“Oh, I’ve thought it over, often enough.” He shrugged again and looked away. “In excruciating detail, sometimes. A quick marriage would serve, I suppose, for a few months. Maybe a few years. But marriage is for a lifetime, and male chastity means there must be fidelity afterward, as well.”
“For a man of your temperament, faithfulness should not prove a problem.”
He shrugged. “No? Imagine that I chose a girl who was simply acceptable—someone who would simply do. And then imagine that two years later, I met someone who was everything I wanted—clever, kind and beautiful. The sort of woman who has the integrity to make a better man of me. The kind of woman who might laugh at my pride while still loving me.”
He turned and looked at her.
“Imagine,” he said, “I met her, and I was tied to someone who would just do. I want a wife I can love, Mrs. Farleigh. One who I want to be faithful to because there is simply nobody else for me, not because it is the right thing to do. I don’t want to resent my fidelity. Or my wife. And so…I wait.”
“What are you trying to do to me?” she asked, stepping back from the intensity of his gaze.
Her foot slipped on a rock—enough to unbalance her, just a little. He reached for her. She knewit didn’t mean anything, knew that he meant only to steady her arm—and yet still she flinched from his outstretched hand. It threw her entirely off balance. She went sprawling, her palms smacking painfully into rock.
“Did you hurt yourself?”
She examined her gloves—easier than looking up. Tiny bits of gravel had ripped through the fabric, abrading the flesh beneath. Her ankle stung, but only a little. “Just my pride.”
He started to extend a hand toward her to help her up and then grimaced and pulled it back. Instead he crouched down beside her, so that his head was level with hers.
“Look here,” he said quietly, “I’m not trying to do anything to you. I wish you’d understand that.”
“But nothing. I don’t want to take you. I don’t want to possess you. Right now, I just want to see whether you’ve injured yourself.”
Jessica swallowed hard and stared at the ground. Then, tentatively, she held out her hands, wrist up. He made no move to take them. Foolish of her to be thankful for that. But his finger traced the frayed edge of her glove, brushed at little bits of gravel that had embedded itself in her skin.
“I’m not even bleeding,” she said.
She looked up. Their eyes met. She didn’t know what to think of him, didn’t know what to think of herself.
“I’m hunting for sport, not meat,” he said. “Because I like you. Because in London, my every last step is dogged by gossipers and hangers-on. If I talk to a woman once, it’s in the papers the next day. If I talk to her twice, people start making bets. I hardly dare talk to anyone a third time.” He let out a sigh and sat back on a rock. “I intend to wait until I find the right woman. But I miss female companionship—and no, that’s not a euphemism for anything except…this. I like women. I like you.”
“There are a great many other women besides me.”
“I had noticed. That is the worst of London. I don’t dare let myself admire anyone. Not even a little. It’s an impossible dilemma. How can I know if a lady is the right one, without paying her some attention? But the instant I show even the slightest interest, the public assumes that marriage is a foregone conclusion. If I were later to decide she wasn’t right, I would embarrass her. Publicly. All it would take was three dances, spread over two weeks, and speculation would run wild. I can’t decide to marry on the basis of three dances.”
His fingers hovered over her wrist. She could feel her pulse beating against them.
“There’s a reporter in town now.”
“I’ll get rid of him.” He looked off into the distance.
She nodded mutely.
“You understand, then, what I’m telling you? I just want more than three dances. And you’re perfect.” His hand skimmed down her palm, down the joints of her fingers, to her fingertips. “I can’t possibly lead you astray, because you hate me already.” He was smiling as he said that.
Jessica swallowed. Just the touch of his fingertips—nothing more.
She might have responded with artifice. She was supposed to, if she meant to seduce him. But she could hardly seduce him, when even a touch made her flinch. Besides, she’d spent months in a dark haze. This feeling, this tentative flutter in her belly—this was hers. This was sunlight on her face. It was the warmth she’d dreamed of. It was a curl of honest attraction, the first she’d experienced in years. And so slowly, deliberately, she crooked her fingertips under his, so that the curve of his hand caught against hers.
She let her weary fear flow through her, found that cold, hard center of protest. She’d been letting Weston own her, though she’d tossed him out long before. She’d been flinching from every good thing, from even this simple touch. But she could at least possess this again—this electric feel of honest attraction.
His breath caught as their hands clasped.
“I don’t hate you,” she whispered.
“Oh.” His voice dropped. His thumb encircled her wrist. “Oh, dear.” And then he pulled her to him, gently.
She had a second to look up into his eyes, to breathe in the taste of him. “Sir Mark?” she asked, her voice suddenly quavering.
His lips touched hers.
It wasn’t a fierce kiss. It wasn’t an extravagant kiss. It was just his breath, feathering against the skin of her face, his lips, soft and gentle against hers. But there was not the slightest sense of hesitance to it, either.
She’d been kissed more times than she could count. She thought she’d known how to translate the language of lips. After all, kissing was a communication that spoke of only a few possibilities. A kiss was an offer or an acceptance; it was an invitation to commerce, or, on rare occasion, the conclusion of a bargain. Kisses were money. They were a mark of possession.
Or, at least, they were supposed to be.
But this wasn’t a claim, his kiss. His fingers curled around hers; his lips brushed hers. He wasn’t taking ownership of her. She didn’t know what to make of it. She didn’t know what to make of him. Most important, she didn’t know what to make of herself, of that impossible tangle of fear and want and attraction that she harbored inside.
He lifted his head. His eyes met hers.
He didn’t apologize. He didn’t make promises.
Another man might have made a joke, to pretend that it hadn’t meant a thing. Sir Mark blew out his breath and uncurled his hand from hers. “I did tell you I liked you.”
His words lingered in the air between them, charging it subtly with every breath she inhaled.
So that was what this was, this kiss. Not commerce. Not ownership. Affection, untinged by anything else. She’d never been kissed out of affection before. Her hand rose, as if of its own accord, to touch her lips. To ascertain that her skin belonged to her, that it didn’t bear the imprint of him. That feeling lingered inside her, unfamiliar and yet so welcome all at once.
She liked him.
Not a good idea. Not a good idea at all. She wasn’t sure what to do with that feeling—whether she should stomp it out or encourage it to grow. She’d spent all that time wondering what he wanted of her and none thinking about what she wanted of herself.
She turned to look back at Glastonbury Tor. The wind and sun were making short work of the mist. The tor itself shone distinctly; only the valley floor was a smudged green. It was going to rain. That’s what they said.
She hadn’t needed a folktale to know that. It always rained.
“And what do you do, Sir Mark, if you meet your Guinevere, and she is already claimed by another?”
He said nothing for so long that she turned back to see if he’d heard. His eyes m
et hers. She remembered them as blue, but they were changeable in the light. Right now, they seemed stony-gray.
“I’m not worried about that,” he said quietly. “I’m not worried about that at all.”
WHEN THE CLOCK struck eleven later that evening, Jessica was alone in her bed, clad in nothing but a linen shift.
It had been a long time since she’d felt desire. The feeling didn’t bother her; she’d come to accept it as a practicality, a tool for survival as much as any other trick in her arsenal. But there was nothing like performing for pay to render the pleasurable prosaic.