She wouldn’t have to.
No; as with all men, she only needed to imply she was available. Sir Mark would be a willing participant in the destruction of his own reputation.
She was only going to need one little stratagem, after all, to hurry him along.
MARK’S FIRST WEEK in Shepton Mallet was taken up in thought.
Ever since he’d been discreetly approached about filling an upcoming vacancy on the Poor Law Commission, he’d been in turmoil. On the one hand, the Commission, responsible for overseeing the workhouses, was universally hated. He’d been approached simply because they’d hoped his popularity would quell the public outrage about recent mishandlings. Mark suspected that, quite to the contrary, the appointment would merely sink him in the eyes of the public.
After all, the whole present policy of poor relief was an utter mess. Mark might make a real difference in the lives of unfortunates if he threw all his energy into the project—and if he’d been granted popularity by a capricious fate, surely he had the responsibility to use it for good. On the other hand, the entire theory behind the system of workhouses seemed fundamentally flawed to Mark. He wasn’t sure if it could be fixed.
He’d expressed these rational concerns to the poor undersecretary who’d paid him a private visit. But there was yet another side that he’d not mentioned, and it was one that echoed most strongly here in Shepton Mallet, between the walls of his childhood home. He’d grown up here. His brother had nearly died here. And all because his mother had gone mad.
Dedicating her life to serving the poor had sounded noble in practice. But she’d taken it to the furthest extreme: giving away the family’s modest competence, until almost nothing was left. Of his three brothers, Mark was the only one who truly understood why she’d done it. It was no comfort that he so easily made sense of the world as seen through the eyes of a madwoman.
Perhaps that was why he’d retreated here after all. He hated the idea of entering politics. Even if he’d wanted to spend his life serving the poor, he’d not have chosen to do so by regulating the day-today administration of workhouses. And yet…
He’d often thought that if he had any work to do on this earth, it was to put his mother’s unquiet legacy to rest. She’d insisted on perfection; Mark had written a practical guide to chastity, that allowed for the merely human. She’d flown into rages at the slightest provocation; he’d worked hard to bring his own temper, never even, under his control. She’d been every righteous impulse, taken to excess. Mark aimed for moderation.
So he hadn’t said no, not yet. Perhaps this was the opportunity he needed to show that he could dedicate his life to the poor while tempering his zeal.
He’d come back here, to his old childhood home, repository of a hundred memories. It had seemed as good a place as any to contemplate the offer. Better; he’d insisted on privacy, and here he’d found it, at least in some small measure.
Today, with rain drumming down on the roof, had been the best day of all.
He’d sent his charwoman home at noon, and the boy who saw to the gardens only came by every other day.
Best of all, with this downpour, the paths were no doubt mud to the ankle. No rational person would come visiting today. Why, Mark might avoid all crowds until the church picnic in two days’ time.
He’d have plenty of time to spend in contemplation.
But just as he’d settled down in a chair with one of his mother’s old journals, a knock sounded on the door. Mark bit back a groan.
He should have realized. When it came to him, nobody was rational.
For a moment, he stared fixedly at the fire in front of him and considered ignoring the summons. It could be the rector—no doubt with his poor bedraggled daughter in tow.
Unbidden, his imagination summoned up another possibility: it might be Mrs. Jessica Farleigh, damp and spangled all over with raindrops. She would be lost, wet and in need of—but no. That sort of ridiculous schoolboy fancy made better entertainment in the dead of night, when he could more appropriately deal with the lust it would engender.
It was probably his charwoman, Mrs. Ashton, come to check on him. No doubt she’d taken one look at the rain when it started, donned oilskins and galoshes and trudged the three miles back to his home, just to make sure he was comfortable. She meant well.
They all did.
With a sigh, he rose to get the door. Truly, it was almost certain to be plain, plump Mrs. Ashton, perhaps with a crock of butter and a loaf of freshly baked bread carefully wrapped in oiled paper. No other rational possibility existed. He threw the door open.
And stopped in stupefaction. It was the schoolboy fancy after all. Mrs. Jessica Farleigh stood on his stoop. Whatever gown she’d been wearing had been soaked through by the torrential downpour until it clung to her form in a sodden, limp mass. His hands curled appreciatively, as if to cup the heavy spheres of her breasts and wipe those drops of water away. The dark half circles of her aureoles were visible through translucent muslin; the nub of her nipple itself was occluded—barely—by a corset.
She might as well not have been wearing a gown at all. He could make out individual stitches, pale green vines, on her undergarments. He could see every seam of her stays, molded to her frame. And when his eyes dropped farther—he was only human—he caught a glimpse of petticoats plastered to hips that might cradle a man’s body.
Schoolboy fancy? No. She was a grown man’s desire. Ravishing. Too convenient. And therefore, entirely untrustworthy.
Slowly, deliberately, Mark raised his eyes to her face. Yes, he commanded his unruly wants, to her face, nothing else.
It didn’t help. A drop of water rolled to the tip of her patrician nose, and he had a sudden desire to reach out and wipe it away. Instead, it hung, suspended in midair, in defiance of all the laws of nature.
Well. She wasn’t the only one who could defy nature. Glass bricks. He reached for them, building that wall. Behind it, he’d feel no desire. No want. No urge to step forward and lick the beads of rain from her lips.
“Sir Mark.” Her voice was clear and gentle, like a caress. “I am so dreadfully ashamed to impose upon you, but as you can no doubt see, circumstances have made it necessary.” She held her drenched bonnet in one hand.
He looked into her eyes. They were so dark he could not make out their expression, not in the dim light that filtered through the rain clouds. She spoke that lie without flinching, without even looking away.
“You see,” she continued, “I was walking, not paying attention to the time or the weather—”
“Without shawl or cloak or umbrella.” His own voice sounded curiously flat to his ears, as stale as water left to sit in a bucket for too long. “Even before the rain began, it was dismally cloudy this morning, Mrs. Farleigh.”
“Oh, I should have had the forethought to bring at least a wrap.” She let out a too-bright laugh. “But I was thinking of other things.”
Her hair was wet. It should have been stringy and unkempt. It should have been flat and colorless, nothing but unrelieved black. Instead, several strands had fallen out of the knot she kept it in. When wet, it curled—just enough to wrap about a man’s finger.
It was easy to set aside his arousal, after all. He was actually rather disappointed.
Mrs. Farleigh made herself sound quite stupid—as if she were the sort of forgetful female who regularly traipsed about outdoors in the wet. Some men of Mark’s acquaintance might have believed the act. After all, they believed all women were stupid.
Not Mark. And most definitely not this woman. If he had to guess, he would have said that she chose every item of apparel with the same care a clockmaker employed when selecting springs.
He let out a sigh. “Mrs. Farleigh, if you were that idiotic, you would have perished years before now. As you are quite robust, I’m afraid I must call your story what it is—a fabrication.”
She blinked up at him, irid
escent beads of water clinging to impossibly long lashes. Her brow furrowed in disbelief.
“You see? I am by no means as kind or generous as rumor has it. If I had been, I would never have called you a liar.”
Her eyelashes flickered down. She clasped her hands behind her back. “Very well. I admit. I was curious about you. Given my reputation—and yours—I knew we would never have a chance to hold a conversation of any length.”
He would have found a way. He’d already been thinking about it—about her clever retorts, about that curious contradiction between her dress and her manner. About her smile, wise and sad and wary all at once. He’d have insisted on conversing with her. But this little escapade left him with nothing but the bitter tang of copper in his mouth. No doubt she’d imagined that she had only to present herself in all of her dripping glory, and his intelligence would dry up and dissipate into nothingness.
“If all you wished was conversation,” he said dryly, “you could have worn a cloak.” He glanced upward. “You didn’t even need to wait for rain.”
She looked up at him, her dark eyes wide, her chest expanding on another breath. He hadn’t wanted an introduction to a polished seductress. He’d wanted to know about the other part of her, the side she didn’t present to the world. He wanted to know the woman who whispered clever set-downs to the rector when she thought nobody else listened.