“And you’ll not reveal how exactly you had hoped to use me?”
“Sadly, much like your secret concerning Lord Barrington, I cannot.”
As she placed a hand on his arm, Jenny’s heart fluttered. “I respect your inability to share your secrets with me, my lord. And I accept that you have no romantic notions toward me. However…” She had to choose her words carefully if she was to keep him from throwing her out and risk never seeing him again. Why she felt the need to be near him was unclear, but she spoke out of a strange necessity to be so. “Perhaps you’re in need of a friend. And if so, may I offer myself in that capacity? As you’ve already seen, I am quite good at keeping secrets. I promise to keep yours.”
The room fell eerily quiet, and Jenny waited for him to dismiss her again. To tell her that friendship was for the guileless.
Yet, he did not throw her out. Nor did he belittle her for her offer. Instead, he heaved the heavy sigh of one at the end of his tether. “Indeed, Miss Clifton. In these troubled times, I can certainly use a friend.”
After months—nay, years—of planning and scheming, Nicholas was experiencing the burdens that came with the promise he had made to himself and his father to avenge his sister’s death. With the upcoming ball, his attempts at earning Lord Tulk’s trust, and the return of Lady Ayles, the world seemed to be squeezing the very life out of him.
But then Miss Clifton had arrived for luncheon.
Not for the first time, he was struck by her lovely features. Her smile, her laugh, her wit, everything about her was worthy of admiration. Being in her company provided a means of escape from his everyday life, from the ugliness that had become his existence. That did not mean he would change the path on which he walked, but if he was able to detour from it for even a single afternoon, it was worth his time.
Plus, he could not deny the strong attraction he had for her. Not just to her natural beauty but also to her kind heart. Her innocence pulled at him, much like a rope when one has fallen into a pit.
Yet although he could not share what he intended with Lord Tulk, nor could he get himself to use her as he had planned, he did need a friend. A comrade of sorts. Someone who could give him a few moments of solace in the midst of the distasteful deeds he had to accomplish.
He could never see Miss Clifton as a love interest. There was too much at risk. However, she reminded him of someone he once knew.
An overwhelming desire to protect her from the truth about the world tugged at his heart. A world where people used one another for their own gain. Who had no qualms about discarding those for whom they no longer had any use. Which was why he had reconsidered his initial plan with her. He would not be one of those people! His aim was to take down the vile, the immoral. Not the guiltless.
“Forgive me for interrupting,” Osborne said as he entered the room. “A letter arrived, and the courier is awaiting a response.”
Taking the correspondence from the small silver tray, Nicholas slid a finger beneath the ornate seal that said it was from Lord Henton, a man with whom Nicholas had invested in several farms. The elderly man was kind but showed signs that he was slowly losing his mind. The request in the correspondence confirmed Nicholas’s suspicions. The man wished to know if the ball was still taking place and if Nicholas was still expecting guests to wear masks. How strange to ask for an immediate response to a simple question.
He leaned closer to Osborne and whispered, “Inform the courier that the time and place of the ball are unchanged and that masks are not required but encouraged. After all, it is a masquerade ball.”
The butler bowed and left the room, and Nicholas returned his attention to his guests. But then he paused. Why was Miss Clifton smiling so broadly? Well, whatever the reason, he enjoyed the sight.
“Are you well?”
“Oh, I’m quite well, my lord,” Miss Clifton replied.
Her smile remained, and a certain innocence shone from within her. Never had he seen anything so angelic in his life, and he prayed that glow would never diminish.
A strange and sudden urge came over him. Not to take the woman in his arms—though that thought was pleasing. No, he found himself wanting to share something about himself with her. Perhaps by disclosing a minor detail, he would offer advice that would do her well in the future.
Lest she suffered the hurt he had been forced to endure.
Nicholas rose, and the footmen hurried to pull out the chairs for the young ladies. “Follow me.”
As they entered the foyer, Miss Clifton walked toward the front door.
“Where are you going?” he asked, pausing at the bottom of the grand staircase.
Miss Clifton stopped to give him a confused look. “I thought you were escorting us to the door.”
The sadness in her eyes gripped his heart. “Certainly not, Miss Clifton. Rather, I would like to show you something.” He placed a foot on the bottom step. “Come with me.” He held out a hand to her and was pleased when she took it.
With Miss Dunston following behind, Nicholas walked up to the landing where the portraits of his parents hung. “My father was a good man, and like many children of means, I was sheltered from learning about the world outside my station. While I had a tutor, boys of lesser means worked. While I rode in carriages, other children walked.”
Miss Clifton nodded. “The poor also clean their own rooms and dress themselves. I don’t mean to make light of what you say, my lord, and I may not be poor in the true sense of the word, but I’m well acquainted with those who come from far lesser means than I.”