Reality had been cruel. He’d shrunk into a glazed shell of a man, holding on to life with the same tenacity that held him upright in this perfect seated posture. He ought to have been lying down.
“Parford,” Mr. Turner said. He put his hands in his pockets and stood there, glowering, all his chatty conversation evaporated. He was as still as a tombstone, looking forwards. That rigid stance seemed entirely at odds with his easy manner to a servant.
Her father rolled his head lazily to regard him. “Turner.”
Mr. Turner stared at him for one long instant before swiveling away. He turned to a basin on a nearby table, and when that could not hold his interest any longer, his gaze moved to a jumble of medicines in brown apothecary’s bottles.
He picked up one and turned it over. “Well. My finely honed speech, saved all these years, seems too big for this room after all.”
“Oh, pull up your trousers and be a man. What in God’s wide world are you waiting for?” That whiplash crack of authority in her father’s voice set Margaret’s teeth on edge. “Just get it over with, Turner. Say your piece, and then let me sleep.”
“It seems unsporting to crow about my triumph to a linen-clad scarecrow.” Mr. Turner set down the laudanum and looked over. “But I suppose you wouldn’t have it any other way, would you?”
Her father let out another exasperated sigh. “Get on with it, Turner. I’m dying. I have no wish to spend my last days enduring your endless hand-wringing and shilly-shallying. We both know how this is supposed to go—eyes for eyes, and all that. Am I supposed to beg you, as you once begged me?”
Margaret had no idea what her father was speaking about.
But Turner must have, because he scowled. “You’re making a mockery of this.”
“That’s not your line,” Parford snapped. “You’re supposed to throw my own words back at me. What did I say to that smelly, bedraggled child who visited me? Oh, yes: ‘We have as much blood in common as the queen has with a pig farmer.’ I did say pig farmer, didn’t I?”
“Coal miner, actually. And at the time, George was king.”
“Damn. My memory is full of holes. Still, you’ve deviated from the script. Here you are, heir to the Duchy of Parford, despite everything I did. Aren’t you going to grind my nose in it? Will that satisfy your vengeance? Or would you prefer to drive a dagger through my chest and drink my blood?”
Mr. Turner set his jaw and reached sharply for a small sack at his waist. At that sudden movement, Margaret felt a small shock of fear go through her, and she darted forwards, her hand reaching out to stop him—
“Relax, girl,” her father grumbled. “What do you suppose he’s secreted in that tiny little pouch? The world’s smallest rapier?”
Mr. Turner merely glanced at her and pulled something from the pouch and threw it forwards. “Here. This is yours.”
It landed on the Duke of Parford’s lap, and for once, that harsh stream of words dried up. He stared at it and then closed his hand about it. “A sixpence? Oh, no! I’m feeling revenged upon.”
The entire conversation was opaque to Margaret. “The sixpence,” Mr. Turner said grimly. “When I came to you and begged for your intercession, you threw it in my face and told me the only thing you wanted me to get was a bath. My sister died, my brothers—” He shook his head. “I told you I would make you sorry. And now here I am.”
“Yes. Congratulations. You’ve stolen a dukedom. Am I supposed to care?”
“You stole it yourself. I didn’t make your children bastards. I didn’t steal their inheritance. It was you who did it, so certain your first wife would never come to light. And now you’re reaping your own punishment.”
Her father leaned back against the cushions. “Me? Punished? Hardly. I’m the duke—and I will be until I die, which hopefully will be soon.” He yawned widely. “Once I have passed on to the next world, I can hardly care what becomes of my pitiful bastard offspring in this one.” He leaned back.
Margaret’s spine felt tight with tension. Her hands flattened against the plasterwork behind her. Her father had never been demonstrative or affectionate. Still, she’d always believed that he cared for her, even if only in his high-handed fashion. At his words, she wanted to melt into the wall and simply disappear. The hair on her head, scraped into that awful bun, pulled against her scalp.
But her father didn’t glance her way. “You seem to be under the impression that I give a damn about those whelps I sired on that whey-faced chit I was forced to pretend was my bride. You’re wrong.”
That “whey-faced chit” was Margaret’s mother—sweet and soft-spoken, warm and gentle and loving. She was barely six months in the grave. Margaret stared straight ahead, her hands clenching.
“Now, if you’ve finished berating me, go away. I’m bored.” Her father leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes.
Mr. Turner stared at him for a few moments, his jaw working. Finally, with one last look at Margaret, he left. Margaret closed the door behind him and turned to her father. He lay on the bed, his eyes shut as if he were sleeping. She doubted he was. She watched the ragged rise and fall of his chest, unsure what to think.
What on earth had Mr. Turner been alluding to? This was clearly not the first time her father had spoken with him. There was more to Mr. Turner than just a voided marriage and a grab for a dukedom, but if so, this was the first Margaret had heard of it. More important, had her father’s unkind words been an act, put on to convince Mr. Turner her father didn’t care about his children, and to thus shield them from revenge? Or had he spoken the simple truth?
As if sensing her questions, he opened his eyes. He must have seen the hurt on her face, because he expelled his breath in disgust. “Oh, Christ, Anna. You’re already a girl and a bastard. Don’t make yourself triply useless by crying.”
Margaret was beyond tears. She’d shed them all months ago, for all the good they’d done. But shame settled against her skin like a fine burning net. Over the past months, she’d had everything stripped from her: her name, when it was discovered that Lady Anna Margaret Dalrymple was a bastard. Her dowry, when Chancery decided that as illegitimate offspring, she wasn’t entitled to the funds settled upon her mother.
Margaret took a deep breath. She had been scoured clean of everything except the hard truth of herself. It coiled, deep inside her, like a spiked little ball.
“Would you like a glass of barley water?” she asked calmly.
Perhaps her father took that smooth inquiry as meekness, because his lip curled. He didn’t understand. It took every ounce of strength she had not to simply turn on her heel and walk out of the room. Because Mr. Turner had been right about one thing. It had been selfishness on her father’s part—pure, utter selfishness—to lie to her mother, to pretend to marry her, to beget offspring he’d known were legally unable to inherit.
“None of that tepid stuff, now,” he warned her.
The water was room temperature against her wrist, but she had no desire to send down to the icehouse. In fact, in her current guise as lowly nurse, she might have to go herself. She poured the liquid as it was, a tiny act of defiance, proof that inside she was still Lady Anna Margaret. She wasn’t some nameless bastard servant in a great house, to be ordered about at whim.
She leaned over the Duke of Parford and held the glass to his lips.
“Pfaw,” he protested, and water dribbled down his chin.
But he drank, and she raised a handkerchief to his face and dabbed away the excess moisture.
If some unknowing artist had glanced at this tableau, he might have titled it Father and Daughter. He might have captured the fine weave of the linen she used to dab excess moisture away, the comforting touch of her hand on his shoulder. Every perfunctory detail he might see, and render on his emotional palette as a gesture of love.
It wasn’t, not anymore. Margaret had loved her father once. Perhaps she still did. But at the moment, she could not find any trace of that emotion. What wa
Duty. Honor. Obligation. Maybe just a perverse desire to demonstrate to her father: See? This is how you go about not betraying your family. She would show him. She didn’t need to be received as nobility to be noble.
If everything else had been stolen away, that much of her, at least, remained.
ASH EXITED PARFORD’S SICKROOM only to discover a procession lying in wait for him. The housekeeper, a Mrs. Benedict, introduced herself. She was accompanied by Smith, the majordomo, and a Mr. Dunridge, who was apparently the land steward. In the finest of old traditions, he was going to be Shown About and made to appreciate what he stood to inherit.