Mark followed his gaze. A few rays of sun shone through the clouds, brightening the produce in the market shambles across the square. The patrons at the marketplace had arrayed themselves so that they all had a view of him. But the rector was staring at a woman who had entered the square.
For an instant, all Mark could see was her hair—an ebony spill of ink, braided and pinned up in intricate loops that just kissed her shoulders, covered with the barest excuse for a lace bonnet. He’d always thought of black as a colorless hue, but her hair seemed so black it was every color at once, the rays of the sun spangling it. And there was a great mass of it on her head. Freed from the pins and braids, rid of that flimsy bit of lace, all that dark hair would reach past her thighs. It would be a great warm cloud of silk in his hands.
She moved smoothly, almost gliding over the cobblestones. Her strides suggested long, lean legs beneath her flowing skirts. She stopped before the public house. Even though it was not yet market day, the greengrocer had begun to gather goods for the next morning. She peered at the items and made the act of examining a head of cabbage seem like a verse of poetry.
It was only then that he noticed precisely what the rector was staring at. Her gown was the lightest shade of pink, but she had cinched it at her waist with a cherry-red ribbon. Yet more ribbons were threaded through the bodice of her gown, drawing attention to the curves of her breasts. Not that her bosom needed attention to be drawn to it; her figure was, to put it mildly, stunning. She wasn’t impossibly thin and delicate; nor was she extraordinarily buxom. Still, she somehow made every woman around her seem wrong and ill-proportioned by comparison.
For just one second, Mark felt a wistful tug. Why doesn’t anyone ever try and foist women like her off on me instead?
In London, she would have garnered second and third glances—more out of curiosity and admiration than contempt. Here? No doubt the inhabitants of Shepton Mallet had no idea what to make of a woman like this one—or a gown as daring as the one she wore. But Mark knew. That was the sort of dress that commanded: look at me.
Mark had never taken well to commands. He turned away.
“Ah, yes,” the rector said. “Mrs. Farleigh.” The stuffy tone of his voice suggested that Mrs. Farleigh was an unwelcome inhabitant of the village, but it was belied by the rector’s posture. He watched her, his eyes following her across the square with an expression that was closer to avarice than outrage. “Just look at her!”
Mark wasn’t one to gawk. In his mind, he built a wall of glass bricks—clear, yet impenetrable. With every inhalation, he reminded himself of who he was. What he believed. Breath by breath, brick by brick, he built a fortress to contain his want before it had a chance to roar to uncomfortable life. He stood behind it, lord of his own desire, until nobody could command anything of him.
Not want. Not desire. And definitely—most definitely—not lust. When he was in firm control, he looked again. Even with that gut-struck feeling of stupidity walled off, she was objectively, undeniably beautiful.
“She arrived almost two weeks ago. She’s a widow. Still, she’s said little about her people or her past. I suspect it’s because she feels it’s best left unsaid. One has only to look at her to imagine what she’s done.”
Rectors, Mark supposed, were as free to imagine lascivious goings-on as anyone else. He didn’t think they should gossip about them, though. Mrs. Farleigh looked up across the market square, and her gaze fell on him. Her expression didn’t change—which was to say, that small mysterious curl of a smile stayed on her lips.
Still, even through his fortress of glass, he felt a tiny jolt of electric resonance, as if lightning had struck nearby. She started in his direction.
Before she could come much closer, the rector snapped into motion. He darted through the stone arches of the Market Cross and took hold of Mrs. Farleigh’s shoulder. Not in a friendly, rectorlike way. Nor even as a rebuke. His gloved hand landed rather too close to her breast for any of that.
Mrs. Farleigh’s artful smile suggested that she was worldly. Her revealing gown shouted that she was a temptress. The rector’s gossip said she was worse. But when Lewis placed his hands on her, she flinched—no more than a half step backward, a twitch of her skin, but that was enough. For one instant, she had more the look of scalded cat about her than graceful swan, and that half second of response betrayed her air of worldly sensuality. She was not who she appeared at first blush.
Mark was suddenly interested—interested in a way that a low-cut gown and a striking figure could never have accomplished.
From these yards away, he could barely make out the conversation. No doubt neither believed they could be overheard. But they stood just on the other side of the Market Cross, and the acoustics through the stone were unexpectedly good.
“Come, Mrs. Farleigh,” the rector was whispering harshly. “As it’s not market day, there’s no need to display your wares so openly. Nobody here is buying those sorts of goods.”
Mrs. Farleigh had flinched at his touch. But at the intimation that she was selling her body, she did not react in the slightest. “Oh, Reverend,” she replied, equally softly. “Whatsoever is sold in the shambles…”
She trailed off, invitingly, and Mark automatically filled in the remainder: Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that, eat, asking no question for conscience sake. The words took him two decades back, to his earliest memories—reciting Bible verses while his mother looked at the wall behind him, her head nodding in time to music that only she seemed to hear. Those words he’d memorized were still burned into him, that sharp juxtaposition of right and horribly, terribly wrong.
Lewis shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We sell corn here. And cattle.”
Her smile ticked up another notch, and Mark’s respect for her increased. The rector—upstanding, breast-grappling citizen that he was—hadn’t noticed that the godless Mrs. Farleigh had just quoted the Bible at him. He probably hadn’t even recognized the verse. Mrs. Farleigh’s hand drifted to her shoulder, to the point where the rector’s hand lay. She picked his gloved fingers up between thumb and forefinger, as if a dead leaf had landed on her, and then let his arm drop to his side.
“I shan’t keep you, Rector,” she said, her voice gentle. “I’m sure there are a great many things you would like to purchase. Maybe the other wares you examine will actually be for sale.”
She turned away, not looking at Mark. The rector stared after her, folding his arms about his chest in dissatisfaction. He watched her go with rather more interest than a rector ought to have had. Finally, he turned to face Mark. “There,” he said, in a loud, carrying voice, as he wiped his hands together. “Don’t you worry, Sir Mark. We’ll make sure that the likes of her never bother you again.”
Mark glanced once at Mrs. Farleigh, who was walking back toward the greengrocer. The red of her sash made the stack of radishes look pale by comparison. She made the entire town seem faded and washed out, like a poor watercolor painting of itself.
He was chaste, not a saint. And he was just looking.
But she’d already made a contradiction of herself, one as stark and intriguing as the light color of her dress, juxtaposed against the vibrant slash of color at her waist. She’d called the rector a hypocrite to his face, and the man hadn’t even noticed. What would she say if she looked Mark in the eyes?
Would she see a saint? An icon to be worshipped?
Or would she see him?
The possibility hung in the air, too powerful to be ignored. No. No use telling himself falsehoods. He wasn’t just looking at her. He wanted to know more.
JESSICA HAD NOT considered what it meant, that Sir Mark was returning to his childhood home for the summer. She’d lived in—or near enough to— London for the past seven years of her life. Her protectors had taken her along on their excursions to the country. But improper as her role had been, they would never have introduced her to the neighbors. She’d imagined the country as a smaller, more private version of the city—just with fewer people and no operas. So quickly had she forgotten her childhood.
In a way, she did have more privacy. Jessica had found a cottage on the outskirts of town, half a mile past the point where cobblestones gave way to dirt and houses to fields. She sometimes went hours without seeing a soul besides the maid-of-all-work she’d brought with her from London.
But for precisely that same reason, she was unlikely to meet Sir Mark ambling down the country lane that led to her abode.
And that meant there was only one place she could go, knowing for certain he would attend: church. Early on a summer morning, the stone walls were still cool. But the bodies packed inside made the interior warmer than she’d expected. There was a hierarchy to the rows, no less. The wealthiest families sat up front in reserved pews; the simple folk stood in the back.
The people of Shepton Mallet had not yet worked out where Jessica belonged. She had enough money to let a house and bring a servant with her. But she’d answered no questions about her family or her origins—a sure sign of dubious morality on her part. On top of that, she was beautiful, and beautiful women were not to be trusted.
In London, nobody trusted anyone, and so the mistrust never bothered her. Here, she had taken a place halfway toward the rear of the church.
Sir Mark, of course, sat in the first row, the entire congregation as interested in him as they were in the rector leading service.
Jessica had tried to make his acquaintance before service began, but half the town had the same idea. The other half—having already met him—had been equally determined to keep him from Mrs. Farleigh of the unknown origins. Still, she couldn’t regret her dubious reputation. She wanted to seduce him, after all, not inveigle him into offering marriage. She needed to be the kind of woman whom a man like him wouldn’t marry. It all made a kind of frustrating sense…but she’d not yet made his acquaintance.
His attention had not strayed from the rector through the entire service. But as Lewis wound into his inevitable conclusion, Sir Mark turned in his seat. It was not idle inattention that turned his head. He looked straight at her. As if he’d known where she sat. As if he had realized that she was watching him.
Their eyes met. She didn’t duck her head or avert her gaze—any of the things that a shy, retiring lady might have done. Instead she met his eyes calmly.
His gaze dipped.
For a second, she regretted the unfortunate habit that had led her to wear a respectable gown to service. All these years, and she still reached for a sober, high-necked gown.
His eyes came up, met hers again—and then, very deliberately, he winked at her.
She had only a moment to stare at him before he turned to the front once more.
What had that meant? What had he intended? Her stomach knotted, for all the world as if she were a young girl, wanting to misconstrue every last glance given her by the boy she fancied. But this was no girlish desire that caught her breath. It was her livelihood, her survival, her very future that flashed by her in the wink of his eye. It had to mean something.
Her questions echoed, even after the congregation rose and began to disperse. Sir Mark was surrounded the instant he got to his feet; by the time he’d made his way to the rear of the chapel, he was bethronged.
Jessica waited by the iron fence that surrounded the churchyard. She was not going to him. She would not be one of a score of girls begging for his attention, surrounding him in a positive frenzy of innocence. Still, she almost wished that she could have been one of them—that she could have looked at him and seen bright hope.
Instead, she had nothing but stone-cold calculation. She abhorred trickery. She disliked the idea of deceit. But she was long past the careful weighing of morality. She’d given up that part of her long ago. And if he didn’t come to her before her remaining funds ran out, she’d have to resort to a stratagem of some kind.
He caught sight of her and held up one hand. The babble of voices cut off around him, as if it were a conjurer’s trick.
“Wait here,” he said, and the multitude assembled about him—a motley collection of elderly matrons, young men and hopeful, unmarried ladies—all held their collective breath. He walked toward her across the yard. A few gravestones stood between them; the grass was bright green, the sun too hot. His hair seemed almost too blond, too gold, and it sparkled like a king’s treasure hoard.
He stopped a few feet before her. “I did ask for a proper introduction,” he said, his voice quiet enough not to be overheard by his waiting audience, “but oddly—nobody was willing to perform it.”
“That,” Jessica said, “is because I am a very, very wicked woman.” She took a step closer and held out her gloved hand to him, steeling herself for his touch. “Mrs. Jessica Farleigh, official town disgrace. At your service.”
He didn’t bow over her fingers, as any other gentleman would have done. But neither did he falter at this introduction. Instead, he clasped her hand in his and shook it—as if they’d entered into a secret compact together. Even through her glove, she could feel the press of his ring against her flesh. What she needed was so close…
“Sir Mark Turner,” he said. “I speak with the tongues of a thousand angels. Butterflies follow me wherever I go. Birds sing when I take a breath.”
He relinquished her hand as easily as he’d taken it. She could feel the phantom pressure of his grip against her palm, strong and steady. She stared at him, unsure how to respond to that introduction. If Sir Mark had actually been mad, surely the matter would have been broached in the London papers.
“That must be rather disconcerting,” she finally said. “You appear to have lost your butterflies.”
A light danced in his eyes. “I propose we come to an understanding. I won’t accept the gossip about you on its face, so long as you don’t believe everything that’s said about me.”
“Sir Mark!” The call came from behind him, and one of his braver admirers ventured forth. No doubt they judged that he’d spent too long in her tarnishing company already. They wouldn’t want the town’s golden child tainted, after all.
Jessica had only a few moments of this comparative privacy left with him. “You are not what I expected to find, after reading the London papers.”
“You’ve read that? Forget it all. I implore you.”
She turned her head slightly and gave him her most captivating smile. As she did, she could see it captivate him. He was better at hiding his reaction than most men, but his mouth curled up just a little more. He stood just a little straighter. And his body canted toward hers ever so slightly. He was attracted to her—very much so. He was caught.