Unclaimed (Turner 2) - Page 54

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Jessica gathered her arms around herself, her heart filling with emotion. A sister. She’d never thought she’d have another, besides Amalie.

“You cannot want Mark to permanently ally himself with someone of my reputation.”

“No,” the duchess said easily. “I can’t. But you have to understand who Mark is in this family. He taught me how to defend myself against a man. He’s…he’s just a good person. His brothers would do anything for him. And that means—until the moment you hurt him—we will do anything for you.”

It had been so long since anyone had done anything for her.

“That’s what families do, after all,” the duchess was saying.

For the first time, Jessica began to believe. Maybe she could win out. Maybe she could marry Mark, could leave behind the nightmare of the past. Hope…for such a fragile, futile thing, it was incredibly robust.

“I…” Jessica trailed off and glanced to her side. “Do you think I might have that cup of tea, after all?”

“But of course,” the duchess said. “We’ve your entire wedding trousseau to plan. It’s thirsty work.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

MARK LEFT J ESSICA with Margaret. She looked at him in faint entreaty when he disappeared, but there was one last duty he needed to see to. He had a responsibility that he’d put off for far too long, and it was recalled to him with every blue-cockaded hat he saw on the street. He’d been avoiding the thought of the MCB and his supporters, but Shepton Mallet had shown him the error in that.

At this point, with Weston discredited, he was as good as on the Commission, however painful the thought was. And if he was to take on that charge, he couldn’t sidestep this responsibility, either.

Which is how he found himself in Daniels, a club for young gentlemen. The organization was so exclusive that no sign indicated its provenance on the door. Any man who didn’t know where he was wasn’t fit for membership.

Mark was not a member, but still he walked in. The footman who stood in the entry was wearing a blue armband. His eyes widened when he saw Mark. He didn’t glance at the membership list, didn’t come forward bearing obsequious regrets. When Mark told him what he wanted, he nodded gravely.

He took Mark’s hat and cloak and handed them off to another fellow; through the door in the cloakroom, Mark caught a glimpse of hats festooned in blue cockades. Truly, he was entering the den of the lion.

In the club itself, young men were gathered around tables, talking quietly. Fully half of them sported the MCB’s blue armbands. There were no wagers here, no raucous laughter, as in some of the less sober establishments. Daniels, after all, was considered a proving ground for the future leaders of the country—men who were expected to take seats in Parliament one day, or inherit dukedoms.

The footman escorted Mark to a small back room, where a man sat alone. Mark had heard the fellow’s name often enough, but this was the first time he’d seen him in person. The other man was almost Mark’s age, he supposed. Strange that their paths had never crossed at Eton or Oxford. Mark wondered where he’d gone instead. How odd.

Jedidiah Pruwett had close-cropped dark hair and a scarce inch of sparse beard. His eyes were obscured by spectacles. The only color of his dark, sober attire was the blue of his armband—and that was starched and unwrinkled. He didn’t look up as Mark slipped silently through the doorway, so engrossed was he in his reading.

Mark pulled up a chair and sat. Pruwett was reading the Bible; as he read, he fingered the frame of his glasses. He seemed utterly oblivious to Mark.

Mark waited. Pruwett turned a page, glanced up—and dropped his book on the table, overturning a glass of some clear liquid.

“Sir!” Pruwett shot to his feet, nearly knocking over his chair as he did so. He made an attempt to both reach for his chair and grab his book before the water soaked it through. Instead, he managed to trip over his trousers and land on the floor.

Mark picked up the Bible, stood and offered his hand to the man. Pruwett let out a sigh and took it.

“How embarrassing,” he said, as Mark hauled him to his feet. “I’d never wanted to meet you like this, sir. I promise—I’m usually a good bit more agile. It was just, just the surprise of seeing you.” Pruwett hadn’t let go of Mark’s hand. Instead, he pumped it up and down. “You must know what an inspiration you have been to me. You have meant the world to me. Truly, before I read your book I was…” The man colored faintly. “I was lost. I started the MCB to help others find the way, as you have helped me.”

Mark took his hand away and felt an awkward twinge. “Well. Thank you.”

Pruwett rummaged in his pockets for a handkerchief and threw it over the spill. “Is there any other way I can be of service to you?”

Mark had come here to ask the man to be of…well, of less service. But Pruwett was studiously avoiding his gaze. He stood and walked to the door, signaling for a servant. Silence stretched while a footman mopped up the mess.

“Are you thinking of taking a more active role in the MCB?” Pruwett asked. He bit his lip. “We should love to have you.”

He didn’t look as if he would love to have Mark. He looked nervous.

“I have a great respect for you,” Pruwett added, and at least that seemed sincere.

“I’m flattered. I never expected anyone to take my work to heart, let alone a cadre of thousands of men. I’m grateful—and this is rather awkward—but the MCB is not precisely my sort of organization.”

Pruwett seemed to relax at that. “Well, I’m delighted that this is just a social call, then. I’ll promise not to overset any more liquids, if you’ll stay and have a drink with me.”

Mark sighed. “No. This is rather difficult to say. I know you mean well. But when I said the MCB is not my sort of organization, I meant…I dislike what you have done.”

The color ran from Pruwett’s face. Mark felt as if he were kicking a puppy, but there was no easy way to deliver the news that he carried.

“The teachings of the MCB imply that women are the enemy, that men must avoid them. That sort of attitude gives rise to the precise stigma that all good men should avoid.”

“With all due respect, sir, that’s not the intent. It’s about developing a sense of camaraderie, about finding things to bind good men together.”

“Yes, but you do it by resorting to blatant insult and exclusion.” Mark frowned. “I don’t understand why you can’t just…just remain chaste without a club.”

“There must be something for men to do together. Elsewise, it’s back to the brothels in groups for fun.”

“And it’s fun to tell everyone else how many days it has been since you’ve been unchaste?” Mark shook his head.

“Not fun—necessary to establish appropriate standards of accountability.” Pruwett adjusted his spectacles. “Without that, we’d have nothing but hypocrisy. The meetings, the hand signals—they’re all necessary, sir, to bring men together, to make them want to choose chastity over…over ruination.”

“Huh,” Mark said. There was something distractingly odd about the man’s eyes.

“Look around you.” Pruwett was warming to his subject matter. “All these men here—they have something to do. But think of the third sons, boys who are given too much money and too much license. They’re wasted, utterly, given no calling, no place in life. They drift aimlessly. They’ll never sit in Parliament, never serve on a committee. They’ve nothing to show for themselves but their family name and a few idle pleasures. I wanted to give those men something to do.” He swallowed. “I wanted to give myself something to do.”

“Are you saying you started the MCB because you were bored?”

Pruwett’s eye’s widened behind his spectacles. And, with that, Mark realized precisely what had bothered him about the man’s eyes. Usually, glasses made a man’s eyes look owlish, distorted by the magnification. But Pruwett’s eyes were exactly the normal size.

Mark reached

out and plucked the man’s spectacles from his face, lifted the lens to his eyes.

“Sir…”

“These are plain glass.” Mark looked over at Pruwett. Without his spectacles, his nose looked larger. Mark imagined him without that beard… “Davies?” Mark asked in disbelief. “Peter Davies?”

Pruwett—or was it Davies?—crumpled into his chair, as if all the starch had deserted him. Mark had known the man at Oxford. Davies had been a…well, he’d been something of a rake. He’d poked fun at Mark often enough.

“Is this some kind of an elaborate jest?” Mark asked.


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