The Missing Marquess of Althorn(7)

By: Chasity Bowlin

“Your grace, I cannot help but feel a question is buried somewhere within that soliloquy,” Jane said, hoping to hasten the woman to the point. She had found that the duchess frequently took a meandering route to the heart of any conversation.

The duchess smiled and looked coquettishly at Jane through her lashes. The woman flirted shamelessly with everyone regardless of age, gender, or infirmity. It occurred to Jane that the woman was so spoiled by her own beauty she had never thought to explore anything else she might have to offer in life beyond a pretty face and a charming smile. Age would be a cruel comeuppance.

After a deliberately dramatic pause, the duchess continued, “I cannot help but wonder if I would be thought badly of if I did not continue to mourn Marcus once Alfred is gone. Would it be very gauche of me to pack away anything resembling black bombazine after a suitable period has expired?”

“I don’t think so,” Jane said. “You hardly knew Marcus, after all. It would be quite unfair for society to expect you to mourn him as you would a son when I do believe he is, in fact, your senior by at least two years.”

Her grace sat back in her chair and beamed with a beatific smile. “I will continue to wear black on occasion, I think. It does look very lovely on me… and it camouflages any number of sins, particularly related to cook’s lemon cakes. I haven’t worn satin in ages. Do you not miss it, Miss Barrett? Opening your wardrobe and seeing an array of lovely colors spread out for your choosing?”

There had never been an array of colors in her wardrobe. Her father had always been quite the skinflint with her. As he’d already secured a husband for her, it would have been, in his words, a waste of funds to try and make her a silk purse from a sad, little sow’s ear. She’d had only a handful of gowns and they’d been worn only in society. At home, she’d worn simple day dresses of rough fabrics that would have easily seen her pass for a scullery maid.

“I don’t suppose I should speak of such things to you,” the duchess said, clucking her tongue sadly. “My poor dear! Unless Alfred relents and has Marcus declared dead, or if Charles can do so if my poor Alfred does pass, why you might never wed! You will be stuck mourning for a man who might have been your husband for the rest of your life. I do believe that might be the most tragic fate I could imagine.”

Jane nodded noncommittally. Had it not been for her father’s insistence that the banns be posted so early, right after Lord Althorn had left for the army and never returned, she’d have been free to marry as she chose with the belief that Lord Althorn was dead. Of course, it had been a strategic move on her father’s part. Announcing the betrothal had given him entree into the society that he craved. The connection to a dukedom had elevated his status just as he’d hoped. And her reluctant marquess had been conveniently absent to protest.

She was forever trapped and her own father had done that to her with his obsessive greed for a title. As it was, her grace was undoubtedly correct. With Althorn simply vanished, and no word of where he might be, dead or alive, there was no path open to her to move forward other than spinsterhood. Not that she wished for one, she reminded herself. Marriage was a fantasy best saved for pretty young girls with no notion of how cruel and unfeeling men could be. She was simply biding her time until her next birthday and the small settlement her grandfather had left for her would allow her to finally escape her father.

The duchess sipped her sherry. “Perhaps by next season we might slide ever so slightly into half-mourning? Perhaps dip our toes in the water by adding some lavender or lilac touches to these drab widow’s weeds, no? We could still go to some parties, just nothing too grand or gay. Surely, no one would frown upon that after so many years?”

The door opened and the butler entered, pausing with his toes directly even with the door. “The honorable Mr. Charles Balfour, your grace,” he intoned with all the gravitas of one announcing the Prince Regent himself.

Charles entered immediately after him, his dark hair dusted with snow and a too-bright smile on his lips. He might have been handsome had his nose been a tad shorter and less hawkish, and had there not been a coldness about him that even the brightest of smiles could not truly hide.