Authors: Sarah M. Eden
Laws! She was a vision. There was something almost painful about seeing Athena, the glow from the windows turning her golden halo of curls molten in the early evening sunlight. She possessed a figure any woman would envy and a breathtakingly beautiful countenance. Harry was certain she’d received compliments from more men than she could even remember. He couldn’t help wondering what her impression was of him. He didn’t consider himself anything out of the ordinary. His hair was neither light nor dark, his eyes an indifferent shade of blue. While a penchant for riding Adam’s vast assortment of horses and the necessity of walking whenever his friend’s stables were not convenient kept Harry in good physical shape, he doubted his build inspired any of the sighs and longing looks he’d seen directed toward the more sporting members of the Corinthian set.
He must have made some noise passing through the threshold to the drawing room. Athena spun around, her gaze pulled from the scene outside the windows and resting on him. Only a moment was required to register the fact that he had, indeed, found himself in the suds with the usually affable light of his life. The look on her face was decidedly laced with pique. But what on earth had he done?
“Good afternoon, Athena,” he greeted warily, approaching slowly and watching her expression for any indication of the reason she was upset with him. No clues were forthcoming.
“Is it?” she asked peevishly.
“A good afternoon?”
She crossed her arms in front of her and watched him, lips pursed. Harry found it necessary to clear his throat. Even his cravat had grown uncomfortably snug. Lud, he needed to find out what he’d done to warrant such a look of reproach. He was discovering that having Athena upset with him was remarkably distressing.
“It is certainly not a good afternoon if you are upset with me,” he admitted, moving closer to where she stood glaring at him. Some of Athena’s aggravation seemed to slip from her posture, though she did not yet look happy with him. He’d much rather see Athena smile at him than scowl. “Dare I ask what infraction I find myself guilty of committing, or have I further condemned myself by admitting that I do not know the reason for the black looks I am receiving?”
The slightest twitch of a smile tugged at Athena’s mouth, and Harry felt himself truly breathing for the first time since entering the room. Perhaps he was to be forgiven, after all.
“I have just endured the most horrendous drive through Hyde Park imaginable,” Athena said and gave him a look so pointed that it was obviously meant to be a thorough enough explanation.
“And I am in trouble because
was not the one driving you?” Harry asked, using a teasing tone to cover the fact that he genuinely hoped that was the reason.
“I would have far preferred being with you,” she confessed, looking as though she was reluctant to say something flattering while she was determined to be upset with him.
“Do you wish to talk about it?” Harry asked. “I have been told I am a remarkably good listener.”
He heard Athena sigh and watched as her shoulders slumped. Harry held his hand out to indicate she should sit on the sofa. He felt his lungs catch in his chest when she slipped her hand in his as she came to his side. Harry wrapped his fingers around hers and walked with her to the sofa. He breathed in the scent of her, the familiar aroma of violets, as he waited for her to speak. He allowed her to sit before reluctantly releasing her hand and sitting in a nearby chair. As much as he would have preferred to sit beside her on the sofa, he knew he did not have that right. He was pushing the bounds of propriety as it was, being alone with her in the drawing room, never mind that the door was left quite widely ajar.
“It was essentially torturous,” Athena said with a shrug that wasn’t nearly as unconcerned as she probably hoped it to appear.
“With whom did you drive out?” That proved to be the wrong question. Athena pierced him with another look of frustration.
“Mr. Peterbrook,” she replied, words tight and accusatory.
“I can certainly understand your displeasure at spending the length of a drive with him,” Harry answered, not bothering to hide his confusion. “But how is it that I have earned your wrath over Mr. Peterbrook’s obvious lack of address?”
“You introduced him to me,” she replied, her tone suggesting such a connection should have been obvious.
“I also introduced you to Mr. Howard,” Harry pointed out with a chuckle.
“I know,” she replied. “Do you not know any gentlemen who are desirable companions?”
None that you are going to meet.
“Perhaps you should tell me precisely what Mr. Peterbrook did that was so distressing so I can be sure to introduce you to gentlemen in the future who are unlikely to commit those same infractions.”
They will simply do other obnoxious things.
“Did you know that Mr. Peterbrook owns twenty-three different Weston coats?” Athena asked, her tone of excitement theatrical in its exaggeration. “Five of them are black. Six are blue, but, apparently, vastly different shades of blue. Would you like to know about his footwear?”
“Did you discuss anything other than his wardrobe?” Harry asked.
Finally a smile broke through Athena’s stormy countenance but not broadly enough for that devastating dimple to make an appearance. “He did eventually veer into the myriad compliments paid to him by arbiters of fashion, as well as the precise mixture his valet uses to achieve the enviable shine to the boots that Mr. Peterbrook is, apparently, quite well-known for.”
“Did he discuss anything other than himself?”
“At one point he informed me that my pale blue carriage dress was not overly offensive to his aesthetic sensibilities,” Athena replied, shaking her head in apparent disbelief but still smiling. “Though he could not understand why I had agreed to drive out with him if I did not, in fact, have a green carriage dress as he required.”
“How insufferably pompous.”
“I informed him that I only agreed to drive out with him because I could not think of a way to refuse that would not have been unforgivably rude,” Athena informed him. “And that, had he not asked me in a room full of people whose opinions matter to me, I should have turned him down regardless.”
“You said that to him?” Harry was impressed. He knew Persephone was pluck to the backbone but hadn’t realized Athena had quite so much steel in her.
“For all the good it did.” She waved a hand dismissively. “Either he wasn’t listening or he didn’t understand or simply refused to believe that his invitation had not been eagerly accepted.”
“I would vote for the last possibility.” Harry chuckled. “Peterbrook’s opinion of himself is far too high to admit any kind of rejection.”
“It was a very long carriage ride.” Athena sighed.
An invitation hovered on Harry’s lips. How he would enjoy taking her for a jaunt through the park, absorbing the delight of her company, inhaling the scent of violets that followed her wherever she went. But he did not own a single carriage. He had a horse but didn’t dare risk spoiling it for riding by hitching it to a conveyance. And there was something decidedly lowering about driving Athena about in a borrowed or hired carriage—he would essentially be demonstrating how unacceptable his suit would be. He might as well parade about with a sign hung from his neck delineating his inadequate yearly income and the dilapidated state of his home.
“Haven’t you any friends who are not puffed up by their own consequence?” Athena interrupted in his moment of self-pity.
“Plenty,” Harry assured her.
“Then perhaps you would be so good as to introduce me to
” Athena suggested.
“Mr. Jonas Handley will be at the theater this evening, I understand.” Harry tried to make the declaration sound like a coincidence he’d only just realized. “He is not, I assure you, arrogant.”
“Is he obsessed with trees?” Athena asked dryly.
Harry chuckled. “He is well-spoken and conversant on many topics.”
“Perfect.” Athena sighed with obvious relief.
Harry smiled more broadly.
Don’t count on it, Athena.
* * *
Athena was inarguably aware of the fact that Persephone and Adam were not paying a jot of attention to the performance. The back of the box, where they had situated themselves, was decidedly dark, and Persephone and Adam were as near to being
the curtain as possible without actually being out of the box. Athena had seen Adam take Persephone’s hand in the moment before the curtain rose on the stage, and whispers, interspersed with the occasional quiet giggle, had continuously drifted forward to where Athena sat.
“I believe your sister is a good influence on Adam,” Harry said, leaning over, allowing his whisper to not be overheard.
influence?” she whispered back with disbelief. “I swear I have never blushed so much in all my life.”
There was enough light for Athena to see that Harry was smiling. “He has done nothing more than hold her hand.”
“Then why is she” —a quiet giggle floated around the box— “
“I passed the book room once when they were cuddling.” Athena was sure she was blushing all over again. “Persephone was giggling then.”
“And you do not think that holding her hand would be enough to make her giggle?”
“Hardly,” Athena answered. She had occasionally held a gentleman’s hand in the course of a dance. She had even held Harry’s hand briefly that afternoon in the drawing room. She couldn’t imagine that small amount of contact affecting her the way Harry claimed it was impacting Persephone.
“I assume, then, Mr. Peterbrook didn’t hold your hand during your drive,” Harry said.
“He didn’t even hold my interest.”
Harry chuckled quietly. In the dim light of the theater Athena felt Harry’s hand slip beneath her own, his fingers wrapping gently around hers. It was unexpected and, truth be told, not entirely appropriate. If he had been anyone other than Harry, whom she considered a very dear friend and, therefore, entirely safe, she would have quite vocally objected.
“What are you doing, Harry?” she asked, even laughing a little in her surprise.
“I am only holding your hand, Athena,” he answered with a tone of indifference she didn’t at all trust. He’d used that tone before, usually when he was amused by something but didn’t intend to let her in on the joke right away. “It is perfectly harmless. Or so you have claimed.”
Athena was about to offer a joking rejoinder but realized Harry’s attention had shifted back to the stage. He had not, however, released her hand. She shrugged and shifted her eyes back to the actors plodding through their roles.
A moment passed before Athena realized Harry wasn’t merely holding her hand. His thumb was slowly, softly stroking the back of her hand, as if he did so without realizing it. The movement was unexpectedly distracting. Try as she might, Athena found herself struggling to pay attention to the unfolding plot on the stage.
His thumb continued tracing languid circles along her hand, shifting to travel the length of each finger. It was the most peculiar sensation. He was, after all, doing nothing more than holding her hand. Yet he was doing so much more than that. She slid through conflicting reactions. Part of her wished to snatch her hand back; the way his touch was making her pulse speed and her lungs catch was unnerving. But another equally insistent part of her was almost desperate for him to continue doing whatever it was he was doing.
His touch made her skin tingle, even through her gloves. That had never happened before. Her mind continually insisted, “This is Harry.” Harry was a surrogate brother. He was her replacement for Evander. Wasn’t he? She was keenly aware of the fact that Evander had never made her heart pound in her neck the way it was in that moment.
It was entirely confusing.
The halfhearted applause began, which was customary at the theater from an audience who paid very little attention to the production, signaling the end of the first act. With the tiniest squeeze of her fingers, Harry released Athena’s hand. He turned on his chair, his gaze resting on Adam and Persephone behind them.
“Are you pleased that Persephone talked you into joining us this evening?” Harry asked Adam, mischief sparkling in his eyes.
Athena glanced briefly at her sister and brother-in-law and was surprised at the high color displayed on Persephone’s cheeks. Surprise was quickly supplanted by alarm. Were her own cheeks equally as pink? She thoroughly hoped not but was not at all confident they were not.
They were joined in the next moment by a gentleman, probably about Harry’s and Adam’s age. Not quite Harry’s height, but with the same light brown hair. There were similarities, though Harry showed to far greater advantage.
“Ah, Handley,” Harry said, rising with his usual casual grace. “Wondered if you might stop in for a bit.”
“I—” But the gentleman stopped rather abruptly, his eyes wide as they fell on Adam’s rigid posture. “Your Grace.” He bowed, his voice showing his strained nerves.
“He won’t bite, Handley,” Harry said, chuckling lightly. “Now, you are already acquainted with the duke and duchess.”
“Yes,” was the reply, accompanied by another bow. “A little acquainted.”
Harry indicated Athena, still seated and holding her breath. This must have been the Mr. Jonas Handley of whom Harry had spoken earlier. He had sounded like the sort of gentleman she was hoping to meet.
“Miss Lancaster,” Harry began the usual introduction, “might I introduce to you Mr. Jonas Handley. Handley, this lovely young lady is Miss Lancaster.”
Mr. Handley bowed prettily over her fingers. His touch was not nearly as unnerving as Harry’s had been. But then, Mr. Handley kept his fingers still, something she was quickly deciding had been the real culprit in the tingling incident. Mr. Handley’s touch was also very brief. Something else Harry’s touch had not been.
“Are you enjoying your stay in Town, Miss Lancaster?” Mr. Handley asked, smiling politely.