He kept silent. And of course, she kept talking. That was what she always did when she was nervous.
“It started before I had any idea that I’d need to stay unmarried. I was nineteen when we first came to my uncle’s house. He had not yet engaged a bevy of doctors to see my sister.” She swallowed. “My uncle…for a number of reasons, he had a dim view of me from the start. He wanted me married off, and I was happy to comply. I wanted a family, my own house. I’d lived in an isolated manor all my life. I’d had no children to play with besides my sister. I wanted friends.”
She’d thought he was unaware that he’d touched her, but his hand tightened around her fingers. She looked down, but he didn’t pull away. Instead, his fingers curled into hers.
“I’d never had a governess. I had never had an etiquette lesson. My uncle purchased a book for me.” She laughed softly. “It was sixteen years out of date.”
“I can see where this is going.”
“I had nobody to instruct me on my gowns. All I knew was what I liked, and what I like is dreadful.” She shut her eyes. “For instance, I love this gown. Yes, it’s outrageous, but… I had awful tastes and the money to indulge them, and my manners were even worse. I was a complete disaster. You cannot imagine how much of a disaster I was.”
“I can,” he replied. “You should have seen me at Eton the first few months. I continually had bruises. It took until I was seventeen to get to the point where between my brother’s threats and my learning how to behave, I wasn’t accosted on a daily basis.”
“I have never been good with names, but when I called Mr. Sanford ‘Mr. Smith’ on accident, you would think that I had robbed a carriage at gunpoint. I ate the wrong foods. I asked questions about trade in mixed company. I have always talked too much, and when I’m nervous, I have difficulty stopping. Is it any surprise that I did everything wrong? They started the whole ‘Feather Heiress’ thing the first month. That was all I heard—in front of me, behind my back. ‘It’s like being beaten to death by feathers.’ They played a game where the boys would all come to talk with me in a group. And they’d say, ‘What would you rather be doing now?’ ‘Oh, I’d rather be mauled to death by lions.’ ‘I would rather bathe in a vat of acid, how about you?’ As if I were so stupid that I could not figure out that they were talking about how much they hated me.”
“Jane.” His thumb rubbed the side of her hand.
“Don’t feel sorry for me.” She raised her chin and banished that cold, dark feeling from her heart. “I do not. When I realized how much my sister needed me, I thanked God that I had so easy a method of avoiding marriage. They thought I was awful? Well, I would give them awful. They wanted to gawk at my ignorance? Well, I would give them something to gawk at. They’d exaggerated my flaws just to have someone to laugh at, and so I vowed to make them exaggerations no more. The more they mocked me, the harder it would be for them.”
Her voice shook as she talked. And his thumb continued its gentle caress—up, down. Up, down.
“They are a pit of vipers,” Jane said fiercely. “And I hate them. I hate them. I didn’t choose this role, Mr. Marshall. But it chose me, and I have used it.”
He didn’t say anything, not for the longest time.
“I know what you are thinking,” she finally said in a rush. “Because I treated you the same, when first I met you. You hadn’t done anything to me, and I…”
He shook his head. “I wasn’t thinking that.”
“I know it’s wrong,” she said. “But at this moment, everything in my life is so wrong that the right, proper thing to do would be dreadfully out of place. I don’t know when I stopped playing a role and when the role started playing me. Now, though, I don’t see how I could stop. Everyone expects me to be someone else. They’re assured of it. That is the rub; I am awful.” She licked her lips. “And I don’t see any way for me to become anything else.”
God. She hadn’t meant to tell that much. Even when she’d imagined telling him everything, she hadn’t told him that.
Jane squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to complain to you. I’ve done nothing but talk and talk and talk. You scarcely know me. You have far more important things to do. It’s just—you’re so lovely.”
She winced, hearing the words out loud, wondering what he must be thinking at the moment. Licentious, indeed. Licentious, forward…
“I mean, you’re forthright and trustworthy, where everyone else has been…” Talking more wasn’t making it better.
“Miss Fairfield,” he said.
His voice was as deep as the night around them, and she turned to him.
But he didn’t look disgusted by her admission. He didn’t even look amused by her babbling. He looked… She wasn’t sure what that expression was on his face. His eyes were clear, so clear that in the moonlight they looked almost colorless.
He took his hand from hers. “Never trust a man who claims that he is telling you ninety-five percent of the truth.”
His words came over her like a cold wash of water. There was something grim in his face, something she couldn’t quite understand. She peered up at him. “What do you mean?”
“What would you do,” he said carefully, “if I were to tell everyone of this conversation? If you think matters are impossible now, when they think you merely ignorant, what do you suppose they would do if they knew you had done all this on purpose?”
She opened her mouth to answer and then shut it, ever so slowly. “But you wouldn’t tell.”
He shook his head. “Miss Fairfield,” he said, “why do you think I was kind to you?”
“Because—you—that is to say…” She swallowed. “You mean to say, that’s not just the way you are?”
“No. If I’d had my choice of matters, I would have simply avoided you after that first awful night. I talked to you because Bradenton asked me to do it.”
She took a step back involuntarily. “Bradenton! What has he to do with any of this?”
“He thinks you need to know your place. He offered me a trade: his vote in Parliament, if I’d deliver a sharp lesson to you. I talked to you to figure out if I could do it.”
Her head spun. She should have known. This wasn’t real. That hand on hers, that look in his eye. None of it was real. He had been too nice, and she was—