The company had returned to the salon after dinner. Of course, Blanche ensured that she was the centre of attention, holding forth upon anything and everything – and usually coming to the most erroneous conclusions, the most faulty one of all being that she was correct in her assumptions.

Edward stationed himself some distance away. He watched Blanche as she preened and pouted. He was glad that for once his body wasn't stirred by the sight of a beautiful woman. He mentally shook his head at his own idiocy in respect of other, equally alluring females. How foolish, how completely naïve he had been – especially regarding the long-ago woman who was his first sexual partner. A chill shuddered its way down his spine as he pushed unwelcome recollections to the back of his mind.

'Rochester, come and settle a little dispute, old man.'

Edward roused himself from his reverie. Sir George Lynn and Colonel Dent were beckoning him to join them. Pasting a social smile upon his face he strolled across the room. 'Well, gentlemen, what can I do for you? If it's advice on horseflesh you're wanting, well, I leave that to the men at Tattersall's.'

Colonel Dent chuckled, his still handsome face radiating wicked glee. 'Actually, Rochester, we're taking bets on quite another matter. You're damned close-mouthed, as I was telling Sir George. Won't you at least give us a hint as to how the land lies?'

Edward stilled though his smile remained in place. 'What do you mean?' All at once, he was aware of Jane's presence over in the windowseat. Even though she was partly obscured by a heavy curtain, every nerve and pulse beat in his body called out to her. Edward had insisted on her presence in the drawing room each evening. Ostensibly, she was there to ensure Adele, his ward, didn't misbehave. His motives were rooted in less altruistic reasons.

'Well, you can't deny that La Belle Ingram expects a declaration from you. Why else would you invite us all here?'

'Perhaps I did so merely to repay any hospitality I've been offered during my all too brief visits to Thornfield.' Edward's voice was cool. 'Really, gentlemen, you're as bad as those tabbies – among whom I include Lady Ingram – who foment something out of nothing. Now, if you'll excuse me.' Edward left the two men to their suppositions. He needed some air.

Once outside, Edward strolled across the paved area to a part of the gardens where a little arbour was let into the wall. Sitting there, he reviewed the previous few hours.

'Christ, what a damned mess!' It was more than a mess – now, he had to dissuade Blanche and her mother from any inclinations toward himself. His plan to make Jane jealous, to spur her into showing her feelings had backfired. He still was largely unclear on that front. 'Deuce take it, how in hell am I going to get out of this one?'

'Rochester? Are you quite the thing?' Edward started; he had not heard Eshton's approach. 'I'm fine, thank you, John. Would you believe that there's something of a book being run on the likelihood of mine and Blanche's nuptuals?' He laughed, a scornful, bitter sound.

'Well Edward, is it any wonder? You and she have been in one another's company rather a lot of late. No doubt Lady Ingram is [i]aux anges [/i]at the idea of bestowing her lovely offspring upon you.'

'Hm. The old besom never did like the Rochesters – though the money mitigates our lack of title, no doubt' Edward replied tartly. 'I daresay, I can come up with some ruse or other to escape La Ingram – though I'm damned if I can think of one at this moment.'

Eshton laughed. 'Serves you right, you always were a devious young chap.'

'Comes of having had a father and a brother such as mine were, John. They had as much sensibility as that stone wall.' Edward's voice was bitter. He stood. 'I'm going in now. God, I'm so bloody weary of this whole business.'

'Look, Edward, if you need anyone to confide in …' Eshton eyed his friend with concern.

'Thanks, Eshton, I'll bear that in mind. I appreciate it.' A faint smile crossed Edward's face. It was true, he was weary to the bone. He had become accustomed to quiet days at Thornfield, pleasant evenings being read to by Jane or relating stories of his travels. His heart contracted as a pang of yearning passed through him. As he entered the side door and crossed the hall, he saw Jane as she reached a turn on the staircase. 'Jane, where are you going?' Belatedly he realised his tone was sharper than warranted.

Jane turned to face him. Edward was shocked at her pallor, at the bruises of weariness beneath her eyes. 'I am retiring sir. I'm afraid I am unused to such gay company.' She essayed a small smile, an expression which didn't reach her eyes. Edward found himself half-moving toward her to clasp her to him. Thankfully, he stopped just in time.

'Where is Adele?'

'I have sent Sophie for her, Mr Rochester. Adele is also growing weary. Goodnight, sir.' As Jane curtsied, Edward cast about for an excuse to keep her talking. To his chagrin he found none.

'Very well, Jane, go to bed. Sleep well. However, I still expect you to attend in the drawing room after dinner. I …' Unable to continue without utterly disgracing himself, Edward turned and re-entered the salon.