Somerset, August 1837
So this was how it felt to be a conquering hero.
Ash Turneronce plain Mr. Turner; now, so long as fate stayed Parliament's hand, the future Duke of Parfordsat back on his horse as he reached the crest of the hill.
The estate he would inherit was laid out in the valley before him. Stone walls and green hedges hugged the curves of the limestone hill where his horse stood, breaking the brilliant apple-green growth of high summer into gentle, rolling squares of patchwork. A small cottage stood to the side of the road. He could hear the hushed whispers of the farm children, who had crept out to gawk at him as he passed.
Over the past few months, he'd become accustomed to being gawked at.
Behind him, his younger brother's steed stamped and came to a halt. From this high vantage point, they could see Parford Manoran impressive four-story, five-winged affair, its brilliant windows glittering in the sunlight. Undoubtedly, someone had set a servant to watch for his arrival. In a few moments, the staff would spill out onto the front steps, arranging themselves in careful lines, ready to greet the man who would be their master.
The man who'd stolen a dukedom.
A smile played over Ash's face. Once he inherited, nobody would gainsay him.
"You don't have to do this." The words came from behind him.
Nobody, that was, except his little brother.
Ash turned in the saddle. Mark was facing forwards, looking at the manor below with an abstracted expression. That detached focus made him look simultaneously old, as if he deserved an elder's beard to go with that inexplicable wisdom, and yet still unaccountably boyish.
"It's not right." Mark's voice was barely audible above the wind that whipped at Ash's collar.
Mark was seven years younger than Ash, which made him by most estimations firmly an adult. But despite all that Mark had experienced, he had somehow managed to retain an aura of almost painful purity. He was the opposite of Ashblond, where Ash's hair was dark; slim, where Ash's shoulders had broadened with years of labor. But most of all, Mark seemed profoundly, sacredly innocent, where Ash felt tired and profane. Perhaps that was why the last thing Ash wanted to do in his moment of victory was to hash through the ethics.
Ash shook his head. "You asked me to find you a quiet country home for these last weeks of summer, so you might work in peace." He spread his arms, palms up. "Well. Here you are."
Down in the valley, the first ranks of servants had begun to gather, jockeying for position on the wide steps leading up to the massive front doors.
Mark shrugged, as if this evidence of prosperity meant nothing to him. "A house back in Shepton Mallet would have done."
A tight knot formed in Ash's stomach. "You're not going back to Shepton Mallet. You're never going back there. Do you suppose I would simply kick you from a carriage at Market Cross and let you disappear for the summer?"
Mark finally broke his gaze from the tableau in front of them and met Ash's eyes. "Even by your extravagant standards, Ash, you must admit this is a bit much."
"You don't think I would make a good duke? Or you don't approve of the method I used to inveigle a summer's invitation to the ducal manor?"
Mark simply shook his head. "I don't need this. We don't need this."
And therein lay Ash's problem. He wanted to make up for every last bit of his brothers' childhood deprivation. He wanted to repay every skipped meal with twelve-course dinners, gift a thousand pairs of gloves in exchange for every shoeless winter. He'd risked his life building a fortune to ensure their happiness. Yet both his brothers declared themselves satisfied with a few prosaic simplicities.
Simplicities wouldn't make up for Ash's failure. So maybe he had overindulged when Mark finally asked him for a favor.
"Shepton Mallet would have been quiet," Mark said, almost wistfully.
"Shepton Mallet is halfway to dead." Ash clucked to his horse. As he did so, the wind stopped. What he'd intended as a faint sound of encouragement sounded overloud. The horse started down the road towards the manor.
Mark kicked his mare into a trot and followed.
"You've never thought it through," Ash tossed over his shoulder. "With Richard and Edmund Dalrymple no longer able to inherit, you're fourth in line for the dukedom. There are a great many advantages to that. Opportunities will arise."
"Is that how you're describing your actions, this past year? 'No longer able to inherit?'"
Ash ignored this sally. "You're young. You're handsome. I'm sure there are some lovely milkmaids in Somerset who would be delighted to make the acquaintance of a man who stands an arm's length from a dukedom."
Mark stopped his horse a few yards before the gate to the grounds. Ash felt a fillip of annoyance at the delay, but he halted, too.
"Say it," Mark said. "Say what you did to the Dal-rymples. You've spouted one euphemism after another ever since this started. If you can't even bring yourself to speak the words, you should never have done it."
"Christ. You're acting as if I killed them."
But Mark was looking at him, his blue eyes intense. In this mood, with the sun glancing off all that blond hair, Ash wouldn't have been surprised if his brother had pulled a flaming sword from his saddlebag and proclaimed him barred from Eden forever. "Say it," Mark repeated.
And besides, his little brother so rarely asked anything of him. Ash would have given Mark whatever he wanted, so long as he just
"Very well." He met his brother's eyes. "I brought the evidence of the Duke of Parford's first marriage before the ecclesiastical courts, and thus had his second marriage declared void for bigamy. The children resulting from that union were declared illegitimate and unable to inherit. Which left the duke's long-hated fifth cousin, twice removed, as the presumptive heir. That would be me." Ash started his horse again. "I didn't do anything to the Dalrymples. I just told the truth of what their own father had done all those years ago."
And he wasn't about to apologize for it, either.
Mark snorted and started his horse again. "And you didn't have to do that."
But he had. Ash didn't believe in foretellings or spiritual claptrap, but from time to time, he had
premonitions, perhaps, although that word smacked of the occult. A better phrase might have been that he possessed a sheer animal instinct. As if the reactive beast buried deep inside him could recognize truths that human intelligence, dulled by years of education, could not.
When he'd found out about Parford, he'd known with a blazing certainty: If I become Parford, I can finally break my brothers free of the prison they've built for themselves.
With that burden weighing down one side of the scale, no moral considerations could balance the other to equipoise. The disinherited Dalrymples meant nothing. Besides, after what Richard and Edmund had done to his brothers? Really. He shed no tears for their loss.
The servants had finished gathering, and as Ash trotted up the drive, they held themselves at stiff attention. They were too well trained to gawk, too polite to let more than a little rigidity infect their manner. Likely, they were too accustomed to their wages to do more than grouse about the upstart heir the courts had forced upon them.
They'd like him soon enough. Everyone always did.
"Who knows?" he said quietly. "Maybe one of these serving girls will catch your eye. You can have any one you'd like."
Mark favored him with an amused look. "Satan," he said, shaking his head, "get thee behind me."
Ash's steed came to a stop and he dismounted slowly. The manor looked smaller than Ash remembered, the stone of its facade honey-gold, not bleak and imposing. It had shrunk from the unassailable fortress that had loomed in Ash's head all these years. Now it was just a house. A big house, yes, but not the dark, menacing edifice he'd brooded over in his memory.
The servants stood in painful, ordered rows. Ash glanced over them.
There were probably more than a hundred retainers arrayed before him, all dressed in gray. He felt as sober as they appeared. Had there been the slightest danger of Mark accepting his cavalier offer, Ash would never have made it. These people were his dependents nowor they would be, once the current duke passed on. His duty. Their prosperity would hang on his whim, as his had once hung on Parford's. It was a weighty responsibility.
I'm going to do better than that old bastard.
A vow, that, and one he meant every bit as much as the last promise he'd sworn, looking up at this building.
He turned to greet the majordomo, who stepped forwards. As he did so, he saw her. She stood on the last row of steps, a few inches apart from the rest of the servants. She held her head high. The wind started up again, as if the entire universe had been holding its breath up until this moment. She was looking directly at him, and Ash felt a cavernous hollow open deep in his chest.
He'd never seen the woman before in his life. He couldn't have; he would have remembered the feel of her, the sheer rightness of it. She was pretty, even with that dark hair pulled into a severe knot and pinioned beneath a white lace cap. But it wasn't her looks that caught his attention. Ash had seen enough beautiful women in his time. Maybe it was her eyes, narrowed and steely, fixed on him as if he were the source of all that was wrong in the world. Maybe it was the set of her chin, so unyielding, so fiercely determined, when every face around hers mirrored uncertainty. Whatever it was, something about her resonated deep within him.
It reminded him of the cacophony of an orchestra as it tuned its instruments: dissonance, suddenly resolving into harmony. It was the rumble, not of thunder, but its low, rolling precursor, trembling on the horizon. It was all of that. It was none of that. It was sheer animal instinct, and it reached up and grabbed him by the throat. Her. Her.
Ash had never ignored his instincts beforenot once. He swallowed hard as the majordomo approached.
"One thing," he whispered to his brother. "The woman in the last rowon the far right? She's mine."
Before his brother could do more than frown at him, before Ash himself could swallow the lingering feeling of sparks coursing through his veins, the majordomo was upon them, bowing and introducing himself. Ash took a deep breath and focused on the man.
"Mr.I mean, my" The man paused, uncertain how to address Ash. With the duke still alive, Ash, a mere distant cousin, held no title. And yet he had come here as heir to the dukedom, on the strictest orders from Chancery. Ash could guess at the careful calculation in the majordomo's eyes: should he risk offending the man who might well be his next master? Or ought he adhere to the strict formalities required by etiquette?
Ash tossed his reins to the groom who crept forwards. "Plain Mr. Turner will do. There's no need to worry about how you address me. I scarcely know what to call myself."
The man nodded and the taut muscles in his face relaxed. "Mr. Turner, shall I arrange a tour, or would you and your brother care to take some refreshment first?"
Ash's eyes wandered to the woman in the back row. She met his gaze, her expression implacable, and a queer shiver ran down his spine. It was not lust itself he felt, but the premonition of desire, as if the wind that whipped around his cravat were whispering in his ears. Her. Choose her.
"Good luck," Mark muttered. "I don't believe she likes you all that much."
That much Ash had gleaned from the set of her jaw.
"No refreshment," Ash said aloud. "No rest. I want to know everything, and the sooner, the better. I'll need to speak with Parford, as well. I'd best start as I mean to go on." He glanced at the woman one last time, and then met his brother's eyes. "After all, I do enjoy a challenge."
From her high perch on the cold stone steps, Anna Margaret Dalrymple could make out little in the features of the two gentlemen who approached on horseback. But what she could see did not bode well for her future.
Ash Turner was both taller and younger than she had expected. Margaret had imagined him arriving in a jewel-encrusted carriage, pulled by a team of eight horsessomething both ridiculously feminine and outrageously ostentatious, to match his reputation as a wealthy nabob. The man who had taken everything from her should have been some hunched creature, prematurely bald, capable of no expression except an insolent sneer.
But this man sat his horse with all the ease and grace of an accomplished rider, and she could not make out a single massive, unsightly gem anywhere on his person.
As Mr. Turner cantered up, the servantsit was difficult to think of them as fellow servants, when she was used to thinking of them as herstensed, breath held. And no wonder. This man had supplanted her brother, the rightful heir, through ruthless legal machinations. If Richard failed in his bid to have the Duke of Parford's children legitimized by act of Parliament, Mr. Turner would be the new master. And when her father died, Margaret would find herself a homeless bastard.
He dismounted from his steed with ease and tossed the reins to the stable boy who dashed out to greet him. While he exchanged a few words with the majordomo, she could sense the unease about her, multiplying itself through the shuffling of feet and the uncertain rubbing of hands against sides. What sort of a man was he?
His gaze swept over them, harsh and severe. For one brief second, his eyes came to rest on Margaret. It was an illusion, of coursea wealthy merchant, come to investigate his patrimony, would care nothing for a servant clad in a shapeless gray frock, her hair secured under a severe mobcap. But it seemed as if he were looking directly inside her, as if he could see every day of these past painful months. It was as if he could see the empty echo of the lady she had been. Her heart thumped once, heavily.
She'd counted on being invisible to him in this guise.
Then, as if she'd been but a brief snag in the fluid silk of his life, he looked away, finishing his survey of the massed knot of servants. Beside her, the upstairs maids held their breath. Margaret wished he would just get it over with and say something dastardly, so they could all hate him.