Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 33

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Someday soon, she would have to choose between Richard and Ash. She felt that choice lying across her, like a cold hand reaching out across the grave.

But how much of a choice would she truly have?

Ash was a worldly tradesman, and Margaret knew precisely what he intended to do with her. Even if his suit in Parliament didn’t prosper and he was denied the dukedom, he’d eventually turn his relentless gaze to one of the other debutantes out there. With his fortune and his smiling allure, he’d be able to do a great deal better than an illegitimate woman who brought neither land nor connections to the marriage.

The truth smarted.

And then, she wasn’t just any bastard. She was Anna Margaret Dalrymple. She was the daughter of his enemy, and the sister of two men that he hated. And she had been lying to him throughout their entire acquaintance.

No. She had no choice to make. It was only a matter of time until she told Ash the truth of her origins. She’d braced herself to do so last night, but then they hadn’t been alone. He’d mocked her to her face—not knowing that it was she he’d ridiculed.

Once he knew everything about her, he would recant every one of his fine compliments. Margaret wouldn’t have to make a choice. He would make it for her.

And so why not write Richard now? Why not disclose the secrets Ash had reposed in her? She could spin a tale, she realized, that would make him out to be a monster. He was a man who seduced nurses, who eschewed reading not out of choice, but by necessity. He sat at table with the upper servants, upsetting the social order. And one day, one day soon, he would become her most implacable enemy.

Perhaps she kept faith with Ash because he had not betrayed her yet. Because she wanted to be a person he could trust. Because she wanted to believe that what he’d told her was true, and that despite her fall from grace, she was still a magnificent creature.

You matter. You are important.

She had to believe that for herself, because someday soon, he would no longer believe it for her.

He would…how had he put it? He would salt the earth beneath her feet and grind her into a fine dust. He would, no doubt, tell the world that she’d masqueraded as a servant and offered him her body in exchange for information. Every one of their caresses would become gossip-fodder. If she’d been ruined before, she would be utterly cast out when he revealed the truth.

Margaret let out a little sigh. When that happened, she would fight back. She would reveal his secrets if he unveiled hers. But until then, she wanted to believe that he was right. That she was the kind of woman he could trust, that at the end of the day she would not betray him.

And so when she sent her brother another empty set of platitudes, she whispered to Ash in her mind.

See? This is how I repay you.

IT WAS ANOTHER ONE of those dreadful mornings—cloudy without rain, Ash sitting in the library pretending to make sense of an agricultural text, while his brother scribbled away at his work.

It had been two days since Margaret had stormed out of this room. Last evening, she’d not come by—even though he’d waited for her until nearly midnight. He’d been left with nothing but a pile of written words, which presumably would tell him about agriculture, if he were to sort them out.

Ash snapped his book shut.

There were rows and rows of books here. Shelves upon shelves, and his younger brother was buried behind them, entombed in a sea of understanding that Ash could never comprehend. He’d substituted cold letters for human companionship. Ash just wanted him to live.

God. What Ash wouldn’t give for an interruption.

“Mr. Turner, sir. There’s someone here to see you.”

Ash almost gasped in relief at Smith’s words. The majordomo stood stiffly at attention, but he held no card in his hand. Ash had already had his man come through from London. He knew of no pending matters that would necessitate a visit.

“The gentleman says he’s expected,” Smith continued. “Where should he be put?”

Ash’s confusion only deepened. He’d certainly not invited anyone. Perhaps this was one of the duke’s hangers-on—a friend of the Dalrymple boys? His hands clenched.

But Mark was already standing, his face lighting with an almost painful joy. “I’ll go meet him immediately,” he said. He left the room at a run.

Ash followed more slowly, his thoughts whirling. Mark hadn’t shown this much enthusiasm for another person in…well, the entire summer. Had he invited a friend down?

Why hadn’t he mentioned such a thing? Not that Ash would begrudge his brother anything he wanted. And he wasn’t complaining—a little more friendly conversation would do Mark a great deal of good.

Ash pattered into the entry, trailing after his younger brother. He came out of the hall just in time to see Mark grab the fellow—dark, ebony-haired—about the arms.

“My God,” Mark said, “you’re here already? You must have left the instant you received my note. You must have traveled half the night. What were you thinking?”

“You knew I would come,” the man replied cheerfully.

Ash stood in the doorway. He’d heard once that diamond was nothing but coal that had been compressed for many years. He could feel his own heart withering to blackness, slowly turning into cold cinder. He wasn’t sure if he should venture forwards or stay behind.

Because he had seen in one glimpse who the visitor was. This wasn’t some friend, come down from London. That had been a brotherly embrace. Literally.

“Smite.” Ash tried to keep the accusation from his voice, tried to keep his tone even and devoid of the emotion he felt. “But I invited you to join us the day Chancery ruled in our favor.” He cut off the rest of the whine. And you told me you were too busy.

His brother looked over and saw Ash standing in the doorway. He didn’t quite stop smiling, but it was as if all the warmth, all the humor of his fraternal greeting had been sucked from him. As if the sight of Ash had invested him with an extra pound of starch. He looked about, half grimacing, and then walked forwards, holding out his hand. His hand. As if Ash were nothing more than a chance-met business partner.

“Ash,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”

And what was Ash to do? He shook his brother’s hand, because that was all that was offered. Because he’d take anything he could get from his brother, even this bare scrap of civility. He would take it, and he wouldn’t complain.

He’d left Smite behind years ago, when he’d gone to India. No matter how high he set the man’s quarterly allowance, he could not make up for those bleak years. Smite never spoke of that time. But then, he didn’t need to. He’d accepted the education and a few hundred pounds to further his studies afterwards. That great quarterly allowance Ash had signed over to him, though, lay untouched in the account the solicitors set up, funds piling up year after year, a silent, venomous rejection of Ash’s brotherly affection.

Instead, Smite lived in a tiny, narrow house in Bristol. He didn’t even employ full-time servants, and his living arrangements had always seemed to be a quiet rebuke, a disavowal of Ash and the largesse he wanted to shower upon him.

Smite pulled away from Ash before their clasped hands could communicate anything like affection. He turned quickly away, his gaze darting about the room as if to take in the new surroundings.

“Just look at this.” He let out a low whistle as he turned in place—as if he were truly interested in the painted plasterwork overhead. As if he weren’t avoiding Ash’

s gaze.

“Yes,” Ash said, playing along. “It’s a thing of beauty.” He looked at his brothers as he spoke—one fair, the other dark, both palpably incandescent. His entire family had come together, and however this miracle had come about, he was not one to discard such a fine chance in a fit of pique.

Smite crossed the room to peer at a wall. “Is that a Caravaggio? My God.”

He and Mark drifted over to a picture of several cherubic-looking boys and began babbling about lighting and strokes and God knew what else—things they had learned at university, no doubt. Ash would have understood them better if they’d started chattering at him in Bengali. Just like that, Ash was left outside of the conversation, with nothing to do but notice that Smite had put on a few welcome pounds. He’d finally lost that thinnish cast he’d had about him all through Oxford.

In the brotherly lottery, Smite was both the biggest loser and the greatest winner. Winner, because if women admired Mark, they adored Smite: his shining black hair, in contrast with the snapping blue of his eyes. His features were sharp enough to be manly, but not so brutish as to rob him of an almost haunting beauty. And unlike Mark, Smite wasn’t averse to taking occasional advantage of all that feminine adoration.

On the other hand, there was the matter of his name. The Bible verse their mother had given him—too unwieldy to be used in regular speech—had been shortened to Smite years ago. Mark was a common name. Ash was a strange one. But Smite? That was downright awful.

Back on the credit side of Smite’s personal ledger, he had a prodigious memory. He could recite word for word any book he had read, no matter how long ago it had been. It was as if everything Ash lacked, Smite had received a thousandfold.

But then, there was the little matter of what had happened to him all those years back. When Ash had returned from India, he had found his brothers living on the streets of Bristol. Neither had ever explained why they’d left their mother. Squalid as it had become, her home should have been preferable to city streets in early spring. For any other man, those few months of horror would have faded into blissful forgetfulness, fogged over by the blanket of passing time. But there was that prodigious memory. And while Mark had stopped waking in the middle of the night after a few months, Smite never had. Not in the years he’d lived with Ash. Smite didn’t forget: not whatever it was that had happened, nor, apparently, that it was Ash’s fault it had transpired in the first place.


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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