The Missing Marquess of Althorn(4)

By: Chasity Bowlin


Marcus stepped forward until they were standing only a few feet apart. “I am not attempting to renege on the arrangement between our families. But I will not wed you when you are still a child. I would never forgive myself for it.”

She looked up at him then and her gaze pierced him, seeming to see right through to the heart of him. It was as if she could see every flaw inside him. It was not the first time she had looked at him thusly, and if they were ever to wed as their families had long since agreed, it would likely not be the last. “I understand that my appearance is not pleasing to you. I understand why you think me a child, Lord Althorn. Yet, you are the one standing in your father’s study, stamping your feet and demanding to have your own way in things. I agree that the existing arrangement demands we marry when I am still too young in years to be a bride. I would also posit that you will still be too lacking in maturity at that time to be a husband.”

There was no argument against that as it was both true and not. Still, he’d managed to wound not only her feelings but also her pride. She’d earned a bit of indulgence if she wanted a pound of flesh from him. “I have some things that require my immediate attendance, Miss Barrett. Excuse me. Whatever you heard here today, I promise it is not what you think. And whatever comes, it has to do with doing what is right, and not avoiding our shared destiny.”

With that, he turned on his heel and left, knowing that he would not be returning any time soon.

*

Jane watched her betrothed hasten from his father’s home. He left so quickly that the door didn’t even latch properly behind him. The wind caught it, whipping it open again. The butler immediately set it right, but the damage was done. The wake of Lord Althorn’s departure and the subsequent rush of cool air that had entered had ruffled the vase of flowers on the hall table, sending petals and leaves cascading down onto the inlaid tabletop. Jane watched them fall and felt a strange kinship to those poor flowers. She felt as if many of her own petals had been sacrificed in their bloodless but still damaging exchange.

There had never been any false hope for her that theirs would be a love match. In fact, she had never anticipated that her betrothed would have any wish to marry her. It had been drilled into her almost since birth that her father had used his money to procure a match for her that would result in position and social cache for him. She was the sacrificial goat that would bring him into the highest reaches of society where he longed to be. What it might do for her or to her was entirely incidental. Of course, it was one thing to accept that her betrothed might be less than eager. It was another entirely to face the knowledge that he not only wasn’t eager, but was, in fact, completely unwilling. It scalded her already singed pride, adding greater insult upon pre-existing injury.

Repugnant, he’d said. That word wounded her to the quick. Her looks had never been remarkable. At best, she’d been called pretty by those who were feeling charitable, but never beautiful. Her figure remained stubbornly trapped in childhood. Round faced, flat chested, with no waistline in sight, she looked closer to girlhood than womanhood though the opposite should have been true. At nearly fourteen, other girls her age were beginning to wear their hair up and dress in lovely gowns. She still had braids and looked like a child. Was it any wonder he was so repulsed by the idea of marrying her?

It was of no consequence that she’d harbored the most tender of feelings for him, even if she hadn’t expected them to be returned. She couldn’t allow it to be. Handsome as he was, as charming as she’d seen him be with other people while always being stiff and formal with her, she’d only ever felt shy and embarrassed in his presence. Now, only the embarrassment remained. Humiliation, she corrected. He loathed her and the idea of being wed to her left him utterly repulsed. What on earth was she to do with herself in such a circumstance? She could not wed him, not knowing that.

At least hearing his awful admission had freed her from the painful worship she’d harbored of him. He hadn’t simply fallen from the pedestal she’d had him upon, but leapt from it with abandon. The shyness that had always kept her frozen in his presence had vanished in the face of that and she’d finally managed to speak coherently, if rather scathingly, to him.