Authors: Sarah M. Eden
Cover photography by McKenzie Deakins, photographybymckenzie.com. Cover image:
Colorful Cottage Gardens
© fotoVoyager, courtesy iStockphoto. Author photo © Claire Waite.
Cover design © 2010 by Covenant Communications, Inc.
Published by Covenant Communications, Inc.
American Fork, Utah
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah M. Eden
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any format or in any medium without the written permission of the publisher, Covenant Communications, Inc., P.O. Box 416, American Fork, UT 84003. This work is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The views expressed within this work are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect
the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Covenant Communications, Inc., or any other entity.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, places, and dialogue are either products of the author’s imagination, and are not to be construed as real, or are used fictitiously.
First Printing: March 2010
To Annette, who knows talent when she sees it and, in a moment of delirium, lumped me into that group.
“First thing in the morning, I am throwing her in the Thames.”
Harry Windover grinned, though he was certain the dire pronouncement from the Duke of Kielder was meant to inspire anxious concern. While the rest of England trembled at the slightest hint of a threat from the infamous duke, Harry’s friendship with the notorious nobleman was of long-enough standing to allow him greater insight into the gentleman’s character. Adam Boyce, Duke of Kielder, was more than capable of and, if truth be told, entirely willing to follow through with the most drastic of threats. But, though he growled regularly, he acted rationally.
“And what has this doomed female done to deserve such an unenviable fate?” Harry asked, smiling still.
“She requires a Season,” Adam declared, his tone clearly communicating his utter disapproval as well as his complete disbelief.
“Most young ladies do,” Harry answered. “How else are the poor dears’ parents to see them married to the highest bidder, er, most suitable gentleman?”
He almost laughed at the black look Adam gave him. Adam had redefined “highest bidder” in his courtship. If one were being picky,
would not be the word to describe Adam’s successful acquiring of a bride. He’d written a letter, offered the equivalent of several small fortunes, and had been married—all within a few short weeks. Those gentlemen, like Harry, who did not possess one small fortune, let alone several entirely disposable ones, found themselves perpetually unsought-after, ineligible, and very, very single.
“Dare I ask why this particular young lady’s very commonplace requirement has warranted the ending of her no-doubt short life?”
“If she is dead, she will not need a Season.”
“True, but she would need a wake and a funeral. Those, too, can be tedious.”
“But far shorter in duration.”
A young gentleman, probably having no more than twenty years in his dish, passed near the chairs in the back of White’s, where Harry and Adam were spending the afternoon. With one look, Adam sent the young cub scurrying in the opposite direction, a look of pale-faced fear crossing his features.
Harry chuckled. “Must you torture the infantry?”
Adam ignored him. Which made Harry laugh more. It was their pattern, had been since their days at Harrow. Adam put on his “Fearsome Duke” façade. Harry laughed at the absurdity of it—he knowing that Adam was a good-hearted person beneath it—and that made Adam grumpy. Adam, Harry knew very well, realized he was a different person beneath his ironclad mask, and it unsettled him to think that his armor could be pierced. Adam hadn’t yet tossed Harry over, nor run him through, though he had many times threatened to do so.
Harry returned to the subject at hand. “Countless young ladies have their Seasons each year, Adam. Why should this particular case upset you so entirely?”
“In this particular case, I have the dubious distinction of being the debutante’s guardian.”
For a fraction of a second, Harry’s breath caught. He was certain he knew the identity of the soon-to-be victim of Adam’s distemper
. Athena Lancaster.
“You did apply for legal guardianship of your wife’s sisters and brother,” Harry reminded him. “When one acquires sisters-in-law, and when one has provided them with the kingdom’s most enviable dowries, such things as Seasons must be assumed.”
“I assumed guardianship because their father is losing hold of his faculties,” Adam corrected. “But if I am forced through the tedium of a come-out, I shall lose hold of mine.”
“And then where shall we be?” Harry laughed.
“My sanity is a source of amusement to you?” Adam raised that universally feared eyebrow.
“Everything about you is a source of amusement to me.” Harry smiled.
“I should call you out for that,” Adam threatened.
“As much fun as that would be, it does not solve
Adam harrumphed and contented himself for a while with glaring at the other members of the club daring, or foolish, enough to sit within visual range. Harry’s mind spun as Adam brooded in silence.
He could picture her with perfect clarity: golden curls, sparkling green eyes, creamy complexion. Athena was taller than her sister, the Duchess of Kielder, coming to Harry’s chin, something he knew by virtue of having stood beside her as they’d signed as witnesses to Adam and Persephone’s wedding. He’d discovered in that same moment that she smelled like violets. His sister, Jane, wore the same scent but not at all in the same way. Harry had become a favorite of the little flower girl on the corner of Piccadilly. She always carried violets. And he always bought a posy. In other words, Harry knew himself to be well and truly besotted.
It was, in all reality, a tragedy.
Athena, thanks to the desperation of her then-future brother-in-law, was exceptionally well-dowered, having £20,000. She was also the most beautiful woman of his acquaintance, an assessment he was certain would be shared by every gentleman who met her. In addition, she had the world’s most overprotective guardian. Adam griped and grumbled over the inconvenience of his newly acquired wards, but Harry knew Adam secretly cared a great deal for them, due in large part to how deeply he loved their sister, his wife. And while the fearsome duke might allow Harry’s friendship, there was little hope that he would look favorably on a suit for the hand of his sister-in-law from a gentleman who could boast only a marginally productive estate in the wilds of Northumberland and less than £700 per anum. Athena could do far better. Adam would make certain she did.
Harry had accepted the entire situation nearly a year earlier, within minutes of setting eyes on Athena. He had simply expected to have more time to resign himself to the fact that she would be courted by throngs of admirers with deeper pockets than his to recommend them.
“Athena arrived in London this morning with her horde of sisters in tow, along with their governess,” Adam grumbled.
Athena was in London? Harry couldn’t be sure if that was welcome news or not.
“The infuriating female informed me within moments of her arrival at Falstone House that she wishes to be brought out during the Little Season,” Adam continued. If Harry hadn't known Adam so well, he might have taken exception to the “infuriating female” comment. “She explained that she was certain it would be a more agreeable option to
” His look of patent disbelief clearly displayed his evaluation of that bit of logic.
“Either Miss Lancaster”—Harry didn’t feel it was safe to call the object of his regard by her Christian name in Adam’s hearing—“does not realize that you flee London quite religiously every August or she feels the smaller social throng of the Little Season would be more to your liking.”
“She was obviously misinformed,” Adam observed.
“And did you address the subject of her misapprehension?” Harry asked, careful to keep his tone casual so Adam wouldn’t guess at the slight increase in tension Harry was experiencing worrying over the outcome of Athena’s encounter with Adam’s testy temper.
Adam’s snort put Harry at ease. Adam very seldom made noises when cutting words would suffice. “The Lancaster women are manipulative,” Adam grumbled. “Athena informed me of her decision, smiled, and flitted from the room before I had a chance to say a single word. And the very next moment, Persephone was in my book room thanking me rather . . . gushingly for taking such wonderful care of her sisters. By the time I realized I was being distracted, the arrangements were already being undertaken.”
Harry chuckled. “Manipulative, indeed.” And very well planned. He knew Persephone had a good head on her shoulders, and he suspected Athena did as well. One could not, after all, be named for the Greek goddess of divine intelligence and be a complete featherhead.
“I have half a mind to return to Falstone Castle and leave Athena to her own devices,” Adam declared. “Let her sort through the ridiculous moonlings who will line my drawing room day after tedious day. If it were up to me, I’d send every one of them packing and send Athena to a nunnery.”
“Do you think she would go?” Harry chuckled.
Adam muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “Lancaster women” and took up the paper again.
“Perhaps you should hire out, Adam,” Harry laughingly suggested. “Put an advertisement in the
requesting the services of . . . How would one put that, exactly? . . . of an experienced suitor sorter. You would, of course, have to find someone who knew
and could sort the bad apples from the horrible apples and who not only could endure the endless prattle of the social whirl but, preferably, enjoy it.”
“If your estate ever completely falls to ruin, Harry, you could hire yourself out for just such a position,” Adam said, stiffening his paper and allowing his scowl to settle on its pages. “You have described yourself perfectly.”
Harry laughed, earning a look of amazement from the youngling Adam had earlier sent into life-threatening palpitations of fear. Harry got that look a lot. Anyone who regularly laughed in the duke’s presence was either entirely mad or placed very little value on the continuation of his existence. It was a rather fine line, when he thought about it. Rather like being a court jester in the days when royalty could behead on a whim.
The sudden jerking of Adam’s paper should have been a warning. But Harry missed it, something he was later certain he would regret time and again.
Adam quite suddenly said, a look on his usually somber face that on anyone else might have been described as gleeful. “Harry, name your price.”
“My what?” Harry chuckled, certain Adam was truly addled.
“For taking over the tedious aspects of this ridiculous come-out.”
“I beg your—”
“Don’t be obtuse,” Adam snapped at him. The gleeful look was gone. “I have no desire to spend every night of the next few months at balls and soirees or drowning in tea with morning callers. You relish such things.”
“You are asking me to help your sister-in-law find a husband?” Adam couldn’t possibly have known the irony of that request.
“Only to sort out the bad apples, as you said,” Adam corrected. “I’ll handle the formalities.”
“Like tearing limb by limb any less-than-worthies who apply for her hand?”
Adam’s face clearly communicated the joy he would find in that undertaking. “But the social niceties, I could do without. And as you are an almost constant guest in the house and a family acquaintance of inordinately long standing—”
Harry held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. He had only a shabby set of rooms in London to call his own and lacked the means of living in any semblance of style. He would not go to Falstone Castle in Northumberland when Adam was not there, and visiting his own dilapidated estate was always an exercise in futile frustration. One needed capital to repair generations of neglect—capital he did not have. Being the constant guest of his oldest friend was something of a necessity, a means of obtaining regular food and sitting in warmth he did not have to pay for. Adam had never asked anything of him in return for his hospitality. But Harry could not, in good conscience, deny Adam a favor when he wished for it.
“Just sort through the bushel?” Harry asked doubtfully.
“Unless you think Athena will receive little attention.” Adam raised an eyebrow. He obviously knew Athena would be something of an immediate sensation when she made her bows to society.
Harry shook his head. “She will receive ample attention,” he answered, trying not to grumble.
“And it is crucial that the less-than-deserving be dispatched rather immediately,” Adam answered.
Something in the wording of that appealed to Harry. Dispatching the less-than-deserving. He couldn’t have her for himself, he understood that. But he could see to it that she found a gentleman who would treat her well, who would care for more than her dowry and connections. It would be torture, no denying that, but there would be at least a measure of satisfaction in the undertaking.
“Perhaps you should define ‘less-than-deserving,’” Harry ventured.
Adam gave Harry the look he reserved for moments when Harry didn’t live up to Adam’s standard of intelligence. “Philanderers, divorcés, rogues and rakes, anyone whose standing is not at least among the gentry, anyone too old or too young. Certainly no one stupid or cowardly. Absolutely no member of my extended family.” Harry actually smiled at that. There were few people in Adam’s extended family, and Harry knew Adam heartily disapproved of every last one of them. “And under no circumstances should she be permitted to be courted by a fortune hunter. A fortune hunter is one thing I will absolutely not abide.”
And that was the death knoll to any flicker of hope Harry might have had. While he cared little for Athena’s dowry, he knew himself to be pathetically short of funds. In the eyes of the world, even in the eyes of his best friend, Harry would be seen as that most despised of creatures: the dreaded fortune hunter.
“I believe I can steer Miss Lancaster clear of any undesirable types,” Harry said, resigning himself to a torturous few months—
if Athena was as popular as he expected she would be.
“Then let us hope she does not descend upon you with demands and ideas.” Adam shook his head with weary disbelief. “
will hardly be rid of her through the Little Season.”
Hardly be rid of her.
A smile crept across Harry’s face.
A few weeks with Athena. The few hours he’d spent with her after Adam’s wedding had been more than pleasant. He’d spent time with her again over the Christmas holiday. Athena and her sisters had arrived at Falstone Castle that spring several weeks before Harry’s departure for London. The sweetness of her disposition had been obvious—another trait she shared with her sister—but so had her keen mind and witty sense of humor. It had only deepened his attraction to her.