Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 53

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A gasp sounded beside her.

“I should love, however, to introduce you to Lady Elaine.”

Lady Cosgrove gasped louder but recovered quickly. “Mr. Turner,” she said, reaching out for Ash’s cuff. “Do listen to me. I know that you may believe that Lady Margaret has your best interests at heart, as she is some kind of a relation, if only a distant one. But if you intend to be a duke, you must not let yourself be guided so easily, not by one such as her. Take my warning to heart: she’s using you to punish me, because I kept my distance from her these past months. You know that any woman of good sense and decency would have done the same.”

No, Margaret had never been like Lady Cosgrove. For one thing, she had never been so stupid. Ash’s smile grew darker, and he looked at the woman. “I knew the instant Margaret spoke that she intended to use me as a weapon. What you fail to understand is this: I am her weapon to use.”

Margaret’s lungs burned. So much for not occasioning gossip. But she couldn’t fault him. She couldn’t reprimand him. She couldn’t even stop her own smile from spilling out, stupidly, over her face, the truth writ large for anyone to see.

“And I asked her to direct me for that reason.” Ash looked back at Margaret. “I’ll be by to collect my waltz.”

ASH FINALLY HAD HER in his arms again, even if it was for something as innocuous as a waltz. His hand was on her waist; her fingers rested lightly on his shoulder. And even though they were surrounded by dozens of others, at least for the moment he could pretend they were alone.

Even though he’d been able to conjure up Margaret’s image in his mind these past months, the real thing was a thousand times better. He had one of her hands in his. Even through gloves, it was wonderful to hold her. He could smell the scent of roses on her. And when he leaned in, on a gliding turn, he could almost taste the sweetness of her breath.

Memory could not hold a candle to the reality of her. She set him ablaze. Her gaze flickered down demurely, and then she looked up at him, under the curtain of those lashes. Her lips curved, and his heart contracted. And then she spoke, so quietly that he leaned in to better make out her words.

“You mustn’t hold me quite so close,” Margaret said.

Hmph. Hardly a romantic sentiment. In fact, he’d thought that foot of distance between their bodies rather too much as it was.

He whirled her about and smiled at her. “And why must I not?”

“Because everyone is watching, and it’s not proper.”

Truly? He thought they’d discarded such trivial considerations long ago. Ash looked down into her eyes and shook his head. “Must we go through this again? I’m aware it’s not proper. It was highly improper for me to demand that Rawlings issue you an invitation. I’m sure that those who are overly interested in propriety would disapprove of the method I used to ask you to dance. Why should I care now? We can write our own rules.”

She turned her head, and the stones dangling from her ears swayed back and forth. “Actions have consequences.” Her voice was tremulous. “And maybe you don’t see them—maybe you are unaware of them. But just because you do not pay the price, does not mean I can ignore the cost.”

“Cost?” Ash looked over her shoulder at the crowds. “What cost? At the end of the day, we shall triumph.”

“The last time your day ended, Ash, and you triumphed, I was declared a bastard. I was stripped of my dowry by the court of Chancery. When you triumph, my brothers suffer. So don’t talk so cavalierly of what we shall do. There is no we. People will talk.”

“Let them talk,” Ash said dismissively. “What does it matter what they say?”

She let out a faint huff. “They’ll imagine that we fancy one another.”

He felt a smile curl his lip, and he let his hand slip down her waist, to rest against the base of her spine. “Then they’ll imagine the truth, won’t they? I fail to see the problem.”

She looked up at him. “But they’ll use it against my brothers. If popular sentiment has us caught up in romantic trysts, minds will immediately jump to matrimony. Those who wish to see my father’s bloodline continue in the dukedom might accept a continuation through the female line. This could materially harm my brothers’ chances.”

Margaret solemnly looked up at him as she spoke. Ash weighed his next words carefully. He didn’t want to offend her, and yet he could hardly countenance lying. “I still fail to see the problem. You may recall that I oppose your brothers’ suit in Parliament. I am trying to materially harm their prospects.”

She merely looked puzzled.

“Truly, Ash,” she said, “I— You can’t mean what you just said. I know you wouldn’t use my affection for you as a tool to achieve your own ends.”

She sounded so certain. But he’d had two months—two damned empty months—to think of this. To contemplate what he was missing. To imagine what he would say when he saw her again.

“I know you,” she was saying. “You would never use me this way. You wouldn’t.”

“You’ve forgotten. If I’m Duke of Parford, I’ll be able to do anything for my brothers. If I pursue you openly, it raises the chances I’ll become duke. I want you. I want the dukedom. It turns out, my interests coincide and I can have both.” He looked her in the eyes. “I intend to do so.”

She didn’t look away. Instead, her eyes sparked and her lips compressed. “How efficient of you.” Her hand pressed into his shoulder, cutting more deeply than it ought in a polite waltz.

He merely smiled at the epithet. In the months since he’d last seen her, he’d thought far worse things. He hadn’t enjoyed the separation. Particularly as it was altogether unnecessary. He had only managed patience because his instinct had whispered that she would still be his.

He could wait. He could wait a little while longer for her.

“You told me once I was cheerfully ruthless.” He looked down into her eyes. “After two months without you, I’m not feeling quite so bloody cheerful, myself. If it takes ruthlessness, I’ll be ruthless. But yes, Margaret, I will have you.”

She swallowed and looked away. “You told me once I had only to ask. Ash, I’ve made my choice. I’m asking you now: if you care for me at all, don’t make overtures to me. This is tearing me to pieces. Leave me be, because I request it of you.”

He was calm. He was patient. So why did his left hand, holding her, cramp with the effort of not squeezing her to him? He let out a sigh. “Your request is denied,” he replied.

Her breath hissed in.

“I’ll apologize a thousand times, but leave you be? No. If I thought you truly indifferent, I would surely step away. But you are not indifferent. You are not even unwilling. You are just—temporarily—unavailable. And I’l

l be damned if I give you up.”

“Don’t.” She looked away. “Don’t do this to me. Not when I can’t stamp away without occasioning even more talk. What you’re doing—it’s not sporting. I have never used anything you told me as fodder for my brothers’ suit in Parliament. Not even when I thought that all you wanted was to seduce me into your bed.” She looked up at him. “I could have used you, Ash. I could have. So don’t you do this to me.”

Ash bit his lip. It turned out he was just not a well of patience. He’d won her affections. After two months spent without her—after two months when she’d walked away from him—he was actually a little angry.

“Tell me,” he said as he spun her about, “tell me I am not the best thing that has ever happened to you. Tell me you don’t wish to have me in your life. Tell me I don’t belong.”

She didn’t look at him. But she was silent. He felt an almost grim satisfaction, even though winning an argument under those circumstances was all victory, no triumph.

Still, as the musicians brought the piece to a close, he leaned in and whispered into her ear. “That is what I thought, Margaret. Don’t you do this to yourself.”

THE SILENCE IN THE CARRIAGE after the ball was almost unbearable. Margaret sat, the dark enfolding her, silently glad that she could not see her brothers’ faces.

“The good news,” Richard said, “is that we have been positively inundated with invitations.”

Margaret bit her lip.

Edmund responded. “The bad news is, it is because everyone wishes to see you and Turner again. Margaret, what could you have been thinking? Talking with him. Introducing him to your friends. Dancing with him.”

“What was I supposed to do? It would have been dreadfully impolite to refuse. It would have created a scene.”

“And it wasn’t a spectacle when he practically kissed you in front of everyone?” Edmund snapped. “At a minimum, you ought not to have appeared so eager to comply. Everyone is talking—absolutely everyone. Have you any idea what could happen if the gossips start marrying you to Ash Turner in their minds?”

Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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