Page 22 of Earl of Deception

Why would anyone wish to spend time with people he disliked?

And who would find enjoyable the company of a man with such a cynical outlook on life?she wondered bitingly. How could he find her… how had he put it? Young and naïve. For she was one of those dreamers!

While they sampled items from the picnic basket, she bit her tongue to keep from asking that question aloud. As the meal ended and the words repeated in her mind, she could no longer restrain herself.

“You mentioned that dreams are for the naive, my lord. But I would categorize myself as one. That being said, I’m not as naive as you may believe. I’ve seen and done many things that would surprise you.”

He raised a single eyebrow. “Such as?” His voice was filled with amusement. “Come now, be honest.”

Jenny’s face burned so hotly that the cheeses nearly melted. As had happened so often in the past, her tongue had taken on a life of its own. But shehadbeen involved with some less-than-naive activities!

Yet, what could she say that did not make her seem like a silly schoolgirl?

Then an idea came to her. “Are you acquainted with Lord Barrington?”

Lord Dowding chuckled. “The Marquess of Magic? Indeed, I am.”

Jenny lifted her chin. “I helped my friend to spy on him. Granted, if it had not been for me sneezing, we would not have been caught.” She smiled at the memory. They had heard a rumor that the marquess joined his servants for dancing and music as if he were one of them. Their spying had put him and Diana on a path that led to their current engagement.

“I don’t know what you were taught at that school of yours, Miss Clifton, but spying is not considered an admirable trait for ladies or gentlemen. I’d even venture to say that it’s petty.”

If her face was hot before, now it burned with embarrassment. “It was for a good cause, my lord.”

“And what good cause would that be?” he demanded.

Jenny worried her bottom lip. She was reluctant to lie to Lord Dowding, but she had vowed to keep secret the Saturday-evening festivities. “They’re to marry soon. Beyond that, I… I cannot say, my lord,” she whispered.

Blasted, blasted tongue!All she had wanted to do was to show she was not the witless young child he believed her to be, and all she had done was prove his point! How would she get herself out of this mess?

Before she could conjure a plan, however, the earl threw his napkin on the table and said, “Miss Clifton, I’m afraid I have matters to which I must attend. I’ll have the carriage brought about to take you home.”

Jenny clenched her fist under the table. How dare he throw her out because she spoke her mind! He might not have been angry, but she certainly was!

“You asked for honesty, my lord, and I gave it to you. Yet, you reward me by throwing me out of your home?”

“Jenny!” Louisa said in a soft gasp, but Jenny ignored her friend.

Lord Dowding’s eyes widened. “It’s not that—”

“No, you’re correct, my lord,” she interrupted, rising from her chair. She did not want to hear his excuses. “I may be innocent to the ways of the world, but I’m not ignorant. It’s a shame you’ve refused me the opportunity to prove it to you.”

The earl stood. For a moment all was quiet, except for the beat of her heart. He was clearly conflicted, but she did not understand why. “I’ve been dishonest with you from the beginning, Miss Clifton. I did not invite you here because I am interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with you.”

Jenny gaped, her mind muddled with confusion and her heart clenching. “Then why did you invite me?”

A sudden sense of impending doom fell over her. Oh, why had she felt the need to ask such a forward question? Doing so only gave him permission to explain his reasons for rejecting her outright, and she was unsure if she wanted to hear them. If she had kept silent, at least she would not be forced to hear the harsh truth—he had no interest in her whatsoever.

“I planned to use your inexperience for my own gain.” He glanced at Louisa, who came to Jenny’s side. “No, not the sense you’re thinking, Miss Dunston.” He returned his attention to Jenny. “You’re a young lady with great aspirations to fall in love and get married. I could never give you either. That is the reason I’m asking you to leave. Not for what you’ve done but rather because of who I am.”

“And who are you?” Jenny asked. Why was his rejection hurting so terribly? It was not as if they had been acquainted long, after all. Yet she felt unworthy, all the same.

“I’m a man who has realized that you’re a young woman with a good heart. And as admirable a quality as that may be… and dare I say rare? Yes, quite rare.” He whispered that last and sighed. “Regardless, the idea of using your goodness sickens me. I cannot allow anyone—myself included—to cause you the inevitable pain. Therefore, I must send you away from me.”

His flirting, his declarations about her beauty, had all been a ruse? No, she refused to believe his words. There was something between them, an attraction she had felt since that day in the village when he had returned her handkerchief to her. Although she had no idea how he had hoped to “use” her as he had put it, she would not allow him to put an end to what she believed could become an incredible alliance. After all, she had seen how he looked at her, and it had nothing to do with some sophisticated plan.

“Before I go, may I ask you something?” She did not wait for him to grant her permission. “When you said you thought me beautiful, were you being truthful?”

He gave a nod. “I did not lie about that.”

Tags: Jennifer Monroe Historical
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