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Authors: Sarah M. Eden

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“Indeed, I am,” Athena replied, returning the gesture.

“Has this evening’s offering been to your liking?”

“I was wondering precisely the same thing,” Harry said, giving Athena a look of barely concealed amusement accompanied by the lifting of that one communicative eyebrow. “More to the point, I have been pondering which part of the evening, thus far, has been your favorite? Or, rather, which part are you likely to find yourself reflecting on later?”

Suddenly, Athena was fighting down another blush. Pulling her dignity around herself, Athena raised her chin a fraction and met Harry’s gaze with one of her own. “Nothing about the show has, as of yet, struck me as particularly memorable. Indeed, I daresay I shall look back on this evening and be unable to differentiate it from any other evening I have spent or will spend at the theater.”

Harry seemed unaffected. There was no indication that he took her barb at all to heart. “Except, of course, for the fact that this will be remembered as the evening you made Mr. Handley’s acquaintance,” Harry said.

Athena felt her blush deepen. She had inadvertently insulted her new acquaintance. “I, naturally, was speaking only of the time spent
during
the performance. Those tedious moments will most certainly be almost immediately forgotten. The intermission, however, has already proven enjoyable.”

Mr. Handley smiled at that. But Harry, Athena noticed with a secret surge of triumph, simply raised that eyebrow of his once more.

“Tell us, Handley,” Harry said abruptly. “How do you feel about trees?”

Chapter 8

Athena smiled at Mr. Handley as she entered the Falstone House drawing room. He had remained in their box at the theater the night before for most of the first intermission, and Athena had found she liked him a great deal more than any of the other gentlemen Harry had introduced to her. He had asked her to ride out with him the next afternoon, and Persephone had granted her permission.

It was a shame, really, that Harry hadn’t come across his more agreeable acquaintances first. That Mr. Howard and Mr. Peterbrook had attended the same events as they had certainly could not be laid at Harry’s door. If only those gentlemen more like Mr. Handley had made appearances earlier in the Little Season, Athena might have been spared the ordeal of riding out with Mr. Peterbrook as well as the tedium of discussing trees each and every time Mr. Howard crossed her path. Thankfully, neither gentleman was present at the moment.

“I hope I have not kept you waiting,” Athena said after the appropriate exchange of a bow and a curtsy.

“Not at all,” he replied with a smile.

He had a nice smile, Athena thought to herself. It lacked some of the flash of Mr. Peterbrook’s, something for which she was grateful. And it did not have that feeling of barely concealed, contagious laughter that Harry’s always contained, but Athena had never met another person, gentleman or lady, whose smiles quite equaled Harry’s. He’d even managed to make her smile in those difficult hours after Persephone’s wedding. Athena had been heartbroken to part with her sister and worried over the life Persephone had chosen in order to rescue her family from financial ruin. Harry, however, had actually made her laugh at a time when she’d felt like her world was falling apart.

“Did you enjoy the remainder of the performance last evening?” Mr. Handley asked as they began their descent to the ground floor and toward the front door.

“I did,” Athena replied, thankful he had not spoken yet of trees nor of his collection of jackets, cravats, or footwear. It seemed she had finally met a gentleman who could be given actual consideration as a potential suitor. He possessed intellect beyond arboreal trivia, was not consumed with thoughts of himself; he was a gentleman, unmarried, and smiled enough to not be dismal company. Mr. Handley appeared to be precisely what she was looking for.

A landau in a very regal shade of deepest green was waiting just at the curb in front of Falstone House, a pair of finely matched chestnuts waiting patiently, a liveried coachman atop his box, a tiger in matching livery holding the horses at a stand. Some would consider a landau somewhat dated for a young, single gentleman—curricles being considered quite the thing amongst that group. Athena was, in all actuality, relieved to see the stately vehicle. Mr. Peterbrook had driven her out in his bright blue curricle, the color chosen to accentuate his eyes, or so he had more than once told her. And he had driven altogether too fast and reckless. His driving had left her fearing for her safety while his conversation had seriously threatened her sanity. This drive, she was certain, would be far better.

A footman appeared to open the door of the landau and lower the steps. Mr. Handley handed her up, and Athena smiled before shifting to sit on the forward-facing bench.

“Mother prefers that seat, Miss Lancaster,” Mr. Handley told her, urgency in his voice.

“Mother?” Athena asked in confusion.

He motioned to the seat she was about to assume, and Athena glanced quickly behind her, realizing for the first time that the open carriage was not unoccupied. A woman, swathed in several heavy shawls, and small enough that her head did not come much above the seat in which she was sitting, eyed Athena petulantly.

“Oh.” Athena was startled into a rather simpleminded response.

“The rear-facing seat is available, however,” Mr. Langley offered.

The rear-facing seat?
To offer a young lady the rear-facing seat, when a place was available on the forward-facing seat, was not terribly civil. Mrs. Langley sat precisely in the middle of her bench, not permitting a second occupant to sit there. And, it seemed, Mr. Langley had no intention of rectifying the slight.

Athena settled herself opposite Mrs. Langley, but to one side of the bench, so Mr. Langley would have a place to sit. She managed a smile, reminding herself that older women could be cantankerous. She hadn’t been expecting Mr. Langley’s mother to be part of their afternoon drive, but such things were not
entirely
unheard of. And it was to his credit that Mr. Langley saw to his mother’s comfort, was it not?

Mr. Langley stepped up and, to Athena’s surprise, sat next to his mother, she having made room for her son with a swiftness of movement that caught Athena entirely off guard.

“Are you quite comfortable, Mother?” Mr. Langley asked. “Do you wish for another carriage blanket?”

“No, dear.” Mrs. Langley patted her son’s hand, smiling quite sweetly at him.

He was solicitous of his mother’s welfare—Athena could certainly say that of Mr. Langley. Mrs. Langley had the prior claim on her son’s attention, not to mention a far greater claim. And they made such a touching picture of maternal affection and filial loyalty.

Athena smiled across the carriage at them just as Mrs. Langley’s eyes shifted from her son’s face to Athena’s. The woman’s smile was instantly replaced by a narrow-eyed look of evaluation. Her long, pointed noise and rather piercing dark eyes put Athena firmly in mind of the hunting dogs a neighbor in Shropshire had kept when she was a little girl.

“Who’s the gel?” Mrs. Langley asked, her voice nasally and stringent.

“This is Miss Athena Lancaster, Mother,” Mr. Langley replied.

“Lancaster?” Mrs. Langley’s forehead wrinkled up like a wad of fabric. “Never heard of any Lancasters worth knowing.”

Athena was too taken aback to do more than stare mutely.

“Her sister is the Duchess of Kielder,” Mr. Langley answered.

“Hmmph.” It wasn’t a very flattering response. “I suppose she’s considered something of a beauty.” There was enough doubt in Mrs. Langley’s tone to take any hint of a compliment out of her words.

“I—” The single word was all that Mr. Langley managed before his mother’s gaze shifted to him. “Er—she does not, of course, hold a candle to your own handsomeness.”

Mrs. Langley was suddenly all tender smiles. Another hand pat clearly communicated her approval of her son’s evaluation. “I have always been thought to be a handsome woman,” she said. “Though I am certain the years have diminished my looks.”

“Not at all, Mother.”

Another hand pat preceded a look of undisguised triumph shot in Athena’s direction. Athena was certain she looked like the greatest simpleton in all the world, sitting as she was with her mouth slightly agape, unable to formulate a thought, let alone a response. Mrs. Langley was as shriveled as a prune. And her wrinkles were not the sort borne of a lifetime of laughter. She had the appearance of one who spent hours on end sucking on lemons.

Mr. Langley continued fussing over his mother as they approached the entrance to Hyde Park, not a glance or word spared for Athena’s benefit.

“Do you require many hours in curling papers to create such a riotous amount of curls, Miss Lancaster?” Mrs. Langley asked.

“No,” Athena answered, dumbfounded.

“No doubt, your impatience leaves you with flat hair before the end of an evening.” Mrs. Langley sniffed.

“My curls are not created with curling papers,” Athena answered, realizing she’d been misunderstood. “They are natural.”

“Of course they are.” The comment was not merely dripping with sarcasm, it was saturated with it. “Your father. Who are his people? What sort of family connections does he have?”

Athena clasped her hands in her lap, doing her best to maintain a calm and civil demeanor. “His grandfather was Lord Henley, though the title now belongs to a somewhat distant cousin of mine.”

“That is not a barony of great significance,” Mrs. Langley said with another audible sniff.

“The baronies in your family
are,
then, I assume,” Athena shot back.

Mrs. Langley’s mouth tightened, but she didn’t reply. Athena strongly suspected there were no titles, significant or otherwise, in Mrs. Langley’s family. Only a moment passed before Mrs. Langley continued her picking. “And what kind of person is your mother?” she asked, her tone indicating she expected to hear something to disapprove of.

Athena gave her a very direct look. She would not endure insults to her beloved, departed mother. So Athena selected a response she knew would close the subject. “The dead kind,” she answered, turning her face away, gazing as if mesmerized by the passing view.

The landau slowed to nearly a stop as they converged upon the congestion of Hyde Park. All around them was the noise and commotion of the fashionable hour, but amongst the passengers of the Langley carriage there was only tense silence. Mrs. Langley managed to look both indignant and frail, depending upon which of her fellow travelers she was looking at. Mr. Langley had grown felicitous to the point of being almost frantic. Athena was simply annoyed. From the moment they’d entered the carriage, Mr. Langley had essentially forgotten her existence. If only his mother had as well.

“Now. See there, Jonas,” Mrs. Langley said, breaking her blessed silence. “There is Miss Harrington. Now
she
is quite an agreeable young lady. Her uncle is an earl, you know. And her mother is the daughter of a marquess.” Mrs. Langley gave Athena a look so pointed Athena half expected to find herself bleeding from someplace vital. “And yet
she
does not put on airs. I do not think we would hear her spouting nonsense about natural curls and family connections that were not worth mentioning.”

Athena clasped her fingers more tightly, keeping herself quiet by sheer willpower. If only Adam were in the carriage at that moment. He would set the dragon to the right about!

“Quite right, Mother,” Mr. Langley agreed. That was all he’d done from the moment they’d left Falstone House. He’d simpered and fussed and agreed to every bit of nonsense that had dropped out of his mother’s mouth.

“Oh, Jonas! See. There is Mr. Windover. Do wave him over. I simply must speak with him.”

Harry? Athena shifted in her seat enough to peer in the direction Mrs. Langley was indicating. Sure enough, there was Harry, riding his dappled mare and looking as carefree and unaffected as ever. Harry and his ridiculous friends!

A moment later, Harry was beside the landau. “Mrs. Langley,” he offered with a most charming smile. “You are as handsome as ever.”

“Flatterer,” Mrs. Langley replied with a playful wave of her hand.

“Not at all,” Harry grinned. “I have often said that you are a lady whose looks defy comparison.”

Harry’s eyes slung quickly to Athena, laughter sparkling in their depths. Athena understood then. Harry was speaking absolutely truthfully but phrasing his words in a way that could, if one was inclined to hear them a certain way, be interpreted as flattering. “Miss Lancaster,” he said, sounding for all the world as if he had only just noticed her there, even though his mischievous smile told Athena otherwise. “Well met. How are you enjoying Hyde Park this afternoon?”

“The park is much as it was the last time I was here,” Athena replied, borrowing Harry’s method of careful phrasing.

“Would you say you are enjoying your ride today as much as you did on your previous jaunt?”

“In some ways I would even say this ride has exceeded the experience of my last.”

“Oh, I see.” Harry kept his tone light and cheerful, but Athena saw empathy in his eyes that nearly undid her determined air of indifference. Mrs. Langley’s barbs had not been enjoyable.

“Miss Lancaster is the Duke of Kielder’s
ward,
I understand,” Mrs. Langley said, commandeering the conversation once more. She’d managed to make the position of “ward” sound as demeaning as “boot boy” or “scullery maid.”

“She is, in fact, his sister-in-law,” Harry corrected but with such a brilliant smile, Mrs. Langley responded with an almost infatuated smile of her own. Athena couldn’t help noting that Mr. Langley knew as much but had not seen that she was given her proper place in his mother’s estimation.

“Tell me,” Mrs. Langley leaned closer to Harry, her layer upon layer of facial wrinkles piling atop one another as she twisted her face into a conspiratorial look, “do all of His Grace’s wards claim to have naturally curly hair as this one does?”

“Miss Lancaster’s youngest sister, as well as her brother, share with Miss Lancaster the very great fortune of having been born with the envy-inspiring ringlets you see before you,” Harry told her. “Her Grace, the Duchess of Kielder, has perfectly lovely hair, as does another of His Grace’s sisters-in-law, though their hair does not curl naturally as Miss Lancaster’s does.”

“So it
is
natural.” Mrs. Langley was obviously not happy to discover as much.

“It is, indeed. Naturally beautiful.” Harry smiled at Athena, and something about his expression, coupled with his tone, made her blush.

“It is a shame the gel is so impertinent,” Mrs. Langley said, skewering Athena with her beady little eyes. Athena had to clamp her jaw shut to keep from saying something uncivil. “If she weren’t generally quiet, she wouldn’t be welcomed anywhere, I dare say.”

“The Duke of Kielder’s sister-in-law will always be welcomed everywhere,” Harry countered. His eyes fell on Mr. Langley, pulling that gentleman’s gaze away from his mother for the first time in a quarter of an hour. “And all would be advised to remember that His Grace does not take kindly to seeing his loved ones, most especially his wife’s family, mistreated or made unhappy.”

Athena heard Mr. Langley clear his throat uncomfortably.

“His Grace is particularly disapproving of insults,” Harry continued, still watching Mr. Langley closely, a warning obvious in his tone. “Even the royal family dares not slight those His Grace considers under his protection. One would be well-advised not to allow the duke’s family members to be made unhappy lest one find oneself in His Grace’s black books.”

BOOK: Courting Miss Lancaster
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