Authors: Sarah M. Eden
“Stand aside, Mr. Rigby,” Athena insisted.
She had been cornered after leaving the ladies’ withdrawing room and, essentially, herded into the seldom-used back sitting room. It was far enough from the ballroom to be unnoticed by any other guests. Mr. Rigby’s attentions, up to that point, had been little worse than tiresome. A knot was forming in her stomach, however, as she studied the look of unfeeling determination in his eyes. He stood between her and the only exit in the room. Athena knew very little time was required before her absence would be noted. It was her ball, after all.
“Allow me to return, please.” Even as she spoke the words, Athena knew they would have no effect. She clamped down a sense of panic, determined to keep herself under control.
Mr. Rigby shook his head, keeping near the doorway, a look of concentration on his face that seemed to indicate he was listening for something.
Athena took several deep breaths. Crumbling would only play into Mr. Rigby’s hand. First, she needed to understand his intentions, his reasons. She was certain, however, that he would not respond openly to a direct question. “Is there someone in particular you are attempting to avoid, Mr. Rigby?” she asked, trying to make her tone sound genuinely concerned for him. “I am certain this person could be made to leave the ball.”
As could Mr. Rigby.
He only shook his head, though he swiped at a trickle of sweat making its way down his forehead. His color was not good, Athena noticed. Perhaps the man would pass out, and she could leave him there in a heap on the floor. The idea was promising.
“If you wish not to be found—”
“Not be found?”
he interrupted, a humorless chuckle in his voice. “Oh, we are going to be found, Miss Lancaster. It is only a matter of time.”
“But if we are found alone, together . . .” Did he not understand the implications?
Quite suddenly she understood. She was to be compromised, forced to marry him to save her reputation. She shook her head, trying to rearrange the dozens of thoughts suddenly swirling inside into something that made sense. His attentions had been pointed—she would not deny that—and yet he could not possibly imagine that she had encouraged his suit. Moreover, they hardly knew one another. Mr. Rigby certainly couldn’t imagine himself in love with her.
A dozen discrepancies jumped out at her with alarming clarity. Mr. Rigby was dressed well, but the cuffs of his coat were frayed, the elbows shiny from repeated use. His shirt and cravat were the slightest bit yellowed from frequent laundering. His hair was a little long, as if he hadn’t had it cut recently.
Mr. Rigby’s interest in her had been sudden and, in retrospect, a little desperate. There was too much evidence of Mr. Rigby’s relative poverty to leave any room for doubt. He was in need of money, rather immediately, if Athena didn’t miss her mark.
“My dowry,” Athena sighed, the pieces falling into place.
“£20,000,” Mr. Rigby said. He shook his head in seeming disbelief. “Do you have any idea what £20,000 means to a man only one step ahead of his creditors?”
“You mean to force my hand.” Tension gripped Athena’s limbs. It was a nightmare. There had to be a way of avoiding that unthinkable outcome. Perhaps if she kept enough of a distance, and if she were fortunate enough to be found by Persephone or Harry, the entire ordeal could be smoothed over. Anyone else would spread the tale with astounding speed. Adam would probably kill them both.
Adam. A sudden surge of hopefulness enveloped Athena. Adam was the key. “You are taking quite a risk, don’t you think?” She tried to sound unconcerned, haughty even. “The Duke of Kielder is not a gentleman to be trifled with.”
“He is also not one to be made to look a fool,” Mr. Rigby replied, his eyes skewering her. “He will not allow his sister-in-law to go about society tainted. He will see that the wedding is held forthwith and all hint of scandal hushed up.”
Athena tried to keep her breathing steady. Mr. Rigby had a point. Adam was unlikely to allow her to embarrass him or leave a black mark on the family name.
“But it is obvious that nothing untoward—”
“Hush,” Mr. Rigby cut her off, eyes narrowed, though his focus was not on her.
In the sudden silence, Athena heard what must have caught his attention: the sound of voices and footsteps. She stood frozen, uncertain. She did not wish to remain closeted with Mr. Rigby, but being found by the wrong person would be unthinkably ruinous. Her moment of distraction proved disastrous.
Quite suddenly, Athena was held in a vise-tight grip she couldn’t escape despite using all her strength. And she was being kissed quite forcefully, painfully even. Her heart raced, anxiety gripping every inch of her. She had to escape! She simply had to free herself.
There was no possibility of slipping from his grasp. He held her too tightly to allow the slightest twist or turn. She kicked at his shins, though her dancing slippers hardly afforded her the impact she required.
In the midst of her bubbling panic, Athena heard the door open. Disaster had struck! There would be no avoiding the outcome Mr. Rigby had predicted.
“I fear we have been found out, my—” Mr. Rigby began in a feigned tone of affection.
In a blur of movement Athena felt Mr. Rigby release her and another pair of smaller, gentler arms wrap around her, the smell of lavender that she would forever associate with Persephone suddenly filling the air.
“There is a reason, Rigby, I am always armed,” Adam’s voice growled into the tense silence.
Athena’s eyes swung toward the sound. Adam had Mr. Rigby pinned to a wall, the blade of his dress sword pressed against Mr. Riby’s throat.
“Not the sword again,” Harry drawled.
Harry! Athena’s eyes immediately turned to him. She leaned against Persephone, feeling her pulse slow and the tension begin to drain from her body. For the moment, she was safe.
“You dispatched the last scoundrel that way and it was, you will recall, a dreadfully slow process, and we do have a ball to be getting back to.”
Mr. Rigby paled at Harry’s words. But there was something too theatrical in his tone, almost as if he was simply playing a part.
“Persephone?” Athena whispered, as much out of confusion as a need for the continued reassurance that Mr. Rigby was not about to attack her again.
“All is well, Athena,” Persephone whispered in reply, her embrace tightening slightly.
“Very well,” Adam replied to Harry, his tone annoyed, “you know where my guns are kept.”
“Would you prefer a dueler or a hunting rifle?” Harry asked.
Adam seemed to be pondering the question. He was certainly taking his time responding.
Persephone cut Athena off. “Shh.”
“Hunting rifle,” Adam replied. His tone was so inherently threatening that Athena shivered to hear it.
“You wouldn’t . . . wouldn’t shoot your future brother-in-law,” Mr. Rigby insisted, his eyes wide with alarm.
“And who might that be?” Adam asked with chilling calm.
“Um.” Rigby cleared his throat, eyes darting between all of them in the room. “Miss Lancaster and I were in here alone.”
“No. Her Grace has been with Miss Lancaster all evening.” Adam kept his sword at Mr. Rigby’s throat, almost as if being in just such a position was commonplace for him.
“She was kissed beyond—” Mr. Rigby’s shaky voice was immediately silenced, Adam’s hand gripping his jaw.
“I despise liars,” Adam growled.
“Do not be so gentle with him, Your Grace,” Harry joined, his voice noticeably tighter and rough. “I have a feeling Rigby is a habitual liar.”
“Habits are easily broken,” Adam answered, “when one is dead.”
Persephone unexpectedly entered the conversation. “Do be quick about it, Adam. We will wait for you in the ballroom.”
Athena felt Persephone pull her toward the closed door. She glanced back over her shoulder toward Harry, afraid of what might actually happen once they left. She didn’t care at all for Mr. Rigby, but she did not wish the man dead. Injured, perhaps. But not dead.
Harry smiled at her, though it seemed forced, strained. He nodded, as if telling her to go. Athena nodded back, wishing he would come with her. Harry always made her feel better, and at that moment she needed comfort.
Athena somehow survived the rest of the night. Persephone’s unflappable calm combined with the Dowager Duchess’s regal command of each and every moment of the remainder of the ball kept Athena from completely falling apart. Mr. Rigby did not return to the ballroom. When Adam and Harry eventually did, they looked as casual as if they had simply stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.
The last guest trickled out at nearly three o’clock. Athena was exhausted. Adam had asked, though Adam’s requests never felt like anything short of a directive, that Athena meet with him in his book room once the house was empty of guests. She was not looking forward to the interview.
Athena was almost certain she was not going to be forced to marry Mr. Rigby. That was a relief. But she was not at all sure what Adam’s response to the contretemps would be. That he was angry had been obvious. Adam angry was not a sight to inspire confidence.
The book room was blessedly empty when she arrived. Athena had a few moments, at the least, to compose herself. She pressed her fingers against her temples, the headache she had been pointedly ignoring for two hours making itself known.
Her long-anticipated come-out ball had not turned out at all the way she had always dreamed. There had been no dashing gentleman to sweep her off her feet. Her brother-in-law had come disturbingly close to calling out the Prince of Wales. She had been accosted by a fortune hunter and had very nearly been forced into a disastrous marriage. And she was not at all certain Adam and Harry had not killed the bounder.
The night was supposed to have been magical.
“Is that a tear, Athena?”
“Harry!” She was so surprised by his sudden appearance that Athena actually gasped.
He smiled a little, but his gaze was decidedly concerned. “You have had a difficult evening, I daresay.”
To her surprise and embarrassment, Athena felt a second tear join the first. She swiped at it and even managed to laugh a little. “It was fairly awful in moments,” she admitted, managing to keep herself from entirely falling apart. “I fully expected you and Adam to return to the ball covered in blood.”
“Adam is far too adept at dispatching unwanted cads to so much as wrinkle his coat in the undertaking.”
“He didn’t actually kill him, did he?” Athena asked, not sure she wanted to hear the answer.
“Are you so concerned for Mr. Rigby, then?” Harry stepped closer to her, and Athena felt instantly better.
“I wouldn’t want his death to weigh on Adam’s conscience,” Athena answered.
“Adam’s conscience?” Harry laughed. “Are you so sure he has one?”
Athena felt a tiny smile tug at her lips. “Your conscience, then,” she corrected. “I
you have one. You could never do anything you knew was underhanded or hurtful.”
“That, Athena, is probably the nicest thing any person has ever said about me.” Harry smiled in a way Athena had never seen him smile. There was no laughter behind it, no worry or concern. It was a look of pure contentment, and seeing it made Athena wish she could bring that expression to his face more often. He had been a source of comfort to her countless times.
“You are a very good man, Harry Windover,” Athena said. She wasn’t sure where the impulse came from or why she acted so immediately upon it, but Athena leaned her head against his chest, her energy all but spent.
“And you, Athena Lancaster,” Harry answered, “are apparently still ill.”
It was so like Harry to turn a compliment aimed at himself into a moment of self-deprecating humor. He lightened every situation. She would never have guessed only two hours earlier, while being accosted by Mr. Rigby, that she would have reason to feel so content before the night was over.
“What did happen to Mr. Rigby?” she asked, still leaning against him.
“He left,” Harry replied. Athena felt his arms wrap lightly around her, so lightly, in fact, that she barely felt them there.
“On his own?” she pressed, feeling entirely at ease in Harry’s arms. Mr. Rigby’s embrace had been tortuous. Harry’s was heaven.
“Not precisely,” Harry said. “He required a great deal of assistance.”
“Because he was angry?” Athena wondered out loud. She closed her eyes, trying to push out all the unpleasantness of the evening from her mind.
“Because he was no longer capable of leaving unassisted,” Harry answered.
Athena wasn’t certain, but she thought she felt Harry kiss the top of her head. His embrace tightened almost imperceptibly. What was it he always smelled like? She recognized the pleasant scent as his own but couldn’t identify it.
“Will he spread rumors, do you think?” Athena asked. It was what worried her the most. Mr. Rigby could leave her reputation in shreds or attempt to force her into marriage still. “Suppose he talks about what happened.”
“He won’t be talking about anything for a while, I assure you,” Harry answered. “Adam is nothing if not thorough.”
“I shouldn’t be happy to hear that someone is suffering,” Athena said.
“But you are happy about it,” Harry ascertained. “So am I. Adam wouldn’t share, unfortunately. I would have liked to have had a go at the man myself.”
“You are the very best of friends, Harry,” Athena said, feeling the last remnants of tension slip away.
“Yes,” he answered. “A good . . . friend.”
Harry’s words, oddly enough, sounded regretful.
Harry had been at Falstone House until four o’clock that morning, sitting in on the discussion of Rigby’s actions. Adam hadn’t told Athena the extent to which he had knocked Rigby around. Beyond Adam’s valet and Harry, probably not a single soul knew that Adam had been required to change his shirt and cravat after the confrontation in the back sitting room. He had removed his jacket and waistcoat beforehand, else they, too, would have been blood-spattered. One thing was for sure, however—something Adam assured Athena of—Rigby would keep his mouth shut. There would be no scandal.
Athena had been palpably relieved. For that, Harry was infinitely grateful. But it was not the interview that had kept him awake long after returning to his rooms. He couldn’t clear his mind of the sensation of holding Athena in his arms.
had leaned against
. And she had fit perfectly in his embrace. There had been no hesitation, no awkwardness. She had turned to him for answers, for reassurance, and he had been able to offer precisely that. The moment had been perfect and hopeful. For the space of a breath he had imagined himself holding her that way for hours on end, for years yet to come. Then she had called him a
and reality had hit like a slap in the face.
Athena had remained in his arms a few moments longer, until the sound of approaching footsteps had necessitated Harry pulling away. He’d taken only a fraction of a second to memorize the feel of her in his arms then resigned himself to being precisely what Athena had declared him to be: a friend.
Twelve hours after leaving Falstone House, Harry had returned and walked into the drawing room, reminding himself he was the adopted brother of the family. It was what he would always be. After Rigby’s near-fatal involvement in Athena’s Season, Adam was even more vocally opposed to fortune hunters.
Charles Dalforth was there, obviously dressed for an afternoon drive. Dalforth, it seemed, was making a great deal of headway.
was not, apparently, to be relegated to the rank of ineligible pseudorelative.
“Dalforth,” Harry greeted, knowing he sounded almost as disgruntled as he felt.
“Windover,” Dalforth replied. He didn’t sound any happier about the encounter than Harry did. His expression was almost accusatory. “I didn’t see Rigby toward the end of last night’s ball.”
“He was obliged to leave,” Harry explained curtly.
“His Grace, I assume, noticed Rigby was harassing Miss Lancaster,” Dalforth said. Harry nodded silently. “No gentleman should be permitted to make such a nuisance of himself, not to mention the inexcusableness of casting a shadow over her come-out ball.”
“As Rigby was dispatched, I fail to understand your accusatory tone,” Harry shot back.
“Do you?” Dalforth actually chuckled, the ironic kind of chuckle that had nothing to do with humor. “Who was it that introduced Mr. Rigby to Miss Lancaster?”
“I don’t—” Harry thought back, even as he spoke, to the Duke and Duchess of Hartley’s ball. Rigby had approached him as he was escorting Athena and had requested an introduction. “Technically,” Harry conceded, “I did, but—”
“I hadn’t thought you capable of that, Windover,” Dalforth cut across him. “I have never approved of your approach to ‘helping’ Miss Lancaster”—he said
with such a heavy amount of derision that Harry knew Dalforth meant quite the opposite—“but this is inexcusable. What were you attempting to demonstrate
time? The desperation of a fortune hunter?”
The remark hit far too close to home.
“I hadn’t thought you would choose gentlemen who were entirely objectionable,” Dalforth continued, offering Harry no opportunity to defend himself. “Peterbrook. Handley. All the others were at least harmless, if rather ridiculous. But
? Everyone knew he was under the hatches to the point of complete disaster. A man in that situation is likely to act out of desperation.”
“His Grace will not permit Miss Lancaster to be hurt.”
“Which is fortunate, since you seem to have no qualms about it.”
“How dare you!” Harry had never been so close to losing his temper.
“I dare because I am worried for her,” Dalforth answered, infuriatingly calm. “You have purposefully, knowingly introduced her to gentlemen she could never and would never be happy with.”
“I have done this to help her.” Harry was angry enough to defend himself even though his conscience hadn’t been easy about his approach for some time.
“Help her?” Dalforth shot back. “Tell me, Windover. Did knowing Rigby
There was no safe response to that.
“I am afraid to even ask who you were planning to introduce her to next,” Dalforth said, shaking his head and wandering to the windows.
“I hadn’t decided,” Harry admitted. He hadn’t moved since Dalforth had begun his attack, like a man at a mark.
“Was it to be someone worse than Mr. Rigby?”
That single question sent Harry’s heart to the pit of his stomach. Dalforth hadn’t asked it. The person had spoken it behind the two men. It was Athena. Dalforth’s look of surprise told Harry he hadn’t realized they’d been overheard either.
Harry took a deep breath and turned around, but he wasn’t prepared for the look on her face. Those eyes that had gazed at him so trustingly the night before were looking at him with a mixture of hurt and anger.
“It isn’t actually true, is it, Harry?” she asked. “It was coincidence that the gentlemen you introduced me to proved so . . .” She shook her head, her expression growing more pained. “You wouldn’t have chosen them on purpose.”
“I . . .” But he could think of nothing to say. How could he explain his motivation without admitting to more than he was willing?
Her look grew absolutely stricken, his silence saying what he couldn’t. Harry crossed closer to her, but unlike the night before, she stepped back, keeping a distance between them.
“But you were my friend,” she said, her tone and expression cutting into him. “I depended on you. I trusted you.”
“I never intended . . . It wasn’t—”
“Miss Lancaster,” Dalforth interrupted. “Do you still wish to drive in the park?”
Athena looked up at Dalforth, the confusion and pain in her face heart-wrenchingly apparent.
“I cannot stay here just now,” Athena replied, almost pleaded. “I need . . . I need to . . .”
“You need some time away.” Dalforth nodded as if he understood what she was trying to say. “We’ll drive through Hyde Park. Slowly.”
“Do you promise you won’t introduce me to anyone?” Athena said, a strained attempt at humor.
“Not a soul,” Dalforth answered with a smile.
Harry’s stomach twisted inside. Teasing Athena out of the dismals had always been his role.
“Thank you,” Athena said quietly.
She looked up at Harry then, briefly. That look would haunt him, he knew. It was so full of pain, disbelief, frustration.
“Good day, Mr. Windover,” Athena said, her tone detached and hollow, her eyes already turned away from him. Then she was gone, escorted out by a gentleman who not only possessed an actual income but who also did not stand guilty, in her eyes, of sabotage.
“I was only trying to help,” Harry told the empty room.
The declaration did not appease his conscience. If he were being entirely honest, Harry would be forced to admit that his motives had not been so selfless. Helping Athena find a future husband had not been a task he had wanted to undertake. He had, in fact, wished to help her avoid the undesirable sort of gentleman. The truly helpful approach would have been to introduce her to as many good potential suitors as possible. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Being ineligible was hard enough. Somehow it had been easier knowing he would not personally be responsible for introducing Athena to the gentleman she would eventually marry. So he’d spent his time and effort finding men Athena wouldn’t care for. She simply hadn’t realized that.
I trusted you.
Athena’s words echoed in his mind accusingly.
You were my friend.
Suddenly he realized Athena had spoken in the past tense—that she didn’t trust him any longer, that he wasn’t her friend anymore.
Harry had concocted the whole ridiculous scheme in order to buy himself time—he admitted it—but the plan hadn’t worked. Instead of keeping her longer, he’d simply lost her entirely. Friendship was all he’d had any hope of claiming, and he no longer had even that.
Harry crossed the silent room and leaned against the window frame. Dalforth’s carriage had already pulled away and was long out of sight. London was always a little sparse in the winter; the trees were bare, society had flocked to the country. Harry had only remained in London for Athena’s sake, for
sake. He’d grasped at what little time he had left with her, and it had slipped through his fingers.
“Harry!” Persephone sounded surprised to see him, as if he hadn’t spent every single day at Falstone House since arriving in London the previous spring. “I should remind you that this is Daphne’s time with Adam. They will both exact rather vicious punishments upon you if you interrupt.”
Harry knew he was meant to laugh at the slight exaggeration. He managed a smile as he turned back from the window to face Persephone. “No . . . I . . .” He needed to get away. Harry realized that in a flash of understanding. He couldn’t stay any longer, now knowing Athena was entirely lost to him. “I only came to offer my farewells,” he said, forcing the words to sound premeditated instead of off-the-cuff. “I am leaving London.”
“This is unexpected,” Persephone replied, moving closer to him, her eyes searching his face. “I hope there is nothing wrong, that there isn’t trouble at your estate.”
Harry smiled and even laughed lightly. “There is always trouble at my estate,” he replied. “But as there is little I can do about it, I am seldom informed of the newest disastrous developments.”
Persephone’s look was so full of commiseration that Harry found himself actually smiling genuinely, if not broadly. Persephone well understood the difficulties of financial hardship.
“Actually, I am”—he thought frantically—“going to visit my sister. I have not seen Jane since coming to Town.”
Jane, Harry’s older sister and his only sibling, lived in Lincolnshire, far enough from London to negate the possibility of a day trip up to see her when he was in Town and far enough from Falstone Castle, where Harry spent the rest of the year, to make visits further between than they ought to be. Jane and her husband would take Harry in for a while, until he decided how to go forward. Falstone Castle would not be the welcome abode it had once been.
“Will you be returning to London?” Persephone asked.
“No,” Harry answered.
Not a chance.
“The Little Season is very nearly at an end.”
“True.” So why did Persephone sound unconvinced by his explanation. “And shall we expect you at Christmas?”
Harry closed his eyes against the memory of the last Christmas he had spent at Falstone Castle. Athena had been there. He’d first realized then that he was growing rather infatuated with her. He hadn’t been top-over-tail in love with her yet, but it had been, by far, the most pleasant holiday he’d spent since before his parents had died. Adam and Persephone had finally found happiness with one another. The youngest Lancaster sister had added the joy only children can bring to a celebration. And Athena had repeatedly taken Harry’s breath away, with both her beauty and her charm, though she seemed entirely unaware that she possessed either one.
“I don’t know that I will make it to Falstone Castle for Christmas this year,” Harry said, his heart sinking as he voiced the bleak future ahead of him. His days at Falstone had ended for all intents and purposes. He couldn’t bear to be there, despised by the lady he loved, or watching her finding her own happiness with someone other than himself.
“You know that you are always welcome,” Persephone insisted, concern creasing her forehead.
Harry smiled tightly and nodded. “I will be leaving forthwith, so I really should be on my way back to my rooms to pack.”
“Have you any message for Adam?” Persephone looked very much like she was studying him closely, searching for what he wasn’t saying. Why had Harry never realized how piercing her gaze could be?
“Just tell him I took myself off,” Harry answered, striving for his usual jovial tone. “He’ll say, ‘It’s about time.’”
“And then act very satisfied with himself,” Persephone added with a light laugh. “And for Athena? Have you no parting words for her?”
I am sorry. I never meant to cause you pain. Please forgive me. I love you.
* * *
Harry was crammed into the uncomfortable corner of a traveling coach before dinnertime. Not one of his fellow passengers smiled or greeted him. But, then, he had neither smiled nor greeted them. He found he had no desire to make conversation and no reason to smile.