But she’d learned years ago that there was no justice, not for a woman like her. There was no way to crawl backward, to unravel the harms that had been done. There were only small, timid paths to be found through tangled underbrush. If you were lucky, you might hit upon one and escape the dark forest.
“It happens,” she said, “that I have something none of those other women had.”
Weston rubbed his chin. “Well, what is it?”
Desperation, she thought.
But what she said was, “Information. Sir Mark is returning to his boyhood home for the summer—a small market town called Shepton Mallet. I gather he wants to escape the adoring throngs for a period. He’ll be away from his loving public. Staying, not in his brother’s mansion, packed with servants, but in an isolated house, with only a few villagers to come by and take care of his needs.”
“That’s not precisely a secret.”
“With nobody watching him, he’ll have the opportunity to stray from his righteous path. He wouldn’t dare, here in London—he’s the center of everyone’s attention. Out there…?” She trailed off suggestively. “At a very minimum, I should like the chance to try.”
“If you know I made the offer, you know the rules. Seduce him. It needs to be believable—I’ve tried to ruin him with false accounts already, so you’ll have to prove it by getting his ring. Tell the entire ton your experience through the gossip sheets and destroy Sir Mark’s good reputation. Do all that, and you’ll get your money.”
Jessica tapped her lips. “I will be investing far more than an evening’s work. He’ll have to think me available. Not good enough to marry, but genteel enough that I’d make good…company. I’ll be hiring a house in the country. Retaining servants.” It would stretch her last reserves to the breaking point. If this failed, she would have no choice but to find another protector. She stared flatly at the table in front of her. “If I do it, I want three thousand.”
Enough to purchase a small home in the country in a tiny village where nobody knew her. Enough to have morning after morning to herself, to lift her face to the sun. They said time healed all wounds. Jessica prayed it was so, that one day she might feel more than this impossible emptiness.
Weston clapped his hands. “So. The vicar’s daughter has learned to bargain. Admit it, Jess. I made you who you are. You owe me.”
She did owe him. He had made her, twice over. But there was no point in dreaming of a revenge that would never come. Right now, she just wanted to survive. “Three thousand,” she repeated coolly.
“One thousand pounds,” he countered. “Ruin Sir Mark, and I’ll consider it a bargain at the price.”
She’d be damned if she agreed. But then, she was already damned. The only question was whether she’d get full value for her soul.
“Fifteen hundred,” she told him, “and not one penny less.”
“Agreed.” He held out his hand, as if he honestly expected her to shake it.
For one brief second, she imagined grabbing hold of the fireplace poker, not too distant, and smashing it into his arm. Hard. He would fall to his knees… The imagined jolt of the impact shook her from her reverie. “Agreed, then,” she said, pushing to her feet.
Still, she didn’t shake his hand.
Two weeks later
PEACE. A T LAST.
Sir Mark Turner had walked all the way from the small house on the northern edge of Shepton Mallet into the very center of town, without attracting any more attention than any other newcomer who might make his way to Market Place in the early morning. He’d received a few nods, a few long stares. But there had been no choking crowds, no cries of recognition. No men had followed him, aghast that he walked about without an honor guard twelve-strong.
He’d wanted distance and anonymity to think about the proposal he’d received, to join the Commission on the Poor Laws. Here he’d found it.
He stood in the midst of the market, unmolested. Tomorrow, the rectangular pavement would be filled with butchers and cheesemongers. Today, it was blissfully quiet: only a few individuals could be seen.
Mark had grown up in Shepton Mallet. He knew the history of this square—a mix of the new, the old and the downright ancient. The public house, off to the side of the market, had been built centuries before Mark had been born. An elderly woman had taken shelter from the early-morning sun under the stone arches of the structure that marked the center of the square. Market Cross was a haphazard combination: half gothic spires, half hexagonal stone gazebo. Its tallest tower was topped by a cross. It stood alone in a sea of cobblestones, as if it were the confused, lost nephew of the stone church that stood on the corner.
In the two decades since Mark had left it, the town had changed. People he dimly remembered from childhood had grown older. He’d walked past a building on the way here that had once been a bustling wool mill; now, it was nothing but a burned-out shell. But those minor alterations only underscored how slow change was in arriving. Shepton Mallet was very distant from the frenetic hustle of London. There was no hurry here. Even the sheep he’d encountered on his walk seemed to bleat at a slower rate than the livestock in London.
A few people stood on the edges of the square, conversing. From here, he could not make out individual words—just the rough lilt of Somerset farm country, a rise and fall that, from a distance, sounded like…home.
He hadn’t been back in more than twenty years. Long enough to lose the accent himself, long enough that his tongue felt too fast, too sharp in his mouth, an unwelcome, foreign invader in this familiar place. London sped along at the frenzied pace of steam and piston; Shepton Mallet strolled, like cows returning from the field at the end of a long summer day.
If anyone heard his name, they might recall his mother. They might even conjure up an image of his father, which was more than Mark himself could bring to mind. Perhaps they would also remember Mark: a thin, pale child, who’d accompanied his mother on her charitable missions. They wouldn’t think of Sir Mark Turner, knighted by Victoria’s hand, author of A Gentleman’s Practical Guide to Chastity. They wouldn’t see a shining beacon of saintly virtue.
Thanks be to God. He’d escaped.
He turned slowly. It was early on a Thursday morning, but the market was exactly how he remembered it. The ancient stalls of the marketplace—rough, broad-wood benches—were no doubt still in use because in all the centuries of their service, nobody had ever considered replacing them. They were even called by their old name here: the Shambles. Doubtless, they’d seen as many centuries of service as the public house.
Mark smiled. With all this aging history around him, not one person would care who he was in the present.
“Sir Mark Turner?”
Mark whirled around. He’d never met the man who stood at his back, one hand raised in tentative greeting. He was a plump fellow, dressed in clergyman’s black, with a stiff white clerical collar to match.
The man dropped his raised hand. “I’m Alexander Lewis—the rector of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Don’t look so startled. I’ve been expecting you ever since news got out that your brother the duke had purchased the old Tamish house.”
It wasn’t the old Tamish house; it was the old Turner house. But then, this fellow was one of the few things that was new to Shepton Mallet. As the rector, no doubt he concerned himself with comings and goings. His curiosity was natural. He wasn’t the harbinger of a sudden throng. Mark relaxed slightly.
“I’d heard of your family from my predecessor,” the man was saying. “Welcome back to Shepton Mallet.”
So he was to be the prodigal, returning after decades of desertion. Even better. “The town’s almost exactly as I recall,” Mark said. “But surely you can tell me. What is the latest news?”
As Mark had suspected, Lewis needed little encouragement to begin talking. In minutes, he’d produced a stream of words that Mark needed onl
y half his mind to monitor. After all, they both knew that the only thing that changed in Shepton Mallet was the degree to which the abandoned mills deteriorated every year.
“But times are looking up,” Lewis was saying, capping off a monologue on those selfsame mills. “There’s a new shoe factory beginning to make its mark. And the crepe manufacturers have been seeing redoubled orders. After Her Majesty purchased the silk for her wedding gown from Shepton mills, we’ve seen more patronage.”
This was what small-town life meant. This last was not news—at least, not in the sense that it was new. It was a measure of how slowly time passed in sleepy Shepton Mallet, that the primary topic of conversation was the Queen’s marriage, an event that had taken place more than a year in the past.
Mark had been right to come here. Here, they might have heard of his book and his knighthood. But in this little town, he could escape the inexplicable swarms that had gathered in London. He would be left in peace.
People might even believe that he was humanhere—the sort of person who had faults and who committed sins—instead of some sort of saint.