Page 9 of Earl of Deception

Mrs. Rutley returned. The cordial tone she had used with the earl was gone. “Please explain to me how you and His Lordship became acquainted. And don’t give me any of that nonsense about a passing encounter in the village. I know you far too well, Jenny Clifton. You must have said or done something to gain his attention.”

Jenny dropped her gaze and explained about the day she and Diana had gone into Chatsworth and the episode with the thrown handkerchief. “I…” She swallowed hard. The headmistress would not like this next part. “I made a promise, and today he came to collect.”

Mrs. Rutley pursed her lips. “What sort of promise?”

With a glance at Louisa, Jenny swallowed again. “I promised him that I would aid him in any way he needed,” she whispered. “Should I not honor that promise, Mrs. Rutley? After all, what good is my word if I choose not to keep it?”

Louisa stepped forward. “That’s all good and well, Jenny,” she said before turning to Mrs. Rutley. “But surely, you’re aware of the type of reputation His Lordship has? There is a reason he has been given the moniker of the Earl of Deception!”

“I’m well aware of the rumors,” the headmistress replied in a tight voice.

“Then you agree that Jenny should not keep company with him,” Louisa said. “What if he corrupts her? Should a young lady not retain her innocence for as long as possible? You don’t want her to ruin her prospects, do you?”

Jenny felt herself shrinking from Mrs. Rutley’s gaze, for her headmistress had not taken her eyes off her.

Then, to Jenny’s surprise, Mrs. Rutley said, “When we give our word, we must keep it. If Jenny has made a promise to Lord Dowding, it is up to her to see it through. Besides, he has merely asked to call on her. She’ll have a chaperone at all times, so we needn’t worry about her reputation. What harm can come of it?”

Jenny could not help but smile with relief. At least Mrs. Rutley understood, even if Louisa did not.

When the headmistress left the room, Jenny said, “You see? Mrs. Rutley isn’t concerned.”

“I realize we’ve talked this subject to death,” Louisa said, pleading. “You may be willing to discard the rumors, but you still must ask yourself, how did he get that scar he wears? The only explanation is that whomever he was murdering tried to defend himself. Or herself.”

“And I’ve said as many times, who is he to have murdered? An imaginary wife when he’s never been married? Or was it his dying father? Neither makes any sense.”

“Well,” Louisa said, lowering her voice conspiratorially, “I overheard Mr. Finch outside his butcher’s shop last year telling Mr. Beadle, the tailor, that he heard Lord Dowding smothered his father to death.”

Jenny laughed. “Do you not recall Mr. Stonebrook? Diana had been taken in by him because he presented himself as a respectable man. But that proved to be a façade! And what of the scar on Mrs. Shepherd’s forearm? Does that make her a murderer as well?” With a shake of her head, she added, “Even if he used a pillow to kill his father, it does not explain the scar.”

“But it does because it’s well-known that his father wore a heavy gold ring, one he never removed. What if the old man attempted to fight off his son, and the ring cut the son’s cheek in the process? It makes perfect sense!” Louisa grasped Jenny by the arm. “That is why I’ve been trying to warn you. It’s one thing to have a man known for deception call on you, but a murderer? You’ve no idea what sort of trouble you’re getting yourself into.”

Chapter Four

In a few hours, Nicholas would be calling on Miss Clifton, the first of many calls if all went well this day. Her innocence intrigued him, reminding him of his youth so many years ago. He was a different man now, though, and had learned lessons that changed him from a boy to a man. And during that transition, he was put on a mission through a vow he had made to his father upon his death bed.

Nicholas ran a finger along the raised scar on his cheek, a memento of that promise, given to him when his father’s ring had cut the flesh.

“My lord,” the butler said from the doorway to the study, “Lord Tulk.”

Nicholas rose as Shadrach, Lord Tulk entered the room. The marquess was a tall man, taller even than Nicholas, with dark hair peppering silver. His mere presence lowered the temperature of the room, and Nicholas had to keep himself from shivering.

“Thank you, Osborne,” Nicholas said to the portly butler. His curly hair was carefully brushed back from his forehead. The corners of his lips were downturned as if he wore a permanent scowl, despite the fact he was not a disagreeable man. “Tea, Tulk? Or would you prefer something stronger?”

Lord Tulk chuckled. “It’s never too early for a good glass of brandy.”

Nicholas nodded to Osborne, who bowed himself from the room. “It’s good to see you. I trust you journeyed well?” He offered the marquess a hand, which Lord Tulk gave a firm shake.

“The roads were atrocious,” Lord Tulk replied as he took a seat in the blue fabric-covered chair Nicholas offered. “But given the snows we’ve had, I’m not surprised in the least. I just hope we’ve seen the last of winter. My travels over the next week must be without hindrance. I’ve so much more to do. I do hate wasting time in a carriage. It’s too bad travel takes up so much of one’s time.”

Taking the matching chair beside the marquess, Nicholas nodded his agreement. He had arranged this meeting several weeks earlier under the continued guise of business. This was one calculated step of many that led to working his way into Lord Tulk’s good graces. It was like making passage through a bog. One misstep would have him knee-deep in muck. Or in this case, likely dead. The lines around the marquess’s eyes said he would not be easily fooled.

“And what of the inn you mentioned before?” Nicholas asked. “Will you be purchasing it as you planned?”

The marquess rubbed his chin. “I shall. Given the amount of trade I do, and the number of goods I must move across the country, owning my own inns along specific routes only makes what I do easier.”

Nicholas feigned ignorance. “How strange,” he said, frowning. “I’ve been so immersed in my own enterprises that I’ve never inquired into your current trades. What sort of goods requires the purchase of a chain of inns?”

He, of course, knew exactly this man’s endeavors, but what he needed was to hear the old man admit it outright. Everything revolved around hearing him speak the truth. Because then all his hard work would be well worth the trouble.

Tags: Jennifer Monroe Historical
Articles you may like