“Yes, sir, but Lower Odcombe is seven miles away. And with the rain and it being night and all…” Joseph trailed off, eyeing Ash uncertainly.
But Ash wasn’t even looking at the man. He was watching Margaret.
“You care.” His words had the ring of steel. “For whatever reason.”
She had to tell him. “Ash, I—”
He cut her off with a jerk of his head. “Then I’m going.” He sketched her a little bow, and before she could do more than gaze after him in confused wonder, he slipped out the door.
The duke stayed silent as the candles flickered in darkness. His spirit seemed to withdraw into his body, and the silence grew. He seemed almost corpse-like beside her. He was pale and thin, lying in the bedclothes.
She’d wondered what she thought of her father before. Now she knew. She hated what he’d done, wished he’d not retreated into arrogant incivility in his illness. She didn’t understand who he’d become these past months. But as confusing and heartrending as the present was, she loved the man he’d once been. And she didn’t want to believe he wasn’t coming back.
THE PHYSICIAN ARRIVED a few hours later. He entered the room alone. Even though his collar was still damp from the journey, he set down his medical bag, removed his dark gloves and set to work.
Without glancing at Margaret, he came forwards. He checked her father’s eyes, prodded his wrist and his abdomen. Then he placed one end of a wooden cylinder against her father’s chest and set his ear against the other.
Margaret waited patiently until he straightened.
“He’s not in a coma,” the physician said. “That’s good. I’m Dr. Ardmore.”
Margaret felt suddenly weak. The hours of waiting washed over her, leaving only exhaustion behind.
“From Mr. Turner’s description, he’s had an apoplectic fit. The effects are varied. They might last a day. They might never be alleviated.” The man shook his head. “Nonetheless, you’ve done well to cool his head. It’s one of the first steps in treatment. You must be Miss Lowell.”
“No matter. There are things to be done. He’ll need to be purged of the ill humor. If you’ll assist, I’ve brought a preparation of croton oil. You’ve experience, I assume, with introduction of such into the stomach. You’ll find what you need in my bag. In the meantime, I must bleed him.”
The man turned away, leaving Margaret to stare blankly at his black bag. She opened it and peered inside. A profusion of clamps and awls and saws stared back at her.
“The gum tube,” the doctor called impatiently from the bedside. “And mucilage—or gruel. Good God. I know you’re young, but haven’t you any training at all?”
There was no space left to dissemble. “I’m not a nurse. I’m His Grace’s daughter.”
His eyebrows drew down and he scrubbed his balding head. “How odd. I was led to believe—well.” He shook his head, too tired to engage in the requisite social niceties. “Damn.”
“I can still help,” she said. “If you tell me what to do.”
He didn’t protest. “You’ll have to, then.”
It had been the first time in a long while that she’d identified herself as Lady Anna Margaret. It was almost soothing to have the truth brushed callously to one side, to be treated instead as another set of hands—competent hands, not soft, incapable ones. It was too late at night for etiquette and formality.
He gave her more specific instructions, and after they’d fed her father the mixture, he sent her off to rest. But when she’d left the room for the dark of the gallery, rest seemed impossible. Tired as she was, she could not sleep. Not yet.
Surely if Mark knew what had happened to her father, he would grant her a reprieve. He would let her wait a little while longer to tell Ash the truth. But his brothers had been right about one thing. Whatever she was to Ash, after what he’d done for her—setting off into a storm, traveling miles and miles so that she might have a little peace—he didn’t deserve her silence. Not for one moment longer.
She had one last task for the evening, and at this point, she was too weary to dread it any longer.
THE NIGHT WAS VERY DARK. Ash should have been in bed, but instead, he was awake in his chambers, staring at the embers of a fire. He’d shucked off his wet clothes, and wore nothing but a loose pair of trousers.
If, two months ago, someone had told Ash he would have spent hours in the frigid rain, fetching a physician to save Parford’s measly hide…
He’d have believed it, but only because kindness made a revenge of its own. But he had only to remember the bleak expression in Margaret’s eyes when she had looked at him to understand why he had gone. Not as proof that he was the better man; not as some stilted vengeance wrought upon a long-ago foe. He’d gone so he could vanquish the darkness from her eyes.
There had been something about her that evening—something harsh and strong. She’d assumed command perfectly, without even faltering at the notion of issuing orders to Mrs. Benedict. She’d even ordered about Ash himself. She’d been as strong and as capable as a queen.
That was the woman he wanted. He wanted that fierce loyalty for his own. He wanted to possess the commanding set of her brow, to smooth the worry from her face. He also wanted her relieved of her weary burdens, but that would come soon. He could taste that future, sweet on his tongue.
He almost wished he’d retained that master key. He’d wished, weeks ago, that he hadn’t made Mrs. Benedict that promise. He certainly wished that his damned courier would arrive from London, with the requisite paperwork in hand. He was tired of holding back.
As if that wish had somehow been granted by a blessedly benevolent world, he heard the lock scrape behind him. He sat up straight in his chair, his breath catching in his throat. There was only one person who had a key to this room besides Ash himself. She fumbled with the lock—no doubt it was dark—and then swung the door open. He’d dreamed of this for so many nights, but he’d never believed it would actually happen. Margaret padded into his room.
In the pale moonlight, he could barely make out her clothing. She wore nothing but her shift. The fabric was thick, the darkness thicker. She might have been swathed in a thousand petticoats, for all the erotic detail he could make out in the dark of night. But his imagination didn’t need light to see her. The sound of fabric whispering against skin fired his fantasies. He could envision the length of her limbs as she walked towards him, could almost feel the rounding of her hips, fitting against his palms.
He stood up. She stopped, three feet distant, her eyes dropping to his bare chest and then widening.
“Ash. There’s something I have to tell you. It won’t wait for morning.”
“The duke,” Ash said. “He’s—”
“He’ll survive,” she said shortly.
“My brother.” A stab of pain. “He left this evening, and in the storm—”
“The storm broke hours after he left. I’m sure he found cover. It’s not about anyone else. Or—that is—not directly.”
He took a step towards her. He could see her shift ripple in the night air, forming itself briefly to her breasts before dropping away again. The palms of his hands burned. He wanted to lay them against her. Another step. She was close enough that he could make out the faint smattering of freckles across her nose. In the dark, they almost blended into the color of her skin. She was close enough for him to touch and so he reached out, winding a strand of her hair about his finger, feeling the silk of it brush over him. A tiny prelude for what was certainly to come.
Her chin rose, and she tossed her head, sliding that curl from his grasp. “Ash, listen before you touch me.”
“I can listen and touch at the same time.” He set his hand on her hip, drawing her close. Her body fit against his, curved and soft where he was hard and flat. He ducked his head and breathed in her scent—that faint hint of roses. And she relaxed against him, laying her hands agains
t his naked chest in a gesture of possession. His skin tingled where her palms touched him. He tipped her chin up—not to kiss, not yet, but to steal her breath from her lips, to draw the vital stuff of her exhalation into his own lungs. To feel the simple luxury of her presence.
She pushed away. “Ash. This is insane, the two of us. You don’t know who my family is.”
“I know enough.” He exhaled, wanting to breathe away her uncertainty. “Do you suppose I would learn you the way a scholar learns a book? That you are nothing to me but a collection of suppositions, to be stored in my memory and written down for verification? No, Margaret. I know you.”
He let his hand slip to her waist, to the curve of her hip, slim and smooth, and he drew her back to him. He was half-naked already, but she made no protest. The feel of her body against his was as invigorating as slipping into a hot bath. His blood took up an insistent pounding in his ears. Lower down, he felt a persistent ache, sharp and sweet, a keen wanting.
“I know you the way I’ve learned everything.” His lips brushed her collarbone. “I know your taste. I know your scent. I know the shape of you in my hands. I know the flash of your eyes when you’re angry, and the melody of your laughter. Don’t tell me I don’t know you. You’re a woman.” His voice dropped. “And you’re mine.”
She swallowed. “But I—”