The Missing Marquess of Althorn(6)

By: Chasity Bowlin

Jane’s only response was a tighter smile and a raised eyebrow. She was one and twenty, hardly in her dotage. Of course, as there was no end in sight to her strange period of half-mourning, that offered no comfort at all. She’d spent the last five years wearing nothing but drab gray or black. Their visits to town were infrequent and the stodgy country society near their home would never dream of inviting someone in mourning into their midst. Sadly, the dismal company of the Duke and Duchess of Elsingham was the closest thing to social interaction she could lay claim to.

Dull, dreary and always disappointing, it was hardly something to be anticipated, as they were trapped in the same state of limbo she was. Of course, she couldn’t blame society hostesses for their reticence in including them. What were they to say? What were their other guests to say? I’m terribly sorry your betrothed would rather run off to war than marry you. I’m terribly sorry your family had the misfortune to post the banns before he left and now you’re stuck in matrimonial purgatory. I’m terribly sorry that your betrothed, who couldn’t stand the sight of you, has been missing for five years and your life is in stasis because of it.

Upon further examination, Jane decided that it was simply better for everyone involved if she had limited social engagements and fewer opportunities to be insulted or reminded of how poorly her life was playing out. Of course, as she would rather spend her days with fictional characters than real ones, that really was not such a terrible thing. And if the Duchess of Elsingham wished to continue harping upon it, Jane intended to make certain that the woman’s sherry glass was refilled liberally and frequently so that the conversation might be shortened. If, Jane thought, she could get the duchess deep enough into her cups, she could call an early night for herself and retreat to her room and the trials of Lady Gray. That book had her in fits!

“It does, indeed. More sherry, your grace?” Jane asked softly.

The woman’s eyes brightened. “Yes, yes indeed!”

The Duchess of Elsingham was not all that much older than Jane herself. Just shy of thirty, she’d married the Duke of Elsingham and become stepmother to Jane’s betrothed only days before he left to join the fighting on the Peninsula. It always grated when the woman, who had not had children herself, reminded her that her own precious child bearing years were slipping away. Of course, she was still preferable to Jane’s own stepmother.

Mrs. Barrett, as she insisted upon being addressed even by Jane herself, was the very devil. Luckily, she had not yet come down. The woman was perpetually late, more so because she liked to make an entrance than because she poorly managed her time. She’d, no doubt, be wearing one of her new gowns, brightly colored and prettily trimmed. It was that, even more than her difficult personality and questionable character, which prompted the current intensity of Jane’s dislike of her at the moment. She resented the woman’s freedom and her seeming imperviousness to William Barrett’s foul moods and fouler temper.

As a footman refilled her grace’s glass, Jane asked the question that propriety demanded of her. “Has there been any word from the investigators yet or the war office on Lord Althorn’s whereabouts?”

The duchess shook her head sadly. It was an expression she adopted routinely when anyone asked about the fate of her stepson. She had taken to the roll of martyr with aplomb from the very moment of Marcus’ disappearance on the field of battle. No one had ever looked so fashionably grim in their mourning clothes as the lovely Duchess of Elsingham.

Jane had the sneaking suspicion that because black was so flattering to the woman’s cool blonde beauty, it was she and not the duke that delayed in having the Marquess of Althorn declared dead. It allowed her to draw out the period of mourning for ages longer.

“No, my dear. None at all. I fear we may never know what fate has befallen poor Marcus. So young and so handsome,” the duchess mused. “What a shame for Alfred! His only son and heir gone without a word of explanation! The poor dear… his health is failing him so dreadfully. He has been all that is kind and gracious to me. Why, I could not ask for a better husband! He says nothing of what I spend. He is content to entertain himself and does not require that I dance attendance upon him at all times. Why the thought of—well, not to be indelicate, Miss Barrett, but the rules of etiquette are quite muddied on this subject. Alfred is significantly my elder and, as such, will likely precede me in death. I will, of course, mourn him terribly.”