Unclaimed (Turner 2) - Page 39

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Mark had almost forgotten it. But with those words, the past few weeks crashed in on him. He’d been certain that Jessica was the one, right up until he’d had the numbing realization that she most decidedly wasn’t. It hurt all over again.

“Probably not,” Mark said, aiming for nonchalance. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“Hmm.” Smite tucked the edge of a rag into the ball. “You told me she was gorgeous and intelligent. I presume she’s virtuous, too. If she has any brains at all, I can’t imagine what the problem could be. Don’t tell me her parents don’t approve. Just get Ash to charm some sense into them.”

“Not you, too.” Mark put his head in his hands. “Why does everyone think that my dearest wish is to have some innocent little wisp of a virgin?”

“I can’t imagine,” Smite said dryly. “It couldn’t be because you wrote a book about chastity.”

Sarcasm. It flowed between them as naturally as breathing. He needed that, now—something familiar to grab on to, something besides anger and some deep, dark, cavernous want.

“It turns out George Weston hired her to seduce me. She’s actually a courtesan. Can we talk of something else?”

“You asked a courtesan to marry you?”

“Just be quiet about it already.”

Smite was silent for a while longer. “Do you care for her?” he finally asked.

“I asked her to marry me. What do you suppose?”

“That answer goes to whether you cared for her in the past. I did not ask you that question. I asked you whether you care for her now. In the present.”

“I don’t know. How could I? I was utterly misled. How could I have been so wrong about her?”

His brother leaned forward and set his hand on Mark’s shoulder.

“That’s simple,” Smite said. His voice was low and soothing, the gentle brush of his fingers comforting.

Smite was not one to indulge in physical affection. He froze when Mark embraced him, shied away from all contact beyond a handshake. Mark could hardly blame him, under the circumstances. And so if Smite thought it necessary to touch him in comfort, he must be in a bad way indeed.

He’d always wanted to protect Smite from this. For all that his brother was the elder, they’d been forged in the same place—Smite the anvil, Mark the hammer. They’d come to blows often enough when they were younger. But when it had come down to it, they’d faced the fire together.

Perhaps his brother was right, and it was a simple case. Just clouded judgment.

But, oh, how his judgment had clouded. He’d wanted her, yes—but he’d wanted other women before. He knew what mere physical want felt like. With Jessica… He’d wanted her. He’d wanted to win her regard. And he’d thought that she’d seen him, really seen him, both bad and good. This was so much more than a simple rejection. He’d wanted to know her, not just her body, but her entire self.

She’d not wanted to know him at all.

“I wish it were simple.”

“It is simple,” his brother corrected. “I know precisely why you were wrong about her.”

“You do?”

“Yes.” Smite patted his shoulder. “It’s because you’re an idiot.”

That won a weak chuckle, but at least it was real. So. There was hope after Jessica. It only felt as if he was being torn to pieces. He would survive.

“Probably,” he admitted. “But you know—it runs in the family.”

THE CARD THAT Jessica had saved directed her to the middle floor of a Cheapside flat. A young maid-of-all-work let her in and deposited her in a faded parlor. The white of the walls had gone to yellow, and the brown of the upholstery had bleached to sand. Even the wood of the furniture seemed muted.

Jessica sat on a chair, as directed; it squeaked ominously, even under so slight a weight as hers. Jessica was tired. After Mark had left, she and her maid had spent the night packing frantically so that Jessica and her trunks could be loaded onto a dogcart in time to reach the railway station at Bath. The train had been delayed, though, and she’d stayed on the smoky platform two hours.

Her last few coins had paid passage for herself and Marie. When they’d arrived in London, she’d scrawled a note to her solicitor, advising him to give the girl enough to survive on and a reference. Jessica, after all, would soon have no need for a maid.

Her muscles ached from the train ride. She’d not thought it would be so strenuous to simply sit in one place—but the car had rocked back and forth in an ungentle, insistent rhythm, and the strangeness of the noise had kept her from nodding off. It had given her time to think. By the time she’d reached London, she had known how to proceed.

She was going to do what she always did. She was going to survive.

The curtains in Mr. Parret’s room were thrown back to show a dark London street. Maybe it was not the room that was muted. Maybe it was her.

“Oh, my.”

Jessica turned at the words. A young girl stood behind her, one hand on the door frame.

“Are you a lady?” the child asked.

The girl was undoubtedly Parret’s offspring. On her, those weedy features had muted into delicate femininity. Nigel Parret hadn’t been lying about having a beautiful daughter.

“No,” Jessica said, “I’m not a lady.”

The girl’s eyes widened, and she took a step forward. “But you cannot be a gentleman!” she exclaimed. “And you don’t look like a maid.”

The girl was maybe four years of age—a bit younger than Jessica’s sister, Ellen, had been when Jessica left home. Clearly not of an age to learn the various sordid distinctions among women.

“Belinda!” Mr. Parret’s voice interrupted from the hall. “Sweetheart, where is your governess? How many times must I tell you, you’re not to disturb my guests?”

“Miss Horace fell asleep.”

Parret turned the corner and lifted his daughter into his arms. “Very well, then. I’ll just—”

He stopped, looking at Jessica. “Ah,” he said, the good cheer vanishing from his voice. “You. You’re the one who had me sent out of Shepton Mallet. You’ve cost me a pretty penny, you know. Reporteress.”

Perhaps that was what she’d become, over the course of one train ride. A reporteress. Jessica simply inclined her head to him.

“I knew it.” Parret’s arms clasped his daughter, and he half turned from Jessica, as if to shield young Belinda from the horror of a woman with a vocation. “Have you come to gloat, then? You had the exclusive interview. These last days, since Sir Mark tossed me out on my ear, I’ve had precious little to write about. I suppose you’re very happy indeed.”

“No, I’m not happy,” Jessica said. “But it happens that I came to sell you a story. I’ve written it partway already.”

/> “Oh, and now you’ll come crawling to me.” He snorted. “And why should I do business with you?”

“Because otherwise I shall go to your competitors. They haven’t your reputation for the truth, but in a pinch—”

“Go! Why should I care?”

In response, Jessica reached up and undid the simple chain at her neck. The unwieldy pendant that hung on its end emerged from between her breasts. She set it atop the papers she’d brought.

Mr. Parret stared at the item she’d placed in front of him.

It was, of course, Mark’s ring. The onyx in its center winked up at her.

Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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