Jane Tindall has never had money of her own or exceptional beauty. Her gifts are more subtle: a mind like an abacus, a talent for play-acting—and a daring taste for gambling. But all the daring in the world can’t help with the cards fixed against her. And when Edmund Ware, Baron Kirkpatrick, unwittingly spoils her chance to win a fortune, her reputation is ruined too. Or so she thinks, until he suggests a surprising mode of escape: a hasty marriage. To him. On the surface, their wedding would seem to satisfy all the demands of proper society, but as the Yuletide approaches, secrets and scandals turn this proper marriage into a very improper affair.
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He gave her a dutiful smile. “What I mean is, at your cousin’s estate, you found a place you felt at home. In that, I envy you.”
“Because you never have?”
The silence that followed was like a fine crystal: leaden and fragile. Jane fumbled to fill it, but everything seemed the wrong shape for her mind, her throat, her tongue.
Without a single word, he’d let her know how utterly their marriage had failed to take root. He’d let her know—there had never been anything for it to grow in. He regarded himself as too ignorant, too parched, to nurture any sort of relationship.
“You’re wrong,” she said. “You are so, so wrong.”
“I wish I were.” His anger, coming so rarely in quick flashes, would be far better than this. Now he seemed not wistful, but resigned. “Come downstairs, won’t you? I think we’ve both seen enough up here.”
“No.” Before she could think better of it, she’d drawn closer to him and twitched back the canvas covering over the old portrait. “You’re wrong, Edmund. And maybe I was, too. Sometimes people shape us by showing us what we don’t want to be like. I didn’t want a small life. And you don’t want to be like this. A fake family, putting on a show in public.”
“No, but that’s hardly meaningful. Who would choose such a thing?”
A harsh laugh broke from Jane’s throat. “I’ve lived among the ton for a far shorter time than you, yet I’d guess many people do.”
“Not you, though.”
She looked at the painted face of the boy, already handsome, already shoved aside. “No, not me. I’m too—what was it? Stubborn and daring?”
“Real disdain is better than a fake love.”
It wasn’t fake, you idiot. “Well.” She made herself smile. “I hardly feel disdain for you.”
“But we still have…nothing.” His brows knit, and he, too, studied the faces. “You once said you loved me, but I didn’t know what to do about it. So I lost you.”
Still, always, he thought it was his doing when the people around him acted dreadful. What unutterable arrogance; what an unbearable burden. “You’re not responsible for the way I feel, Edmund. I’ve told you that before.”
He shook his head, and this time when he covered the painting again, she stepped back and let him have his distance. “I don’t understand love. I was a fool to think I could do better than they.”
“You’re a fool, all right.” She slashed the air, an impatient gesture. “I’m going downstairs, and I’ll see myself out. I’d say, ‘Enjoy your wallowing,’ but that would defeat the purpose.”
She had already turned away and eased by the face-down table before he spoke.
“Jane. Wait. Stay.”
“What do you want?”
“Tell me what you mean,” he said. “Tell me why you think I’m a fool.”
Slowly, she turned on her heel. The effect would be one of great exasperation, and therefore—she hoped—he would pay more heed to it. An answer one had to drag forth was far better than unsolicited advice.
“Oh, Edmund.” Her voice dripped with pity. “There are so many reasons. Where should I begin?”
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