He paused for dramatic effect, waiting until all eyes were on him before turning and looking at Jane, an intimate, heavy-lidded look designed just for her—and his audience. Holding out both hands to her, he said in a voice designed to carry, “It is traditional, is it not, for an alliance to be sealed with a marriage?”
Taking Jane’s hands, he drew her forward, into the center of the room, where everyone could have the best possible view.
Jane’s hands were cold, cold as ice. She drew them away, frozen with the wrongness of it. “Nicolas—don’t. Please.”
She cast an anxious glance over her shoulder at Jack, who was doing his best impression of a stone boulder.
Nicolas tugged on her hand, claiming her attention. “Surely now,” he said softly, smiling up at her in a way that would once have made her all fluttery, “there can be no obstacle to our union.”
“Aside from good taste and common sense,” said Henrietta hotly.
“He’s not bad-looking,” commented Miss Gwen. “If you like reptiles.”
Dropping to the floor at Jane’s feet, Nicolas drew the signet from his finger. Not his personal signet, the one he used as the Gardener, but the sigil of the counts of Brillac.
Once, a very long time ago, Jane had imagined this moment, had imagined a world in which she and Nicolas might be together.
That, however, was before she had known him.
And before she had known Jack.
“Well, my Jeanne?” Nicolas said whimsically, proffering the ring. “Will you make me the happiest of men?”
Gold glittered in the torchlight. On the edge of the circle, Jack turned on his heel and stalked off.
Yanking her skirt away, Jane said sharply, “Did you really believe that making a public spectacle of me would change my answer?”
From the side of the room, there was the faint click of a door closing.
The dimple was very apparent in Nicolas’s cheek as he smiled up at her. “I live in hope.”
“Don’t,” said Jane crisply. “Not on that score.”
“That,” said Henrietta, “in case you didn’t notice, was a no.”
Nicolas rose easily to his feet. “I prefer to think of it as a ‘perhaps later.’”
“It was a no,” said Jane, and turned on her heel, not sure whom she wanted to shake more: Nicolas for refusing to take no for an answer, or Jack for walking away.