“You’ll tell him by tomorrow morning,” Smite said firmly. “Because according to Mark, he cares for you. And my brother deserves to have the truth from the woman he cares about.” He stared at her, his gaze as implacable as hers had been earlier. Mark, next to him, looked no less sober. Together, they formed a solid wall of grim male intention. It almost warmed her heart, to know that they cared for him this much.
Still, she put one hand on her hip. “If you don’t want him hurt,” she said to the elder Turner, “perhaps once—just once—you might let him do something for you. He hates that you take nothing from him.”
His chin rose. His nostrils flared. But if he’d heard what she said, he did not show it. Instead, he fixed his unblinking gaze on her. “Tell him. I’ll give you one day.”
THE HOURS BEFORE dinner dragged. Ash attempted to focus during a series of meetings with his men. The words they spoke, however, barely intruded into his consciousness. He wasn’t even sure he heard his responses to their queries. His mind was elsewhere—on his brothers.
When one of his men slid a stack of papers towards him, he simply stared at it.
“What is this?” he asked quietly.
Across the table from him, Strong grimaced. Cottry, who had handed him the papers, looked up uneasily. “An accounting of the expenses estimated for refurbishing the Lily.” Ash glanced down. The pages were mostly numbers—and numbers, unlike words, had always made sense to him. But still, there was enough text that following it would be difficult. And besides, it was the principle of the thing.
“Sir,” Strong continued, “I know you don’t like reports, but there are so many little details, all of which you must be conversant with, if you are to make an informed decision. So if you’ll just turn to page two—”
Ash shook his head.
Books had worked for his brothers. They could have simply read what Strong presented to them and been able to engage him in a discussion of endless minutiae. For them, there was no difference between actual knowledge and this written facsimile thereof. But Ash had never had the trick of learning from words. He lacked whatever magic happened behind most people’s eyes, the miracle that transmuted ink into understanding. Words were just words. He couldn’t read about agriculture and have it come to life in his mind. Until he felt the soil between his fingers, until he watched plants poke green spears through rich mulch, he would never understand farming.
He sighed and pushed the papers back across the desk. “No, Cottry.”
“No buts. No excuses. My mind simply doesn’t work on paper.” It was as close as he’d come to ever admitting the truth to anyone, besides Margaret. “It works on things—people, ships, jewels. Tangible items. I want to be able to put my hands on something, look it in the eye.”
Cottry exhaled in frustration. “Sir. Lily is a ship. She doesn’t have eyes.”
Ash stood up and beckoned the man closer. Cottry swallowed and leaned in his direction. Ash looked at him. He was an intelligent fellow. This wasn’t about Ash’s supposed refusal to read documents. No—this was something he went through with all his men at some point. They huddled in the nest like little fledglings, beaks open wide to receive what scant nourishment he might deliver.
“Cottry,” Ash said, with a weary shake of his head, “I own an entire fleet of vessels. I have holdings in four countries and warehouses in seven ports. I haven’t the time to sort through maintenance records, even if I had the inclination.” Or the ability.
“You’re afraid,” Ash said. It didn’t require much intelligence to make that out. He’d seen it too many times before to miss the telltale signs. “You’re afraid you’ve made a mistake, and that if it goes unchecked, something will go dreadfully wrong. And so you want me to look everything over. Well. I am not a balustrade, erected at the edge of a cliff to keep you from tumbling over. I am not your governess, tasked to keep you safe. I am your employer.”
“I hired you,” Ash said, “because I knew you could make these decisions on your own.”
Cottry inhaled. He looked a faint plea at Ash.
“The first time’s the worst,” Ash said cheerily. “Make the decision on your own—tell me about it—and afterwards, if you need to vomit, please try to make your way to the chamberpot first.”
“Sir.” Cottry sounded strangled.
“It’s a ship, man, not a battle plan. If you are in error, I’ll only lose money. Use your best judgment.” He leaned forwards and looked the man in the eyes. “I know it’s good.”
Cottry nodded weakly. It was weak assent—but it was assent.
Ash gave him one last nod. “I know you can do it,” he said quietly. Cottry met his eyes, and a ripple of panic passed over his face. Ash had seen that look a hundred times at this stage, and he knew precisely what it meant: Dear God, please don’t let me fail.
As his men left, Ash realized that Margaret was right. His method of doing business had started out as a way for him to hide his weakness. But since then, he’d met too many other tradesmen who became trapped by their own myopia. They’d been too bogged down by details to successfully handle an empire.
Ash hadn’t been able to comprehend all the details, and so instead, he had learned to comprehend other people. People wanted to believe they were capable, and when you told them they were, they leaped to prove it.
Ash was never going to be a scholar. But then…he didn’t have to be one. He was good enough, as himself. Ash stood and brushed off his coat. It was time to give it one last try.
His brothers had been set up, along with a tray of sandwiches, in a parlor decorated in stuffy pinkness. He wondered if Mrs. Benedict had put them here out of some perverse sense of humor—the femininity of the room, with its embroidered roses and gold-scrolled wallpaper, along with a bewildering array of lace-edged pillows, was almost overwhelming.
He swung the door in. Smite was sitting alone. Of course he was reading a book.
A decanter of port sat on a nearby table, and glasses were ready beside it. Likely that was Mrs. Benedict’s doing, too—although this had substantially less to do with humor and more to do with a certain practicality that understood the typical gentleman of Ash’s station all too well.
Smite had not drunk the port. Instead, he sat reading his book. He turned a page and glanced down. He almost seemed to be simply staring at it for a few seconds, before he transferred his gaze to the next one and then turned again.
Ash had never really been scared. Not even in India, where on one memorable occasion, he’d found himself alone and surrounded by natives who brandished spears. He’d always had a sense of things, a knowledge of what to say—or, as was the case in that instance, how to gesture. He’d been able
to look at people and intuit what they wanted, what they feared and how to provide them with the former in a way that profited everyone. But with his brothers…he had no notion of how to proceed. It was as if they were an extension of him, so close to his heart that he could not guess at the topography of their emotions. He could see no secret way into their hearts.
Smite looked up at Ash’s footsteps. He simply stared at him for a second, and then, slowly, a smile crawled over his face. Ash’s stomach lurched.
God, he loved his brother so much.
“I’ve met your Miss Lowell,” Smite said.
His younger brother deployed words precisely. He’d done so even before he took articles in Bristol, but legal training had accelerated the tendency. Smite’s use of the possessive was not happenstance.
His Miss Lowell. Ash liked that thought very well.
“I see,” Smite said dryly, “that you don’t bother to disclaim her. I do wonder if she is possibly good enough for you.”
Good enough for him? Ash held his breath. He wasn’t sure if this was a conscious slur on his brother’s part, denigrating her station, or a shocking compliment to himself. “And your conclusion?”
Smite simply shook his head. “No. She is not.” He turned away. Nothing more to bolster Ash’s hopes. That bare dismissal felt like a slap in the face.
“Don’t make hasty judgments,” Ash said. “Look, stay a few nights. A week, if you dare. Talk with her some more.”
Smite let out a long sigh.
It was cowardly, but Ash added, “I know Mark would enjoy your company.”
“I’m leaving in the next hour.”
“For God’s sake, it’s barely September. The courts are closed. I’d be willing to wager that the man you work under isn’t even in town at the moment. Could you not stay even one night? You won’t make it to Bristol by nightfall, and we’re due for a storm any moment now.”
Smite’s lips pressed together, but he said nothing. Compliment or insult, there was no way to interpret his hasty departure as anything other than another rejection. Ash let out a pained breath. It had always been like this between them, ever since Ash had come back from India. Mark at least tried to talk with Ash.