For three months, Serena had wondered where she had gone wrong—what she could have done to avoid this fate. She’d retraced her steps a thousand times, searching for her error.
She’d been weak three months ago, when the duke had first found her—dropping her eyes for every man simply because he was bigger and stronger, holding her silence merely because it was improper to scream. Serena was done being weak.
She’d met the duke’s gaze this morning, not flinching when she looked in his eyes and issued her threats. After that, she could do anything.
And this man wasn’t a duke.
So she met his gaze. I’m not afraid of you, she thought. And if the clamminess of her palms declared otherwise, there was no need to tell him that.
But he was only a working man, if she read the middling-quality fabric of his jacket aright. Everything about him was middling. He wasn’t particularly tall, nor was he short. He was neither skinny nor fat. The most that she could imagine anyone saying about him was that he was virulently moderate.
He looked safe. An utterly ridiculous thing to think, of course. Still, Serena held his eyes, smiled, and gave the fellow a polite, dismissive nod.
He crossed the street toward her.
He was as unremarkable as the shrubbery that edged the square. He had a nondescript face, so familiar that it might have belonged to anyone. He gave her a friendly, unassuming smile.
She did not respond in kind. She wasn’t nice, she wasn’t easy, and she was done being a target. She gave him a pointed look—a raise of her eyebrow that signified don’t you impinge on my time.
A man as ordinary as this one should have flinched from her expression. But this one came right up to her bench and, without so much as asking her leave, sat next to her.
“Nice day,” he commented.
His voice was like his face: not too high and not too deep. His accent was not the drawl of aristocratic syllables trained to lazy perfection, but a hint of something from the north.
“Is it?” It wasn’t—not when she’d been sitting outside long enough to turn her nose red. Not when an unfamiliar man sat next to her and started a conversation.
She turned to frown at him.
He was watching her with a quizzical little smile. “I believe there is no good way to continue.”
She sighed. “You’ve come for gossip, haven’t you?”
“You could say that.” He tensed, and then met her eyes. “It’s Hugo Marshall, by the way.” He tossed the introduction out, and then leaned back, as if waiting for her response.
Was he an important man? She remembered the servants scattering as he’d approached. Maybe he was a solicitor, who might carry tales. Or a butler, who enforced rules. He looked rather young to be a Mayfair butler, but whatever he was, he wasn’t going away.
She would have preferred a woman to start the gossip—she found it easier to talk to women. But perhaps this fellow would do.
“Miss Serena Barton,” she finally offered. “I suppose everyone wants to know why I’m here.”
He shrugged, and gave her another one of those pleasant smiles. “I have no interest in everyone,” he responded smoothly. “But I do wish you’d satisfy my individual curiosity. The accounts I have heard are quite garbled.”
She had no intention of satisfying anything of his. She’d been cut deep by her own silence—cut to the point of shame. Now it was her turn to wield that knife.
The Duke of Clermont had told her to stay quiet. So she would.
“Accounts? What accounts?” she asked.
“I’ve heard you’re Clermont’s former mistress.”
She raised a single eyebrow at that. Silence could cut both ways—for instance, when one failed to repudiate rumors that might cause damage. She wished Clermont much joy of her silence.
He tapped his fingers against the arm of the bench, holding her gaze. “I’ve heard you’re a governess, and that Clermont promised you a position looking after his unborn child. When he reneged, you took to sitting outside here to shame him for not honoring his contracts.”
That was so absurd that she couldn’t stop herself from laughing.
He simply sighed. “No,” he said. “Of course not.”
If gossip was running to breach of contract, she needed a new strategy. But Serena simply smoothed her skirts over her knees. “My,” she said. “Do keep talking. What else?”
He pushed his gloved hands together and looked down. “I’ve heard that Clermont forced himself on you.” This last came out in a low growl.
Serena repressed a shiver. She didn’t flinch—not even from the shadow that passed over her at that. “You believe all of this?”
“I believe none of it, not without proof. Tell me what really happened, Miss Barton, and perhaps I can help.”
She’d told the duke everything that morning. He’d laughed and told her to take herself off and keep quiet. It was the second time he’d demanded her silence. So she’d promised to return it to him—silence, accusing silence. Weeks and weeks of it, sitting practically on his doorstep with everyone wondering. If the gossip threatened to reach his wife, he’d have to take responsibility.
She regarded Mr. Marshall now. For all his smiling affability, he was direct. He’d simply jumped into the matter and asked her right out. By the way he was watching her, he expected an answer.
On a second inspection, she decided he was not as ordinary as she’d supposed. His nose had been broken. It had also been set, but not very well, and so there was a bump in the middle of it. And while he wasn’t fat, he was broader across the shoulders than any butler she’d seen.
But he was giving her an encouraging smile, and the warning prickle in her palms had faded to almost nothing. He was safe. Gossipy, perhaps, but safe.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Marshall,” she said. “I really will not say.”
“Oh?” He looked mildly puzzled. “You won’t tell even me?”
“I don’t dare.” She gave him another smile. “I do apologize for piquing your curiosity, but I’ll be unable to oblige it. Good day.”
He took off his hat and rubbed his brown hair. “Is there some need for secrecy? I’ll meet you in the dead of night, if that’s what it takes to resolve the matter. I was hoping this would be simple.”
Her smile froze. “No,” she heard herself say distinctly. “These days, I only meet in sunlight. I don’t mean to be so circumspect, but if I air my grievances to the public, it is possible that I could be charged with defamation of character. I must be careful.” That was the right note to strike with the gossips—imply that she had the capacity to blacken the duke’s name, without ever listing specifics.