I hated him. I loved him. His heart raced. He could almost reach out and touch the loneliness in her words.
I loved him. After the spare, quiet words of her narration, those three words echoed. It might have been a lie. It might have been a dramatization.
It felt like the truth.
He’d held to the notion that she’d lied to him because he’d not wanted to contemplate an alternate possibility. He had imagined her laughing at him. He’d imagined her meeting with George Weston and mocking his tentative adoration. He’d believed all that, because the alternative was that he’d promised her she wasn’t alone, and he’d lied.
I loved him. He felt drunk and uncertain, as if he’d been assailed by a vertigo of the soul.
I loved him. But she’d lied to him. He grasped for the fading shreds of his righteous indignation, but it fled. She’d hurt him. Wasn’t that worth something?
I loved him, but a woman like me could never have a man like him.
He’d been blind. And stupid. And wrong. So focused on his own hurt that he’d not stopped to question. She’d practically begged him not to like her. She’d told him she was ruined and outcast. How was she surviving? If she’d stooped to seducing him, how badly had she needed the money? And what was she doing now?
Mark was wealthy beyond imagining. He’d had letters and love and companionship all his life.
But where was she? Whom was she with?
How was he to find her?
He stared into the darkness, questions dancing about him. He stared until the night seemed to take on colors of its own before his unblinking eyes. He stayed there for minutes longer, listening to his brothers’ silence, until finally Ash punched him lightly on the shoulder and then, as if deciding against it, converted the motion into a gentle pat. The fire snapped behind them.
“How much of that was a factual account?” Ash asked eventually.
Mark shook his head. “She omitted the portions that don’t reflect well on me. I told her about Mother—if she’d wanted to embarrass us, she could easily have done so.”
“Hmm.” That was Smite.
“Do you want me to have the paper print a retraction?” Ash asked. “I could…buy the building in which it resides. Make life difficult for the owner.”
“It’s all true. She actually painted me in a…a fairly flattering light. She didn’t even mention the times I kissed her.”
Mark felt his brothers turn next to him, as if exchanging careful glances.
“You kissed her?” Ash asked.
“Times?” Smite echoed. “Plural?”
“There’s no need to sound so surprised. I’m chaste, not dead. Although it was close on more than one occasion. Really close.” He hunched into the cushion and shut his eyes.
“Oh, well done,” Smite said. “Well done.”
“It wasn’t done at all,” Mark mumbled. “Well or poorly.”
“Honestly,” Ash said, “what is it you want, Mark? Do you want this stopped? I’ll stop it. Do you want her found and silenced? I’ll pay her whatever you want. You have only to ask and it is yours.”
What did he want? He felt as if he were on the edge of a precipice, posed to fall. He reached for the shreds of his balance, sought out calmness, peace, quiet…
But no. She thought that a woman like her could never have a man like him. He’d excoriated the MCB as a bunch of hypocrites. Women are the point of chastity, not the enemy of it, he’d said.
Fine words. But what was the point of holding one’s own balance on the cliffside only to see the woman you cared for topple over the side?
“Yes,” Mark said. “Ash, I do want your help. Let me explain what I need…”
THE RAIN SLASHED against Jessica’s cloak as she fumbled in her pocket for the key to her London flat. The few rooms she had were in White chapel, and the streets were dingy. She’d taken them late in the spring as a temporary place to store her things while she went to Shepton Mallet, and so that she would have someplace to retreat to once she’d finished with Sir Mark. The rooms didn’t feel like home, but until Parret delivered the final payment, she needed somewhere to stay.
The dark clouds had come on quickly that night. She ducked her head in front of the door, her fingers chilled and clumsy. Iron rattled in the keyhole. It had been a few days since the last serial had been published. It should have made her feel queasy, knowing her words were out there for anyone to see. She’d heard that Mark was in town—that he’d arrived last night.
She didn’t want to think of him. Of what she’d done to him. She had done what she always did: she had survived, and never mind the cost. The key finally turned in the lock, and she wiped the water that trickled down the side of her face. In the doorway, she turned to wring the wet wool of her cloak into the street.
A single street lamp burned on the corner, scarcely cutting through the dark night storm. The gaslight didn’t seem to illuminate. It cast only shadows—long, dark slashes of cold dreariness.
One of those shadows moved. A form, hidden at first by an alley, started forward across the street. Jessica’s heart quickened as the form—the man—moved closer, stride by stride. She took one step into her flat, her hands going to the handle of the door.
“Jessica,” he said.
It was him. A welter of confused emotions assailed her—panic, relief, hope, fear. By contrast, Mark’s voice was flat, devoid of all feeling.
She drew back farther. “Sir Mark. What are you doing here?”
He took another step forward. She could make out his face now. His coat was sodden; underneath his hat, his pale hair was plastered to his head in strings. Rivulets of water ran down his face and dripped from the tip of his chin. His eyes burned into hers. “What do you suppose I’m doing here?”
She winced at that tone. “You must be angry.”
“What are you doing, venturing out in the rain without a greatcoat? Or an umbrella? Or even a…a…”
He took another step toward her. He was close enough to touch her now; she looked up into the shadow of his face and swallowed the remainder of her sentence.
“It wasn’t raining when I left,” he said simply. He set his hand on the door, as if to forestall any chance of her escape.
Her heart beat faster. “It’s been raining since three.”
“I’ve been waiting since noon.” His words were calm, and that frightened her more than any amount of shouting. “Besides, this way I know you can’t throw me out. Turnabout is fair play.”
The intensity of his eyes called to mind that long-ago day when she’d arrived on his doorstep, wet to her underthings. She’d tried to seduce him. She’d told him she hated him. Jessica shivered and pulled her cloak around her.
“I know you are unhappy with me,” she said. “I know how much you hate attention. I knew you would despise me when I placed such intimate details of our conversation before all of London.” Her words left puffs of white in the rain. “I haven’t any defense.”
He reached out and touched her chin. “Really? Not one defense?”
She stepped away, turning her back to her open doorway. “I just did what I have always done. I did my best to survive. I won’t apologize for that, but I can’t ask you to forgive me, either.”
He took another step forward, and she instinctively retreated. The entry was small and cramped; her hands found the wall too soon. He stepped forward again, until he’d backed her against her wall. Slowly, deliberately, he set his hands on either side of her head. She was trapped. Closed in. There was no way to escape.
“Mark,” she begged. “I know you must resent me, but—”
“Resent you?” he asked. “Why, in the name of everything that I hold holy, do you think that I am angry at you?”
Her fear turned to crystal inside her. She shook her head, not knowing how to answer. Not knowing how to respond when he leaned in even closer.