He sat next to her. “Guilty conscience? Never fear. My jurisdiction doesn’t extend to London.”
She swallowed and looked away.
“That,” he said, “was supposed to be a joke. I’m starting this off completely wrong.” He scrubbed his hand through his hair. “Welcome to the family.”
That had to be some kind of trap. “You can’t want a connection with one such as I.”
He shrugged. “Has Mark told you about me at all? I live alone in Bristol, and I infuriate the local gentry by letting various ragtag scoundrels go from time to time, simply because I believe they’re innocent of the crime with which they’ve been charged.”
“They’ve taken to calling me Lord Justice,” he said. “Which normally I would object to, but it’s a damned sight better than Smite.”
“So you and Mark have both captured the ton’s imagination.”
“Ah. It’s the common people who call me Lord Justice.”
He still wasn’t smiling, but Jessica caught something suspiciously like a twinkle in his eye.
“What do the gentry call you, then?”
“Your Worship,” he said, drawing himself up. Then he winked at her. “To my face. Behind my back, now…”
She laughed, then, and finally he did smile at her.
“That is all that matters,” he declared solemnly. “Let them say what they wish behind your back. You need only be strong enough that they don’t say it to your face.”
Jessica swallowed. “Well. Then. Lord Justice, what should I do?”
“You had better marry my brother.”
She stared at him. “You can’t hope that. The scandal—”
“Will be tremendous.” He shrugged. “But not impossible. I would list my brother’s many sterling qualities, but if you are not yet aware of them, you don’t deserve him. You appear to be intelligent, but so far you’ve exhibited the decision-making capabilities of a lizard.”
“Don’t misunderstand me. Lizards aren’t stupid. But they also drop their tails and flee at the first sign of danger.”
“That’s amusing,” she tossed back. “Mark told me once that I reminded him of you.”
“Really?” He glanced at her, then twisted up his mouth. “I’m not sure this reflects well on either of us.”
“You are not the cruel, sober magistrate I was led to imagine,” Jessica said, shaking her finger at him. “I have been deceived.”
“I’ll only say this once.” His voice was very quiet. “You will not understand, because Mark does not see it. We want very desperately to like you, and for you to like us. If I had an appalling wife, it would make little difference to…” He spread the fingers of his hand, indicating the household. “But Mark. It would be too impossible, you see, if Mark’s wife disliked me. He keeps every one together.”
He met her eyes and looked away. She didn’t know what to say to that, and yet she could see it so easily, just as she could see Mark smiling at her and telling her he liked himself. Of course he did; everyone liked him.
“Besides,” Smite said, his voice shifting slightly, “I am the trustee of the funds that Mark has given you. I can hardly be your trustee if you don’t trust me. This is all a piece of my plan to put you at ease.”
“About that,” Jessica began. But she heard something behind her. She turned her head and then jumped to her feet with a noise that sounded suspiciously mouselike.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you.” The woman who stood in the doorway wore a dark green silk day dress covered by a net of black lace. Her hair was pulled into gentle curls, and she observed Jessica with wide, mobile eyes.
“Margaret,” Smite said. “Mrs. Farleigh. I’ll be off, and let you two converse.”
“I—” Jessica bit her tongue. What was she to say after all? Please, scary magistrate, I’m frightened of another woman.
“You can stay,” the duchess said as she walked in.
Smite shook his head. “No, dear,” he said firmly. “I’m quite certain I don’t dare.” On those words, he disappeared.
“Sit back down,” the woman said, patting the cushion next to her.
Jessica sat uncomfortably, as far away as she could.
“You should call me Margaret.”
“Your Grace.” Mark’s sister by marriage didn’t say anything about her use of the title, but her eyes narrowed slightly.
“You must be Jessica. Mark’s written to me about you. As soon as I heard what had happened in town, I came down. I’ve never seen him in such a tangle, do you know?”
“I’m so sorry—”
The Duchess of Parford dismissed this with a wave of her hand. “My husband would advise you never to apologize in polite society. They’ll take it as permission to savage you.”
They sat in silence, Jessica gripping her knees. A servant came in with a tray and the duchess turned to it.
“Do you take cream? Sugar?” The duchess was a perfect lady—born to the position and then married as highly as possible. Jessica wasn’t sure why the woman was treating her so politely. “No. Thank you. I…I don’t take tea.”
“Coffee? Chocolate? I can ring for something, if you’d like.”
Apple brandy would likely be out of the question. Jessica shook her head. The duchess poured herself a cup. “Of course I have an ulterior motive in coming here. I want to meet the woman who has turned Mark upside down.”
“Did he tell you I was a courtesan?”
“Well, no.” She set her cup down. “Not directly. But Ash did. Really, if I’m to introduce you to every one, we’re going to need a better story. Which is why I am here. Mark is too much of a gentleman to ask, and Ash would never think to do so. But…how likely is it that you’ll be recognized?”
“I…I wasn’t a particularly famous courtesan.”
The duchess made an annoyed sound. “Pardon my directness on what must be a delicate and uncomfortable matter. Nothing else will serve. If you’ve lain with half the men in London, please tell me now, so we can pack you off to the country before the truth inevitably comes out.”
“Oh.” Jessica shut her eyes. “Not half.” Her voice was quiet. “Not a quarter. Not any sizable fraction. My friend Amalie and I, we had a rule. You see, every man is a risk, so…”
She opened one eye and bit off the rest of the sentence, before she offered the Duchess of Parford an explanation of how to pick a protector.
“But it doesn’t matter. It takes only one,” Jessica said, her throat closing. “And…and more men knew of me than knew me, so to speak.”
The duchess nodded sagely. “So it shall be a small family wedding, then, and a formal wedding trip abroad. Then you can retire to the country to start a family. Is Jessica Farleigh your true name, or was it one you adopted for the profession?”
“I’m Jessica Carlisle.”
“Good. We’d best use that, then. That way, the announcement won’t cause a stir in and of itself.” The duchess picked up her cup again and took a tentative sip.
k back in her seat. “I… If I marry Mark, Your Grace, I promise not to intrude too much. You’ll not need to see me—”
The woman set her cup down. “Not see you? My dear, Parford Manor is in the country. I’m afraid I’ve given you the wrong idea.” She took Jessica’s hand. “You must excuse my forwardness. I have been thinking of you as a potential sister ever since Mark wrote and asked whether it would be proper to take a walk alone with you outside. I never had any sisters, and none of my brothers have shown the slightest inclination to provide me with one up until this moment.”