Delicately, she stretched out one leg. Her foot flexed, and then her toes found the floor. He was helpless. Just seeing her push to her feet got him hard. And seeing her in his room—on his bed—made every part of him reverberate with the rightness of it.
She shook her head at him. “Still nothing to say? Lord Lacy-Follett and his group will vote down the bill in Parliament. I told them to do it. They agreed—every one of them—but to get them all on board, they wanted to ensure the duke’s line would continue. They insisted that we marry.”
“Have you any plans tomorrow?”
She held up one hand. “I’d like to ask for a wedding gift. Not—not an allowance for my brother. But an independence. I know it’s possible to obtain titles, if you make a donation to the Crown. If you know the right people. Could you do that for him?”
“After what he did to you?”
“Yes. After what he did to me.” She tilted her head, and her unbound hair spilled over her shoulders. “Because we’ve had enough of vengeance between us. Because I don’t want to be so caught up in what has been done that I forget what we could have in the future instead.”
“And what of you?” Ash asked hoarsely. “When we talk of what could be, what of you?”
“Yes, indeed.” Her smile broadened. She minced towards him, stopping mere inches from him. He could have reached out and drawn her against him. He might have leaned down and taken her lips in a kiss. “What of me, Ash?” she asked.
Instead, he laid one finger on the gold chain of her necklace. He hooked his little finger underneath it and then undid the clasp. “Here,” he said, dropping the master key back onto the necklace. “That’s yours, my love.” He let it drop, and the key slid down the chain. It hit her locket with a clank.
Ash fumbled in his waistcoat pocket, until he found what he was looking for. “And this—” he pulled a second key from his waistcoat “—this will unlock my rooms in town.” He let it fall down the chain, as well, and it slid to clank against the other key.
She opened her hand, and he let the tangled mass of chain and keys and locket fall into her waiting palm.
“It’s yours,” he said. “As am I, Margaret. Always. Now what are you going to do with me?”
Her mouth curled up. But she turned from him and glided to the door. For a second, he thought she might actually walk through it—but instead of turning the handle, she jiggled the key he’d just given her into her hand. And she locked the door.
“You mean, before I marry you?” She gave him a saucy smile, freed of sadness. “Until you can get that license, what are you doing for the next few hours?”
He walked forwards, his steps finally sure.
“Margaret.” He meant to say her name softly, but it came out on a growl. She watched him come close, and she smiled as he did so. He didn’t stop, not until he’d placed his hands on each side of the door, until he’d pressed his chest against hers, until she was flattened against him, her heart beating in concert with his.
He breathed in the scent of her hair, as intoxicating as a sweet white wine. His lips found her neck; his hands slid down her body to rest on her waist. He drew back just enough to look into her eyes.
“For the next few hours,” he said quietly, “I believe I shall be occupied with you. Only you.”
Parford Manor, June, 1840
THE SUN WAS HIGH IN a blue sky, untroubled by clouds, but Margaret could not relax. The servants had set the al fresco luncheon off to the side of the house. A pile of old rugs and a low table, brought out for this occasion, graced the north lawn, just beyond the waving heads of the rosebushes.
They’d lunched outside often enough in the nearly three years since Margaret’s marriage—when the weather was fine, when Ash’s brothers visited. There was nothing unusual about the sight of that old, dented wood, graced with uneaten crusts and the green tops of strawberries. What made this day different was the sight just beyond the table.
Ash had stripped off his coat and his cravat, and had rolled his cuffs to his forearms. And he was circling Richard, who was garbed similarly.
“Keep your fists up,” Ash advised. “No, up—what part of up makes you think you should let them hang by your belt?”
“The part that wants to protect the bits just below my waist,” Richard shot back.
Margaret held her breath. For years, she’d been inviting her brother to visit. For years, he’d refused. He’d been angry with her and ashamed of himself, all at the same time, which hadn’t made for fond conversations. But after a year, they’d begun to exchange letters. At first, they had been tentative, awkward missives.
This year, he’d finally accepted her invitation to visit. And on this, his last full day at Parford Manor, somehow Ash had inveigled him into a sparring match. A friendly sparring match.
Or so she hoped. Her heart stood still.
“Don’t mind me,” Richard said as he circled her husband. “I’m just trying to determine how to bring you to your knees without causing permanent damage. I shouldn’t wish to upset my sister.”
“That’s for damned certain.” Ash’s remark stirred the unspoken tension that had hung in the air since Richard’s visit—the too-polite conversations, the glances her brother cast her way. There was still a great deal left unresolved. If this went badly, it might take years before he visited again.
Margaret had a great deal of hope for the coming years—that Edmund might come around; that her own family, a mere two strong at this moment, might take root and grow.
Beside her, Mark stirred. “Don’t worry about that,” he called out. “This is how Ash makes friends—by beating you into a pulp, or getting beaten in turn.”
Ash didn’t take his eyes from Richard. “True,” he said shortly.
Circling opposite Ash, Richard seemed pale and thin. He lacked Ash’s sense of vitality, his sense of grace. Margaret wondered briefly how terrible a mistake she’d made. She didn’t want this visit to end with a hasty ride to the physician. She reached for Mark’s hand and gripped it tightly.
“So simple?” Richard asked. “Fight with you, and we’re friends? Never seemed to work before.”
Ash smiled faintly. “That’s because it will only work when you win.”
Richard’s jaw set, and he brought his fists up. Not high enough—Margaret could see that—but at least a little higher.
Ash gave him a light tap on the shoulder with his fist. “If you’re going to be my brother,” he said, “you’ll have to learn how not to embarrass yourself in a fight.”
Be gentle, love. Margaret’s hands gripped the table. They had no way of changing what had been done. All she could hope was that there was room for forgiveness in the future, room for both her families to find some semblance of peace. But if this went badly…
Richard just laughed at Ash’s pronouncement. “If you’re going to be my brother, you’ll have to learn how to handle the shame of defeat.”
“Fine words.” Ash punched him on the shoulder again, this time slightly harder. “They’d mean so much more if you could block my blows.”
“Blocking’s not my strategy,” Richard admitted, ducking another one of Ash’s fists.
Richard swiveled around to avoid another blow.
Ash turned to him once more. “Apparently, neither is hitting. You’d best conjure something up, and quickly.”
Richard feinted to his left, and seemed to contemplate this for a moment. And then he shrugged—shrugged, in the middle of a fight!—and said, “Very well.”
sh could do more than narrow his eyes—before he could properly turn—Richard stepped in close and swept his foot out from underneath him. Neatly. Properly. Cleanly. And Ash went down.
She and Mark let out a joint exhale of relief.
Thank God. Their strategy had worked. Richard blinked, even more surprised than Ash must be at this turn of events. He stared at Ash on the ground before him, as if he didn’t quite understand what he’d done.
Ash sat up gingerly. “Damn,” he said. And then he looked over at Mark and Margaret, sitting next to one another. Margaret tried to school her expression into some semblance of angelic innocence. Mark did it so well—but she could not keep that naughty smile from creeping over her face.
Ash stood and then held out his arm to Richard. Slowly, her brother took that outstretched arm, clasped it tightly. And in that moment, a dark shadow in Margaret’s life flooded with light.
After they released each other’s hands, Ash looked over at her once more. But instead of shaking his head—she had set him up for this, after all—he walked towards her, smiling. And he didn’t stop until he’d folded his arms around her and pulled her to his chest—in front of both his brother and hers.
His mouth found her ear, and he gave her a gentle nibble that sent pleasure sparking through her. “Next time,” he whispered, “tell me ahead of time what you’ve taught him to do, so I know how to bait him into doing it.”
Margaret froze in his arms. “You knew?” she whispered back. “But—”
“Of course I knew.”
“But you let him—”
“I made you happy, didn’t I?” he responded smoothly. “Surely, by now, you must realize I’d do anything to make you smile.”
His arms were around her, powerful and strong. He loved her. He cared for her. And no matter what happened, he was dedicated to her. Margaret swallowed. She was the luckiest woman in the world.
“If you meet me upstairs in fifteen minutes,” she murmured, “we’ll see who makes who smile.”
His hold on her tightened, fierce and needful. “Well, my dearest love,” he finally answered, “that sounds like a challenge. I’ll have to take you up on it.”