“A mercenary?” The word came out as an indignant howl. “Thinking to auction off your story to the highest bidder! Such crass concerns with filthy lucre show your true colors.”
Jessica was still shaking her head and contemplating kicking his foot out of the door when he leaned in, crafty once more.
“Sell it to me,” he suggested. “We can split the proceeds evenly, yes? For an exclusive interview with Sir Mark on the most mundane of subjects, I could promise you at least five pounds. Think of that staggering sum.”
“Are you trying to drum me out of business, or prop me up?” Jessica asked in bewilderment. “If you’re going to browbeat me, the least you can do is be consistent.”
At that, Parret’s shoulders sank, and he let out a mighty exhale. “Whichever happens to be most lucrative,” he admitted, his righteous indignation evaporating. “Business has been bad, with Sir Mark away from London. Revenues have fallen. Mrs. Farleigh, you see before you a desperate man. I have a daughter, not yet five years of age. She is an angel—and I’ve put everything I have into educating her as a proper lady. I have the highest of hopes that she might marry high indeed.”
“You think she can catch Sir Mark?”
Parret paled and shook his head. “Oh, no. No. Never. But…a wealthy tradesman, yes? A captain in the navy. Maybe a man of the cloth, you see?” He made a fist and ground it against his palm. “Every ha’pence to my name, I have dedicated to her. Surely you would not steal from so worthy a cause as a young girl’s dowry?”
“Mr. Parret,” she said gently, “I don’t believe a word that you’ve said. What in heaven’s name am I supposed to think, when you accuse me of theft, offer me a business partnership and then try to enlist me in a charitable cause? The only thing I am certain of is that you care about money, and you somehow think that I am either going to deprive you of it, or hand it to you in quantity. Both beliefs, I assure you, are idiotic. I am not a reporteress. I have no intention of hurting your…your trade.”
Parret gave his head a short little nod. “I see.” He looked at her. “Well. Perhaps it is so. And yet why else try to inveigle him into your confidence?”
He seemed genuinely puzzled on that point. Hadn’t he managed to come by his daughter in the usual fashion?
“Surely a gossip columnist can manufacture an explanation of why a woman would want to talk with a man.”
“But everyone knows Sir Mark is immune to all feminine blandishments,” he mused. “I’ve watched him for months and months. Look—I don’t suppose you’d care to report for me?”
“It would be worth a great deal to you,” he said slyly. “What is he reading? Is he working on his next volume?” Parret smiled at her, which made him look weaselly rather than friendly. “I would be willing to reward you.”
“You’re mad,” she informed him.
He didn’t deny it. “My card.” He held it out to her. When she made no move to take it, he shrugged and set it on her threshold. He walked off whistling. Jessica watched him leave through the side window, his footsteps punctuated by the thud of her heart.
Her hands were clammy. She waited until he slipped through the hedgerow and was gone.
She didn’t know what to think.
She didn’t know what to say.
She almost wanted to laugh. He’d thought she was a reporteress, come here to tell Sir Mark lies, to ferret a story out of him? No—she practiced a different species of dishonesty.
Not so different, she remembered. She was here to seduce him, to ruin him—and if she wanted to have any chance of collecting at the end, she was going to need this man to believe her story. She had more in common with mad Mr. Parret than she did with Sir Mark, and it wouldn’t do to forget it.
Grimly, she opened her door and knelt down. His card weighed nothing in her hand. So why did it seem so heavy?
Because, her conscience answered grimly, she still intended to seduce Sir Mark. Even now, even knowing he was unwilling. Her self-respect had tarnished over time, but she had never stooped so low before as to harm a good man.
And Sir Mark…Sir Mark liked her. He liked her when she forgot herself, especially when she did not try to restrain her speech.
Nothing was fair in love or war, but Jessica conjured up the memory of his smile.
“I’ll make you a promise.” She might have been speaking to him. She might have been speaking to herself. “I’ll seduce you,” she said. “I have to. But no strategems. No tricks. No, Sir Mark—I’ll seduce you as myself.”
MARK HAD FOOLISHLY imagined it would be easy to extricate himself from the crowd after church service on the next Sunday. He’d been mistaken. After the last song had been sung, and the rector had stepped away, he felt as if he were wading in a sea of people just to get to the yard outside the building. Once there, all possibility of escape disappeared. He was mobbed—and aside from a few straggling gravestones that offered scant cover, there was nowhere to hide.
“Sir Mark, we were hoping to convince you to come over for dinner at some point this week,” said the woman before him—a Mrs. Cadfall.
At his sleeve, a man spoke. “Sir Mark, we would be most grateful if you could give us some advice as to the cattle—”
A hand landed on his collar, another on the cuff of his coat. It was London all over again—the crowds, the din, the attention. All that was needed was a pair of reporters and a paper at breakfast that listed precisely what he’d done the night before. Mark was caught up in a cacophony of voices, all demanding his attention.
“Sir Mark,” chimed in a voice from behind him.
“Sir Mark, the MCB wanted—” That was James Tolliver, but what the MCB wanted was swallowed up in further clamor.
“Sir Mark, I—”
“Silence!” Mark finally shouted. “Please, all of you. Can you not speak to me one by one?”
Of course, they all apologized. All at the same time. Mark pointed at people then, going through their concerns as carefully as he could. He was mindful of Mrs. Farleigh at the edge of the crowd. He’d promised to see her home. It was the only thing that helped him keep down his temper.
No, Mrs. Cadfall, he would be unable to come to dinner. Also, he knew nothing about cattle—any other person would be a better choice than he was. Truly.
“As for you, Tolliver, what is it you wanted?”
Tolliver winced, and Mark realized he’d let himself become a little short with those around him. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that there were worse things than being well-liked.
“The MCB thought we might sponsor…a debate, or some such.” Tolliver looked down, scuffed his shoes against a paving stone. “We thought it might encourage chastity.”
“A debate?” Mark asked. “For the MCB?” He didn’t particularly like the idea of the MCB. He disliked the secret hand signals, the cockades. He especially didn’t like the handbooks that the founder was selling for tuppence. The whole thing smacked of exploitation, and Jedidiah Pruwett had attached Mark’s name to it. “You want me to join a debate?”
His displeasure must have come across in his tone, because Tolliver wilted further. Mark wanted to kick himself. It wasn’t this youth he objected to, it was—
“You’re right,” Tolliver said, dispirited. “I hadn’t given the matter any thought. Who, after all could possibly take the other side from you? It’s not as if you could debate chastity, after all.”
This, said glumly, cast a pallor on the waiting crowd.
“Come now,” Mark said. “It’s not so bad as that. There are plenty of—” He shut his mouth again, before he came up with a justification for the debate and the MCB.
“Plenty of what?”
“Plenty of arguments one could make at a debate,” said a voice to his right. Mark felt a tingle travel down his spine. He turned slowly to see Mrs. Farleigh at the edge of the
crowd. Nobody moved to let her through.
Tolliver frowned. “Such as?”
She shrugged, nonchalantly. “Well. I shouldn’t know them. But a hypothetical debate might say something about an organization that privileges the wearing of ribbons and armbands over any actions that had meaning.”
Mark couldn’t argue with that. “Go on.”
She met his eyes. “And I suppose someone—not me, of course—might even take to task a moral system that rigidly emphasizes adherence to a few select principles, without any attempt at considering the relative value of those principles in individual circumstances.”
Tolliver frowned. “What sort of individual circumstances could you mean? If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.” He shrugged. “What’s to argue?”
“Oh, certainly. I could not make such an argument. But a skilled debater might ask what one would do if one were forced to choose between saving an innocent child’s life or engaging in unchaste behavior.”
Tolliver’s frown deepened, and he rubbed his chin.