“Look at us,” Louisa said as she wrapped an arm around Jenny and looked once more at their reflection in the mirror. “We’re no longer the girls who first arrived at the school all those years ago.”
And Jenny could not have agreed with her friend more. Louisa looked lovely in her honeysuckle gown with white daisies embroidered along the bottom hem and accented with yellow ribbons. Her honey-blonde hair had been piled high into a perfect coiffure and daisy-shaped hair pins held it in place.
Jenny was not as disappointed as she had expected at changing her choice of clothing after her encounter with the mysterious lady at the millinery. Her gown was lemon-yellow printed with golden vines and had short, puffed sleeves. She, too, did not keep her hair down but instead had wound her long braid into a ring with a yellow ribbon woven through it. It was pinned to the back of her head with yellow paste gem pins.
“I just made a strange realization,” Louisa said, her eyes widening. “Within a year—no more than two, I’m sure—we’ll likely be married!”
For a moment, Jenny simply whispered her agreement. Had Louisa been listening in on her thoughts? Or had someone infiltrated her dreams? Jenny had been considering marriage, and in her thoughts, in her dreams, Lord Dowding was her husband. Sure, the idea was ludicrous at best, after all, they were only friends. Yet she could not stop the thoughts from entering her mind no matter how hard she tried to push them back into the recesses of her mind.
Well, she had no time to contemplate marriage. Their carriage was due to arrive at any moment, and she still had to don her silk shoes.
The door opened, and Mrs. Rutley entered the room. “My, but don’t you both look lovely,” she cooed. “Now, have you everything you need?”
“I believe so,” Jenny said, turning to face the headmistress. “All we have left is our masks and pelisses.”
Mrs. Rutley smiled and placed a hand on each of their arms. “I’m trusting you not only to represent yourselves as the young ladies you’ve become but also as students at this school. Your actions this evening will speak to your hard work. No longer are you pretending to be ladies attending the various functions with the other students. I hope you’ll remember that.”
Jenny nodded. “We’ll comport ourselves properly, Mrs. Rutley. You have our word. And if we must leave the ballroom for any reason, we’ll do so together, won’t we, Louisa?”
Louisa nodded. “We shall.”
“And I want you home by eleven, is that clear? This isn’t your first Season where you can go gallivanting around at parties until the wee hours of the morning.”
“We’ll return even earlier,” Jenny promised.
“Good,” Mrs. Rutley replied. “Now, Lewis is here to collect you.”
Jenny frowned. “Lewis? Who is Lewis?”
Mrs. Rutley laughed. “I mean Lord Dowding’s driver. His name is Lewis Tibbons.”
As they made their way to the foyer, Jenny contemplated Mrs. Rutley knowing the driver by name. And why would she use his Christian name? Was she so well acquainted with him?
But she had little time for such concerns, for it was not long before she and Louisa were bundled in their fur-lined pelisses with woolen mufflers wrapped around their necks.
Indeed, the carriage was waiting, and it was not long after that they were pulling into the carriage-lined drive that led to Rosling Estate. The drivers huddled together in small circles, blowing on their hands and chuckling amongst each other. A pinkish hue washed over the clear sky, an unusual sight for this hour so early in the year.
Once their coats and mufflers were collected by an astute footman, Jenny scanned the twenty or so people who filled the foyer. A majority of the guests were over sixty, perhaps even seventy judging by how many had crooked backs and the array of canes they held. This did not surprise her. Most of the residents closer to her age were already enjoying the grand parties in London by now.
“My friends,” came Nicholas’s booming voice, and the crowd quieted.
Jenny raised herself to the tips of her toes to see him. She stifled a laugh, for he wore a deep-purple mask with red swirls and long, red plumes.
“My friends, I’m so pleased that you braved the weather to join me this evening. We’ve been provided a vast assortment of refreshments, the finest wine has been poured, and a great selection of music awaits us.” As if on cue, a melody floated in the air from the ballroom, and chuckles erupted through the guests. “Let the festivities begin!” Then he glanced about and said, “Ah, Lord Tulk. I’d speak to you if you don’t mind.”
Jenny watched as Lord Dowding approached a gentleman in a black tailcoat swathed with lace. From what the earl had said of the marquess, she thought the formidable long-nosed Venetian mask suited him well. It was plain white and lacked any sort of embellishment.
“That is the man His Lordship wishes to dupe,” Jenny whispered to Louisa.
Her friend shivered visibly. “I can’t explain why, but he frightens me,” she said before giving a frantic look around them. “Please do be careful. I’ll stay as close to you as I can.”
Jenny smiled as the earl spoke to the marquess. “Don’t worry. Lord Dowding is very brave. He’ll see nothing happens to me.”
Laughter filled the ballroom, mingling with the melody of the orchestra playing on a raised dais in a corner of the room. Jenny nearly leapt out of her silk shoes when a hand touched her arm, and she turned to find Lord Dowding smiling down at her, the red plumes making him look like an exotic moth.
“I’ll introduce you to Lord Tulk soon,” he said. “Enjoy a glass of wine for now. I must greet the other guests, so I hope you don’t think me inattentive.”
She smiled, once again forgetting he could not see it. “You have your duties, my lord. I shall have mine soon enough.”