The cloud cleared, and they strode forward.
Somehow, he’d hit the bull’s-eye—barely nicking the dark edge of it, true, but the best shot he’d made all afternoon. Perhaps it was coincidence.
Perhaps it wasn’t. He swallowed and looked at her. He could almost taste success, sweet and smelling of black-powder smoke.
She didn’t say anything. Instead, she turned and paced back to the flag. He followed. It was only now, watching the curve of her backside, the languid sway of her stride, that sanity began to trickle back.
She could beat his shot easily; he’d seen her do it three times in a row.
But did she want to?
Did he want her to? No. And yes. He didn’t want it to happen like this. He didn’t want to kiss her because he’d lost his temper. He certainly didn’t want her to grant him a kiss because she ceded him the win out of pity. He didn’t want her to make herself small for him.
She waited until he stood behind her before raising her rifle, and then she fired in one fluid movement. She didn’t look at him as she walked forward. She must already know the outcome.
He didn’t want her to shoot to miss—not for any reason, not at all.
She stopped at the target. There, embedded clearly in the center, was her shot.
She’d beaten him.
He felt a wave of relief, coupled with a tight sense of loss. Yes, he’d wanted her to win. But still…
“You know,” he said, his voice hoarse, “this was a poorly formed wager. We never did decide what you got if you won.”
Her eyes lifted to his lips. Her tongue darted out to touch the corner of her mouth.
Suddenly, wildly, he wanted her to lay claim to the same reward. He shouldn’t want it. He shouldn’t even think it. If he’d had a membership card in the MCB, he’d have taken it out now, because Peril was reaching for him. But her breath cycled in time with his. Her hand fluttered at her side, reaching for him and then falling away, as if she, too, did not know.
She shook her head, as if shaking off a tight little spell, and drew in a shuddering breath. And then she gave him a smile—not a cruel one, but understanding, as if she knew that her goading earlier had aroused him to the point of pain. As if she’d traveled that road alongside him.
“What do I get?” she asked. Her voice echoed in the clearing. “That’s obvious. I get to know you wanted to kiss me.”
The white-hot emotion returned, and this time, he couldn’t control it.
“Bollocks on that,” he said scornfully. And before she could move away, before she could take back those words, he’d stepped into her arms. His hands caught her waist. She tipped her head up to his. And then roughly—stupidly—his lips found hers.
JESSICA HADN’T REALIZED quite what she was doing.
At first, the only thought in her mind had been to do to Sir Mark what he was doing to her—insisting that he could do better. But up until the moment when he’d faced her, his mouth set, she’d not understood. Not truly.
She’d incited men to passion before. But she’d not been considering any sort of strategy. She’d not thought of seducing him, not since the moment when he’d told her that he wanted her to trounce him. She had thought in that moment only of herself—her own wants, her own desires, so long ignored.
As he lowered his lips to hers, what she felt was not victory or even a sense of success. It was a purely feminine response, a delight that had nothing to do with her campaign of seduction, and every thing to do with the fact that it was Sir Mark kissing her.
For all that his hands held her tightly, his lips landed gently on hers. His skin was slightly rough with unseen stubble. And without thought, she opened for him, unfurling as gently as a flower reaching for the sun. He was pure heat against her skin, and she drank him in. Her hands clutched his chest.
All thought washed from her mind. Targets disappeared. The other contestants who had gone before, who were now undoubtedly waiting back at the Tollivers’ estate for the final tally…they vanished. There was nothing in this world but Mark and the taste of liquid sunshine, her own desire filling her to the brim and overflowing.
His body was flush against hers. He made no attempt to hide his erection, poking into her. Still, it was just a kiss—just his lips on hers, his mouth, growing ever confident, his tongue, tangling with hers.
It was just a kiss. It only felt as if it were more.
He raised his head, took his hands from her waist. All Jessica’s breathless desire was met by the crisp air rising off the nearby water. The chill slapped against her face.
She took a step back, raising her hand to her mouth as reason returned. Another man might have looked embarrassed or guilty. Another man would have blamed her for that kiss and called her a temptress. Or worse.
Sir Mark wasn’t looking at her with anything that resembled shame or anger. Instead, his face echoed her feeling of lightning-struck wonder.
“Well.” He rubbed one hand against the seam of his trousers and looked away, as if searching for the right words. “At this moment, I believe a proper gentleman would apologize for taking liberties.”
“If you do,” Jessica said, “I will find a stick and beat you over the head with it.”
He regarded her closely. “Tolliver would see you brought up on assault charges if you did,” he said. His tone was grave, but his eyes flashed at her with a sly, private humor. “And I don’t suppose you would take well to picking oakum at Cornhill. I’ve heard it’s quite damp and unhealthy there. So it’s just as well that, in defiance of all propriety, I don’t feel the least bit sorry.”
“No?” Her breath caught.
“No.” He reached forward and lightly touched her cheek. She could feel the warmth of his hand even through his glove. She wanted to press her own arms around him, to hold him closer.
Instead, he released a sigh and pulled his hand away. “No,” he repeated. “And I should. Under ordinary circumstances, I should be delighted to accompany you home. Too delighted, in fact. I hope you’ll understand when I say that tonight, I must leave you to make your own way back.”
Jessica looked up at him. And in that instant, she remembered what she was supposed to be doing. She’d vowed to seduce him. She needed to do it, needed the money quite desperately. He’d made her forget all that. She’d forgotten everything—everything except the feel of his mouth on hers.
“Surely a saint like Sir Mark can stand up to a little temptation,” she said.
But he didn’t smile at the jest. Instead he shook his head. And this time, he truly was grave. “Not tonight, Mrs. Farleigh. Not tonig
ht I can’t.” And before she could answer, he turned and walked away from her.
She watched him go, her stomach twisting. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. She wasn’t supposed to want him, too. She was supposed to seduce him—but it felt dreadfully as if he were the one seducing her.
You can do better.
All she had to do was take her own advice and stop thinking about seduction. She liked him. She liked his style, to the point and honest and unstudied. She liked that she could make him lose his head. She liked that he made her forget, if only for a few minutes, everything but the primal attraction between them.
But most of all, she loved that he’d wanted her to win.