“True. So you’re his mistress, then?”
Of course a duke would be comfortable with the notion.
No point in dissembling. “Yes.”
He sat down. “Is he well? Is he happy? What is he doing these days?”
“I don’t know that he would want me giving out private information.”
The Duke of Parford winced. “Damn. He’s already infected you with his peculiar brand of reticence.”
“Reticent?” she said in surprise. “I don’t know what you mean. I’ve found him extraordinarily forthcoming.”
“Really? Are you…no. You’re not joking.” He stared at her as if she were some kind of a strange beast, and she found herself bristling.
“You’d better call me Ash in any event,” he finally said. “And now I can’t decide if I was right to leave my wife behind for this interview or not.” He studied her face for a moment and then shook his head. “Next you’ll be telling me that pigs fly, and he has Richard Dalrymple over for tea.”
“Brandy,” Miranda replied. “It was brandy, not tea.”
The duke’s countenance shifted. “Was it, then?” That last came out quietly, but his face darkened.
Before he could say anything else, the door opened once more. This time, claws skittered against the floor. Ghost bounded in and barked at Miranda; he made a second circuit about the Duke of Parford and barked again. She reached down to pet him, just as Smite walked into the room.
The two brothers ought to have embraced, or at least clasped hands. Instead, they simply stared at one another.
“Ash,” Smite finally said. “I see you’ve acquainted yourself with Miss Darling. What are you doing here? And why didn’t you let me know you were coming?”
“Oh, I have to hire criers to get any sort of welcome?” Parford rubbed his forehead. “Have it your way. I’ll be off. I can see when I’m unwanted.”
Smite frowned in puzzlement. “I implied you were unannounced. I did not say you were unwanted.”
The duke turned to him. “You don’t need to say it. All this time, you’ve told me that you won’t come to Parford Manor when my brother-in-law is about because the two of you have some quarrel you can’t sort out. But now I hear that you took brandy with Richard, of all people. Was it all just a ruse, then?”
“Oh, I objected to Dalrymple’s company,” Smite snapped, drawing himself up. “But what the devil do you mean, complaining of that? You’re always harping on me to give him a chance.”
“Couldn’t you have given him a chance last summer, when all the family was together?” The duke’s knuckles clenched. “I’ve been telling myself that it means nothing when you decline my invitations, that it isn’t me, it’s your quarrel with Richard. Obviously, that tale you gave me was a pack of lies.”
Miranda winced, and Smite stiffened. “I don’t lie.”
Parford must have sensed that he’d gone too far. He sighed. “You could try explaining matters to me. I have to hear everything from Mark. It…it hurts, a little, that you can tell Mark what the matter is and not mention it to me. I’m your brother, too.”
Smite shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t tell Mark. I never have to explain anything to Mark. He, unlike you, was present when everything relevant occurred.”
Parford flinched. “It’s down to that again? Will you ever forgive me for absenting myself when you needed me?”
“Needed you?” Smite snapped. “That’s always the problem. I’ve never needed you.”
“Oh, bollocks. You just shove everything I try to give you back in my face. All I want is to be a brother to you. Is it so hard?”
They’d forgot about her. They circled each other now, tense and wary as wolves, looking for a weakness in the other.
“You want me to be dependent on you,” Smite said. “You’ve always resented that Mark comes to me first when something is wrong.”
“I do not!”
“You do. When we were young, Mark would always go to you, and you would make things right.”
The duke paused. “I’d forgot that.”
“Then Hope died, and you left. And I became the one who protected Mark. I made sure he had enough to eat. I kept Mother’s eye from falling on him. I took it upon myself to make sure that she never, ever hurt him the way she hurt us. It was too late when you returned. Mark is mine, and there is nothing you can do about it. Don’t pretend this is about my failings, Ash. You’ve resented me since Mark first turned to me instead of you. You can’t stand that I took your place.”
There was a long pause. Then: “Mark is yours?” the duke asked.
There was a pregnant silence. Smite put his hand over his face and shook his head.
Miranda didn’t understand any of what she’d just heard. But there was one thing she especially didn’t understand. “Who is Hope?” she asked.
The way the two looked to each other, she feared the worst. He’d had a wife, or a sweetheart—but no. He’d been eight years old when his brother left. Far too young to be considering such matters.
Parford was the one who answered. “Hasn’t he mentioned her, then? Hope is—was—our sister. She passed away decades ago.”
Smite turned away. “Hope is your sister.” His voice shook. “She’s my twin.”
And on that pronouncement, he left the room.
“Well,” Miranda said. “That went...” She couldn’t think of a word sufficiently calamitous.
Parford stared after his brother. “It always does,” he sighed. “Tell him—no, never mind supper tomorrow; Richard will be over. And the day after, I’ve a meeting...” The man sighed and scrubbed his hands through his hair. The gesture looked so akin to something Smite might do, she frowned at him. “Tell him that I’d love to have his company two days from now. For tea. Conversation. Surely he can manage a few hours.” He glanced at her. “I wish to God he’d married you.”
“He would be ostracized,” she said in shock.
“Indeed.” Parford shrugged, and that faint hint of sarcasm in his voice seemed like a pale echo of Smite. “Because he isn’t now.”
SMITE COULD HEAR HIS brother leave, could hear Miranda’s soft footsteps trudging up the stairs. His head pounded. He didn’t know what to say to her.
So, he imagined her saying, you have a dead twin sister. Odd that you never mentioned her before now.
So. Care to explain why you claimed ownership of your younger brother?
Instead, she entered the room quietly and came to stand next to him by the window. She didn’t touch him, which almost made him cringe more—she’d learned that when he was upset, he couldn’t bear to have skin-to-skin contact.
“So,” she said softly.
“Did your mother kill Hope the way she almost killed you?”
He shook his head. “Different. Infected rat bite.” That was all he could manage. He took another deep breath. “My mother wouldn’t let her be treated. She told Hope when she became ill that the heat of her fever was the fires of hell, come to claim her.”
“What a terrible thing to say to her own daughter. If Hope was anything like you—”
“She wasn’t,” Smite interrupted. “She was a hellion. In her own way, she was worse than Ash. She was forever getting me into trouble. I was forever holding her back. Don’t give me that look. You’re giving me that look that says, ‘Oh, a twin.’ I know what people say about twins. She wasn’t the other half of my soul or any other such ridiculous claptrap. We were never in perfect sympathy. We had the most magnificent rows. The only time we weren’t fighting with each other was when we were fighting with someone who was trying to separate us. We never shared a secret language. Hell. Sometimes I wondered if we both spoke English, as I never understood her.” He glanced at Miranda. “If she’d lived, I would never have introduced the two of you. It would have been a disaster. She wouldn’t have simply stolen into the box at the opera with you; she’d have convinced you to do some other horrific thing to
draw attention.” He sighed. “After she died, nothing ever seemed fun again.”
“Shocking,” Miranda said. “After that, you had only to keep your brother safe from your mother’s madness, escape a cellar, dodge a few floods, and frolic about the streets of Bristol. What could be more amusing?”
She soothed some deep, wary part of him. He reached out and took her hand. “I don’t believe I would like you half so well if you weren’t sarcastic.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “You don’t like by halves. You don’t have casual acquaintances and people you hold in mild distaste; you have best friends and bitter enemies. You don’t have an occupation that takes up the daylight hours; you have a calling that requires that you devote your entire life to it.”
“True,” he said.
“Have you ever considered doing things in smaller portions? You don’t have to give your brother your undying and unconditional affection; you just have to enjoy his company from time to time. You don’t have to exonerate your brother-in-law of all harm. You just have to tolerate his presence.”