Home > The Heiress Effect (Brothers Sinister #2)(6)

The Heiress Effect (Brothers Sinister #2)(6)
Author: Courtney Milan

After that, she complimented the Marquess of Bradenton on the cut of his coat, assuring him that his unfortunate slope-shoulders were “almost unnoticeable.”

And when he sputtered in response and turned away, she set down her serviette.

“Don’t feel embarrassed,” she said. “It’s acceptable to lose the flow of conversation. Not everyone is clever enough to think of something to say immediately.”

Bradenton’s lips thinned.

“And you’re a marquess,” she added. “Maybe there are deficiencies in your understanding, but nobody will ever notice them so long as you make absolutely certain to introduce yourself as a marquess first.”

Bradenton’s nostrils flared, but she was already turning back to address Oliver.

“Mr. Cromwell,” she said, “do tell me how you spend your days. You’re an…accountant, if that’s what I recall hearing.”

The truth was far more complicated. Besides, no matter what he said in reply, a woman who confused him with the long-dead Oliver Cromwell was unlikely to care about details. “I studied law at Cambridge,” he finally said. “But I have no need to practice, so I—”

“Oh, so you’re something like a solicitor, then? Perhaps you could explain something for me. How does a solicitor differ from an accountant? I had always thought they were cut from the same cloth.”

No, he wasn’t going to react. “A solicitor—”

“Because that’s all my solicitor ever does,” she said innocently. “Send me accounts. Do you do things besides send accounts, Mr. Cromwell?”

Oliver looked down the table at Miss Fairfield’s earnest face, her diamond earbobs flashing in the lamplight, and admitted defeat. There was no way to explain even the basics of the world to someone who was impervious to reality, and he had no wish to insult her while trying. “No, Miss Fairfield,” he said politely. “I think you have the general idea.” He looked away.

But she must have seen him grimace. She leaned forward. “Oh, poor Mr. Cromwell,” she said in kindly tones. “Are you in pain?”

He almost couldn’t make himself look back at her—but it would be impolite to ignore her. He turned, slowly, wondering what she was about to say.

She was looking at him with deep concern.

“That noise you just made. It reminded me of our gardener. He has lumbago. There’s a poultice I make for him when he’s at his worst. Would you like the receipt?”

“I don’t have lumbago.” The words came out of his mouth a little too curtly.

“That’s precisely what our gardener says, but after the poultice, he always feels so much better. Do let me send it to you, Mr. Cromwell. It will be no trouble at all. You seem rather young for lumbago, but since you’re in service, such afflictions must come on early.”

He swallowed. He thought of telling her that his father didn’t suffer from lumbago despite years spent farming. He thought of explaining. He might even have burst into laughter, but that would have embarrassed her.

Instead, he inclined his head. “I’d be delighted to receive it, Miss Fairfield. Send it to my London address—Oliver Cromwell, care of the Tower, London, England.”

For a bare moment, she paused. Her hand froze in the middle of reaching for her spoon. She looked over at him, her eyes wide—and then she looked away. “Well,” she said. “It would be improper to correspond with a gentleman. Perhaps you are right. Not such a good idea after all.”

Dinner with Miss Fairfield was like—he hated to admit it—being beaten to death by feathers. He hoped, for her sake, that her dowry was truly massive and that somewhere in England, there was a man in need of a fortune. Someone who was going deaf and wouldn’t have to listen to her.

It was extraordinary. She obviously meant well, and still…

Dinner ended; the gentlemen slunk off to port and cigars, grateful for at least this temporary reprieve.

There were no awkward pauses once they were established in the library together.

“She is,” Whitting said to Oliver, “precisely as bad as I said. Wasn’t she?”

“Really,” Bradenton said, with a shake of his head, “gentlemen. It’s unbecoming to insult a lady.”

“Indeed,” Hapford echoed.

Whitting turned, a protest on his lips—and saw that the marquess was smiling, a hard, evil smile. “Good one,” Whitting said. “God, if we couldn’t insult her, there’d be no fun to be had at all.”

Hapford sighed and looked away.

Oliver held his tongue. She was awful. But…he didn’t think she could help it.

And there had been a time when he’d been the one saying all the wrong things. Speaking when he should keep quiet. Telling men like Bradenton that he only received respect because of his title—God, that was almost the worst thing she could have said to the marquess. If Bradenton zealously checked the fences of his prerogatives, Miss Fairfield had leaped over his efforts and trampled his fields.

“She’s so irritating,” Whitting was saying, “that I can almost feel myself breaking out in a rash in her presence.”

It didn’t matter how irritating Miss Fairfield was. Oliver had been on the receiving end of those snide comments one too many times to rejoice in making them.

Instead, he poured himself a glass of brandy and stood at the window.

He didn’t listen. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t join in, even though Bradenton tossed a few sentences in his direction.

In the end, he was actually glad to rejoin the ladies.

But it didn’t get better. Whitting glanced at Oliver after every one of her telling remarks, expecting him to join in his derision. The other men took turns standing next to her, drawing her fire in little batches. It bothered Oliver. It bothered him exceedingly.

There was a small supply of little cakes on the back table; Oliver put several on his plate and wandered off to look out the window. But there was no escape; she left the other men and came to stand by him.

“Mr. Cromwell,” she said warmly.

He nodded at her, and she started speaking.

It wasn’t that bad if he just listened to the sound of her voice. If he avoided parsing it out into individual words. She had a pleasant intonation—warm and musical—and a lovely laugh.

She called him Mr. Cromwell. She commiserated with him on the difficulty of accounting. She mentioned—three times—how much respect she had for people like him, people who had to work for their living. It wasn’t bad at all, now that he’d prepared himself for the cyclone-force devastation of her conversation.

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