“I’m twenty-eight,” Mark said dryly.
“Not yet twice her age, then!” the rector said, with a smile that contained not a hint of awareness. He leaned forward and whispered confidentially, “I should hate to see her saddled to an old man. Or—” he cast a pointed look at Tolliver “—a young pup, who scarcely knows his own mind. Now. I know you’re keeping a bachelor household. I can start drawing up a rotation immediately. If we have you scheduled for tea and supper on a daily basis, why, within six weeks, all of the best families—”
“No.” There was nothing for it. Mark was going to have to be rude. “Absolutely not. I came here for peace and solitude—not daily engagements. Certainly not twice daily engagements.”
The man’s face fell. Tolliver flinched, and Mark felt as if he had just kicked a puppy. Why, oh, why, could his book not have disappeared into a sea of anonymity, as most books did?
“Weekly,” Mark conceded. “No more.”
The rector gave a long-suffering sigh. “I suppose. Perhaps if we had larger events. A church picnic? Yes. That should answer. Followed by—oh, dear.” Lewis glanced across the square and his voice hardened. “Well. At least this way, we can keep you from the unsavory elements.”
Mark followed his gaze. A few rays of sun shone through the clouds, brightening the produce in the market shambles across the square. The patrons at the marketplace had arrayed themselves so that they all had a view of him. But the rector was staring at a woman who had entered the square.
For an instant, all Mark could see was her hair—an ebony spill of ink, braided and pinned up in intricate loops that just kissed her shoulders, covered with the barest excuse for a lace bonnet. He’d always thought of black as a colorless hue, but her hair seemed so black it was every color at once, the rays of the sun spangling it. And there was a great mass of it on her head. Freed from the pins and braids, rid of that flimsy bit of lace, all that dark hair would reach past her thighs. It would be a great warm cloud of silk in his hands.
She moved smoothly, almost gliding over the cobblestones. Her strides suggested long, lean legs beneath her flowing skirts. She stopped before the public house. Even though it was not yet market day, the greengrocer had begun to gather goods for the next morning. She peered at the items and made the act of examining a head of cabbage seem like a verse of poetry.
It was only then that he noticed precisely what the rector was staring at. Her gown was the lightest shade of pink, but she had cinched it at her waist with a cherry-red ribbon. Yet more ribbons were threaded through the bodice of her gown, drawing attention to the curves of her breasts. Not that her bosom needed attention to be drawn to it; her figure was, to put it mildly, stunning. She wasn’t impossibly thin and delicate; nor was she extraordinarily buxom. Still, she somehow made every woman around her seem wrong and ill-proportioned by comparison.
For just one second, Mark felt a wistful tug. Why doesn’t anyone ever try and foist women like her off on me instead?
In London, she would have garnered second and third glances—more out of curiosity and admiration than contempt. Here? No doubt the inhabitants of Shepton Mallet had no idea what to make of a woman like this one—or a gown as daring as the one she wore. But Mark knew. That was the sort of dress that commanded: look at me.
Mark had never taken well to commands. He turned away.
“Ah, yes,” the rector said. “Mrs. Farleigh.” The stuffy tone of his voice suggested that Mrs. Farleigh was an unwelcome inhabitant of the village, but it was belied by the rector’s posture. He watched her, his eyes following her across the square with an expression that was closer to avarice than outrage. “Just look at her!”
Mark wasn’t one to gawk. In his mind, he built a wall of glass bricks—clear, yet impenetrable. With every inhalation, he reminded himself of who he was. What he believed. Breath by breath, brick by brick, he built a fortress to contain his want before it had a chance to roar to uncomfortable life. He stood behind it, lord of his own desire, until nobody could command anything of him.
Not want. Not desire. And definitely—most definitely—not lust. When he was in firm control, he looked again. Even with that gut-struck feeling of stupidity walled off, she was objectively, undeniably beautiful.
“She arrived almost two weeks ago. She’s a widow. Still, she’s said little about her people or her past. I suspect it’s because she feels it’s best left unsaid. One has only to look at her to imagine what she’s done.”
Rectors, Mark supposed, were as free to imagine lascivious goings-on as anyone else. He didn’t think they should gossip about them, though. Mrs. Farleigh looked up across the market square, and her gaze fell on him. Her expression didn’t change—which was to say, that small mysterious curl of a smile stayed on her lips.
Still, even through his fortress of glass, he felt a tiny jolt of electric resonance, as if lightning had struck nearby. She started in his direction.
Before she could come much closer, the rector snapped into motion. He darted through the stone arches of the Market Cross and took hold of Mrs. Farleigh’s shoulder. Not in a friendly, rectorlike way. Nor even as a rebuke. His gloved hand landed rather too close to her breast for any of that.
Mrs. Farleigh’s artful smile suggested that she was worldly. Her revealing gown shouted that she was a temptress. The rector’s gossip said she was worse. But when Lewis placed his hands on her, she flinched—no more than a half step backward, a twitch of her skin, but that was enough. For one instant, she had more the look of scalded cat about her than graceful swan, and that half second of response betrayed her air of worldly sensuality. She was not who she appeared at first blush.
Mark was suddenly interested—interested in a way that a low-cut gown and a striking figure could never have accomplished.
From these yards away, he could barely make out the conversation. No doubt neither believed they could be overheard. But they stood just on the other side of the Market Cross, and the acoustics through the stone were unexpectedly good.
“Come, Mrs. Farleigh,” the rector was whispering harshly. “As it’s not market day, there’s no need to display your wares so openly. Nobody here is buying those sorts of goods.”
Mrs. Farleigh had flinched at his touch. But at the intimation that she was selling her body, she did not react in the slightest. “Oh, Reverend,” she replied, equally softly. “Whatsoever is sold in the shambles…”
She trailed off, invitingly, and Mark automatically filled in the remainder: Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that, eat, asking no question for conscience sake. The words took him two decades back, to his earliest memories—reciting Bible verses while his mother looked at the wall behind him, her head nodding in time to music that only she seemed to hear. Those words he’d memorized were still burned into him, that sharp juxtaposition of right and horribly, terribly wrong.
Lewis shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We sell corn here. And cattle.”
Her smile ticked up another notch, and Mark’s respect for her increased. The rector—upstanding, breast-grappling citizen that he was—hadn’t noticed that the godless Mrs. Farleigh had just quoted the Bible at him. He probably hadn’t even recognized the verse. Mrs. Farleigh’s hand drifted to her shoulder, to the point where the rector’s hand lay. She picked his gloved fingers up between thumb and forefinger, as if a dead leaf had landed on her, and then let his arm drop to his side.
“I shan’t keep you, Rector,” she said, her voice gentle. “I’m sure there are a great many things you would like to purchase. Maybe the other wares you examine will actually be for sale.”
She turned away, not looking at Mark. The rector stared after her, folding his arms about his chest in dissatisfaction. He watched her go with rather more interest than a rector ought to have had. Finally, he turned to face Mark. “There,” he said, in a loud, carrying voice, as he wiped his hands together. “Don’t you worry, Sir Mark. We’ll make sure that the
likes of her never bother you again.”
Mark glanced once at Mrs. Farleigh, who was walking back toward the greengrocer. The red of her sash made the stack of radishes look pale by comparison. She made the entire town seem faded and washed out, like a poor watercolor painting of itself.
He was chaste, not a saint. And he was just looking.
But she’d already made a contradiction of herself, one as stark and intriguing as the light color of her dress, juxtaposed against the vibrant slash of color at her waist. She’d called the rector a hypocrite to his face, and the man hadn’t even noticed. What would she say if she looked Mark in the eyes?
Would she see a saint? An icon to be worshipped?
Or would she see him?
The possibility hung in the air, too powerful to be ignored. No. No use telling himself falsehoods. He wasn’t just looking at her. He wanted to know more.
JESSICA HAD NOT considered what it meant, that Sir Mark was returning to his childhood home for the summer. She’d lived in—or near enough to— London for the past seven years of her life. Her protectors had taken her along on their excursions to the country. But improper as her role had been, they would never have introduced her to the neighbors. She’d imagined the country as a smaller, more private version of the city—just with fewer people and no operas. So quickly had she forgotten her childhood.
In a way, she did have more privacy. Jessica had found a cottage on the outskirts of town, half a mile past the point where cobblestones gave way to dirt and houses to fields. She sometimes went hours without seeing a soul besides the maid-of-all-work she’d brought with her from London.