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James Standish’s life changed with a single, whispered word.
He sat in his favorite spot in the Reform Club, the Times a crisp, paper shield between him and the world. In the club’s library, peace reigned, disturbed only by the rustle of pages turning and an occasional murmur of conversation.
That word, uttered by one gentleman exchanging sotto voce gossip with another, slipped through his mental filter, insidious as a thief. No need to wonder who they discussed. The Thorne marriage had finally collapsed in upon itself and everyone was talking.
Snapping his newspaper taut, he tried to concentrate.
Shuffling footsteps, punctuated by dull, rhythmic thuds, set his teeth on edge. He knew who approached. The whispers grew louder as other voices joined the hushed discussion. He closed his eyes, and then set his paper aside.
Mr. Henry Lytton, Francesca Thorne’s uncle, clumped across the Persian carpet toward the fire crackling in the grate. An old, frail-looking gentleman, he always walked with the aid of a silver-topped cane. He must have got caught in the downpour. His graying hair straggled unkempt over his shoulders, drops of rain still clinging to it. His mouth formed a grim line as he lowered himself into a chair. If he appeared cast down, who could blame him?
James had heard the rumors. Everyone had. Francesca—Fran, as he used to call her—was in London. She’d appeared quite unexpectedly mere months before her tenth wedding anniversary. No one would’ve remarked on it if her destination had been the Thorne house, but with temerity uncharacteristic of the woman he’d once known, she’d installed herself at the Cavendish hotel. Why she’d chosen to flout convention in this way was the subject of fervid debate.
He was curious, but his only source of news was Edward Thorne, Fran’s far from impartial husband. Hence James found himself in a difficult position. As Thorne’s oldest friend, he knew where his loyalties should—and would—lay, but he’d always had a soft spot for Fran.
He crossed the room toward the fire, and spent several moments warming his hands, though they were not the least bit cold. “May I join you?” he asked, once Lytton seemed comfortably settled.
The old man nodded his assent. “Standish.”
As James sat, Lytton offered him a cigar from a black-lacquered case.
They smoked in companionable silence, the pungent vapor mingling with the communal fog.
He would never be so crass as to offend the old man’s pride by prying into his personal affairs, but he wanted to be on hand if Lytton did take it into his head to reveal more about Fran’s situation.
Lytton was always taciturn but, at length, he sighed. “I suppose you’ve heard about this sad business with my niece?”
“I heard she’s in London.” To admit more would be indelicate. But if it were just a harmless visit to town, no one would care.
“At the Cavendish, confound her. She ought to go back to the country where Thorne left her and, I’m sure, intended for her to remain.”
“She hasn’t been to London in years. A brief change of scene can work wonders.” An artful evasion. The Thorne marriage was an unmitigated failure.
At first James, along with everyone else, pretended not to notice the decided chill in the marital air. After all, no one wanted a scandal.
Apart from Fran, it would seem.