Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 31

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Mark leaned forwards. “He can’t forget some small slight, delivered years ago. One that was met with more than sufficient punishment at the time. He saw the opportunity to bring the Dalrymples down—”

She would think Ash was the most capricious fellow ever if Mark continued to tell the story in that way. “You call that some small slight? Miss Lowell, judge the truth for yourself. My brother sent me a note when he was six months at Eton, begging me to take him home. Naturally—” Ash heard the scorn in his own voice “—I undertook to ride out to see him. Not to take him home—I was determined that he would have the education that I did not.”

She nodded, understanding what Mark did not know.

“As I recall,” Mark put in, “you read me the most astonishing lecture on my duty to my name and my person. Afterwards, I was too frightened to even so much as suggest leaving.”

“You see,” Ash said, “he’d suffered a thousand indignities from the older boys—shoves when nobody was looking, little cruelties and taunts delivered in lonely halls. He was small for his age, then, and quiet.”

She watched him, her hands clasped in a white-knuckled grip.

“And he was a Turner,” Ash continued. “It wasn’t enough that Parford let my sister die. Edmund wanted everyone to know that no matter what the bloodlines proclaimed, Mark counted as no kin of his.”

She cast her eyes down to the carpet. Her jaw set.

Ash smiled grimly. “My brother begged me to let him come home. I refused and told him that under no circumstances would I allow him to do so. I walked away from him.”

“As you should have,” Mark commented.

“A few weeks later, I had this notion I should go back.” It had been another one of his instincts, and it had practically screamed for him to return. “When I got there… I have never been so furious in my life.” He could feel his fury returning, just thinking of it. “They broke his nose. They blacked his eyes. Three fingers on his right hand—”

“But,” Mark put in quietly, “you didn’t see the other boys.”

“Ah, yes. The other boys. Edmund Dalrymple and four of his friends had taken him on together.”

Margaret looked at him in shocked dismay. She shook her head. “It couldn’t have been. Together? But—”

“Don’t tell me what could have been. It was, in violation of all gentlemanly conduct. Apparently, they had been trying to bully him. And apparently, he hadn’t given in.”

“This happened years ago,” Mark put in. “I see no reason to think of it. But has Ash forgotten?”

“Have they let me forget? There’ve been no physical attacks since then. But tell us truly, Mark. Has Edmund ever forgotten you? And Smite—Richard was never so uncouth as to attack, but I know why Smite moved to Bristol, instead of taking articles in London as we had once discussed.”

Mark shook his head earnestly. “Really, Ash. It doesn’t bother me—why must you take it so seriously? I try not to spare either of them my attention. I’ve better things to spend my time worrying about.”

Ash looked up. “They have spread rumors. Innuendo. Edmund once hired a caricaturist to portray Mark as a—”

“Ash, really.”

But his brother’s admonition only heightened Ash’s resolve. “For years, they used their station and their place in society as a way to humiliate my brothers. So, yes. I’ll take their station. I’ll take their place in society. And I’ll have no mercy whatsoever for the Dalrymples. If I can make their lives miserable in response, I will. And…” Ash felt a wolfish smile play across his face. “I can.”

Margaret stared at him, white-faced.

“Don’t tell me you agree with Mark,” he said in surprise. “Turn the other cheek, and all that nonsense. If someone threatens me and my own, I won’t rest until he’s been taught to leave well enough alone.”

“But what…” She stopped, looking down, and then looked up at him, her eyes filled with inexplicable entreaty. “What about the innocents who are hurt by your actions?”

“What innocents?” He spat the word.

Her eyes fluttered down again. “The duchess.”

“That…that was unfortunate. In truth, if it had come to it, if she’d survived… I don’t want true innocents to suffer. Hell, I’d make some provision for the Dalrymples. I would certainly have done something for her.”

“If you had thought about it,” Mark put in gently.

Margaret’s lips were almost white. “And what about Parford’s daughter?”

“Parford’s daughter.” Ash shook his head in confusion. Then he realized she must have known the woman, conversed with her during the course of the duchess’s illness. “Wasn’t she married off earlier? I seem to recall hearing about an engagement, years ago. I don’t keep abreast of such matters. I suppose she must have suffered some embarrassment, then. But I also suppose she was used to the feeling. Wasn’t she the girl who fainted in the fountain, her first year out?”

A flush touched Margaret’s cheeks. “I find it quite odd that you can be so kind to mere servants, and yet so cavalier to everyone else. Had you simply not thought of how your actions would affect everyone connected with the Dalrymples?”

“What does it matter?” he asked in bewilderment. “She married some other fellow. She’s well and truly out of it.”

“No. I don’t believe she married.”

Ash snorted. “Let me guess. She fainted before she said ‘I do.’”

Margaret didn’t smile. Ash had the feeling that he’d fallen into a world where down had become up and right had turned into left. “Oh, come now. That was at least a little clever. Whatever her name might be— Anna, is it?”

He should have known, but then, how was he to discover such things? Consult Debrett’s?

He took a deep breath. “I’m sure she is a perfectly acceptable specimen of a lady, if you like such things. But you must admit, she must be a poor creature to topple over so easily. If she did not do it to draw attention to herself.”

Margaret met his gaze for the first time that evening. It was then he realized what lay behind her unease—a cold, inexplicable fury. “Let me guess,” she said. “You have never worn a corset and a ball gown for seven hours.”

He grinned casually. “Now there’s a daring wager. Even if I did, I shouldn’t lace them so

tightly as to squeeze out my breath, no matter what the occasion. If someone is such a slave to fashion—”

“It’s not merely the lacing. Ball gowns aren’t laced as tightly as some other dresses; you need to allow more room for movement. It’s the heat. And the layers. Do you know how a ball gown is assembled?”

This was what happened when he used his brother as a shield. He ought to have met her alone and convinced her to take port with him. Now, instead of getting pleasantly drunk and snuggly, Miss Lowell was lecturing him on the construction of ball gowns. He must have lost his mind. He’d certainly lost his touch.

“Yes,” he said in a dry tone of voice. “I know how ball gowns are made. They are made of fabric.”

She snorted. “And?”

“Thread? Ribbons? Buttons?”

She simply looked at him, one eyebrow raised.

“Whalebone? Metal? No, wait—now I see. They are composed of lead, and are purposely made heavy, to force women to walk in a slow and elegant fashion.”

She still didn’t laugh. “They are sewn in place. That means there is no way to remove one once the ball has begun. Once it is on, it stays on for the entire evening. Think about what that means. One cannot simply relieve oneself at the drop of one’s breeches. One cannot, in fact, use the necessary at all. So before a ball, ladies do not drink or eat anything. Not for hours. During a ball, one can only wet one’s lips.”

He glanced at her. “Really?”

Somehow, that tone of disbelief made her blush, too. “Indeed. I’ve heard the maids talk about it. Eight hours on an empty stomach, whirling about, clad in seven petticoats. You would topple over, too.”

“I had no idea society ballrooms were so barbarous.” He said it with a smile, but still Margaret didn’t return the expression.

“No doubt,” she said with a lift of her chin, “you would think me a poor creature, too, if you swathed me up in layers of silk and withheld all water, just to see what would happen. I daresay I wouldn’t last the evening. Think, Mr. Turner, before you speak. If you rely on rumor, you will never understand.”

Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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