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Authors: Sarah M. Eden

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“Might I join you as well?” a familiar voice asked.

Athena smiled up at Mr. Dalforth, though it was for Persephone to answer his request. Permission was granted, and Athena found herself in the happy circumstance of having Mr. Dalforth seated beside her. He was perhaps the only gentleman she had met since her arrival in London whose company did not quickly become unwelcome.

So why, she silently asked herself, did Harry seem suddenly very unwelcoming of Mr. Dalforth?

Chapter 10

“How have you enjoyed this evening’s spectacle?” Sir Hubert asked Athena, a sardonic twist to both his words and his mouth.

“Spectacle?”
Athena repeated, confused at his word choice.

“Certainly a spectacle,” he answered with a brief, humorless laugh. “Few, if any, of the performers had any skill to speak of, and even that in remarkably sparse quantities.”

“I thought the performances were reasonably good,” Athena answered, eyeing Sir Hubert warily. His tone was dismissive, bored, even. But his words were remarkably critical. “These are amateurs, after all.”

“If they had been professional performers, Miss Lancaster,” he replied with the same mixture of haughtiness and indifference he’d managed with every word he’d spoken to her thus far, “I would be forced to question the future of music in this nation of ours. Indeed, such displays as we have endured tonight would signal the end of refined tastes, were they representative of the very best England has to offer.”

Athena was entirely taken aback by his sharp criticisms. A musical evening was meant to be a time of indulgent attentiveness; no one came expecting to be amazed. And, as such things went, that evening’s entertainment had been better than most. “I do not believe anyone felt themselves to be displaying that level of talent.”

“I do not believe anyone displayed any talent at all,” Sir Hubert replied, a harsh twinkle in his eye that indicated he was impressed by his own wit.

“Are you a talented musician, then, Sir Hubert?” Athena asked, searching out the reason for the baronet’s disdain.

“One need not possess a given talent in order to recognize its lack in others,” was his reply.

“Did you find nothing about this evening enjoyable?” Athena pressed.

“One of the young ladies displaying this evening—”

Displaying
was such an odd choice of word.
Performing
would have been more common.
Playing,
even.

“—was passably pretty, I thought, if one was willing to overlook the ridiculous size of her nose.”

Athena simply stared. She had watched the performers all night and had thought each lovely in her own way. Not all would be considered beauties, but she had not thought any to be truly unhandsome.

“You must have a very strange definition of ‘passably pretty,’” Athena said. The food on her plate was all but forgotten, her shock having pasted her attention to Sir Hubert. The thudding of her headache was sliding around, covering more of her scalp and pulsating into her shoulders.

“You think me too lenient, no doubt,” Sir Hubert said, smiling as if they shared some secret agreement. Athena did not at all like the feeling of being in agreement with Sir Hubert on anything. “To me, ‘passably pretty’ simply means she is unlikely to scare small children or send animals into frightened scurries.”

There really was no response to that.

“And you, Miss Lancaster, would be well advised not to stare in quite that manner with your mouth agape as it is. You put one forcibly in mind of an overly ripe fish. If not for that unfortunate resemblance, you could be considered quite one of the more handsome ladies present this evening. At least somewhere in the top dozen or so.”

“I beg your pardon?” Athena heard her strangled whisper, her tone the result of her surprise.

“Too lenient, again, I know. It is a failing in myself I work quite hard at overcoming.” Sir Hubert sighed as if his attempts at being a complete and utter cad had thoroughly exhausted him.

Athena was speechless, stunned.

“Her Grace could be a rather pretty lady if only her very plain coloring did not render her so entirely unremarkable.”

As if to prove that her previous state of surprise was only minimal, Athena felt something akin to shock settle over her. Sir Hubert spoke in absolutely serious tones. It wasn’t the arrogant superiority of Mr. Peterbrook. Sir Hubert didn’t profess to be, himself, the epitome of good looks. He occupied himself with offering scathing evaluations of any and all around him, regardless of their proximity.

“But, then, Kielder couldn’t exactly be picky, could he?” Sir Hubert flicked his gaze momentarily over Persephone, obvious disapproval in his eyes. “Compared to
him,
any lady would seem a beauty.”

Persephone didn’t so much as flinch, but Athena saw that she had turned alarmingly pale and that she had not completely hidden the pain that lurked in the depths of her eyes. Doubts over her attractiveness was one of Persephone’s most tender vulnerabilities. Athena knew as much. Persephone seldom let her poise slip, but Athena was painfully aware that Persephone far too often thought of herself in just the way Sir Hubert had described: “entirely unremarkable.” Seeing her sister’s hard-won composure had Athena instantly on the verge of tears.

What a horrid, acidic man!

“You are making your fish face again,” Sir Hubert said to Athena, nose crinkled as if she
smelled
like a fish rather than simply
looked
like one. “There is not likely to be another gentleman whose desperation allows him to overlook such things. Not all unfortunate females have the luck your sister did.”

“You do realize, Sir Hubert,” Mr. Dalforth said, reminding Athena of his presence at her side, “these two ladies are the Duke of Kielder’s wife and sister-in-law. He is unlikely to take kindly to your slanderous comments.”

“They can hardly be slanderous when they are true.” Sir Hubert smiled almost pityingly. “No gentleman of discernment could deny that Her Grace is plain by any standards. His Grace, I am certain, has noticed as much. He is, after all, missing an ear, not an eye. It makes sense, does it not, that any lady desperate enough to marry a man like the duke would have to be in possession of a face so lacking in beauty as to have exhausted all hope of making a more agreeable match.”

Athena had always thought that ladies who gasped in shock did so purely for the dramatic effect. But the quick, audible breath she took was unintentional and very much the result of her all-consuming surprise.

“And, once again,” Sir Hubert motioned in Athena’s direction, “Miss Lancaster demonstrates so ably my point about her fishlike tendencies. I swear to you, she looks very much like a carp I caught not long ago at Hoppleforth.”

Athena bit on her lip to stop its quivering so she would not give Sir Hubert the satisfaction of seeing that his words injured her. Nor would she disgrace herself in public and give him further reason to berate her. She slipped her gaze to Harry across the table, silently pleading for an escape. She knew that he, somehow, would know precisely what she needed. He always did.

“Your Grace,” Harry spoke with all the deference a duchess ought to be afforded but with an air of confidence and authority as well, “I fear this evening’s guest list has proven far too
common,
” he speared Sir Hubert with a look of such superiority that Athena hardly recognized the usually affable Harry Windover, “for your company. I would suggest we make our way to our next engagement, where those present are more likely to be counted among those on a more even plane with yourself.”

As a set-down it was remarkably good. But Sir Hubert seemed unscathed.

“Allow me to offer my escort as well,” Mr. Dalforth interjected, the two gentlemen rising to assist Athena and Persephone from their seats.

Harry led the silent group directly to their hostess, and, after thanking Mrs. Fitzpatrick for the music, though he pointedly did not refer to the evening as “enjoyable,” he brought them all to the entry hall. The Kielder carriage was summoned whilst the ladies’ wraps and the gentlemen’s overcoats were returned to them.

“Miss Lancaster,” Mr. Dalforth said after handing her into the waiting carriage, “might I request the honor of taking you for a drive tomorrow at the fashionable hour?”

Athena’s battered pride was too bruised to prevent a disbelieving reply. “You wish to be seen with a lady who looks like a fish?” she said quietly. The remark she intended to be light came out heavy as lead.

“No,” Mr. Dalforth replied, “I wish to be seen about with
you.

Athena offered a shaky smile, looking to Persephone for permission. “Of course,” was her very quiet response.

“I shall call for you, then, approximately one-quarter ’til the hour.”

“Thank you, sir,” Athena replied, feeling the sting of tears in her throat once more.

“And, Windover, I hope I might run into you tomorrow as well. Perhaps at our club.” There was something in Mr. Dalforth’s tone that indicated it was not, in fact, a request.

The tension between the men was palpable enough to penetrate the fog of pain quickly descending over Athena’s mind, her headache having built in intensity. She glanced quickly in Harry’s direction and saw him nod minutely, his expression tight. But Athena hadn’t the stamina to devote any effort to discerning the exchange between the two gentlemen. She simply wanted to go back to Falstone House and try to forget she had ever met Sir Hubert Collington.

A moment later they were making their way swiftly through the streets of London. The headache Athena had endured on the drive to the Fitzpatricks’ was a mere nuisance compared to the monumental pain she was enduring on the drive back. The terms
fish face
and
desperation
echoed in her throbbing skull.

“I certainly hope, Harry, that you do not actually intend to take us to another event this evening,” Persephone said, her voice steady but uncharacteristically quiet.

“Not at all,” he replied, his usual joviality missing. “We are returning to Falstone House.”

Athena released a breath thick with relief and leaned back against the comfortable squabs of the luxurious carriage. She closed her eyes, listening to the pounding of her heart reverberating in her head. Athena was certain that if she could only manage to sleep, her head would feel better. In the light of the morning she might even manage to shake off the sting of Sir Hubert’s remarks.

“Come warm yourself by the fire in the book room,” Persephone said to Harry once they had arrived, her voice still too subdued for Athena’s peace of mind. Sir Hubert’s barbs had gone deep.

Harry agreed, managing a smile that didn’t look entirely natural. Athena pondered slipping upstairs to the quiet of her bedchamber but immediately thought better of it. Persephone had spent the evening in the company of one acerbic, ill-tempered gentleman. Adam wasn’t usually any better. Athena had been unable to defend her sister to Sir Hubert. She would not fail her again.

Setting her shoulders and willing the pulsating agony in her head to not thwart her, Athena followed Persephone and Harry to the book room. Adam was in a chair near the fireplace, an open book in one hand. He looked up as they entered, and Athena pushed down her characteristic trepidation. Adam intimidated her, worried her. But she stood near the door, determined to be there if she was needed.

“You are home early,” Adam said, rising to his feet and setting the book on a table nearby. “Were you not enjoying yourself?”

Persephone shrugged as if to dismiss the thought. She opened her mouth to speak, and, to Athena’s alarm, Persephone’s expression simply crumbled. It was Adam’s reaction, however, that surprised her most. She would have expected disapproval—annoyance, perhaps. What she saw was pure, undisguised worry.

Adam was across the room in an instant. “What happened?”

“Oh, Adam!” was Persephone’s watery reply.

Adam wrapped Persephone in his arms, his brows knit in confusion. “Persephone?” he asked softly, his tone filled with concern. “Persephone, dear, tell me what’s happened.”

But Persephone kept her face buried against Adam’s chest and didn’t answer.

“Harry.” There was the authoritative tone Athena expected from Adam. She stepped back without conscious thought and pressed herself against the wall. “Explain this.”

“Your duchess and Miss Lancaster have had the dubious honor of making the acquaintance of Sir Hubert Collington,” Harry answered.

“And were, no doubt, shocked at the poisonous nature of his company,” Adam replied. He still hadn’t released Persephone but had begun gently rubbing her back, rocking her slowly, soothingly. Athena found herself mesmerized by the movement, by the tenderness of it. Was this truly the Duke of Kielder? “On whom did he turn his acidic criticisms this time?” There was obvious disapproval in Adam’s voice, and Athena liked him all the more for it. Adam could be acidic and critical, but at that moment he was the very picture of husbandly concern.

There was a moment of uneasy silence. Harry didn’t answer out loud. He motioned, subtly, with a nod of his head toward Persephone. Athena saw Adam stiffen, saw the look of the Dangerous Duke return to his face. “What did he say?” It was not a request.

“I do not think, Adam, that Persephone needs to hear those things again,” Harry replied.

“Again? Sir Hubert said these things
to
her?” Adam’s tone would have warned even the densest of beings that he was well on his way to being furious.

“And to Athena,” Harry confirmed.

Adam’s eyes snapped to where Athena stood near the doorway. She hadn’t even realized he’d seen her there. She stiffened, her heart beating faster. Would he blame her? Would he be upset that she hadn’t done more to stand up for Persephone?

“Are you all right?” Adam asked. His obvious sincerity broke through her last paper-thin barrier, and she found herself wiping at a tear, a sob caught in her throat.

“Athena.” It was Harry’s voice, more of a sigh than an actual spoken word. His expression was harder on her composure than Adam’s. He looked so terribly guilty, like he blamed himself for the horrific experience of her being quite thoroughly and publicly insulted. And, suddenly, the entire ordeal was overwhelmingly humiliating.

With a sob she couldn’t prevent, Athena spun on her heels and fled to the quiet sanctuary of her room.

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