“Here, here,” Lord Tulk replied.
As the marquess took a drink, Nicholas forced back a smile. In the years ahead, this vile man would be paying for his crimes in ways no prison could thrust upon him.
“Your fiancée,” Lord Tulk said as Nicholas sat in the leather chair across from him, “she promised to write, but I’ve yet to receive any letters.”
Nicholas chuckled. “Do not all women make such promises and not keep them? I imagine she has been preoccupied with plans for the wedding, even though the first banns have not yet been read. I would not take inattentiveness personally. I have yet to receive any letters from her, and we’re engaged to be married!”
To this, the marquess laughed outright. “You know, there was something familiar about her. I don’t believe she and I have ever met, but she reminds me of a woman I once knew. A servant girl. Now, there’s no need to take that the wrong way, Dowding. I’m not saying your young lady is uncultured, for I found her delightful. No, I’m referring to her innocence. Far better than the maid who was not.”
“Oh?” Nicholas asked. “I assume she served you well?”
Lord Tulk threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, that she did, and in so many ways. She wasn’t all that innocent when I got her, not by a long chalk. And from what I understand, she’d been ‘serving’ her previous employers before she came to me. After I bedded her a few times, I grew bored. So, I sold her to a… let’s just say a ‘friend’ in London. Got a good price for her.” He knitted his brows in thought. “Now, what was her name? Oh, yes. Eliza. Eliza something or other. But then who cares about the names of servants? As long as they perform their duties, that’s all that matters. And perform she did. She was a pretty one, I can tell you.” He downed the rest of his brandy in one gulp and gave a reminiscent smile. “A pretty one, indeed.”
Rage boiled inside Nicholas, and he had to hold his fist at his side to keep from striking the beast before him. If he lost control now, five years of hard work would be lost. And his sister would never be avenged.
Nicholas attempted a laugh, but it sounded flat to his ears. “Did you ever hear what happened to her?”
The marquess snorted. “Silly chit died her first night there,” he said with disgust. “Threw herself out a window on the top floor of the residence.” He shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand women.”
The instant before Nicholas bounded from his seat to rip the marquess apart, the door to the study opened.
“Mr. Patrick Thompson,” Osborne announced.
“Send him in,” Nicholas said, relief filling him. Miss Jenny’s timing could not have been better!
Miss Jenny entered the room, and Nicholas sat in stunned silence. She looked nothing like herself, even more so than she had the night in the stable. Gone was a lovely dress, replaced by a man’s coat and trousers. Even the way she held herself made him question whether she truly was the person before him or if she had found another young man to play the part.
“Welcome to my home, Mr. Thompson,” Nicholas said, his senses finally returning. “I pray your father is well.”
“Very well, my lord,” Patrick Thompson replied in that gruff voice Nicholas had heard in the stable.
Lord Tulk stood and put out a hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Thompson.”
“Lord Tulk, as promised, may I present Mr. Patrick Thompson.”
“Good afternoon, my lord,” Jenny said. “The pleasure is all mine, I assure you. My father sends his well wishes for such an important meeting.”
“Pour this man a brandy,” Lord Tulk said to Nicholas before returning his attention to Miss Jenny. “How was your journey?”
Miss Jenny gave a low chuckle. “I’m still breathing, something many can no longer say. I do hope my arrival is not taken for granted. Father has instilled in me how important our privacy means to us, so let me make one thing clear before we begin. This is the only time my father or I will make an appearance. If you cannot agree to our terms, we have plenty of others willing to accommodate our needs. Decide your own fate, Tulk. I care not what you decide.”
“So I’ve come to learn,” the marquess said. “Given your presence today, I’ve one question I must ask before we begin.”
With a curt nod, Miss Jenny said, “Go on.”
“What made you decide to forgo your solitude and come out of hiding today?”
* * *
Never had Jenny experienced such fear as she did now. From the moment she had entered the room, Lord Tulk had studied her, leaving her feeling like a horse ready for auction. Did he suspect she was a woman disguised as a man? Would her voice give her away? It was louder than she was accustomed to speaking, but the sound of her blood pounding in her ears made it difficult to hear properly.
“Hiding?” she replied to his question, adding a derisive snort she had practiced until the back of her throat became sore. A man’s snort was far different from that of a woman. If it had not been for this farce, she would never have recognized that fact. “My father and I do not hide.” She scowled. “I find your question offensive. If you wish to conduct your business with someone else, simply say so. But I’ve no time for interrogations. Or accusations if that is what you are not so subtly attempting to make.”
Jenny walked over to the decanters and poured herself a brandy. This, too, had been planned. She needed to show she was in charge—or rather Mr. Patrick Thompson was in charge. A difficult task when a merchant is in the company of noblemen, and one that few could have been able to carry off properly.
Few of the aristocracy would tolerate such impertinence from a member of the merchant class. Given the number of enterprises with which Mr. Thompson was involved, playing the son as one who felt his place was equal to the nobility was logical. Knowing that, however, did not make her role any easier. Nor did it keep her stomach from tying itself into knots. If she did not sick up before this fiasco was over, she would be lucky, indeed.
After several moments of silence, Lord Tulk barked a loud laugh and said, “I meant no offense, Thompson. I only wished to comment on how rare it is for you or your father to put in an appearance. You’re allowed your secrets as much as anyone.” He chuckled “I’ve a few of my own.”