As Anthea entered the grand ballroom at the Gardiner-Gardens, she held her breath at the vision of lavish splendour before her. Whilst she had been to many balls in her London season, there had never been one like this one. The Gardiner-Gardens' had opened their staterooms in honour of the occasion and the brilliance was breathtaking. The room was sumptuously decorated, with Corinthian columns on each side of the doorways, and brocaded silk hangings and large paintings ornamenting the walls. It was lit up brilliantly with innumerable wax candles set in two great chandeliers, as well as a profusion of sconces lining the walls, the ceiling glittering with the gilded gold accents that coloured the elaborate cornices and corbels.
Lily squeezed her sister’s arm, gently reclaiming her attention from the magnificence of her surroundings, and glanced significantly towards an approaching figure. It was the tall, stern figure of Commander Hayden, although Anthea felt there was some change in his person that she could not place. It must have been his elegance in full dress.
He bowed politely to the two young ladies. “You look quite as lovely in a ball gown as I remember, Miss Stanwell,” he said.
She looked into his eyes and saw their solemn graveness tempered with his old smile. “Thank you, sir,” she replied.
He continued, “Might I be so bold as to claim a dance with you this evening?”
She blushed, remembering she was unable to offer him the first or the second. “Certainly, Commander Hayden. I am unclaimed for the third.”
“I shall be honoured,” he said smiling, and with a short bow, turned to move through the ever-growing throng of people.
She watched his handsome figure, reminded of the many times they had danced in her London season. Excepting the shortness of his hair and the scar on his face, he might have been the same Lieutenant Hayden three years ago. She wondered what could have changed about him since breakfast; perhaps his face held less anguish, his eyes more warmth.
Lily leaned closer to her. “Do you think that, in the space of three dances, you should be able to decide which one of those two gentlemen you prefer?”
Anthea smiled wryly. “If I have been unable to decide in three days, I am quite certain that three dances will be of no use to me at all!”
As the tuning strains of musical instruments began to sound, indicating the beginning of the evenings’ festivities, Mr Edgecombe appeared before them. He took Lily’s hand and bowed low over it.
“Good evening, ladies,” he began, “I do believe the dancing will begin soon. May I have the pleasure of the first with you, Miss Lily?”
Lily’s face lit up with her approval and Anthea smiled inwardly at her sister’s radiance as she was led off by such a superior man. She hoped with all her heart that Lily was not to be disappointed as she herself had been in her first season in Town.
“Miss Stanwell.” Her thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice.
She turned to perceive Lord Dansworth, clad in white satin breeches with his chin jutting proudly out of an effusion of white linen tucked into the neck of his waistcoat, and his shirt points so high that he could barely turn his head. Anthea was a little taken aback at such a fashionable transformation from the country gentleman with whom she had spent much of her time in previous days. He now looked like the rake everybody had convinced her he would be, confident and self-assured. She could easily have believed him to be one of the Prince Regent’s set.
He held out his hand to her and Anthea felt the glowering eye of Miss Tait as they joined the other couples.
The first dance, a quadrille, held much of her concentration at first, as she applied herself to remembering the steps.
Lord Dansworth, tiring of the silence, said mockingly, “Miss Stanwell, you need not concentrate quite so hard! You are dancing beautifully.”
She smiled hesitantly. “I apologise, Lord Dansworth. It is only that it has been such a long time since I have danced in such fine company. I do not wish to disgrace myself!”
“You are in no danger of disgrace,” he said, looking down at her with a confident smile in his eye. She coloured as she felt his grip on her fingers tighten.
His dancing was graceful and confident, and she could feel the eyes of every young lady drawn to his aristocratic figure. But there was something she disliked in his manner. He seems so sure of himself, she thought, knowing he is both admired and pursued.
It was during the second dance that Anthea felt most uncomfortable.
Lord Dansworth, having looked around the room, remarked, “I do believe Commander Hayden is jealous of me!”
Anthea had seen Commander Hayden’s figure standing by the pillared doorway, his eyes intently observing her, but she did not think his manner bespoke envy. There was no hardness about his face or anger in his eyes, just a sadness and concern. There was a distinct change in him and she was curious to discover its origin.
Lord Dansworth continued, “I hope he will be even more so once this evening is concluded.”
Anthea remained silent.
“You do not ask me why, Miss Stanwell,”
“I am at a loss to know how it should be any of my concern.”
“Surely anything that involves your future is of your concern.”
Anthea looked up at Dansworth, irritated by his air of certainty and presumption.
“My future, sir?”
“Yes, Miss Stanwell.”
Lord Dansworth had been eyeing the end of the room as they moved down the set and suddenly broke off from dancing, leaving the set with Anthea on his arm. He quickly ducked behind a curtain that separated a small alcove from the bustling ballroom and turned to face the astonished Anthea.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but I must return to my sister,” she said hastily, taking a backwards step.
“No, Anthea, wait.” He grasped her reluctant hands and held them fast. She was momentarily stunned at his lack of formality in using her name.
“I must speak with you,” he continued boldly. “Do you remember the morning we rode out on the estate? Do you remember what I said to you?”
“Yes,” she answered warily, “you asked me if I approved of your new useful life.”
“Yes,” he said with a pause. “Anthea, I have never known a woman like you; one who makes me feel so at ease, so free to be myself. Your approval is of the utmost importance to me.”
Anthea could find nothing to say. She was not sure she desired his attentions.
His voice continued, low and in earnest.
“Will you do me the honour of…”
Suddenly there was movement at the curtain and it was swept aside to reveal Commander Hayden. His eyes narrowed slightly as he saw her hands in Lord Dansworth’s, but he quickly overcame his feelings and smiled warmly at Anthea, stepping towards her and ignoring what he had very obviously interrupted.
“There you are, Miss Stanwell! I have been searching for you. I have come to claim you for the third dance.”
“Oh,” she said rather dazed, moving to his side. “I – I do apologise for having kept you waiting.”
Behind her, Lord Dansworth’s face clouded over.
Commander Hayden’s observant eyes watched Anthea closely as she moved automatically through the dance sequences.
“What ails you, Miss Stanwell?” he asked kindly.
“Oh. Nothing, sir. I am just a little distracted, that is all.”
“Has Lord Dansworth made you an offer?”
Anthea’s eyes rushed to his face; he was all sympathetic worry and concern.
“Y – Er – No. That is to say, I believe he was about to make it just moments ago,” Anthea stumbled.
“Oh. – And will you accept?”
“I – I – I do not know,” she stammered.
“Why is that? Surely your know your own heart.”
“Yes,” she replied with the ghost of a laugh. “I suppose I should, though that is proving a little more difficult than I had imagined.”
“Why?” he asked hesitantly. “Does it belong to another?”
She sighed with a heaviness that threatened her equanimity. “My heart – “ she began haltingly, “my heart has always belonged to another.” She paused wistfully. “For three years, I believe.”
“I see,” he replied softly.
It had only taken one dance, Anthea thought. She knew that there was only one man who could make her happy. And he was here before her.
The dance finished and he led her from the floor.
“You look quite flushed, Miss Stanwell. Are you too hot?”
He escorted her outside to the terrace and Anthea sat down, breathing in the coolness of the night air. Her mind was a flurry of emotion.
“Miss Stanwell,” Commander Hayden began, sitting beside her, his voice a little unsteady. “Since you have been so good as to reveal your own heart, I wish to make my own known to you.”
Anthea held her breath, her pulse quickening.
“I realised, as soon as I saw you again, how much I had missed you – how much you were necessary to my happiness. In three short days, you have offered me hope. You have helped me find forgiveness.” He paused, his fingers biting into the seat of the chair. “But I could not presume to ask for your love without revealing all to you.”
Commander Hayden’s sorrowful eyes met hers, holding her still.
“I want you to know what prevented me from finding you these three years. I want you to know the truth.”
Anthea looked anxiously at him, her throat constricted. What secret could he possibly reveal that would change the way she felt for him?
A voice from the doorway made her start.
“Have you told her then, that you were the one who killed her father?”
The Commander’s head snapped around to see the proud figure of Lord Dansworth, his lip curled in disdain.
Anthea gasped in shock. She clasped her hand over her mouth lest the cries from her heart should spill out of it.
“Killed him?” she whispered through her fingers, her face pale in the moonlight.
Commander Hayden was glaring at Lord Dansworth, a murderous look on his face. He leapt up.
“You coward!” he said between tightly clenched teeth.
Anthea had slowly risen to her feet, her reticule clutched in two white, quivering hands. She watched the two men, looking like dogs with their hackles raised.
“Do you – do you know how my father died?” she said to Commander Hayden unsteadily.
Commander Hayden turned back to look at her, all the anguish, despair and shame returning – for a brief moment – to haunt his eyes.
“Tell her, Hayden! Tell her!” Lord Dansworth’s insistent voice rang out. “Tell her how you shot her father!”
The deafening silence that ensued, unbroken by pleas of false testimony, froze the heart of Miss Stanwell, as the truth of the pronouncement washed over her.
“He does not deserve you, Miss Stanwell. After all that he has done to you – to your family.”
“After all I have done?” exclaimed Commander Hayden. “I infer, then, that you have not shared your involvement in the death of Mr Stanwell!” he shot back at Dansworth. “Did you tell her that it was your letter, your foolish unguarded letter to your friend, that precipitated the whole dastardly event? Did you elaborate on those details with her?”
Lord Dansworth’s eyebrows drew together to form one hard, fierce line.
“I beg your pardon, sir?” he said icily.
“I have read the letter, Dansworth,” he said gravely.
Lord Dansworth’s eyes flashed in anger. “Are you accusing me of treason?” he said with supressed violence, his brown eyes darkening to black spots of hatred.
“I do not need to accuse you. Your own hand did that,” the Commander said quietly. “Your letter was delivered to your father just this morning.”
“Damn you to hell, Hayden!” Dansworth spat and then, without a backward look, he turned on his heel and strode out.
Anthea head was spinning. She pressed her gloved hands against her temples, willing her brain to work. She had been barely able to comprehend the nature of the conversation, but the weight of all she had heard was too much for her. Blackness crept in and she felt herself begin to fall –
Commander Hayden, quick as lightening, was by her side, his arm encircling her and his face looking anxiously down at her. She gasped for breath, fighting the darkness. She heard him call out to someone, his voice pulsing with passion.
“I am here, Anthea. I am here,” he whispered to her.
She opened her eyes weakly, her vision swimming, and laid her head against his shoulder. Lord Rydges was crouched next to her, waving some salts under her nose.
“Why did you not tell me?” she asked, looking at Lord Rydges.
“It was not for me to say,” he said simply.
“Please,” she pleaded, “tell me what happened to my father!”
“Very well, Miss Stanwell. As part of your father’s role as aide-de-camp to myself, I required him to lead some particular tactical missions in Spain. One of these was at a time of great unrest in the country, as the Spanish guerrillas had also been fighting against Napoleon’s army, dividing and scattering them across half of the countryside.”
Lord Rydges took a deep breath.
“This coincided with the arrival of Lieutenant Hayden, as he then was. His first assignment on land required him to intercept a French messenger and deliver any seized documents to Head Quarters for decoding. Unfortunately, the French army were closer than he realised so, in order to evade them, Hayden dressed himself in the messenger’s uniform, hoping to slip away unnoticed.”
The Commander’s steady voice took over.
“I was come upon by a small British consignment, led by your father. The French, perceiving one of their own to be under attack, shot upon the troops and killed your father.”
Anthea took a shaky breath and was silent. She remembered her mother receiving the terrible letter in London, probably three weeks after the Commander’s sudden departure.
Lord Rydges continued.
“Unfortunately, my son – who was in need of some ready money from a source other than his father, to satisfy some dubious creditors – had been persuaded to provide some of these particulars to a friend, which gravely compromised the situation. Your father would not have been in that vicinity if not for that letter.”
Commander Hayden’s warm voice spoke next to her.
“It was in an attempt to hold off the French soldiers that I sustained this.” He ran a long finger down his temple to his cheek. His scar.
Anthea now understood his shame upon returning, his pain upon seeing her again. Her hand reached out to touch his face.
“James, you were wrong not to search for me,” she whispered. “You were wrong to suppose I could not forgive.”
He clasped her hand and held it to his cheek.
“I know, my love.”
“All this time I thought my faults had driven you away!”
“Your faults! What faults do you have? What faults could be of consequence?”
She smiled. She would not let errant thoughts of Miss Tait ruin the moment.
He leant towards her and kissed her.
And so that concludes Trust and Tribulation and the adventures of Miss Anthea Stanwell. No doubt you'll agree with me that Kelly did a fabulous job finishing the story. I thought her chapter was inventive, well written and, above all, entertaining. Well done, Kelly, and congratulations on winning the competition.