Unclaimed (Turner 2) - Page 5

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But for precisely that same reason, she was unlikely to meet Sir Mark ambling down the country lane that led to her abode.

And that meant there was only one place she could go, knowing for certain he would attend: church. Early on a summer morning, the stone walls were still cool. But the bodies packed inside made the interior warmer than she’d expected. There was a hierarchy to the rows, no less. The wealthiest families sat up front in reserved pews; the simple folk stood in the back.

The people of Shepton Mallet had not yet worked out where Jessica belonged. She had enough money to let a house and bring a servant with her. But she’d answered no questions about her family or her origins—a sure sign of dubious morality on her part. On top of that, she was beautiful, and beautiful women were not to be trusted.

In London, nobody trusted anyone, and so the mistrust never bothered her. Here, she had taken a place halfway toward the rear of the church.

Sir Mark, of course, sat in the first row, the entire congregation as interested in him as they were in the rector leading service.

Jessica had tried to make his acquaintance before service began, but half the town had the same idea. The other half—having already met him—had been equally determined to keep him from Mrs. Farleigh of the unknown origins. Still, she couldn’t regret her dubious reputation. She wanted to seduce him, after all, not inveigle him into offering marriage. She needed to be the kind of woman whom a man like him wouldn’t marry. It all made a kind of frustrating sense…but she’d not yet made his acquaintance.

His attention had not strayed from the rector through the entire service. But as Lewis wound into his inevitable conclusion, Sir Mark turned in his seat. It was not idle inattention that turned his head. He looked straight at her. As if he’d known where she sat. As if he had realized that she was watching him.

Their eyes met. She didn’t duck her head or avert her gaze—any of the things that a shy, retiring lady might have done. Instead she met his eyes calmly.

His gaze dipped.

For a second, she regretted the unfortunate habit that had led her to wear a respectable gown to service. All these years, and she still reached for a sober, high-necked gown.

His eyes came up, met hers again—and then, very deliberately, he winked at her.

She had only a moment to stare at him before he turned to the front once more.

What had that meant? What had he intended? Her stomach knotted, for all the world as if she were a young girl, wanting to misconstrue every last glance given her by the boy she fancied. But this was no girlish desire that caught her breath. It was her livelihood, her survival, her very future that flashed by her in the wink of his eye. It had to mean something.

Her questions echoed, even after the congregation rose and began to disperse. Sir Mark was surrounded the instant he got to his feet; by the time he’d made his way to the rear of the chapel, he was bethronged.

Jessica waited by the iron fence that surrounded the churchyard. She was not going to him. She would not be one of a score of girls begging for his attention, surrounding him in a positive frenzy of innocence. Still, she almost wished that she could have been one of them—that she could have looked at him and seen bright hope.

Instead, she had nothing but stone-cold calculation. She abhorred trickery. She disliked the idea of deceit. But she was long past the careful weighing of morality. She’d given up that part of her long ago. And if he didn’t come to her before her remaining funds ran out, she’d have to resort to a stratagem of some kind.

He caught sight of her and held up one hand. The babble of voices cut off around him, as if it were a conjurer’s trick.

“Wait here,” he said, and the multitude assembled about him—a motley collection of elderly matrons, young men and hopeful, unmarried ladies—all held their collective breath. He walked toward her across the yard. A few gravestones stood between them; the grass was bright green, the sun too hot. His hair seemed almost too blond, too gold, and it sparkled like a king’s treasure hoard.

He stopped a few feet before her. “I did ask for a proper introduction,” he said, his voice quiet enough not to be overheard by his waiting audience, “but oddly—nobody was willing to perform it.”

“That,” Jessica said, “is because I am a very, very wicked woman.” She took a step closer and held out her gloved hand to him, steeling herself for his touch. “Mrs. Jessica Farleigh, official town disgrace. At your service.”

He didn’t bow over her fingers, as any other gentleman would have done. But neither did he falter at this introduction. Instead, he clasped her hand in his and shook it—as if they’d entered into a secret compact together. Even through her glove, she could feel the press of his ring against her flesh. What she needed was so close…

“Sir Mark Turner,” he said. “I speak with the tongues of a thousand angels. Butterflies follow me wherever I go. Birds sing when I take a breath.”

He relinquished her hand as easily as he’d taken it. She could feel the phantom pressure of his grip against her palm, strong and steady. She stared at him, unsure how to respond to that introduction. If Sir Mark had actually been mad, surely the matter would have been broached in the London papers.

“That must be rather disconcerting,” she finally said. “You appear to have lost your butterflies.”

A light danced in his eyes. “I propose we come to an understanding. I won’t accept the gossip about you on its face, so long as you don’t believe everything that’s said about me.”

“Sir Mark!” The call came from behind him, and one of his braver admirers ventured forth. No doubt they judged that he’d spent too long in her tarnishing company already. They wouldn’t want the town’s golden child tainted, after all.

Jessica had only a few moments of this comparative privacy left with him. “You are not what I expected to find, after reading the London papers.”

“You’ve read that? Forget it all. I implore you.”

She turned her head slightly and gave him her most captivating smile. As she did, she could see it captivate him. He was better at hiding his reaction than most men, but his mouth curled up just a little more. He stood just a little straighter. And his body canted toward hers ever so slightly. He was attracted to her—very much so. He was caught.

And she had only to reel him in. He’d been so easy after all.

But the crowd was bearing down on him. It wasn’t as if she could consummate his downfall in the churchyard anyway.

“You mean,” she said, “that you’re not a saint? Sir Mark, your public will be shocked.”

His eyes met hers once more.

“No,” he said quietly. “Don’t canonize me. I’m a man, Mrs. Farleigh. Just a man.”

He turned from her, just as a lady in purple bombazine reached to tap his elbow. Jessica did not miss the venomous gaze that the elderly woman shot her way. Once again, Sir Mark walked in the throng. The women parted to let him through—and closed about him afterward.

I’m just a man.

If Jessica knew anything, she knew men. She knew what men wanted, and she knew how to give it to them. And if the remnants of her conscience pricked at the thought of what she must do… Well. She wouldn’t force him to do anything.

Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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