“Do you always do this?” she asked, her voice husky. “Go to those who have used you poorly and explain away their sins? I lied to you, Ash. You’re supposed to despise me.”
“You may have noticed this,” Ash said, “but I rarely do as I ought. It’s a failing—and one I hope you will forgive in me.” He reached out and traced a line down her cheek. “And then there’s what I said about you. Did I really…did I really call you a poor specimen, to your face?”
“So. With all of that, why did you come to me last night?”
Her eyes widened. She looked up at him, her expression fierce. “Because you make me feel that if I were to disappear tomorrow, I would be mourned. And because…I’m hard pressed to stay away from you.”
“So.” He held his breath. “You’ll marry me?”
She did not answer, not right away. But her sudden inability to meet his gaze told him everything he needed to know. His hands balled into fists.
“My brother talked to the physician. They’ve agreed that my father will not be hurt if he is moved—and that he should be taken to an expert outside of London, a man who specializes in treating apoplexy. I am going with them.”
“Don’t. Stay with me. I’ll send for the proper license tomorrow.”
She simply looked at him. “Ash, my father left his children bastards because he selfishly placed his own wishes and pleasures before their well-being. If I marry you—if that affects the outcome of my brothers’ bid for legitimacy—I’ll have bastardized them a second time. I will not do the same thing. I will not.”
He shut his eyes and breathed in her breath. He needed another chance. More time to erode her objections. To make her choose him.
“Well. May I say my farewells to you properly, then?” He glanced pointedly at the servant who sat at the edge of the room, pretending not to hear. “Without company?”
She nodded, and dropped her voice. “You know where, don’t you? Not your office. Not any longer. They’re watching that.”
No. Not there.
“I know where,” he said quietly.
SHE HAD KNOWN HE WOULD meet her in the conservatory.
Perhaps that’s why she’d twirled the knob on the oil lamp all the way up, until it radiated heat. She had hoped the light would drive away the darkness of the night.
It hadn’t; instead, the lamp’s yellow illumination had driven long shadows into every corner of the room. Margaret turned around, looking for him. But the only movement she saw was the flap of her wrapper. The fine silk and painstaking embroidery seemed too smooth against her skin, after weeks of staid wool and linen. Not at all proper attire, but then, etiquette had little advice to give on the apparel a well-bred lady wore to greet a man at midnight.
As she completed her turn, he stepped from the shadows, his footfalls making almost no noise at all. Margaret met his eyes. She was unsure what to say, uncertain how to start and entirely unable to speak the words she knew he had to hear. Instead she gestured at the cutting she’d planted several weeks before, the night she’d pelted him with clods of earth. “I think it will take.”
He came forwards, still silent, and placed his thumb against the cane of wood. There was not much to show for those weeks—just two little nubs of growth, hints of green glinting in the lamplight.
“It might take some time, though. Perhaps it might be best to keep it indoors through the winter. The groundskeeper has a formula he uses, to manage new growth—”
Ash set his fingers against her lips, capturing the rest of her sentence. “You sound as if you are delivering instructions.”
“Come this winter, only one of us will be here. It might not be me.”
As she spoke, her lips brushed his thumb, a whisper of a kiss.
He took her head in his hands, gently tipping her chin up. “When I first met you, I thought there was something…almost sad about you. You hid it well—you’re too strong not to. But your mother passed away not so long ago. Mrs. Benedict once told me that the old duchess loved roses.”
That wound was still too tender to be probed. Margaret turned away.
But he didn’t stop. “Your father seems to have no care for anything any longer. Your brothers have been too busy, scrambling to save their own hides. When have you had a chance to mourn, Margaret?”
She stepped away to examine the pots that stood on a window ledge. “She’s still here,” Margaret said. “She loved this house. The gardens. And the roses especially. Sometimes I can almost hear her footsteps around the corner. I can see her nodding in approval when the house runs smoothly. So long as—”
She caught her breath as the end of the sentence slammed into her.
Pick a house, her mother had once advised her on love, not a husband. Husbandly interest will fade. But a house will always be yours—yours to arrange and command, yours to gift over to your sons, warmer and more welcoming than you found it, when the time comes. A house will hold all your affection and shower love back upon you.
That philosophy hadn’t worked so well for her mother. At the end of her life, even the house hadn’t truly been hers any longer. And whatever fiction Margaret maintained about this place, once Ash took the reins…
“So long as what?” Ash asked quietly.
“She’ll be here,” Margaret said, her throat closing, “so long as nothing changes.”
But everything was changing. Over the course of the next few months, her brothers would present their case to Parliament. Her father’s remaining health might slip away. She couldn’t bear to stay here, to see the last vestiges of her mother’s care disappear. And that meant that this was goodbye.
To the house. To her mother. And to Ash, as well.
She’d known it the instant her brother had spelled out precisely what marriage to Ash would mean. She’d always known that whatever time they had was transient and fleeting. She’d just assumed that he would be the one to end it.
She walked back to him and set her hands on his shoulders. He acquiesced when she pushed him to the bench. But when she leaned over him and straddled him, he pulled back from her kiss.
“There’s something I must tell you,” he began.
She put her fingers over his lips as she settled her thighs against his.
“Be quiet, Ash. I am trying to remember you.”
In the lamplight, shadows collected on his face as his eyebrows drew down. He must have taken her meaning, because he shook his head. “Well. I am trying to have you.” His voice was fiercely possessive. “Not for one night, nor even two. I want you every evening—mine outright, not a few hours stolen here or there. I want you during the day, on my arm. I want to know that when we’re apart you’re missing me; I want to know when we’re together, I’m the one who puts the smile on your face.” He punctuated each phrase with a kiss—against her chin, the line of her jaw, the hollow of her neck. As he spoke, his hands drifted down her sides. The light silk of her wrapper rendered his touch diffuse.
“Not that. I can’t.” But she didn’t push his hands away.
“You will.” His fingers cupped her breasts lightly, sending little shivers through her. She’d wanted one last night with him for physical comfort. She hadn’t wanted this intimate courtship.
“I’m leaving on the morrow.”
“So you have claimed,” he said, his breath hot against her neckline.
“This is the last time we can speak— Oh.”
He had slid her robe aside and taken her nipple in his mouth, almost roughly. His tongue circled the tip, and she could feel it draw up into a tight bud, could feel the corresponding pulse of desire between her legs. As if he, too, felt that need, he reached between them and undid his breeches. The rough fumblings of cloth rasped against her legs.
But he continued to taste her, almost leisurely. As if he were sure of her physical surrender—as sure as he was of everything else. There was no urgency in his caress, just languid pleasure. He wa
s firmly in command, in control. His other hand freed his erection from its confines. She could feel it, straight and rigid and hot, against her thighs. With his free hand he steadied her against it, moved it into position between her legs. She felt her wetness rub against him.
“Hear this,” he growled in her ear. “I didn’t withdraw last night. I’ll be damned if I do it now. And if I get you with child—and Margaret, I hope I have already done so—you will marry me.”
She’d known it, deep inside her. She just hadn’t let herself think it.
“I will never do to you what your father did to your mother. I will always be here for you.” He sat on the table, and pulled her down to him.