Page 39 of Earl of Deception

“Oh, mutual admiration is not the problem, I assure you.”

“Do you mind me asking what the trouble is, then?”

Nicholas smiled. “No, I don’t mind. My struggle is in the young woman’s innocence. She, like most young ladies her age, is very hopeful when it comes to the idea of love. But I’ve no time, nor the desire, for such follies. I value her friendship, and she’s agreed to continue with that, but I fear her getting hurt when I ultimately must refuse to move beyond mere companionship.”

Rubbing his chin, Lord Walcott replied, “I believe I understand your situation.”

Nicholas settled back into his chair. Lord Walcott was an intelligent man who gave wonderful advice.

“Women are not as naive as we believe them to be,” Lord Walcott said. “Oh, don’t misunderstand me. Young girls often are, but they become wise to the world much quicker than we are led to believe. They simply choose not to reveal what they know.”

Nicholas snorted. “Mrs. Rutley certainly has proven that fact. I don’t know her well, but what I’ve seen has impressed me.”

Lord Walcott shrugged. “Perhaps. I don’t know her well, but to my point. This girl—or rather this young lady—she cannot be protected from never encountering misery in some form. None of us can. Unless she dedicated her life to a convent, her chances of being aggrieved at some point in her life are high. Yet here is a question to consider. And remember, you’ve told me about your past. Therefore, are you concerned you’ll hurt her or yourself?”

Nicholas sat in stunned silence. He had been so preoccupied with Miss Clifton that he had given little consideration that he might be protecting himself from being hurt.

“So, do you advise me to call on this young lady?” Nicholas asked.

“If you wish to pursue a possible courtship, most certainly. Give the girl what she needs. And you as well. I’ll say this. Life itself is a risk. Only the bold prosper. Be it in business or in personal matters.”

Nicholas considered his words and allowed the conversation to change.

“I heard a rumor recently,” Nicholas said. “I was in London when Barrington threw a party last month, but I believe you were in attendance?”

“I was.”

“I heard he was hiding an unwed mother on his estate. Is there any truth to that?”

Lord Walcott barked a laugh. “An accusation by a drunken fool, I assure you. What a scandal that was! This young lad, Stonebrook was his name, he was down from London. He made some outlandish claim that Barrington had a woman who was with child at the party, but instead, we found one of the girls from Mrs. Rutley’s school! And, get this, she was reading the Bible at the time!”

“Not Miss Jenny Clifton, I hope?” Nicholas asked.

“As it happened, it was Barrington’s fiancée!” Lord Walcott shook his head. “Chatsworth will never change. Even a tragic accident—let’s say the death of Phillip Rutley—becomes greatly exaggerated.”

Nicholas snorted. “Why, do you think after all these years the rumors concerning Rutley persist?”

Lord Walcott stood. “Because people cannot let go. But the real question is, why do such rumors exist in the first place? I say let them die on the tongues of those who spread them.”

Nicholas rose and offered Lord Walcott his hand. “As always, I appreciate your sound advice. Perhaps my listening to gossip makes me as naive to the world as any young lady.”

Clapping Nicholas on the shoulder, Lord Walcott chuckled. “I wish you luck in whatever you decide with this woman.”

Nicholas thanked him and walked him to the door. When he returned to his office, he considered Lord Walcott’s advice. Every excuse for not including Miss Clifton had been made to protect her. But was that completely true? Or did the mere thought of any romantic entanglement leave Nicholas feeling as if he were a sheep being led to slaughter? After all, is that not what happened before?

He had much to consider. Later. For now, he had other responsibilities.

Taking the latest letter he had received from Mr. Thompson, Nicholas studied the seal. And not for the first time, he wondered who the man could be. For it was he who had set Nicholas on the path that led him to Lord Tulk.

Chapter Seventeen

With only two days remaining until the masquerade ball, Jenny sat in the carriage across from Lord Dowding, wondering about the outing he had planned for today. The snow had melted, but the air remained cold. He had made it clear they would not be eating luncheon at Rosling Estate as he had first intimated.

“The ball will have a limited number of guests,” Lord Dowding was saying. “A majority of the nobility in the area has gone to London for the Season. Perhaps that is a good thing, given my reason for throwing this event in the first place. Even so, I was told there is a new resident in the village, a newly ordained knight, or so I heard. Since I learned of his arrival only yesterday, and I’ve no idea if he’s yet settled into his new home, I’ve forgone sending him an invitation for now.”

“That is a good thing,” Louisa said in a low growl likely not meant for the earl to hear.

Yet he had heard, and he now wore a confused expression.

Tags: Jennifer Monroe Historical
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