Even his laugh was disconcerting. “I have a keen sense when it comes to beautiful women, Miss Clifton. Now, surely you’ve had many suitors. Dowding seems a bit… benign, whereas you have a certain spark about you. I imagine you as a young lady pining for adventure. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Jenny stared at him in stunned silence. How did he know?
He does not know,she reminded herself.He’s making a guess and nothing more.Plus, her adventures lay in her future husband, not in the type that impressed Ruth.
At least, she could be truthful in some of her responses. “First of all, my greatest aspiration is to marry and have children, and Lord Dowding is able to provide me with the means to do both. And as to the many suitors, I’ve had some, yes, and of those, none were… let’s say as compatible as Lord Dowding and I.”
The marquess snorted. “It’s likely because they were boys. What you need is the company of a much older man.”
Oh, but this man was odious!
“Sophistication and maturity can be appealing, I agree,” Jenny replied. “Which is also what drew me to Lord Dowding.” Perhaps her conversational skills were not as honed as she first believed. She never performed well in her lessons on how to guide a conversation away from an uncomfortable topic, and it showed here.
“Why don’t we see what sort of food our good earl has provided us?” Lord Tulk asked.
Before Jenny could respond, he brushed his fingers across her lower back, and it took everything in her to not squeal in disgust.
As they walked over to the refreshment table, Jenny caught sight of Louisa, who was speaking to a gray-haired lady wearing a mask with a plume so long that every time she turned, Louisa had to move away to keep from being struck by them.
But of whom Jennyhadlost sight was Lord Dowding and his lady friend.
The lady friend he had not introduced…
Why had he not introduced them?
Then, from across the room, she caught sight of them exiting the ballroom. Now, where were they off to?
Lord Tulk must have read her thoughts, for he chuckled and said, “Lady Ayles is the daughter of a dear friend of mine. When I told her I was attending this event, I was surprised to learn that she and Dowding once courted. From my understanding, it became quite serious. Did he not mention her?”
Jenny’s mind began to race. “He did not.” But why had he not? And who ended the courtship? Lord Dowding or Lady Ayles?
Lord Tulk nodded. “Lady Ayles married but was recently widowed. It appears she may still have an interest in your fiancé.” He leaned in closer and added in a whisper, “Tell me, Miss Clifton, what reason do a man and woman have for sneaking away from a party?”
Restraining her frustration was difficult. “I’m sure it’s nothing sinister, my lord. Lord Dowding is my fiancé, and I trust him.”
The marquess chuckled. “Forgive me. I was only teasing. But I suppose teasing a young lady about her betrothed is bad form.” He bowed, took her hand, and kissed the knuckles. “I beg your pardon if I offended you, for that was not my intention. Sometimes I forget myself when I’m in the company of a lovely woman.”
Oh, but he was an accomplished speaker! At any other time, Jenny might have been impressed with him. Yet he was attempting to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of the future bride of a man with whom he was acquainted. That action said he could not be trusted.
The problem was that some of those seeds were taking root.
To her relief, Louisa walked up to them. “Jenny, I need some air. Would you like to join me?”
Jenny ignored the marquess’s look of disapproval as she replied, “Yes, please. My lord, I do hope we can speak again soon.”
Halfway down the corridor, Louisa grabbed Jenny by the arm and forced her to stop in front of a closed door. “What happened?”
Jenny went on to explain all that had occurred. Then a voice came to her ear, one she recognized all too well. What she had thought was a closed door was, in fact, partially open.
“Oh, Nicholas, you can’t deny what we’ve shared. What we still share. Do you recall the picnic at Papa’s country estate? It was just you and I there.”
“I do,” Lord Dowding replied. “We had a nice time. The day was warm, and the food was good. What of it?”
Lady Ayles laughed in that melodious tone that only added to her loveliness. And made Jenny hate her all the more. “A nice time? Have you forgotten what we once had? And now you’re engaged to some unknown young lady. Surely, she can’t compare to me?”
Jenny’s heart clenched. How Lord Dowding responded would determine whether they had any chance to move from friendship to something more serious.
Then the clenching around her heart tightened when the earl replied, “Jane, no lady can compare to you.”