Was there a limit to a man’s ire? Nicholas debated this very question as he stood in the study with Lady Ayles. Her request to speak to him alone should have been easy to decline, but when she whispered a threat in his ear to expose the relationship they once shared with Miss Jenny, he had no other choice than to agree.
Granted, their engagement was a sham, but it was only so out of necessity. Not the need to placate Lord Tulk, not fully. What he could not do was commit himself to another woman, not after what he had endured with Lady Ayles.
“But what of the wonderful parties we attended together?” Lady Ayles said. “The laughter we shared, the fun we had.”
Turning to face the fire that roared in the fireplace, Nicholas replied, “I recall the functions but not the rest.”
Of course, he recalled much more. Lady Ayles speaking of visiting a friend, only for him to learn the following week she had not been at home. Or male companions she had claimed to be cousins who he later learned were not.
Now he did all he could to forget those times, to forget the naïve man who had believed he needed a woman such as she on his arm. One day, he would find the right woman, but he had learned an important lesson. Whoever that woman was, she would be nothing like Lady Ayles.
Lady Ayles laughed and came to stand beside him. “Oh, Nicholas, you can’t deny what we’ve shared. What we still share. Do you recall the picnic at Papa’s country estate? It was just you and I there.”
To his ears, her voice was like the grinding of a wheel axle lacking oil. Perhaps if he indulged her, she would be content and leave.
“I do. We had a nice time. The day was warm, and the food was good. What of it?”
“A nice time?” she repeated, pushing out her lower lip. She had always been so insipid! “Have you forgotten what we once had? And now you’re engaged to some unknown young lady. Surely, she can’t compare to me?”
Nicholas shook his head and replied in the flattest tone he could muster, “Jane, no woman can compare to you.” He pushed away from the fireplace and rounded on her. “For they all have something that may seem foreign to you, something you’ve never possessed. A soul!”
Her mouth fell open, but he did not care if he had insulted her. If she could not endure the truth, perhaps it was time she lived her life differently.
“What are we doing here, Jane?” he asked with an aggravated sigh. “I’ve honored your request to invite you. But stealing me away from my guests was not a part of that agreement.”
With a smirk, Lady Ayles retrieved her wine glass from the mantel where she had placed it upon their arrival in the room. “Very well, I’ll tell you. The truth is my estate is in need of funds. I want you to help me alleviate this problem.”
Nicholas gave a wry chuckle. “You’ve had too much wine if you believe I’ll come to your rescue now.”
Lady Ayles’s laugh no longer held its usual melodic tone. “Nicholas, you must pay for what you did.”
“And what is it you believe I did?” he asked. He was growing weary of the discussion.
She gave a light shrug. “Why, it was you who pushed me into the arms of another man.”
Nicholas’s jaw tightened with anger. “Pushed you into…? Was it not you who said my estate could never compare to his? That those in his circle were… how did you put it? More entertaining? You were the one who ran into his arms, Jane. I had no say in the matter!”
The day she jilted Nicholas, Jane had told him in no uncertain terms that she had moved up in the world the day she married the Marquess of Ayles. That he was better than Nicholas in every way possible.
Then, a week later, Nicholas received a letter saying that she missed him. In desperation, he had replied, pleading his admiration for her, asking for a second chance. He had shown weakness that day, had borne his heart to her, but she never responded to his pleas. Instead, the next time she wrote, she told him of the many fine gifts the marquess had purchased for her.
Two weeks passed, and he received another letter, again stating how much she missed him, and Nicholas came to the unsettling truth. Lady Ayles cared for no one but herself. She had used him as much as she used Lord Ayles.
In his final letter to her, he expressed all he had come to realize. About her. About himself. That they were two far different people. It had been a relief writing that letter, for he also asked that she never contact him again.
Yet she ignored his request. Over the years, she had written numerous correspondences. But each letter was either torn into pieces or burned. But none were read.
“Follow me,” she said.
With a sigh of relief, Nicholas followed her from the study and returned to the ballroom. He glanced about until he caught sight of Miss Jenny. She was still speaking with Lord Tulk, and from this distance, it appeared all was well.
“Tell me. Who is that young girl exactly?” Lady Ayles asked. “I saw her earlier with her female companion. She seems familiar somehow. It’s as if I’ve met her before.” She shook her head. “Regardless, you never introduced her to me.” She frowned. “Do I know her?”
“Miss Clifton?” Nicholas asked. “She’s the daughter of an acquaintance.”
“She seems quite interested in me,” Lady Ayles said. “She keeps glancing our way.” Her eyebrows rose. “Perhaps she knows about our previous relationship.” A tiny smile played on her lips.