The Missing Marquess of Althorn(10)

By: Chasity Bowlin

“Surely you are not seriously rejecting my offer, Miss Barrett? You only need time—”

“I am quite serious, Mr. Balfour,” she replied evenly. “Time is not and will not be a factor in my decision.”

“Even if Marcus is declared dead at some point, your marriage settlement and your father’s extensive fortune will not be enough to have suitor’s knocking down your door!” he snapped. “You haven’t the sense to recognize a decent offer when presented with one!”

“I’ve not yet been presented with a decent offer,” she replied quietly.

He drew back as if struck and, in some ways, Jane supposed she had struck the man. It didn’t matter that he’d all but called her ugly and offered up his willingness to look past it because she was a good person. That didn’t even brook commenting upon. But she’d refused him for sound and viable reasons that anyone else in society would champion, and he was insulted by it.

Rallying, he smoothed the front of his waistcoat and schooled his features into a neutral expression. It still reminded her of drawings she’d seen of crocodiles. The teeth might be concealed, but they still posed a very real threat. “I see, Miss Barrett. Perhaps, I have been overzealous in my pursuit of you and we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. I understand that women prefer to be wooed slowly. I shall endeavor to move at far less frantic pace over the course of the remaining season as I attempt to sway your affections and secure your hand.”

Jane blinked in surprise. Surely not, she thought to herself. Surely, a man of reasonable intelligence was not so foolish as to think a grown woman did not know her own mind when refusing his courtship. “Let me affirm for you, Mr. Balfour, I am not open to courtship or being wooed. Not by you and not by any man. I am betrothed to your cousin. If he should ever happen to be returned to us, I will honor that agreement between our families but I will seek no other offers and I will accept no other offers… specifically, I will never accept yours. Is that quite clear?”

His expression altered, shifted into something dark and even threatening. For a moment, it looked as if he might actually strike her. In the end, he stepped back, smoothed his hands over his hair and stated bitterly, “He’s not coming back! He’s dead and rotting in a Spanish grave… or are you too addlebrained to realize that?”

Jane had stepped back as well. Instinctively, her hand had searched for a weapon, landing upon the neck of a priceless antique case. She drew in a deep and steadying breath, but kept her hand there, ready to strike back if it should prove necessary. She’d actually been afraid of him. It wasn’t simply her nerves or her overactive imagination. For that brief moment in time, Charles Balfour had dropped his mask and shown her a glimpse of all the nastiness that lurked beneath his well-polished surface.

Jane tried to retain a mask of poise and civility, and forced herself to let go of her makeshift weapon, her hands now resting at her sides. She clutched her skirts to hide their trembling. It was a better option than braining him. While the duchess was kind to her, Jane would never presume to say the woman was fond of her. Breaking an expensive vase against his impossibly hard head would likely strain the relationship. “I have refused you as kindly and firmly as I can, Mr. Balfour, and have done so in a manner that leaves you without question that my refusal would stand independently of your cousin’s return or continued absence. I believe I will beg off dinner and dine in my chambers. I bid you good evening, sir.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll not be insulted further by sitting at the dinner table and taking the scraps tossed my way while everyone bemoans the absence of a dead man who never deserved any of it to begin with!” he snapped at her as he turned on his heel and exited the room.

Left alone, Jane exhaled so forcefully that it left her quite dizzy. So much so that she had to grasp the back of the chair nearest her as she struggled to make sense of all that had occurred. She’d been aware of Mr. Balfour’s changed feelings for her. No, she corrected. It was not that his feelings had changed, only that his intentions had. It was quite obvious that he believed taking on the abandoned fiancée of his late cousin would be a strategic maneuver on his part to further cement his claim to the titles and whatever inheritance was also intended for him.