Over the past seven years, her desires, her wants, had been submerged in the service of the men who’d paid for her. It had been years since she’d owned her own sexual response.
It wasn’t an intelligent thing, what she did now.
It was one thing to tempt him. It was another, entirely, to tempt herself, to fool her heart and her desires into focusing not on his seduction, but on him. Still, she couldn’t help but revisit that kiss. That moment of startled intensity, when he’d looked into her eyes and said, “Oh, dear.” She relived the touch of his mouth against hers and didn’t stop there. Not with a simple kiss.
She wanted another and another. She wanted his hands on her, not just chastely touching her fingertips.
She wanted to banish the cold fear she’d felt and replace it with the true warmth of his want.
Her imagination sketched in the naked form of his body, stealing the imagery from the remembered curve of his biceps under her hand. He would be lean, but muscular, the lines of his body firm and strong. Jessica felt a slow shiver run through her at the thought, and her eyes fluttered shut. She’d worn his coat; she knew there wasn’t the slightest padding to it. The breadth of his shoulders owed nothing to clever tailoring.
At the thought of his coat, the memory of the scent of his clothing wrapped around her once more, a hot blanket enveloping her in the midst of the cool evening. Mark’s scent was clean male, with a hint of salt and starch. No extraneous perfumes; no pomade, no cologne attempting to mask more intrusive fragrances. His skin would smell like that all over—subtle, strong and attractive—an aroma she couldn’t pin down, somewhere between clean sunshine and the clear, cold water of a mountain spring.
In her imagination, she didn’t touch him. She didn’t need to. In her imagination, there was no reason to put his pleasure above hers, to set aside her own desires to make sure that he was fulfilled. He thought of her. He touched her. He took care of her.
It was just her imagination, but, oh, she wanted him. And it had been so long since she wanted anything, let alone a man.
She let herself want him in the safety of her own bed. She could want him without thought or analysis, without calculating the effect of every touch. She could want him purely for herself.
She gasped, and the night air was cool against her lips. Fantasy-Mark had no hands, and so her own had to do. She touched herself, taking back territory that she had ceded to others over the last long years: her breasts, her thighs.
She imagined his hand at her nipple instead of her own. His mouth. His fingers, spreading her legs, his palm brushing her thighs before he found the nub between them.
It didn’t belong to anyone, that spiraling twinge of pleasure she felt. Not to anyone except herself. It was her want, her desire. Nobody else mattered. No one else needed to be satisfied. She had no need to falsify a response, to try and inflame another person.
It shook her, that final moment. Ecstasy raced through her. It was stronger and more powerful than just physical release, and she almost wept from the joy of it.
She belonged to herself again, body and soul, pleasure and heartbreak. She was every inch hers again, her body reclaimed from those long years of bitter ownership.
She was hers.
She drew a tremulous breath, shaking, her eyes opening to see only darkness before her.
She thought of Mark. “Oh.” She exhaled slowly. “Dear.”
THE FIGURE THAT STOOD on Mark’s doorstep the next evening was not nearly so attractive as the one that had greeted him days ago in the rain.
It was coming up on suppertime, but in the height of summer, the sun was still warm. The man before him wore a jacket of serviceable wool, creased by wear and dirtied around the cuffs. His skin had the look of a man constantly in the sun—spotted with liver and wrinkled. He held a shapeless slouch hat of dark fabric in his hands, turning it nervously as he avoided Mark’s eyes.
“How can I help you?” Mark asked.
His visitor smelled of sweat—not the sour sweat one might scent on a London vagrant, but the stronger, cleaner smell that belonged to a man who labored all day, every day.
Large hands wrung the hat. “I…I wanted to… You see, sir, my wife and I—we’re not the sort to take charity. I’d offer you my thanks, but…”
Something about the man’s tone, the way he avoided Mark’s eyes, suggested that he wasn’t talking about the pale gratitude that the wealthy townspeople offered because Mark had written a book. Had he seen this man before? He searched the man’s wrinkles for some memory of the person he might have been, but even if age hadn’t stolen any similarity, all his childhood memories had blurred into indistinctness.
“You’ve nothing to thank me for,” Mark said. “I assure you, it’s all been forgotten.”
The man shook his head. “I? Forget what your lady mother did for me? I’d be ashamed. I can remember it like yesterday. With my Judy alone with the children…” He shook his head. “Please, Sir Mark. If you won’t let me repay you, I’ll feel the shame of it the rest of my life.”
Shame. It was Mark’s foremost emotion when he thought of his mother—that headlong rush into madness, the laughing looks the villagers had exchanged at every one of her tirades.
He stepped to the side and gestured. “Please. Come in.”
“I couldn’t. Didn’t mean to enter your home—”
“But I’m inviting you. I should be honored if you’d accept my hospitality.”
In many ways, despite the heights he’d ascended to, Mark felt more comfortable around this laborer than he did around the rector. The man followed him down the hall. From the corner of his eye, Mark detected a slight limp in his step—not so much to incapacitate him, nor even to render him lame. Just an old wound.
The man thought nothing of Mark putting on a kettle for their tea on his own. He didn’t protest the simple bread and jam that Mark laid out or ask why Mark had no servants. For all the wealth his elder brother had won, Mark’s first memories were of sweeping the floor while his elder sister finished the washing-up. In his brother’s house, he was constantly fighting his urge to do things for himself—to fetch his own paper, to shrug on a coat, instead of standing still while a valet eased it over his arms.
“I tend Bowser’s sheep, now,” the man said. “My wife—she’s Mrs. Judith Taunton.”
“Taunton,” Mark said slowly. “I remember her.” The memory was dim—a single room in the village. She’d been a young woman, with two small children. His mother had visited her; Mark had come along. He’d always come along. “That was years ago. Decades.”
“Aye,” Mr. Taunton replied, then met Mark’s eyes. “That would have been before I returned from transportation. I don’t know what Judy would have done without your mother.”
“Yes,” Taunton said stiffly, “I was one of those young firebrands.” He stretched out his arms. “I helped burn the mill down, when they brought in the spinning jenny and sacked half the workers.” He glanced at Mark and colored—as if perhaps remembering that the mill he’d destroyed had belonged to Mark’s father. “The magistrates sent me away for my sins. It was your mother who made sure my boys had enough to eat. Your mother paid my passage back when my time was done. She found me work, posted a bond as surety for my good behavior, when nobody would hire a criminal.”
“Maybe this is true,” Mark said quietly, “but I’m guessing it was my father who sacked you. The scales are balanced between us.” His mother would have agreed. She’d been mad, but there had been a frightening lucidity to everything she had done. She’d sold everything the family owned and had given it all to the poor. But she’d never seen it as charity. She’d always imagined she was giving it back.
Mr. Taunton looked up at him. “I’ll beg your pardon, sir, but I don’t feel so balanced. I am very much in your family’s debt.” He rubbed his head. “Didn’t come h
ere to argue with you, in any event. You see, I have this dog. A bitch—the finest sheep dog in all of Somerset, she is. She’s a breed from Scotland.” The man’s eyes shone with a sudden light. “She came into heat a few months back. All the men hereabouts are mad for a chance at one of Daisy’s pups. There’s five of them, seven weeks old now. Four are spoken for. I’ve held the last one back, because…” The man spread his blunt fingers. The fingernails were lined by dark grease. “Sir Mark, are you by any chance in want of a pup? I’d be honored to know that Daisy’s whelp went to one of Elizabeth Turner’s sons.”
Mark swallowed a lump in his throat. The wealthier members of the community—the mill owners, the landowners—had offered him a few scant meals around their table. Even that hospitality had not been freely given. They’d wanted to trade gossip and to boast that they’d had him as a guest.