Home > The Heiress Effect (Brothers Sinister #2)(7)

The Heiress Effect (Brothers Sinister #2)(7)
Author: Courtney Milan

And then, as he stood next to her, smiling and trying to be polite, she reached out and took one of the cakes off his plate. She didn’t even seem aware that she’d done so. She smiled, holding his cake in her fingers, waving it about as she gestured during the conversation.

That only meant that everyone could see what she had done.

Behind her, the others were grinning. Whitting made a loud remark about pigs feeding from any trough. Oliver gritted his teeth and smiled politely. He was not going to break. They’d laughed at him, too.

“So,” Miss Fairfield was saying, “I’m sure you’re most proficient with numbers. That’s an excellent talent to have—one that will serve you in good stead in the future. I’m certain any employer would think of you so.”

She took another cake as she spoke.

“It’s a wonder that they found enough lace to wrap all the way around her,” Whitting said behind her.

If Oliver could hear it, so could she. But she didn’t react. Not so much as a flicker of pain crossed her eyes.

He’d been wrong. She was going to break him. Not because she was so awful; she meant well, at least, and that made up for a great deal. She was going to break him because he couldn’t stand beside her and listen.

It reminded Oliver of an afternoon twenty years ago, back when he’d still been at home. A pair of boys had called his next-youngest sister, Laura, a plump little calf. They’d followed her home making mooing sounds. That was back when Oliver could solve problems with his fists.

Miss Fairfield wasn’t his sister. She didn’t seem to notice. But she might be someone’s sister, and he didn’t like what was happening to her.

He’d come here to try and talk to Bradenton of reform. He’d come here to change minds. He hadn’t come here to see anyone mocked.

So he kept silent.

And when she reached out for another cake, he handed her his entire plate instead.

Her eyes widened for a moment. She stood in place, looking at him, and he was reminded—temporarily—that when Miss Fairfield held her tongue, when he was able to forget the monstrosity that she was wearing, she was actually quite lovely. There was a dimple in her upper arm, the kind that made him want to reach out and explore its dimensions. She looked up at him with eyes that were adorably brilliant.

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I’ve been holding these for you, but I must go…talk to a man.”

She blinked. He inclined his head and left her.

“What is it with him?” he heard Whitting wonder.

It was simple. He didn’t like to laugh at anyone. He could find too much of himself in the object of their amusement. And while much had changed since his childhood, that never would.

Jane shut the door to her sister’s room and let out her breath in one great whoosh. Her face hurt from the effort of smiling. She set her cloak atop a clothespress and worked her shoulders back and forth, relaxing muscles that were frozen to tenseness. It was as if she were becoming a real person once more, one with feelings and desires all of her own instead of a simulacrum, spouting whatever nonsense was necessary.

It was nice to be able to have feelings again. Especially when the reason for this desperate charade was sitting on the edge of the bed in front of her, dressed in a nightgown.

“Well?” Emily asked. “How did it go? What happened?”

Somehow, returning her sister’s welcoming smile didn’t seem to use the same muscles that she’d employed all evening.

They didn’t look like sisters. Emily had soft, blond hair that fell in natural curls; Jane’s hair was dark brown. Emily’s features were delicate—an artist’s application of thin, arching eyebrows and fine lashes. Jane—well, there had never been anything delicate about her. She wasn’t the sort of woman that one typically called plain. She was pretty enough, she supposed, in a plump way.

Nonetheless, when she and her sister stood side by side, Jane felt as if she were a draft horse. The kind of horse that people on the street eyeballed as it clopped past, whispering to one another. That beast is nineteen hands at the shoulder, I’d warrant. At least one hundred and fifty stone.

Jane supposed they took after their respective fathers. And that was part of Jane’s problem.

“Well?” Emily demanded again. “What did the new fellow think of you?”

Some people confused Emily’s energy with childlike enthusiasm. Jane knew her sister better. She was always in motion—running when it was allowed, walking when it wasn’t. When she was forced to sit, she jiggled her leg impatiently.

She jiggled her leg constantly these days.

Jane contemplated her answer. “He’s tall, at least,” she finally managed. He was tall—maybe an inch taller than Jane in heeled shoes, which was a rare feat in a man. “And clever.” He hadn’t even paused to deliver that quip about the Tower of London. “Luckily, I managed to wear him down in the end.”

She smiled faintly at the door as she spoke. Ah, the bittersweet taste of victory. He’d been impressive, really. He had tried so hard to be nice to her and her money.

“How did you do it?”

“I had to eat off his plate,” Jane admitted.

“How perfectly lovely. You used my trick.” Emily glowed with a smile, jiggling her leg against the pink of her coverlet. “I thought you said you were holding it in reserve. I’ll have to think of another good one.”

“I was holding it in reserve.” Jane blinked. “He was quite determined to be kind to me, and he was funny to boot. If I’d let him talk to me much longer, he would have made me laugh. I had to break him before that happened.”

He’d had the strangest expression on his face near the end, solemn and brooding, as if he wanted desperately to like her and was upset at his own failure. His complexion was so fair, she wouldn’t have thought he’d have been able to brood. His eyes had managed the trick—those pale, troubled eyes, masked slightly by the glass of his spectacles.

“We’ll need a new reserve trick.” Emily rubbed her chin.

Indeed. Jane wouldn’t feel safe until Marshall was actually laughing with the others. She was almost going to regret breaking him. He’d been nice.

But she’d given him no reason to be kind to her. No reason except the hundred thousand reasons that any man had, and that made him not nice at all. She shook her head, dispelling all thoughts of kind-eyed, bright-haired men, and turned back to her sister.

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