But instead of leaving immediately, she opened another door. “Ellen!” she called. “You’re needed. We’ve a very important guest. Do come keep him company.”
Mark heard a murmur in reply but couldn’t make out any words. Mrs. Carlisle’s back was turned, and so Mark could not see her expression. But the young lady who walked into the room had her chin set in a rebellious line. She cast one glance at Mark—and then quickly looked away. Mark could guess what her mother had communicated with waggled eyebrows.
Look, here’s a splendid catch! Be polite to him.
They were still trying to throw fourteen-year-old girls at him. Ellen Carlisle, however, seemed to have no interest in being thrown. He was, she supposed, pretty. She had too much of Jessica in her not to be. But her long dark hair was still in childish braids. And she folded her arms over her chest, as if daring Mark to flirt with her.
Oh, yes. This was definitely Jessica’s sister.
“Do you always appear on so little notice?” she demanded, once her mother was safely out of ear-shot.
Mark shrugged. “Think of me as John the Baptist. I am of no interest in myself. I come merely to prepare the way.”
This got him an exasperated stare. “I’m to think of you as John the Baptist, am I? Your confidence is simply stunning. And here I am, entirely without silver trays.”
Good. He liked her already. Mark took his watch from his pocket and set it on the table. “How sweet. Don’t worry. You’ll adore me in…oh, six minutes and twenty-two seconds.”
She rolled her eyes. “Please don’t tell my father that. It will only raise his hopes, and he shall use it as an excuse to utterly ruin my life.” She scowled. “As usual.”
“Don’t worry,” Mark said. “I’ve as little interest in marrying you as you do me.”
She let out a little huff at that, her eyes cutting toward him. Mark almost wanted to laugh at that petulant conceit. Of course she didn’t want to marry him—but she had hoped he was interested, so that she might have the fun of turning him down.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mark growled. “You’re a very pretty girl, I’m sure, but you’re too young for me, and besides, I’m in love with your sister.”
Miss Ellen’s eyes widened. “Charlotte? But she’s married.”
“Not Charlotte. Jessica.”
The color washed from her face. All that haughty indifference fell away. “Jessica?” Each syllable wavered, as if she spoke an impossibility. Her hands fell to her sides, and then she darted across the room, kneeling before him and grabbing for his hand. “You know of Jessica? I’m not to speak of her, not to say her name, never again. But—is she well? How do you know her? Can I see her? I shall do anything you ask, if you just—”
“Ellen!” The sharp tenor sounded like a whip crack from across the room. “What do you mean by such forward behavior? Sir Mark—I’m dreadfully sorry for my daughter’s conduct.”
Mark realized how the scene must look. Ellen Carlisle was on her knees before him, her eyes glittering with tears. Ellen glanced once at her father and bit her lip.
Mr. Carlisle, after all, was the one who had declared Jessica dead. He was the one to whom she addressed the letters she sent—the ones that had gone unanswered. He had banished her and lied about her.
And yet the man in front of him didn’t seem like a monster. He had graying hair, a narrow face—and an expression that was exasperated and embarrassed, but not stern. He had Jessica’s lips. Surely, that lift of her chin had come from him.
Mark strode forward and offered his hand. “Sir Mark Turner.”
The man shook it. “Alton Carlisle. At your service, sir. Your book—it’s been a pleasure to be able to quote from it in my services. An even greater honor to have you in my home. You’ll stay to dinner? There will be no repeat of that foolishness.”
“You’ll have to excuse Miss Ellen,” Mark said quietly. “She’s merely overcome. You see, I have decided to marry your daughter, and Miss Ellen has just discovered it.”
“Marry my daughter.” Mr. Carlisle stood, his face going slack. Mark could tell precisely when he began to think again—when the advantages presented themselves. The connection to a duke, a son-in-law who had the favor of the Queen. There followed a small, proud smile as he realized that somehow, his offspring had landed the most desired bachelor in five counties.
It took only a few seconds before the man was nodding. His breath rushed out. “My permission—of course. You have it.”
“I’ve already settled five thousand pounds on her,” Mark said conversationally. “For her separate use, and for our children, should we have any.”
“Yes. Of course.” Mr. Carlisle shook his head. “Pardon my stupidity—but I am convinced this must be a dream. I had not even known that you were acquainted with my daughter. Certainly, you and I have never been introduced.” He scrubbed his hand through his thinning hair. “Next, you will tell me that you wish to marry her by special license, in a grand ceremony held in St. Paul’s. This…this can’t be happening.”
“There your dream ends,” Mark said. “I don’t want to marry by special license. I want you to call the banns in your church. I want you to tell your entire parish that your daughter is marrying me. I want you to acknowledge her by name.”
At Mark’s feet, Ellen began to cry softly.
“Of course, of course. It will all be as you wish. Precisely as you wish.”
“One last thing,” Mark said.
“Whatever you say.”
“From now on, when she writes you letters, I want you to answer them. And when she arrives on your doorstep, which she should do in, oh…” Mark peered over his shoulder at the watch on the table. “In two minutes, then I want you to welcome her inside.”
Mr. Carlisle swallowed hard. He looked at Mark. He looked at Ellen, where she’d curled her legs about her on the floor. He looked back at Mark.
“You surmise correctly,” Mark said. “This is no dream. I’d never met Miss Ellen before today. I mean to marry your eldest daughter, Jessica.”
Mr. Carlisle pulled up a chair and sat down heavily. “I can’t announce banns for Jessica. Every one thinks she died.”
“Everyone will have to be disillusioned. How you go about it is, quite frankly, not my problem to solve.”
“I had to think of my other daughters. They—they wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere if it had come out that their sister had been so ruined. I—”
“I do understand,” Mark said. “You were frightened. You had to think of your position, your reputation. But as for Miss Ellen’s prospects—we rather thought the Duchess of Parford might sponsor her Season. I don’t think you understand what I am offering you. I am going to marry your daughter. My brother is going to welcome her into the family with open arms. If you think that the two of us cannot counteract any scandal you can imagine, you are greatly mistaken.”
“Sir Mark, perhaps you don’t understand—”
“You don’t understand. I did not come to ask permission to make your daughter my wife. I am asking if you would like to make my wife your daughter once again.”
“Yes.” He stood up, his voice breaking. “Yes. Yes. You have to ask? You think I didn’t read her every letter and hope that I could find a way? Do you think that a single night passed in which I didn’t regret what had happened? I didn’t know what else to do. And by the time I’d acted, it was too late. Too irrevocable.”
For a moment, Mark thought of reminding the man that he’d had seven years to act. That he’d let it all slip away, knowing what his daughter had faced out there. But now was the time for reunion.
“It’s not too late now. She’s waiting at the door. Come on, now. She’s missed you.” He glanced at Ellen and gave her a smile. “She’s missed all of you.”
Three weeks later.
THERE WAS NOTHING Jessica could do to calm her nerves on the morning of her wedding.
tried pacing in the nave. She tried braiding her hair. Her sisters distracted her by fussing with her gown, pinning flowers to the hem of her skirt…and just by being present. It was lovely having sisters again. She’d spent the past weeks with them. At the first service, her father had introduced her to the congregation and announced that he’d told a lie when he said she had passed away, and that he was deeply ashamed—but then he’d said nothing further, not one word against her. When he’d called the banns, everyone had forgotten everything else. And for the remainder of the time, she and her sisters had been free to take calls and talk to one another.
Then there had been Mark. He’d gone on walks with Jessica and her sisters. He’d held her hand chastely through three weeks’ worth of afternoon rambles through country lanes. She had dined with his brothers; he had engaged her father in a philosophical conversation that ended up with the two of them arguing over texts for hours. And after dinner last night, she’d scarcely had any time to see him alone. Still, he’d pressed her against the back wall of the garden in the few minutes they’d found and he’d kissed her—soft and sweet, but with the force of three weeks of pent-up longing. He’d kissed her until they were both dizzy with anticipation, until she could scarcely stand for wanting him. And then, when he’d finally pulled away, he’d whispered in her ear: “Tomorrow. Finally.”