Men had complimented her beauty, and she’d stayed detached. They’d written poems about the timbre of her voice, and she’d been unmoved. But just the thought of Mark, saying in a voice roughened by desire that she could do better…that had brought her to the edge.
It was the first time in years that she’d liked it when a man kissed her. And therein lay the danger.
Maybe she could seduce him simply by not thinking too hard, by letting herself slide into an infatuation that came all too naturally to her. But could she then turn around and heartlessly betray him to Weston?
She’d done a great many stomach-churning things in the name of survival. She could do this, too. It wasn’t as if she had so much choice. All she had to do was let herself feel the heady thrill of attraction. She could tumble headlong into…into like with him, letting that nascent admiration grow. And then, when she respected him—when she appreciated him—when she longed for his touch and couldn’t bear to see him hurt, why, then all she had to do was betray him.
She wanted to vomit.
Instead, she sighed, took a deep breath to settle her stomach and collected her rifle.
THERE WAS ANOTHER letter from her solicitor when she stopped by the post office on the way home from the competition. The envelope was thicker than usual; it must have contained several pages. She ripped it open as soon as she was in private.
The first sheet was little more than an introduction—a few more bills left off the last note sent and a final tally of her accounts. The amount—something under nine pounds—was not something she cared to contemplate.
That sense of nausea had not dissipated, and the truth of her finances did nothing to ease her worries.
There was another letter from Weston enclosed—a terse note, really, demanding that she give him news. She passed over that one quickly and turned to the final sheet.
It was filled with her solicitor’s writing. She frowned and began reading as she walked.
I regret to inform you…
Her steps slowed in the path, then came to a standstill.
She read on. Her hands didn’t dare to tremble. Her feet didn’t dare to misstep. She could not look away from the page—the words it contained seemed impossible.
She’d had one good thing in her life, and while she’d been here in Shepton Mallet, flirting with Sir Mark, it had been ripped away. And Jessica hadn’t even had the chance to say farewell.
She should have been crying, but her eyes stayed dry. There was nothing tears could do to change the situation in any event.
Amalie had taught Jessica all the rules of being a courtesan. Stupidly, they came to mind now.
Never trust a man who gives you diamonds; whatever he needs to apologize for isn’t worth the jewelry.
Every new man is a risk; better the man of moderate means, who stays for two years, than the wealthy protector who abandons you after a month.
And most importantly of all: Every courtesan needs a friend. We would never survive without each other.
For the past seven years, Amalie had been that friend. Amalie had taken the place of Jessica’s sisters. She’d been the constant warmth in Jessica’s life.
But Amalie wasn’t here, and none of her advice could see Jessica through this blow.
Don’t think. Act. That wasn’t Amalie’s advice; it was what Jessica had told Sir Mark earlier today. And like that, she was turning in the path, fighting the burn in her lungs for breath. It might feel like a mistake tomorrow, but tonight, she needed a friend.
IT HAD BEEN a mistake.
That was all Mark could think as he made his way home from the competition, his long strides sending up clouds of dust around him. He forced himself to keep to a walk, even though he wanted to run, to put as much distance as he could between himself and what had just happened.
Rationally, logically, he knew that it was the sort of slip that anyone might make. Mrs. Farleigh was a widow, not some virginal miss. It had been nothing but a kiss—a heady kiss, to be sure, but he’d not shoved her against a tree as he’d wanted. He’d not flung her to the ground and lifted her skirts. He hadn’t even let his hands stray past her waist, and he’d wanted to drink her in.
It was just a kiss. A flirtation gone too far. If he’d been any other man, he’d have enjoyed the feel of her lips on his and then thought nothing more of the matter.
But Mark knew himself better. For him, it had been a catastrophe.
He’d lost his head before, and he hated the feeling. He knew what it was like to act without thinking, to have no control over what came next. It felt like close kin to madness, plain and simple. And he had seen what madness could do.
His mother, in her madness, had beaten his brothers. She’d done good works, yes, but she’d also nearly killed his brother.
He didn’t fear that he would become mad. He’d never detected the slightest propensity toward unreason in himself. Still, he hated the feeling of rage overtaking him, hated the feeling of want overpowering his intellect. It reminded him that no matter what he did, a piece of his mother had lodged inside him. He’d inherited a fragment of her temperament alongside her hair and her eyes.
As he’d grown older, he’d watched his mother ossify into a shell of a woman, nothing to her but rage and anger. He’d eaten porridge throughout his childhood, too; today, he could no longer stomach oats. He’d developed a distaste for excess emotion to go along with his dislike for gruel.
Mark had thought about his ideal wife before. He’d not yet found her, not in the myriad subdued and pliable debutantes that had been pushed his way. Mark’s ideal wife was intelligent. She would be a perfect companion: clever enough that he would never tire of her company, outspoken enough that she did not simply bow to his whims. She would challenge and confront him when necessary.
But there was another, more important component to this wistful dream. He wanted a woman who would calm him. She needed to be level-headed enough that he might trust her with the truth about himself. She would bring him to balance. She would be a source of peace and quiet.
Yes. Of course, he also hoped that his wife would satisfy his physical desires, too. Still, every time he’d imagined marital intercourse—far too often for his peace of mind—he’d imagined it as a rational endeavor. Heated, of course, and pleasurable, naturally. He had no problem with pleasure regulated by reason. But sexual congress was supposed to leave his head clearer at the end.
When he’d met Mrs. Farleigh, he had wanted time to consider her. She’d seemed…possible.
She was beautiful. She was intelligent. And most important of all, she challenged him. She hadn’t believed all the folderol about his perfection. She was the first woman in a very long while who had seen through the claptrap of his inexplicable success to discover that underneath, he was still just a man like any other man. He needed someone who could turn to him and say, “Sir Mark, you are failing, and you must get yourself under control.”
Mrs. Farleigh might have done. He’d begun to hope that she was the woman he’d been waiting for, no matter what the townspeople said.
But now it was quite clear that he would have to discard that hope. There was one way in which Mrs. Farleigh was completely wrong for him. She didn’t calm him. No; she enflamed him. When he let his eyes flicker shut, he could see the fall of her eyelashes, the look she’d given him over her shoulder. He could see the pink of her lips, her mouth opening to his. He could still taste her sweetness on his lips.
She made him smolder. She took his logical thoughts, and instead of arranging them in calm and clean order, she shook them until he could not tell up from down, right from wrong—could only think in terms of her and not her.
No. Despite her intelligence, despite the connection he felt to her, there was no question about the matter. She was wrong for him. Utterly, completely, and in all other ways wrong.
His reason knew it. But the rest of him was discontent with that decision.
off the dusty track onto a lane. It headed straight down the hill, through a path lined by birch trees. The way was shaded; it wended down until it ran parallel to the briskly moving water of a mill-leat. Cool air rose around him, the temperature welcome against his skin. The walk, if nothing else, helped to bleed the edge from his sexual frustration. Deliberately, he kept walking past his mother’s house. He needed to regain his equanimity, to find the smooth imperturbable silk that normally surrounded him. Nothing like physical exertion to work his wants out of his system.
Glass bricks. He imagined them, cool against his skin. Distancing. Anything seen through glass must be far away, unable to touch him. If he laid them just right, he would be able to block off this smoldering powder keg of desire. He would be in control once again. He’d no longer sense the echoes of his mother but would again be a man whose emotions were all that was proper and gentlemanly.
He concentrated only on the distorting wave of the glass. It would mute out color, heat, shape—everything, really, except that which was sober and seemly. In his mental exercise, he built those glass walls high, higher, stretching until his mental tower of bricks rivaled that of Babel. It didn’t help that at every step along the way, he was confronted by reminders. The shadow of oak on water recalled the dark gleam of her hair. An errant beam of light, cutting through the gloom, brought to mind the sun-warm lips he’d touched. He waited until his breathing evened out. Until his wants fitted inside his skin once again.