Unclaimed (Turner 2) - Page 36

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He paused. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon; only a ring of red painted the hills.

“Even starved, homeless and desperate, I knew what the right thing to do was. As little as my brother and I had, we had more than this wretch. We could have done something. And knowing Smite, he would have done it.” His hand balled into a fist. “I knew the right thing to do. And I also knew that if I picked that child up, my brother would not let it starve—even if it meant that we would. And so I walked away. And I didn’t tell him.”

He stared off into the twilight.

“You cannot blame yourself for that. How old were you?”

“Old enough to know right from wrong.”

“Fourteen? Fifteen?”

“Ten.”

She balled her hand and brought it to her mouth. Ten years old and starving on the streets.

“Ash arrived that afternoon. I insisted that we go back, but the infant was gone by then.”

“You were ten. You had nothing. And in any event, that baby needed a wet nurse, not your leftover scraps.”

He said nothing in response.

“While we’re at it, the reason it was gone was probably that someone else found it and brought it to the parish.”

“But I didn’t. Every time I have been tempted to sin since—and I have been tempted a thousand times since—I have remembered that discarded, unwanted bundle of humanity. I think of the woman who left her newborn child in an alley. But mostly, I think about how alone she was. I think about the man who was not there in that alley at all. I am not going to be him.”

Her hand was on his elbow. She let it slide down his forearm until his hand engulfed hers, warm and alive.

“I see,” she said. He’d earned his knighthood years ago.

His grip tightened around hers. “That’s what I mean when I say I’m not a saint.”

“You’re a good deal better, Sir Mark.”

He reached with his free hand and caught her other elbow. Their fingers twisted together. In the fast-fading light, his expression was shadowed. “No.”

“Yes.”

“I meant—no. After what I’ve told you, I had better be just Mark to you. Only Mark.”

“You will never be only Mark to me,” she said fiercely. “Not in a thousand years. You’re—you’re—”

“What, just because I know a little thing like chastity would make the world a better place? I’ve said nothing that every woman does not already know. Tell me, Mrs. Farleigh—if your Mr. Farleigh had kept to the laws of chastity, what would your life be like now?”

There was no Mr. Farleigh. There never had been. But there had been a man, once…

She shut her eyes. “He seduced me,” she finally said. “At that age, I didn’t think. Or if I did, I believed I was indomitable. When you’re young, nothing can ever go wrong. Bad things happen to other people—people far less clever, and far uglier—than I was. The rules of propriety existed for stupid, unlucky girls.”

She swallowed. “I thought nothing would ever happen to me. Until it did. He kissed me, and I didn’t think about chastity or right or wrong. I didn’t think about the consequences, or what effect my choice would have on my parents or my sisters. Before I knew it, I was compromised so thoroughly that my family wouldn’t have me in the house. It did happen to me, and I was the stupid girl.”

His hand twisted in hers, slipping, caressing her palm through her glove, her wrist. Then his fingers found the edge of her glove. Slowly, he stripped it off, baring her hand to the cool night air. To his touch. Skin slid against skin.

“I’ve been miserable ever since,” she finished.

“How old were you?”

“Fourteen.”

He didn’t say anything to that, just drew her closer, pulling her hand, leading her as if in a dance until she stood inches from him.

His other hand moved to her chin and tipped it up.

“Jessica,” he said gravely, “I will be your champion, if you let me. If I have to take on the role of knight, I want to be yours. Let me be your protector.”

The words sent a flurry of confusion through her. “You’re offering to be my protector? You’ll get no honor from association with me.”

In response, he kissed her. Not a short, chaste kiss. Not even a long, lingering kiss, sweet and yet still chaste. No. It was heat. It was fire. It was everything he’d been holding back. His body pressed against hers, hard, leaving no secrets. His mouth took hers without question.

She dissolved in his touch, disappeared as his hands cupped her face, pulling her closer still. Not chastity, this, but an invitation. A prelude to sin and scandal. It made no sense, not with what he’d just told her.

“Hang honor,” he whispered, pulling away to breathe kisses against her neck. “Hang my reputation. I don’t care what the world thinks of me.”

He pressed against her once more. His words were as drugging as his kiss, threatening to overwhelm her.

She set her hands on his chest and pushed away. “You can’t mean it. You’ve lost your head over a kiss. You can’t mean that you’d give up fame, your prestige, your rank in society—”

“It will hardly be so dire. But yes, Jessica. If that’s what it means to have you.” He sighed, blew out his breath. “I’m getting rather ahead of myself.” His voice was rough. “I…I’d like a chance to do this properly. Might I call on you tomorrow evening?” His voice dropped. “Alone.”

Tomorrow evening. She’d have precisely one day to ruin him, then. How…how convenient.

Yes, Sir Mark. I’ll ruin you.

Yes, Sir Mark. I’ll meet you alone and take you to bed.

Yes, Sir Mark. I’ll steal your honor and your good name, and trade it for thirty pieces of silver.

“Don’t freeze up on me. I’ve been thinking of nothing other than you for days. Nights, too.”

Oh, yes. She’d won. But this wasn’t the victory she’d hoped for when she first came up with this plan. She needed it to be strictly lust that drove him to her bed, not this quiet consideration. She wanted her own emotion to be calm and disengaged. She wanted his surrender to be nothing but the cold, clinical slide of male into female.

There was nothing clinical about the touch of his hand on her face. It wasn’t lust that had her sipping the air he breathed. And it wasn’t just her body he wanted.

You are not alone. Let me be your protector.

Victory was bitter. It hurt.

She looked up into his eyes. There’s an odd sort of integrity to you.

He was wrong. He was so wrong. Still, what was she to do? If she walked away from him now, she’d have nothing. If she did this to him…

But what choice did she have? Nothing awaited her in London but more debts, more dishonor. She couldn’t do this to him, but she couldn’t go back to London, couldn’t resume her old life. She just couldn’t.

No, Jessica. If you can survive Amalie’s death, you can survive this, too.

“Jessica?” His hand touched her cheek. “I want this. I want you.”

It would utterly damn her to destroy the trust of the only good man she’d ever met. But then, she was already damned. If she was going to be hanged for a lamb, she might as well be hanged for the entire flock.


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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