“And besides,” he said, “I love you. You cannot doubt that.”
No. She couldn’t. She knew it was true, and that’s what scared her the most—the sheer rightness, the wonder of it all. How had London’s most desirable bachelor fallen in love with her? How much would it hurt when he stopped loving her, when he began to resent what she’d cost his family?
“Mark,” she said faintly, “You can’t change fundamentals. I’m—”
“You are the woman who can outshoot me. Who will argue me to a standstill—and don’t think I don’t love that about you. I love you, Jessica. And I believe you care for me. What else matters?”
“You’re a duke’s brother. A knight. And I’m a whore.”
He grabbed her wrist. “Don’t call yourself that. I wouldn’t let anyone else talk about you that way—why should I let you?”
“Very well. Call me a fallen women, then.”
“Do you think that matters to me? My mother used to say that there was no such thing as a fallen woman. You just had to look for the man who pushed her down.”
The look in his eyes made her want to scream. But this, at least, was something she could dispute. Something she could argue. She needed something to fight, because she couldn’t push away the darkness that filled her.
Jessica took a deep breath and came to a realization. She couldn’t win against Weston, but she could thwart him. If Mark walked away from her, if she simply left… Weston could threaten him with nothing but innuendo, and that society might simply chalk up to jealousy. “No, Mark. Nobody pushed me. I fell.”
“A man seduced you. And your father, your own father, told everyone you were dead—”
“I could have said no.” Jessica spoke softly. “He didn’t force me.”
“You were fourteen—”
“I was fourteen, not a baby. You believe that you were capable of reason at ten, and able to discern right from wrong. I knew what he was doing, and I let him do it.” She looked at him and willed him to believe her. If he walked away, she could run. She could vanish before Weston appeared, and Mark’s reputation would stay intact. He’d survive, and his family would see him through.
She put her hands on her hips. “I don’t exonerate him entirely, but I chose to fall. I chose to leave with him and go to London. It may have been stupid and it may have been wrong, but you belittle me when you relieve me of the responsibility of making it. You would make everything I’ve done a collection of events that has happened to me.”
He was growing more and more confused. “Jessica. I don’t mean that you’re incapable of choice, just that—”
“What am I supposed to think, when you imagine me pure as the driven snow? I am not a child. If you strip me of the responsibility for my decisions, you strip me of the capacity to make them, as well. I am not a kitten, to be rescued from the jaws of a wolf. I’m a grown woman. And it is not your place to solve my problems without asking me for my opinion.”
She didn’t have to pretend her anger. She wasangry that this wasn’t for her, that once again, happiness had eluded her.
He shook his head in frustration. “Jessica. I want to help you.”
He did. If she showed him Weston’s letter, he’d undoubtedly spring into action. Just as undoubtedly, Weston would find a way to tell the truth.
“You can’t help who I am,” she said. “All you can do is make me believe you for a few days—believe that I can be what you want me to be, believe that someone might think of me as something other than a whore. And what will happen when all that is revealed as the illusion it is? I’ll be small and powerless again. Only this time, you’ll realize it, too, and want to be rid of me.”
“Stop.” He took her shoulders. “Just stop with this. If I could rid myself of you, I’d have done it weeks ago. I have waited all this time to find someone I want to share my life. I’ve found her. Listen to me. Stop panicking. I love you.”
But that just made her want to recoil all the more, to fight harder. If she let herself believe in him, all this goodness would be stripped from her. She could survive her own disappointment. She couldn’t survive his.
“You want to love the facsimile of a perfect woman, wronged by society. You don’t love me. I made mistakes. I made choices. I made myself who I was—not anyone else. And when I’d been brought to this point, I was the one who survived them. You admit your own sins, but you won’t give me the burden of mine.”
“Jessica.” Mark took a step toward her.
“I made a living manipulating men into paying me a great deal of money in exchange for something they could get for a few shillings along the docks. If you can’t see that in me, you are not looking very hard. You’re in love with an illusion.”
“You had to survive. I don’t blame you for it.”
“Why ever not?” she whispered. “I still blame myself.”
When she’d first tried to seduce him on that long-ago night, he’d grinned at her and told her that he rather liked himself. And that, more than Weston, more than her reputation and all her fears for the future, seemed a suddenly unbridgeable gulf.
She loved him. But she would never like herself. She couldn’t stand to stay long enough to see his fine regard gray and wither. She couldn’t risk breaking something so valuable.
“I like you,” he said. “I treasure you. I want you to let me protect you.”
“I don’t want a protector!” The words burst out of her, uncaged at last. “And I don’t care whether you call yourself a husband or a lover or just the man who offers me money for my favors. I know what it feels like to have all choice stripped from me. To really not have any power over the future. To have someone protect me. I’ve felt that before.”
“You know what I mean,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize for wanting good things for you, for caring about your happiness. What on earth has got you so worked up? Why are you ripping up at me?”
“Because right now, you put me in mind of George Weston!” she shouted.
It was the worst thing she could have said. She could see it in the sudden lurch of his shoulders, the furious set of his mouth as he turned to her. This, then, was what she had to look forward to for years to come—anger, not affection. Love wouldn’t linger, not for her.
Destroy it now, then. It’s better for him—and what does another lie matter to you?
And so even though she knew it was wrong, even though she knew it would hurt him, she stabbed her finger into his chest. “You’re just like him,” she said, “solving my problems without consulting me first. Throwing money at me, without so much as asking my permission. I never asked you to help me. I can’t bear it.”
“You can’t mean that,” he said thickly.
“Can’t mean what? That you make me feel like I’m nothing? That you make me feel as weak and stripped of my ability to choose my future as he once left me? That you are the last man on earth who will ever make me happy?”
“Jessica,” he whispered. “Please.”
One last blow, and she would free herself from all future sorrow. “You and Weston are cut from precisely the same cloth. I can’t believe it took me this long to see it. I won’t marry you—I couldn’t bear to live with you.”
He had turned utterly white. “I suppose there’s nothing else I can say,” he said quietly.
“There is this. Get out of my house.”
He left. Of course he left. After he’d gone, she flung the contents of her desk to the floor with one sweep of her arm. Pens and paper and ink went flying. But it didn’t help, not even when she curled on the floor beside them, her fists clenching, her breath coming in great sobs.
She’d done it. She’d freed herself from all fear of the future.
After that, there was nothing she couldn’t survive.
JESSICA WAS NOT SURE how long she stared at the wreckage she’d made of her desk. The inkw
ell had cracked when she’d thrown it, and its contents had seeped out to soak into the rug underfoot. She felt like that vessel—cracked and stained and impossible to fix.
It was only when she heard church bells strike midnight that she shook her head and looked up. There was nothing to do now but pick up the pieces.
With a sigh, she reached for the glass. But her hands were shaking, and the shards were slippery with ink. When one slipped from her fingers, she grabbed for it automatically. The glass sliced her skin. Jessica’s breath hissed in, and she pressed her finger in pain.
Pain. Just a few months ago, she’d thought herself beyond pain, beyond all feeling. She’d thought herself made of rock. Pain hurt, but it was better than emptiness, more desirable than the nothing that had consumed her then.
Yes, she’d lost Mark—but at least she’d found herself.
At that thought, her eyes fell on the letter Weston had sent her. She’d crumpled it into a ball and tossed it into the corner of the room in a fury. Now, she walked over to it, picked it up and smoothed out the paper again.