring himself to care about his brother’s desertion.

“I thought,” he said, “I would be glad if Ash left, because I could simply focus on my work. Turns out, it still bothers me. He promised he’d spend this last portion of the summer with me. And here we are. I don’t even mean that much to him.”

Margaret shook her head, a mixture of pity and anger suffusing her. When she was finally able to speak past the lump in her throat, what she said was: “For an intelligent man, Mr. Mark Turner, you can be quite, quite stupid.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

MARK WAS NOT THE ONLY stupid one. Days passed, and then a week—and still Ash did not return. August bled into September. For Margaret, the time felt strangely isolating. With Ash no longer present, Mark secreted himself in a room and worked as if in a fever. She saw him occasionally, but only in passing—and even then, he walked by her, an abstracted expression on his face, as if he were already planning out the next chapter in his book. With the Turners either physically gone or not mentally present, it was almost as if Margaret were still an honored daughter of the house.

In the days since Ash had absented himself, she had taken to walking the upper gallery in the late mornings. The wide windows faced east; in the baking heat of late summer, the room was too warm for comfort. But from that second-floor vantage point, she could catch glimpses of the London road, winding its way down green-covered hills before it dipped into the valley where her home stood. She could stand alone, and think.

As she watched the road one morning, a spiral of dust shimmered up. Margaret had felt her heart leap several times over the past days, imagining similar plumes to be horsemen. Usually, it was nothing—an illusion born of heat and dryness, or a raven, landing on the road.

Parford Manor was situated near the bottom of the hills, and the road wound in and out of view. She scanned the hills, guessing where a horseman might appear next. If he were walking at a gentle trot, he would be right there….

Nothing. Nothing but the wave of browning grasses, broken by stone walls and dark green hedgerows.

She wasn’t sure why she bothered looking.

She watched the next stretch of road avidly, but nothing appeared. It was foolish of her to hope for him, even more foolish to believe that he would appear. But then, she’d recognized for weeks that where Ash was concerned, she was a fool—a conflicted, confused, yearning fool.

She watched the hills for ten minutes before turning away to care for her father.

She hadn’t waited long enough. Moments after she entered the sickroom, a commotion rose up outside. While she measured out medicine—her father was too hot to object—her pulse pounded.

When her father waved her idly away, she scurried from the room. The initial hubbub of the arrival had died away, and the gallery upstairs seemed preternaturally silent. It was only when she reached the far end that she caught Ash’s voice, echoing up the stairwell.

“And how is your book coming along?”

Oh. She’d missed him. She hadn’t realized quite how much until she heard him once again. His voice was warm and lilting, the sound of it sending a little shiver down her spine. She stopped on the first landing, just to take it in. The palms of her hands trembled, and she pressed them against the cool stone of the stairwell.

“Swimmingly. I’ve only the final conclusion to write,” Mark responded. “Really, you ought to leave more often—you would be shocked at my ability to produce pages when I haven’t anyone to bother me.”

That rude noise could only have come from Ash. “You know, interacting with others is good for you. Man cannot live by writing books on chastity alone. Speaking of which, I don’t suppose you tumbled any women while I was gone?”

Margaret knew Ash well enough to understand that this was a joke.

“As I’m not married,” Mark said dryly, “then, no. I haven’t.”

“Futile hope. Ah, well. Good thing I was pinning all my hopes on the real question—did you talk to anyone at all while I was gone?”

There was a long pause. “Hmm. I believe I wished Miss Lowell a good day.”

Margaret took a deep breath and descended the stairs. Ash was standing in the entry next to his brother, his arms crossed, his toe tapping impatiently. “How many times?”

“Um. Once a day?” Mark scrubbed a hand through blond hair that had grown too long to be fashionable and gave his brother a helpless smile.

Ash shook his head. “This is why I don’t like leaving you,” he groused. “I go away, and you retreat into your shell as if you were a little crab at the seashore. You’re intelligent. You’re amusing. You ought to see people—no, I don’t mean all the time, so you can stop curling up like a hedgehog! Once or twice a day. You like people, Mark. Talk to them. Tell me that you at least said more to Margaret than a passing ‘good day.’ I suspect that she, unlike you, actually notices when she fails to talk to people for an entire day.”

“In more important news, just this morning, I finished a really fantastic chapter. It’s all about practical ways to rid oneself of a—” Mark turned as he heard her footsteps on the final stretch of stairs, and swallowed whatever he’d been about to say.

“Rid oneself of what?” Margaret asked.

The two men had turned to her as one. It was only with the greatest difficulty that Margaret did not miss her next step. When Ash saw her, his face lit. In the dreadful heat of the oncoming noon, any additional warmth ought to have felt disagreeable. But instead, the flush that burned her cheeks felt welcome. As if he were a cool breeze and a raging inferno all at once. He didn’t say her name. He didn’t

reach for her. Instead, he simply watched her as she descended the staircase, his eyes following her down. He placed one hand over his waistcoat pocket.

“You know what you need, Mark?” Ash said, not taking his eyes off Margaret. “You need a wife.”

She missed the last step at that, and barely caught herself from sliding to his feet by clutching at the banister.

“What?” Mark sputtered. “I’m too young to marry.”

“Women manage matrimony at a far younger age. And besides, with a wife, you’d discover more practical ways to rid yourself of…of lustful thoughts than whatever it is you came up with for your book. More importantly, if you had a wife, you would be forced to have at least ten minutes of conversation, once a day.”

“I haven’t met anyone I wish to marry.”

Ash slanted Margaret a sly look and winked at her, and she felt a stab of confusion. That early talk of tumbling women, she had understood. But this? Her brothers had never talked about other women like this. In fact, Edmund had complained bitterly when she told him to dance with her friend Elaine. He’d feared that Elaine might enlarge upon a single waltz until she believed herself about to be married.

Marriage, so far as Margaret had been given to understand, was a consummation devoutly to be avoided by men of good title and ordinary character—at least, until the passage of time and the complaints of female relatives made it inevitable.

“Is something the matter, Margaret?” Ash glanced at her. “Surely you’re not opposed to the concept of matrimony. I was thinking I ought to drag my brother with me to some of the society events this upcoming Season, so he can find a woman virtuous enough to satisfy his practical needs.”

“In point of fact,” Mark said dryly, “a wedding would be of little practical use, if she remained virtuous after marriage.”

At the thought of Ash and Mark descending upon polite society… Margaret wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry. A duke’s heir with several hundred thousand pounds, and his angelic-looking brother? Oh, the schemes that would arise. The women who would swoon. The furor that would rise up, if it were bruited about that either was actively seeking a wife.


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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