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Authors: Sarah M. Eden

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“And what, pray tell, is your idea of an ideal husband?” Mr. Windover asked. His words sounded oddly choked, no doubt the result of his shock at her indelicate words. “What sort of gentleman are you looking to capture?”

Athena thought about his question and realized, to her surprise, she wasn’t entirely sure. The imaginary knight on a white charger of her girlish dreams had only two concrete characteristics: he was inordinately wealthy and deeply in love with her. The former was no longer necessary. The latter was far too personal a wish to voice out loud. “I do not truly know,” she said.

“If you do not know for whom you are looking, how do you expect to find him?”

A good question, indeed. A feeling of unease settled into her stomach. Her romantic dreams were growing more elusive by the moment. “I suppose I expected to simply
know.
To recognize when . . . when . . .”

“When your prince charming deposited himself at your feet?” Mr. Windover grinned.

He made it sound so childish. To Athena, the idea had always been very romantic, exciting, wonderful. “And why shouldn’t I be able to recognize the gentleman for whom my heart is searching?”

“When, by your own admission, you don’t even know what it is you are looking for?” Mr. Windover shook his head in obvious disapproval, though his smile did not slip. “Haven’t you even a list of some sort? A compilation of desirable characteristics, or something of that nature?”

“Certainly not.” The very idea was as unromantic as she could imagine any undertaking to be. A list! As if she were off to the grocer’s or inventorying linens.

“You have no prerequisites?” Mr. Windover asked doubtfully.

“Nothing beyond the most rudimentary,” Athena asserted. “That he be a gentleman, in the truest sense of the word. And that he be eligible.”

“So his not being married would be a basic requirement and that he not be a costermonger.”

“I believe you are teasing me, Mr. Windover.” Athena managed a smile as well.

“Only a little, and I will confess you have piqued my curiosity. I should very much like to know what type of gentleman could win your affection.”

Something about the tone of his words made Athena blush once more.

“I believe I shall have to endeavor to see that you are introduced to a variety of gentlemen—eligible ones, of course—and see for myself the results of such an unfocused search. Though I must say, I would have expected far more cunning from a young lady named for the goddess of strategic warfare.”

“Warfare?” Athena laughed, though she knew from extensive study that ladies, in general, were expected to limit themselves to smiles when they were amused. “Do you consider the endeavor of seeking a future spouse comparable to war?”

“There are times, Miss Lancaster, when matters of the heart become nothing short of a brutal, painful battle.”

Chapter 3

He was a glutton for punishment. There was no other explanation for it. Why else would Harry be bringing an eligible gentleman through the hordes of humanity attending the Hardfords’ musical evening toward the spot where Athena was holding court?

Adam had not deigned to attend, just as Harry and everyone else even remotely acquainted with the infamous duke’s opinions on musicales could have predicted. Owing to the absence of her armed sentinel, Athena enjoyed the rousing success she ought to have enjoyed at the previous night’s ball. As if enough eligible gentlemen weren’t already crowding around the object of Harry’s affection, he was bringing another for her to weave her spell over.

He’d spent the previous night and most of that morning concerned. No, his feelings were far closer to worry. Athena—sweet, kind, trusting Athena—was embarking on the marriage mart without so much as a strategy. The exasperating female did not even know what she wished for in a husband. Marriage was lifelong, permanent. The wrong sort of husband would be disastrous for her. She would be discontent at best, miserable at worst.

Seeing her happily married would be hard enough. Having to watch a horrible marriage slowly devour her spirit would be sheer torture.

Sort through the bad apples, Adam had said. Steer her away from those unworthy of her. Harry had simply amended the edict. He would steer her away from those who would not make her happy. He would, as much as it would pain him to do so, help her find someone decent, at the very least.

But, heaven help him, he wasn’t about to deposit a paragon at her feet. He wasn’t nearly that masochistic.

Athena didn’t know what she wished for in a husband. Harry would simply help her formulate a list. A list of what she
didn’t
want.

He guided Mr. Howard, a slight acquaintance from one of his clubs, through the crowd toward Athena, silently chastising himself for ever agreeing to aid and abet Athena’s foray into the blasted auction for brides and grooms and marriages he could never truly be a part of.

“Your Grace,” Harry addressed Persephone with a very appropriate bow, something they were sure to remember in public, even if their interactions in private tended toward the informality one would expect of two people on terms not unlike siblings, “might I make known to you Mr. Howard.”

Persephone inclined her head in a show of condescending agreement. Harry very nearly laughed out loud. Adam had taught his wife well; she could dampen the pretensions of even the most determined of toad-eaters.

“Mr. Howard, I present to you Her Grace, the Duchess of Kielder.”

Harry actually heard Mr. Howard swallow thickly at the title connected to the kingdom’s most feared personage. He acquitted himself admirably, though, bowing as was expected and uttering something that resembled an expression of honor at the introduction.

Harry pressed forward, lest the poor man lose courage and back away before Athena had a chance to become acquainted with him. There would be no point in making the introductions if Athena did not have that opportunity.

Mr. Howard was presented to Miss Lancaster, and the appropriate inane comments were exchanged. Into the awkward silence that followed, Athena attempted a conversation.

“Mr. Howard,” she asked, “from which part of the kingdom do you hail?”

“Essex,” Mr. Howard answered quite seriously.

“Essex, I understand, is a very beautiful county,” Athena offered.

Mr. Howard simply nodded. Harry felt a smile tugging at his lips. Mr. Howard was quite the least talkative person of Harry’s acquaintance. It was not a result of timidity; Harry would never take advantage of a character trait that was so inherently vulnerable. Mr. Howard simply never felt the need to say much above four words at a time. And he was quite without anything resembling a sense of humor. His every remark was made somberly, whether or not such a tone was fitting.

Mr. Howard nodded, the sort of nod one would use when discussing deaths or difficult legal questions or war. “There are some very fine trees in Essex.”

Harry fought back a smile.
Work your magic, Howard.

“I believe I saw several very exemplary trees when I was last in Essex,” a gentleman standing near Athena said. Harry recognized him. Charles Dalforth was a gentleman of some expectations, if not true personal wealth, who was universally regarded as honorable and declared to be a good sort of chap by the members of his club. He would require watching, Harry decided. But Mr. Howard was to be the focus of that evening’s undertaking. Mr. Dalforth’s eyes met Harry’s, a look of amusement in their depths. He, apparently, could see the ridiculousness of Mr. Howard’s conversation.

Harry simply raised his eyebrows and allowed his lips to turn up ever so slightly.

Mr. Howard nodded, the space between his eyebrows creasing with thought. “Indeed. We have some very fine elms.”

A general nod rippled through the group. Persephone turned toward one of the others gathered nearby and opened her mouth to speak, but Mr. Howard spoke again.

“And birches.”

Persephone offered a polite smile.

“Ash.”

Harry allowed his eyes to stray to Athena and was not disappointed. She seemed to be fluctuating between confusion and amusement.

“Willow.”

All eyes were on Mr. Howard. His rather bland and exceptionally persistent listing of native trees had caught the others off guard.

“Yew.”

Athena’s eyes met Harry’s, and he could no longer hold back his smile. She raised an eyebrow in obvious inquiry, tipping her head slightly in Mr. Howard’s direction. Harry managed an almost indiscernible shrug but allowed a small lifting of his eyebrows. Her eyes narrowed slightly. Harry pasted his most innocent expression on his face.

Slowly, beautifully, a smile spread across her mouth, bringing out the mesmerizing dimple he’d discovered at the left of her mouth the first time he’d seen her smile. Harry had to force himself to continue breathing evenly, to prevent any trace of the effect she had on him from showing in his features. Lands, she was beautiful.

“Miss Lancaster.” Mr. Howard’s voice broke the moment, pulling Athena’s still-smiling gaze away from Harry. He immediately felt loss at the severed connection, even as he registered the relief of being able to breathe again. “I see you are enthusiastic about yews.”

A flicker of surprise passed over Athena’s face, and Harry had to force back his grin once more. “Yews?” Athena repeated. “As in trees?”

“What other yews are there?” Mr. Howard asked quite seriously.

“There are sheep,” Mr. Dalforth supplied, a touch of humor barely noticeable in his tone. “Ewes, I believe, can refer to sheep.”

“But that is spelled differently,” Mr. Howard answered as though puzzling out a very complicated matter.

Mr. Dalforth smiled. “So it is,” he said with obvious good humor. He turned to Persephone. “Your Grace.” He bowed quite properly. “I believe our hostess is indicating that the second half of tonight’s entertainment”—he offered the last word with a note of irony in his voice—“is set to begin. I must reluctantly take my leave, as my mother quite specifically requested I sit beside her this evening.”

“One must ever be mindful of one’s mother,” Persephone replied.

“Indeed,” Mr. Dalforth said. “And I was pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Lancaster,” he offered to Athena.

“And I yours, Mr. Dalforth,” Athena replied with a smile.

Harry was quick to reassure himself that Athena’s smile for
him
had been far broader.

No sooner had Mr. Dalforth slipped from sight than Mr. Howard picked up the discarded topic of only moments earlier. “What other trees are among your favorites, Miss Lancaster?” he asked Athena.

“Well . . . I . . .” Harry fancied he could see her thoughts tumbling in her head as she strove for an answer. “There is a very fine holly tree near the gates to Falstone Castle.”

“Holly,” Mr. Howard replied, nodding gravely, brow furrowed with contemplation.

“Shall we escort the ladies to their seats?” Harry suggested to Mr. Howard.

His suggestion was taken up with enthusiasm by Mr. Howard, if not by Athena. She cast him a very brief but very loaded glance of surprise. In the end, civility required she accept the arm Mr. Howard offered and endure the ongoing list of trees he continued to belabor as they moved slowly back to the spot she and her sister had occupied during the first part of the evening.

Mr. Howard took his leave of the ladies in the ponderous way Harry had come to expect before making his way back to his own seat. Harry, by virtue of having accompanied the ladies to the Hardfords’, had a seat between Athena and her sister and was not obliged to remove himself from their presence.

“Was there a reason, Mr. Windover,” Athena whispered over the sounds of the assembly settling in, “for your rather pointed introduction to Mr. Howard?”

She sounded slightly put out. Harry took that as a good sign.

“Did you not like Mr. Howard?” Harry asked.

“It is not a matter of
dis
liking him,” Athena replied. “I simply wonder if you had anticipated that I would like him so very much. I have never known you to be so obvious in making Persephone and I known to your friends.”

Friend?
Mr. Howard hardly fell into that category.

“Am I to assume then, my dear”—Harry kept the endearment light all the while assessing her reaction to it. She seemed not to notice—“that Mr. Howard has not proven the object of your matrimonial searching?”

“I beg your pardon?” Athena replied, her voice a shocked whisper.

“He is, I assure you, both a gentleman and quite eligible. You informed me only last night that those were your only requirements.” Harry managed to keep his tone and expression innocent. “I thought you would be pleased to meet the fulfillment of all your hopes and dreams.”

“What do you know of my hopes and dreams?” Athena asked, turning her face away from him and toward the pianoforte at the front of the room.

I guarantee I know more of yours than you know of mine.
“Again, I remind you of your declarations of not twenty-four hours ago,” Harry said aloud, though quietly. “A gentleman who is eligible. I see no way in which Mr. Howard does not meet those requirements. Unless there are other things you desire in a potential suitor of which you have not made me aware.”

Athena turned back to look at him, her mouth set in a line of growing annoyance. “I should very much like any suitor for my hand to have more conversation than a ceaseless listing of flora.”

“So the man who will win your heart ought to be a gentleman, eligible,
and
conversant.” Harry made a show of setting this bit of insight to memory.

“And not be so decidedly serious,” Athena added, shaking her head. “I would hope he would improve upon greater acquaintance, but somehow I find myself doubtful. I could not bear the continuing company of a man who was so very grave all the time.”

“A gentleman, eligible, conversant,
and
with some degree of lightheartedness.” Harry nodded in approval. “Should I find myself in company with such a one, I shall be certain to introduce him to you.”

Any response Athena might have made was prevented by the resuming of the musical showcasing common to the
ton
’s musicales.

Harry’s mind was already turning. Athena’s list had become a little more specific—precisely what he had hoped for. But it was hardly specific enough to prevent a catastrophic misalliance
.
The question remained: which absolutely essential character trait ought he to convince her of next?

BOOK: Courting Miss Lancaster
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