“Mark.” All her fears came rushing back. “Mark, I am a courtesan. I don’t fit in your world. Your reputation—your good name—is at stake.”
“So far as I can tell, I would greatly benefit if my reputation were to suffer. No reporters following me about. Nobody writing about my household refuse.” He sighed and leaned back. “It sounds idyllic. We could live in the country. Would you mind that?”
That notion she’d once had, of a cottage in the country, came back to her. But this time, she wasn’t alone. Mark was with her. And that made her country cottage not a place to hide away and lick her wounds, but a place to start afresh, the situation for a new life where she was liked and respected, where she had Sir Mark, where she found herself Lady Turner and not some woman who would be snubbed by the meanest letter carrier. It was so powerful a thought that she was staggered.
“Do you love me?” he asked casually. “You said you did.”
She gaped at him, unsure how to answer.
“Thought so.” He grinned at her. “I can understand that you may feel some trepidation now. But wait until you meet my brothers. They’ll adore you.”
“Awk,” Jessica managed.
She shook her head. “Those are the two most ineffectual words ever put together by man—don’t worry. I can’t stop worrying just because someone assures me it’s unnecessary.”
He blew out his breath. “Then do worry, if you prefer.”
His assurance did nothing to calm the fluttering confusion she felt. It peaked, sharply, as the crunch of wheels on gravel sounded, and the carriage jerked to a halt. A few moments later, a liveried footman opened the grimy door. Mark handed her down, onto a pristine half ring of white rocks outside a Portland stone building. He took her arm and then swept her through the front door as it opened.
“Sir Mark,” the butler greeted him. He did not seem to think anything was amiss with Mark’s wrinkled attire. Still, Jessica could almost envision the headline that afternoon. Sir Mark: Turning to Dissipation at Last?
“Is Ash still at breakfast? Is Smite here?”
“No, sir, and yes, sir. Mr. Smite Turner is at breakfast.” The butler paused, contemplating his words. “Mr. Smite Turner informed me that you’ve spent the last two nights with him, and that I’m to expect you to be out of sorts.”
That latter, Jessica decoded, was a hint that his brothers were already spinning stories to save his reputation.
“Ah,” Mark said. “I see. Is Ash in his office?”
“Busy, is he? Could you have him duck into the blue parlor when he’s got a chance?”
“This is…” Mark paused and cast a look askance at her. How awkward. He probably didn’t even recall her true name. “This,” he said again, “is my fiancée. Do tell Ash.”
There was a slight pause, as the butler turned to look at her. He waited, no doubt expecting a name. When none was forthcoming, he nodded. “I’ll do that.”
“Oh,” Mark added, “please send a tray up, as well.” He conducted Jessica into a room on her right.
She’d known his family was wealthy—he had, after all, thrown five thousand pounds her way without thinking. But she hadn’t quite understood the extent of it until this moment. She felt as if she might have been in a royal palace. Blue velvet cushions lay on delicate rosewood chairs. A tapestry covered one wall; a globe sat on a table, the countries fashioned of amber and turquoise and lapis lazuli.
Jessica didn’t even have a name worth giving. She set her finger on Africa and gave the globe a spin. Mark came to stand by her as it whirled.
“I didn’t introduce you properly,” he said in a low voice.
“I noticed.” Continents passed under her gaze.
“Until I speak with Ash, and we determine how to proceed, I thought it best to wait.” He reached out and stopped the earth as it turned on its axis. “Once we tell the servants who you are, there’s no going back.”
“Of course.” It all made perfect sense. Still, it heightened the feeling that she might not truly be present. This was a room for other people—wealthy, respectable people. Even the candle sconces were decorated with crystals that sent rainbows shimmering about the room.
In the hall, footfalls sounded, heavy and fast.
“That didn’t take long.” Mark turned.
The door burst open. “Mark,” the man in the doorway said, “what in God’s holy name can you have been thinking?” The man crossed the room in three strides and engulfed Mark in what looked like a ferocious hug. “You idiot,” the man was saying. “You mope for a week, and then you disappear for forty-eight hours without leaving word at all. I’ve heard nothing of you but what Margaret was able to glean from the papers. Have you any idea how worried I was?”
“Stop fussing, Ash. I am an adult. I told you where I was going.” Mark pulled away, and Jessica got her first good look at the newcomer. The two men looked…nothing alike. The Duke of Parford was broader than Mark and taller—a physique that seemed suited more to a laborer than to a peer and a businessman. His hair was coffee-dark; his skin tanned.
“Fuss, fuss,” Parford muttered, and he reached out and ruffled Mark’s hair.
Oh, to be part of a family again. It almost hurt to watch. It hurt more when Parford looked over and his eyes fell on her. She could see the wariness creep into his expression, the tight lines collecting on his cheeks. Not much reaction from him, but she felt as if he’d slammed a door in her face.
“We do have a great deal to talk about,” the duke said.
Mark was turning to her. “Ash, this is Jessica Farleigh. She is—”
The duke looked her over, and then slowly, he crossed to her and put out his hand. Jessica blinked at him and then took it.
“So. I suppose we’ll have to figure out how to keep you from hanging in the court of public opinion.”
“I…I suppose we will,” she said.
He nodded politely to her. But as he did, he spoke under his breath. “Hurt my brother,” he told her, “and I will hang you up myself.”
For some reason, the threat made her feel more at ease than mere friendliness.
The duke pulled away and gestured. “Come, Mark, speak with me in my office.”
“Don’t try and exclude Jessica. This is about her, too, and—”
“Leave off, Mark.” Ash rolled his eyes. “Margaret arrived here yesterday—didn’t you hear me say so? She wants to talk to your Jessica. It’s some sort of woman conversation. We’re supposed to take ourselves off and leave them alone.”
“Oh, well, then.” Mark brightened. “You’ll like Margaret. And she’ll love you—I’m her favorite brother.”
In Jessica’s estimation, duchesses didn’t take kindly to women who preyed on their virtuous younger brothers. Especially not when the brother in question was her favorite. “Hmm,” she said. “How comforting.”
Mark was already half out the door.
The room seemed darker after he left, and smaller. She’d come to know Mark when he lived in an isolated house, all by himself, with a few servants to come in and look in on him from time to time—as if he were mere gentry, surviving on a few hundred pounds a year. Even then, the gap between their stations had seemed enormous.
But this… The candelabra on the wall were edged with faceted crystal. The dark, polished wood of the wainscoting met gold and cream and red paper. And when she craned her neck, she saw a ceiling of clever plasterwork, gilt-and-blue edging cunning landscapes. She felt as if she’d walked into a royal hall while wearing a sack. She reached out one finger—not because she wanted to stroke the impossibly delicate vase before her, but just to make sure that it was solid. It couldn’t be real. None of this could.
A tap-tap sounded behind her. Jessica whirled around, knotting her hands together behind her back. She felt as if she were a thief, caught in the act of slippi
ng valuables into her skirt pockets.
But this wasn’t the Duchess of Parford standing in the doorway—not unless the duke was even more broad-minded than Mark had represented.
“Mrs. Farleigh.” The man who stood before her was thinner than Mark, and taller. He was dressed in dark blue. His hair was ebony, his eyes blue. She could see traces of Mark in his face—and none of Mark’s innocence in his eyes.
“You must be Mr. Sm—Mr. Turner, I mean.”
“I see my brother has disclosed my appalling name.” He didn’t smile at her, and she swallowed. They stared at each other a long time, like strange cats, not sure what to make of one another. If she looked away, she feared he might be upon her in a second, rending her fur.
“I don’t bite,” he finally offered, and he came into the room.
“No? You are the magistrate, are you not?”