Authors: Sarah M. Eden
“So when do I begin my duties?” Harry asked, feeling a surge of anticipation.
“As soon as the ladies are content with her wardrobe. Heaven knows that could take time.”
Harry nodded absently. The next few weeks would be the most acutely torturous of his life, and he would relish every moment.
A well-bred young lady does not cry at a ball.
Athena Lancaster knew that very basic rule. She knew every rule, basic or otherwise, that governed society. She had fastidiously practiced every country dance she’d ever heard of, mentally reviewed the movements of the minuet, though she truly disliked it. She was well-versed in the many intricacies and nuances of wielding her fan and the message each movement was meant to convey. Athena had studied the copy of Debrett’s she’d found in her brother-in-law’s library—having slipped into that room when she was absolutely certain His Grace was away from home—and was confident she could place every member of the aristocracy into their respective families. She had trembled through her presentation and had managed not to disgrace herself before the queen. She was gowned in the first stare of fashion, her gold ringlets coiffed flatteringly.
And Athena was moments from sobbing.
She had pictured her first ball hundreds of times as a young girl. She had imagined standing poised and confident, smiling bewitchingly at the fashionable gentlemen she would meet. Athena had danced in her dreams with confidence and grace. Never in all her imaginings had she seen herself sitting on an exceedingly uncomfortable chair watching the dances slip past without a single soul soliciting her hand.
“Such a beauty,” she had heard countless people say over the years. “With her sweet nature and lovely countenance, Miss Athena will make a grand match.” She had rather counted on being a success, but not in a preening or self-absorbed way. Indeed, she had often seen that forthcoming “grand match” as the answer to all her family’s problems. A well-heeled gentleman who loved her enough to marry her without a penny to her name would certainly possess enough generosity to save her loved ones from the threat of poverty. She had planned on it.
Athena glanced around the glittering ballroom once more. Couples glided through the steps of a country dance. Athena knew the movements by heart. How she had practiced and reviewed! Just that morning she had spent a full hour studiously covering every dance she might possibly be called on to perform. She ought to have rehearsed being rejected; that would most certainly have proven more useful.
The attempt at wit helped keep the tears at bay for the moment.
At least, Athena told herself, she’d danced once upon first arriving. Her brother in-law, the infamous Duke of Kielder, had—no doubt at the request of his wife, Athena’s older sister, Persephone—stood up with her for the length of an entire quadrille. Immediately after which he had taken up his post just behind Athena’s chair. Adam, as His Grace had suggested she call him when they were at home—again, probably at the suggestion of his wife—was not overly fond of going about in society. And society, Athena was fairly certain, rather supported him in that preference. He frightened people. He terrified Athena.
Around her the music was coming to its conclusion, another dance ending. With a mighty effort, Athena kept the tears at bay as she cast her eyes about, hoping a gentleman would magically materialize and request her hand for the next set. She had been at the Debensham’s ball for nearly two hours. The next set was the supper dance. Many gentlemen had approached. Athena had offered a tentative smile. And, every time, moments before reaching her side, each gentleman’s expression had turned from approval to dismay, and they had simply walked past her. One had actually turned on the spot and walked back in the direction from which he had come. Athena felt heat stain her cheeks as she remembered the embarrassment of that moment.
She closed her eyes for a moment, forced a calming breath, and silently uttered yet another prayer. She would survive. No matter what else went wrong, she would survive. The Lancasters were nothing if not persevering.
The sound of a gentleman’s voice so near her startled Athena. She opened her eyes, afraid her sudden nervousness would be embarrassingly obvious. Her discomfort slid away in an instant.
“Hello, Mr. Windover,” she said with palpable relief. Mr. Windover was unfailingly kind and could be counted on to lighten even the most difficult of situations. At that moment, he was a godsend.
“About time you got here, you worthless maggot,” Adam said behind Athena. She tensed at his voice, the way she always did.
“I missed you too, Your Grace.” Mr. Windover grinned up at the single most dangerous man in the room. Only Mr. Windover could have done as much.
Athena very nearly smiled for the first time in hours. Adam was less frightening when Mr. Windover was nearby.
“Make yourself useful, Harry, and dance with Athena,” Adam ordered.
Athena felt her cheeks flame. How horrifyingly humiliating. If her two hours of uninterrupted sitting had not confirmed her a wallflower, having her guardian order a gentleman to stand up with her certainly solidified the label.
“Bad form, old man.” Mr. Windover shook his head in a mock display of disapproval. “I had intended to ask the lady myself. But now she will be convinced I am doing so only on your orders. Bad form.” Mr. Windover smiled at Athena, his blue eyes twinkling down at her. “Dare I hope your supper dance is unclaimed?”
“No,” Athena managed, her heart suddenly leaping. She would not be forced to sit out the supper dance!
I ought not to hope? Or
it is not claimed?” Mr. Windover smiled more broadly.
A smile slid across Athena’s face. “It is unclaimed,” she clarified.
“If you stand there talking endlessly like a gossiping matron, it will remain unclaimed after the music begins,” Adam said. “Get on with it, sapskull.”
Harry held his gloved hand out to Athena. She slipped her hand in his and rose to walk with him to the set forming nearest her seat. For only a moment, her heart fluttered nervously. But Mr. Windover smiled across at her, and she felt herself grow more at ease. He was a comfortable sort of person—a drastic change from Adam, who had been at her side the entire evening.
The quick movements of the dance made any degree of conversation between them impossible. It was just as well. Despite her frequent practicing, Athena was concentrating on her steps, determined not to embarrass herself.
The dancers, including Mr. Windover, applauded as the orchestra emitted one last, drawn-out note before the mass exodus to the supper room. Athena laid her hand quite properly on the arm Mr. Windover offered her and walked with him out of the ballroom, a little out of breath.
“I understand from your sister that your presentation went well yesterday,” Mr. Windover said after they were both seated with plates of delectable food before them.
“I did not even trip once,” Athena said lightly.
“And you were so certain you would.” Mr. Windover smiled back. Her nervousness had been discussed at some length at a family dinner the evening before her presentation. Mr. Windover was always present at family dinners, something Athena appreciated. Persephone may have been entirely at ease with her husband, but his often surly and always intimidating presence never failed to rid Athena of her appetite. At Falstone Castle she had not been so entirely overset by him. But the combination of her fearsome brother-in-law—his disgruntled nature more keenly accentuated in London—with the prospect of a Season, even a Little one, had proven nearly too much for her nerves.
“I wish you could have been there,” Athena mused, pushing a puff pastry around her plate with her fork. “Persephone was nearly as nervous as I, and His Grace looked . . .” What was the right word?
“Annoyed?” Mr. Windover ventured.
“Precisely.” Athena smiled. “How did you know that? You were not even present.”
“The Fearsome Duke of Kielder generally looks annoyed when interacting with the royal family,” Mr. Windover whispered, leaning closer to her as he did. The last remnants of nervousness slipped away at his nearness. Mr. Windover had that effect on her, had from the moment she’d first met him at Persephone’s wedding. He was calming, peaceful. “I believe he finds them tedious.”
“What amazes me is that he makes no effort to hide his feelings.” Athena shook her head. She could not imagine being so unconcerned with the opinions of the very highest of society. “Does he not worry that he might offend?”
“I do not believe he cares one whit if the royal family is offended by him. They, on the other hand, appear quite concerned about offending
” Mr. Windover answered. “The queen, I am certain, finds our duke quite fascinating. I understand she goes to great lengths to make him welcome whenever he condescends to attend her drawing rooms.”
“She spoke with him for nearly ten minutes,” Athena confirmed, remembering her shock at the unexpected break with convention. “Exclusively.”
“And he probably glared at her the entire time,” Mr. Windover added.
“He had the temerity to check the time on his pocket watch as Her Majesty was addressing him,” Athena said, knowing her eyes were wide with the memory.
Mr. Windover laughed out loud. “Lands, I wish I had been there to see that.”
“And he caught out the prince watching him rather pointedly and—”
“The prince was actually foolish enough to stare at the Dangerous Duke?”
Athena nodded. “And far more foolish to have been caught doing it.”
“Don’t tell me he called His Royal Highness out again.” Mr. Windover shook his head.
“Again?” Athena felt her heart lurch. “He has previously challenged the Prince of Wales?”
“It is of no account, really. Prinny apologized. The entire thing was smoothed over.”
“Good heavens,” Athena muttered. What kind of guardian did she have? He wrested apologies from the prince himself and found conversation with the queen irritatingly boring. Was it any wonder Athena was so uncomfortable with him?
“Let us discuss more pleasant topics,” Mr. Windover said, smiling as always. He had a very reassuring smile. “How have you enjoyed your very first ball?”
Mortified, Athena felt tears prick at her eyes the instant his question was uttered. How had she enjoyed her first ball? Not at all.
“Tears, Miss Lancaster?” Mr. Windover’s voice lowered to the quietest of whispers. “That will never do.”
“I am sorry,” Athena whispered in reply, trying valiantly to keep herself in check.
“If you will pretend an exorbitant degree of interest in the contents of your plate,” Mr. Windover suggested, “I shall endeavor to appear entirely at my ease. Then, you see, the other guests will think nothing untoward has occurred, and you may recover your poise with no one the wiser.”
Athena immediately lowered her eyes to her plate, keeping her head bowed enough to hide the sudden sheen of tears evident on her lashes. A young lady did not cry at a ball. Nor did she cry over supper at a ball. A few moments of silence passed while Athena worked to rein in her emotions.
“Has someone upset you?” Mr. Windover asked, his voice still low.
“No,” Athena answered, grateful for the concern she heard in his voice.
“Are you disappointed in the ball?” he ventured. “Or perhaps simply in your partners?”
That nearly undid her. “I h-haven’t had any,” she whispered, hearing the break in her voice.
“You haven’t had any? Any partners?”
Athena glanced up. Mr. Windover’s eyes were on her, a look of empathy on his face. “Except for Adam, when we first arrived. And then you. There were a few times I thought a gentleman was going to approach, but, except for you, they all, without fail, did not. One even spun around and fled.” She took a shaky breath. “I am not sure what is so wrong with me that . . . that . . .”
“Miss Lancaster.” Mr. Windover smiled kindly. “Do you truly believe these gentlemen did not approach you because of something they found lacking in you?”
“What other reason could there be?”
Harry shook his head, as if amused in spite of himself. “There is a rather glaringly obvious reason.”
Athena furrowed her brow, confused. She couldn’t think of anything beyond some monumental failing in herself that she had not discovered yet.
“I believe your lack of partners had everything to do with the fact that the Duke of Kielder was standing at your shoulder with his hand resting rather ominously on the hilt of his dress sword. I am certain many of the gentlemen in attendance were rather afraid that the infamous duke would borrow a page from not-too-distant French history and behead the aristocracy should they disgruntle him in any way.”
“He scared them off,” Athena surmised.
It was a far more welcome possibility than the reasoning she had previously applied to the situation. Adam had frightened away her prospective partners. There might be hope for her yet. Except, she immediately amended, Adam was her guardian. Any gentleman who wished to solicit her hand for a dance would have to be willing to approach even with him hovering nearby.
“That does not bode well, does it?” Athena sighed, setting her fork beside her plate, her appetite having fled entirely.
“Never fear. Adam is not likely to attend many more social functions. Persephone is far less intimidating.”
“She has been rather absent this evening,” Athena observed. She hadn’t seen her sister more than a half-dozen times since their arrival, though she was certain Persephone had had no more partners than Athena herself had.
“I have seen her mingling,” Mr. Windover said. “She is setting the foundation of your success, Miss Lancaster. Through her conversations this evening, you will receive invitations to all those events that are necessary for you to make a splash in society. I do not doubt she was taking advantage of Adam’s presence to do so. On those evenings when he is not in attendance, she will be required to remain at your side, being your faithful chaperone.”
“I don’t think Persephone likes to be out without her husband,” Athena said. “She is inordinately fond of him.”
“Incomprehensible, isn’t it?” Mr. Windover smiled. “Who would ever guess that Adam could be any lady’s idea of an ideal husband?”
“He certainly is not mine,” Athena admitted before the incivility of her unguarded confession caused her to clamp her mouth shut and close her eyes against the flush of embarrassment staining her cheeks.