Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 32

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“You wouldn’t collapse.”

“You can’t possibly know that.”

He stood up, taking a step towards her. “You don’t comprehend what I mean, Margaret. You’re stronger than that. You’d reach deep down into yourself—just as you’re doing now—and you would look the possibility in the face and tell it to go to the devil. Yes, just as you’re doing with me, at this moment. Some people crumble when they’re dealt a blow. You might stagger a bit, I suppose. But you? You would never collapse.”

“I wish I could hate you,” she said passionately.

“Yes,” he remarked. “It would be more convenient for you. Sadly, you’ve found it quite impossible.”

She stared at him. The corner of her lip twitched—not quite a smile, but the shadow of one.

“When he’s like this, Miss Lowell,” Mark offered from his seat on the sofa, “I usually take it upon myself to stamp out in a rage. It’s impossible to argue with him, once he starts asserting his correctness as a matter of unarguable certainty. And if you stay, he’ll turn your thoughts around until you don’t know right from wrong. Take it from me. Ash is both perfectly right, and horridly wrong. And he will never, ever understand what he’s said to upset you.”

“What did I say?” he inquired.

She gave him that look—that one that said, If you don’t know, I shan’t be telling you. Ash hated that look.

And then she stood. “Must I stamp? Or can I sweep out gracefully?”

“By all means, sweep.” Mark stood for her, and Margaret gave him a swift curtsy. She didn’t even glance at Ash on her way out. Not quite what Ash had intended for the evening—sending her from the room in a confused flurry. It wasn’t precisely bad that they had argued—the more pleasant it would be to make it up to her later. But it wasn’t what he’d hoped for.

And it just went to prove: one might think one knew a great deal about a woman. One might tell her one’s darkest secrets. And she was still going to make one’s head spin about, by caring about things that made absolutely no sense. He heaved a sigh. He wasn’t quite sure when or where the conversation had gone wrong, or what precisely he’d said to make it veer off course with such vehemence.

“Well.” The syllable echoed in the now too-empty room. “Do you suppose she’ll have forgotten this episode by morning?”

Mark shook his head. “She may be as stubborn as you.”

“I’m not stubborn,” Ash said. “I’m right. There’s a difference.”

Mark snorted. “No. I remember when Mother used to assign us Bible verses to learn. For Smite, it proved no problem—no matter how many she gave us.”

She’d given too many—dozens and dozens, it seemed. She’d locked them in the parlor to learn them.

“But you’d refuse. One of my earliest memories is her beating you, and your refusing to cry. You were smiling as she switched you. As if even then, all you wanted was to prove that you bent to nobody’s will but your own.”

Not quite how Ash remembered that particular event. First, there’d been the fact that he hadn’t refused to learn anything. He’d simply been unable to read.

“I always remembered that, when things got bad. I remembered thinking, ‘Well, if Ash could do it, I can.’”

Ash felt a lump in his throat. “You know, Mark…”

But then, his younger brother so seldom expressed admiration for him. He wasn’t about to muck that up by disclosing a tiny fact that was now a mere side note, an irrelevancy.

“Yes?”

Ash smiled. Papering over that hollow in his chest seemed impossible. But he’d smiled through beatings as a boy. And he didn’t want to lose the light of respect in Mark’s eyes. If nothing else, he wanted his brothers to feel safe with him—protected. Taken care of. Cosseted, even.

How safe would they feel if they knew his secret?

“I was wondering,” he said, “speaking of stubborn—what think you of Miss Lowell?”

Mark settled slowly back into his seat. “You were, were you? Do you wonder about her?”

“All the time,” Ash said, sitting down with a heavy sigh. He wondered a great deal about her—about the sound she would make when he kissed the nape of her neck. Whether the skin of her thighs was as soft as he remembered. What she’d look like, waking in his bed, rumpled from sleep and pleased to see him. He glanced over at his brother. “But don’t you be wondering about her that way. I thought you had no interest in anything but chastity.”

Mark smiled. “I didn’t intend it that way. Only someone as corrupt as you would take what I said in that jaded manner. I meant, have you ever wondered where she comes from? She didn’t spring up, fully formed like Athena, the instant we landed on this estate. There’s something not quite right about the situation.”

That was the problem with thinking. “There is a great deal about her that doesn’t add up,” he admitted reluctantly. From the way Mrs. Benedict protected her, to the way the other servants jumped at her command. For a young woman—and a nurse no less—she wielded an extraordinary influence. He’d always assumed that the duchess had favored her. But, maybe…

“Ash,” Mark said almost urgently, “think. I can’t imagine why I haven’t, until I saw her face just now. She’s a bastard who owes the Dalrymples some form of allegiance, who—”

“Stop,” Ash said. He wasn’t even sure why he spoke, until he did. “I want her to tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

He didn’t know. He wasn’t sure. “I want her to tell me why she’s so sad.” He wanted all of her secrets, but like her kiss, he didn’t want to wrest them from her, to poke and pry and pull, until he’d stolen them entirely. He wanted the truth of her, given as a gift. “Besides, I trust her. What do you suppose I went to London to do? You don’t suppose I left you to take care of any piddling business matter?”

Nothing in response, nothing but shocked silence, as Mark sorted that out. Nothing until: “Oh…” Mark’s voice came out in a whisper. “Ash. You’re utterly insane, do you know that? You’ve just met her. You can’t just—just—”

Ash grinned. “Yes, I can. Sometimes, I just know things. I can’t philosophize, as you do. I won’t ever be a scholar or a thinker. I know things. I act.” He shrugged. “That’s what I do well. You may need everything spelled out for you. I don’t.”

“And have you…informed her of this yet?”

“Not a word. My men will send everything on, once the paper’s issued. Apparently, the parish is taking its sweet time sending along confirmation of the particulars.”

“Oh, Ash.” Mark looked up at him, the most curious expression on his face. His brother set his jaw, and that made no sense. Because what he saw was neither pity nor happiness, but instead a grim look of determination.

CHAPTER TWELVE

THE TERSE MISSIVE—the only one she’d received in weeks from Richard—arrived the next morning. The paper listed only the lords her brother had spoken with in the past few weeks, with instructions to pass the list on to their father.

But it ended with an admonition for her.

Take care, Margaret. You speak well of Ash Turner, and that worries me. You seem to be distracted from our overarching goal. No need to become so neat about matters. Tell me what’s wrong with him—however small, however trivial. I need to know.

Margaret stared at those accusing words, then shredded the letter and fed it, piece by piece, into the fire.

Richard wrote in a harsh, jagged hand, without excess verbiage. She had never before noticed the lack in his words, but it was obvious now.

Her brothers had never been overly demonstrative, but they had done their duty. They’d danced with her at her come-out and introduced her to their friends, a great mass of titled gentlemen who had admired her—and her dowry—immensely. She had no doubt that if her honor had been in need of defense, Richard and Edmund would both have taken up the call.

And when she’d fainted on one warm spring night in her first year out, i

t was Richard who had fished her out of the fountain and covered her with his coat, Richard who had cleared the back hall and ordered everyone away. In the weeks that passed, it was Richard who had kept her by his side. He’d been too important a figure—a duke’s heir, the Marquess of Winchester—for anyone to risk alienating him with overly harsh gossip. And it had been Richard who had insisted that she return to London for a second season, claiming that another, more interesting, scandal would take precedence.

Richard had been right.


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