Home > The Heiress Effect (Brothers Sinister #2)(15)

The Heiress Effect (Brothers Sinister #2)(15)
Author: Courtney Milan

She shook her head, not knowing how to answer. Nobody had ever questioned her act. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Then don’t talk,” he said. “Sit, and hear me out.”

She needed to go. Immediately. She shouldn’t listen. She…

“Sit,” he repeated.

Perhaps it was because he didn’t speak it as a command. He indicated the chair she had recently vacated, and somehow turned a word that would have been a single, solitary demand in another man’s throat into a polite gesture.

She sat. Her stomach fluttered. She didn’t know what to say to him, how to regain what she had just lost. “I’m not going to marry you,” she finally blurted out.

He blinked twice and shook his head. “Is that what this is about? You’re trying to avoid marriage? You’re doing a good job of it.”

She couldn’t breathe.

“In fact…” He tilted his head and looked at her. “But I promised you truth, so here is mine. You’re the last woman I would marry.”

Her breath sucked in.

“I don’t need your money. My brother and I are on good terms, and when he reached his majority, he settled a good sum on me. If I needed more for any reason, I would apply to him first.” He shrugged. “I want a career in politics, Miss Fairfield. I want to be a Member of Parliament—and not some distant day in the future, either. I need time to gain influence. I want people to listen to me, to respect me. I will be prime minister one day.”

Not I plan to be or I want to be. Not for Mr. Marshall. I will be.

He leaned forward, his eyes blazing.

“I want every man who slighted me—everyone who called me bastard behind my back—to bow down and lick my boots for daring to think I was beneath him. I want everyone who tells me to know my place to eat his words.”

The air felt heavy and thick between them. His hand was a white-knuckled fist at his side.

“And so the last thing I need is to be tied to you. You’ll open no doors for me, bring me no influence. If the rumor is right, you only have a fortune in the first place because you’re a bastard like me.”

She let out a breath.

“Just like me,” he said. “Yes, you legally have parents. But the man who sired you…”

Those damned hundred thousand pounds again. She put her fingers to her forehead. She’d been thirteen when a complete stranger had died and left her a fortune. She’d been fifteen when she finally understood why the man she thought of as her father had abandoned his wife and her children—those two so-different-looking daughters—on a country estate.

She was the bastard, the foul fruit of that imperfect union. She was the one Titus Fairfield disapproved of. She’d never belonged—not here, not in her uncle’s home. Not anywhere. And those hundred thousand pounds marked her out.

“I know,” he said. “I know what it is like to lie awake at night scarcely able to breathe with the weight of isolation. I know what it’s like to want to shout out loud until it all falls to pieces. I know what it’s like to be told again and again that you can’t belong.”

It was too much, too much to hear the words she’d whispered only to herself echoed in the real world. “Why are you saying these things?”

He shrugged. “It’s simple, Miss Fairfield. Because I think everyone deserves a chance to breathe.”

Breathe? Around him, she could do no such thing. The light of the oil lamp reflected off his glasses, obscuring his eyes, making it almost impossible to divine his intent. But she could feel, rather than see, his gaze on her—a sharp, penetrating look, one that cut straight through the garish pattern of her silk gown. No. He didn’t make breathing any easier.

“I have no difficulties drawing air,” she said with no regard for the truth.

“Oh?” His eyebrow raised and he tilted his head at her. “That’s not what I see. I see shoulders that dare not relax, muscles that dare not twitch, lips that dare not do anything but smile. You’re awash in choices, Miss Fairfield, but you know as well as I that the wrong one will bring your carefully husbanded awful reputation to naught.”

She swallowed again.

“Don’t lie to me,” he said. “What is it that you say to yourself in the dead of the night, when nobody is about to hear your words? Do you shut your eyes and look forward to the morrow, eager to greet it, or do you dread each new day and count them off as each one passes?”

He took a few steps toward the door.

“You count,” he said softly. “That’s what it means, to not belong—it means that you count. It wouldn’t be bearable if you didn’t know it would end. How many days, Miss Fairfield, until you can drop this illusion? How many days until you can stop pretending?”

“Four hundred and seventy-five.” The words escaped her. She raised her fingers to her lips, stricken, but he didn’t look at all pleased at having wrested that admission from her.

He shook his head instead. “You have four hundred and seventy-five days of this on your shoulders. Miss Fairfield, don’t tell me you can breathe.”

“I have no difficulties…” The words sounded weak, though. Unconvincing.

“I know that,” he said. “If I’d not been here, you’d have kept on. That’s what it means to count—that you get through it, no matter how crushing that number is. I know that because I’ve counted. I counted my way through Eton, through my years when I was a student at Cambridge; I’m counting my way through this particular visit. I know what it’s like to count, Miss Fairfield.” He took off his glasses and rubbed the lenses against his shirt. “I know it quite well.” He looked up.

Without his glasses, she had imagined that he’d be bleary-eyed, unable to see her. But whatever the fault in his vision, his eyes fixed on hers, sharp as ever, blue as the sky.

“You’re an intelligent woman,” he said. “Logically, if you’re pretending to this…whatever it is that you’re trying to avoid is awful.”

She wanted to speak, wanted to say something, to say anything. But all that came out was a little choke, deep in her throat—something guttural and painful, something she hadn’t even known was lodged inside her.

So this was why she’d felt that frisson. It wasn’t his eyes. It wasn’t his height. It wasn’t even his shoulders—and she absolutely was not going to think of his shoulders. It was simply that he knew what it was like to stand outside everyone else. He knew, and she hadn’t even had to tell him.

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