“What? No family? No one to stand for you and protect your good name? No brothers to beat off unwanted suitors?” His fingers tightened on her wrist a fraction; his gaze dipped downwards, briefly, to her bosom, before returning to her face. “Well. That’s a shame.” He smiled at her again, as if to say that there was no shame at all—at least not for him.
And that smile, that dratted smile. After all that he’d done to her, he thought he could waltz into her family home and take her to bed?
But he gave a sigh and let go of her hand. “It’s a terrible shame. I make it a point of honor not to impose upon defenseless women.”
He shook his head, almost sadly, and turned to gesture behind him. The young man who had accompanied him when he’d arrived loped up the steps in response.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “Miss Lowell, let me present to you my younger brother, Mr. Mark Turner. He’s come into the country with me this fine summer so he can have some quiet time to finish the philosophical tract he is writing.”
“It’s not precisely a philosophical tract.”
Mr. Mark Turner, unlike his brother, was slight—not skinny, but wiry, his muscles ropy. He was a few inches shorter than his elder brother, and in sharp contrast with his brother’s tanned complexion and dark hair, he was pale and blond.
“Mark, this is Miss Lowell, Parford’s nurse. Undoubtedly, she needs all her patience for that old misanthrope, so treat her kindly.” Mr. Turner grinned, as if he’d said something very droll.
Mr. Mark Turner did not appear to think it odd that his brother had introduced him to a servant—worse, that he had introduced a servant to him. He just looked at his brother and very slowly shook his head, as if to reprove him. “Ash” was all he said.
The elder Turner reached out and ruffled his younger brother’s hair. Mr. Mark Turner did not glower under that touch like a youth pretending to be an adult; neither did he preen like a child being recognized by his elder. He could not have been more than four-and-twenty, the same age as Margaret’s second-eldest brother. Yet he stood and regarded his brother, unflinching under his touch, his eyes steady and ageless.
It was as if they’d exchanged an entire conversation with those gestures. And Margaret despised Mr. Turner all the more for that obvious affection between him and his younger brother. He wasn’t supposed to be handsome. He wasn’t supposed to be human. He wasn’t supposed to have any good qualities at all.
One thing was for certain: Ash Turner was going to be a damned nuisance.
MR. TURNER CONTINUED to be a nuisance as Margaret led him up the wide stairway towards her father’s sickroom. At first, he said nothing. Instead, he gawked about him with a sense of casual proprietorship, taking in the stone of the stairways, and then, as they entered the upper gallery, the portraits on the wall. It wasn’t greed she saw in his gaze; that she could have forgiven. But he was an interloper at Parford Manor, and he looked about him with the jaded eye of a purchaser—searching out the flaws, as if he didn’t want to say too much by way of compliment, lest he raise the price too high in subsequent rounds of bargaining.
He glanced out the leaded windows. “Pleasantly situated,” he remarked.
Pleasantly situated. Parford Manor was the center of a massive estate—fifty acres of parkland on the most beautiful rolling hills in all of England, surrounded by tenant farms. The gardens were the labor of her mother’s life, a living, breathing monument to a woman who was even now fading from common memory. And he thought it was merely pleasantly situated?
He was a boor.
“Beautifully maintained,” he said as they passed a tapestry in the stone stairs.
She rolled her eyes, which thankfully, as she walked ahead of him, he could not see.
“The manor needs a bit of updating, though.”
Margaret stopped dead, afraid to even look in his direction. He came abreast of her and turned to look at her.
“You don’t agree? All that dark wainscoting downstairs. Tear it down—get some bright papers on the wall.” He gestured above to the gallery’s ceiling. “New chandeliers—Lord, it must be dark in here, of a winter evening. Don’t you think?”
He was absolutely intolerable. “The gallery was last renovated by the duchess herself, a decade prior. I shouldn’t like to set my tastes against a sensibility as refined as hers.”
His brow furrowed. “Surely you have an opinion of your own.”
“I do. I believe I just expressed it.”
There was a bit too much asperity in her tone, and he looked at her in surprise. Of course; a nurse wouldn’t have been quite so bold in her speech. Not to a duke’s heir. Not even to a wealthy tradesman who held the power of her employment in his too-large hands.
But what he said was “So. I’m a lout to think of altering her choices. I suppose I am fouling up a great lot of tradition. But only to improve, Miss Lowell. Only to improve.”
Margaret’s life had hardly been improved when he’d made her a bastard. That, however, she couldn’t say. Instead, she sighed. “Are you always this chatty with servants?”
“Only the pretty ones.” He cast her another sidelong glance, and a grin. “The pretty, intelligent ones.”
A beat fluttered in her stomach and Margaret started walking again. Down the gallery, into the hall beyond. She stopped before a wide wood door. “We’re about to enter a sickroom, so consider restraining your flirtations. His Grace is not well.”
Mr. Turner shook his head, solemn again. “A shame. I’d prefer him in his study, hale and hearty. There’s little honor in vanquishing an invalid.”
Margaret gripped the brass handle of her father’s door. She couldn’t look back at him, for fear he’d read the truth in the rigidity of her features. Her mother’s locket hung heavy on its chain, a great weight around her neck. “Is that why you did this, then? Is that why you had the duke and the duchess’s marriage of thirty years voided for bigamy, their innocent children declared bastards and disinherited entirely?” Her voice was shaking. “You claim to have too much honor to importune a woman without family, but let a man have a dukedom, and you feel free to…to vanquish him?”
There was a long pause behind her. “Are you always this chatty with your employers? I should imagine the Dalrymples—and no, Miss Lowell, I would not describe your employer’s poisonous offspring as either ‘children’ or ‘innocent’—would have stamped that trait right out of you.”
Margaret closed her eyes. Poisonous, was she? She wondered what she had done to deserve that particular epithet from a man she had met only this day. “I served the duchess when she was ill.” True; she’d spent her waking hours in her mother’s sickroom. “She was never well, these last years, but when you announced to the world that her husband was a bigamist—that she herself had been nothing mor
e than an adulteress for the last thirty years, you destroyed her. She simply lost her will to continue. She was dead a few months later. To hear you talk about the circumstances that led to her death in so easy a fashion is utterly repellant.”
He didn’t answer her, and she turned to look at him. He was watching her seriously, his lips pressed together. He looked as if he were actually listening to her, as if she had something important to say. Maybe that was why she continued.
“You weren’t the one who had to urge her to eat. You didn’t watch the light in her eyes wink out and die. You men never see the consequences of what you do. All you care about is that in the end, you collect the title and the estates. That’s not honorable.”
Another longer pause. “You’re perfectly right,” he finally said. “It wasn’t honorable. It was revenge. I doubt you understand the complexity of the family relationship. But, at least, I didn’t intend to cause the duchess’s death. Parford, on the other hand…” His fingers clenched at his side. “I doubt Parford could say the same of my sister, were you to query him on the matter. As for the worthless boys he called sons? Quite frankly, after what they did to my brothers at Eton, I’d have wished far worse upon him.”
“Richard and his friends must have been quite the terror, to justify having his title stripped.”
“Richard? You’re calling the former Marquess of Winchester Richard?”
Rather than answer that, Margaret swung the door open and pushed it inward. “His Grace is waiting.”
Mr. Turner gave her one last long, searching look. Her heart thumped as he perused her face. Surely he would know what her little slip of the tongue had meant. But he just shook his head and entered the room. She followed behind.
Over the past few months, Margaret had learned to hide how completely aghast the sight of her father left her. She knew, rationally, that he was ill. But between her visits—even if no more than an hour elapsed—this image of him, thin as a fence rail and swathed in bedclothes, never managed to lodge in her memory. She remembered him healthy and robust, larger and more incomprehensible than the sky itself. That memory had riveted itself in her imagination, unable to be dislodged by something so trivial as the passage of time. In her heart, he couldn’t change. Her father was bigger than her, stronger than her, more frightening than her.