Unclaimed (Turner 2) - Page 15

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“And is that why you would touch me?” she asked. “For friendship? Or comfort? I had not thought you were the type to employ euphemisms.”

He straightened. “I’m not.”

“Everyone else thinks that because you’re a virgin, you’re safe. But I know how you look at me. I know what you see. You’re a man like every other man, and you want what every other man wants. Truly, Sir Mark. Why else would you be standing with a woman of no particular reputation on a deserted road?”

Surely it was an illusion, that she could feel the heat of his breath against her cheek. He wasn’t close enough.

“Mrs. Farleigh.” His words were choked. “You have no idea how long I have waited for someone to recognize that. I’m not an innocent. I’ve never been innocent. And yet I’m treated as if I were some sort of divine being, untouched by lust.”

She swallowed.

“It cheapens what I’ve accomplished,” Mark said, “to imagine me a saint. To believe I am untempted, that I pass through this life without feeling lust or want or desire. I said it in the first chapter of my book, and yet nobody seems to believe me. Chastity is hard.”

“I hadn’t thought—”

“I want. I lust. I desire.” He scrubbed his hand through sandy blond hair at that, shaking his head. “No. You’re right. You don’t deserve euphemisms. I want you. I lust after you. I desire you.”

She might have been the only woman in the world, pinned by his gaze.

“But what I don’t do is act.”

Her gut twisted.

“If you want to know what I am doing with you on this deserted road…I would trade every one of my hangers-on for one true friend. For someone who would look in my eyes and tell me that I am a man like any other man. I don’t dare possess you, Mrs. Farleigh. I fear that I’d break something irreplaceable.”

She swallowed. “Sir Mark.”

He reached out one hand again, almost to her face, before he stopped himself. “I do want, but you’re safe with me.”

Safe. The earth seemed to spin about her with alarming speed. For years, every conversation she had with a man had been colored by calculation. Would she put him off if she spoke her mind? What did he want her to say? When a man took a mistress, he purchased not just the rights to her body, but the content of her thoughts.

Sir Mark wanted her as she was, not as he wished her to be. The thought made her head hurt.

Safe? He was the last thing from safe.

He tipped his hat at her, with that dreadful smile on his face—as if he knew that he’d rattled her to her core, and he was pleased. He was halfway down the lane before her mind cleared.

“Sir Mark!”

He stopped, turned.

“You’ve forgotten your coat.” She started to ease her arms out of the sleeves.

But he simply shrugged. “No, I haven’t. I left it with you on purpose. That way, I’ll have an excuse to accompany you home from service.”

Her mouth dried.

He winked at her. “Until then.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

WHEN THE KNOCK SOUNDED at Jessica’s door the next day, her heart leaped. The neighbors did not call on her, she expected no deliveries, and the letter carrier always managed to avoid her house.

But while the name her maid whispered to her seemed familiar, she didn’t quite recognize it. Confused, she followed the woman to the front room. A small, weedy man stood before her. His hair was a brownish-red, mostly taking the form of a florid mustache. His coat was wrinkled, his cravat poorly tied. When he saw her, his eyes narrowed. And then he frowned at her, letting his fob watch fall back into his pocket as if she were late for an appointment.

He patted a pocket, as if in reminder, and then drew himself up.

“Can I help you?” Jessica asked.

“I should think not.” The fellow spoke in belligerent tones. “Can you help me? Hmph.”

His mouth was set in a stubborn line, and his shoulders hunched, a pose that would have been menacing if he’d not been half a head shorter than she.

Jessica was quite used to being insulted but not in her own home.

“Pardon me.” She crossed to the front door and opened it pointedly. “Have we been introduced?”

The man folded his arms. “You know damned well we haven’t.” He spoke in an accusatory tone. “Just as you know damned well what I’d told you— I’m Mr. Nigel Parret, the Parret, of London’s Social Mirror.”

Oh. The name suddenly fell into place. Parret was the man who had published all those articles on Sir Mark—in fact, he’d made them the cornerstone of the little paper he owned. She’d studied his accounts faithfully.

When she’d first heard of Weston’s offer, it had been from a woman who’d tried and failed to seduce Sir Mark. She had thought to have her money anyway, by manufacturing a story. But it wasn’t the first time a woman had claimed to have seduced the man. It was Parret who had investigated the claims, Parret who had denounced the few stories that had first come out, by proving that Sir Mark could not have been where the women claimed. It was Parret who had told her friend, and through him, George Weston, that he’d never believe a story of seduction unless the woman in question took Sir Mark’s ring—a thick gold ring with a dark stone. It was supposed to be an heirloom from his father, and he was never seen without it.

So why on earth was Parret here?

“Here you are,” Parret was saying, “tramping all over the turf that I have so faithfully developed, without so much as a by-your-leave. From what I’m hearing in the village, you somehow managed to get an exclusive interview with him.”

“What are you speaking about?”

“Oh, don’t play so innocent,” he sneered. “I’m all too familiar with your type—inviting confidences, taking in good men who otherwise would not stray.”

The comments cut rather too close to the bone. “That’s quite enough. Good day, sir.” Jessica took the man’s elbow and guided him the three steps out the door. But before she could slam it on his nose, Parret insinuated his foot in the doorway.

“And you think you can get rid of me so easily! After stealing from me. Yes, stealing!” He nodded emphatically as Jessica stared at him in astonishment. “That’s what I call it! Theft! Taking the very bread from my daughter’s table!”

“Sir, you seem to have forgotten yourself. I must insist—”

Mr. Parret had gradually turned red all over his bald head, as if he were a sunburnt little egg.

“Insist! You have no right to insist upon anything. Now, who are you working for?”

His hands were on his hips, his chest thrust forward. Jessica felt her cheeks chill. He knew. Somehow, he knew what she was trying to forget. She’d come here for money; she planned to betray Sir Mark to his enemies, to ruin his reputation. This man knew.

“Ha!” His face lit, and he jabbed a finger at her. “I knew it. Your silence reveals everything. Is it Miller, of Today’s Society? Or Widford, at The Daily Talk?”

Jessica shook her head, confused all over again.

“You can’t hide it now,” Parret gloated. “I know what you are. You,” he said, in stentorian tones, “are a reporteress.” His hands landed on his hips in righteous indignation. His chin jerked, once, in satisfaction. And his nose twitched, as if being a female reporter were somehow an occupation that made one smell more vile than a chimney sweep on the day before his yearly bath.

“I see you don’t deny it,” he continued on. “We must stand together and resist all such incursion! We must come together in brotherhood and toss out those like you—women who take a man’s job, who rob a man of the ability to feed his family.”

“Who is ‘we’?” Jessica peered at the empty

green hedge behind him. “You appear to be alone.”

“I speak for all working men! Sir Mark is my territory. My story. I developed him. I created his reputation. I made him the darling of all London. And now you seek to profit from my hard work. I heard all about what happened in the churchyard the other day—he greeted you privately, away from all the others. He’s agreed to allow you an interview, hasn’t he?”

“You’re laboring under a misapprehension,” Jessica said. “I’m not working for anyone—”


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