Unclaimed (Turner 2) - Page 13

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When Mark had sold the rights to his book to a publisher, he’d not given a thought to any potential profit. Philosophical volumes—even ones written for the common man—rarely sold well. And besides, he didn’t need the money. His publisher had paid twenty pounds for exclusive and unlimited rights to the work; Mark had been convinced they’d only given so much because his brother was a duke. Said brother had tried to convince him to hold out for royalties, but Mark only cared to see t

he volume in print. He’d donated his twenty pounds to charity and thought nothing more of it.

He’d not minded when he heard that the book was in its third printing—or even its twelfth. But then had come the Illustrated Edition. Followed shortly by the Royal Edition—printed particularly for Queen Victoria, bound in leather dyed to match her favorite color. The Floral Edition. The Edition with Local Commentary—that one had included little woodcuts of Parford Manor, Mark’s room at Oxford and his brother’s home in London. Not to mention the infamous Pocket Edition.

He suspected his publisher had a Woodlands Edition ready for production, complete with illustrations of adorable talking deer. Somehow, they would find a way to make the creatures look like him.

No. It wasn’t the money Mark regretted relinquishing. It was the control. And even without a Woodlands Edition, he’d lost it completely. Between the newspapers that tracked his every move and Jedidiah Pruwett, who’d founded the Male Chastity Brigade, he’d had no peace at all.

“Don’t tell me where you sent your money.” Mark drummed his fingers against the seam of his trousers. “I’d really rather not know.”

Tolliver shook his head in confusion. “In any event, that’s where I learned that signal. And I used it today because she’s a danger, she is.”

“That’s what the MCB is teaching? To avoid dangers like that?”

Tolliver swallowed, looking around. Mark’s outburst had drawn the attention of everyone around him. Miss Lewis, the rector’s daughter, had frozen midconversation with her mother and a few others. They turned to Mark as one.

He hated being the center of attention. Especially here in Shepton Mallet, with the green, familiar silhouette of the hills framing the gathering. It reminded him of his childhood, of those months when everybody would pay attention to his mother, watching her as if she were some crazed beast about to spring. As if they might goad her into doing so.

Nobody was thinking of that now—nobody but Mark. His own personal preferences counted not one whit when it came to a matter of right and wrong. He took a deep breath. Unlike his mother, he didn’t need to gibber. He didn’t need to scream. He didn’t need to threaten. People liked him, and that gave him a responsibility.

“I assure you,” Mark said, more quietly, “I have never endorsed such unkind behavior.”

“But, Sir Mark! She’s wearing scarlet. She made you give up your coat. You can’t really believe she’s an innocent. She…she could be a fallen woman!”

“There is no such thing as a fallen woman—you just need to look for the man who pushed her.” He shouldn’t say that, not here. So many people might recognize its source. But no one cringed from his mother’s aphorism. Instead, the rector’s wife gave a thoughtful shake of her head, looking back to Mrs. Farleigh.

“Tolliver,” Mark said, “I adhere to the law of chastity because I don’t believe in pushing women. That’s what it means to be a man. I don’t hurt others simply to make myself feel superior. Gossip can ruin a woman as surely as unchaste behavior. True men don’t indulge in either. We don’t need to.”

Tolliver raised stricken eyes to Mark. “I—I didn’t think of that.”

Most people didn’t.

Mrs. Farleigh had donned his coat. Even that unrelieved, ill-fitting navy could not dim her beauty.

“When someone falls,” Mark said, “you don’t throw her back down in the dirt. You offer her a hand up. It’s the Christian thing to do.” But the thought of taking her hand didn’t make him feel Christian at all. His mind kept slipping back to that evening. Not to her form, dripping wet, but to the wild light that had come into her eyes the moment when she’d told him she hated him. The memory still sent a queer little thrill through him. He didn’t understand it at all.

To his credit, Tolliver didn’t flinch. “What…what do I do?” he asked.

Miss Lewis stood and said, “We go and escort her over here.” She cast her mother a defiant glance. Mark held his breath as the two started across the field. But nobody stopped them.

JESSICA WASN’T SURE what Sir Mark intended when he came up to her an hour later. The picnic was breaking up. Blankets were being folded, and the remains of the repast tucked away for future consumption.

He’d not talked to her in all that intervening time, but she was sure he’d said something about her. The rector’s daughter had come up to her and had admired her gown and hair. The girl had even walked with her, introducing her to women who’d not so much as turned in her direction a week ago at service. She’d promenaded beside Miss Lewis in a growing muddle of confusion, and the passage of time had only served to strengthen it.

Sir Mark stood before her now, and she wasn’t sure if she should be grateful to him. She had been practically an outcast before this afternoon. He’d diverted the flow of gossip, as if he were Hercules and shifting a river on its course was no hardship.

It wasn’t merely that the people had heeded his sterling reputation. Another man might have been diffident and uncomfortable, standing before everyone in his shirtsleeves. Sir Mark, though, acted as if his dishabille were normal. He managed to look fully attired—so much so that she would have felt awkward and ungainly had she pointed out that he lacked a coat.

He didn’t say anything. He simply watched her from a few feet distant. She snapped the blanket she had brought in the air. He snagged one corner as it floated past him and helped her fold it once, then twice, before he passed his gathered ends to her.

He did it so carefully that their hands did not touch. Still he didn’t speak.

Jessica broke the silence. “Thank you for your assistance. You must be…here for your garment.”

One of her hands had already gone to the cuff when he shook his head.

“You’re wrong about that. I’m here to walk you home,” Sir Mark said. “You live up the road beyond the old sawmill, do you not?”

Jessica placed the blanket in her basket. “What do you mean, walk me home?”

“Walk.” He held up two fingers and mimed. “Most people learn how to do it at a young age. I’ve observed that you’re reasonably proficient in the activity.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Jessica sputtered.

“Then perhaps you are unsure as to the meaning of the word home? Although—fair warning—I do mean to take you a roundabout way, if you can bear my company for a full half-hour. I thought we’d go along the Doulting Water, and then up the hedgerow.”

“But—”

“Ah, it’s the middle word you’re objecting to, then.”

“Middle word?”

His eyes met hers, intensely blue. She swallowed hard, her stomach clenching. “You.” He said the word as if no other person existed, as if the dissipating crowd stood at a distance of many miles.

She couldn’t say anything. She carefully set her basket on her arm and looked away. She glanced about helplessly, but for once, nobody was hurrying over to separate them, to save Sir Mark from conversing with a woman like her. What had he said to them? And why was he doing this to her?

She straightened, not wanting him to see her confusion. “Surely you plan on defining that term as well?”

“Even if I had the temerity to explain you to yourself, I lack the ability. I don’t know you well enough. That is, after all, the purpose of the endeavor in the first place.” He held out his arm for her. As if she could take it. As if they were just two friends walking together.

Sir Mark did not make any sense at all.

“But—but— This can hardly be—”

“Proper?” He shrugged. “I have been assured it is. Country rules, after all—I have it on the best of authority that a demure little walk is perfectly acceptable, so long as we stick to the lanes and the hedgerows.” He reached out and took her hand, just long enough to guide it to his elbow in unthinking assurance. Even through her gloves, she felt the warmth of his arm through the linen of his shirt. And it was just his shirt that lay bet

ween his flesh and her hand. He wasn’t wearing his coat—she was. But he took no notice of it, while she was painfully aware of the lack.

“The best of authority! I should like to see that etiquette book.”

“I didn’t consult a book.” He gave an unconcerned wave to the rector’s wife as he walked her out toward the gate, as if the woman’s suspiciously narrowed gaze were nothing to worry about. “I wrote to the Duchess of Parford and asked.”

She bit her lip, her hands clenching. It took her a moment to identify the emotion that fluttered in her stomach: dazed bewilderment. “The Duchess of Parford. You wrote to the Duchess of Parford about me?”


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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