Page 28 of Earl of Deception

He needed her help.

His confession of attempting to romance her for his own gain had been true, but he had not specified his reasons why. Today, he would do just that. If he expected her to accept the role of his fiancée, he had to explain his reasons why. Not in great detail, of course, but to some degree. Otherwise, why would she even consider agreeing?

Oddly, the idea of Miss Clifton on his arm for the night left him with a pleasant feeling. He had to admit that he enjoyed her company, and having her at his side would make the night far more enjoyable. Once the evening came to a close, they would part as they were. Friends.

Friends attracted to one another.

Nicholas brushed nonexistent lint from the sleeve of his coat and opened the carriage door. The bitter winter wind lashed at him, and he lowered his head as he alighted. Then he paused.

Would Miss Clifton accept the engagement was a ruse that would last no longer than a single night before it ended? He had to consider this carefully, for the last thing he wanted was to cause her any suffering.

“Is all well, my lord?”

Nicholas’s heart leapt into his throat at the sudden appearance of Mrs. Rutley on the portico. “Oh yes, quite well, thank you, Mrs. Rutley,” he replied, willing his racing heart to slow.

“Well, I’m glad that I caught you, my lord,” the headmistress said, smiling. “I’m afraid Miss Clifton is helping some of the younger students and has not yet completed her task. I was hoping you and I might have a moment to speak before she meets with you.”

With a nod, Nicholas followed the headmistress inside. A low din of female voices came to his ear as they walked down a long corridor.

They entered the office, and Nicholas took a seat in front of the large oak desk. As Mrs. Rutley sat in the chair across from him, he glanced around and asked, “What made you become a headmistress, Mrs. Rutley? Surely, the instruction of young girls is strenuous.”

The woman smiled and clasped her hands together on the desktop. “After the death of my husband, I found living alone in such a large house lonely. A very good friend suggested I open a school, and more than twenty years later, here we are.” Before Nicholas could concoct another question that had nothing to do with the reason he had called, the headmistress asked, “How are you finding Miss Clifton’s company?”

Nicholas shifted in his seat. “It’s evident she’s received a fine education,” he replied. “She is well versed in the art of conversation and has impeccable manners. I’m honored to have a friend such as she.”

Mrs. Rutley raised a brow. “I see.” She looked past him. “Ah, there you are, Jenny.”

Rising, Nicholas turned to find Miss Clifton indeed standing in the doorway, and an odd stirring moved in his heart. She wore a turquoise-colored dress with white trim and a matching white ribbon in the braid that hung over her left shoulder. She appeared several years older than he remembered and perhaps a bit wiser. Which made no sense whatsoever since only a few days had passed since he last saw her. He could not deny that her beauty took his breath away.

Did any woman exist who could compete with her? He thought not, for he had never found one in all his travels across the land.

“My lord,” she said, dropping into a deep curtsy.

He dipped his head. “Miss Clifton.”

For a moment, they stared at one another, and Nicholas wondered at his sudden loss of words.

We’re only friends,he reminded himself.You’re not here as some young suitor who has no idea about the world. Ask what you must, and pray she accepts.

Mrs. Rutley came from around the desk and walked over to place a hand on Miss Clifton’s arm. “If you would like to take His Lordship to the drawing room, I believe Louisa is already there waiting.”

“Yes, Mrs. Rutley,” she said in that melodious voice that sent tiny shivers down Nicholas’s spine.

Miss Dunston was indeed waiting, an embroidery hoop in her hand. “I hope you don’t mind if I finish this handkerchief, Jenny. I hoped to have it done by now.”

“Not at all,” Miss Clifton replied. She sat and turned to Nicholas. “I’ve asked to have a tray brought up.”

Nicholas took the seat across from her. “That sounds wonderful.” As he studied her heart-shaped face, he had a sudden urge to know everything he could about her. Her dreams, her family, the activities she enjoyed. Everything.

“I would like to know something about you. What can you tell me about your family?”

Miss Clifton smiled. “My family, my lord?”

“Indeed. Do you have siblings? If we’re to be friends, I’d like to know more about you. And what better way to begin than with your family?”

How could a smile light up a room? And why did the way she held herself intrigue him?

“Well, I have an older sister, Maria, who is already married. My parents are currently on the Continent, which is why I’ve remained here until they return.” For some time, she spoke of her family, giving Nicholas a good understanding of her upbringing. Her father was of the landed gentry, who had made his fortune mining tin. When that ore began waning, he moved his money to coal.

Tags: Jennifer Monroe Historical
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