Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 50

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“I want,” Margaret said slowly, “an invitation.”

And instead of breaking into nervous laughter again, Elaine nodded slowly.

“Perhaps,” she said quietly, “I might help after all.”

“YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS.”

Ash didn’t answer his brother’s bare statement. He couldn’t so much as look in his direction, as his valet was carefully knotting his cravat in a style that the man assured him was the latest fashion—sure to impress the lords he’d scheduled a meeting with this afternoon. Instead, Ash glowered in front of him, pretending he had not just had news that Margaret was in town.

“Really, Ash. You don’t have to do this. Richard and Edmund Dalrymple—they’re not worth doing this to yourself.”

His valet stepped away to contemplate his work. Ash stared in front of him. “There is what they did to you. There is what Parford did to Hope. Hell, there’s what they did to Margaret herself. You tell me—would you trust either Dalrymple with the responsibility of a dukedom?”

“I’ve forgiven them.”

“You,” Ash enunciated carefully, “don’t really understand what happened to Hope.”

Behind him, he heard his brother move to one side. “Revenge isn’t meant for us mortals, Ash.”

The valet reached to adjust Ash’s collar. Just as well, because he could feel it shift. “Don’t you preach at me.” Ash’s voice was low. “I should think that we have had quite enough of that for one lifetime.”

There was a longer pause, and then Mark walked round to look him in the eyes. There was no avoiding the soft censure on his brother’s face. “Enough?” he asked. “What do you mean, enough?”

“You almost died because of our mother’s absolutist adherence to dead words. I can’t stand to see you imprisoned by them.”

“Imprisoned?” Mark’s voice was growing dangerous. But Ash was tired of tiptoeing about his brother’s sensibilities.

“Yes. Imprisoned. You and Smite both. Living in abstemious denial, when you could have the entire world laid out before you. Turning down every advantage, even before it’s offered. Our mother imprisoned you all those years ago, and even if you escaped her then, neither of you can free yourselves enough to accept what might be yours today.”

Mark moved again, out of Ash’s sight, and he was left to stare at the blank wall in front of him.

“Do you really suppose Smite and I are alone in that imprisonment?” Mark said from his side.

“Oh, any number of fools are as afflicted, I’m sure.”

“Listen to you and your talk of revenge. ‘Ye shall tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet.’ You’re doing an excellent job of living up to your name.”

“Don’t call me that,” Ash said.

“Don’t call you what?”

“That.”

But Mark simply snorted. “Oh, you mean this? ‘And ye shall tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet.’ That is your name, no matter how much you wish to forget it. And how do you feel, playing the avenging angel, Ash?”

Ash’s fists tightened, and his valet murmured in protest as his shoulders drew together. It took an enormous effort to keep from drawing in on himself, from curling up into a tight little ball, no matter what such a thing would do to the line of his coat.

Those words brought back childhood memories, none of them good. The smell of a fire, burning cheap and pungent coal; the feel of his mother’s hand, almost all bone, on his wrist. And the flat despair in her voice as she regaled him with his name, chapter and verse.

It made him think of those last days with Hope, of that sure, certain knowledge of his failure.

“Stop,” Ash said, feeling ill.

“You always were so stubborn. One of my earliest memories is—”

“Stop,” Ash begged. He didn’t want to remember that sick pit of despair in his own stomach, that feeling that if he stepped out of line, if he made the slightest mistake, the thing that had taken her place might actually hurt her own children.

“She was wrong,” Mark said gently. “Later, she went completely mad. She saw demons and believed that angels whispered violence in her ears. She named you for vengeance, Ash. Are you really going to pursue it?”

“What about you?” Ash croaked. “If you knew she was mad—and wrong—why do you cling to her beliefs?”

Mark glanced at him dryly. But he didn’t respond to that needling. Instead, he was relentless. “Is that who you are, Ash? Are you the man she made you?”

Ash shook his head. “I’m—I’m just me.”

“So am I.” Mark looked up at him, speaking softly. “I am who I am despite Mother, not because of her. I choose to do what I believe to be right, despite the fact that my mother’s madness ought to have poisoned the thought of all goodness. I choose to keep to chastity, for all that Mother’s ranting made me want to go out and do just the opposite in rebellion. I choose to be the man I am, Ash. You should, too.”

“But I did. I did choose.”

Mark simply glanced at him and then looked away. It was disquieting, that look—as if he’d evaluated all of Ash’s work and dismissed it. As if he had calculated its ethics, summed up its philosophies, dissected its morality, done whatever those things were that Mark had learned to do while at Oxford. Subjected to that searching analysis, Ash would never win.

“No,” he said roughly. “Don’t you dare look down on me. I haven’t your education. God knows I haven’t your intellect. But I’ll be damned if you look at me as if all my experience means nothing. It may have been instinct instead of intellect that made me understand what I had to do, but don’t you belittle that. My instinct purchased the clothing on your back, the education that lets you sneer at me in such learned precision. My instinct brought me back to Eton when the headmaster was on the verge of tossing you out on your ear. And now, my instinct tells me that you and Smite are desperately unhappy, for all that I’ve tried to remedy it.”

“Ash, I—”

“And now,” Ash said, overriding whatever it is Mark had been about to offer up, “my instinct says that I should pursue Parford. Tell me, Mark. Tell me my instinct is wrong.”

His brother didn’t respond, and the valet stepped away from Ash. Ash turned in place and glanced at his brother, who stood, watching him with a stricken look in his wide eyes.

“Ash,” Mark said finally. “You don’t think—you don’t suppose that I sneer at you, do you? Just because you didn’t attend school with me and Smite? Truly—our differences aside, I’ve never thought you less intelligent. Quite the opposite. You can do everything, without even trying. It’s almost maddening. Had you gone to Oxford and taken your inevitable first beside Smite and me, you would be just as maddening. All I want is for you to explain your reasons. I can’t try to convince you, if you won’t keep yourself open to convincing. Once—just once—can we please talk about something beyond instinct?”

It killed him, that sureness in his brother’s voice. No, Mark didn’t understand.

Mark hadn’t truly sneered at him—but only because he didn’t know. Mark thought he would have excelled at school. It was the most laughable thought ever. Instinct was all he had, all he would ever have.

I can’t read.

In his mind, he’d told his brother a thousand times. Sometimes, he imagined Mark would look on him with pity. Sometimes, he conjured up scorn. But there was one thing Ash could not imagine, no matter how many times he envisioned the scenario. He could not imagine respect.

And so he shook his head and turned away.

THE PLAN THAT MARGARET and Elaine had cobbled together had been quite simple. Margaret could not enter Elaine’s house, on her father’s orders, and so they had made an appointment to walk together in Hyde Park instead.

“Lord Rawlings is holding a select ball, three days hence.” Elaine said, as she and Margaret strolled arm in arm on the banks of the Serpentine.

Th

e weather was unseasonably warm for November in London. The incessant fog had been washed away in a hard rain the night before, and the sun was warm on Margaret’s back. Only a breath of wind, whipping her skirts at the ankles, suggested that winter was almost here.

“I know precisely what you are thinking,” Elaine continued. “Rawlings is Turner’s creature. How could he not be? The man purchased his title, only three years before.” Elaine shook her head mournfully, as if nothing were more horrific than a man who had not been born to his title.

Margaret suppressed a grin. A year ago, she would have shared that horror—the dread that the Crown was so desperate for an influx of money that minor titles were bestowed on someone whose primary worthiness was their willingness to share their wealth.

“The express purpose of the ball is to introduce Mr. Turner to some of the lords who will decide the suit, before Parliament sits. But if Rawlings would offer you an invitation, other doors would certainly be opened to you. Not a great many of them, true, but a few. Enough.”

“And we are actually to meet Lord Rawlings here in Hyde Park? How are we to extract an invitation from him?”

“He and his friends often walk here on fine Saturday afternoons.” Elaine sniffed. “He has been badgering me to attend one of his gatherings for the past year. I may not be the most desirable spinster in town, but I come from an old family. I suppose he thinks I will lend his silly little party some measure of gravitas. He cannot very well invite me without extending you an invitation, as well. And who knows? He is new to the ton. Perhaps he won’t even know who you are.”

“If he is a friend of A— Mr. Turner’s, and furthering his case before Parliament, I don’t see how it is possible that he would be ignorant of my family.”


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