unclaimed

chapter one (unedited)

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 street. 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 stopped in the street. 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.

Now, the oldest woman had one clawed hand on the cuff of his great-coat, 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 all too aware that he was the most sought-after bachelor in all of 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 towards 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.”

In point of fact, Sir Mark’s brother did own half the buildings on the street. This fact, like every other aspect of his life, had been reported several times. 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 Weston another glance. That explained why Weston had put forth the challenge he had.

“He’s never had to try for anything,” Weston groused. “It just falls in this lap. And here I’ve been running myself ragged, trying to put myself forward. The spot was practically promised me when Lefevre steps down. But no—now it’s Turner’s for the asking.”

Sir Mark reached his carriage. He smiled to one and all. Even inside the taproom, Jessica could hear the cries of disappointment as a footman closed the carriage door.

“I don’t understand how he became such a darling of London society,” Weston was venting. “Would you believe that they’ve tapped him for the office not because he has any administrative experience, but because they wish to raise public opinion? Why he should do so, I can’t say. He’s unwilling to engage in even the most time-honored gentlemanly pursuits.”

By which Weston undoubtedly meant drinking and wenching.

“He wrote a book.” Jessica pressed her hands against her skirt. Understatement served her purposes better than truth. “It has enjoyed a run of some little popularity.”

“Don’t start on the bloody Gentleman’s Guide.” Weston growled. “And don’t mention the bloody MCB either. That man is a plague on my house.”

Before Sir Mark’s conveyance could spirit him away, the footmen had to politely clear the crowd from in front of the horses. The carriage was closed, but through a window on the side that faced her, Jessica could see Sir Mark’s silhouette. He removed his hat and bowed his head. It was a posture halfway between despair and exhaustion. He must not have thought himself observed, or he’d never have betrayed such weariness.

So. All those smiles and handshakes were false. Good. A man who put on one false front would put on another, and if all his vaunted moral superiority was an act, it would make Jessica’s work very, very easy. Besides, if Sir Mark despaired over a little thing like a mob, determined to pay him adulation, he deserved what was coming to him. One paid a price for popularity.

And Sir Mark’s book had been very popular indeed. The Queen had read it, and had knighted its author for his contribution to popular morality. Thereafter, his work had been read in all the favored salons in London. Every Sunday sermon quoted passages from the Gentleman’s Guide. Why, just last month, a diminutive version had been printed, so that women could carry his words about in their skirt-pockets—or in intimate compartments sewn into their petticoats for just that purpose.

There was something rather ironic, Jessica thought, about proper young ladies carrying A Gentleman’s Practical Guide to Chastity as near to their naked thighs as they could manage.

But women were not his only devotees. Some days, it seemed as if half the men of London had joined that benighted organization of his followers. They were everywhere on the streets these days, with their blue cockades and their supposedly secret hand-signals. Sir Mark had done the impossible. He’d made chastity popular.

Beside her, Weston watched with narrowed eyes as the carriage finally started up. The coachman flicked his whip, and the conveyance moved slowly through the gathered crowd. He shook his head and finally turned to consider Jessica. It was only in her imagination that his eyes left a rancid, oily film behind.

“I don’t suppose you asked me here just so I could talk about the insufferable Mark Turner.” His eyes fell to her bosom in idle, lecherous speculation. “I told you you’d miss me, Jess. Come. Tell me about this…this proposition of yours.”

He took her arm; she gritted her teeth at the touch of his fingers and managed not to flinch.

She hated that appellation, Jess. It made her sound like a falcon’s leash, as if she were captured and hooded and possessed by him. She’d hated it ever since she realized she had been pinioned—tamed, taught commands, and trotted out on the occasions when he needed to make use of her. But she had hardly been in a position to object to his use of it.

Someday. Someday soon. It was not a promise she made, as he led her to the table in the back room. It was a last breath of hope, whispered into darkness.

Jessica sat in the chair that Weston pulled up for her.

Six months ago, she’d sent Weston on his way. She’d thought she would never have to see him again. If her plan succeeded now, she would not have to. She would be free from Weston and London…and this life in its entirety.

Weston took his seat at the head of the table. Jessica stared across at him. She had never loved him, but for a while, he had been tolerable. Neither generous, nor overly demanding. He had kept her safe and clothed. She hadn’t needed to pretend too hard; he’d not wanted her false protestations of affection.

“Well, Jess,” Weston said. “Shall I ring for tea?”

At those words, her hands clenched around the sticky wood of the taproom table. She could feel each of her breaths, sharp inside her lungs. They labored in the cavern of her breast, as if she were climbing to the top of a tower. For just an instant, she felt as if she had ascended some great height—as if this man was a small, distant specimen, viewed from a great height. Reality seemed very far away.

What she managed to say was: “No tea.”

“Oh.” He glanced at her sidelong. “Ha. Right. I’d forgotten entirely. You’re not still put out over that, are you?”

She had always thought that the life of a courtesan would take its toll slowly over time. That she might tolerate it for at least a decade to come, before her beauty slowly faded into age.

But no. Six months ago, her life had become unbearable over the course of one cup of tea.

“What is it you want?” Weston asked.

What she wanted sounded so simple. When she went outside, she wanted to feel the sunlight against her face.

She hadn’t realized how bad matters had gotten, until the first sunny day of spring had come. She’d gone outdoors—had been chivied outside, in fact, by a friend—to promenade in the park. She had felt nothing—not inside her, nor out. She hadn’t felt cold. She hadn’t felt warm. And when the spring sun hit her face, it was nothing but pale light.

This man had made her into dark gray stone, from the surface of her skin to the center of her soul. No nerves. No hopes. No future.

“It’s not about what I want,” she said finally.

She wanted never again to have to fill another man’s bed, telling falsehoods with her body until her mind could no longer track her own desires. She wanted to rid herself of the murk and the mire that had filled her. This life had bound her as effectively as if she were a falcon tied by a leather shackle, and she wanted to be free.

She steepled her fingers. “You’ve offered a reward to the woman who seduces Sir Mark Turner.”

These words had an immediate effect. Weston slammed his fist against the table. “How did you know that was me? I thought I kept it quiet.”

She shrugged. “A little research. There’s not much secrecy among courtesans.”

“None of you have managed it, anyway,” Weston said with a snarl. “A reward of three hundred pounds, and the finest whores in all of London have failed. Don’t tell me you’re thinking of taking him on, Jess.”

She met his gaze without flinching.

“You are thinking of it.” Weston’s lip curled. “Of course you are. You’re between protectors. Honestly, Jess. If you’re that desperate for funds, I’ll take you back.”

After what he’d done to her six months ago, the offer should have made her skin crawl. As it was, she felt nothing except the cold gray of shadow, falling across her.

She should have yearned for justice. She should have wanted revenge. She should, at a minimum, have wanted to extract something from him, of a size and shape to fill the desolate wasteland of gray nothingness he’d left inside her.

But she’d learned years ago that there was no justice, not for a woman like her. There was no way to crawl backwards, to unravel the harms that had been done. There were only small, timid paths to be found through tangled underbrush. If you were lucky, you might hit upon one and escape the dark forest.

“It happens,” she said, “that I have something none of those other women had.”

Weston rubbed his chin. “Well, what is it?”

Desperation, she thought.

But what she said was, “Information. Sir Mark is returning to his boyhood home for the summer—a small market town, called Shepton Mallet. I gather he wants to escape the adoring throngs for a period.” The information had cost Jessica dearly—nearly a quarter of the hundred pounds she had to her name. “He’ll be away from his loving public. Staying, not in his brother’s mansion, packed with servants, but in an isolated house, with only a few villagers to come by and take care of his needs.”

And without everyone watching the estimable Sir Mark, he would have the opportunity to stray from his righteous path—something he could not do while he was the center of London’s attention. Jessica had no doubt that he’d take everything she offered if he thought nobody would know. He was only a man, after all.

“I hardly see that you need my permission for it,” Weston said. “The offer was openly made. Seduce him. Prove it. Tell the entire ton your experience, through the gossip sheets, and destroy Sir Mark’s good reputation. You’ll get your money.”

Jessica tapped her lips. “I will be investing far more than an evening’s work. He’ll have to think me available. Not good enough to marry, but genteel enough that I’d make good…company. I’ll be hiring a house in the country. Retaining servants.” It would stretch her last reserves to the breaking point. If this failed, she would have no choice but to find another protector. She stared flatly at the table in front of her. “If I do it,” she said, “I’ll want three thousand.”

Enough to purchase a small home in the country in a tiny village where nobody knew her. Enough to have morning after morning to herself, to lift her face to the sun. They said time healed all wounds. Jessica prayed it was so, that one day she might feel more than this cold, impossible emptiness.

Weston clapped his hands. “So. The vicar’s daughter has learned to bargain. Admit it, Jess. I made you who you are. You owe me.”

She did owe him. He had made her, twice over. But there was no point in dreaming of a revenge that would never come. Right now, she just wanted to survive. “Three thousand,” she repeated coolly.

“One thousand pounds,” he said. “Ruin Sir Mark, and I’ll consider it a bargain at the price.”

She’d be damned if she agreed. But then, she was already damned. The only question was whether she’d get full value for her soul.

“Fifteen hundred,” she told him, “and not one penny less.”

~ divider ~

This is an unedited excerpt.

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