The Missing Marquess of Althorn(5)

By: Chasity Bowlin

Her father entered then, the butler closing the door softly behind him. He frowned when he saw her, but that was his typical response whenever she was in his line of sight. Immediately averting his gaze and addressing the butler as if she were not even present, he demanded, “Was that Althorn leaving?”

Riggs, the duke’s staunch and loyal butler nodded. “Yes, Mr. Barrett, sir. Lord Althorn had to depart somewhat hastily.”

Her father turned his cold, sharp gaze on her. “Did you speak to him?”

“We spoke, Father,” she answered evenly, not revealing the unpleasant nature of the exchange.

“About what?” he snapped. “Answer me, girl! I’m tired of this nonsense!”

“I believe,” she offered hesitantly, “that the Marquess of Althorn is not pleased at the prospect of our coming marriage. It is my understanding that he and the duke have disagreed quite vehemently about it. Perhaps the duke will be able to provide more insight.”

Her father looked at her with disdain. “Can’t say I blame the boy. You’ve done little enough to make yourself even remotely palatable to the opposite sex.”

“What should I have done then? Painted myself like a harlot?” she asked. Normally, she would never have spoken disrespectfully to him. But it was a rare day to have her heart broken and her lingering pride crushed in one fell swoop.

Her father said nothing, just turned and walked away. It was not an uncommon occurrence. He despised her and always had. Jane glanced over to the butler whose normally stern expression had softened into something akin to pity.

Holding her tears of humiliation at bay, Jane kept her voice calm and composed as she said, “I believe I will sit in the garden for a while, Riggs, if anyone should ask for me.” If anyone could be bothered to care.

“Certainly, Miss Barrett,” he said. “I will see to it they are informed if anyone should ask.”

Jane turned then and headed toward the doors at the back of the corridor that would lead outside into the small garden that butted against the mews. No bigger than her own bedchamber, the tall hedges still offered more privacy than she typically found inside the house. Her father would badger her at the behest of her soon-to-be stepmother. The duke would be all that was polite, but he was so stiff it was never pleasant to be in his company.

Instead, she utilized the only escape that was available to her. Despite the cold, despite the burning pain that had blossomed in her chest and the withering of her paltry confidence in the face of Marcus Balfour’s clear displeasure at their match, she retreated into a world where it didn’t matter that she was plain. It didn’t matter in the least that she was still as flat chested as a boy. She lost herself within the pages of a novel.

Chapter One

Eight Years Later

Jane smiled politely at the Duchess of Elsingham as the sherry was poured. Dinner was shaping up to be another disaster in what had been a long list of disasters besetting their annual visit to the Duke of Elsingham and his wife. Each year, it became more and more difficult to get through the weeks without everyone in the house succumbing to fits of either the vapors or ill tempers, depending upon one’s proclivities.

“It is so lovely of you all to come and visit us here,” the duchess said, gulping her sherry more than sipping it. “Ever since the Battle of Corunna and poor Marcus’ disappearance, our society is so limited. No one quite knows what to do with us! Are we in mourning? Are we not? Is it within the bounds of propriety to invite us to dinners but not to musicales? I find it so tiresome to sit in the house and look at the same walls day in and day out! At least dear Charles made it home safely. Just imagine how awful it would have been had we lost them both to Bonaparte? How I despise that awful war! It’s done terrible things to society!”

The duchess paused in her diatribe long enough to cast a sympathetic glance toward Jane. “But it must be so much worse for you, my dear! To have your betrothed simply missing… your life perpetually in a state of limbo when you ought to be well married and setting up house with children of your own! You are not getting any younger either! Time does slip away so quickly!”