Richard came to stand near her. “He told them to support my suit, on condition that you be included in the bid for legitimacy.”
Those words returned her to earth swiftly, painfully. Her ears rang. Her knees threatened to wobble, and she locked them, grabbing hold of one of the oak posters on her father’s bed.
“What do you mean, on condition that I be included in the suit? I thought I was included.”
Richard picked up her father’s signet ring from where it lay on the table. Idly, he turned it about, and the sword carved in the stone reflected afternoon light at Margaret. As Ash had done long ago, he tried to slip the band around his finger.
It didn’t fit him either, and he set it once more on the table. Finally, he looked up. It wasn’t victory she saw in his eyes. It was something deeper, and just a little more shameful. “No,” he said softly. “I had you taken out of the bill to win Forsyth over.”
He couldn’t be saying this. It couldn’t be true. Margaret’s hands clenched. “Tell me it was Edmund’s idea.” It had to have been—Edmund was a little more hasty, a little less thoughtful. Only Edmund would have—
“No, Margaret.” Richard shook his head slowly. “It was mine. I knew when I suggested it that if I did, I would regret it the rest of my days. I just supposed that I would rather regret being a duke than regret being a bastard. I didn’t expect Turner to give it all up,” he added bitterly. “Just like that. And then what do you suppose that idiot did?”
She shook her head. Anything was possible—anything other than Ash giving up his claim on the duchy of Parford.
“He pulled me aside and ordered me to take care of you. As if I would do any differently.”
Margaret simply looked back at him. “No, Richard. I think you’ve demonstrated precisely how well you would look after me.”
He looked away, and it was as if that set her emotions free at last. Pain came first, scalding hot. And then the realization of what Richard had done really hit her. He’d been about to make her a bastard again. Her loyalty had meant everything to her. She’d been determined to prove that she wouldn’t betray her brothers the way her father had betrayed them all.
It seemed she had been the only one.
Richard heaved a great sigh. “And now, after what he’s done, I’m beholden to that impossible ass. For the rest of my life. It doesn’t sit well with me.”
Her own brother had just told Margaret that he’d tried to barter her place in society for his dukedom, and his primary concern was that because he’d failed to do so, he found himself in Ash’s debt?
And then there was Ash. Margaret swallowed hard. He’d given it up. He’d given it all up—for her. And she knew, more than anyone else, what the dukedom had meant to him. It meant his brothers. His security. His certainty.
From behind him, her father stirred. Richard shook his head. “Well,” he said. “I should let you get back to…get back to looking after him. Margaret, for what it is worth…I am sorry. The lords will be discussing the matter at Saxton House all the rest of the afternoon, and it makes me ill to think matters could have gone as I’d intended. To be honest, I think if Turner hadn’t acted as he had, they would all have spoken against me, and I’d have lost it all for nothing. It was that close.” He shook his head. “They’re still deliberating, but they’ll come round to me.” He spoke more as if he were still trying to convince himself than to convey information to Margaret.
“And if you had it to do over again, what would you tell them?” Margaret asked.
He looked at her and then shook his head ruefully. “Precisely what I did before,” he said. “Some things cannot be changed.”
Margaret shut her eyes. Richard was gentle. Richard had been quite kind to her in the past. But every time he’d had to choose between his own skin and Margaret’s well-being—it had been Margaret he had sacrificed. He hadn’t given his loyalty to Margaret, the way Margaret had delivered hers to him.
Behind them, her father stirred. In the months since his apoplectic fit, he’d improved. Which was to say, that tiny hint of vulnerability that she’d seen in him that long-ago night had disappeared, replaced by this irascibility.
“There you are,” her father said, meeting Richard’s eyes. “And how did the meeting go? Do I have a man for a son?”
Richard’s gaze slid to Margaret and then back to his father. “You do,” he said quietly. “I’ll inherit everything.”
Margaret waited for her father to come up with some cutting rejoinder, some harsh remark. But instead, her father’s gaze rested on Richard. “That’s good,” he said. And then, more softly: “That’s my boy.”
Margaret’s vision swam in front of her. Her brother stood, paused before her, his hand raised in benediction. He wiped at his eyes suspiciously and then he shook his head and turned away. “Yes,” he said quietly, standing at the door. “I suppose I am.”
The door closed behind him.
“What, Anna? You’re not sulking, are you?”
Loyalty was a curious thing, Margaret realized. She’d placed it in the care of someone who did not return the favor. She stood up and set her towel in front of her. As she did, her gaze fell on her father’s signet. The heavy, carved sapphire twinkled up at her.
She reached for it. The gold was warm in her hands, heavy. Not so heavy as it had once been; the band had been resized for an invalid’s hand.
Or perhaps a woman’s.
It slid neatly over her knuckle, clasping her finger. The sword in the sapphire winked up at her.
I think if they could find a way to disinherit me, after the trick I played… Somewhere out there, Lord Lacy-Follett and his companions were still discussing the matter. With no intervention, they would settle on supporting Richard.
Perhaps they could still find a way not to do so.
“What are you doing?” her father asked.
“Putting on your ring.” It felt well there. Right. Warm.
“Richard’s ring,” her father corrected. “We’ll have to get it adjusted to fit him.”
She had never wanted to be like her father, betraying her family. But from here on out, she was going to have faith in someone who deserved it. The man who had stood by her, who had never hurt her. Who had told her, from the very first, that she mattered, and demonstrated it by his choices.
“Richard is my son now,” her father was saying.
Margaret leaned over him. “No,” she said, her voice harsh. “No, he is not.”
“He will be, when—”
“By your definition, I am the only son you will ever have.”
He blinked at her. “I beg your pardon?”
She hadn’t known she was going to say it, but the words seemed right coming out of her mouth. “I am going to Saxton House to present my case. I am going to marry Ash Turner. If what Richard said is correct, the lords there are looking for any reason to abandon him. A continuation through the female line is not traditional, but the excuse will suffice. So understand this: I will choose the next Duk
e of Parford. I will inherit the estate. I will have the entailed property.” Margaret’s hand clenched into a fist.
“I can’t believe I am hearing this.” Her father stared up at her in dim incomprehension. “What would your mother say, if she could see you now?”
What would her mother say?
Her mother had carefully tended the estate, training servants, choosing decorations, caring for the gardens. She’d built a home to pass on to her children. It had killed her to believe that Parford Manor would go to a stranger. But then, with Margaret married to Ash…it wouldn’t.
Margaret’s hands balled into fists. “I believe,” she said softly, “that if she could speak at this moment—if she knew that I would inherit her house—I believe that she would be cheering.”
Her father stared at her in stupefaction. She had waited all this time for some sign that the man she remembered was still inside her father. But maybe that part of him had vanished, along with his strength and ability to stand. Maybe he’d lost the piece of himself that cared for her. Maybe she would never see it again—at least not now.
Margaret leaned forwards to kiss him on the forehead. “Someday,” she said quietly, “when you truly understand everything that’s happened, you’ll be cheering, too.”
And then, still wearing the ring, she turned and walked from the room.
HOME. IT SEEMED A STRANGE place for Ash to return to, after everything that had transpired that afternoon. After he’d left Saxton House earlier, he’d not wanted to return here. But when he stepped inside, Mark was waiting for him in the entry. Ash had felt so bruised, he’d not wanted to believe that time would continue to pass.
But Mark smiled at him, all light and innocence. Ash felt a last bitter tinge. Seeing his brother only drove home how much he had really lost.
“You would be proud,” he finally said. “I realized that I didn’t have to do any of this. I didn’t.”