Elaine dismissed this unassailable logic with a shrug.
“Do be careful, Elaine. If word gets out that you’re championing me, you could be ostracized. I don’t want you hurt on my behalf.”
Elaine gave her an amused look. Then she laughed—entirely indelicately. “Margaret,” she said, “I am invited everywhere and wanted nowhere. I could hardly lose anything of value. I’m not delicate. I’m not wealthy. I am just from a very, very good family.”
Margaret bit her lip. It was one thing to know that others thought of Elaine that way. It was another to hear her laugh herself off, with so little thought. “You are also loyal and kind, and more clever than you credit. You are important in your own right.”
Elaine looked at her. “What a very curious thing for you to say.”
Yes. She’d changed. Before, Margaret had been a quiet, pitiful creature—passive, waiting for her life to come to her. But then all the trappings of politeness had been swept away. And she’d discovered she wasn’t empty inside. She was magnificent. Even if nobody yet recognized it.
She inhaled and threw her head back. The pale sun touched her face; the wind caught at the ribbons on her bonnet and they flapped noisily.
But at that moment, Elaine reached over and grasped her wrist. “Margaret! Is that him?”
“Who? Lord Rawlings? You know perfectly well what Lord Rawlings looks— Oh.”
Margaret followed Elaine’s gaze, and her heart stopped. Two long months without seeing Ash suddenly disappeared.
Her hands actually fluttered, as if she were a debutante seeing her first duke. Her stomach trembled. Nothing had changed between them—nothing except that she’d learned precisely what it meant to wake up day after day without him near.
The space he’d once filled seemed an empty chasm. But seeing him didn’t fill her cavernous yearning. It deepened it.
“Yes,” she said softly. “That’s him.”
He was walking along the path in conversation with Lord Rawlings. He was dressed in black, his attire relieved from sobriety by a velvet waistcoat shot through with gold. It glittered in the sun. On another man, those colors might have seemed garish. On Ash, they illuminated. His hands were clasped behind his back; he walked slowly, as if he were marching to a funeral dirge. He looked vaguely weary.
“Oh.” Elaine let the word escape in a wistful puff of air. “A shame he won’t inherit the dukedom. He’s rather a fine-looking man, isn’t he?”
“Rather.” He was wearing a top hat, trimmed with a ribbon to match his waistcoat.
“He’d almost be worth it without the dukedom. With those shoulders.”
Margaret smiled ruefully. Coming from snobbish Elaine, that was the highest of compliments.
“Of course,” Elaine added loyally, “I should never do such a thing to you. I could never marry such a man.”
As if aware that he was the focus of their conversation, Ash looked up. He saw Margaret across the way. For one moment, he froze, just as she had. Then, he raised one hand, touching the brim of his hat in silent acknowledgement.
Elaine’s grip on Margaret’s wrist tightened. “He’s looking at us, Margaret. Oh, dear. What are we going to do?”
Maybe he’d forgotten her. Maybe he’d already discarded his vow to have her again.
Maybe Elaine’s anxiety had infected her with foolish doubts that meant nothing to her. She watched him across the lawn. He looked at her, as if waiting for her to make some move towards him.
If she simply picked up her skirts and ran, he would catch her.
But she’d made her choice, and no matter how it ate at her, she had to abide by it. But…doing nothing seemed too bare, too unkind. Not after everything he meant to her.
Margaret reached up and unlaced the ribbon holding her straw bonnet in place. She needed only tip her chin up to feel the sunlight against her lips—a warm kiss, laden with a mere hint of chill. Rare weather, for November. Then the wind did the rest—grabbing the straw brim and pulling it off, to go skirling away behind her.
Margaret smiled. It was a small act of defiance.
“Oh, Margaret!” Elaine said. “Your bonnet. And with that dreadful Mr. Turner looking on, too. Whatever are we to do?” She glanced behind her. “Must we chase after it?”
“We’ll let it go.” Margaret spoke, not even looking at her friend. Instead, she met Ash’s eyes across all that distance. She could not make out their color, their expression. But she could not possibly have imagined the smile that spread across his face. He turned to her and started forwards across the lawn, his long legs eating up the distance between them. Lord Rawlings scampered after him.
Elaine turned from contemplation of the absconding bonnet. “Margaret, he’s coming over here. My God. Must we cut him for your brothers’ sake?”
“No,” said Margaret, simply, and Elaine let out a sigh of relief.
He came to a stop before her. Rawlings trailed after him uselessly, and glanced at Margaret, uncertain of the etiquette of such a situation. Nobody knew. Everyone likely imagined that they hated each other. Rawlings shrugged, as if to say, I had nothing to do with this. Don’t blame me.
“Lord Rawlings.” Ash spoke the words, but his eyes were on Margaret, warm and filled with greeting.
“Your party Thursday next.”
Rawlings swallowed and glanced at Margaret. He didn’t quite meet Margaret’s eyes; his gaze rose only as far as her breastbone and then slid away to contemplate a group of ducks. “There will be no…no unpleasantness, I assure you. None. You’ll have nothing to fear.” Rawlings looked away.
Ash raised his chin. “Invite her.”
That brought Rawlings’s head whipping around. “But you must know this is Margaret Dalrymple. Miss Margaret Dalrymple. If I invite her—”
“Invite Lady Margaret, and her brothers, too, if you must, to make it proper.”
“But the purpose of the event—”
Ash held up one hand and flicked Margaret a glance. “Shall I fetch your hat for you, my lady?”
Margaret turned to track the course of her tumbling mass of straw. It bounced once on the ground, rolling. Then the wind lifted it again, and it sailed another few yards, landing in a pond beh
ind her; to get it, Ash would have to tramp through a selection of weeds and mud. Ducks charted courses around the dangerous profusion of silk flowers about the brim. She hadn’t turned towards her bonnet, so much as turned Ashwards. She had ended up standing rather closer to him than she intended.
If she asked him to get it, he’d have to shed coat and boots. He would get that linen shirt all wet. She let out a sigh of heartfelt appreciation at the thought, and then, just as he was reaching for the cuffs of his jacket, shook her head sadly. “No, Mr. Turner. Alas. I find I like the feel of the wind through my hair.”
The corners of Ash’s mouth turned up just the same.
“Invite her,” he repeated.
Rawlings glanced from one to the other. “I see,” he said, his tone puzzled. Ash touched the brim of his own hat and then the gentlemen walked on.
Beside her, Elaine stood stock-still. In her world, there were not so many possibilities. Gentlemen either ignored one, or…
“Margaret.” She let the syllables of the name out carefully, as if she were unsure of the damage they could do. “Is—is Mr. Turner enamored of you?”
No matter how Margaret answered, this story would be bruited about town. And so she settled on the simple truth. “Yes. I rather think he is.”
“Well. That’s a bit of a…complication. Isn’t it?”
Margaret sighed. “No doubt.”
AS MARGARET HAD SUSPECTED, by the time she was announced at the Rawlings’ ball, the story of the encounter in Hyde Park had made the rounds twice over, embellished at every turn. Polite society had not only been informed that the Dalrymples would be arriving en masse, but that Ash Turner, the man who’d had them bastardized, had taken one look at Margaret in the park and had ordered Rawlings to invite them. The stories Elaine related had Ash kissing her hand—this was the most forward—or gazing bashfully at her in love-struck wonder. Those who believed the latter, Margaret thought, had clearly never met Ash.
As she entered the ballroom on Richard’s arm, everyone’s gaze followed her. The murmurs of speculation grew to a tumultuous buzz around her.