I pulled at the knot again and heard threads begin to pop.
“Allow me, Miss Jones,” said Armand, right at my back.
There was no gracious way to refuse him. Not with Mrs. Westcliffe there, too.
I exhaled and dropped my arms. I stared at the lotus petals in my painting as the new small twists and tugs of Armand’s hands rocked me back and forth.
Jesse’s music began to reverberate somewhat more sharply than before.
“There,” Armand said, soft near my ear. “Nearly got it.”
“Most kind of you, my lord.” Mrs. Westcliffe’s voice was far more carrying. “Do you not agree, Miss Jones?”
Her tone said I’d better.
“Most kind,” I repeated. For some reason I felt him as a solid warmth behind me, behind all of me, even though only his knuckles made a gentle bumping against my spine.
How blasted long could it take to unravel a knot?
“Yes,” said Chloe unexpectedly. “Lord Armand is always a perfect gentleman, no matter who or what demands his attention.”
“There,” the gentleman said, and at last his hands fell away. The front of the smock sagged loose. I shrugged out of it as fast as I could, wadding it up into a ball.
“Excuse me.” I ducked a curtsy and began my escape to the hamper, but Mrs. Westcliffe cut me short.
“A moment, Miss Jones. We require your presence.”
I turned to face them. Armand was smiling his faint, cool smile. Mrs. Westcliffe looked as if she wished to fix me in some way. I raised a hand instinctively to my hair, trying to press it properly into place.
“You have the honor of being invited to tea at the manor house,” the headmistress said. “To formally meet His Grace.”
“Oh,” I said. “How marvelous.”
I’d rather have a tooth pulled out.
“Indeed. Lord Armand came himself to deliver the invitation.”
“Least I could do,” said Armand. “It wasn’t far. This Saturday, if that’s all right.”
“I am certain Miss Jones will be pleased to cancel any other plans,” said Mrs. Westcliffe.
“This Saturday?” Unlike me, Chloe had not concealed an inch of ground. “Why, Mandy! That’s the day you promised we’d play lawn tennis.”
He cocked a brow at her, and I knew right then that she was lying and that she knew that he knew. She sent him a melting smile.
“Isn’t it, my lord?”
“I must have forgotten,” he said. “Well, but we cannot disappoint the duke, can we?”
“No, indeed,” interjected Mrs. Westcliffe.
“So I suppose you’ll have to come along to the tea instead, Chloe.”
“Very well. If you insist.”
He didn’t insist. He did, however, sweep her a very deep bow and then another to the headmistress. “And you, too, Mrs. Westcliffe. Naturally. The duke always remarks upon your excellent company.”
“Most kind,” she said again, and actually blushed.
Armand looked dead at me. There was that challenge behind his gaze, that one I’d first glimpsed at the train station.
“We find ourselves in harmony, then. I shall see you in a few days, Miss Jones.”
I tightened my fingers into the wad of the smock and forced my lips into an upward curve. He smiled back at me, that cold smile that said plainly he wasn’t duped for a moment.
I did not get a bow.
Jesse was at the hamper when I went to toss in the smock. Before I could, he took it from me, eyes cast downward, no words. Our fingers brushed beneath the cloth.
That fleeting glide of his skin against mine. The sensation of hardened calluses stroking me, tender and rough at once. The sweet, strong pleasure that spiked through me, brief as it was.
That had been on purpose. I was sure of it.