Page 21 of Earl of Deception

Stop that!

“Miss Clifton, are you all right? Would you like me to help you stand?”

Gathering moisture into her arid mouth, Jenny shook her head and rose. “Thank you again for the invitation, my lord.” Thank goodness her voice did not reveal her inner turmoil!

“The pleasure is all mine,” the earl replied with a dazzling smile. “I understand that luncheon is ready to be served. I hope you’re hungry. I believe Cook has prepared us a wonderful picnic.”

“Picnic?” Jenny asked in surprise.

He chuckled. “You’ll see.”

When they arrived at the dining room, Jenny halted at the doorway. A blanket had been draped over the dining room table, and a picnic basket sat in the middle.

“Do you think it improper?” Lord Dowding asked. “Had it been warmer, I’d have requested a marquee set up, and we would have eaten alfresco. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a great admirer of sitting in the cold and being wet while I eat.”

Jenny shook her head. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said truthfully. “That is, this arrangement. Not being cold and wet.”

“I’m sure you’ve had dozens of opportunities to share in a picnic with young male callers,” Lord Dowding said.

Why was he interested in how many suitors had called on her in the past? Was it because he was searching out her reputation? Or was it just an attempt at conversation? Either way, she was happy to answer. She had nothing in her past to hide.

“Not at all, my lord,” Jenny replied. “My friends and I have certainly shared meals outside, but you’re my first gentleman caller.” Sighing, she then added, “I must admit, it has been well worth the wait.” She clamped her mouth shut. What had compelled her to saythataloud?

“Then, I’m fortunate, indeed,” he replied. He poured three glasses of the red wine he took from the basket. “I find it… refreshing to serve myself once in a while. Especially when I’m eating a picnic luncheon.”

He offered her and Louisa a glass of wine. “How much longer will you continue your studies?”

“Oh, I’ve already completed them.” She went on to explain how her parents were out of the country and their request that she remain at the school until they returned.

“And you, Miss Dunston? Are you ready to leave the school?”

Louisa shook her head. “Not just yet, my lord. I’ll leave in May.”

The earl returned the bottle to the basket. “And do you feel that Mrs. Rutley provides a good education?”

“Most certainly,” Jenny replied. “We’ve studied French, history, and philosophy. Many have each chosen various accomplishments—painting, playing the pianoforte, singing, and the like.”

“And you, Miss Clifton?” he asked as he set a plate of cheeses and dried meats in the middle of the table. “What sort of accomplishments do you have?”

Jenny’s cheeks heated. “I focused the majority of my studies on needlework and the skills most needed for marriage. Painting and playing an instrument may be lovely pastimes, but they don’t help in the rearing of children or the running of a household.”

“I suppose they don’t,” Lord Dowding replied.

“Some of the students,” Jenny continued, “have other aspirations. One would like to own her own millinery, another a haberdashery—she has an extreme interest in ribbons, you see—while another wishes to marry a ship’s captain and sail the high seas.” That latter student was Ruth, who could talk of little else. Well, she also showed an interest in the sons of several of the proprietors of local businesses, but her heart was set on a captain.

Lord Dowding laughed. “A millinery?” he asked, shaking his head. “And a haberdashery? Women who work do so out of necessity not because they want to do so. And a female sailor? I’ve never heard anything so absurd. Women simply don’t belong on ships. And most sailors will tell you so.”

Jenny frowned. “Do you not believe in dreams, my lord?”

The earl paused in the midst of raising his wine glass to drink. “No, not anymore. Dreams belong to the young and naive, neither of which I am. This is a cruel world, Miss Clifton. The innocent are crushed like wheat between the stones of a grinding mill.” He tipped his glass toward her. “You would do well to remember that.”

Jenny gave a polite nod and took a sip of her wine. His outlook on life was somewhat more disparaging than hers. Who preferred a life without dreams? And more so, why did he believe whatever aspiration for which he might strive would be crushed?

More out of a need to have something to do than to quench a thirst, she took another polite sip. The bold fruity flavor tickled her throat. Nibbling on a bit of aged cheese, she glanced up at the earl.

“My lord?” was all she could manage to say. He was grinning at her!

“Forgive me for staring,” he said. “I’ve had to spend a great deal of time as of late with people whose company I don’t enjoy. Your innocence shines brightly, and I find it a welcoming sight.”

Tags: Jennifer Monroe Historical
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