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Authors: Patricia Oliver

Double Deception

BOOK: Double Deception
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Between Two Fires

Athena Standish was a beautiful young widow with a little girl to raise and a life on the icy edge of poverty to lead. Young Peregrine Steele might have been a trifle too impulsive for her, but he was too handsome, too adoring, and too rich for her to refuse his marriage proposal.

There was but one barrier between Athena and the safe haven of wedlock. Peregrine's father, the Earl of St. Aubyn, saw Athena as a wanton widow in search of wealth and set out to defeat her designs with every weapon at his command, from cold coins to warm kisses. This devastatingly attractive lord had not wanted a woman since his own wife died, but he knew all too well how to make a woman want him—as Athena was torn between the man with a ring for her hand and the one with the key to her heart....

PROLOGUE
The Garden Party

London, Spring 1811

Athena Standish glanced around at the chattering groups of muslin-clad young ladies gathered on the wide, gently sloping lawns of Hereford House and wished most fervently that she had stayed at home.

If she was forced to agree one more time that yes, indeed, the afternoon had turned out to be very fine for Lady Hereford's alfresco breakfast, Athena thought, she would disgrace herself by answering with the first scathing remark that rose to her lips.

By rights she should not have been invited at all, and after an hour of strolling about the luxuriant gardens on what appeared to be the hottest day of the Season, Athena wished she had never received her ladyship's condescending invitation.

"Lady Hereford obviously mistook me for a simpering miss in her first Season," she remarked to her aunt when the gilt-edged card had been delivered earlier that week.

"Nonsense, my dear," Mrs. Mary Easton replied with unusual vigor. "You know that Lord Hereford is a retired colonel from poor, dear John's regiment and takes a personal interest in the affairs of his officers. Lady Hereford is well known for taking on her husband's causes."

Athena winced at the mention of her late husband. "I do not wish to be one of their
causes
," she said firmly. "And I can think of a dozen things I would prefer to do on a hot afternoon than listen to that totty-headed niece of theirs rattle on about her latest purchases from Madame Lucille on Harley Street." Athena glanced speculatively at her aunt, who sat fanning herself half-heartedly on the faded green settee. "Perhaps I should decline her invitation."

Mrs. Easton had uttered a little shriek of horror.

"How you do love to tease, my dear Athena," she tittered breathlessly, her plump little hands fluttering about aimlessly.

"I know you cannot mean to offend her ladyship, so let us hear no more of this nonsense. Doubtless it will be quite pleasant down by the river. And only think, dear, we shall be able to sample Lady Hereford's famous crab patties and iced creams. I declare, I am quite looking forward to it."

Athena threw her aunt a brief, compassionate smile and resumed her needlework. Aunt Mary enjoyed her food, and Athena told herself that to deny her aunt this opportunity to indulge her taste for delicacies her small pension did not allow would be heartless indeed. Athena's own tastes were Spartan by comparison and had been so even before the untimely death of her husband two years ago in Spain. Besides, the thought of eating crab patties in the heat of the day nauseated her.

"It will be dreadfully hot, Aunt," she warned, half hoping that her aunt would balk at another afternoon spent enduring the unseasonably warm weather they were having that Season in London.

Mrs. Easton gave a gurgle of laughter. "Nonsense, child! The Herefords live outside the Metropolis beside the Thames. It is bound to be cooler under the trees by the water, dear. And besides, this is a heaven-sent opportunity to show off our new parasols."

Athena had sighed at the childish delight her aunt took in such small pleasures and made no further attempt to dissuade her. Now, as she glanced about the crowded terrace and the brilliantly green lawn dotted with young ladies barely out of the schoolroom, clad in pale muslins of every conceivable hue, she wondered if the sacrifice had been worth it. She felt positively ancient in the presence of so many giggling innocents, and her dove-gray gown was definitely not in the first stare of fashion. Had she ever been that young and naive? she wondered.

Throwing off these morbid thoughts, Athena drifted down the terraced steps towards the river. Perhaps it would be cooler beside the water, she thought, forcing herself to nod and smile at an enormous dowager in purple who appeared to have collapsed in a garden chair, perspiration standing out visibly on her round face. Pretending not to see the spark of curiosity in the dowager's eyes, which heralded a flow of chatter, Athena moved on without a pause until she stood on the riverbank beneath a huge chestnut tree.

Even the water appeared sluggish to Athena's jaundiced eye, and she was disappointed to find no relief from the oppressive heat that had caused her shift to stick uncomfortably to her extremities as she walked. Removing a damp wisp of handkerchief from her reticule, she dabbed discreetly at the perspiration on her upper lip, wishing herself safely at home in the cool music room, listening to Penelope struggle with her scales.

Penelope
. Athena's spirits rose at the thought of her precious daughter. The only person in the world who really mattered to her, now that John was gone, and her poor Papa irrevocably riveted to that brassy widow from Brighton, she mused, her gaze idly following the lazy approach of a swan trailed by a fleet of half-grown cygnets. The swan made straight for the spot where Athena stood, stretching her elegant neck and hissing imperiously—rather in the manner adopted by her new stepmother once she became Lady Rothingham, Athena reflected bitterly. The former Gracie Hopkins, relict of a prosperous Brighton merchant and possessed of an overweening ambition to step up in the world, had made it abundantly clear—once Sir Henry's ring was safely on her finger—that she was not prepared to share her newly acquired prominence with the baronet's widowed daughter.

The cygnets imitated their mother's aggressiveness, one cheeky fellow scrambling up onto the bank and eyeing Athena expectantly. Athena drew back in alarm, clutching her furled parasol tightly. She had heard that these royal birds could be temperamental and dangerous.

"There is no need for alarm, miss," a masculine voice said from close behind her, causing Athena to jump. "They expect to be fed, and will not give you any peace until you oblige them."

Athena glanced nervously over her shoulder and found herself staring into a pair of guileless blue eyes the color of wild cornflowers.

The young man smiled, and, without knowing quite why she did so, Athena relaxed. He was definitely young, although he stood a good seven or eight inches above her. Young and with the aura of a boy still clinging to him, she thought, instantly beguiled by the innocence in his smile.

"I am afraid I have nothing to give them," she murmured. "It seemed too hot to eat anything."

"Not for these greedy birds," the young man remarked, laughter making his blue eyes dance. "And it really is too hot to eat, but I saw you being accosted by this brood and came prepared to fend off your attackers with a piece of seed cake."

He carried a small blue Limoges plate piled high not only with an enormous slice of seed cake fit for a giant, but various other delicacies, including two of their hostess's famous crab patties.

The brood of swans immediately set up a noisy clamor, evidently anticipating the forthcoming feast.

The young man held out the plate. "Will you do the honors, miss?" he said. "Food is the only thing that will keep these beasts at bay."

Athena gingerly broke off a piece of cake and tossed it into the water. Instant pandemonium broke out. The cygnets squawked and beat their wings furiously to fend off competitors for the treat, while their mother looked on complacently, daintily salvaging a stray crumb here and there.

"Do you really think we should feed Lady Hereford's crab patties to the birds?" Athena asked hesitantly, glancing around to make sure they were unobserved in the commission of such a crime.

The young man let out a crack of laughter. "Better the birds suffer acute indigestion than us, would you not agree?"

His grin was so contagious mat Athena could not resist the temptation to speak her mind. "My thoughts exactly, sir," she said gaily, seizing the plate and emptying it recklessly into the river. "There," she exclaimed, watching in delight as the swan family fought long and bitterly over the delicacies. "I trust you have strong stomachs to digest such rich food." A sudden thought occurred to her and she glanced anxiously at the young man at her side. "They will come to no harm on our account, I trust," she murmured.

His smile was utterly charming and devoid of any hint of flirtation. "I fear they are a good deal hardier than one might suspect," he said with apparent regret. "I harbor distinctly painful memories of being tweaked unmercifully by the swans on my father's estate in Cornwall when I was a boy. I cannot claim to waste any sympathy on the brutes."

He looked at her, his boyish smile open and honest. Then a shadow flashed across his face and he flushed like a schoolboy. "I do beg your pardon, miss," he stammered, so like the seven-year-old Penelope caught in some childish misdeed that Athena's heart gave a lurch. "My wits seem to have gone begging. I have not introduced myself to you. Peregrine Steele at your service, miss." He reached awkwardly for her hand and raised it self-consciously to his lips.

Athena gazed at him in frank delight. There was something so refreshingly innocent and untainted about this young man, who was not yet quite a man, who lacked all the vices and deceptions she found all too often in the men of her acquaintance. Athena suspected she would find nothing duplicitous about Peregrine Steele. She sensed it instinctively, and for a fleeting moment was filled with a deep regret that she herself was not equally innocent and naive enough to accept without question the open admiration she saw in the young man's transparent blue eyes.

No, she thought, quelling this regret instantly, her days of innocence were long past. At eight-and-twenty she knew herself to be forever excluded from the brief innocence that still hung about Peregrine Steele's tousled blond head like an invisible halo. All too soon he would lose that sheen of childhood that reminded her of Penelope. But for now, for this brief moment, Athena thought he was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen.

She gave him her most brilliant smile.

"And I am Athena Standish," she murmured, already regretting the passing of this afternoon that would make him that much older and less innocent.

"Athena?" he repeated, unable to hide his surprise as his eyes took in her small stature and delicate features. "A b-beautiful name, of course," he added quickly, "b-but..." His voice trailed off and a bright flush spread over his beardless cheeks.

"But hardly appropriate, you mean, sir?" Athena laughed softly at his evident embarrassment.

"I would not presume to be so rude as to think it, miss," he insisted, his face giving the lie to his attempt to deny what had been so plainly writ upon his face.

Athena smiled with genuine amusement. "It would not surprise me if you had, sir. I have often thought so myself. My father rather fancied the classics as a youth, and even though I was reportedly a tiny bit of a thing when I first saw the light, he insisted upon naming me after the most belligerent of the Greek goddesses."

"Pallas Athena was also the goddess of wisdom and purity, if I remember correctly," he responded immediately, a grin replacing his former embarrassment. "And was she not the patroness of weaving and other gentler arts?"

"I believe she was," Athena conceded, returning the grin. "But you cannot deny, sir, that she is usually represented in full armor with the Gorgon's head on her shield."

"A female of many talents, to be sure."

The words were spoken almost reverently, and Athena realized with sudden insight that Peregrine Steele had intended them as a compliment.

For the first time that afternoon, Athena found herself enjoying the alfresco setting. Even the heat felt less stifling, and when a light breeze drifted in off the water, she made no objection when Peregrine Steele offered his arm and proposed a stroll along the grassy verge in the shade of the giant chestnut trees.

For a magical hour that sunny afternoon, Athena allowed herself to feel young and carefree again. In the youthful Peregrine—and almost before she became aware of it, they were on familiar terms—she discovered an amusing and attentive companion. In his lighthearted banter and unfeigned interest in everything about her, he brought back the memory of John's protective presence, touching a chord of longing in her she had thought long buried. Peregrine reminded her of her late husband in other, less innocent ways, as well, evoking with his awkward compliments and shy glances a yearning for the sensuous male companionship she had shared with the late Major Standish.

What harm would it do, Athena asked herself several times during that blissful hour in Peregrine Steele's company, if she let down her guard briefly to savor the reassurance of a man's arm beneath her fingers again? She sighed at these unfamiliar, maudlin thoughts, and then had to laugh at Peregrine's instant anxiety that perhaps he had tired her with so much walking.

BOOK: Double Deception
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