Authors: Sarah M. Eden
Harry would never, as long as he lived, forget the look on Athena’s face in the moments before she’d fled from Adam’s book room. Sir Hubert’s remarks had hurt her. And now, the next day, Harry was still wrestling with a conscience that continually reminded him of his own role in the terrible scene that had played out at the Fitzpatricks’ home.
Sir Hubert had earned a reputation over the preceding ten years or so as an overly critical and wholly cruel-hearted individual. But Harry never would have predicted that he would turn his claws on his own dinner partners. He generally consigned himself to commenting on those outside his immediate audience. Harry had further counted on Adam’s reputation to keep the inevitable comments directed elsewhere.
He had hoped to demonstrate to Athena the importance of choosing a gentleman with a kind heart. It was a gamble that had gone horribly wrong.
Harry had been dreading this meeting. Charles Dalforth had been obviously unhappy with Harry the night before. And, as Dalforth was privy to Harry’s strategy in guiding Athena by providing examples of bad choices in companions, Harry had a reasonably good idea of the nature of Dalforth’s gripe.
“Dalforth,” Harry acknowledged, dropping into a wingback chair in a quiet corner of White’s, bracing himself for the peal that was about to be rung over his head.
“Sir Hubert Collington?” Dalforth said, his words a mixture of censure and disbelief. “Really?”
Harry just shook his head and quietly sighed. That really had been a catastrophic error in judgment.
“I am assuming he was your choice for demonstrating to Miss Lancaster that she ought not marry a complete jack-a-napes,” Dalforth said.
“That was the basic idea,” Harry acknowledged.
“Except that unlike Howard and Peterbrook and Handley, Sir Hubert is not what anyone would consider harmless. He is a nasty sort who cares little for the feelings of others. Lud, Windover, the man is not even accepted by the highest sticklers.”
“Which is why Miss Lancaster would do well not to consider a gentleman like Sir Hubert.” Harry felt practically forced into defending himself despite having been throwing the same condemnations in his own direction only moments earlier.
“And how, pray tell, do you intend to demonstrate to Miss Lancaster that she ought not consider a suit from a man who would beat her?” Dalforth asked, his gaze condemning.
“Are you suggesting I would place Miss Lancaster into the care of a man who would physically harm her?” Harry allowed the affronted tone to remain obvious in his voice.
“You placed her last night into the company of a man who harmed her emotionally,” Dalforth shot back. “Gads, man! Did you see the poor girl’s face?”
Harry’s heart thudded painfully as a vivid picture of Athena’s expression of suffering flitted through his memory.
“No young lady should have to be subjected to Sir Hubert.” Dalforth looked genuinely angered, and Harry, despite himself, found his respect for the gentleman increasing. “And his treatment of Her Grace was inexcusable.”
“I am not well acquainted with the Duke of Kielder, but if he is not aware of Sir Hubert’s behavior, I intend to inform him.” It was something of a warning, as if Dalforth wasn’t entirely sure Harry had done his duty by the two mistreated ladies.
“He knows,” Harry informed Dalforth.
“And is Sir Hubert still among the living?” There was enough serious inquiry in Dalforth’s question to tell Harry that he knew Adam’s reputation well enough.
“For the time being,” Harry replied. Seeing the obvious question in Dalforth’s gaze, Harry explained. “Sir Hubert is, I understand, here at White’s at this moment. His Grace should be arriving momentarily.”
Dalforth’s eyes widened. “There is to be a show, then?” he asked with a raise of his eyebrows.
“There is to be an execution,” Harry corrected.
Dalforth laughed uneasily. He likely wasn’t entirely sure that Harry was exaggerating.
wasn’t entirely sure he was exaggerating. He had known Adam for more than twenty years and had never in the course of those two decades seen Adam as livid as he had been the night before.
After returning from walking Persephone to her rooms, Adam had insisted on the entire story. Persephone had been unable to say much, her emotions too raw and overwhelming. By the time Harry had delineated the insults heaped upon the Duke of Kielder’s beloved wife, there was no doubt in Harry’s mind that Adam’s confrontation with Sir Hubert Collington would be legendary. And, as he was not in a position to defend Athena’s honor, Harry was cheering him on.
“Now, if you will excuse me, I was charged with the responsibility of escorting the soon-to-be-departed to meet his fate.” Harry rose from his chair.
“Think I’ll come along.” Dalforth rose as well. “I have something of an interest in seeing that last night’s slights are avenged.”
Harry eyed Dalforth warily. “What claim do you have?” Had Dalforth declared himself? Was there an understanding between him and Athena? The idea did not sit well.
“No claim, per se,” Dalforth replied carefully. “Merely the interest any true gentleman would take in seeing that a lady is not subjected to public insults and humiliation.”
Harry’s mind was not entirely set at ease, however. Dalforth’s interest seemed to go beyond that. Harry had seen him dance with Athena on more than one occasion. Dalforth sought Athena out at various gatherings. The man was driving her out that very afternoon. Dalforth, obviously, had his own equipage and the income to support such a possession. Harry, on the other hand, was beginning to feel the necessity of tightening his proverbial belt. He generally did not remain in London beyond the beginning of August. He had extended his stay by nearly a month already, and London was not an inexpensive place to live.
Harry scanned the faces of the gentlemen sitting at their ease in the comfort of one of London’s exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. They would certainly return home with a tale to relay to their wives and daughters before the afternoon was over. But where was the villain in the drama about to unfold?
The room Sir Hubert was eventually found in was relatively crowded. Adam would be happy about that. Of course, the audience would grow once the commotion began.
“Sir Hubert,” Harry called out, his voice friendly, if one was not paying enough attention to notice the irony in his tone. “Well met.”
Sir Hubert did not look impressed. Harry was not, after all, titled. Such things were of paramount importance to the baronet.
“How was the remainder of the musicale last evening?” Harry asked, as if making casual conversation.
“As offensive to the sensibilities as the first portion,” Sir Hubert replied, his usual acidity apparent.
“And was the performance as insulting as the company of one particular person on the guest list?” Harry inquired, keeping his expression innocent and his tone light.
“I do not quite follow you, Windover,” Sir Hubert replied.
“Odd.” Harry twisted his face in a farcical look of surprise. “I seem to remember finding one person in particular quite odious. Do not you, Dalforth?” He turned to the gentleman beside him.
“Indeed,” was the response.
“I have no idea to whom you might refer,” Sir Hubert said with a lift of his chin. The gesture was obviously meant to imply that he cared very little for the opinion of two untitled gentlemen.
“Then I suggest you begin thinking, Sir Hubert. Think very hard. And very quickly.”
“That sounds like a threat,” Sir Hubert replied, his eyes narrowing.
“A warning,” Harry corrected. “A warning.”
Adam had an impeccable sense of timing. He stepped through the door into the room where Harry, Dalforth, and Sir Hubert were conversing under the watchful eye of at least two dozen attentive gentlemen. An unnatural hush settled over the gathering.
Harry allowed a smile of amusement to slip over his face. “Time’s up,” he said to Sir Hubert before stepping aside to allow Adam to do his dirty work.
Adam moved slowly, deliberately across the room. Every eye followed his progress. Adam’s gaze didn’t waver. It sliced through Sir Hubert with an intensity that Harry was certain the baronet found physically painful. Something of Sir Hubert’s smugness had slipped away.
Not a breath sounded in the silence. Adam stopped less than two feet from where Sir Hubert sat.
“On your feet, maggot,” Adam said without preamble.
The swiftness of Sir Hubert’s compliance undermined his grace, making for an awkward rise. “Your—”
“No words,” Adam growled. “You have had your say. Now you will listen.”
Sir Hubert’s eyes flicked briefly to Harry, apparently suddenly realizing the reason for Harry’s earlier warning. Harry offered the briefest bow of acknowledgment, little more than an inclination of his head.
The entire room was listening, but Adam didn’t speak immediately. Harry understood what he was doing. Making Sir Hubert wait would only increase his anxiety. Eyes were darting around the room as every occupant seemed to search for the elusive answers to the questions, no doubt, on every mind. What had Sir Hubert done to upset the Dangerous Duke of Kielder? And what would be left of the baronet when the duke was finished with him?
In a movement so swift and so expert Harry barely registered it, Adam pulled a sinister sword from the scabbard he wore around his hips and pointed it unwaveringly at Sir Hubert’s throat. There was no button on the end. This was not a training session.
“Your cravat is offensive,” Adam said, speaking through clenched teeth. With a flick of Adam’s wrist, Sir Hubert’s cravat fell limply to the floor at his feet, the single piece of linen now cleanly cut in two. “As are your buttons.” One by one, jacket buttons fell with a thunk to the floor, the sound echoing in the room. Not a soul spoke or moved. Harry wasn’t certain everyone present was even blinking. “And the pattern of your waistcoat.”
Sir Hubert paled by multiple degrees as the tip of Adam’s épée slowly, languorously sliced his waistcoat into ribbons without so much as snagging a single thread of his shirt underneath.
“But I am most offended”—Adam slid his sword higher, past the point where Sir Hubert’s cravat should have been, resting the tip directly against Sir Hubert’s Adam’s apple—“at the thought of ever hearing your voice again.”
“I wouldn’t advise swallowing too deeply, Sir Hubert,” Harry offered from his position a few paces behind Adam. “There is no button on the end of that sword.”
Sir Hubert was nearly devoid of color. He inadvisably opted to explain himself, his words choked to the point of being almost indiscernible. “My words must have been exaggerated by your—”
In an exchange well-known to them both, Harry caught the sword as Adam tossed it and simultaneously wrapped his hand around Sir Hubert’s throat.
“You dare presume to utter a lady’s name in a setting like this?” Adam’s voice was calm to the point of being chilling.
Sir Hubert may have just pushed Adam past bearing. A gentleman did not ever hint at a lady’s being the reason for a confrontation or a challenge, let alone mention her specifically. That single breach of etiquette was reason enough to call a man out.
Harry saw the veins in Adam’s hand bulge at the same moment Sir Hubert’s eyes began to pop. The time had come to intervene.
“If you are going to kill him, Your Grace,” Harry said without the slightest hint of concern in his voice, “would you mind doing it quickly? I am looking forward to an evening of dancing, and I would hate to miss the first minuet.”
“I prefer to kill vermin slowly and painfully,” Adam growled, glaring at Sir Hubert. “There is no satisfaction in disposing of refuse efficiently.”
“True.” Harry shrugged as if conceding the point. He managed to keep back a smile of deep amusement. They were reaching his favorite part. Adam would offer the offending party a means of escape that was, in reality, more poison ivy than olive branch.
“Listen very closely, Hubert.”
When Adam began dropping titles, it was time for the general public to take cover.
“Your presence in London ends before nightfall. And I am sick to death of the sound of your voice. If I hear you have uttered a single word before you are at least one county removed from town, I will personally remove your voice box. You can write out your instructions to your servants. Pantomime, if you must. But not a word. And I assure you, I will know if you choose to go against my edict.”
Sir Hubert attempted to nod, but Adam’s grip on his throat kept Sir Hubert’s head still. It seemed to be sufficient enough agreement for Adam. He unceremoniously dropped Sir Hubert to the floor.
Harry glanced quickly at the crowd as he returned Adam’s sword. Sir Hubert was not well-liked. There was, of course, shock on each and every face, but looks of satisfaction lurked in the eyes of the onlookers. Adam would, indeed, learn if Sir Hubert chose to speak before removing himself from the metropolis. Every ear in town would be anxious to report back.
A path instantly appeared as Adam made his way from the room. The look in his eyes was as far from inviting as was humanly possible. Harry walked alongside him, feeling satisfied that the insult Athena had endured from Sir Hubert had been appropriately addressed.
They both climbed into the waiting Kielder carriage and began the familiar trip back to Falstone House. Adam’s expression hadn’t cleared. The man needed to be pulled from his black mood before he changed his mind and opted to not allow Sir Hubert to flee London.
“It has been a while since we enacted an aborted execution,” Harry observed casually. “Sir Hubert should be honored. And my compliments on your swordsmanship, Adam. Excellent piece of artistry.”
“I should have shot him,” Adam grumbled. Harry knew him well enough to know that Adam was being perfectly serious.
“Probably. But Persephone would have been upset if you had,” Harry reminded him. “And she has been upset enough already.”
“Athena as well,” Adam acknowledged. “I have never seen so much crying in all my life,” he grumbled, rolling his eyes.