Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 38

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“What must I do?” He strode forwards. “What must I do, that I offend you no longer, Smite? Do you want me to beg? I’ll grovel. Do you want me laid low? I’ll cast myself at your feet.”

Smite interlaced his fingers precisely in front of him. “You have nothing to atone for. And no matter how hard you try, it cannot be made up in any event. But, Ash—” his brother raised his eyes “—you don’t offend me. You never have.”

His actions spoke louder than words. “You’ll appear the instant Mark dashes off a request, but you won’t even stay another twenty-four hours when I ask it of you? Don’t tell me you would talk to Mark this way.”

“Of course not,” Smite said in disdain. “Mark would know better than to ask me to stay.”

“But—”

“Mark asked me to come here to…meet Miss Lowell. For you, you barbarian, as it appears that when it comes to her, you are intent on diving off a cliff, headfirst. I came for you. Not for him.”

His brother spoke those words as he always did, clean and crisp, with just a hint of wry humor. Ash stared at him, not quite able to comprehend what he’d just said. He wanted to hug him. Or, more like, to barrel him over and pin him to the ground. But so much exuberance would make him uneasy.

Instead Ash reached out his hand and lightly tapped him on the shoulder. It would have to do, as embraces went. “Thank you,” he said. It seemed inadequate to the moment.

Smite looked up at him, his features held very, very still. “You know, Ash,” he said quietly, “you cannot buy me back my childhood. It’s not your fault I lost it, nor is it something you could purchase in any event.”

They never talked of those years. Never. For Smite to bring it up on his own… Ash held his breath. Whatever had transpired in his absence, Ash knew he could not make up for it. It didn’t stop him from wanting to try. From wanting to throw everything he had in his brother’s direction, just to try to win a smile from him.

“You can’t purchase my childhood,” Smite repeated. His hands spread, and he flattened them on the table in front of him. He seemed distinctly uneasy. “But perhaps there is something you can do for me as an adult. Some two things.”

A peace offering. After all these years of spurning Ash’s attempted gifts, there was a peace offering. “Name them,” he said hoarsely.

“I’d like to be a magistrate.”

“Done. Hell, when I’m the Duke of Parford, I’ll see you appointed to the Queen’s Bench. Do you fancy being Lord Chief Justice?”

Smite smiled and shook his head. “Stop embellishing on my dreams, Ash. A magistrate. I have no desire to sit in the assizes. I’d be satisfied to be a small dispensary of justice—someone who sees little people, and who, from time to time, might make a difference in someone’s life. I know that small is not your style. But it is mine.”

Ash nodded. “Why?”

His brother smiled faintly once more. “Because what happened to us… I want to make certain it won’t happen again. Not on my watch.”

“And the second thing?”

Smite’s gaze slipped away. “I’m sure Mark has shared his feelings on this point. But we both know how Mark is.” His fingers drummed against wood. “It’s about Richard Dalrymple. I want you to take away everything he has ever cared for. Turnabout, after all, is only fair.”

MARGARET KNEW SHE NEEDED to talk with Ash, but he’d been busy up until dinner, in anticipation of his brother’s departure. It was almost ten in the evening when Margaret stood in her father’s room, her hands on her hips, listening to him complain.

“Why,” he demanded, “is it still so warm? It’s September. Autumn should be coming on.”

The weather over the past few days had not cooled. Instead the heat had built, a furnace stoked by each passing day. The air had grown still and stagnant. Even if Margaret had opened the windows, no breeze would have ruffled the curtains. Instead, the air hung thick and humid, like some bloated creature hunkered sullenly in one corner of its lair.

Her father continued. “It’s time for fires in the fireplace, and autumn chills and the like.”

“Would you like me to build you a fire?” she asked dryly.

“Don’t be a ninny. I would like you to alter the weather.” He looked at her implacably, as if a strong enough ducal command might cause storm clouds to gather.

“Well, then. I’ll just snap my fingers and make it so. I hope that will satisfy you, Your Grace.” As she spoke, she dabbed gently at his face with a towel. Since she had been left alone at Parford Manor, his incessant demands had become worse, even less reasonable. Had he ever loved her at all? Had she ever loved him? Perhaps there had never been anything between them but duty and obligation.

“Worthless girl,” he muttered, rubbing the side of his cheek.

Margaret’s hands closed around the towel. She wasn’t performing tasks for pay. She wasn’t a bear, to dance at the end of a rope.

If she’d been confused about Ash, she was utterly discombobulated when it came to her father. If she was worthless, it was because he had made her so—because he’d engaged in bigamy, and because he had simply ceased to play the charade of father, once the truth was revealed to the world.

“What was that you said? I couldn’t make it out.” Her voice was low and fierce in her ears.

Her father’s hand came to a standstill. But if he had ever had the capacity to hear the dangerous note that touched Margaret’s voice, he’d lost it with age and illness. Or maybe he’d always had that irritable lift to his chin, and she’d not noticed.

“I said you were worthless, girl.”

He was ill. He was old. She turned away from him, her hands shaking on the laudanum bottle with the sheer effort of restraint. She was not going to abandon him. Damn him, she would not do to him what he’d done to her. If she did, she’d be almost as worthless as he called her. She set the cloth down on the table.

“Can’t even hold your own against an old man, confined to bed.” His voice came from behind her, taunting. “What must I do to get a response from you? Or are you so tainted with your mother’s weak blood that you can do nothing about an insult except lie down and die in response?”

At those words, her control broke. A fist seemed to clench around her heart, so tight it felt like to burst with rage.

Margaret whirled around. She was across the room in half a pace. “Don’t you dare.” Her voice was a low tremble; her chest was about to explode. “Don’t you dare talk about my mother in that manner. You killed her, you and your foolish unconcern. Don’t you dare tell me it’s an insult that I have her blood in my veins. I’ll not have it.” She clenched her trembling hands on the edge of his coverlet, twisting it, while some violent part of her wished she could shake him instead.

“Ha.” He smiled at her—not a friendly expression, but an almost ferocious grin. But his smile lasted too long—stretching from fierce triumphant growl into something harder, more painful. His lips drew back in a thin, painful rictus. And then, he let himself fall to the bed, simply crumpling into a heap before her eyes. “Fetch horde benedictive,” he snapped.

“Pardon?” In her rage, she must have misheard him.

He was looking up at her, his eyes as fierce as ever, piercing into her. “Cord defiant misled to pivot the gunnery. Fidelity lost fortune under witness putter delight wiggle detritus with the obsequious toll for who bunting pole over the witches to view like sea.”

“What does that mean? Is this some new and unfortunate way to mock me?” How many had there been over the last weeks? How much resistance and malingering had she suffered? “It won’t work.”

He continued to gaze at her, trembling. He almost looked helpless. “Homonym! Homonym!”

Helpless? He was terror-stricken. And with the chill of that knowledge penetrating Margaret’s fury, she could see now what she’d missed earlier. He hadn’t let himself fall; he’d fallen, his muscles useless. His limbs trembled now, little vibrations passing through his hands. He was

n’t speaking nonsense to mock her. This was not mere recalcitrance on his part. Something was wrong. Something was dreadfully wrong. He kept talking, a string of gibberish issuing from his mouth, nonsense words strung together as if by a madman.

It had been only a few seconds since he had begun to babble, but she felt as if she had been staring at him for an eternity. She broke her gaze away and ran for the door. When she wrenched it open, the footmen bracketing each side turned to her. They must have seen the dismay that lit her eyes, because their shoulders tensed.

“Josephs. Fetch a physician. Fetch a physician instantly.”

The man on the left started down the hall without waiting for further instruction. Thirty minutes to go to the village on horseback. Thirty to return. And in the interim, she was going to have to keep him alive. How was she to do that, when she didn’t even know what was transpiring? Worse yet: was this her fault? She’d finally lost her temper and turned on him.

A clap of thunder sounded overhead, breaking through the oppressive heat, and Margaret shivered.

Behind her, her father’s voice continued. “Liquor to the fires offput less…”

“Tollin,” she commanded, “come with me.” The other footman followed.


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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