“My morals are not what they should be. Surely you must know that by now.”
“If you were truly bereft of morals, surely you would feel no compunction about lying to me. Is there anything else truly dire I need to know about you?”
“Oh, Sir Mark. I don’t even know where to begin with my direness. At this point, I’ve made so many mistakes I’m riddled with impossibility.” She shrugged. “And it’s not just my…my lack of chastity.”
“I suppose I should care about that.”
The fire cast his face into unforgiving shadow—an agony of expression that she could not dissipate. “Oh, no.” His voice rumbled. “All I can think—the only thought that enters my mind—is…” His body canted toward her, and she could not help but sway toward him. Until her bodice brushed his chest, until her fingers slid from his shoulder to his wrist, and the air in her lungs turned to fire.
“All you can think,” she breathed.
“All I can think,” he whispered, “is that you would want to be faithful to me.”
His hand slipped under the neckline of her gown and drew it down to expose her shoulder. A swelling ache went through her. It should not have made her gasp aloud, that innocent touch—nothing but his fingers against her collarbone, his skin against hers. But it was his fingertips that dragged across her shoulder, his caress that sent sparks shooting down her arm. And the intent in his eyes—serious and deliberate—transformed that touch beyond all possible innocence.
“If you were any other man,” she said, “I should think you were trying to have your way with me.”
“If I were any other man,” he said, “you wouldn’t let me do it. But I’m me. And my way doesn’t involve any having. I am making you a promise, not a proposition.”
Men always made promises at times like this, and Jessica had long learned to discount them. But Mark didn’t spell out the content of his promise. His lips brushed hers once more—gentle, not demanding. He didn’t fit into her understanding of the world.
“You told me once that I was safe with you.” Jessica ran her hand up the linen of his sleeve, leaning into him as she did. His body was hard planes of muscle, strong and imperturbable. “One of the most damning things about celibacy is this—this inability to touch another person. Not to engage in intercourse. Just to touch.”
He did not say anything, but his eyes fluttered shut.
“Back when I was home with my sisters, I took touch for granted. That every night, there would be someone who would do up my hair in braids, that I might receive an embrace at bedtime, that I might jostle my sister in the morning with my elbow, to have her hurry while she washed.” She could not forget, it seemed, why she’d come. It returned to her, no matter how she tried to drive it away. Because now his hand had drifted to her hair in a sweet caress. He’d given her the comfort she’d needed.
“After I left home,” she said, “I found a friend. Her name was Amalie. She wasn’t…she wasn’t what she should be, either. She gave me advice—hard advice that I needed to hear. She saved my life. For seven years, she was my reason to live—my one true friend, who I could count on through the most impossible hardship.”
And now her eyes were beginning to sting. The tears that had evaded her earlier built.
“I received word today that there was an accident in London.” Jessica took a deep breath. “And so now I am truly alone. No touch is innocent anymore. Even before this, there were days I was so hungry for simple warmth that I would have given up anything—anything—to have it.”
He leaned into her. Her lips tingled in anticipation, but he didn’t kiss her. Instead, his arms came around her, pulling her close. His hand stroked down her spine, slowly, as if he were counting each vertebra and storing the memory in some cool cellar. She could feel his breath on her neck. Her eyes shivered shut, and she held on to him.
Just an innocent embrace. And yet…not. He inhaled raggedly.
“No,” he said softly. “No, you’re not.”
“I’m starving for affection.”
“That’s not what I meant. You’re not alone.”
And maybe that was the substance of his unspoken promise. The muscles that held her so tightly were rigid with restrained want. His fingers bit into her spine, as if anchoring himself to reality. Just one caress from her, one little kiss, and she might unleash all his dammed-up desire. She could win. And if she did, even this embrace would be tarnished in her memory, all the warmth stolen away into sick certainty.
No. She was alone, and she couldn’t let herself forget it. It was idiotic to nourish this sense of being wanted, to soak in his touch. To treasure, one last time, something sweet and unsullied. It was a foolish indulgence not to press her advantage now, not to slide her fingers under his waistband and inflame him further. Because if there was one rule that Amalie had burned into her memory, it was this: Survive. Survive at all costs.
Now, she had to live for them both.
He held on to her until his breath evened out, until the urgent tension faded from her grip.
She was weak. She was indulgent. Because she couldn’t make herself ruin him today.
She reached her hand up to touch his face and whispered to him. “Now…” she said quietly. “Now, I think it’s time I go home.”
And this time, she let him go.
THE RED LIGHT of the setting sun invaded Mark’s bedchamber. The rays bombarded him when he tried to look out his window. He could see only a trace of a silhouette—the echo of a hill, limned in crimson, impossible to focus on through the harsh sunset.
When he turned away, an imprint of the sun remained, etched indelibly over his vision.
Jessica was rather like that. When she was about, he burned. He couldn’t even see straight anymore. And when she was not… He had only to shut his eyes, and he could see her smile at him across a field of dandelions.
Lust wasn’t a stranger. It wasn’t even an enemy. Lust had always seemed something of an itinerant peddler to Mark: always showing up when least expected, clamoring on his doorstep. Either you stopped up your ears and hoped that it would give up and go away, or you were driven past all hope of ignoring it. At that point, you made a token purchase—something you didn’t need and shouldn’t want.
After what had happened earlier that night, his lust wasn’t going away. It had lodged underneath his skin, taking up its complaints in the form of a persistent throb.
A breath of night wind curled through his window. Even that hint of coolness could not calm the storm of his thoughts. God, he wanted her. There was only one way to calm the clamor of his body.
What he was about to do was classified as a sin. He unwound his cravat from his neck, setting his mouth in a grim line. But it was a case of kittens: better the little sin of relieving this tension, than risk losing his mind entirely the next time he was in her presence. And there would be a next time. And a next. And a time after that.
The sun blinded him as he worked. But his vision was ruined in any event. Even without the sun, he wouldn’t have been able to see himself pull the tails of his shirt out. He wouldn’t have been able to make out the buttons on the fall of his trousers.
No. In his mind, no matter what he willed, he saw her: the pins slipping from her hair. Her curls, drifting past pale shoulders. And in his mind, it wasn’t the dark red dress that she wore. It was the black shift he’d glimpsed underneath, clinging to her every curve.
When he let his trousers fall to the ground, he was thinking about taking off her chemise. Of raising it, to show ankles he’d seen—and then more that he hadn’t. Calves. Thighs. If lust had clamored
in him before, it rose up in him now—powerful and impossible to displace. His skin seemed on fire.
He was still standing. He shrugged out of his shirt; in his mind, he was not the only naked one. He caught hold of the carved wood post of his bed with one hand. With the other…
It should have been a clinical act, what followed. It was a sin, after all—a lesser one than actually taking a woman to his bed, but a sin nonetheless. But it didn’t feel like a sin when his erection filled his palm. It didn’t feel like a sin when his grip tightened around his member. And when he thought of her lips against his, remembered the taste of her mouth, sweet against his tongue—she felt right, no matter what his reason said.
It was not his own practiced touch that he felt, but the cool brush of her fingers. His imagination conjured up her body, sliding against his. Her hair, draping like cool silk over his chest. He strained forward, as if he might find her mouth.