“That went without saying,” Mark said simply. “You can always count on Ash for that.”
So the brothers had spoken not only of her, but about their elder brother. Behind his back. Margaret’s anger boiled over. She strode across the room to stand before the two men.
“You,” she said accusingly, jabbing her finger towards Mr. Smite Turner’s chest. “You may talk about me as if I am not in the room, but don’t you dare do it to your brother. He risked his life for your sakes in India, and now you two leave him alone, isolated? You speak of him as if he were nothing more than a choice bit of gossip? You make him feel as if he’s not a welcome part of your family? How dare you?” She turned to Mark. “How dare you? I thought better of you than this.”
Mr. Smite Turner held his hands up, palms out, as if to stem this onslaught. A bemused expression lit his face. That gesture was so very like Ash—and the similarity only enraged Margaret further.
“Have you any notion how much you’re hurting him with your carelessness?” He’d talked about his brothers with her, and every aspect of those conversations returned to her now. “He paid for your education. He funded your apprenticeship. He sends you a quarterly allowance, even if you choose not to accept it. And you repay him by excluding him from your tight little circle of friendship? By refusing his invitations, and then accepting one from Mark? You make this house the grounds for your own private party, and you fail to issue him an invitation. Shame on you. Shame on you both.”
That bemused smile grew. “My God, Mark. She has a tongue on her.” Mr. Smite Turner rubbed his chin with his hand. “Lady Anna Margaret, this is not what you suppose. I did not come because I wished to exclude Ash. But circumstances—”
“Circumstances? Truly? If you didn’t wish to exclude him, then where is your brother now?”
The man drew back and folded his arms, and a small smile twitched his lips. “I don’t know, my lady. Shall I fetch him and perform the requisite introductions?”
“Introductions? Why—” She choked on the rest of her sentence. Through the thick haze of her rage, she heard what he’d said—really heard. He’d called her my lady. And before that, he’d called her… Oh, God. His words seemed to echo, and her hands felt suddenly cold. He’d called her Lady Anna Margaret. Lady Anna Margaret. He knew. He knew.
She’d thought to have a few more days. A week, even.
“What did you call me?” A futile attempt. Her protest was too late in coming. “I’m not—I’m not—” A more ineffectual denial Margaret had never heard.
And naturally, he didn’t believe it. He shook his dark head, the motion quick and precise. “No point dissembling, my lady. I saw you two years prior at the theater. You were attending with your brother, and I remember everything I see. The line of your nose. Your chin. If you would like, I could recite precisely what you wore that night, down to the pearls around your neck.”
“South Sea pearls, round, with a light golden sheen. A quarter of an inch in diameter each.” He shut his eyes and moved his lips, as if counting. “A strand of likely thirty such. Perhaps as many as thirty-two. I could not see the entire string from where I stood.”
He opened his eyes again. He was not guessing. He was sure. And he was describing her mother’s strand of pearls—a necklace she’d borrowed on occasion.
“I see I made quite the impression.”
Mark came to stand by her. “Smite remembers everything. Precisely.”
Margaret drew a shaky breath. Denial wasn’t working. Defense was no longer an option. That left only attack. “That’s very well,” she started again smoothly, “but we are not here to talk about me, interesting as I might be. I came to ask—no, demand, that you talk with him.”
The two brothers exchanged glances.
“Let me strike a bargain,” the elder Mr. Turner said. “You stop browbeating me like a shrew for my treatment of my brother, and I’ll keep your little secret. How is that for a trade?” He smiled at her negligently.
If Ash knew the truth about her, he would never look at her the same way again. He would never smile at her, would never believe that she was something special. She would become just another Dalrymple to him—and a deceitful, lying one at that. That was the inevitable end to their relationship—recrimination and anger. There was no future between them.
Margaret had no desire to rush headlong into that nonexistent future.
All she would have to do was walk away. And do so, knowing that he was sitting in his office, hurting, because these two men were too selfish to understand what they had done to him. After all that Ash had given her, he didn’t deserve to have her desert him as well.
“No deal.” Her voice shook. “What sort of man are you, to offer to bargain with your brother’s happiness, in exchange for a moment’s comfort?”
Mark and Smite exchanged glances again.
“I told you so,” Mark said, an impish smile lighting his face. “I told you she wouldn’t take the bait. And I was right.”
“You did. Brat.” There was no accusation in that last word though, only affection. Smite shook his head and glanced over at Margaret. “You see, when I heard that my brother—my eldest brother, who rescued me from the streets, who stayed up to three in the morning laboring over the accounts from the previous night so that he might pay for my education—when I heard that he had taken an extraordinary interest in a woman who might have been the daughter of his worst enemy—yes, Lady Anna Margaret, I did come running to his side. That is precisely how I repay him. I don’t let my brothers come to harm.”
“You knew?” Margaret glanced at Mark.
“And still you were kind to me.” Had it been an attempt to win her confidences, to use her?
“It was a recent guess.” Mark shrugged. “Unlike my other brothers, I’ve never much believed in this foolish dispute. I knew you would keep Ash on his toes long before I believed you were a Dalrymple.”
His elder brother snorted in disbelief.
Mark grinned across at her. “I would take care, Smite. I’ve been teaching her how to disable a man. Her lessons continue apace.”
“I’m so worried.” He rolled his eyes.
“Don’t let her sweet appearance fool you. She hit hard enough to take Ash down.”
Margaret tapped her foot angrily. “She is standing right in front of you.”
Smite glanced at her. “I suppose if she truly intended him harm, she wouldn’t have cut into a rage at me. My God. Has she put him in his place like that?”
“More than once,” Mark answered. “It was magnificent. You should have been there.”
“You can address me in the following ways: ‘Lady Anna Margaret;’ or ‘ahoy, you there!’ or, if you should wish, just Margaret—that is, after all, what my friends and family call me. You may not call me she. Not under any circumstances, not when speaking to my face.”
Mr. Smite Turner smiled again. There was little amusement in the expression. “I apologize for my rudeness. Mark and I…we’ve experienced a great deal together. When we’re together, we sometimes lapse into familiarity. We love Ash. But you must understand that as dedicated as Ash is, he is also overpoweringly annoying.”
He spoke those words using the same solemn certainty with which he’d pronounced her name, as if this were a simple fact. Margaret felt the bottom drop out of her stomach.
“Annoying? I hadn’t noticed,” she said a little hotly—and rather untruthfully, because as she spoke, she remembered the master key hanging from her neck—and his tiger-cub Laurette—and his damned insistence the other night that Lady Anna Margaret was a pitiful creature. He was easily the most annoying man she had ever met. She looked away.
The two brothers simply looked at each other, and finally Mark nodded, and Smite let out a sigh.
“If I believed you intended him harm—but you don’t, do you? I suppose he charmed you out of any such thoughts in the first hour he knew
you.” Mr. Smite Turner shook his head. “Everything is always so simple for him.”
“In point of fact,” Margaret said, “it took him more than a week.”
He truly smiled at that. “Good. Then he’ll not trample all over you—he’s wont to do that, you know. Ash just wants things, and generally, reality leaps to make them happen. After you’ve spent more time with him, you’ll see.”
“But I won’t spend time with him,” Margaret said, “not after you divulge my identity tonight.” She had known this moment was coming. But it had always seemed a distant possibility on the horizon—an eventual discovery, not an imminent threat. She was about to lose him. And it should not have felt so much like a loss. She had, after all, known he was never hers. Not truly.
“I was ready to do so,” Smite said slowly. “I came here, convinced I’d have to wrestle him into facing the truth. But Mark has dissuaded me. No, you’ll have to tell him yourself.”
Margaret stared at him. “Why…why would you allow me to do that?”
It was Mark who finally spoke. “Because it will cause him less pain to hear it freely offered from you than to have the truth come from us.”