Her only hope for survival...
Handsome, wealthy and respected, Sir Mark Turner is the most sought-after bachelor in all of London--and he's known far and wide for his irreproachable character. But behind his virtuous reputation lies a passionate nature he keeps carefully in check...until he meets the beautiful Jessica Farleigh, the woman he's waited for all his life.
Is to ruin the man she loves...
But Jessica is a courtesan, not the genteel lady Sir Mark believes. Desperate to be free of a life she despises, she seizes her chance when Mark's enemies make her an offer she can't refuse: seduce Mark and tarnish his good name, and a princely sum will be hers. Yet as she comes to know the man she's sworn to destroy, Jessica will be forced to choose between the future she needs...and the love she knows is impossible.
London June, 1841
Sir Mark Turner did not look like any virgin that Jessica had ever seen before.
Perhaps, she mused, it was because he was surrounded by women.
The uneven glass of the taproom window obscured the tableau unfolding across the street. Not that she would have been able to see anything, even had she been standing in the muck of the road. After all, it had taken less than a minute for the mob to form. The instant Sir Mark had come out the door across the way, a carriage had come to an abrupt halt. A pair of young ladies had spilled out, tugged along by an eager chaperone. Two elderly matrons, strolling along the gangway, had laid eyes on him a few moments later and darted in front of a cart with surprising speed.
The oldest woman now had one clawed hand on the cuff of his greatcoat and the other on her cane--and she was merely the most aggressive of his hangers-on. Sir Mark was thronged on all sides by women...and the occasional man, sporting one of those ridiculous blue rose cockades on his hat. Jessica could see nothing of him through the crowd but the gray of his coat and a glint of golden hair. Still, she could imagine him flashing that famous smile reproduced in woodcuts in all the newspapers: a confident, winning grin, as if he were aware that he was the most sought-after bachelor in London.
Jessica had no desire to join the throng around Sir Mark. She had no autograph book to wave at him, and the likes of her wouldn't have been welcomed in any event.
Sir Mark handled the crowd well. He didn't bask in the attention, as the men of Jessica's acquaintance might have done. Neither did he shrink from the pressing women. Instead, he ordered them about with an air of gentle command--signing the little books with a pencil he produced from a pocket, shaking hands--all the while making his way inexorably toward the street corner, where a carriage stood.
When Jessica thought of virgins, she imagined youths plagued by red spots or youngsters who wore thick spectacles and spoke with a stammer. She didn't think of blond men with clean-shaven, angular faces. She certainly didn't imagine tall fellows whose smiles lit up the dark, rainy street. It all went to show: Jessica knew nothing of virgins.
Hardly a surprise. She'd not spoken to a single one, not in all her years in London.
Beside her, George Weston let out a snort. "Look at him," he scoffed. "He's acting like a damned jackanapes--parading up and down the street as if he owned the place.''
Jessica traced her finger against the window. In point of fact, Sir Mark's brother, newly the Duke of Parford, did own half the buildings on the street. It would annoy Weston if she corrected him, and so for a moment, she considered doing so.
But then, Sir Mark's presence was irritation enough. Some days, it seemed as if every society paper in London sent out a new issue every time he sneezed. Not much of an exaggeration. How many times had she passed post-boys waving scandal sheets, headlines a half-page high declaring: Sir Mark: Threatened by Illness?
"He must think," Weston continued, "that just because his brother is a duke--" he spat those words "--and the Queen has shown him a little favor, that he can caper about, displacing everyone who stands as his better. Did you know they're considering him for Commissioner?"
Jessica slanted him another glance. No; no need to rile the man. He could work himself into a lather without any help from her, and for now, she still needed him.
"He's never had to try for anything," Weston groused. "It just falls in his lap. And here I've been running myself ragged, trying to put myself forward....