Would his lips be soft when he kissed her?
Kiss? How could she be thinking of kisses when she knew nothing about this man? Why was her heart pounding like a thousand horses galloping across her chest? And how could just the scent of him make her head feel as if it were filled with cotton wool?
Granted, she wanted nothing more than to become a wife, bear her husband’s children, and be loved and cared for. That did not mean she had to be a naive girl given to flights of fancy. Ruth would have boxed her ears if she knew what she was thinking at this very moment!
And Mrs. Rutley! What sort of punishment would the headmistress have waiting for her if she could hear Jenny’s thoughts? Jenny had never been sent to wash dishes like some of the younger students. Nor had she been tasked with scrubbing floors. In no way did that mean it could not happen. The fact was, Jenny was shrewd enough to keep some of her musings to herself.
“Jenny,” Louisa whispered, “His Lordship asked you something.”
Starting, Jenny drew in a calming breath and smiled. “Forgive me, my lord. Would you please repeat your question?”
“Certainly,” Lord Dowding replied without any indication that her distracted behavior annoyed him. “I was just saying I was reminded today of your offer to lend me your aid if I found myself in need of it. Well, I’ve come to collect on that promise. You see, I’ve been kept very busy with work as of late and have had few opportunities for female companionship. I was hoping that you would allow me to call on you properly. Perhaps we can share a luncheon or an outing of some sort. That is the favor I would like to request. A chance to be in your company.”
“Mine?” Jenny coughed to cover the fact she had blurted out this word. “It’s very kind of you to offer.” She glanced at Louisa, whose eyes nearly covered her face and her head shaking a distinct “no.”
What does Louisa know about impending love?she asked herself.Not a thing!
“I see no reason why we cannot find some activity to do together.”
The door opened, and Mrs. Rutley entered. She came to an abrupt stop but gave no other indication of surprise at finding a gentleman in the drawing room with one of her students.
“My lord, what a pleasant surprise.” She glanced at Jenny. “I was not aware you would have a caller today.”
Lord Dowding rose. “I’m afraid the fault is mine, Mrs. Rutley. Miss Clifton and I met previously—only during a chance encounter—and I was hoping for an opportunity to get to know her better.”
The headmistress looked from Lord Dowding to Jenny and back again before responding. “I see. Well, your timing could not be any better. Her education is drawing to a close, so her schedule is light this term. And Louisa, I’m sure you would be willing to go as her chaperone, would you not?”
The chaperones employed by Mrs. Rutley had not returned after the Christmas break. One was off caring for a sick relative, whilst the other found a more permanent situation. That left the girls chaperoning one another.
Louisa swallowed visibly. “I… yes, I suppose so.”
“Excellent,” Lord Dowding said with finality. “Are you free on Tuesday?”
Jenny glanced at Mrs. Rutley, pleading with her eyes. What more could she possibly learn from Mrs. Gouldsmith?
“I see no issue with you calling on her on Tuesday, my lord,” Mrs. Rutley replied. “Shall we say around two?”
Lord Dowding stood and bowed. “Two o’clock it is. I’ll see you then, Miss Clifton.”
As soon as Mrs. Rutley left to escort the earl to the front door, Louisa grabbed Jenny by the arm. “Are you mad?” she demanded, her voice shaking with anxiety. “Lord Dowding is known for deceiving people. Ruining them! He may not have committed murder as the rumors say, but I don’t doubt what I’ve heard about him deceiving women! Do you wish to become his next victim?”
Jenny gave a derisive sniff. “He’s only calling over for tea, Louisa, not asking for my hand in marriage. What harm can come of it?” She gave a blissful sigh. “And if he does have a dark past, do you not think it… alluring in some way? All the best romance novels have heroes with troubled pasts when he and the heroine first meet. She then uses her good graces to bring him to the light. He does not seem nearly as evil as Sir Gordon from one of my most recent novels, so how difficult can his calling on me be?”
Louisa shook her head. “Difficult? Why would you even contemplate any sort of relationship with him? Because you read it in a book?”
“No, of course not,” Jenny replied. “It’s simple logic. Either the earl has indeed murdered someone, or he has deceived a woman for a kiss. But it’s unlikely he did both.”
“Who said the deception had anything to do with a kiss?” Louisa asked.
“What else could a gentleman want from a lady to whom he’s not married but a kiss? I may not be one to place wagers, but I would bet that was exactly what took place. He stole a kiss from a lady on whom he was calling, and she was offended. And I’m willing to learn if my conjecture is correct.”
Jenny paused. Had she just said that aloud? What had come over her? She was not thinking clearly; that much was certain.
No, she was reformed. And what better way to prove her rehabilitation than to rebuff any advances he might make?
But was that what she wanted? To refuse him?
Her friends had kissed their beaus before they married. It was only fair that she shared in one of her own.