“It was a waltz, not a wedding!”
Edmund sighed. “It’s never just a waltz, Margaret. Matters are already touch and go, even without this latest complication. For one, we had thought Forsyth would support our suit.”
The current Lord Forsyth was their mother’s brother. He’d always seemed an indulgent, loving uncle. Indeed, he had doted on his sister, and by extension, his sister’s offspring. He was the last person Margaret could imagine supporting Ash Turner.
“But no,” Edmund continued. “He’s furious at Father for what he did, and he’s all too aware that with the marriage between Mother and Father dissolved as if it had never happened, the sixty thousand pounds that had been set aside for Mama’s lawful female offspring reverts to him. He has convinced a group of five others to vote down the bill. Your sixty thousand pounds means that we need every last one of the undecided votes. We can’t have you squandering a single one out of misguided romanticism.”
“Edmund,” Richard said gently, “she can’t be held to account for the money, at least.”
Margaret shook her head, but in the dark, nobody could see her denial. She shut her eyes, but it didn’t help. Darkness was darkness, and there was no guidance either way. “I don’t want to choose between you and Ash.”
Edmund made an exasperated noise. “Don’t be a naive little goose, Margaret. This is not about what you want. Everyone is choosing between us. That’s what this act in Parliament is about—it’s about the lords choosing either Turner or Richard. And this, now, is about choosing your future. Do you want to be a bastard all your life? Do you want to be ostracized from society for the remainder of your years? Choose out of selfishness, for God’s sake. You know that until you’ve been legitimized, unthinking people will forever be giving you the cut.”
Lady Cosgrove sprang to mind. “Small hardship,” Margaret said with asperity. “If unthinking people won’t talk with me, then I shall make friends with people who think. Which, oddly enough, seems like a good idea to begin with.”
“La-di-da,” Edmund said, his tone reminding her of their father. “Would you listen to that show of logic? If you won’t think of yourself, then think of us.”
Richard sat next to her. At those words, he reached over and gave her hand a squeeze. “He doesn’t mean it,” he whispered. “He is only so rude because he is so very, very worried.”
If it had just been Edmund, she might have been tempted to give in to Ash. Even though he was her brother. Even though she loved him. Even though she knew she would regret such a hasty dismissal later.
But Richard… He didn’t always think about what he did, but when he actually took notice, he stood by her. He had never deserted her. And if she ruined this for him, he would be a bastard. He would have a little money—a few thousand pounds, enough to scrape by, but by no means what he deserved. And while Ash had once offered her father more, she was not sure the offer was still open—or that Richard would accept it if it were made.
But both Ash and Edmund had urged her to think of herself. When she thought of herself, it wasn’t legitimacy or money that came to mind. It wasn’t even Ash himself. It was, instead, the gift that Ash had given her back at Parford Manor: the solid, sure certainty that she was someone worth having. That she was better than her father.
If she did to her brothers what their father had done to them, she could not be so certain any longer. Family didn’t betray family.
She swallowed and shut her eyes. Edmund was right. It was foolish to imagine that she could avoid a choice. “What must I do?” she asked weakly. But she already knew the answer.
“People are talking already. You need to give them something substantially less romantic to discuss. We’ve been invited to the Rutledges’ rout,” Edmund said. “Turner will be there. And the instant he sets eyes on you, you are to give him the cut direct.”
MARGARET ENTERED THE Rutledges’ town house filled with dread. She’d had days to consider what she needed to do. She just didn’t want to do it.
She could feel all of society’s eyes on her, could feel the lascivious interest that rose around them. She was swept away by a flood of colored evening gowns and dark suits. All she had to do was turn away from Ash when she saw him and pointedly show her lack of interest.
So simple—and yet so impossible.
She hadn’t realized quite how impossible it was until she finally saw him in the crowd. He caught sight of her. And all of her worst fears came true as he looked up at her and gently, oh, so gently, smiled. He smiled when he saw her. That should not have felt like such a death knell. But it made what she had to do so much more of a betrayal—a betrayal of not just her own desires, not merely his inclinations, but of something precious between them.
She didn’t smile back. She looked away. Those two things sent a rush of murmurs through the watching crowd—as if she had just been merely impolite, instead of utterly false. But not looking at Ash was as impossible as not inhaling. No matter how hard she tried to hold back her next breath, the best she could hope was to delay it for a while. All the while, her lungs burned. She ached all over. And Ash…
Oh, Ash. Through the corner of her eye, she could see him advancing on her.
Of course. Her brothers’ plan was sheer idiocy, and she should have known it. Strict rules of propriety governed the interactions between men and women. There were books devoted to the art of turning away men one didn’t wish to address. A complicated dance that everyone adhered to. But Ash had never read those books.
Trying not to love him was improbable. Keeping him from loving her? Now that was downright impossible. Why, oh, why, of all the men in the world, did Ash have to be this one? He was trying to destroy her brothers. He’d broken her heart twice over and had mended it again, better than new.
He was only a few yards away from her now. “Lady Margaret?” There was a calm, cool confidence in his voice. He knew she would turn. He knew she would look at him. He had no doubts. He never did.
And he would never stop trying, just because she looked in another direction.
There was only one way Margaret could respond. She turned and ran.
A crescendo of babble rose about her in full-voiced speculation as she darted through the crowd. She ducked through a side door, almost invisible in the ornate carving of the ballroom. She found herself in the servants’ quarters. As soon as she went through the door, she knew it wasn’t enough. He would follow her. He would find her here. She couldn’t face him, couldn’t talk to him.
She grabbed a nearby door handle and wrenched it open. A tiny storeroom stood behind the door, little more than a closet where the household kept decorations and table linens. She stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind her.
Darkness enveloped her. Darkness and blessed silence.
Only then did she put her head in her hands. Rubbing her eyes did nothing to obliterate his image in her mind. She could still feel his smile against her skin, as if it were a tangible thing. That wicked, horrible, inescapable smile. Oh, who was she fooling? That lovely, insane, undeniably attractive smile. Pulling her arms about herself could not erase the feel of his hands, big and strong, on her shoulders.
She felt both utterly humiliated and sick at what she had done to him.
How long was she going to have to stay in this darkened storeroom? Long enough for the gossip to die down. Minutes, certainly. Hours, perhaps. She rubbed her temples. She should have just jumped in a fountain and had done with it.
Half an hour later, the humiliation hadn’t subsided. Instead, her legs were cramped; there was not even enough room to sit, not with all her skirts. She had just about convinced herself she could safely show her face, when a polite knock sounded on the door. It was so ridiculously incongruous—that knock, on a storeroom. It could be only one person.
She shut her eyes and waited, but of course Ash didn’t go away. Instead, he knocked again.
“Margaret,” he said gently.
And then, even more quietly: “Please. I know you’d like me to keep my distance—but I don’t believe it’s possible.”
She opened the door. He slouched against the doorjamb. His cravat was crooked. She wanted to bury her head against his chest and hold him close. She wanted to run away again. She’d have done the latter, except he was standing in her way.
“Ash, are you trying to destroy my reputation? If we’re seen together alone, it won’t be marriage they’ll imagine we’re after. And the gossip would not help either of us—not you, for using me so, nor my brothers, for their scandal of a sister.”
He nodded gravely. “You make an important point,” he said. “I must respect your wishes.” But instead of leaving, he stepped into the close confines of the room with her, pulling the door shut behind him. Her skirts squished against him.
Oh, God. She could feel the heat wafting off him. He couldn’t have kept his distance, not in the tiny space allotted for storage. His limbs brushed hers. His hands covered hers in the dark.
“Forgive me for my social ineptitude. What are the rules of etiquette,” he asked conversationally, “for conversations in a closet?”
“One ought never have them.”
He nodded once. “Sensible enough. I agree.”
He stepped closer to her. His eyes, rendered mahogany by the dimness, sought hers.
“You agree? Then why aren’t you leaving?”
“Hush,” he said. “You just told me: closets are not for conversing.”
He put his hands on her shoulders. He lifted one hand and brushed a wisp of hair from her face. She could barely see him, but in the close confines of the closet, she could feel her skirts bunch as he leaned into her. She had every chance to move away, every chance to shove him six inches and have him land atop the pile of rags on the floor.
She didn’t do it.
When his lips touched hers, they were soft and sweet. When his arms wrapped around her, she rested against him. She drank him in, like water after a long thirst. He didn’t say a word, just kissed her. Tongue touched tongue. Hands entwined with hands. His body was so familiar, and she needed him, desperately. He pulled back from her briefly.
“Ash.” Margaret knew her voice was trembling. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because I adore you. Because you looked so stricken when I saw you and I couldn’t bear not to comfort you.” His voice was warm breath against her skin. “Did you know, when you left that room, you took all the light with you?”
“Stop,” she said. “Stop trying to seduce me.”