“But what would happen to them if you wed me?” Her fingers bit into his arms. “The man…the man who did this to me was George Weston.”
Of all the surprises Mark could have had at the moment, this was the least welcome. His mind washed blank. “George Weston,” he repeated. “George Weston. George Weston?”
“If we were to marry, I could not avoid him. He’s a part of your social set.” Her hands clenched into his arm. “He hates you—he’d tell everyone who I was. You can claim that I’m your equal in sin all you like, but you know society will not agree.”
“Hang society,” Mark said thickly. “I don’t care.”
“But I do. If I were in society, I couldn’t escape him. I couldn’t escape myself. And most of all, Mark…I can’t bear to remember.”
Alongside his horror, another emotion was growing. It was white-hot in its fury. It would consume him, if he let it. It was offensive that Weston had ever offered a reward for Mark’s seduction. But it was downright repulsive what he’d done to Jessica. He remembered Jessica flinching when he’d reached for her. Weston had committed an assault without fists, as determined an act of violence as rape. He had nearly killed her.
“To hell with Weston,” Mark heard himself say fiercely. “To hell with all of that. We’ll figure it out.”
“There isn’t any we.”
Maybe there hadn’t been, for her. But this wasn’t the time to dispute what she’d said with words. No; he had better arguments. Now was the time for him to hold her, to whisper soft reassurance in her ear. Now was the time to nuzzle her neck and tell her that everything would be all right.
“I will not leave you. Not for my reputation, not for my wealth, not for my hope of heaven. We’ll work it out in the morning. I refuse to give you up just because one man happens to be an unmitigated ass.”
“And if I ask you to leave?”
His lip curled. He shook his head. “Bollocks on that,” he said.
And then, despite everything she’d said, despite everything she’d told him, he felt her smile against his shoulder.
Balance. Calm. That’s what he gave her now, what she needed from him. But deep inside himself, something dangerous whispered.
Calm now; retribution tomorrow.
TOMORROW CAME ALL too swiftly, and with it, Mark’s plan for revenge. It didn’t take long to find his quarry. Weston was too much of a creature of habit to escape.
The sun was high overhead, and Weston was scurrying across the lawn of Hyde Park when Mark found him. Ironic, that he was headed to meet with men whom he hoped would put him forward for the position on the Commission on the Poor Laws. The upcoming vacancy had been announced today; the nomination to fill it would soon be made.
“Weston,” Mark called across the expanse of the park.
Weston paused and turned, a puzzled expression on his face. That expression faded to annoyance as he found Mark striding toward him. His jaw stiffened; the corners of his mouth ticked down.
“Sir Mark.” He made the words sound like an insult.
After Mark had listened to Jessica’s tale last night, anything out of Weston’s mouth would have seemed an insult. Mark walked forward. “I heard you had some interest in the Commission.”
Weston scowled and folded his arms. Around them, people were promenading. Mark knew his appearance would draw attention. He’d hoped for it, in fact. He felt almost calm, floating in a sea of inaction.
That was going to change.
“And what does it matter to you?” Weston growled.
Mark smiled. “I’m going to make sure you don’t get it,” he said.
“You sanctimonious prig. I should like to see you stop me.”
“Pardon me.” Mark needed to stay calm. “You don’t think there will be any…any interest in the fact that you hired a woman to seduce me? Now, that would be an amusing addition to the serial that concluded in the papers a few days ago. I wonder what that should do to your reputation?”
“I—” Weston looked about and lowered his voice. “You can’t prove that.” He swallowed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he added, belatedly.
“Oh, I could prove it,” Mark said. But he wouldn’t. He wasn’t about to thrust Jessica into the center of attention over this. The last thing she needed was to be permanently linked with this man in the public’s eye.
“How much power do you think you’d have,” Mark said, “if people knew the true you? A man so cowardly he resorts to hiring women to do his dirty business, and so untrustworthy he cheats them in the end.”
Weston took a step forward, his fists balling. “I am not a coward. You don’t want to start a fight with me, Sir Mark. I warn you.”
“No.” Mark smiled placidly. He didn’t want to start the fight. “I’d imagine you’re afraid. It’s not so easy to be powerful, when you have to face down someone your own size.” His calm was a scant layer of civility over an anger that had taken control of his entire being. He could almost see the moment when Weston’s temper snapped, could see his hand curl into a fist, draw back from him. Every thing seemed to happen so slowly. Mark could have moved, could have stepped out of the way of the punch that Weston threw, so languidly did it seem to drift toward him.
But if he had dodged, all of Hyde Park would not have seen Weston hit him unprovoked. Mark barely felt it land, in the haze of his fury. His head snapped back; the force of the blow knocked him to the ground. He saw the limbs of a tree wave overhead, green leaves obscuring blue sky. All around him, gasps rose, and people turned, rushing over to them.
Mark jumped lightly to his feet.
“I box regularly,” Weston said, raising his fists. “I shoot, too. There’s more where that came from. I told you not to start a fight with me.”
“I don’t box at all.” Mark stood in stillness, a calm contrast to Weston’s bouncing on his toes. “I wasn’t going to start a fight with you. But I was rather hoping I could finish one.”
Mark had never seen the need for boxing—especially not with the newly adopted rules that brought civility to the fighting. But then, he’d lived on the Bristol streets as a child. He’d learned to fight in a harsher environment than the London Prize Ring.
And so when Weston threw a second punch, Mark swiveled to the side. He caught the man’s fist in his hand as it passed, jerked Weston to the side and let the man’s own momentum send him crashing to the ground.
Weston gasped like a fish as the wind was knocked out of him. Mark set one hand idly against the trunk of the tree and waited.
“You tripped me,” Weston said in confusion. “But don’t think you can beat me for sheer power.”
Mark didn’t have to wait long for Weston to stand. The puzzled ridge of his eyebrows faded to anger as Mark smiled at him. With an outraged cry, he ran forward once more. Mark had no intention of grappling with the man. He sidestepped again and grabbed his arm. Weston did have sheer power. He was fast, and his arms were locked in position with all his strength. So when Mark swung him in a circle, he had no way to stop before he crashed into the tree behind them. He hit it face-first, barely able to raise his hands to protect his nose.
Shouts rose up behind them.
Mark wasn’t even breathing hard.
Weston turned, unsteady on his feet. He lifted one hand to his mouth and spat out a tooth. For a second, he simply stared at it in disbelief. Then he raised his head.
“You goddamned dirty bastard,” he breathed, starting forward once more. He was mo
re wary this time, keeping his distance. Still, the next time he darted forward, Mark stepped behind him and slammed his elbow against the back of the man’s neck. As Weston fell, Mark caught his arm and yanked at an awkward angle. He could almost feel the pop as the man’s shoulder jerked out of its socket.
To his credit, Weston didn’t scream, even though his face scrunched up. “Pax,” he whispered. “Pax. Truly. I had no idea.” He backed away, leaning against the tree.
Mark strode forward.
“Truly, Sir Mark.” Weston spoke so quietly, Mark could barely hear him. “I give up. I surrender.”
Mark could dimly recall the last time he’d lost his temper this badly. At the time, he’d been at Eton and surrounded by bullies. He’d beaten the lot of them, and when they’d begged for mercy, he’d still not stopped. For years, he’d felt guilty every time he thought of his actions. He’d feared his anger, his passion, as proof that he, too, could fall prey to his mother’s excesses.