“What?” asked Miss Lewis.
iver said urgently, waving at Mark. “It’s nothing.”
But Mrs. Farleigh glanced at the card over his shoulder and burst into laughter.
It wasn’t fair. He’d never seen her laugh before. When she did, her whole face lit. She held nothing back. Mark felt utterly, stupidly bereft of intelligence. He’d have babbled about sermons to her in that moment, if he could have thought of a word to say.
“Ignore him, Mr. Tolliver,” Mrs. Farleigh plucked the card from Mark’s hand and slid it into Tolliver’s pocket. “You’re doing quite well, considering. And you—” she pointed at Mark, and he felt his breath come to a rumbling halt inside his lungs “—I’ve a question to put to you.”
She turned and walked away. When they were a few steps distant, she shook her head. “Poor boy. He can’t impress both you and Miss Lewis at the same time. You are his hero, you know. Show some compassion.”
“You’re quite right. I shouldn’t have teased.”
“No.” She sighed, and then looked up at him. “You signed your initials to that card, didn’t you?”
“Mark 9:47? Isn’t that rather a gruesome name to attach to a young child?”
Mark felt his smile fade. “My brothers are named Ash and Smite. My mother wasn’t concerned with choosing happy names for her children.” He paused. “You know what verse that is offhand? You keep trying to tell me that you’re wicked.”
“You’re the worst fallen woman I’ve ever met.”
“My father was a vicar,” she returned with asperity. “I can’t help it if some of my early childhood lingered, despite my best intentions. And really—you were named after the verse that suggests that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you have to—”
“I know. You don’t need to tell me,” he said with a growl. “Really. Next time, I’m just signing Sir Mark, do you hear? Forget it.”
There was a long, awkward pause. From this distance, Mark could hear Tolliver burbling on to Miss Lewis. By the way she was looking up at him, Tolliver was doing better than Mark was. He could even hear the rector, twenty yards away, talking about the same catechism that Miss Lewis had recounted to Tolliver.
A new subject of conversation was definitely warranted.
“Are you a good shot?” It was a fumble, but as soon as he said it, he knew it would distract her. There was something about the way she held her rifle. She didn’t seem to be conscious that she was holding it at all, and yet it seemed as if she might close the breach and raise the weapon to her shoulder at any moment. That bespoke a facility with firearms, one that had been trained so consistently that it was now beyond thought.
But Mrs. Farleigh simply shrugged, still looking at him. “I’ve not spent much time shooting rook rifles,” she said absently. “You?”
Ah. So these were rook rifles. They all looked basically the same to Mark—long barrels, wood stock.
“Indifferent,” Mark confessed. “When I was young, we had no shooting range. And over the last years, I’ve spent most of my time with my eldest brother in London, which means I’ve had little chance to shoot in the country. I hope only to avoid coming in dead last.”
She let out a little gasp. “Wha-at?” She drew the word out, making a mockery of her surprise. “The indomitable Sir Mark has an imperfection? Oh, dear. And here I left my hartshorn and vinegar at home.”
It had been a long while since anyone aside from his brothers had teased him. It felt good now—better than he dared admit—to look into her dark eyes, glowing with humor.
He schooled his own expression to sobriety. “Well, it’s only the one flaw,” he said. “And if I speak very loudly, surely nobody will notice.” His eyes darted across the lawn to the rector, who stood across the lawn, still pontificating.
Mrs. Farleigh coughed on a sputter of laughter. Yes, it had been a very long time since anyone had dared to tease him—let alone understood when he teased back. His thoughts from the past days—his lingering anger, his unresolved thoughts about the commission—seemed to weigh less. “You, on the other hand,” he said, “are an excellent shot.”
“You can’t know that.” But her cheeks took on a faint flush that had nothing to do with the sun overhead.
“What think you of the course?” He gestured toward the first target—a simple shot across twenty yards of green.
Beyond it, the track cut through low oaks. Barely visible through the foliage, the second target peeked out. The stations increased in difficulty. The fifth target, invisible now, was hidden like a partridge in the bracken along the Doulting Water.
Jessica narrowed her eyes briefly—perhaps sizing up the course—before turning to him. There was a stubborn set to her chin. “Interesting,” was all she said.
“Can you win this thing, do you think?”
She had not yet admitted to any aptitude for shooting, but the fierce intake of breath beside him was all the answer he needed.
“Ah,” he said aloud, drawling the syllable out. “The imperfect Mrs. Farleigh has a talent.”
She didn’t breathe, simply looked at the first target in front of them. She seemed taut and wary, like a deer deciding whether to stay and snatch a few more mouthfuls of grass, or bound away into the underbrush. Her lips curved, not in pleasure, but in want instead. He had no idea what he would do if she ever looked at him like that.
But he was saved from finding out when the rector recalled himself from his lecture. He motioned to the elder Mr. Tolliver, and the man called out for everyone to take their places. Reluctantly, Mark touched his hat and made to leave.
But she held up one finger.
“I could win this thing,” she said. Her voice had a hint of a rasp to it. “But I shall do you one better.”
He couldn’t imagine what might be better than winning, but he had no opportunity to question her. Instead he let Tolliver guide him away. The young fellow was a better shot than Mark. Hardly surprising, but Tolliver flushed every time he out-shot his…his hero. Mark waved away the apologies, annoyed.
In the first round, he scarcely had a chance to speak with Mrs. Farleigh. She walked arm in arm with Dinah Lewis. The two of them strolled after everyone else, whispering to one another. If she’d been shooting brilliantly, he ought to have heard the congratulations.
And so Mark didn’t realize what she’d done until the first round was finished, and the evidence of his prowess—or lack thereof—was placed before him. Between pairs, servants had covered the targets with fresh sheets of paper, the more accurately to score and to resolve disputes. On the first target, Mark’s shot had gone wide, to the upper left, where it had lodged in the second ring from the center. She’d hit the target in the upper right, also in the second ring. Had he placed a looking glass down the meridian of the paper, her shot would have been the reflection of his. Target after target, she’d mirrored his shots. Precisely.
Nobody else seemed to notice this. And why would they? Nobody shot to miss.
Her performance meant that they were paired together for the second round—and due to their equally poor scores, they were the last pair to go through the course.
While they were waiting for the crowd to clear around the first target, he found her once more.
“Where did you learn to shoot like that?” She was standing to the side of the lawn, watching the men take aim. Despite the exertions of the past hour, her dark hair had not slipped from the complicated knots and braids she’d made of it.
“Why, Sir Mark. My aim is indifferent—as I am sure you noticed.” She fluttered her eyelashes at him—a self-satisfied little feminine gesture. Even knowing that she teased him, he could not help but feel a swell of desire. He wanted that flutter to be real. He wanted to have at least that much power over her—to know that he could fluster her, even a little bit.
“Your aim was unerring,” he said. “It was your target that was indifferent. Now, are you going to answer my question, or
is this an attempt to maintain an air of mystery?”
She let out a sigh. “I’ve spent a good amount of time in hunting boxes around men. When they go off on their own to shoot, one has to find some way to amuse one’s self.”
“Your husband took you hunting?”
She shrugged once again. “It amused him to have female companionship. And I discovered that I had a…a natural affinity for shooting. Once I discovered that, I had to learn greater proficiency, for the sake of self-preservation.”
“Self-preservation? Truly?” He raised an eyebrow at her. “What, was your life threatened by pigeons?”