“Yes, Mark,” she said softly. “You may call on me. Shall we say seven in the evening? I’ll make sure we’re alone.”
He nodded briefly and then leaned in and touched her lips once more with his. The contact was quick, warm—and yet it felt like a death knell, sealing her fate.
She was going to ruin him. She only prayed that she didn’t destroy herself in the process.
JESSICA HAD HOPED Mark would change his mind. Instead, he brought her flowers. He’d even picked them himself—a riotous mess of cow parsley and lilies. She could almost hear her heart crack when he handed the bouquet over.
While she found a container to put them in, he removed his hat and glove
s. He held them in his hands, turning them about uneasily before setting them in a heap on a side table. It was the first time he’d seemed visibly uncomfortable.
“You’re nervous,” she remarked. “Don’t be.”
He smiled faintly. “I’m still unsure of my reception.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Truly, Mark?”
His smile flickered, fading into resolve. His chin rose. And he took a step toward her. But he didn’t take her in his arms. He didn’t press his body full-length against hers. He didn’t even press a kiss on her. Instead, he took her hands in his. His fingers were warm and smooth.
And then, to her horror, he sank to one knee in front of her. He fumbled with the ring on his finger and slipped it into her waiting hand. “Jessica,” he said, his voice low, “will you do me the very great honor of granting me your hand in marriage?”
Her whole body went cold.
She hadn’t ruined him. She’d thought herself prepared for the evening, but she hadn’t expected this. Even if she’d never fallen—even if she’d been Jessica Carlisle, the virtuous vicar’s daughter, Mark would have been miles above her station. He was a duke’s brother. Queen Victoria had knighted him. She was nobody.
She didn’t know what to do.
She wouldn’t have to ruin him. He could obtain a special license in a few days with his brother’s help. They could be married before the truth of her background was discovered. She would never have to sell herself again. She could have her freedom and Mark, too.
But there was a difference between ruining his reputation and ruining his life. The gossip she would stir up by seducing him would blacken his name for months, but it would pass. Entrapping him into marriage? She’d be robbing him of all chance of future happiness under a cloud of lies. And that would be a lie she couldn’t escape, if she were bound to him—not with any amount of money.
She couldn’t do that to him. She couldn’t do that to herself.
“Jessica, darling,” Mark said, still on one knee, “you have to say yes before I can kiss you again.”
She hadn’t let herself think the words before. Love had seemed as futile an emotion as hope. What had been the point? But she knew it now. She loved him—loved that he would care so little for the difference in their stations, loved that she hadn’t been able to seduce him from his principles after all.
But love was not gentle. Love was not kind. And love was furiously, powerfully jealous. She couldn’t have him, and in just a few minutes, he wouldn’t want her. Every good thing that touched her life had always been ripped away. And Mark had been more wonderful than…than everything she’d had since Amalie.
She pulled her hand from his. “Sir Mark—”
“Mark.” His eyes clouded slightly.
“Sir Mark,” she continued, “I didn’t think you were coming here to offer marriage.”
He frowned in puzzlement. “What else would I offer?”
She met his eyes. “You told me yesterday you wanted to be my protector. You said you wanted me.”
“I did. I do.” He pushed up off the floor, awkwardly coming to his feet. “Whatever is the matter?”
“Protection isn’t synonymous with marriage. It’s what a man offers his mistress.”
He simply shook his head, still baffled. “Having never offered for a mistress, and having had no occasion to do so, I’m unfamiliar with the precise vocabulary. But, Jessica, I’ve been talking to you of marriage since the first day we walked to the Friar’s Oven.”
She’d noticed, too. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been taken by surprise. But somewhere in her mind, after every one of his sentences, she’d appended a but. He told her he was making a promise, and her imagination whispered but not that sort of promise. He’d said she wasn’t alone, and she’d heard an unspoken for now.
He’d flat out said he wanted to know her beyond the space of three dances, so he could determine if she was the sort of woman he would marry. But the notion that he would actually decide to marry her had never entered her mind. She wasn’t the kind of woman men married. She knew that. Apparently, he didn’t.
If she could go back to the beginning, start over by telling him the truth… No. There was no way to roll her past into a neat, honest ball. Her lies trailed behind her, hard and unflattering.
“I had no first marriage,” she said, turning from him. She walked away, so he couldn’t see the betraying liquid collect in the corner of her eyes.
“What was that?” She could hear him following after her, drawing close.
“You heard me correctly,” she said to the whitewash on the wall. “I have never been married. Just ruined. Again and again and again. I’ve been lying to you from the start.”
“Perhaps—that is—surely you had a good reason.” A note of uncertainty crept into his voice. “A very good reason.” He took a step toward her.
“I’m not a lady, down on her luck. I’m a courtesan. A whore. George Weston offered a bounty to any woman who seduced you, and I put myself forward for the task. I planned to announce the particulars to the ton, and to destroy your reputation.” She swallowed her tears. Love was angry, furious that he could make her feel such dreadful hope again and rip it from her in the same breath. She turned to face him, her hands in fists. “I thought you’d come today to hand me my victory.”
He had gone pale. Worse than pale; his eyes glittered, freezing, losing all the kindness she’d grown accustomed to seeing. “George Weston?” he repeated. “You kissed me because George Weston paid you to do it? What the devil does Weston have to do with any of this?”
“What does it matter? If you’d come here to take me to bed,” she told him, “I would have betrayed you. I would have let you tumble me any way you wanted, every way you wanted, as much as you wanted. And then I would have written an account and sent it in to the papers.”
“Ah.” His voice was arctic. “I see. But—but didn’t you— Surely you—” He swallowed. “No. I can’t believe that you’ve been telling me lies this whole time.”
It had been hard to tell him the truth. It was harder still to force her lips into the semblance of a smile, to let her eyes reflect nothing but smug satisfaction. She turned back to him. “Yes,” she said, “I was very believable, wasn’t I? I can’t believe you ate up every word.”
And, oh, how she wanted him to protest again.
Foolish, foolish hope. He looked at her with the tiniest curl to his lip, as if she were a snake polluting his garden and he was about to cast her out. “And here I thought that you’d overcome your initial distaste of me. Apparently I was wrong. You must have been laughing at me dreadfully, then, behind my back—mocking my lovesick ways—”
“Lovesick?” Her temper flared. “You don’t know what love means. If you think you have been sick with love, you must never have had the influenza. You’ve held yourself back at every turn. Every time I provoked a passionate response from you, you drew away. And why did you do it, Sir Mark? Because you’re not that kind of man. Because you wouldn’t stoop to letting yourself want. Do not pretend that I have done anything other than hurt your pride, substantial as that is.”
He stared at her grimly, his hand contracting at his side. “I would have forgiven almost anything—”
“Yes,” she said. “And how lovely that would have been for me, ten years down the road. To know that my husband had condescended to forgive me. To know that he always thought himself above me, that my sins were always a blot on my record, one that I could never make up. That every day he woke up knowing that he was my superior. I wager it made you feel quite proud of yourself, knowing that you were good enough to stoop to my level.”
His jaw set. But he didn’t deny what she’d said.
“You know,” she said, “I had some moral qualms about my role in this piece. It didn’t seem right to me to use you so. But truly, Sir Mark, you could s
tand to be knocked into the dust once or twice. Then you might think twice about how magnanimous you are in forgiving me my sins.”
“You have no idea.” His voice was low. “You have no bloody idea where I’ve been. And you have no idea what I want—wanted of you.”
Jessica raised her chin in the air. “I know enough to know that whatever it is you wanted, deep inside your skin, you’d never have let it out. Just as I know that as much as you’d like to smack me at this moment, you never will. No, Sir Mark. I do believe that whatever you might be feeling right now, you’ll bottle it up with the rest of your sentiment. You’ve kept yourself in too much of a cage to let a whore like me truly overset you.”