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

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

One hundred thousand pounds. One of the reasons Jane was here, watching these lovely, perfect women exchange wicked smiles that they didn’t think Jane could understand. They leaned toward one another and whispered—mouths hidden demurely behind fans—and then, glancing her way, let out a collective giggle. They thought her a complete buffoon, devoid of taste and sense and reason.

It didn’t hurt, not one bit.

It didn’t hurt to know that they called her friend to her face and sought to expose her foolishness to everyone they saw. It didn’t hurt that they egged her on to more—more lace, more jewels, more beads—simply so they might fuel their amusement. It didn’t hurt that the entire population of Cambridge laughed at her.

It couldn’t hurt. After all, Jane had chosen this for herself.

She smiled at them as if their giggles were the sincerest token of friendship. “The Maltese it is.”

One hundred thousand pounds. There were more crushing burdens than the weight of one hundred thousand pounds.

“You’ll want to be wearing that gown Wednesday next,” Geraldine suggested. “You’ve been invited to the Marquess of Bradenton’s dinner party, have you not? We insisted.” Those fans worked their way up and down, up and down.

Jane smiled. “Of course. I wouldn’t miss it, not for the world.”

“There will be a new fellow there. A duke’s son. Born on the other side of the blanket, unfortunately—but acknowledged nonetheless. Almost as good as the real thing.”

Damn. Jane hated meeting new men, and a duke’s bastard sounded like the most dangerous kind of all. He would have a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of his pocketbook. It was precisely that sort of man who would see Jane’s one hundred thousand pounds and decide that he might be able to overlook the lace dripping off her. That kind of man would overlook a great many defects if it would put her dowry in his bank account.

“Oh?” she said noncommittally.

“Mr. Oliver Marshall,” Genevieve said. “I saw him on the street. He doesn’t—”

Her sister gave her a gentle nudge, and Genevieve cleared her throat.

“I mean, he looks quite elegant. His spectacles are very distinguished. And his hair is quite…bright and…coppery.”

Jane could just imagine this specimen of thwarted dukehood in her mind’s eye. He would be paunchy. He would wear ridiculous waistcoats, and he’d have a fob watch that he checked incessantly. He’d be proud of his prerogatives and bitter of a world that had led him to be born outside of wedlock.

“He would be utterly perfect for you, Jane,” Geraldine said. “Of course, with our lesser dowries, he would find us quite…uninteresting.”

Jane made herself smile. “I don’t know what I would do without you two,” she said, quite sincerely. “If I didn’t have you to look out for me, why, I might…”

If she didn’t have them trying to set her up as a laughingstock, she might one day—despite her best efforts—manage to impress a man. And that would be a disaster.

“I feel that you two are like my sisters, given the care you take for me,” she said. Maybe like stepsisters in a blood-curdling fairy tale.

“We feel the same,” Geraldine smiled at her. “As if you were our sister.”

There were almost as many smiles in that room as there was lace on her gown. Jane offered up a silent apology for her lie.

These women were nothing like her sister. To say as much was to insult the name of sisterhood, and if anything was sacred to Jane, it was that. She had a sister—a sister she would do anything for. For Emily, she would lie, cheat, buy a dress with four different kinds of lace…

One hundred thousand pounds was not much of a burden to carry. But if a young lady wanted to remain unmarried—if she needed to stay with her sister until said sister was of age and could leave their guardian’s home—that same number became an impossibility.

Almost as impossible as four hundred and eighty—the number of days that Jane had to stay unmarried.

Four hundred and eighty days until her sister attained her majority. In four hundred and eighty days, her sister could leave their guardian, and Jane—Jane who was allowed to stay in the household on the condition that she marry the first eligible man who offered—would be able to dispense with all this pretending. She and Emily would finally be free.

Jane would smile, wear ells of lace, and call Napoleon Bonaparte himself her sister if it would keep Emily safe.

Instead, all she had to do for the next four hundred and eighty days was to look for a husband—to look assiduously, and not marry.

Four hundred and eighty days in which she dared not marry, and one hundred thousand pounds to the man who would marry her.

Those two numbers described the dimensions of her prison.

And so Jane smiled at Geraldine once again, grateful for her advice, grateful to be steered wrong once again. She smiled, and she even meant it.

A few days later

Mr. Oliver Marshall was almost loathe to relinquish his coat when first he entered the Marquess of Bradenton’s home. He could feel the chill biting through his gloves, the draft of a winter wind rattling the windowpanes. The wire frame of his spectacles felt like ice against his ears. But it was too late.

Bradenton, his host, stepped forward. “Marshall,” he said pleasantly. “How good to see you again.”

Oliver handed off his own gloves and heavy greatcoat and shook the marquess’s extended hand.

“Good to see you as well, my lord. It’s been too long.”

Bradenton’s hands were cold, too. He’d grown paunchier these last years, and his thin, dark hair had receded up his forehead, but the smile he gave Oliver was still the same: friendly and yet cold.

Oliver suppressed a shiver. It didn’t matter how high the servants piled the coal, how merry the blaze they set. These fine, old houses always seemed to be inhabited by a wintry chill. The ceilings stretched too high; the marble on the floors seemed icy even through the soles of his shoes. Everywhere Oliver looked he saw mirror-glass and metal and stone—cold surfaces made colder still by the vast, empty expanses that surrounded them.

It would warm up when they moved out of the entry, Oliver told himself. When more people arrived. For now, it was just Bradenton, Oliver, and two younger men. Bradenton motioned them forward.

“Hapford, Whitting, this is Oliver Marshall. An old school friend. Marshall, this is my nephew, John Bloom, newly the Earl of Hapford.” The Marquess of Bradenton gestured to a man at his side, earnest and pale. “And Mr. George Whitting, my other nephew.” He indicated a fellow with a shock of sandy hair and matching, untamed sideburns. “Gentlemen, this is Oliver Marshall. I’ve invited him to assist in completing your education, as it were.”

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