Unraveled (Turner 3) - Page 50

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But outdoors did not have embroidered silks hanging on the walls. Today, it was cloudy and gray, in sharp contrast to the bucolic autumn scene depicted on the nearby wall. And gentlemen wore hats and the ladies bonnets outdoors. The two men who struggled to their feet at their entrance were both hatless.

Miranda had no time to balk. Smite pressed his hand into the small of her back, and she stepped into the room.

It was the biggest parlor she had ever seen. The mural on the wall was not just an autumn scene, but a harvest scene. Sheaves of grains rested against beets and turnips… She could eat a raw turnip. She could eat a raw, painted turnip.

She knew both of the men. Richard Dalrymple had just stood up from his seat in one of the chairs. By the corner of the sofa was the Duke of Parford, Smite’s brother. Still seated on the sofa… The woman was dark-haired and pretty. She was dressed in an exquisite silk morning dress. It was a deep, dark purple—the color of a bunch of grapes. Miranda swallowed hungrily. Her metaphors were running toward meals.

The servant who had entered before them spoke. “Mr. Smite Turner. Miss Miranda Darling.”

The woman’s expression seemed to freeze in place.

Dalrymple’s mouth dropped open, and he glanced over at the sofa. She had to be the duke’s wife—and therefore Dalrymple’s sister, the Duchess of Parford.

Miranda winced and slid her ungloved hands into her skirt pockets. It was one thing for Smite to introduce his mistress to an older male acquaintance from his school days. It was another to bring her into a duke’s hotel rooms when said duke’s wife was in residence. It was still another to do all of that, and not give said mistress sufficient time to change into a gown that wouldn’t embarrass her.

The duchess was eyeing her with frank curiosity. Her gaze dropped to Miranda’s skirts. The gown had been serviceable when clean, but it was dusty and wrinkled now. Her hem was torn, and Miranda felt a well of resentment. The duchess had likely never worried about whether her wigs would sell. All that purple silk wouldn’t have lasted a night in a cell. And she wouldn’t look nearly so serene if she hadn’t eaten in over a day.

“Smite,” the duchess said. “You have yet to perform a proper introduction.”

“Of course. Margaret,” and Smite sounded almost bored as he spoke, “this is Miss Miranda Darling. Miranda, Her Grace the Duchess of Parford, my sister-in-law. I believe you are already acquainted with my brother.” He glanced once at Dalrymple, and then looked away. “Brothers.”

“I say, Turner,” Dalrymple muttered, looking away. But if he had been about to object to Smite’s introducing Miranda to his sister, he chose not to do so. He didn’t grumble when Smite conducted Miranda to a seat. Miranda sank into the cushions gratefully; Smite stood by her side and folded his arms.

The duchess’s impassive mask did not alter in the slightest during all of this. “A curious introduction, Smite.” She had not taken her eyes from the other woman. “And precisely who is Miss Darling to you?”

“A witness to an ongoing criminal endeavor.”

“And?” Parford prompted.

Smite didn’t respond. He simply tapped his foot and waited.

The duchess sighed and looked upward. “A witness,” she said. “Ash, you have done a very poor job convincing your brothers to involve themselves with suitable women.”

Parford shrugged. “How was I to accomplish that? Mark is the only person who has ever convinced Smite to go to a ball, and even then he nearly asphyxiated within the first few minutes.”

Miranda converted a surprised laugh into a cough.

The duke grinned down on his wife. “I’ve long accepted that I’m the only one of us who would have a suitable wife. And that was rather an accident on my part.”

The woman frowned at her husband, and then glanced up at Miranda. “Well, then, Miss Darling,” she said. “Six years ago, I believe I would have had you thrown out. Beware the Turners. They’ll upend your life.” There was no rancor in her voice, and Miranda noticed that she was holding the duke’s hand. Still, she gave Smite a level look. “At least Mark gave me a chance to collect myself so I could plan what I was going to say. If you don’t give me any notice, I fear I might say something uncivil.”

“Ah, yes,” Dalrymple mused. “Turner propriety. Satisfied so long as everyone has something to say. I’ve almost accustomed myself to the prospect.”

Smite glared at Dalrymple, who held up his hands.

“Don’t pounce on me now,” Dalrymple said. “I’m Margaret’s bastard brother, in more than one sense of the word. I’m the beneficiary of Turner propriety, and hardly one to criticize. I know I might have, in the past. But, ah…” He looked up. “I’m talking too much, then. Why are we talking about this in the first place? Smite was always the formal one anyway.”

“Indeed.” Smite leaned back casually. “There’s no reason to talk of it at all. It’s well known that I can do no wrong.”

The duke simply nodded.

“What!” Dalrymple said. “But—he—I—” He glanced at Smite again, and then frowned. “Oh. You’re joking.”

“It is equally well-known,” Smite said, “that I am a humorless barbarian.”

“Who is never wrong,” Parford added.

The room was beginning to swim around Miranda. Their words were blurring together.

“I believe,” the duchess said, “that we’re beginning to overwhelm Miss Darling. It’s easy to forget that the family can be a bit much gathered en masse.”

“In any quantity,” Dalrymple muttered.

‘You have to understand,” the duchess continued, “we so rarely see Smite. We wouldn’t throw him out, even if he showed up with five baboons and a leper in tow.”

Smite crossed his arms. “If you’re comparing Miranda to baboons…”

“True. You’re more of a leper than she is.” The duke grinned at Smite, and then turned to Miranda. “This makes it all the easier to tease him. I don’t suppose Smite ever told you about the time he locked himself in the bell tower, did he?”

Miranda managed a shake of her head. Her stomach gurgled.

Parford gave her a brilliant smile. “Oh, lovely. He was seven, and—”

Smite turned around, quite abruptly, and without saying a word, left the room.

Everyone stared after him—his brother, the duchess, Dalrymple, and especially Miranda herself, who swallowed the faint meep of protest when the door closed behind him.

“Was it something I said?” the duke was muttering. “It was in good fun. He was teasing me back.”

“It will all make perfect sense in a few hours,” Miranda ventured. “It always does, your Grace.”

This made the duke examine her more directly. “No,” he contradicted. “It does not. Damn it. He is so bloody impossible.”

“Speaking of impossibilities.” This not-quite-casual comment came from the duchess. “Who are your people, Miss Darling?”

It was turning into a regular interrogation without Smite around. Miranda gripped the arms of her chair. “My father was Jeremiah Darling. He owned the Darling Players. You might, perhaps, have seen them in London many years ago.” Blank looks surrounded her. “No? Well. Then. My mother was born Eliza Scripling. She was a scullery maid for about two months, before she quit to tread the boards. That she did for almost ten years before she met my father, had me, and was married.” She glanced at the duchess. “I have never inquired as to the order of those events.”

“Of course.” The duchess rubbed her forehead. “Mark and Jessica have evaded censure by staying in the country, where there’s little chance of the truth coming out. But there’s no chance of Smite quitting Bristol.”

If her head had been spinning before, it positively whirled now. “I wasn’t aware there were social requirements to being a man’s mistress. It won’t help, but after my father’s death, Jonas Standish was appointed my guardian. He was of good family, until they disowned him.”

Perhaps she should not have s

aid that. She scarcely knew them, after all. But hunger bred familiarity. The duke and duchess exchanged glances over her head.

“Believe you me,” Miranda said, aware that perhaps it would make more sense to keep quiet, “he’s still trying to figure out how to rid himself of me. It only makes it worse that he cares for me.”

The door opened and Smite came back inside. He was closely followed by a footman bearing a tray. At the first waft of the scent rising off it, a wave of hunger assailed Miranda. She was instantly salivating.

The servant set the tray on the table in front of her—a wide bowl of soup and an array of delicate sandwiches.

Smite sat down beside her.

“You’d mentioned not eating anything in the last day,” he said. “Your stomach was growling.”

She could have kissed him. She took a sandwich instead, only to look up and see everyone staring at him once more. It was as if they had no notion that he could be kind under that gruff exterior. Smite shifted uneasily in his seat.

“Don’t mind him,” Miranda said airily. “He only needs to question me. He can’t if I keel over from hunger. He’s just being…efficient.”

Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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