Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 44

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“I can imagine.” He set his hand on her shoulder behind her. “Easily. I’m remembering every word I said to you, every last unkind, unwarranted comment I made about Lady Anna. You must have thought me the cruelest man imaginable. These past months…your mother, the ecclesiastical suit. Your fiancé. Of course, your fiancé. Your dowry. Your place in society. My God. I had you declared a bastard. Margaret, what have I done to you?”

She buried her face in her hands, her eyes burning. She’d imagined this moment a thousand ways. In her mind, he’d scorned her. He’d cursed her. He’d walked away in a huff. She should have known that Ash would always find a way to outdo her imagination. “Ash. Please don’t.”

“Is Anna your name, then?”

“Anna Margaret. But Anna is my mother’s name. Everyone has always called me Margaret.”

“You were standing in the room when Parford said he didn’t give a damn about his children. My God, Margaret. How can you bear it?”

“I bear it just fine, thank you, so long as I don’t need to think of it.” Her chin wobbled.

Ash accepted this in relative silence. He strode to the window and looked away. “Have you any doubt in your mind that I wish to marry you because I want you, not for any more mercenary reason?”

She looked at him, her mind jumbled. “Even you, Ash, could not be so ruthless. No. I don’t believe it of you.”

He paced to his chest of drawers. “But I am that ruthless, Margaret.” He let out a breath. “I know that of me, even if you have not yet come to the realization. And your brother will try to steal that certainty from you. He’ll tell you I’m lying. I want you to know in a way that your brother cannot steal from you.”

“I’m certain.” But she wasn’t. Certainty had been a thing for last night. The more time passed, the more doubts encroached.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he sifted through a pile of garments on his chest of drawers, until he found his waistcoat. Then he strode back to her. Silently he held it out, an arm’s length between them. “Look in the right pocket.”

Margaret took it gingerly. The fabric was rough against her hands. Her fingers slipped into the pocket and found a crinkling piece of paper. She pulled it out. For a second, she wondered if she, too, had somehow lost the ability to decode symbols. Then she realized she was looking at the reverse side, where ink had seeped through the foolscap. She flipped the paper over, and stared at the characters written in a crabbed hand on the other side. But even reading those words, she could not truly comprehend them. It was almost as if her mind had forgotten how to function, as if the symbols on it were written in an alphabet so foreign and distinct from her world that she could not understand its import.

“What is this? Why…why does it say Margaret Lowell on its face?”

“It’s why I went to London last week. It’s why I’ve been in a terrible dudgeon these last days, waiting for an express that never arrived. It’s a receipt from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office in Doctor’s Commons, where I applied for a special license.”

“It’s dated nine days ago.”

“I know. And that is how you know that no matter what your brother tells you, no matter how he tries to make you doubt me, what I say is true. I wanted to marry you weeks ago. The great benefit I see to marrying you is that I would be married to you. I told you it didn’t matter who your parents were. I meant it. I want you. Nothing else matters.”

But everything else was pressing against her now. “Ash.” Margaret’s voice threatened to dissolve. She swallowed the lump in her throat, the incipient tears. “You are breaking my heart.”

That phrase had never made sense to her before, except in metaphor. But she was being pulled in two. Making love to Ash had been a little defiance—a statement that her body was hers, that her life and her virtue belonged to her. That she belonged to herself and nobody could ever take that away.

But he wasn’t asking for a little defiance any longer. He was asking for her allegiance. Her brother was right about one thing: if she married him, it would be a complete betrayal. Not of some unfortunate rules that society insisted upon, but of her brothers, her mother. If she married him, her brothers could lose their bid for legitimacy. They would be outcasts, sustained only by the tiny unentailed portions of the estate.

She had promised herself that she would be noble, even if she was no longer considered nobility. He was asking her to be selfish, to think only of her own future happiness. If she did that, she would be no better than her father.

He was asking for more than she could possibly deliver.

“I understand now,” he said, “why the license took so long to issue. The archbishop’s office wouldn’t send it out until they could verify that you were eligible to marry, and the parish here has no records of a Miss Margaret Lowell.”

“No. They wouldn’t.”

“Well, I’ll apply again.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, when he uncovered the truth. It was supposed to be easy. Her revelation was supposed to have been the death knell of his desire. There shouldn’t have been any need for her to choose between a future with him and her brothers’ survival. Who was she, if she abandoned them?

Who was she, if she walked away from him?

She had learned to withstand her father’s abuse. But this gentleness left her undone. There was no word in her lexicon for this sort of kindness, no space in her understanding to encompass it.

She simply shook her head. “No, Ash. I don’t know. I—I just don’t know.”

He let out a sigh and pulled her to him. She felt his arms around her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

She had once thought she wanted to see him sorry. She’d wanted to punish him, to rip his heart out and stomp on it, so that he would know how it felt to have his world inverted about him.

She had been wrong. It killed her. Because he wasn’t hurting for himself. He was hurting for her.

His kindness robbed her of the cold outrage that had fueled her all this time. But for one last moment, she could pretend that they could be together. That his arms around her were solid and real, and it was the reality of her waiting life that was the evanescent, impossible dream.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

IF IT HAD BEEN embarrassing for Ash to greet Richard Dalrymple that morning, half-clothed, with his sister in his arms, it was even more awkward when the man appeared at breakfast. Dalrymple paused at the corner of the room and glanced in, a half sneer on his face. The expression of distaste was rather ruined by his eye, which had already begun to turn a dull red where Ash had struck him.

“I see,” he said, in an accent so rarified that it made Ash want to smack him again, “that this room is infested.” He sniffed at Ash, and then glanced at Mark and stiffened.

“With all of us vermin,” Ash said. “Your sister—the only interesting one among us—is off tending to your father.” Ash picked up his butter knife, and Dalrymple paled and flinched.

“Good God. What do you suppose I’m going to do? Eviscerate you with this thing? Look. It’s quite dull.” Ash shook his head, scooped a lump of butter from the crock, and applied it to his bread. “And apparently, it’s not alone. You might as well eat, Dalrymple. You need to keep up your strength, especially if you imagine you’re going to take on the Herculean task of bending Parliament to your will.”

Mark met Ash’s eye, and then bit his lip, as if holding something back. A suspicion intruded on Ash’s mind—a half-remembered statement his brother had made.

“By the way, Mark, did you realize that Margaret is actually Margaret Dalrymple?”

“Ah. So she told you, then.”

Ash’s fingers drummed against the table, a harsh beat that took the place of actual thought. He stared at his brother. “You knew.” His voice was low.

“I had my suspicions.” Mark glanced at him, and then with a sigh, he added, “and then Smite came down here and confirmed them. He saw her a few years ago.”

Dalr

ymple glanced up at this but said nothing. Instead, he sidled against the wall until he reached the sideboard, where he removed a plate. Ash ignored him.

“You knew, and you didn’t tell me.”

Mark gave him a half shrug. “Honestly, Ash. She said she would tell you. And I didn’t believe the small delay between my discovery and her divulgence would harm you in the long run. Besides, she was half in love with you already, and I know how you are.”

Ash felt a low burn of rage begin. “Perhaps you might have thought how it could hurt her.”

“You wouldn’t hurt her.” Mark sighed. “You might not…go about courting her in the manner I would prefer, but you don’t hurt women. Come, now, Ash. I know you better than that. Quite frankly, it’s refreshing to know you can be wrong.”

Dalrymple was piling kippers onto his plate with movements made awkward, because he was still flattened against the wall. He clearly wanted to keep as far from the brothers as he possibly could. He only managed to make himself look completely ridiculous. How had a family that produced such a fainthearted coward also come up with Margaret?

“I wasn’t wrong,” Ash said quietly.

“She did lie to you, Ash. Granted, she has other sterling qualities.”

Ash hadn’t realized how much he must have already hurt her. When he’d met her, he’d known she was sad. This morning, he’d been too dazed to truly understand what her parentage meant. But with a little time to sort things out, and food in his belly, he’d begun to comprehend. Now he was no longer surprised that she’d thrown a clod of dirt at him on that long-ago night. Daggers would have been rather more appropriate.

“I stormed into her life, destroyed her parents’ marriage and made her a bastard. And you think that when I faced her down, holding the remainder of her life in my hands, that she should have blithely spouted out the truth? For all she knew, I would have stolen away the little that remained. I was an utter beast to her. I just didn’t realize it.”


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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