The Missing Marquess of Althorn(11)

By: Chasity Bowlin


She simply had not expected him to act so soon or to be quite so fervent and intractable in his offer. Was he in dun territory and trying to get his hands on her marriage portion to save himself? It was a likely explanation as she knew he liked the cards far better than they liked him. Whether she wished to wed him or not, it was much more palatable to believe that his offer was not entirely related to what he thought marriage to her might gain him financially. But her own vanity did allow her to deny the voice of reason or logic. His motives, beyond a doubt, were purely mercenary. That didn’t mean she hadn’t bruised his pride with her refusal. Whether he truly wanted her or not, he’d fully expected that she would want him. Disabusing him of that notion could have consequences.

When she’d regained her equilibrium to some degree, Jane stepped out of the drawing room and into the foyer. Her foot was on the bottom step of the grand staircase as she prepared to retreat to her room. The knock that sounded at the door filled her with dread. Had Charles returned to further press his suit or to hurl more insults at her head? Glancing over her shoulder, Jane watched with trepidation as Riggs opened the door and a man stepped inside.

Swathed in a dark and heavy cloak with triple capes, it was difficult to tell much about him at first. The coat was of good quality and very new from the looks of it as he stepped deeper into the more brightly illuminated hall and out of the shadows of the doorway. There was something familiar about him, about the way he moved. When he removed his tall beaver hat and passed it to the butler, even Riggs appeared taken aback.

A ringing began in Jane’s ears as she watched him. It couldn’t possibly be, she thought. The light struck his dark hair and she could see the shimmering blue undertones in the deep black strands. She’d known only one man in her life to have hair that black, like ink spilled on parchment.

“Althorn?” she uttered the word on the merest whisper of breath. It was enough. He turned to face her, but he did not smile. Instead, he looked at her levelly, his expression guarded in a face much leaner and harder than she recalled.

“Miss Barrett,” he offered. “It seems you’ve quite grown up since last we met.”

She would have to be married. It was that thought, more than the man standing before her that prompted the very first swoon of Jane’s heretofore completely practical life. The breath whooshed from her body and the room seemed to spin about before her eyes. The floor was rushing up to meet her as the darkness closed in about her.

*

Marcus Balfour, Marquess of Althorn, heir to the Duke of Elsingham and a long list of other lesser titles, had fought his way back from the brink of death. He’d survived battles, injury, disease that had wiped out entire regiments, capture and torture at the hands of the enemy, and even five long years of hard, back-breaking labor in an island prison off the coast of Spain. But walking the city streets of London, navigating the polite society that had once been his home, those things struck fear in his heart like nothing else.

It was that fear which had prompted him to hide out, to seek refuge in the less than stellar accommodations of the Thorn and Thistle Inn. While he hadn’t intended to remain there forever, he’d hoped for a slightly longer reprieve to gain his bearings and decide how best to proceed with resuming his rightful place.

Back on English soil, he’d sought out one of the only allies on whom he could fully depend. Lord Highcliff had been a friend since they were boys at school. He was also one of the few men who knew precisely what sort of duties Marcus had undertaken while in service to the Crown. Highcliff still worked in secret, moving through the highest echelons of society and ferreting out those whose loyalties might be divided.

Not content to simply be a foot soldier, Marcus had worked in intelligence, providing false information to the French and ferrying back any tidbit he’d learned while in their midst. It had been dangerous work and Marcus had thrived on that. Until Corunna. Everything had gone wrong, from the moment he encountered his cousin in the small city to the second when he’d looked up and seen Charles’ face as he was being dragged away by French soldiers.