The Missing Marquess of Althorn(13)

By: Chasity Bowlin

The doors to the dining room opened and his stepmother emerged, followed by Mr. Barrett and a woman he did not recognize. He did not see his father.

His stepmother stopped mid-stride, stumbling as she gaped at him. “I don’t understand! Marcus! We thought you were dead!”

Hoped, he realized. She’d never had much use for him. Dead, he would have at least garnered her sympathy and attention. “Well, I am clearly very much alive. Your grief, Stepmother, was for naught. Where is Father?”

It was Mr. Barrett who spoke. “You’ve been gone for many years, Lord Althorn. Your father’s health has been deteriorating for most of them.”

The stab of grief was unexpected. He loved his father. It would take a monster to have no affection for one’s own parent, but it was much stronger than he’d anticipated given the contentious nature of their relationship. “Is my father dead then?”

“No. He is not deceased,” Mr. Barrett answered, “But he is quite changed. He had a fit of the brain nearly two years ago and has had some difficulty speaking since that time. He suffers with palsy and is unable to walk. I’m sorry, my lord. We had no way of keeping you appraised of his condition.”

There was a note of reprisal there, as if it had somehow been Marcus’ choice. He frowned at that, at all that it implied of just who was in charge now given his father’s ill health. “They were not amenable to the sending and receiving of letters in the prison where I was held, Mr. Barrett. You’ll forgive me for being unable to inform you of my direction, I hope. Now, if it is of interest to you, your daughter has fainted. I can’t be entirely certain, but given what I recall of Miss Barrett’s characters, that seems somewhat unusual.”

The woman who was unknown to him stepped forward. “I will check in on her, my darling.” The statement lacked anything resembling warmth or concern as she sailed past her husband toward the drawing room where Miss Barrett had been taken to recover.

Marcus shouldn’t have found it surprising that Mr. Barrett was remarried. His desire to do so had been one of the compelling reasons he’d put forth for pushing up the date of the wedding between Marcus and Miss Barrett, after all. What was it that his father had said all those long years ago? That her new stepmother didn’t wish to share a roof with her predecessor? Well, he’d certainly managed to muck up her plans.

“Perhaps we should all retreat to the drawing room,” Marcus suggested. “I’m certain that once she awakens, Miss Barrett will have many questions just as all of you will and I would prefer to answer all of them at once if possible.”

Chapter Two

Jane slowly became aware of the low hum of numerous whispered conversations about her. Memory seeped in—Charles’ proposal and Marcus’ return. Oh, dear. Her lashes fluttered for a moment and then she managed, at last, to open her eyes. She started to sit up, but the duchess laid a warning hand on her shoulder.

“Not too fast, my dear. It would be a pity for you to swoon again when we’ve all been waiting to hear what dear Marcus has to say!” The admonishment was uttered in a tone that was all friendliness and warmth, yet still managed to make Jane feel like a slugabed for having had the audacity to faint and inconvenience everyone.

Still, Jane moved cautiously into an upright position. Everyone was gathered. Marcus was in the room and the duke sat near his son in his wheeled Bath chair. Her own father and stepmother were present and, naturally, the Duchess of Elsingham was there, enjoying her moment at center stage, as always.

“You’re really here,” she murmured. “You’ve come back!”

“I have,” he concurred. “I did not stay away so long by choice. I was nearly killed and I’ve been held prisoner for the past five years. You do understand that?”

“I do. But I also understand that you very much left by choice,” Jane reminded him. “It has been eight years, in fact, since you left. More than five since we’ve even heard from you. That is not an easy absence to simply ignore. Many things have changed, my lord.”