Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 45

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From his vantage point against the wall, Dalrymple raised one finger, almost hesitantly. “As a point of order, you did the same to me, and I’ve yet to hear your apology.”

“Oh, shut up,” Ash snapped. “You’re different. You deserved it. You still do.”

Dalrymple’s mouth snapped shut.

Mark’s eyes blazed at this. “Oh, yes. Still set on revenge, are you, after all of this? Wishing now that perhaps when I told you to think about what you were doing to the Dalrymples, you’d listened? I said you didn’t have to do this. I said you were wrong. But no—the great Ash Turner doesn’t need to listen to logic. Or ethics.”

“Oh, God,” Dalrymple moaned from the side of the room. “Ethics. At ten in the morning. And you wonder why you were so constantly set upon at Eton?”

Mark and Ash turned to Dalrymple as one. “He’s championing you, you dolt,” Ash remarked.

“I don’t truck with what’s happened to you,” Mark added. “But if you ever wondered why Smite outdid you so consistently at Oxford, here is one explanation. It’s because you are an idiot. And perhaps because you feel free to suspend your ethics before breakfast.” Dalrymple flushed.

“If you must know,” Ash said, turning back to Mark, “I don’t regret what I did to the Dalrymples one bit—this incomparable ass over here deserved it. And while no doubt it hurt Margaret temporarily, once I’ve married her it shall all be resolved.”

Dalrymple stepped forwards. “Like hell you’ll marry her.”

“As if you have anything to say on the matter. She’s of age. She’s chosen me—or at least,” Ash added with a grimace, “she will.”

“She won’t choose you over her own brothers, you uncivilized brute. And once word gets out that you’re the sort of man who ruins a lady—”

Ash wasn’t quite sure how he got across the room. But he did—slamming Dalrymple against a wall for the second time that day. Eggs and pickled fish went flying.

“How,” he growled, his arm at the man’s throat, “do you imagine word will leak out?”

Dalrymple, held against the wall, up on tiptoes, squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t know?” His voice was very high.

“Because if you were suggesting that you would sacrifice your sister’s reputation to serve your own purposes, think again. If you do, I won’t just steal your title and your lands. I will run any bank that holds your funds into the ground. I will bribe your servants to slip nettles into your bed. I will hire trumpets to stand outside your home every evening, where they will sound notes at irregular intervals. You will never have a solid night’s sleep again.”

“You’re mad.” Dalrymple licked his lips.

“Perhaps. But as the putative head of the family, I can have you declared mentally incompetent and committed to an asylum, if you choose to say one word against Margaret.”

“I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t hurt my own sister.”

“Ash,” Mark said from behind him. “Give over. You don’t have to do this.”

It was either the threats, or he’d bodily pull the man to pieces. Margaret probably wouldn’t approve of either. Ash lowered his arm, and Dalrymple’s heels thumped to the floor.

He let out a sigh. And then he cast his brother a reproachful look.

“I’ll send you both to asylums,” he growled.

Richard bit his lip and stepped back in fear. But Mark knew him rather better. He rolled his eyes in unconcern. “Choose a quiet one for me. I should like to get some writing done.”

ASH HAD NEVER ENTERED the north wing of the house before. The chambers there had been shut off during his visit. He had understood they belonged to the Dalrymple offspring; he had just never realized that one of them still resided in the household.

With Margaret’s charade at an end, she’d moved back to the room that was rightfully hers. The maid had guided him to her chamber—and then stayed.

So they were to have a chaperone. It seemed rather late for that.

Margaret sat at a table in her parlor, writing a letter. She was dressed in dark silk—not quite black, but a gray sufficiently dark to pass as storm clouds. A two-inch fall of dark lace touched her elbows. Her hair was no longer pinned up in a serviceable knot; instead, it had been braided and curled and arranged in an intricate pattern.

She wore the same gold necklace. He still wondered about that locket.

When he cleared his throat, she looked up at him. She held her pen, her eyes wary. She looked different—tidy and coiffed and sleek. But her eyes were still the same.

“My God, Margaret,” he said.

“It is a bit much to comprehend, I am sure.” Her voice seemed smooth and unruffled. It had taken him weeks to understand that this was just her way of hiding deep emotion. “This is the first time you’ve seen me as Lady Anna Margaret. Well.” She shrugged, and spread her arms. She’d looped a knit shawl over her shoulders, and it slipped as she did so. “Here I am.”

Lady Margaret’s gown fit rather better than those loose gray frocks. The fringe of her shawl shaped itself to her bodice, outlining curves he’d held early this morning.

“There are a great many things I don’t understand,” he said.

“I suppose you should like to know why I lied to you.”

He just looked at her. Now that he knew who she was, that secret sadness she always carried with her made sense. She’d told him in the very first hour why she disliked him. She’d never given him lies. Just truths that he hadn’t truly heard.

“If you must know,” she began, “and given what has transpired between us, I suppose you deserve the full story, the plan started weeks ago, when—”

“Hang the plan, Margaret. I don’t care about any of that. I want to know—she was your mother. Not the duchess. Not your employer. Your mother died. And you…you blame me. For good reason.”

Her mouth stopped, midword. Her lips worked, but no sound came out. Finally she set her pen down and put her fingers to her temples. “That night I threw dirt at you—the conservatory was he

r favorite place. I had wanted to feel close to her. And then you came along and disrupted everything.”

“You are in mourning.”

Margaret glanced at her dark silk. “I’ve worn gray the entire time I’ve known you, Ash.”

“I’m not referring to your clothing, Margaret. I’m referring to your spirit.”

She let out a tired sigh. “Ash, you’ve understood a great many things. But really—what would you know about mourning a mother?”

He glanced behind them to make sure that the arm of the sofa would hide the extent of what he was about to do from the maid’s watchful eyes. Then, he sat next to her and placed his hand on her knee. The gesture was casual, friendly—and yet intimate in a way that transcended mere physicality.

He leaned in and spoke in a near whisper. “My mother was complicated. Painful. At the end of it all, she was quite, quite mad. But I remember gentle moments, before she started to change. I remember when she was my safe haven. That’s what made her descent into madness so frightening. Not the beatings, nor even the illness. I could remember what she had once been, and I kept waiting for her to return. Instead, she slipped further away, every time I saw her.”

Margaret’s eyes rounded.

“Maybe,” he said, “that is part of what drove me in those early days of business. I kept thinking that if I accomplished more, maybe this time she would be proud of me. If I recovered the family fortune, she would value me. If my brothers went to Eton, she would honor what I had done. I kept waiting for her maternal instincts to overcome her madness.”

Margaret reached out and took his hand.

“But no,” he said. “It never worked.”

“I am certain,” Margaret told him, “that somewhere, somehow, she was aware of what you had accomplished. And that even if she couldn’t acknowledge it in her lifetime, she was—is—proud of you.”

Her fingers constricted around his hand.

“When she passed away, I cried. Don’t tell my brothers—I shouldn’t like to admit to weakness. But I remember what animated her, before. And I mourned the fact that everything I loved about her had died long before. I always wanted to believe that my mother—my real mother—was hidden somewhere in that shell of a body. But if she was, I never saw it. I had years to mourn her loss, before she was taken away for good. I still wake up nights, feeling as if something is gone. You…you’ve scarcely had time to believe it’s happened.”

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