The Missing Marquess of Althorn(9)

By: Chasity Bowlin

Jane rose from her chair, feeling very much at a disadvantage. He towered over her regardless, but at least on her feet she felt marginally better about the situation. “No, Mr. Balfour,” she stressed the formal address, hoping against hope that he’d take her meaning. “I cannot fathom that there would ever be any need for us to speak privately, for any reason.”

“Jane,” he continued, and his expression was both overly earnest and incredibly determined. It was a dangerous combination. “You must understand that over the years of our acquaintance, I have developed a deep and abiding admiration for you.”

“Our acquaintance has been just that, Mr. Balfour. We see one another socially perhaps a handful of times each year. It is hardly of any significance,” Jane insisted.

“Dare I confess it?” He continued as if she hadn’t spoken and, in truth, he was so doggedly focused on his own ends it was possible he had not heard.

“No. Do not dare. Do not confess anything, Mr. Balfour,” she said with greater force, her voice rising with panic.

“Jane,” he continued, blissfully ignorant or deliberately obtuse regarding the terror he had invoked. “While you are certainly not a fashionable choice and your appearance is not that which would inspire great sonnets to your beauty, during our acquaintance, I have come to see that your beauty shines from within!”

Jane’s lips parted in stunned offense. Panic gave way to umbrage. She gaped at him like a fish for several seconds as the magnitude of the insult sank in. Had he truly just said he wished to marry her because he’d known her long enough to overlook how unattractive he found her? He had! The pompous, puffed up idiot had, in fact, addressed how singularly unappealing he found her in his marriage proposal! His ineptitude would have been laughable had it not been so insulting. Only moments earlier, he’d been lauding her beauty. How quickly he had forgotten!

“I understand that you are still entangled with this kerfuffle of my cousin’s disappearance and that you are not free to wed… but as the heir presumptive, there is every possibility that your father might be amenable to extending or modifying the existing contracts so they would be inclusive of my offer for your hand,” he continued, his tone conciliatory.

Jane shook her head. “There is no offer, Mr. Balfour. There can be no offer! I am betrothed to your cousin—”

“Who is dead!” He stated it with a firmness that was somewhat surprising given that he had also been at the Battle of Corunna and had been unable to offer any information as to Marcus’ whereabouts or condition. More concerning was the complete and utter lack of feeling the sentiment appeared to invoke in him. They’d never been close, as she understood it, but they were family, after all.

“Who is missing,” she fired back quickly. “Missing and presumed possibly—maybe—could be dead, but not definitively dead. Certainly not so dead that I would feel compelled to throw off the marriage contracts that have been signed, the past reading of the banns and the scandal that would ensue were I to trade one member of your family for another! No, sir. Such an offer is beyond scandalous and it would be best for both of us to simply go on as if it never happened,” she stated firmly. It wasn’t really beyond scandalous. People did it all the time in slightly altered circumstances. But she was seizing upon any excuse she could to avoid a fate she deemed far worse than either spinsterhood or death.

The truth was, Jane realized, that being betrothed to a man who was not present and was most likely not alive, had given her a certain amount of freedom. It wasn’t as much as if she’d been married and then subsequently widowed. Regardless, it wasn’t something she wished to give up just yet. That small taste of freedom had given her a yearning for more and she’d made plans accordingly. They most certainly did not include being wed to a man of Charles Balfour’s ilk.

Certainly being in mourning for as long as she had been did require some sacrifice. She didn’t miss the parties and the balls. Wearing black and gray all the time was a bit of a set down but, in truth, it was a small price to pay. She was largely left alone with her books and her writing. Giving that up to marry a popinjay who was so utterly puffed up with his own importance—well, it would not and could not happen.