Jane thought—briefly—about teasing her sister some more. But there’d been enough heartache that night. Instead, she crossed back to her cloak and pulled out a second slim volume. “As he keeps finding them… I got two copies.”
Emily made a little noise in her throat and grabbed the book. “I love you.” She opened the cover, ran her fingers tenderly down the elaborate frontispiece. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”
Jane didn’t know, either. It wasn’t that Emily needed a guardian—quite the contrary. She needed the opposite of a guardian, someone who kept Titus from interfering with her too badly. She needed someone to fend off the endless stream of physicians. She needed someone to bleed the edge off of her unbearable frustration. Someone to give her something to do, even if it was only to smuggle terrible novels for her to read.
“Titus would disapprove,” Jane said. “You’re supposed to be encouraging me in my search for a husband.”
Emily shut her eyes. “Never,” she said. “Never leave me, Jane.”
That was the crux of it all. Jane was the product of her mother’s sin. She was argumentative, crude, unmannerly. She was, according to Titus, a poison in their household, one he only tolerated in the name of the duty he owed his dead brother.
And so that was what Jane had made of herself. She was a blight, one that would choke her uncle in return. It didn’t matter. He didn’t love her, and he had no legal obligation to keep her around. The instant he believed she had a respectable offer, he’d know that he could get rid of her and feel complacent about having done his duty—and her presence would no longer be tolerable.
She put her arms around her sister. She thought of the hard look Bradenton had given her that evening, of the sweet, meaningless smiles that the Johnson twins gave her. She thought of the look on Mr. Marshall’s face when she’d taken the cakes off his plate.
Insolence on that level required real effort. She was exhausted.
Still, Jane smiled. “Don’t worry.” Mr. Marshall had seemed like a decent fellow, and she’d managed to disgust even him. “I can safely promise that I am never going to marry.”
Long after the ladies had left, the gentlemen stayed. Bradenton had invited Oliver, and Oliver had hoped that the later they’d spoken of would come soon—that he’d have the chance to present his argument to Bradenton.
Instead, Bradenton had sat down with his nephew at a table near the brandy decanter. “Watch, Whitting,” he had said. “It’ll be your turn soon enough.”
The process of turning a young man, scarcely twenty-one, into a politician, was fascinating. The marquess had asked Hapford questions. Who had said what? How had they looked as they spoke? What had Hapford thought of them? Bradenton was a good teacher, gentle and kind.
“Good,” he finally said to his young nephew. “You’ve done quite well. You pay attention to the right things, and you listen when you need to. You’ll do your family proud.”
Hapford ducked his head and flushed faintly. “I’m trying.”
That was when Bradenton’s eye fell on Oliver, and his smile widened from avuncular indulgence to something altogether sharper.
“What make you of Mr. Marshall?” he asked softly.
Hapford looked at Oliver and swallowed. “I—well—he’s…he’s…”
“I know. He’s sitting right here. But I know Marshall. We’re old acquaintances. And he wants a favor of me, so he won’t object to a little plain-speaking. Isn’t that so, Marshall?”
Oliver had no idea what the man was about, so he simply inclined his head. “Just so, my lord.”
“Very well, then,” Hapford said. He took a deep breath. “By my observation, Mr. Marshall is—”
“Ah, ah.” The marquess held up a finger. “You took me at my word, didn’t you?”
Hapford looked about in some confusion. “Shouldn’t I have done so?”
“Take nobody at his word. Not me. Not Marshall.” He smiled and patted his nephew’s shoulder. “Normally, I’d wait a week to introduce this, but you’ve done so well until now. This is advanced material, so to speak. Marshall, if you’ll oblige me, tell my nephew why you really agreed with me.”
“I want to know what you’re up to,” Oliver said in bemusement.
“And if you will, explain why I spoke the way I did in front of you.”
Oliver paused, wondering if Bradenton really wished him to explain everything aloud. But the marquess made a little motion with his hand.
“You wanted to demonstrate that you could make me do as you wanted. That you have the upper hand.” And Bradenton did, for now.
“Precisely so,” Bradenton said. “You see how it is, Hapford. Men like you and me, we have power and information. We can trade that power for other things. Small power gets traded for less important things. Large power, well…” He shrugged. “What do you think that Mr. Marshall wants?”
“He wants your vote on the question of the extension of the franchise,” Hapford answered swiftly. “And I wanted to ask him—”
“Later. What else does he want?”
“He wants…” Hapford bit his lip. “He wants your influence on the question as well. You’re a powerful man, so your support would likely mean more votes than just your own.”
“Well done, indeed. Now let’s see if you’ve mastered the lesson. What else does Mr. Marshall want?” He leaned back in his seat and waited.
The silence stretched; Hapford peered at Oliver, as if he could see into him, and finally shook his head.
“Put yourself in Marshall’s place,” Bradenton advised. “You grew up on a farm. Your parents scraped together enough to get you into Eton and then Cambridge. By birth, you stand firmly in one world, but you’ve connections to another one. A better one. Tell me, Hapford. What would you want?”
This, Oliver supposed, was the sort of training that men received if they were born into the right families: the beginning of a thousand lessons on the operation of politics, conducted at night, so that the new men would know how to go about. This was how institutions continued for hundreds of years, how wisdom was passed on to the right sort.
He’d remember this.
But now he felt like an insect pinned to a specimen card.
Hapford had a thick ring around one finger. He turned it in place, peering at Oliver, frowning as if trying to recognize what species Oliver was.