Unclaimed (Turner 2) - Page 24

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“Well.” She sighed. “I suppose you were lucky that your verse was chosen in the Gospel of Mark, instead of, for instance, the Book of Zachariah. You don’t much look like a Zachariah. Or a Habakkuk.”

He smiled, which had been her purpose in the first place. “Your father must have been quite devout,” Jessica continued. Even her own father, a straitlaced vicar, would never have considered such a path. And then she looked up into his face, remembering something he’d said earlier…

“My mother,” Mark said softly. “My mother actually had the naming of us. My father wasn’t around when any of us were born. And yes, she was very religious. She…” Mark trailed off. “She didn’t have much to believe in. What she did have, she believed with her whole heart.”

Jessica chewed this over slowly. “You said you wanted peace and balance, Sir Mark. Might that be why?”

Sir Mark looked at her for a good long while. His lips pressed together. His eyes met hers, and she suddenly was struck by the realization that while she knew his tailor and his record in school, she knew very little about him. For a man who had his every move trumpeted in the papers, there was a great deal more to him than anyone had ever reported. She’d not known that “Mark” was not his given name.

He smiled so often, spoke so easily. She’d thought him straightforward. Now, a shiver went through her—not fear, but an almost resonant sense of recognition. This was a man with secrets.

She knew what those felt like.

“There are some things,” he said, “that I don’t want in any of the papers. Ever. I’ve had my life picked over often enough. Some risks I just can’t take. It’s not that I don’t trust you.”

He shouldn’t trust her. She was planning to seduce him and to proclaim that fact publicly. She held her breath, feeling appalled with herself.

“Some things,” he said slowly, “I should like to keep private.”

When she’d volunteered herself for Weston’s plan, she’d thought she was just going to ruin his reputation. He’d had his name picked over in the papers so often, she’d imagined it would be just another story to him. That was before she’d known him. Sir Mark was going to utterly hate her if she succeeded. She was going to hate herself.

“Then don’t tell me,” she said, with more airy unconcern than she would have believed possible. “We’re at my house anyway, and I see Marie in the window. So we’d not have any privacy to speak of.”

He gave her one sharp nod.

“I’ll see you…next week, is it, then? At Tolliver’s shooting competition.”

He let out a breath. “Hope that Mr. Parret is gone by the time someone hands me a rifle.” She thought he was joking. As she turned to go into her house, he caught her hand in his. “Mrs. Farleigh. Thank you.”

His fingers twined with hers briefly. And then she pulled her hand away, thinking of all the things he wanted to keep private. “Don’t,” she said quietly. “Don’t thank me.”


THE SUN HAD BARELY burnt away the morning mist when Mark arrived at the green beyond the river, where the shooting competition would start. James Tolliver—whose father was hosting the activity—greeted him enthusiastically as he walked up.

“Sir Mark!” He sounded genuinely excited, as happy as a puppy whose master had returned home. “You came! I set up targets two and four—when you see them, tell me if I’ve done a good job.”

“I’ll be sure to do that.”

“And I was the one to come up with the rules for the competition. It’s two rounds—shooting to be done in pairs. The first round will determine relative ranking, and then, everyone will be paired off based on ability.”

Mark wasn’t quite sure how that would work, but he’d little experience with such competitions. All he hoped to do was pull the trigger when they said shoot.

“That seems like a sound structure. You must have put quite a bit of thought into it.”

“Well.” Tolliver preened a bit. “Will you partner me, first round?”

Unbidden, Mark glanced across the lawn toward the knot of other contestants. He caught a glimpse of Mrs. Farleigh—a flash of a long gown of buttercup yellow with smart white cuffs.

“And you needn’t worry about her,” Tolliver continued innocently. “Dinah—Miss Lewis, I mean—has agreed to partner her. I did take what you said to heart.”

“Huh.” Perhaps the boy might actually have done so.

“And besides,” the young man continued, “Dinah wanted to talk with her. She wanted to know how she did her hair. Can you believe it?”

Mark took in Mrs. Farleigh again. Today her bonnet matched her gown—gold silk with white ribbons. Underneath it, her hair coiled in braids that glistened and intertwined, as impossible to unravel as a blacksmith’s puzzle. “I don’t blame Miss Lewis,” Mark said absently.

“Um.” Tolliver cleared his throat, and his tone turned sly. “Maybe we should go talk to them. See if Miss Lewis needs anything.”

Oh, the unsubtlety of a randy teenager. Mark glanced at Tolliver, and that false nonchalance evaporated in pink cheeks.

“That is to say—truly—I can resist—not that I am at all tempted! An upstanding member of the MCB—”

“What has the MCB to do with talking to a lady?” Mark asked. “You’re allowed to flirt. When have I ever said otherwise?”

“But the membership card!”

“Membership card?”

Tolliver fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a rectangle not much larger than a calling card. The edges were fraying and soft, as if it had been carried around for a great while.

“There. Item number three. ‘I solemnly agree that I will not engage in flirtatious or other lascivious conduct, as such leads to Peril.’”

“Give that here.”

Tolliver handed it over. Mark fished in his own pockets and found a stub of pencil. With a flourish, he drew a line through number three and then added in tiny letters: Flirtation privileges restored, 21-6-1841. M947T.

“There,” he said handing the card back. “Just in time, too. The ladies are coming over.”

Tolliver stared at the card. “How is it that the MCB is…is so not in accord with your own beliefs?”

Because I was avoiding the entire organization. You were all embarrassing. But…he was be ginning to understand that he’d let this happen through his inattention.

“Tolliver,” Mark said, “it’s because I made a mistake. A very bad one, and one that you’ve helped me realize.”

“You? A mistake?”

“I should have spoken with the MCB before this moment. Perhaps…” He sighed, looked at the confused look clouding the boy’s eyes. “Perhaps you’ll let me start here.”

“You want to give a speech to the MCB? Oh, brilliant! What of Tuesday next?”

Mrs. Farleigh and Miss Lewis were approaching. They’d been given rifles. Miss Lewis held hers delicately, between thumb and forefinger, as if she planned to drop it at any moment.

“Best get it out of the way. Tuesday it is. Now go say hello to your sweetheart.”

Tolliver blushed furiously. “She’s not my—oh. You’re having me on.”

And then the women joined them, and Tolliver began talking—explaining the system of the competition once again, this time in an even more disjointed fashion. After he’d managed to confuse everyone, he complicated matters by asking Miss Lewis about, of all things, her father’s intended sermon.

Flirtation privileges, Mark decided, were not about to lead Tolliver into Peril. They were more likely to take him toward Embarrassment.

Mrs. Farleigh glanced at the two and then over at Mark. They shared a half smile, poorly suppressed.

Mark reached forward and took the card from Tolliver’s hand. “I’m revoking these,” he said to Tolliver, “until such time as you learn to use them properly.”

Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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