She could see all of the easy affection draining from his expression. She could almost taste the loss. His breath sucked in. He shook his hand out, and then he raised his eyes to Margaret’s, as if asking her if it were true. As if begging her to deny it.
“Your sister,” he repeated dully.
Margaret bowed her head. “I was once Lady Anna Margaret Dalrymple.” Her voice choked. “I was trying to tell you, but…”
“Ah.” He rubbed his eye where Richard had struck him. The skin had already begun to pinken; in a few hours, he’d sport purple. He blew out his breath, deflating.
Here it came. Here was where he denounced her. But instead, he cut his eyes toward Richard. “I suppose, then, that I deserved that.”
Richard drew himself up taller and took a step forwards. “That,” he said crisply, “and more. Why, I ought to—”
In one smooth motion, Ash pulled back and punched Richard, harder.
Margaret let out a muffled scream. Her brother shrieked louder, and crumpled to the floor. And Ash said nothing; he just advanced on Richard, huddled in a ball on the carpet.
“Ash! Stop it. What are you doing?”
Ash didn’t turn towards her. Instead, he towered over her brother. The contrast between them could not have been more striking. Ash was wide and dark and tall; her brother seemed a pallid, frail thing, scuttling backwards until he cowered against the wall.
“I deserved your blow,” Ash said harshly, “but you deserve more. You left your sister here, alone, with nobody to stand for her. What kind of man sends his sister into danger, while he himself cowers in safety?” He would think of that first.
“What danger?” Richard said. “She was safe. Mrs. Benedict promised to watch over her.”
Ash’s hands clenched at his side, and an almost murderous silence settled in. “If I still had a sister…” he said slowly. But he did not complete that thought. He didn’t need to; Margaret could fill in the unspoken words for him. Of course Ash wouldn’t put his family in danger. Finally, he looked at Margaret. “Why did you stay behind?”
Margaret squared her shoulders. “We didn’t know what to expect of you. Someone had to watch Father. Someone had to make sure you didn’t despoil the estate. And…and when I agreed to do it, I didn’t know you. Not then.”
Ash took a step towards her. “That’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it. You’ve been staying under a roof with two bachelors, and Mrs. Benedict or no, there’s not been an appropriate chaperone in sight. You’re a duke’s daughter. When the news gets out, your reputation—”
“I have no reputation worth speaking of, Ash.”
“Balderdash. Perhaps your brothers might have rammed the issue of your legitimacy through Parliament after all. Even as a bastard daughter, you might have made a perfectly respectable match one day, so long as your reputation had been safeguarded. Why would you sacrifice the chance to have your own life, your own home? You must have agreed to this, knowing that the end result was that you would spend the rest of your life living in some tiny room on your brother’s estate, accepting whatever scraps this cad decided to toss your way.”
Richard had been watching this interchange with an increasingly horrified look on his face. Clearly, he hadn’t understood what she’d agreed to do. She had risked her reputation. And her brother hadn’t even noticed.
“Here now,” Richard said on a sputter. “I sure as hell wouldn’t toss my own sister scraps. And as for the rest, I only came back because her letters suggested she was in some danger.” He cast Ash a dangerous look. “And I see I was right.”
“Shut up, you. Margaret, you’re worth ten of him. Why would you sacrifice so much for this rat?”
Margaret pulled the silk robe Ash had given her about her like a shield and faced him. “First, he’s my brother, not a rat, and I’ll thank you not to speak of him that way.”
“Second, you cannot be thinking. I have no reputation—or at least, nothing that a reputation can buy me.”
“Why? Because you’re a bastard? I’m telling you, that won’t matter—”
She could feel Richard’s eyes on her. Still, she met Ash’s glower. “No, you idiot. Because I wasn’t a virgin.”
“There has never been anything for me in the future except that attic room on my brother’s estate. Not since you had me declared a bastard. No man would have had me, had he known the truth, no matter what Parliament declared. And when Frederick walked away from me when I needed him most… You must understand—I would rather have scraps in the attic than accept him. No matter what might happen.”
“I still say it was a stupid risk.” Ash shook his head. “It’s a damned good thing I’m marrying you.”
The bottom dropped out of Margaret’s stomach. This was another impossible thing, on a morning already riddled with impossibilities. She stared at Ash, blankly. “What?”
Richard pushed himself up off the floor. “I beg your pardon!”
“I’m marrying you.” He was still facing her, but he brought his hand up to shove Richard back a pace. “In case you hadn’t noticed, after what happened last night. What do you suppose I’ve been about in any event, Margaret? Don’t give me that look, Dalrymple. Your sister is the only reason I haven’t broken your nose into pieces, and she can’t intercede on your behalf forever.”
“I hadn’t noticed.” Margaret’s voice sounded flat in her own ears. Not because of a lack of emotion—her hands shook with it—but because there was too much feeling, no room for everything she felt to fit in her voice. “And no, I hadn’t supposed you were thinking about marriage. Somehow, you failed to ask.”
But she was deluding herself. If he’d just wanted her body, he could have had it long before last night.
“Don’t be so naive, Margaret.” Her brother slammed his fist into the wall beside him. The plaster shook. “Of course he didn’t ask before he knew who you were. The only reason he wants to marry you is that he knows it will help his chances in Parliament. Those who’ve made up their minds on the matter are split almost precisely down the middle. There are only a select handful of lords who have yet to decide. If he marries you, the eighth duke of Parford’s bloodline will continue. Unconventional, yes—but it might be enough to shift the handful of votes he needs his way. He knows it, that calculating bastard.”
For a second, her brother’s words echoed all the fears that she had carried, in a tiny ball buried deep in her belly. She wasn’t good enough. Nobody cared about anything except her station in life. Nobody would ever want her.
But Ash slowly raised his head. Those untamed nightmares didn’t last longer than the bare instant it took for her to look at him, to trace that little curl that had fallen down his forehead with her eyes. He looked at her, not saying a single word.
Margaret raised her chin. “Ash wouldn’t do that.”
The corner of Ash’s mouth quirked up. He regarded her with the same steadfast certainty he always had. Richard couldn’t understand it. He couldn’t know what Ash had said to her. What Ash had done for her. He looked at her, and he made her believe.
You matter. You are important.
And even now, knowing she had lied to him, knowing she was the daughter of his worst enemy, he gave her his support.
Richard, however, couldn’t see that in the exchange of glances. “You can’t know that. Did he ask you to marry him when he thought you a lowly nurse? No. It was only once he knew what he had to gain that he proposed.”
“Ash wouldn’t do that,” Margaret repeated, calmly. “I know him. And I know he wouldn’t do that.”
Richard put his head in his hands. “God spare me from women who think they understand men. Mother thought she knew Father, too, for all the good that did her.”
“Ash isn’t Father.”
“So you’re marrying Turner. You’re damning me and Edmund to a lifetime of bastardy, just so you can have every last luxury. It figures.”
Margaret shut her eyes. “Richard, I spent last evening saving Father’s life, just so you would have a chance to win your dukedom. After everything I’ve done for you, everything I’ve given up for you, you owe me one morning. Go visit Father. Look in on him. And let me talk to my—” Her what? Her lover? Her friend? Not her fiancé.
Richard shook his head, but when he started towards her, Ash stepped in his way. He didn’t say anything; he just raised one hand, setting it against Richard’s chest. Her brother backed away.
Margaret heard the door shut behind him.
“God,” Ash said. “I even hate that the cad left you alone with me, because he feared a tiny thing like more pain. If he were any sort of a brother, he wouldn’t care what I said or how I threatened. He wouldn’t leave your side, not if he was threatened by a phalanx of soldiers.”
Margaret rubbed her temples. Ash had walked forty miles, barefoot, when he was fourteen years old for his sister’s sake. He would feel that way. But not everyone could be as strong as he. Yes, her brother was consumed by a hundred tiny selfishnesses. But most people were. It was only natural to think first of yourself. And Richard had lost so much—he’d had his entire inheritance ripped away. Of course he would jealously defend what little remained. Only a saint would think of someone else when his world was crumbling about him. It didn’t make her brother a bad person. It just made him a little preoccupied.
“Don’t you hate me for lying to you? I’ve been sorry for it for weeks. You can’t know—”