The Missing Marquess of Althorn(3)

By: Chasity Bowlin

“I tell you, we’ve no choice!” his father snapped. “Barrett is threatening to have the contract dissolved if we do not come up to snuff, Marcus. He feels the girl is of a marriageable age and as he is her father, we’ve no right to gainsay him. Do I need to remind you what the financial situation of this family was before we made the agreement with him? If we have to pay back what has already been given much less forfeit the windfall that is due us upon the marriage and again with the birth of an heir, then we’ll all be in the Fleet together!”

Marcus rose to his feet. “I will not force some terrified child to the altar. I’ve consented to wed her, committed myself to it, and I shall do so when she is of an appropriate age. Not before!”

“You will do as you are told!” the old man shouted, a vein protruding in his forehead as his face purpled with rage.

Marcus’ own anger had reached the boiling point, as well. The unfairness of it all, of having his life mapped out for him by a man who couldn’t have cared less for him, to essentially be bartered off—a title with a pulse for a pot of money—sickened him. That was bad enough, but to expect him to force a girl still in the schoolroom to marry was beyond villainy.

“This entire debacle is repulsive! I will not marry her. The thought of it is positively repugnant and I will not be a part of it!” Marcus’ voice had risen with indignation and fury at the injustice of at all. He turned on his heel and strode toward the door of the old man’s study, ready to march out of the house in a storm of righteousness. But when he opened the study door and stepped into the hall, he found himself staring into the round, youthful face of his betrothed. She appeared stricken—pale and wide-eyed with trembling lips.

One awful thought circled in his brain as he looked at her. What had she heard?

“Miss Barrett—” Marcus stopped short. There was little he could say to mitigate the damage already wrought.

“Lord Althorn,” she said quietly, “My apologies for arriving earlier than anticipated. The roads were far better than anyone could have imagined. How terribly inconvenient it must be for you.”

It was obvious from her expression and from the chilled tone of her voice that she’d heard what he’d said, or at least some small and very damning portion of it. Any attempt to rectify the matter would likely only make it worse. What could he say to her after all? “Forgive me, but I must go. I cannot stay.”

“To do so would no doubt be utterly repugnant, would it not?” Her reply was uttered softly, her voice presenting as far more womanly than the rest of her. With her round face and pudgy figure, she looked exactly as a young girl should, except for her eyes. They were not only wise beyond her years, but also haunted. The pale blue held a wealth of sadness and quiet resolve. Whatever her life was at home, it was not easy. Her father was a difficult man in the best of circumstances and Marcus doubted very seriously that he offered Miss Barrett anything resembling affection. “I release you of the only duties I have the authority to bid you freedom from. Any social obligation to tend to me as your guest, Althorn, may be considered discharged. You should carry on as if I weren’t even here.”

Marcus flinched. She was wise, insightful and had a pointed wit that struck with surgical precision. “What you heard—it is not what you think, Miss Barrett. Trust me when I say that my refusal to meet my father’s wishes today is in both our best interests.”

She dropped her gaze to the floor, but her tone when she spoke did not match the subservience of her pose. It was cool and sharp. “I have never labored under the assumption, Lord Althorn, that what I wanted or what was in my best interests was pertinent to the situation. It is a hallmark of your elevated station by virtue or your sex and title that you are permitted to question authority and challenge the status quo. I cannot.”

Those were the most words she’d ever spoken to him, he realized. He’d had to insult her, albeit unintentionally, and strike her to her very soul with humiliation before she’d ever been bothered to acknowledge him.