Unclaimed (Turner 2) - Page 42

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He smiled at her indulgently. “I know why you came. You always did want to make sure the details were squared away. Here.” He pulled a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and slid it across the table. “You’ve earned it.”

She waited until he pulled his hand away before she looked at the paper. It was a bank draft. She hadn’t come here to take his money. She’d come here to denounce him.

But that was before she’d seen that he’d made the cheque out in the amount of three hundred pounds. She tasted bitter charcoal. She lifted her eyes to him. “How odd. We agreed on fifteen hundred.”

He gave her a negligent smile. “Come, Jess. You know I’m not overly wealthy. Besides, I’ve a reputation to maintain—I can’t be throwing all my free capital into whores, no matter what sort of benefits they offer me.”

Jessica tapped her fingers against the paper. “I don’t see how the state of your funds is any concern of mine. I certainly don’t care about your reputation. We had a deal, you and I. It was spelled out. Quite clearly.”

“What are you going to do?” he asked. “Take me to court? You know that our little bargain is quite unenforceable.” He leaned across the table, his hand reaching to brush against the side of her cheek. “If you want to earn the rest, you know how you can get it.”

She slapped his hand away. “Why would you suppose that you could motivate me to enter into one contract with you by reneging on another?”

He didn’t say anything, simply shaking his head.

It wasn’t as if it was the first time he’d done this to her. She’d had a contract with him before—she’d insisted on it. And when it had come down to it, he’d broken that one, too—splintered it clean in half, nearly killing her in the process. He wasn’t a bad man. He was just…an unthinking pinchpenny. He’d put his pocketbook before his obligations once before. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he’d done so again.

“I wouldn’t touch you for twice that amount.” She glanced down at the bank draft. “For any sum.”

“Come now, I wasn’t that bad. I would think that after being pawed over by a virgin, you’d welcome a man of some experience.”

She stood. “Sir Mark made me feel more when he touched my hand than you ever managed.”

His jaw worked, and he reached for the cheque. Without thinking, Jessica slammed her hand over it and glared at him. She hadn’t earned it—he only thought she had. In truth, she had no right to the funds. But then…

The memory of those months after he’d so casually broken their last contract came to mind. The illness. The darkness. The feeling that she would never hope for the future again. He could never repay her for those months. He could never banish the sadness she would carry, not with every penny in his accounts. He owed her.

She couldn’t collect. But she had already humiliated him; he just didn’t know it yet. When he read the final chapter in the serial she’d written, he would understand precisely what she’d done.

By the time that happened, she’d have taken his funds. He didn’t know where she was staying, and in a few weeks, she would leave London for good. It wasn’t justice—she could never get justice for what he’d done to her. But it was indubitably right.

“Jess,” he said. “Do be reasonable.”

She folded up the draft and slipped it into her pocket. “My name isn’t Jess.”

“No? Then what should I call you?”

“Weston,” she said simply, “you’re not going to see me. If you look for me, I’ll leave.”

“And what if I insist?”

She lowered her voice. “I’ll shoot you. Stay away from me.”

“Jess!” he called after her.

But she wasn’t turning back, not for him. Not ever. She held her head high and marched onward.

AFTER M ARK’S WALKING trip, London was…gray.

Even though they’d not talked about Jessica, Smite must have sensed Mark was still unhappy, because he’d accompanied Mark and Ash to London without a word of explanation. He’d even agreed to attend a soiree. He’d probably done so to make sure Mark had no time to think on that first evening back.

It was the first time that all three of the Turners had ever appeared at a soiree together. They’d arrived in town only just in time to wash and dress for the event that evening. They entered the room, Mark’s brothers flanking him on either side.

Heads turned as they were announced. Mark shouldn’t have been surprised. Ash was a duke; Mark still seemed possessed of an inexplicable popularity. And Smite was wealthy, good-looking…and never around, which made everyone wonder about him.

Mark had been away from London—away from polite society in its entirety—long enough that he’d forgotten what it was like to attend one of these events. Everyone was looking at him. This was normal, he reminded himself. Everyone was always looking at him; it was only his imagination that found a trace of pity in their gazes. They didn’t know what had happened while he was gone. None of them did.

This was just the usual adoration that he collected, simply because he was a knight, because he was popular and because he was wealthy. It chafed more than usual tonight.

But when he looked to either side of him he realized that he was wealthy. Just not in the way that these people thought. There had been lean years before Ash had made his fortune; Mark could still bring to mind the feeling of hunger, not so much a memory as an occasional itch that sometimes tickled the back of his mind from time to time. And yet…if there was luxury in this world, it wasn’t velvet waistcoats or top hats. It wasn’t a perfectly sprung carriage or marchpane delicacies served on silver platters.

It was this—this certainty that without his even asking, his brothers would stand at his side. Even Smite. Even in this crowd. All his life, his brothers had protected him. He’d been born rich.

Perhaps that was why he found the strength to paste a false smile on his face, to clasp hands with a friend he’d not seen in months. Perhaps that was why he could dismiss the sidelong glances, the murmurs behind shielded hands. Perhaps that was why he could converse easily and pretend that nothing had happened in his absence. He knew that his brothers were there for him, a foundation that would never crumble no matter what he faced.

It was even easy to ask a young lady to dance, although he somehow missed her name when they’d been introduced. He could pretend perfectly; all he had to do was act by rote, like a clockwork knight wound up for a performance.

But he had only to think of what he was not pretending about, and the memory returned, shocking and vivid. The women at the ball were faded portraits of femininity compared to Jessica. She was warmer, more vibrant. And though the woman he was waltzing with—a debutante who watched him with a puzzled look on her face—was quite pretty, he could hardly attend to her conversation.

It still hurt to think of Jessica. But that pain was beginning to fade to the dull ache of a wound that was healing.

“Do you still think of her, then?” the young lady asked.

Mark frowned at her. Had he spoken those last words aloud? He hadn’t. He was sure he hadn’t. He shook his head uncertainly.

The young lady was looking at him. She didn’t have the usual look of adoration that a debutante in her position might have exhibited. “Did you love her?” she asked breathlessly. “It is the question everyone wants answered, after all.”

He barely managed not to trip over his own feet. “What are you talking about?”

“The woman in the papers,” she said, “of course. What else should I be talking about? Nobody has been talking about anything else for days. And now that the last of the serial has run—”

“The serial? What serial do you mean?”

“You haven’t seen it?” Her eyes widened. “And here all my friends had deputized me to get the particulars from you. You must have seen it.”

“I’ve been out of town for weeks.” He felt faintly sick. Why hadn’t anyone told Ash?

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But, no—they’d arrived hours after his men of business would have departed. Mark could see precisely what had happened. No doubt they’d deputized Jeffreys, Ash’s right-hand man, to deliver the bad news. No doubt Jeffreys had left Ash a report, and the remainder of the servants, delighted to know they would not need to bring it up, had kept quiet.

Or not so quiet. Was that what his valet had meant when he said Mark had been busy in the country?

“My brothers and I—we’ve been out of town these last few days. We’ve been utterly unreachable.”


Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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