The Missing Marquess of Althorn(8)

By: Chasity Bowlin

“Well this is a pleasant surprise! I had not realized you had come to visit, Miss Barrett!”

The sentiment was offered with a false warmth that always made Jane uneasy. While a small part of her was flattered by his attention, her discomfort far outweighed it. Lovely compliments from a tainted source certainly lost some of their luster.

“Mr. Balfour,” she said, inclining her head. Being in his company grated on her nerves. “I cannot imagine how you would find it surprising. We are here for two weeks following Christmas every year, are we not?”

He laughed, though there was an ugly gleam in his eyes at her slight rebuke. “What a wit you are, Miss Barrett! I find it quite difficult to equate the shy little girl you once were to the beautiful and witty woman before me. I daresay, you have come into full blossom.”

“My father is closeted in the library with the duke. I have no doubt their conversation would prove much more edifying to you than the humdrum gossip that her grace and I are indulging in,” she suggested gently.

His smile stretched into what could only be described as a predatory grin. “On the contrary! I’d much prefer to stay here. And if your conversation may be lacking in edification, I will still have a far superior panorama to console me, will I not? I daresay, the two loveliest ladies in all of London are before me!”

“Only in London?” the duchess questioned. “Surely in all of England at the very least!”

The door opened again and, once more, the butler stepped inside, toes even with the doorframe and his posture completely stiff. “Dinner is served, your grace,” he intoned, dry as the dust that was never permitted to settle anywhere in the house.

The Duchess of Elsingham nodded in acknowledgement and then looked to Mr. Balfour for his escort.

Charles smiled again, this time with a predatory quality. “Forgive me, your grace, but if I may… I’d like a private word with Miss Barrett before going in to dinner.”

The duchess appeared quite put out, her chin inching upward and her back stiffening like a cat’s. She was clearly offended that any man would choose to spend time with Jane rather than her. It was a stark reminder that while the Duchess of Elsingham could occasionally be pleasant company, they were not truly allies. Jane had no allies in that house and it was to her benefit to remember that always.

“Certainly, Charles,” she replied. While her words were congenial, her tone was anything but. It was quite evident that the slight had been noted and would not be easily forgiven. The duchess glanced at Jane, eyeing her figure and then her face before turning away dismissively. “I will leave you to your conversation. It is a certainty, of course, that nothing inappropriate would ever occur.”

Charles leaned in and kissed the duchess’ cheek. It was a gesture that was far too familiar. “I promise to make it up to you.”

The duchess smiled again and whacked his arm flirtatiously with her fan. She giggled and then cooed, “Yes, you will, you silly man!”

A feeling of dread had washed through Jane the moment Charles Balfour arrived. Watching the interplay between him and the duchess, earlier suspicions about the nature of their relationship reared their ugly head again. But more terrifying still was whatever it was that he wished to speak to her about. Anything he desired to say to her that required privacy was obviously nothing she would wish to hear. On that score, she was certain.

Helpless, Jane watched the Duchess of Elsingham sail from the room in a cascade of graceful black skirts. Her grace had been correct on one count. With her perfect, blonde beauty she wore the color well, whereas Jane always thought she herself looked like a sad but very plump crow. Even given the strange and quite charged exchange that had just occurred, Jane had to admire the woman’s stunning beauty with no small degree of envy.

When the door closed behind her, Charles looked back at Jane with that same smile. It made him resemble the confidence men who hawked elixirs which they claimed could fix every ailment from gout to a man’s loss of vigor, whatever that was. In reality, those elixirs only succeeded in making the unwary buyer poorer and too foxed to care. “My dearest, Miss Barrett—Jane—you must know why I’ve asked to speak with you privately.”