“Ask him more,” Louisa whispered, drawing another frown from Lord Dowding.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Nothing, my lord,” Jenny replied, shooting a glare at her companion. “Louisa was just reciting her favorite scripture.” She drew in a calming breath. This was ridiculous. There was no reason for her to be nervous.
Lord Dowding crossed one leg over the other and placed a hand on his knee. “Earlier today, I brought to mind our first encounter—when you threw your handkerchief over your shoulder. May I ask why you did that?”
Jenny swallowed down the knot that rose in her throat. Of all the questions he could have asked, why did he choose that one? She could not reveal the truth about her decision to get rid of that blasted handkerchief!
No, proper young ladies do not tell lies. They speak the truth because they are mature enough to endure whatever consequences come their way.
Sighing, Jenny said, “You see, in the past, I would deliberately drop them.”
Louisa placed a hand on Jenny’s arm. “Please, don’t embarrass yourself!” she said in a harsh whisper.
Jenny pulled her arm from her friend’s grip and continued. She was reformed! If the consequences of her actions meant enduring a moment of embarrassment, so be it. Lying was no longer an option.
“You see, my sister once told me if a lady drops her handkerchief, and a gentleman returns it to her, he is obliged to call on her.” The earl frowned, so she quickly added, “But that was not my intention on the day we met, my lord, I assure you. You see, I made a decision to put such foolish notions behind me. Therefore, I threw the handkerchief over my shoulder as a way to demonstrate that decision. Let’s call it an act of symbolism.”
Hesitation crossed his features. Was he reconsidering calling on her because of her behavior that day? Surely, he could see she had changed!
“Miss Clifton,” he said as he shifted in his seat. “I would like to ask you a question, and I hope you will give me an honest response.”
Jenny nodded. “Yes, of course, my lord.”
He paused as if giving a great deal of thought to what he wished to ask. “If I were to request a favor, even at the risk of your reputation, how would you respond?”
For a moment, Jenny could only stare at him. Despite the strange question, her heart pounded with excitement. Oh, but he was alluring in so many ways! She was enamored with this man, and she could do nothing to stop it.
“Whatever you request, my lord, I would do.”
An awkward silence fell around them, and Lord Dowding pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry,” he said, rising from his seat. “I cannot do this anymore. Forgive me, Miss Clifton. I think I made a mistake. I cannot ask anymore of you.”
Jenny was stunned. Here she was, offering to do whatever he asked, and he was abandoning her? It made no sense. “But… I don’t understand, my lord,” she cried as she, too, stood. “Have I done something wrong? If I offended you in any way, please tell me so I may apologize.”
The earl stood in front of her, and Jenny’s legs grew weak from his closeness. He smelled of oak and oranges. Why was the room spinning around her? And why was the thought of throwing herself into his arms making her body feel as if she were stepping into a fire? Was she falling ill?
Even as she considered this, he looked down at her with a fierceness that sent shivers down her spine. “You’re young,” he said, his breaths coming in short gasps. “Perhaps too young. I fear we are far too different.”
“I’m of marrying age,” she said, her own breathing labored. “Are you hoping to find a woman closer in age to you? Is that the problem? For I can assure you, I am as able as any you can find.”
He shook his head. “No, you’re too naive, just a schoolgirl. I believed I could overlook that fact, that your age would be beneficial. Now, I realize that calling on you was wrong. You’re not at fault, Miss Clifton. That lies with me. I should have known better.”
A small twinge of sadness crept into Jenny’s soul. After all her hard work, she was still seen as a girl rather than a woman. “I may be naive, my lord, and although I still attend school, I can assure you that I’m no child.” Then a new thought came to mind. “If we had met at a party or a dinner, would you still think I was too young?”
Lord Dowding shook his head. “I cannot say for certain, but perhaps not.”
Jenny placed a hand on her hip. “So, you see no issue with calling on a schoolgirl, yet in other matters, my still being in school becomes a hindrance?” Narrowing her eyes, she added, “You trust me only when it meets your convenience, and that is unfair.”
He let out a small chuckle whilst shaking his head. “I can assure you, that is untrue.”
Jenny titled her head and knitted her brows. “Do you find me plain, then, my lord?”
Lord Dowding’s eyes widened. “Not at all. You’re quite beautiful, in fact.”
Her heart soared upon hearing these words. No one besides her and the earl existed in the world. Even Louisa seemed to have disappeared. “And I find you a very handsome man, my lord,” she whispered.
Then reality came crashing down around her ears. What had she just done? A lady did not speak so brazenly to a gentleman she had known such a short time! She wanted to cry. How could she have reverted to her old ways so easily? Did she want to marry so desperately that she was willing to forget her training?