Jenny and Louisa made their way to the refreshment table, but Jenny could not have eaten a bit, her stomach was so knotted.
Calm yourself, or you’ll never get through this!
Taking a glass of wine from a passing footman, Jenny took a polite sip without truly tasting it. A gentleman behind her snorted at some drollery by one of his companions. Two ladies whispered to one another to her right, saying something about a chambermaid’s untimely leave from the home of some baron Jenny had never met, intimating that the maid had gone away to birth his illegitimate child.
As the gossip continued, Jenny could not help but frown. Were ladies not supposed to refrain from repeating rumors? It was most certainly a subject she would have to clarify with Mrs. Rutley when she returned to the school, for these women did no such thing!
It was not long before Lord Dowding returned. “I would like you to meet one of the guests, Miss Jenny. I’ll take you to him.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll remain close,” Louisa whispered.
Jenny took the earl’s proffered arm, the knots in her stomach tightening. But when he glanced down at her with that moth-looking mask, her worries tempered. He would protect her.
“Lord Tulk,” Lord Dowding said as they approached the man he had spoken to earlier, “may I present Miss Jennifer Clifton. She is the young lady I mentioned.”
Jenny gave a small curtsy. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, my lord.”
The older man grinned beneath his Venetian mask, a malevolent sight if she had ever seen one. “The pleasure is all mine, Miss Clifton. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Jenny could not stop herself from shivering when his eyes looked her up and down. Surely, he was aware that she and Lord Dowding were engaged! Or at least he should have believed so. Yet his gaze reminded her of old Mr. White and his lewd behavior to any woman who walked past him.
Well, it did not matter. She was on a mission. Plus, Lord Dowding would see no harm came to her, she was sure of it.
“I understand congratulations are in order, Miss Clifton.”
“Thank you, my lord,” she said.
His eyes roamed over her again, and Jenny fought the urge to shiver.
“I understand you are not from Chatsworth,” Lord Tulk said. “May I ask from where you hail?”
“Manchester, my lord,” Jenny replied, taking a step back from the strong odor of alcohol that emanated from the marquess. It was as if he had doused himself in it like perfume. “I’m only here for a short time. I must return soon. Traveling in the winter can be so dreadful.”
“Lord Tulk,” came a melodious female voice Jenny recognized on the instant, “will you appropriate all this handsome man’s time?” She placed an all-too-familiar hand on Lord Dowding’s arm. “You really should leave some for me. After all, we share a deep admiration for one another, do we not, my lord?”
Despite her face covering, this was the woman from the millinery where Jenny had purchased her mask. Long, dark curls fell over the lady’s shoulders. The dark-red gown she wore accentuated her feminine figure, and the deep neckline emphasized a full bosom. Even her choice in fragrance was a perfect scent of violets. Jenny could not have been more relieved to be wearing a mask than she was now, for she had to be ten shades of crimson.
“I’ve been keeping new company,” Lord Tulk said without taking his eyes off Jenny. “I’m sure the two of you have much to discuss. If you would like to take a moment alone, I’m happy to keep this lovely young lady company.”
“Yes, Lord Dowding,” the woman cooed. “We have much to discuss, do we not?”
“I’m sure we can speak at another time,” Lord Dowding said. “I have guests to entertain. What sort of host would I be if I ignored them all for the sake of one?”
Though the idea of this hussy entertaining him irked her no end, a plan came to Jenny’s mind. What a perfect opportunity to help! Perhaps she could influence the marquess to agree to whatever arrangements Lord Dowding had in mind. Especially given his motivation to see the gentleman ruined for what he had done in the past.
Then perhaps he’ll see me in a different light,she thought.
She gave Lord Dowding a small nod.
He frowned. “Perhaps I can spare just a few moments.” He glanced at Jenny. “I’ll not be long.”
Jenny withheld a smile. “Of course,” she replied. “I’m sure Lord Tulk and I can find one topic or another to discuss in your absence.”
“Excellent,” said the lady. “Come, Nicholas, I’ve so much to share with you. Lord Tulk is more than capable of entertaining a young lady.”
“I’ll take good care of her, Dowding,” Lord Tulk said before the two disappeared into the crowd. “So, tell me, Miss Clifton.” His oily voice made bile rise in her throat. Even if Lord Dowding had not told her this man was involved in deceptive business practices, she would have discerned him as a devious man. “Tell me, what would a beautiful young lady such as yourself be doing with a man like Dowding?”
Indignation tore through Jenny. “I’m wearing a mask, my lord. What makes you believe I’m beautiful? I could have the face of a mule for all you know.”