At least that’s what he hoped she was saying. Mark couldn’t imagine why else she’d be pointing to Mrs. Farleigh’s bosom.
“Oh, no!” Mrs. Finney could have been replying, as she put her hand on Mrs. Farleigh’s elbow. “I haven’t had chance enough to embarrass my thirteen-year-old daughter by introducing her to Sir Mark. We can’t have an actual woman close to him—he might want her instead. Come over here, Mrs. Farleigh.”
The group moved together, slowly displacing the hens, who squawked in avian protest. One of Mrs. Farleigh’s hands had crept to her hip.
Mrs. Lewis gave her a bright, cheery smile, so false that Mark could discount it even from this distance. The women all nodded at her firmly, shook their heads and walked away, leaving her a full twenty yards from the gathering, with no company nearby but the chickens.
Mrs. Farleigh watched them leave. She didn’t sigh. She didn’t shake her head. She didn’t even shrug. She simply reached into her basket and pulled out a blanket. She laid it out, ignoring the poultry who pecked at its edge.
Walking back, Mrs. Lewis, the rector’s wife, rubbed her hands together briskly, as if well satisfied.
The conversation Mark had imagined had been for his own amusement. But by the look on their faces—by the stony unconcern on hers—he doubted the conversation had been pleasant for her at all.
The women returned to their places by him, chattering amongst themselves as if nothing had happened.
Really. Had any of them read his book, or had they simply placed the volume directly on the altar, as a mute object of veneration?
Perhaps that was why he turned to Mrs. Lewis as she fussed over her daughter’s bonnet. Mrs. Lewis was the epitome of a clergyman’s wife—staid and proper—and Mark caught the rumble of a lecture about ladies and the sun as she wrestled her daughter’s wide bonnet into place.
He was about to upset their shiny, clean social order.
As he spoke, her hand dropped from the ribbons about her daughter’s chin. The crowd quieted, hanging on his words. “Why is Mrs. Farleigh seated with the hens?”
Twelve people turned to him as one, their eyes rounded.
Young James Tolliver made a choking sound and gestured urgently.
Mrs. Lewis was not much more cogent. “She—well—have you not heard the talk?”
“I’ve heard some innuendo,” he said carefully. “I’ve seen a few dresses—but nothing that is outside the typical bounds of fashion.” She was dressed beautifully—provocatively, in fact, for the country. But promenading in a London park, she would only be thought a little daring.
Heads turned again to look at Mrs. Farleigh and then turned back to Mark.
“It’s…it’s… Sir Mark.” The rector’s wife was flustered. “Truly. Perhaps somewhere in London that sort of thing is tolerated. But we’re good people here. Upstanding.”
“What sort of thing are you speaking about?”
Mrs. Lewis flushed. But Miss Lewis spoke out from under the brim of her bonnet. “It’s the décolletage,” she said simply. “If it were here instead of there…” She drew a line on her own breast.
“What?” Dinah said. “I saw all the men looking. If you would only let me get rid of this horrid lace…”
“Don’t say such things.” Mrs. Lewis glanced over at Mark and gave him a pained smile. “Dear. People will think you mean them.”
“So it’s just the neckline,” Mark heard himself say. “I can fix that.” And before anyone could stop him, he started off down the field. The dim rumble of conversation slowed behind him. And then, as it became clear that Sir Mark, the guest of honor, was approaching Mrs. Jessica Farleigh, the unwanted guest of dishonor, talk ceased altogether. The chickens scattered before him.
He stopped at the edge of her blanket.
She raised her head slowly. Three afternoons ago, he’d seen her stripped to chemise and corset. He wanted her more now.
Maybe it was the sun glinting through her hair, glancing off the ringlets that framed her face. Maybe it was the rounding of her eyes, as her gaze swept slowly up his trousers.
By the time her eyes met his, though, Mark was sure of one thing. It was not just his sense of fairness that had brought him out to see her. It was not mere curiosity. It was not even simple lust. He wasn’t sure what to call it. He only knew one thing, by the dazed roil in his stomach.
He was in trouble.
And he was enjoying it.
“Sir Mark,” she said. “How kind of you to join me.”
She spoke carefully, her words clipped, as if she expected him to cast her out entirely from the dubious heaven of a church picnic.
“This is no social call,” he said.
Her chin rose. “And so you’ve come to finish what they started.”
Mark undid one cuff link, and slid it into his waistcoat pocket. “Miss Lewis tells me that all the men are looking at your bosom.”
She made no move to cover herself. “Are they?” she asked. “Are they all?”
He slipped the other cuff link off. “I wasn’t watching all the men. I wouldn’t know.”
By way of answer, he undid the buttons of his coat, working from top to bottom. Her breath hissed in as he worked. He tugged one sleeve down, and the soft breeze touched the last layer of fabric between his shoulder and the open air. Behind him, he heard the murmur of outraged feminine conversation. He didn’t care what they said. He didn’t care what any of them said. He simply finished removing the jacket, and then, meeting her eyes, he held it out to her.
“Put this on.” His voice was betrayingly hoarse. It was not a suggestion.
She stared at the fabric in his hand but made no move to take it. “Why, Sir Mark, that is quite a gallant offer, but I am not chilled in the slightest.”
He narrowed his eyes. “And here I thought we had passed the point where you feigned idiocy.” He leaned closer. “You know quite well why I wish you to cover yourself.”
She shrugged, which did very interesting things to her uncovered bosom. “And here I thought you believed your own book. It’s chapter thirteen, is it not? Where you say that a man must claim responsibility for his own temptation, and not pin it on the woman who arouses him. It’s a gown, Sir Mark. Not even one of my more daring ones. And yet you look at it as if it were a viper, poised to strike at your virtue. Clearly, I must have misunderstood the import o
f your practical guide.”
“Nobody ever understands my book.” His tones were clipped. “It’s the least practical guide I could ever have written.”
“You’re not the least bit tempted?” She looked up at him. That sense of dichotomy struck him again—as if she were unsure how she wanted him to answer. As if she wanted him to want and yet wanted to push him away all at once.
He was tempted. But it was that sense of hesitance more than anything that made him release his coat so that it fell to the blanket beside her. “I don’t want you to cover yourself to withdraw my temptation.” And then—he wasn’t precisely sure why—he dropped his voice to a whisper. “More clothing would hardly signify in any event. I could not possibly forget a single curve of your skin, and when I take myself to bed tonight I doubt I will see anything else.”