Unveiled (Turner 1) - Page 9

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This was not something he wanted to talk about. “It’s not my Christian name. It’s a…a use name. Of a sort.” His mother had given all her children full Bible verses for names. Telling her the mouthful of a name he’d been born with would simply take too long. “I don’t have a Christian name. I have…” Ash paused, frowning. “I have a label, recorded in a parish register. And it’s of no moment. Everyone who knows me calls me Ash. If you are going to refuse to be my love slave, you should at least do me the honor of not Mr. Turnering me.”

She looked up at him from behind wisps of hair that had fallen from her knot. For the first time that evening, he caught a glimpse of one hint of a dimple, an unwilling smile that quirked her lips. That amusement was a fragile, delicate thing, as insubstantial as moonlight on water. He held his breath, waiting. But she dispelled it with a shake of her head.

“It’s too familiar. People will say—” She stopped, and ran one hand down the serviceable fabric of her dress. “They’ll say I’m reaching above my station.”

He shrugged to hide his appalled reaction. Miss Lowell had fire. She had intelligence. She had an almost haunting beauty. And yet she wouldn’t reach above what she saw as her station? What a monstrous waste.

Whoever was in that locket had a lot to answer for.

“I am going to guess,” he said quietly, “that you’ve heard about your station all your life. That you’ve been told, over and over, what you can and cannot do because of some foolish accident of your birth.”

Her nostrils flared, and her fingers clenched around the key he’d given her.

Ash continued. “What do they know? Do they hear the secret dreams you whisper in the dark of the night? Don’t let your station in life strangle you.”

Her bosom held motionless, as if she didn’t dare exhale.

“If I never so much as breathe against the skin of your wrist, I want you to forget what you’ve been told.”

Her hand had gone to her wrist as he spoke, as if she felt the heat of his breath there.

“So call me Ash,” he said with a smile. “Call me Ash, not for me, but as a small defiance. Call me Ash because you deserve it. Because your station is just so many words in a parish register, not a sentence of death.”

She swallowed and swayed towards him—not even an inch, but still, she moved. Ash stood very still, willing her closer. She opened her lips a fraction and wet them. His blood stirred at the sight of the pink of her tongue.

“Ash.” She breathed the word as if it were the last name on earth. He stood there, almost tipsy at the sound of it on her lips. Yes. Yes.

“Yes?” His own voice was hoarse.

She looked him in the eyes. And he saw there every last scrap of strength, every inch of backbone that he desired. She drew herself up straight. He could almost taste her on his tongue.

“Ash,” she repeated more firmly. “I have no desire to be your sordid love slave. Now leave me alone.”

CHAPTER FOUR

THE SUN WAS SO HOT at noon the next day that waves rose from the track in front of her, blurring the small town two miles distant into indistinct smudges of brown. Margaret’s hairpins bit into her scalp like aggressive little insects.

She’d composed a letter to her brother last night. When they’d first come up with this plan, they’d imagined that Margaret would see Mr. Turner only in passing and would have just the servants’ gossip to send on. But she’d filled pages with her account of that first evening. After she’d penned a factual account of the day, she’d added the following:

None of this captures the essence of the man. For all his mercenary tradesmanlike mannerisms, Ash Turner is far more dangerous than we believed, for a reason that will not sound sinister when I write it: he makes people like him. Think on what that will mean when he addresses the Members of Parliament who will vote on the question.

This letter to her brother was now tucked into the inner pocket of her mantle, the hard corners of the paper poking her ribs in tangible reminder. She had stayed behind because her family needed her. Because when Parliament resumed in mid-November, it would debate whether to pass a bill granting her family the extraordinary remedy of legitimacy.

Her role here had been simple when they’d conceived it: she was to document Mr. Turner’s every failing. She would transcribe letters, dictated by her father, adding her own observations. These observations would demonstrate that Mr. Turner was unfit to manage the estate. The evidence would be collected, collated and sent to the lords in the autumn, when her brothers presented their petition.

Margaret had thought sending a letter would be as simple as asking her father to frank it and leaving it on the front table with the remainder of the post. She hadn’t truly thought through her deception. Had Mr. Turner been bent on sport or drink as her brothers were, simplicity would have sufficed. But what seemed like half his office had arrived this morning—a regular cadre of sober businessmen who had taken over one of the gatehouses. They were all dedicated to serving Mr. Turner, and they were constantly coming and going. Any one of those men might see her leaving the letter in the hall. They would wonder why a simple nurse was writing to the Dalrymple brothers. She’d had little choice but to carry the letter into town, where the vicar’s wife would assist her.

The walk had already proved hot and uncomfortable.

But halfway to the village, the sullen summer silence was marred by hoofbeats. Hoofbeats were not a good sign. Margaret pulled her bonnet ribbons about her chin. With her brothers gone, only the Turners would be about on horseback, riding on Parford land. And somehow, she didn’t imagine that Mr. Mark Turner—gentle, sweet Mark who wrote about chastity—had sought her out. That would have been too easy.

The horse cantered into view, coming around a bend in the hedge.

Of course it had to be the elder of the two brothers. The taller one. The larger one. The dangerous one. Of course she had to be set upon by the man who’d destroyed her life. And of course it happened at the precise moment when the last of the starch deserted the collar of her gown. Mr. Turner looked as if he’d no notion that the sun shone overhead. No sweat beaded on his forehead; no flush of heat colored his cheeks as he rode up beside her and slowed his horse to a walk. He manufactured no polite excuse for his presence. Instead, he looked her up and down, from her dusty half-boots to the drooping bonnet on her head. And then he smiled.

“Am I intruding?” he asked.

“You’re always intruding.” Simple truth.

“Ah.” He spoke with a faintly puzzled air, as if nothing could have left him more confused than a woman who didn’t know she was supposed to kneel down and kiss his feet at the first sign of his interest. No doubt he was befuddled for good reason. Had she truly been the woman she appeared—an illegitimate servant—she would no doubt have found him very nice indeed. A lowborn nurse would not have cared that his money had been made in trade, that the title he stood to inherit had been won through legal machinations.

And, Margaret had to add, in truth he didn’t strike her as the typically gauche nabob, flush with sudden wealth. He carried his wealth so confidently one almost didn’t notice it was new. Margaret adjusted her bonnet again. But as she pulled it up an inch, her hairpins poked her neck once more.

“You do realize,” he said, “you are allowed to speak to me.”

“I

can’t possibly. You’re kicking up dust. I can scarcely breathe, let alone carry on a conversation.”

It wasn’t true. There’d been a fine rain last night, which had left the ground moist and springy—not so wet as to be muddy, but not so dry as to toss up clouds of dirt.

He didn’t contradict her obvious lie, however. Instead, his smile broadened. “If I take you up on my horse, no doubt you’ll breathe more freely.”

Just the thought of being lifted onto that beast made her lungs tighten. He would set her before him. She would feel his thighs pressing into her, his hands straying against her body… No. She’d never been one for foot kissing. She wasn’t about to start now.

“Why do you persist in saying these things?” she asked. “I have been perfectly clear on the matter. A true gentleman wouldn’t wait for a second dismissal.”

“No.” His voice filled with a dark humor. “A gentleman would have just taken you to bed to begin with, without bothering to ask for permission. Luckily for you, I was too busy making my own way in the world to learn to be a gentleman.” He tossed his head back. “If you want to know why I keep pestering you, it’s because you remind me of Laurette.”

“Laurette?” Margaret repeated the name with distaste. It sounded tawdry, the sort of half-Frenchified affectation a mistress would adopt. “I doubt it can be quite proper for you to speak of her.”

“I met her in India.” His eyes sparked at her in amusement, as if he knew precisely how discomfited she was. “I kept her for a little more than a year, before I realized she needed more than I was able to give.”

“Mr. Turner.” She could imagine Laurette now—a beautiful Indian woman, her skin dark, her limbs entangled with his. And why, oh, why did that image fill her with heat instead of disgust? Another yank of her bonnet strings, but this adjustment served only to drive the pins harder into her scalp.

He grinned at her discomfort. “It’s Ash, if you recall, not Mr. Turner. As for Laurette, at first she was wary, but as time went on, she came to sleep with me at nights.”


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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