Jessica fell silent, unsure how to respond. He spoke in such an easy way—as if he dashed off letters to duchesses on a regular basis. Well. His brother was a duke, after all. He probably did. She supposed it shouldn’t come as such a surprise. She’d simply forgotten how high his family was. No, not forgotten; he’d made her overlook it, through some trick of his easy manners.
Perhaps that was why she let him guide her down the cobblestoned street in comparative silence. It wasn’t until they reached the shade of the trees that lined the water that Jessica spoke again.
“What did you say to the duchess?”
“She is my sister, you know—married to my brother. And not nearly so intimidating as her title makes her sound. I wanted to stave off any talk in town, so I thought that getting her imprimatur would be useful. After I’d sent the first letter, Margaret naturally bombarded me with questions.”
“Questions?” The river was running through high, grass-covered banks. A wood bridge crossed over one arm of the water, rushing into a millrace, but the main body burbled by noisily to her right.
“She wanted to know how long I’ve known you. Are you pretty? Clever?” He cast her a sly glance. “I told her, not long enough, and to the last two—very.”
If she’d been fifteen, she’d have blushed. As it was, Jessica felt a warmth collect on her skin, in her lungs. “If I didn’t know better, I should think you were flirting with me.”
He gave her an unreadable look. “Well. If you say I’m not, you must be correct. Still, I don’t endorse your conclusion.”
This left her equally confused. “But you’re—you’re—”
“A virgin?” There was a note of amusement in his voice. “True. But just because I don’t believe in poaching out of season doesn’t mean I can’t hunt.”
Her mouth dried.
“And here I’d thought we had left those polite protestations behind us,” he said. “I like you, Mrs. Farleigh. It’s that simple.”
“And you hate me.” He smiled at her, as if he’d seen through her contrivance. “You see, it’s perfectly safe for the both of us. You know I shall never impose upon you. And until you’ve decided not to hate me, I need not worry that you’ll enlarge on our acquaintance. We neither of us have expectations.”
“Safe. You think I’m safe.” She glanced at him. He seemed perfectly sane—no hint whatsoever of madness showed, except his appalling words. “Must I remind you that I tried to seduce you?”
“True.” He shrugged. “But I don’t put much store by that, as you weren’t very good at it.”
Jessica gasped, pulling her hand from his arm. “Why, you—you—”
“You didn’t really mean it,” he said, with a wave of his hand that wasn’t much of an apology.
Jessica turned on him. “I’ll have you know I meant every word of it! If you’d been any other man, I’d have succeeded. And you’d have—”
“You’d have lost your nerve.” But he was watching her now, the solemn expression on his face belied only by a tiny quirk of his lips.
“And I don’t know what you mean when you say I wasn’t any good at it. I was excellent.” She turned to him. “I am excellent. Why, I could still have you, right now, you arrogant cad. And I would, except—”
“Except for the little fact that you hate me.” His eyes twinkled at her.
“Yes.” She folded her hands. “Except for that.”
They walked on in silence. Any other man, at being told that he could be seduced were it not for the fact that the woman in question hated him, would have been livid. Sir Mark, however, whistled tunelessly as they walked and leaned to pick up a stone. He skipped it across the water, as soon as they passed a calm section.
“I’m learning a great deal about you,” he finally remarked. “For one, you’re a competitive little creature. I’ll wager you were one of those children who would do anything, if dared to do it.”
“I am docile as a lamb.”
“A great big bull, you mean, tossing its horns.”
“If this is your idea of hunting,” she threw back, “you aren’t very good at it.”
But the insult did not seem to bother him. He merely smiled. “You needn’t think you can put me off that way,” he said calmly. “It’s what I like best about you—your willingness to insult me to my face. I like a great deal about you, which I must say gives you a deuced unfair advantage, since you despise me so.”
“You see, you remind me of my brother.”
She paused, her eyebrows raised. “I remind you of your brother? Sir Mark, scores of men have flirted with me. I do not hesitate to tell you that you are absolutely the worst. You must work on your compliments. No woman wants to be told she brings a man to mind—even if the man happens to be a duke.”
“Not my brother, the duke. My middle brother. You see, if you want to know what Smite means, you have to watch what he does, not what he says. His speech is entirely at odds with his actions.”
“Now you’re calling me a liar.” She shook her head. “You’re hopeless. Truly hopeless.”
“You see,” he barreled on, ignoring her protestations, “you keep telling me that you could seduce me.”
“I could bring you to your knees.”
He stopped dead in the road. Slowly, he turned to her. “That,” he said quietly, “should have been obvious by now.”
The lane they had turned down was empty. A hedge of blackberries in full white flower hid the house that stood nearby. Suddenly, the dusty track seemed very small—too small for the both of them. He took one step toward her, his eyes pinning her in place. Her lungs filled with some hot, molten liquid. She willed her feet to stay rooted in place, her backbone to remain straight and tall. She looked into his eyes, unflinching.
Slowly, he raised his hand. He was going to touch her. Her skin tingled with anticipation. And despite that, under it all, there was still that cold prickle, that silent protest. No. No. There was nobody about—it was just her and him, and if she was to have any hope of success, she had to yield to him, to let him touch her, anywhere he wanted without protest… She imagined herself an automaton, constructed of some ungiving metal. Something that would freeze in place when his hand landed on her. Something that had no feelings, no heart.
He raised one eyebrow. “Mrs. Farleigh,” he said gently, “you are steeling yourself not to flinch.”
“No. No, I am not. I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know precisely what I mean. You are frozen in place, as if you were some statue made of ice.”
“I am not.”
He reached for her and placed his hand near her cheek. She caught her breath, not wanting it to hiss in.
“Yes, you are.” His fingertips grazed her skin.
That light brush was too much. Even tentative as it was, she stepped back, her heart pounding. She could taste the dark despair in her mouth, the certainty of failure. She waited until her voice ceased to tremble. “Nonsense. I—I—”
He didn’t move. “I can’t make you out,” he admitted. “You can’t bear to be touched. And yet…”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“No?” He pulled his hand away, and she took in a gasp of air. He cocked his head and peered at her. His eyes were so intense, so inescapable.
She felt as she had in his parlor, two days prior: stripped bare before him and nothing to show for it. Nothing to offer him but a taste of the truth. Her eyes fluttered shut. “Men touch their horses to calm them,” she said distantly. “They caress their falcons to remind them that they are bound. Touch smacks of ownership, and I am weary of being a possession.”
“Has no one ever touched you for comfort? For friendship? No brothers or sisters?”
She didn’t dare open her eyes. It had been seven years since she’d seen her sister
s. Ellen would be almost grown now. She had Amalie, her dearest friend, but she was back in London.
Amalie had held her close, afterward. And so, no. It wasn’t the comfort she minded. It was the sense of proprietary ownership.