“I was invited,” Jenny said through pursed lips. She would not give in simply because of his good looks. He was a beast and should be treated as such!
Nicholas frowned. “Invited? By whom?”
Jenny raised her chin defiantly. “If you must know, by Mr. Thompson. He asked me to meet him here.”
“Did he?” Nicholas asked, rubbing his chin. “But he made the same request of me. Did he happen to mention the nature of this clandestine meeting?”
She shook her head. “His message only requested that I be here by six this evening. But how does he know about me, Nicholas?”
A laugh made Jenny turn to watch the older man and his dog walking away from them. Then she returned her attention to Nicholas. “I leave tomorrow.”
“I know,” he replied. “I’ve wanted to speak to you, Jenny.”
Crossing her arms, she said, “Oh?”
“I have a feeling that Lady Ayles spoke to you. Am I correct in saying so?”
“What does it matter if she did or did not?” Jenny demanded, anger pounding behind her ears. “Don’t place the blame on her for your troubles, Nicholas. You lied to me. She gave me the letters you wrote to her. In them, you admitted you loved her! Yet you told me you never made any such admittance before me. Twice I asked, and both times you denied it.” Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them back. He was not worthy of her tears.
Nicholas drew in a deep breath. “You’re right. The fault lies with me today as much as it did all those years ago. But please, give me the chance to explain.”
Jenny reached up to pull on her braid, but it was no longer there. Could anything he had to say right what had gone wrong between them? Her mind told her to turn and walk away. Her heart, however, spoke louder.
“When Lady Ayles and I first met, I was immediately smitten with her. I welcomed the jealous looks my friends gave me. You see, I saw her as a decoration, a prize of sorts.” His sigh emitted a burst of cold vapors from his mouth. “I was so enamored with the idea of her that I turned a blind eye to her flirtatious behavior with other men.” He gave a derisive snort. “I can’t explain why I was so oblivious to what was happening right before my eyes, but she was like laudanum. Her leaving me for another man left me broken.”
Jenny bit at her lip. “What did you do?”
“What could I do?” Nicholas replied. “I truly believed I loved her. How else can I explain why I wanted her to return to me after her cruel treatment? So, I wrote the letters, pleading with her to come back to me, to love me as I loved her. I was a naive fool, and I felt used. And angry.”
“But was she not married by that time?” Jenny asked.
As she listened, the true events formed in Jenny’s mind. Lady Ayles would write, telling Nicholas about her miserable life, dangling the chance for reconciliation in front of him. Having met the lady, Jenny could see her manipulative ways. It was no wonder she had him wrapped around her finger for so long.
Nicholas sighed. “I wanted so much to have her returned to me that I never stopped to ask myself why she was so unhappy. Or why I wanted her back.” He reached into the inside pocket of his coat and produced a creased, well-read letter. “Lady Ayles gave me this two weeks ago. It’s a letter I wrote to her. I swear to you that the words are as true today as they were when I penned them.”
With a trembling hand, Jenny took the parchment, unfolded it, and began to read. Toward the end, she began to whisper it aloud.
When I first lost you, I was unsure what to do, for I truly believed my life was defunct without you. Now, however, I recognize the truth—you never loved me. And I’ve come to accept that fact. You see, I’ve also learned that I never loved you as I once believed. I was intrigued by you. Perhaps even infatuated. Having you to dangle on my arm was self-serving. If I am honest, I used you as much as you used me.
Therefore, it is time that we go our separate ways, for my life has a different path to take. As does yours.
I wish you all the best,
Jenny returned the letter and considered what she had read. Everything inside her wanted to believe the words written on the page. Yet she wanted to hear them from his lips.
As if reading her thoughts, Nicholas said, “When we first met, I told you I wanted to protect you from the cruelty of this world. And I meant it. But I’ve also come to realize I also wanted to protect myself. I feared that what I felt for you was not real, that I’d once again placed myself in a precarious situation that could leave me not only alone but also brokenhearted.”
A tear escaped Jenny’s eyes, and he reached up to wipe it away.
“But what I feel for you is real, Jenny. I’ve known this for some time.” He took her hands in his, making Jenny’s heart flutter. “I’ve told you before, and I’ll say it again. Jenny, I love you and have never loved another. If it were possible to see into my heart, you would know this to be true.”
Mrs. Rutley had once told Jenny that she should trust her heart. And now standing in front of Nicholas, she understood what that meant. Couples would encounter problems, have arguments, and find themselves in hurtful situations. But if one were to listen with both ears and hearts, they would know what was true. And what Jenny heard sang louder than any choir.
Unable to stop herself, she threw her arms around him and welcomed his strong embrace. “I do see into your heart,” she whispered, “and it has spoken to mine with all the truth you’ve told.”