She’d found herself? What a lie. She’d found nothing, nothing but the cold certainty of more lonely years. She’d walked away from everything good in her life. She had let George Weston make her powerless. Again.
Her hand crept to her belly, stifling the faint echo of cramping.
No. No. Not this time.
A white-hot fury filled her. It was enough anger to wash away her fear, to fill every empty place Weston had left inside her.
She looked at the damning letter she held in her hand and then folded it in careful quarters. Strange; her hands had stopped trembling.
“I am never going to be helpless again,” she vowed to the paper, and then she slipped the note into her skirt pocket and reached for her cloak.
“SIR M ARK.”
Mark had retired to his chambers in his eldest brother’s house in town. He’d poured himself an inch of brandy—not apple brandy; that he couldn’t have borne—but he’d yet to drink. He looked up at those words.
“You have a visitor,” the butler said. His mouth thinned briefly. “I’ve put her in the parlor from earlier.”
Her. It was Jessica, then. He wished he could feel happy about that, but mostly he felt wrung out. By the time he’d arrived home, he’d realized that anger and fear, for Jessica, came out to nearly the same thing. He had known she would calm, that she would apologize.
What he didn’t know was how to keep it from happening again.
He stood, wearily, and went to meet her.
She had not sat down. Instead, she was pacing a wary circle around the settee. She was so beautiful she nearly stopped his breath, so lovely he might have forgiven her outburst then and there, were it not for the vise clamping about his heart, telling him that this would happen again, this endless cycle of fear and recrimination. He didn’t want that. And she—she deserved better.
She stopped on the turn as she saw him. “Mark,” she whispered.
He wasn’t sure what to say, wasn’t sure if he should open up his arms for her or turn away. He was tired. He was upset. He’d had a glass to drink and had scarcely had a chance to think of the things she’d told him.
She must have seen the conflict writ in his face because she nodded firmly and reached into her skirt pocket.
“I received this letter early this evening,” she told him.
He walked close enough to take the paper from her outstretched fingers. He opened it up, read the contents. Blackmail. Innuendo. Of course she’d been afraid; she’d feared for Mark, not herself. She would never stop fearing for him, Mark suspected. Somewhere, he could dimly feel his anger begin to burn.
“I could kill him,” Mark said. His voice sounded cold and conversational to his ears. He looked over at her. Her skin was so white, all color washed from it. No; fear and anger weren’t so far apart in her. And there had been just that ring of truth in her voice earlier, when she said she felt powerless.
He took a step closer to her. “I could kill him,” he said more softly, “but then, I’m not sure it would do you any good. I promised you once that I would be your knight, willing to do battle for you. But I don’t think that’s what you need of me.”
She shook her head mutely.
“You’ve always been your own knight,” he said, “riding to your rescue. I’m just the man who came along and saw how brightly your armor shone.”
He folded the note again and held it out to her.
“I have never needed to make a romance out of you. But I suspect that you need to make one of yourself.”
“I won’t let him ruin you.” Her chin had a determined cast to it.
“No,” Mark said. “You won’t. But you were going to let him ruin you.”
She let out a long breath. “I was,” she said softly. “I realized something.” And then she raised her chin and looked Mark in the eyes. “I can do better,” she said.
And that, Mark realized, was precisely what he’d needed to hear.
GEORGE W ESTON came striding out of the mist at Harford Square early in the morning. The little stretch of green wasn’t truly a square; it was more of a park, with a small copse of trees in one corner. He headed toward Jessica with a pompous smile on his face. But his smile was split by red, angry scratches; his cheekbone marred by bruises.
“I knew you’d see it my way,” he told her. “Now, give over the account and Sir Mark’s ring.”
She would never have been rid of him, if she’d done his bidding. He would always have held power over her.
“I don’t believe I will,” Jessica said.
From behind her she heard more steps. Then:
“I say, Weston, is it your fault I was roused at four in the bloody morning? Not very kind, I tell you. Not very kind.”
Weston peered around Jessica. “Godwin?” he said. “Godwin, what the devil are you doing here?”
Mark’s voice followed. “What, don’t you know? He’s your second.”
Only Silas Godwin could have done, Mark had explained to her. Mark had chosen him. He was, he’d said, good-humored. More important, he was close-mouthed. When Mark had told him he was needed, he’d come instantly, without asking and without regard to the lateness of the hour.
“Turner?” A gob of spittle flew from Weston’s mouth. “Turner? You’re having me fight a duel? And who else is that you have with you?”
“This is Doctor Agsley.” Mark glanced at Weston. “It’s customary to have one present at an affair of honor.”
Jessica’s fingers found the edge of her glove as Mark spoke. She worked the leather off her hand.
“Not enough to beat me to a pulp, is it?” Weston was turning red. “No. You’re going to challenge me to a duel. Don’t tell me you’re going to fight for a whore’s honor. Even you couldn’t be so—”
Jessica slapped him with the glove she’d removed. “Don’t be daft, Weston. I am going to fight you for his.”
She would never have agreed to this had she felt herself in the slightest danger. But she knew Weston. She’d watch him shoot before, and she’d every faith in his inability to hit anything at thirty paces.
“You?” He put back his head and laughed. “You? Oh, that’s a remarkable jest. The day I stand before one such as you, and—”
She smacked him again with her glove, and while he rubbed at his cheek, she reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out a pistol. “You haven’t a choice between fighting a duel and walking away. You have a choice between fighting a duel and being shot in cold blood. I told you last time that if you ever intruded on my life again, I was going to shoot you.” Her voice was steady; it was only inside that she trembled.
“I can’t fight a duel,” Weston said with a scoff. “I don’t have my dueling pistols.”
“Got them here,” Silas Godwin said cheerily. He glanced at Weston and frowned. “Is something amiss?”
r /> Godwin’s other main qualification, besides his quiet demeanor, was that he was none too bright.
“Of course something’s amiss,” Weston snapped. “I’m not fighting a woman. It would be…ungentle-manly. Wrong. Jess, really.”
“Don’t call me Jess.” She jerked her pistol at him.
She took a step back from him. “You want to believe that I’m impotent. That I’m helpless. That I am yours to move about as you wish, to comfort you in your life. You want to believe that you own me. And I let you do it for far too long.”