She didn’t smile. “No man enjoys being out-shot by a woman. I had to learn to shoot exactly where I wanted, every time. Because. Well.” Her lips pinched together, and still she didn’t look at him. It was the first time she’d mentioned her late husband. If he’d thought of the matter, he would have guessed that she had disliked the fellow.
And perhaps this started to explain why.
Mrs. Farleigh was beautiful. No, not just beautiful—there were many beautiful women. She drew every eye, male and female, in a way that beauty itself could not have done. It was not just women who felt jealousy. She could so easily have out-shone a husband. No doubt she had done so. A bridegroom might have imagined her as some kind of a keepsake to be placed on a shelf, a possession he could point to. But someone who wanted to bolster his image with an expensive wife would not have been pleased to be outdone.
“So you learned to lose,” Mark said flatly.
And she flinched when men laid hands on her. Of course she did. The most important man in her life had made her small.
“I chose to lose.” That hint of wariness had crept back into her face. “Perhaps you cannot understand what it is like, to be dependent on—on someone else. If I had not lost, there would have been endless rounds of sulking, culminating in…”
But she sighed and shook her head, before she could explain what the result of her competence would have been. And now he felt a flush himself—anger, perhaps, that she thought he might want such a thing from her. Fury, that she supposed he needed to win by artifice. Or maybe it was just desire, plain and simple.
The pair shooting in front of them—the hapless Tolliver and Miss Lewis—finished their round and marched on to the next target, and he and Mrs. Farleigh were left alone on the green. She started for the line where they were to shoot from.
“Mrs. Farleigh,” Mark called. She stopped and gave him her shoulder, not quite meeting his eyes. Still wary, and that made him angrier yet. “I want you to trounce me.”
Her head snapped up. “Pardon?”
“It is down to you and me. We are battling it out, to see who will be the king of the indifferent shots in this competition. Only one of us can prevail. I shall be shooting to win.” He really was angry, he realized—furious to imagine her spending her autumns deliberately hiding what she could do, hiding the extent of her ability from the man who should most have treasured it. It was as if she’d left a vast swath of her ability unclaimed, hidden behind a swirl of feminine smiles. He didn’t like the idea. He didn’t like it at all.
He raised his firearm and sighted at the target. He hated shooting. There were always too many things to remember—to compensate for the slight breeze, the distance, the kick of the weapon in his hand. Still, he juggled all those considerations in his mind and then fired; even twenty yards away, he could barely spot the single hole burnt in the paper. It was level with the bull’s eye, in that first ring. It was the best shot he’d made all day.
“Of course you’ll outdo me,” he told her.
She didn’t respond. Instead, she lifted her arm, steadily. Without seeming to make any calculations or even to take aim at all, she fired.
They strode forward as one, to mark their positions on the target. Mark had been inches from the bull’s eye. Mrs. Farleigh, however, struck it. Her bullet was not quite dead center; instead, the dark circle of her shot was at the very edge. If Mark had been angry before, he was furious now.
“Do you think you need to hold back because you’ll anger me?” His throat felt tight. “Do you think me so small and pitiful a creature that the sign of the slightest competence on your part will send me into a spiral of depression? You have it quite wrong. I know you can do better. I expect it of you.”
Her eyes widened.
“I meant it. I don’t just want you to win. I don’t want you to put on a showing barely more respectable than mine, to leave the outcome in doubt, and assuage my pride. My pride doesn’t need your cosseting. I want you to win.”
“I am winning.”
His memory matched up the precision of her shooting earlier in the day, and he gave her one scorching glance. “You can do better.”
Her lips thinned, and she turned from him, her shoulders rigid, and marched to the next target. He followed after her. She didn’t say a word in response, just lifted her chin, loaded her rifle and then fired in one smooth motion. He couldn’t see where her shot landed, but it must have been dead in the center, because she gave him a smoky, self-satisfied glance.
Mark fumbled with his weapon and then raised it. He wasn’t sure what precisely he was supposed to call this emotion that raged in him. He wasn’t calm; he could scarcely string one logical thought after another. He wasn’t sure how much higher to aim, how to judge the distance. Was the target on lower ground? He thought it might be. He felt like a pot of water, on the verge of a boil. He shook his head and squeezed the trigger.
The bullet barely winged the edge of the target.
Beside him, Mrs. Farleigh said nothing. Instead, they walked forward together, to examine her shot.
She’d placed hers dead in the center. Mark groped for words. Congratulations, under the circumstances, would have been a little too condescending. But to leave the accomplishment unacknowledged? That he couldn’t do.
She took the decision from him. She turned to him and raised one quizzical eyebrow. “You,” she said without a trace of emotion in her voice, “can do better.”
And on that pronouncement, she marched away from him, leaving him on the verge of spouting blasphemy.
He stalked after her, only to catch her up at the third target. This one had been set thirty yards away on the top of a hill; the elevation difference was supposed to add difficulty. This time, when he took the position, she came to stand next to him.
“You’re thinking too much,” she told him. “I’m sure that if you had pencil and paper you could calculate the precise angle at which you should shoot. But your body is smarter than your mind. It knows what needs to be done. Trust it.”
Heat broke around him once more. His body knew exactly what it wanted to be doing right now, and it had nothing to do with shooting bullets at targets. He wanted to tear her rifle from her hands and let it fall to the ground. He wanted to wrap his arms around her. He wanted to crush her frame against his. This welter of heat had nothing to do with anger. This wasn’t fury. It was passion.
Stupidly, he groped for some semblance of peace. Calm. But his body was having none of that. He was painfully, horribly excited. He turned away from her and fought for nothingness. He hadn’t tried to solve mathematical problems since his days in Oxford, but it seemed like a good idea now. If Newtonian physics couldn’t break through this arousal, he wasn’t sure what could. If a bullet fired from the muzzle at a velocity of one hundred feet per second, at an angle of fifteen degrees, traveling over thirty yards and a substantial incline…then Mrs. Farleigh was still going to be standing next to him, gorgeous and capable and telling him that he could do better.
She shook her head. “Too much thinking.”
Too much thinking of the wrong sort. Now that the image of holding her was lodged in his head, he could not banish it. He did not trust himself to speak, not even to say a word when she once again hit the center of the target. He flubbed the fourth station entirely, missing the target altogether.
She simply shook her head once more. “You can do better.”
That wave of heat—sheer arousal—crested and crashed around him. It was white-hot desire. He couldn’t have explained what was happening or why. But her breaths lifted her chest more rapidly. She looked at him—taunting, yes, but playful. And…and… Oh, dear. He was undone. Because her pupils were wide, her tongue touching her lips. If he reached for her, she wouldn’t flinch.
“I did tell you I was an indifferent shot,” he growled.
“A fine excuse.” She turned and disappeared into the track thro
ugh the woods. The last target was down by the water, half obscured by branches and a fallen tree that had been overgrown by ivy. He wasn’t sure he could hit this target when he was calm. Now, it seemed altogether out of the question.
“You need to let instinct take you forward.”
His hands clenched as he loaded his weapon. “Even if it were true, I’ve had no opportunity to practice, to hone that instinct—”
“More excuses. I won’t hear them, Sir Mark. I make you a wager. Defeat me on this last target, and I’ll let you kiss me.”
He should have stopped to think. But on those words—kiss me—logical discourse dropped from Mark’s mind, disappearing as the blood rushed from his head. He couldn’t think, couldn’t imagine anything except the soft touch of her lips on his, the palms of his hands about her, her body strained flush against him. He wanted to pick her up and hold her against a tree. He wanted to taste her.
And so it was not thought that made him turn from her, made him approach the flag that marked thirty paces from the target. He did not think as he raised the rifle to his shoulder, did not contemplate as he focused on the bull’s-eye. He just squeezed the trigger. Black powder and sulfur surrounded him in an acrid haze. His arm ached from the force of the recoil.