“With your father’s tragic passing, things are much changed, I think you will agree,” Mr. Nightingale said. He stood before her in his impeccable frock coat and cravat. He always looked like this. Tall, slender, dark, and perfect. Emma imagined the hours it must take him each day to put himself together with such precision.
She had never liked him much. Mr. Nightingale was one of the many people who showed a false face to the world. Everything about him was calculated, and too smooth, too polished and too practiced. While imitating his betters, he had assumed their worst characteristics.
They were in the large back chamber where items consigned for auction were stored for cataloging and study. It held bins for paintings at one end, and shelves and large tables for other objects. There was also a desk where she now sat. Mr. Nightingale had positioned himself to her side, so she did not have the distance of the desktop between them, the way she would prefer.
Emma of course agreed with his assessment that things were much changed. It was one of those statements that was so true as to need no articulation. She disliked when people spoke this way, explaining the obvious to her. Men in particular had this habit, she had noticed.
She merely nodded and waited for the rest. She wished he would hurry up with it too. These preliminaries were all beside the main point, which was that he was leaving, and some plain speaking would be welcomed.
Worse, she was having difficulty even paying attention to him. Her mind was back in the exhibition hall, wondering what Southwaite was doing and whether he would still be there when she exited this room.
“You are alone now. Unprotected. Fairbourne’s has lost its master, and while our patrons were kind today, they will quickly lose confidence in the sales if you think to continue them.”
That got her attention. Mr. Nightingale had always struck her as a walking fashion plate. All surface and artifice. Not at all deep. Now he had revealed unexpected capacities for insight, if he had surmised that she considered continuing the auctions at Fairbourne’s.
“I am well-known to the patrons,” he forged on. “Respected by them. My eye for art has been demonstrated time and again during the previews. “
“It is not an eye such as my father possessed, however.” Nor that she possessed, she wanted to add.
“No doubt. But it is good enough.”
Good enough was not, in this situation, truly good enough, unfortunately.
“I have always admired you, Miss Fairbourne.” He flashed that charming smile. He had never used it on her before. She did not find it nearly as winning when directed her way as she did when he cajoled a society matron to consider a painting that had been overlooked.
He was a very handsome man, however. Almost unnaturally so. He knew it, of course. A man could not look like this and not know just how perfect his face appeared. Too perfect, as if a portrait painter had taken a normally handsome face and prettied it up too much, to the point it lost human distinction and character.
“We have much in common,” he went on. “Fairbourne’s. Your father. Our births and stations are not dissimilar. I believe we would make a good match. I hope that you will look favorably on my proposal that we marry.”
She just stared at him. This was not what she had expected. She found herself at a loss for how to respond.
He took a deep breath, as if fortifying himself for an unpleasant task. “You are surprised, I see. Did you think I had not noticed your beauty these last years? Perhaps I have been too subtle in communicating my interest. Credit that to my respect for both you and your father. You have quite stolen my heart, however, and I have dreamed for many months that one day you might be mine. I have always believed that you and I had a special sympathy, and under the circumstances I now am free to—”
“Mr. Nightingale, please, let us discuss this honestly if we are to discuss it at all. First, we both know that I am not beautiful. Second, you and I have held no secret sympathy. Indeed, we have rarely had informal conversation. Third, you have not been too subtle in communicating your feelings because you have entertained no such feelings to begin with. You almost choked on your words of love just now. You began making a practical proposal, and perhaps you should continue on that tack and not try to convince me of your long-secret love.”
She put him off his game for a moment, no more. “You have always been a most direct female, Miss Fairbourne,” he said tightly. “It is one of your more . . . notable qualities. If honest and practical suite you better, so be it. Your father left you a business here. It can continue, but only if it is known to be owned and managed by a man. No one will patronize Fairbourne’s if a woman is the responsible authority. I propose that we marry, and that I take your father’s place. You will still have the comfortable life that Fairbourne’s has provided, along with continued security and protection.”
She pretended to think it over, so as not to insult him too much. “How thoughtful of you to try to help me, Mr. Nightingale. Unfortunately, I do not think we will be a good match at all.”
She attempted to stand. He refused to move. Mr. Nightingale no longer appeared charming as he gazed down at her. Not at all.
“Your decision is reckless, and not sensible. What is the good in inheriting Fairbourne’s if you do not continue its affairs? Today’s take will hardly keep you long. As for another match, one that you may consider better, I doubt such an offer will come now if it has not already.”
“Perhaps one has indeed come already.”
“As you demanded, let us be honest and practical. You are, by your own admission, not a great beauty. You have a manner that is hardly conducive to a man’s romantic interests, what with all your plain speaking. You are headstrong and at times shrewish. In short, you are on the shelf for a reason; several, in fact. I am willing to overlook all of that. I have no great fortune but I have skills that can keep Fairbourne’s a going concern. Fate throws us together, for better or for worse, Miss Fairbourne, even if love does not.”
She felt her face warming. She might admit to headstrong, but, really, shrewish was going too far.
“I can hardly argue with your remarkably complete description of my lack of appeal, sir. I daresay I should be grateful that you would be willing to take me on at all. I fear, however, that your calculations are in error on one major point, and that your willingness to sacrifice yourself will be much compromised once I explain it, since it is the only point that you see in my favor. You assume that I am my father’s heir. In fact I am not. My brother is, of course. If you marry me, you will not get Fairbourne’s as you think. At least not for long.”
He had the audacity to groan in exasperation. “A dead man cannot inherit.”
“He is not dead.”
“Zeus, your father harbored unrealistic hopes, but it is inconceivable that you do as well. He drowned when his ship went down. He is most certainly dead.”
“His body was never found.”
“That is because the damned ship went down in the middle of the damned sea.” He collected himself and lowered his voice. “I have consulted with a solicitor. In such cases there is no need to wait any length of time to have a person declared dead. You need only go to the courts and—”
This conceited man had dared to investigate how she could claim the fortune he wanted to marry. He expected her to deny her own heart’s certainty that Robert still lived, in order to accommodate his avarice. “No. I will not do it. If Fairbourne’s is preserved at all, it is preserved for Robert when he returns.”
He drew himself up tall and straight. “Then you will starve,” he intoned. “Because if I do not leave here with your acceptance of my offer, I will not return to preserve this business for you, let alone for him.”
He glared at her, convinced she would not pick up that gauntlet. She glared back, while she quickly calculated how much trouble his removal would create. Potentially a good deal of trouble, she had to admit.
“Obediah will calculate what you are owed. Once today’s payments are made, your wages will be sent to you. Good day, Mr. Nightingale.”
Mr. Nightingale turned on his heel and marched out of the chamber. Emma rested her head in her hands. One door to her future plans had opened with the success of today’s auction, but another had just closed with the loss of the exhibition hall manager.
Weariness wanted to overwhelm her. So did humiliation at the bold description Mr. Nightingale gave of her faults. He had spoken as if he had even worse ones on the list, and thought limiting it to these had been an example of discretion.
You are on the shelf for a reason. That was certainly true. Mostly she was on the shelf because all of the proposals had, to one degree or another, been similar to today’s. Men might as well just say, “Marriage to you does not interest me at all, but inheriting Fairbourne’s will make the match easier to swallow.”
She was not even supposed to mind. She probably shouldn’t. Yet she did.
A tap on the door requested attention. The door opened a crack, and Obediah’s head stuck in. “A visitor, Miss Fairbourne.”
Before she could ask whom the visitor might be, the door swung wide. The Earl of Southwaite strode in with an invisible storm cloud hovering over his dark head.
Exit one handsome, conceited man, and enter another. Southwaite had to know that she did not want to see him. It had been a tiring and trying day, and she was in no mood to match wits with him now.
She suppressed the impulse to groan in his face. She rose and made a small curtsy. She forced a smile. She urged her voice to sound melodic instead of dull.
“Good day, Lord Southwaite. We are honored that you chose to call at Fairbourne’s today.”
Emma Fairbourne did not appear the least embarrassed to be greeting him, finally. She sat behind the big desk in the storage chamber and smiled brightly. She acted as if he had just tied his horse outside a few minutes ago.
“Honored, are you? I am not accustomed to being cut by someone who is honored, Miss Fairbourne.”
“Do you think I cut you, sir? I apologize. If you attended the auction, I did not see you. The good wishes and condolences of the patrons absorbed my time and attention.” She angled herself closer to the desk. “Yet, isn’t a cut a social matter? If I had neglected to acknowledge your presence, I do not see how it could be a cut when we have no social connection.”
He held up one hand, to stop her. “Whether you saw me or not does not matter. You certainly see me now.”
“Most definitely, since I am not blind.”
“And when last we met, I specifically informed you that I would study the future of Fairbourne’s, and meet with you within the month to explain my plans for its disposition.”
“I believe you may have said something to that effect. I cannot swear by it. I was a little overcome at the time.”
“That was understandable.” She had been most overcome. She had appeared ready to kill him, she was so irate. Her emotional state was why he had put off the reckoning. That had clearly been a mistake.
“I doubt you do understand, sir, but pray, go on. I believe you were working your way up to a lecture. Or a scold. It is hard to know which just yet.”
Damnation, but she was an irritating woman. She sat there, suspiciously composed. From the way Nightingale had stormed out of this chamber, one gathered she had already enjoyed one good row with a man today and now was spoiling for another.
“Neither a lecture nor a scold will be forthcoming. I seek only to clarify that which perhaps you did not hear that day in the solicitor’s chambers. “
“I heard the important parts. It was a shock to learn that my father had sold you a half interest in Fairbourne’s three years ago, I will admit. I have accepted it, however, so no clarification is required.”
He paced back and forth in front of that desk, trying to size up where she truly was in her emotions and thoughts. A stack of paintings against a wall interfered with his path in one direction, and a table of silver plate did so in the other, so it became a short and unsatisfactory circuit. The black of her costume kept pressing itself on his sight. She was still in mourning, of course. That checked his simmering anger more than anything else.
Well, not entirely more than anything else. Ambury had been correct that, while Emma Fairbourne was no great beauty, she had a certain something to her. It had been evident in the solicitor’s chambers, and now was notable here too. Her directness had a lot to do with it, he supposed. The way she eschewed all artifice created a peculiar . . . intimacy.
“You did not inform me of today’s auction,” he said. “I do not think that was an oversight. Yet that day I told you that I expected to be informed about any activities here.”
“My apologies. When we decided not to send out invitations, due to having no grand preview, I did not think to make special arrangements for you, as one of our most illustrious patrons.”
“I am not merely one of the patrons. I am one of the owners?.”
“I assumed you would not want that well-known. It so smells of trade, when you get down to it. To have made an exception and brought attention to you in that way among the staff—well, I thought you would prefer I not do that.”
He had to admit that made a certain amount of sense. Damnation, but she was a fast thinker.
“In the future, please do not worry about such extreme discretion, Miss Fairbourne. Of course, there will be no cause for it, now that the final auction has been held, albeit without my permission.”
She blinked twice at the word permission , but she did not otherwise react.
“It went well, it appeared,” he said, stopping his pacing and trying to sound less severe. “It should provide enough for you to live until the business is sold, I expect. The staff did a commendable job with the catalog. I found no obvious errors in attribution. Mr. Nightingale’s contribution, I assume?”
Her expression perceptibly altered. Softened. Saddened. Her voice did as well. “Obediah’s contribution, not so much Mr. Nightingale’s. Obediah often helped my father with the catalog and much, much more, and has an excellent eye. Although, to be honest, most of the catalog had been completed before Papa’s death. This auction was just sitting here, almost all prepared and ready to go.”
She looked up at him directly. So directly that her gaze seemed to touch his mind. For a moment that lasted longer than time would count, his thoughts scattered under that gaze.
He found himself noticing things in detail that his perceptions had absorbed in only a fleeting way before. How the light from the window made her skin appear like matte porcelain, and how very flawless that skin actually was. How there were layers to the color of her eyes, so many that one felt as if eventually one could see right into her soul. How that black dress, so simple in design, managed with its high waist and broad ribbon under her breasts to suggest a form that was womanly in the best ways and—
“I thought it made no sense to hand all those consignments back when it was only a matter of opening the doors and letting Obediah do what he does so well,” she said.
“Of course,” he heard himself muttering. “That is understandable.”
“I am so relieved to hear you say that, Lord Southwaite. You appeared angry when you walked in here. I was afraid that you were most displeased by something.”
“No, not so much. Not angry at all. Not really.”
“Oh, that is so good to know.”
He exerted some effort to piece together his normal self. As his thoughts collected, he took his leave of Miss Fairbourne. “I am going out of town,” he said. “When I return, I will call on you to discuss . . . that other matter.” He had some difficulty remembering still just what that other matter had been.
He returned to the exhibition hall. Ambury fell into step beside him.
“Are we finally ready to ride?” Ambury asked. “We will be at least an hour late meeting up with Kendale, and you know how he can be.”
“Yes, let us go.” Hell, yes.
“Did you come to a right understanding with the lady, the way you said you must?”
Darius vaguely remembered blustering something of the sort before he barged into that storage chamber. His mind, all his own again, sorted through what had actually happened after that.
“Of course I did, Ambury. If one is firm, right understandings can always be achieved, especially with women.”
While he mounted his horse, however, Darius admitted the truth of it to himself. Somehow Miss Fairbourne had turned the tables on him in there. He had roared in like a lion and bleated out like a lamb.
He hated to say it but that woman may have made a fool of him today.