“The news has traveled even to me,” Mark said. A cryptic description, but Mark seemed unfazed by the loss of the dukedom.
Ash looked at him. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I know you didn’t care about any of this for yourself. But—I just had this notion, see. I knew, somehow, that if I were the Duke of Parford, someday I’d have made things different for you. I didn’t want to give up on that. But then…”
“I’ve always managed to take care of myself,” Mark said dryly. “Today should prove no exception. You know I would never be angry at you for doing the right thing.”
“I’ve abandoned you enough.”
“Abandoned me?” Mark’s hand was curled about itself, and he turned to Ash with a quizzical expression on his face. “When have you ever abandoned me?”
“There was the time I went to India.”
“Which you did in order to make enough funds for the family to survive. I can hardly begrudge you that.”
“And there was that time at Eton. You’d told me that Edmund Dalrymple had begun to single you out. That he was pushing you around. And you begged me to take you home.”
“I recall. You read me quite the lecture—told me, in fact, that I had to stay there.”
“Two weeks later, I returned to find you battered and bruised, your face bloodied, your eyes blacked and your fingers broken. And all I could think was that I had done that to you. I’d abandoned you, for no reason other than my personal pique and vanity, and you paid the price.”
“Vanity?” Mark shook his head. “I thought that was one of your ridiculous instincts, Ash. Horrible to hear about. Impossible to argue with. And as usual, entirely right.”
Ash felt his throat go dry. “That wasn’t instinct.”
Mark raised one eyebrow. “Really? Nonetheless, it was still the right thing for you to tell me.”
Ash had to say it. He had to tell him, before his nerve gave out and he let another decade slip by. “That,” Ash said quietly, “was fear. You had to go to school. I didn’t want you to turn out like me.”
“Oh,” Mark said with a roll of his eyes, “I see. Because you’re so unimpressive a specimen.”
Ash took a deep breath. “No. Because I’m illiterate.”
“Well, you don’t even appreciate Shakespeare, and that does rather speak against you.” Mark shook his head and reached for Ash’s hand. “Here. I have something—”
Ash pulled his fingers away. “I meant that in the most literal of senses. I can’t read. Words don’t make sense to me. They never have.”
Mark fell silent. He looked at Ash as if his world had been turned on his head. He frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“I can’t read. I can’t write. Margaret read your book aloud to me.”
“But your letters.” Mark leaned heavily against the wall. “You—you sent me letters. You wrote on them. I know you did.” He paused, and then said in a smaller voice, “Didn’t you?”
“There are a few phrases I’ve committed to memory. I wrote them over and over, hour after hour, until the words came out in the right order. Until they said what I intended, without my having to look at what I wrote. There were some things I needed to be able to tell you, when you were away.”
“Your postscripts always said the same thing,” Mark said. “‘With much—’” he broke off.
“‘With much love,’” Ash finished hoarsely. “With more than I could possibly write.”
Mark passed his hand briefly over his face. When he looked up at Ash, he lifted his chin.
“Nobody knows,” Ash warned him. “If anyone were to find out, it would—it would—”
“You protected me.” Mark’s voice was uneven. “All these years, you protected me. From Mother. From the Dalrymples. From my own wish to go build a cocoon and stay there. Do you think I don’t know that?”
“Do you truly think that after all this time, after everything you have done for me, that I would not protect you?”
He’d been the elder brother for so long, had been carrying that burden for all these years. It wasn’t just recent events that had fatigued him. But with that light shining in Mark’s eyes, suddenly the future seemed manageable. Ash had been exhausted before; now, he felt refreshed.
“And next time you need someone to read to you, if— But, oh. You distracted me. Here. I’m supposed to give you this.”
“Give me what?”
In answer, Mark held out his fist and unfurled his fingers. Cradled in the palm of his hand was a black key—its bow a curlicue of iron, crossed by a sword. A master key. The master key to Parford Manor.
Mark smiled knowingly at him. “Margaret brought this by.”
Ash felt a dizzying flush. She’d been by? His heart rose. But then—she hadn’t stayed to see him. His stomach sank. And she was returning his gift—not good.
But what use would she imagine he would have for the master key to Parford Manor, with her brother lord there? His emotions warred between elation and despair. “What do I do?” he asked Mark. “No—never mind. I already know. I have to see her.” He was halfway to the door before Mark’s voice arrested him.
“Ash, you cannot call on a lady looking like that.”
Ash looked down. His trousers were spattered with mud he’d collected over the course of his perambulations. He’d discarded his cravat hours ago. “I can’t?”
“Even you cannot.” Mark’s eyes glinted with humor. “I am protecting you, recall.”
A few minutes’ delay. Ash juggled that with the prospect of looking civilized for her. He supposed the time wouldn’t matter anywhere except in his own racing heart.
“Damn,” he swore, and he raced up to his room.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he heard Mark calling from behind him. He ignored that.
He didn’t bother ringing for his valet—the man was too fastidious, and the toilette he would insist on putting Ash through too time-consuming. Instead, Ash shrugged off his sodden coat and tugged at the sleeves of his linen shirt, eager to remove it.
And that was when he heard a gentle, feminine clearing of a throat. He froze, his hands at the buttons of his neck.
“You know,” a voice said behind him, “if you rush the disrobing, I don’t get nearly so much enjoyment from it.”
He was almost afraid to look about, lest her voice prove to be a product of his fevered imagination. Slowly, he turned around anyway.
If this was his imagination, he realized, his imagination had produced a gray silk dress and hung it over the back of his dressing chair, not six inches from him. He reached out and touched the silk gingerly. It felt real. It smelt of roses.
And then he lifted his eyes from the chair to his bed. If this was his imagination, his imagination was glorious. Margaret lay on his coverlet, stretched out full length. She still wore a corset and petticoats, but they’d been hiked up so that he could see where her garters tied at the knees. She crooked one finger at him and smiled.
“Margaret. What are you doing here?”
“I,” she said, “have been procuring my future.”
His mind went blank. He didn’t know how to take it. She’d decided to have him, after all. She’d realized she didn’t need him, not one bit. His head pounded. His heart swelled in a mix of hope and despair.
“I want you.”
Hope. Hope. It was all hope. He took a careful step towards her.
“Wait. There’s a condition.”
“You know,” Ash said, his throat closing, “that if you are half-naked on my bed, all conditions will be met. Instantly.”
“Ah, but this is one of the conditions I did not deliver to Lord Lacy-Follett earlier today.”
If he’d been overwhelmed by her appearance before, he was stunned now. “You talked to Lacy-Follett? You cannot be serious.”
“Oh, but I am. I had to renegotiate, after I’d heard what you had done. I had been so blinded by my loyalty to my brothers that I
could not see that I owed loyalty to you, as well. I was wrong. I love you, Ash.”
She smiled up at him. “I love that you make me feel as if I’m the only woman in the world. I love that you’ll always be there for me.” She sat up on the bed, and her petticoats fell, so that only her toes peeked out at him from underneath those layers of fabric. “I want to paint my own canvas, Ash. And I want you on it with me.”