Unclaimed (Turner 2) - Page 3

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“Why,” the rector continued, “I assure you, everyone here feels a debt of gratitude to you on that score.”

The first discordant note sounded in Mark’s bucolic dream. “Gratitude?” he asked in befuddlement. “To me? Why on earth would anyone be grateful to me?”

“Such humility!” Lewis beamed at him. “Everyone knows it was your favor that brought Her Majesty’s eye upon us!” As he spoke, Lewis leaned forward and tapped Mark’s lapels lightly.

A deep dread welled up inside of him. This was not a forward, grasping sort of fumble. Instead, it was a reverent little touch—the way one might dip a forefinger into a font of holy water.

“Oh, no,” Mark protested. “No, no. Really, you mustn’t put that complexion on it. I—”

“We here in Shepton Mallet are truly grateful, you know. If the silk manufacturers had failed…” Lewis spread his arms wide, and Mark looked around. The few people dispersed around the square were all staring at him in avid curiosity.

Not again. Please. He’d come here to escape the adulation, not to be feted once more.

“This town owes you much. Everyone’s been waiting for me to make your acquaintance, so I might show you around. Let me start with this introduction.”

Lewis motioned with one hand, and a figure slouching against one side of the Market Cross straightened. The man—no, however tall the figure, it was a boy—came dashing over, nearly tripping over ungainly feet.

Whoever this young man was—and he could not have been a day older than seventeen—he was well-dressed. He was wearing a top hat. He raised his hand to adjust it every few seconds, as if the article of apparel were new to him after years of the quartered caps that boys favored.

“Sir Mark Turner,” Lewis was saying, with all the pomp of a high-church official, “may I present to you Mr. James Tolliver.”

James Tolliver wore a blue ribbon cockade, artfully formed into the shape of a rose, on the brim of his hat. Mark’s hopes, which had so recently soared as high as the church’s tower, fell eight stories to dash on the cobblestones underfoot. Please. Not a blue rose cockade. Anything but a blue rose cockade. Maybe the ornament was just an accident. Maybe some peddler had brought through a batch, without explaining their significance. Because the alternative—that he was not escaping the hubbub of London, that he had not left behind the hangers-on and the constant reports in the gossip columns—was too appalling to contemplate. He’d come to Shepton Mallet to relax into its relative timelessness.

But Tolliver was peering up at him with wide, brilliant eyes. Mark knew that look—that gaze of utter delight. Tolliver looked as if he’d just received a pony for Christmas and couldn’t wait for his first ride.

And by the way he was staring, Mark was the pony. Before Mark could say anything, his hand was captured in an impassioned grip.

“Forty-seven, sir!” Tolliver squeaked.

Mark stared at the earnest young man in front of him in confusion. The boy had barked out those words as if they had some special significance. “Forty-seven what?”

Forty-seven people who might accost him on the street? Forty-seven more months before society forgot who he was?

The boy’s face fell. “Forty-seven days,” he said, sheepishly.

Mark shook his head in confusion. “Forty-seven days is a little long for a flood, and a bit short for Michaelmas term.”

“It’s been forty-seven days of chastity. Sir.” He frowned in puzzlement. “Didn’t I do it right? Isn’t that how members of the MCB greet one another? I’m the one who started the local division, and I want to make sure our details are correct.”

So the cockade was real, then. Mark stifled a groan. It had been foolish to hope that the MCB had restricted itself to London. It was embarrassing enough there, with those cockades and their weekly meetings. Not to mention the secret hand signals—somebody was always trying to teach him the secret hand signals.

Why was it that men had to take every good principle and turn it into some sort of a club? Why could nobody do the right thing on his own? And how had Mark gotten himself embroiled as the putative head of this one?

“I’m not a member of the Male Chastity Brigade,” Mark said, trying not to make his words sound like a rebuke. “I just wrote the book.”

For a moment, Tolliver simply stared at him in disbelief. Then he smiled. “Oh, that’s all right,” he said. “After all, Jesus wasn’t Church of England, either.”

Beside him, the rector nodded at this piece of utter insanity. Mark wasn’t sure whether he should laugh or weep.

Instead, he gently removed his hand from Tolliver’s grip. “One thing to consider,” he said. “Comparing me to Christ is…” Ridiculous, for one, but he didn’t want to humiliate the poor boy. A logical fallacy, for another. But this young man, however exuberant, meant well. And he was trying. It was hard to be angry about a youth throwing his heart and soul into chastity, when so many others his age were off pursuing prizefights and fathering bastards instead.

But without any chastisement on his part at all, the boy turned white. “Blasphemous,” he said. “It was blasphemous. I was just blasphemous in front of Sir Mark Turner. Oh, God.”

Mark decided not to mention he’d blasphemed again. “People are allowed to make mistakes in front of me.”

Tolliver lifted adoring eyes. “Yes. Of course. I should have known you’d have the goodness to forgive me.”

“I’m not a saint. I’m not a holy man. I just wrote a book.”

“Your humility, sir—your good nature. Truly, you are an example to us all,” Tolliver insisted.

“I make mistakes, too.”

“Really, sir? Might I inquire—how long has it been for you? How many days?”

The question was invasive and impolite, and Mark raised an eyebrow.

Tolliver cringed back a step in response. Perhaps he’d recognized the impertinence.

“I—I’m sure it’s in all the papers,” he said, “but we only get a handful of them, when someone visits London. I…I surely should know. P-please forgive my ignorance.”

Perhaps he hadn’t. And what did it matter if he asked Mark? Mark had written the book on chas tity. Literally. He sighed and performed a rough calculation. “Ten thousand,” he replied. “Give or take.”

The boy gave an impressed whistle.

Mark was less impressed. If there was a local MCB here, all that remained to cut up his peace was—

“Your worshippers are not restricted to the men, of course,” Lewis said. “On Sunday, after service, I hope to introduce you to my daughter, Dinah.”

—that. The constant efforts to thrust suitable women in Mark’s way. In all truth, Mark wouldn’t have minded meeting a woman who actually suited him. But beside him, Tolliver frowned, rubbing his chin, and glanced at Mark in consternation, as if the man had set himself

up as a sudden rival. If this Dinah was someone that interested the youthful Tolliver, it meant that this exchange was following the usual pattern. After all, the only women that others deemed suitable for a gentleman of his supposed righteousness were—

“She’s a sweet girl,” Lewis was saying, “obedient and chaste and comely. She’s biddable—a confident, strong man such as yourself would make her an extraordinary husband. And she’s not quite sixteen, so you could form her precisely as you wished.”

Of course. Mark shut his eyes in despair. Write a book on chastity, and somehow the whole world got the notion that your preferred bride would be a malleable child.


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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