Home > The Heiress Effect (Brothers Sinister #2)(5)

The Heiress Effect (Brothers Sinister #2)(5)
Author: Courtney Milan

Oliver gave her his stiffest bow. “Mr. Oliver Marshall. At your service.” Don’t take that literally, he almost added.

Her eyes widened. “Oliver. Were you named, perchance, after Oliver Cromwell?”

That was definitely not a genuine smile on his lips. His forgery nearly cracked under the strain. “No, Miss Fairfield. I wasn’t.”

“You weren’t named after the one-time Lord Protector of England? Why, I should have thought that he would be an example that your parents would have wished you to emulate. He started out common like you, didn’t he?”

“The name implies nothing so grand,” he managed to get out. “My mother’s father was named Oliver.”

“Perhaps he was named—”

“No,” Oliver interrupted. “Nobody in my family had hopes for my posthumous execution, I assure you.”

He almost thought she smiled at that, but the twitch at the corner of her lips disappeared before he was even sure it was there. There the conversation ground to a halt.

One, two, three…

As a boy, Oliver had gone back and forth between two worlds—between the heights of the upper class, so freezingly polite, and the more cheerful working class world that his parents inhabited. There was a frozen silence that Oliver associated with these moments of upper-class awkwardness. It was that moment when every man around made a calculation based on manners, and decided to hold his thoughts to himself rather than speak aloud and risk rudeness. He’d been on the receiving end of that silence all too often as a boy: when he’d admitted that he’d spent a summer in manual labor, when he’d referred to his father’s former occupation as a pugilist… In fact, for those first years until he’d learned the rules, silence had followed just about every time he had opened his mouth.

For all that it was supposedly born of manners, that silence could cut. Oliver had been on the outside of it often enough to know precisely how deeply. He glanced over at Miss Fairfield.

…four, five, six…

Her lips were smoothed into placid acceptance. Her smile was open and honest. There was no sign that she even noticed the tension.

“Who else will be joining us this evening?” she asked. “Cadford? Willton?”

“Not, uh—” Hapford glanced around. “Not Willton, he’s…indisposed.”

“Is that one of those—what do you call that thing, that thing someone says in order to avoid telling the truth?” Miss Fairfield shook her head, her diamond earbobs shaking. “The word for it is on the tip of my tongue. I can feel it. It’s a…a…” She raised her chin, her eyes suddenly bright. “Euphemism!” She snapped her fingers. “That’s a euphemism, isn’t it? Tell me, is he really just bosky from last night?”

The men exchanged glances. “Right,” Hapford said slowly. “Miss Fairfield, if you’ll take my arm…” He led her away.

“Poor man,” Whitting said. “He used to make fun, until Miss Johnson made him stop. He’s no fun now that he’s besotted.”

Oliver didn’t generally approve of mocking people behind their backs. It was cowardly and cruel, and he knew from personal experience that it was never as unobserved as the mockers supposed.

Poor Miss Fairfield. She had the opposite of conversation, the opposite of taste. They were going to rip her to shreds, and Oliver was going to have to watch.

Chapter Two

Dinner proved to be more painful than Oliver had imagined.

Miss Fairfield talked too loudly, and what she said…

She asked Whitting about his studies, and when he made a wry comment about preferring to concentrate his efforts on the study of liquids, she stared at him.

“How surprising.” Her eyes were very round. “I had not thought you to have the capacity of intellect to read physics!”

Whitting stared at her. “Did you—” The man seemed to grasp hold of his amazement with a visible struggle. A gentleman would never ask a lady if she had intended to call him stupid. Whitting took several deep breaths and addressed Miss Fairfield once more. “Yes. I do not have the sort of personality to enjoy the study of physics. As to my capacity…” He shrugged, and gave her a forced smile. “I must have misunderstood you.”

In the lexicon of English gentlemen—a language of euphemism and false politeness—this was one of the more stinging insults. “I must have misunderstood you” usually translated into, “Hold your tongue.” Oliver steepled his fingers and tried to look anywhere but at the two.

Miss Fairfield didn’t seem the least troubled. “Did you misunderstand me?” she asked in tones of solicitousness. “I am so sorry. I should have realized the sentence construction was too complex for your capacity.” She leaned toward him and spoke again, this time raising her voice and slowing her words as if she were talking to an aging grandfather. “What I meant was that I had not thought that you were intelligent. That would make the study of the physical world difficult.”

Whitting turned red. “But—that is—”

“Perhaps I am wrong,” she said cheerily. “Do you enjoy the study of the physical world?”

“Well, no, but—”

She patted his hand comfortingly. “There’s no need to worry,” she confided. “Not everyone has that capability. You make up for any lack of intellect by being so kind.”

Whitting sat back in his chair, his mouth working.

From another woman, that would have been an unforgivable insult. If Miss Fairfield had shown the slightest indication that she was being devastatingly awful on purpose, she would have been ostracized. As it was, when she patted Whitting’s hand, comforting him on his stupidity, she seemed actually to feel sorry for him.

She asked Hapford if he was going to take elocution lessons, and when he said no, hastened to assure him that nobody worth knowing would hold the quietness of his speech against him.

“Lemon juice,” she said, speaking to Oliver across the table, “would do wonders for your freckles. Have you considered it?”

“Would you know, my aunt says the same thing?” he murmured. “And I have yet to try it.”

“Oh, of course.” She looked stricken. “How thoughtless of me! I suppose it would be difficult to obtain enough lemons, especially for one in your position.”

Oliver didn’t ask what his position was supposed to be.

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