Miss Jane Fairfield can’t do anything right. When she’s in company, she always says the wrong thing—and rather too much of it. No matter how costly they are, her gowns fall on the unfortunate side of fashion. Even her immense dowry can’t save her from being an object of derision.
And that’s precisely what she wants. She’ll do anything, even risk humiliation, if it means she can stay unmarried and keep her sister safe.
Mr. Oliver Marshall has to do everything right. He’s the bastard son of a duke, raised in humble circumstances—and he intends to give voice and power to the common people. If he makes one false step, he’ll never get the chance to accomplish anything. He doesn’t need to come to the rescue of the wrong woman. He certainly doesn’t need to fall in love with her. But there’s something about the lovely, courageous Jane that he can’t resist…even though it could mean the ruin of them both.
“Emily and Jane’s stories all resolve in ways that give them full agency- their men support them, and help them find their way, but the key is that Jane and Emily find their way, it is not found for them.”
—Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
“Everytime I start a new Courtney Milan story, I know I am in for a emotional, layered tale. Each piece fits and builds to the next and you slowly savor it as you go.”
—Lisa Wolff, Rogues Under the Covers
You know those books that are hard to part with, not because it didn’t give you what you wanted but because it delivered exactly and rightly what you wanted that they are hard to let go? Well, The Heiress Effect is a book of the sort that makes you want to soak up and wallow in the emotions left behind in the wake of the story for a day or two before even attempting to pick up another book to read.”
—Realm of Romance
This book is a reboot (as in, reinstall another operating system and start over) of the second book that I wrote, which had the working title of Legalese. I don’t shy away from legal elements, but there were really too many of them in that book, and they were way too complicated. In the reboot, the legal elements are almost all gone. The second time around this ended up being called Feathers, as in “beaten to death with.”
Cambridgeshire, England, January 1867
Most of the numbers that Miss Jane Victoria Fairfield had encountered in her life had proven harmless. For instance, the seamstress fitting her gown had poked her seven times while placing forty-three straight pins—but the pain had vanished quickly enough. The twelve holes in Jane’s corset were an evil, true, but a necessary one; without them, she would never have reduced her waist from its unfashionable thirty-seven-inch span down to the still unfashionable girth of thirty-one inches.
Two was not a terrible numeral, even when it described the number of Johnson sisters that stood behind her, watching the seamstress pin the gown against her less-than-fashionable form.
Not even when said sisters had tittered no fewer than six times in the past half hour. These numbers were annoyances—mere flies that could be waved away with one gilt-covered fan.
No, all Jane’s problems could be blamed on two numbers. One hundred thousand was the first one, and it was absolute poison.
Jane took as deep a breath as she could manage in her corset and inclined her head to Miss Geraldine and Miss Genevieve Johnson. The two young ladies could do no wrong in the eyes of society. They wore almost identical day gowns—one of pale blue muslin, the other of pale green. They wielded identical fans, both covered with painted scenes of bucolic idleness. They were both beautiful in the most clichéd, china-doll fashion: Wedgwood-blue eyes and pale blond hair that curled in fat, shining ringlets. Their waists came in well under twenty inches. The only way to distinguish between the sisters was that Geraldine Johnson had a perfectly placed, perfectly natural beauty mark on her right cheek, while Genevieve had an equally perfect mark on her left.
They had been kind to Jane the first few weeks they’d known her.
She suspected they were actually pleasant when they were not pushed to their extreme limits. Jane, as it turned out, had a talent for pushing even very nice girls into unkindness.
The seamstress placed one last pin. “There,” the woman said. “Now take a look in the mirror and tell me if you want me to change anything out—move some of the lace, mayhap, or use less of it.”
Poor Mrs. Sandeston. She said those words the way a man scheduled to be hanged this afternoon might talk about the weather on the morrow—wistfully, as if the thought of less lace were a luxury, something that would be experienced only by an extraordinary and unlikely act of executive clemency.
Jane sashayed forward and took in the effect of her new gown. She didn’t even have to pretend to smile—the expression spread across her face like melted butter on warm bread. God, the gown was hideous. So utterly hideous. Never before had so much money been put in the service of so little taste. She batted her eyes at the mirror in glee; her reflection flirted back with her: dark-haired, dark-eyed, coquettish and mysterious.
“What do you ladies think?” she asked, turning about. “Ought I have more lace?”
At her feet, the beleaguered Mrs. Sandeston let out a whimper.
As well she should. The gown already overflowed with three different kinds of lace. Thick waves of blue point de gaze had been wrapped, yard after obnoxiously expensive yard, around the skirt. A filmy piece of duchesse lace from Belgium marked her décolletage, and a black Chantilly in a clashing flowered pattern made dark slashes down the sleeves of her gown. The fabric was a lovely patterned silk. Not that anyone would be able to see it under its burden of lace frosting.
This gown was an abomination of lace, and Jane loved it.
A real friend, Jane supposed, would have told her to get rid of the lace, all of it.
Genevieve nodded. “More lace. I definitely think it needs more lace. A fourth kind, perhaps?”
Good God. Where she was to put more lace, she didn’t know.
“A cunning belt, worked of lace?” Geraldine offered.
It was a curious sort of friendship, the one she shared with the Johnson twins. They were known for their unerring taste; consequently, they never failed to steer Jane wrong. But they did it so nicely, it was almost a pleasure to be laughed at by them.
As Jane wanted to be steered astray, she welcomed their efforts.
They lied to her; she lied to them. Since Jane wanted to be an object of ridicule, it worked out delightfully for all concerned.
Sometimes, Jane wondered what it would be like if they were ever honest with each other. If maybe the Johnsons might have become real friends instead of lovely, polite enemies.
Geraldine eyed Jane’s gown and gave a decisive nod. “I absolutely support the notion of a lace belt. It would give this gown that certain air of indefinable dignity that it currently lacks.”
Mrs. Sandeston made a strangled sound.
It was only sometimes that Jane wondered if they could have been friends. Usually, she remembered the reasons she couldn’t have real friends. All one hundred thousand of them.
So she simply nodded at the Johnsons’ horrific suggestions. “What think you two of that clever strip of Maltese that we saw earlier—the gold one, the one with the rosettes?”
“Absolutely,” Geraldine said, nodding her head. “The Maltese.”
The sisters cast each other looks above their fans—an exchange of sly smiles saying, clear as day: Let’s see what we can get the Feather Heiress to do today.
“Miss Fairfield.” Mrs. Sandeston put her hands together in an unthinking imitation of prayer. “I beg you. Keep in mind that one can achieve a far superior effect by employing fewer furbelows. A lovely piece of lace, now, that’s the centerpiece of a beautiful gown, dazzling in its simplicity. Too much, and…” She trailed off with a suggestive twirl of her finger.
“Too little,” Genevieve said calmly, “and nobody will know what you have to offer. Geraldine and I—well, we have only a mere ten thousand apiece, so our gowns must reflect that.”
Geraldine gripped her fan. “Alas,” she intoned.
“But you—Miss Fairfield, you have a dowry of one hundred thousand pounds. You have to make sure that people know it. Nothing says wealth like lace.”
“And nothing says lace like…more lace,” Geraldine added.
They exchanged another set of looks.
Jane smiled. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do without the two of you. You’ve been so good to me, tutoring me in all things. I have no notion of what’s fashionable, nor of what message my clothing sends. Without you to guide me, who knows how I might blunder?”
Mrs. Sandeston made a choking noise in her throat, but said nothing more.
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 because he had been 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.”
Oliver inclined his head in greeting.
“I’ve been tasked with seeing to Hapford’s introduction,” Bradenton explained. “He’ll be sitting with the Lords next month, and none of us were expecting that.”
Hapford had a black band around his arm; his clothing was dark. Maybe there was a reason the house seemed cold and somber after all.
“I’m sorry to hear of it,” Oliver said.
The new earl straightened and glanced over at Bradenton before responding. “Thank you. I intend to do my best.”
That glance, that deference paid to the other man… That was why Oliver was here. Not to recall school-era friendships that had gone tepid over the years. Bradenton was the sort of man who nurtured new entrants to Parliament. Nurtured them, and then did his best to keep them as part of his coterie. He had quite a collection now.
“I’d wish for a little more time to prepare you, but you’re coming along.” Bradenton gave his nephew an approving clout on the shoulder. “And Cambridge isn’t a bad place to conduct the exercise. It’s a microcosm of the world out there. You’ll see; Parliament is not so different.”
“A microcosm of the world?” Oliver was dubious. He’d never met a coal miner at Cambridge.
But Bradenton didn’t take his meaning. “Yes, there is rather a bit of the riffraff here.” He glanced over at Oliver.
Oliver didn’t say anything. To a man like Bradenton, he was riffraff.
“But the riffraff usually manage themselves,” Bradenton continued. “That’s the point of an institution like Cambridge. Anyone can aspire to a Cambridge education, so everyone who aspires chooses to start here. If you do it right, by the time they’ve finished their degrees, the most ambitious ones have become just like us. Or at least, they want to enter our ranks so badly that the next thing you know, all their ambition has been subsumed into the greater glory.”
He gave Oliver a pointed nod.
Once, Oliver would have been annoyed by such a speech. The sly implication that Oliver didn’t belong, the even slyer one that he’d been subsumed into Bradenton’s goals instead of being a person in his own right…
When he was thirteen, he’d knocked Bradenton down for committing precisely that sin. But now he understood. Bradenton reminded him of an old farmer, walking the perimeter of his property every day, testing the fences and peering suspiciously at his neighbors, making sure that his side and their side were clearly delineated.
It had taken Oliver years to learn his lesson: keep quiet and let men like Bradenton test the fences. It wouldn’t do them any good, and if you were careful, one day you’d be in a position to buy their whole damned farm.
And so Oliver held his tongue and smiled.
“The ladies will be arriving shortly,” Bradenton said, “so if you’d like to start with a brandy…” He gestured off the entryway.
“Brandy,” Whitting said decisively, and the party moved to a side room.
Bradenton had an entire room reserved for nothing more than this—a sideboard with glasses, a decanter of amber liquid. But at least the chamber was smaller and therefore warmer. The marquess poured generous splashes into tumblers. “You’ll need this,” he said, passing glasses to his nephews first and then to Oliver.
Oliver took the spirits. “Many thanks, Bradenton. Speaking of this coming February. There is something I wanted to talk to you about. The voting reform act, in this coming parliamentary session—”
Bradenton laughed and tipped up his glass. “No, no,” he said. “We are not going to discuss politics yet, Marshall.”
“Well, then. If not now, perhaps we might speak later. Tomorrow, or—”
“Or the next day or the one after that,” Bradenton finished with a gleam in his eye. “We have to teach Hapford how to get on before we teach him what to get on about. Now is not the time.”
That, apparently, was not an attitude shared by all. Hapford had looked up with interest when Oliver started speaking; at this, he frowned and turned away.
Oliver could have argued. But then…
“As you say,” he said mildly. “Later.”
A man like Bradenton needed to receive deference. He needed a neighbor who stopped five feet from the fence instead of challenging the property lines. Oliver had swayed the man before, and he knew how it was done. Bradenton could be directed, so long as nobody penetrated the illusion that he was in charge.
Instead, Oliver let the conversation meander to the subject of mutual friends, the health of Oliver’s brother and his wife. For a few moments, they could pretend there was nothing to this but a cozy, intimate environment. But then Bradenton, who stood by the window, raised his hand once more.
“Drink up,” he said. “The first lady has arrived.”
Whitting looked out the window and let out a whimper. “Oh, God, please no. Never tell me you invited the Feather Heiress.”
“Blame your cousin.” Bradenton lifted an eyebrow. “Hapford wants a few minutes in the corner with his fiancée. And for whatever reason, Miss Johnson insists on having her invited.”
“Speaking of whom,” Hapford said, with a quiet dignity that looked out of place on his boyish features, “I would prefer that we not slander my fiancée’s friends.”
Whitting let out a puff of air. By the grim look on his face, Oliver would have imagined that he had just been sentenced to three years of hard labor. “Spoilsport,” he muttered, and then edged up to Oliver. “Someone should warn you,” he muttered.
“Warn me about what?”
The man leaned forward and whispered dramatically. “The Feather Heiress.”
“Her wealth comes from…goose down?”
“No.” Whitting didn’t look at him. “It’s originally from transcontinental steamers, if you must know. She’s called the Feather Heiress because being around her is like being beaten to death by feathers.”
He looked utterly serious. Oliver shook his head in exasperation. “You can’t beat someone to death with a feather.”
“You’re an expert on it, are you?” Whitting raised his chin. “Shows how much you know. Imagine someone starts beating you with a feather. Imagine that they never stop, until one day, the constant annoyance of goose feathers pushes you over the edge. In a fury you strangle the person who has been beating you.” He demonstrated this with a wrench of his hands. “Then you hang for murder. You, my friend, have been beaten to death by feathers.”
Oliver snorted. “Nobody is that bad.”
Whitting put his hand to his head and rubbed at the furrows on his brow. “She’s worse.”
“Ah, ah,” Bradenton said, lifting a finger. “She’s almost here. That’s not how it’s done, gentlemen.” He emphasized the last word and set down his glass. A gesture, and his young nephews followed him back to the entry. Oliver trailed after.
Yes, Oliver knew how it was done. He’d been on the receiving end of those almost-insults all too often. Upper-class politeness counted off cruelty not by the words that were spoken, but by the length of the silence that passed.
A servant opened the door and two women passed into the entry. One, swathed in folds of dark wool dotted with snow, was clearly a chaperone. She took down the heavy hood from her face, revealing gray, curling hair and a pinched mouth.
If ever a woman had wanted to announce that she was an heiress, this one did. She had made every effort to flaunt her wealth. She wore a fur-lined cloak, white and soft, and kid gloves with ermine showing at the cuffs. She gave a shake of her head and then undid the clasp at her neck—a clasp that shone with a golden gleam. As she moved, Oliver caught a sparkle at her ears, the glitter of diamonds and silver.
As one, the men stepped forward to greet her.
“Miss Fairfield,” the Marquess of Bradenton said. He had a pleasant tone in his voice, a convivial friendliness as he dipped his head to her.
“My lord,” she responded.
Oliver moved closer with the rest of the group, but stopped in his tracks when she took off her cloak. She was…
He stared and shook his head. She should have been pretty. Her eyes were dark and shiny; her hair was up, with a glossy riot of curls pulled out and artfully arranged about her shoulders. Her lips were pink and full, poised in a demure half smile, and her figure—what he could see of it—was precisely the sort he liked, soft and full, made up of curves that even the most determined corset could not hide. Under any other circumstances, he’d have found himself stealing glances all evening.
But looking at her was like picking up a luxurious peach and discovering it half taken over by mold.
Her gown was ghastly. There was no other word for it, and even that one scarcely did justice to the thrill of helpless horror that traveled through him.
A little lace was in fashion. Falls at the cuffs, perhaps, or a few inches at the hem. But Miss Fairfield’s gown was lace all over—layer upon layer of the most intricate hand-knit stuff available. Black lace. Blue lace. Gold lace trim. It was as if someone had swept into a store, ordered three hundred yards of each of the most expensive kinds of lace, and then crammed every ell on one dress
This wasn’t a case of gilding the lily. If there was a lily underneath all that, it had long since been crushed to a pulp.
The party stopped in its tracks as she took off her cloak, frozen in wordless contemplation of a wardrobe that made the word “gaudy” sound sweet and demure by contrast.
Bradenton recovered first. “Miss Fairfield,” he repeated.
“Yes, you did already greet me.” She had a very pretty voice. If Oliver could shut his eyes—or perhaps look at her from above the neck—
She swept forward, too far forward, advancing on Bradenton until he actually took two steps back. This brought her earrings—heavy diamond stones clasped in silver—to dangle a few feet from Oliver’s eyes.
One of those earrings would buy his parents’ farm three times over.
“Thank you so much for the invitation,” she said. As she spoke, she folded her cloak.
One of the gray-liveried servants should have stepped forward and relieved her of the burden. But they, like everyone else, had been momentarily stunned by the hideousness of her apparel.
Miss Fairfield didn’t seem to notice. Without once looking to her side—without even glancing at Oliver—she handed him her cloak. His fingers took hold of it before he could register what she’d done. She turned away from him, greeted Hapford and Whitting, her voice pleasant, the back of her neck taunting him with little curls.
She’d handed him her cloak. As if he were a servant. A footman came up to Oliver, apologetically taking the unwanted burden from him, but it was too late. He could see the horrified smile on Whitting’s face, the one he didn’t quite seem able to repress. Bradenton, too, gave Oliver a too-amused smile.
He was long past the point of getting angry at little slights, and this one hadn’t even been intentional. But God, she was a disaster. He almost felt sorry for her.
Bradenton gestured behind Oliver. “Miss Fairfield,” he said, “there is another man here to whom you have not yet been introduced.”
“There is?” Miss Fairfield turned and finally set eyes on Oliver. “Goodness. I didn’t even see you when I came in.”
She’d seen him. She’d just thought he was a servant. A simple mistake; nothing more.
“Miss Fairfield,” Oliver said smoothly. “A pleasure.”
“Miss Jane Fairfield, this is Mr. Oliver Marshall,” Bradenton said.
She put her head to one side and looked at him. She was pretty. That annoying part of his brain couldn’t stop noticing it in spite of the garish way she’d rigged herself out. Pretty, if you liked the healthy glowing English rose sort of woman. Normally, Oliver did.
He wondered when she was going to realize her error. Her eyes narrowed in concentration, and a frown left a furrow on her chin.
“But we’ve met,” she said.
This was not what he had expected her to realize. Oliver blinked uncertainly.
“I’m sure we’ve met,” she continued. “You look familiar. There’s something about you, something…” Miss Fairfield tapped her lip with a finger, shaking her head as she did. “No,” she concluded sadly. “No. I am wrong. It’s simply that you look so common with that hair and those glasses that I mistook you.”
He looked common?
Another woman delivering an insult of that magnitude would have emphasized the word just to be sure that her intent was not mistaken. Miss Fairfield, though, didn’t act as if she was delivering a set-down. She sounded as if she were remarking on the number of pups in a litter.
“I beg your pardon.” He found himself standing just a little taller, looking at her with a hint of frost in his expression.
“Oh, no need to beg my anything,” she said with a smile. “You can’t help your looks, I’m sure. I would never hold them against you.” She nodded at him, as graciously as a queen, as if she were doing him a tremendous favor. And then she frowned. “I’m so sorry, but would you repeat your name?”
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 thought she almost 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.