She’d held a piece of meat to Richard’s blackened eye as he spoke to her. And right now, she could see the faint echo of a bruise on Ash’s jaw, a discoloration of skin under stubble. She wanted the people she loved to stop hurting one another. She’d thought of nothing but this impossible tangle all night long.
“Oh, Ash.” Her fingers ran along his face, and she wished she could make him well once more. “I do want to marry you.”
“Now that is an easy request to grant.” His lips touched her forehead. “Do you wish a large wedding or a small one? Shall we hold it soon?” He kissed her nose. “Or sooner?”
“You’re speaking with Lord Lacy-Follett tomorrow.”
He froze, pulled away from her an inch. “Yes. And you’ve realized that after that decision is made, there’s no reason to hold back any longer. Either Dalrymple will prevail or…” He drew out the pause, and she could feel his lips curve into a warm smile against her cheek. “Or,” he continued, “he won’t. Either way, it won’t matter.”
Margaret drew a deep breath for courage. “But it could matter.”
“You want to help me defeat your brothers?”
“No. I want you to step down.”
His arms remained about her, but he drew away to look her in the eyes. His jaw locked. His nostrils flared.
“You don’t need to be duke,” she continued in a rush. “You’re wealthy. More than that—when you walk in a room, people turn to look at you. You have this…this palpable presence. Even just as plain Mr. Turner, people would listen to you. Look at you.”
He didn’t move, didn’t say anything.
“But my brothers—Ash, they don’t have any of that. They’ll get a few thousand pounds. Without a family name behind them, without titles behind them, they’ll be nothing but bastards, with no place in society.”
Still he did not respond, except to lower his hands from her waist.
“Please,” she begged. “My father—when I found out that he was a bigamist, that I was a bastard, it almost undid me. You’ve told me all this time that I can accomplish things. That I mean something. Let me prove this to them.”
Ash let out a sigh. “And here I’d hoped you would ask for a new carriage. No. I know. This is hardly the time for levity. But Margaret, my dear, if this were about mere revenge, I’d give it up for you. But it isn’t. I have these…these feelings. These instincts. And I simply know that if I’m Parford, I’ll finally be able to make matters come right for my brothers. I can’t abandon them. Not again.”
“Abandon them! You’re talking about abandoning them to a life of wealth and advantage.”
He shook his head. “You’ve met them. They’re trapped. Have been in some inescapable way ever since I found them on the streets all those years ago. I can’t put it right without this.”
“You don’t know that,” Margaret began.
“But I do. I do.”
“I can.” His voice grew harsh. “I must.”
“And what if you’re wrong? What if you ruin my brothers’ future, what if you tear me in two with worrying, and you are wrong? Have you never thought of that?”
His eyes glittered, and his hands drew into fists. But he did not move towards her again. “If I am wrong,” he said quietly, “then I truly have nothing to offer my brothers. No intelligence. No advantage. I certainly lack their wit. If I am wrong—if my instinct is all imagination—then I am nothing but an illiterate ignoramus. Believe me. I think of that all the time.”
“You’re—you’re a great deal more, Ash.” But so much of who he was was bound up in that confidence he had, that unshakable certainty. She’d seen him uncertain and vulnerable a few times. She couldn’t imagine him that way all the time.
He passed his hand over his face. “Marry me anyway, Margaret. Marry me not for your brothers, but simply because you love me. And I love you.”
She hadn’t realized how she wanted to hear those words until he said them. For one blissful second, everything else fell away—her endless obligations, her needs, her brothers. The thrill lasted longer than it should have, an electric tingle that coursed through her. But looking into his eyes was a window to a different sort of reality.
“You don’t love me,” she said slowly. “You’ve looked at me the same way from the instant we met.”
His grip tightened on her waist. He leaned into her on a hiss. “Don’t tell me I don’t love you. Don’t you dare tell me that, Margaret. I have loved you since the moment you read my brother’s book to me. I love that you are the one woman I can trust with my weakness, that you know all the dark parts of me and do not turn away. I love the fierceness with which you protect the ones you love, even when they don’t deserve it. I love every last inch of you, and I want you for my own.” His words were hot, fiercely possessive, and yet he leaned his forehead against hers gently. “Although God knows, I don’t deserve you.”
She felt almost dizzy under this onslaught. Still, there was one truth she could not relinquish. “You love your brothers, and so you stole them a dukedom. When Mark needed you at Eton, you were there before he could even speak the words. But you are destroying my family, destroying my life, and you ask me to simply accept it.”
His hands tightened around hers, but she did not stop.
“On any other man, I could believe this casual selfishness could be equated with love. But, Ash, I know what love looks like on you. It doesn’t look like this.”
“And how should you know what love looks like?” he demanded. He slipped a finger under the chain around her neck and pulled her locket from between her breasts. “Is it Richard in here? Or Edmund? Your father? Which unworthy man do you carry next to your heart, never to be supplanted in your affections no matter how poor-spirited he proves himself to be?”
“That’s not it. It’s not about choosing my brothers over you.”
Her hand closed about the chain, but he held her locket firmly. With his other hand, he flicked open the catch. His breath stopped.
“My mother.” Margaret’s voice caught. “Gentle. Loving. Patient. Clever and funny, when my father wasn’t around. She taught me everything. And she died when you revealed she was an adulteress.”
He let go, and the heavy locket swung back to strike Margaret in the chest.
“Every time I look at you,” she said, “I see an echo of her. Looking at you is both bitter and sweet, painful and so wonderful at the same time. It was my mother’s dearest wish that her son would have her house—that her labor of love would pass on to her children. I thought that if I found a way to make her dream come true, that I might find some peace. This isn’t about choosing my brothers over you. It is about trying to find a way to look at you without feeling any of that pain any longer.”
“Oh,” he said lamely. “Margaret.”
“I didn’t come here to beg you to give up the dukedom simply because I wished to hand you an ultimatum. I came because no matter how much I love you—and I do love you, Ash—I simply could not bear knowing that I married the man who destroyed my mother’s dreams. I don’t know how I could look at myself again if I did.”
“Oh. Margaret.” He did come forwards then, did take her in his arms. And he leaned forwards, just enough to press his lips against her forehead one last time.
“God,” he said. “I can’t give my brothers up. I can’t.”
“I know,” she said softly. “Neither can I.”
Her words fell between them—so quiet, and yet so suffo
cating. There was nothing further to say, no way around this impasse. He held her. But when she gently removed his hands from her waist, he didn’t stop her. When she turned and left him, he did not follow after.
Now, with everything said, even Ash could no longer come up with a reason to pursue her.
THE AFTERNOON SEEMED almost unreal to Ash. The pale light of a clammy autumn day cast ghosts of shadows across the carpet of Lord Lacy-Follett’s receiving room. Ash stood shoulder to shoulder with Richard Dalrymple.
An outside observer might have thought them joined in a common purpose. Dalrymple’s jaw was set, his shoulders drawn rigidly together. If the aching clench of Ash’s own muscles was any indication, he looked about as comfortable.
But despite that apparent solidarity, the only solid feeling between them was a mutual desire to defeat each other—at any price. Even, Ash thought, the cost that he could never forget: the sight of Margaret leaving him, and he left with nothing to offer that would make it better. He’d lain awake all night, twisting and turning, trying to upend everything Margaret had said. But she seemed impossible. Distant.
The nine lords Lacy-Follett had assembled sat in high-backed chairs, arranged in a half moon. Only a thin table separated Ash from them.
“Gentlemen.” Lord Lacy-Follett spoke from his seat at the very center. “There must be some sort of amicable agreement that we can come to.”
Ash glanced over at Richard Dalrymple. With Margaret gone, all hope of amity had fled. Dalrymple’s hands were clenched around a fat sheaf of papers, which he’d rolled up. His lips were pursed; his eye had purpled. And for the first time, Ash noticed a similarity between his profile and Margaret’s—a curve of the lips, a jut of the chin. He’d tried not to think what it meant, that Dalrymple was her brother. He’d tried to separate it out. It was damned unnerving.
“My lords,” Dalrymple spoke with a palpable unease. He cast a tight look at Ash, and then snapped his gaze forwards to concentrate on the nine men in front of him. “If I can convince but one of you to support my suit, I’ll have all the support I need to pass the Act of Legitimation through Parliament. And I am wagering that I can convince one of you to support me.”