Dalton’s Challenge – Penny Fairbanks

Winnie could not believe her terrible luck. God must have been giving her some sort of sign that she would be doomed to a life of never-ending frustration. She glanced up from her plate again to glare across the table at Mr. Harcourt for the dozenth time that night. How did she always end up at the same events as him? To Winnie’s great relief, they had managed to avoid each other during the customary gathering in the drawing room before dinner. Now, she sat right across from him. Wasn’t London too vast for them to keep meeting like this? Mr. Harcourt must have felt the chill from Winnie’s gaze. His hazel eyes darted up, meeting hers. The corner of his mouth pulled up in an irritating smile. Why should he get to be so carefree while Winnie had to suffer? She did not return his smile, instead stabbing at a potato on her plate. Winnie lifted her chin into the air ever so slightly, elongating her neck with all her many years of training etched into every single muscle of her body. What did Mr. Harcourt matter? He was just another one of those silly, immature, irresponsible young men who thought their future titles and wealth provided them with a free pass to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. That could never be the case for Winnie.

Still, she knew she should not be so open with her dislike of Mr. Harcourt—even though he certainly deserved it. Despite her best efforts, she looked up again. She could feel her eyes sending daggers across the table at that infuriatingly handsome face. Mr. Harcourt noticed Winnie again and offered another small smile before returning his gaze to his plate. He acted as though nothing had happened between them. Winnie had once looked forward to this dinner, hosted by an acquaintance of hers whom she had met during her first Season. Though Winnie often found herself invited to Mrs. Wright’s events, she still only considered the woman an acquaintance. Winnie did not have friends. For most everyone in her life, Winnie was simply an obligation to be dealt with on occasion. Now, Winnie wanted nothing more than for the night to come to an end. She’d had no idea that Mrs. Wright or her husband knew Mr.

Harcourt. Then again, Mr. Harcourt seemed to be friendly with many people in London. That had proven disastrous for Winnie. Of course, the event passed as slowly as possible. As she finished the food on her plate, Winnie wondered what she had done to deserve this torment. Her only reprieve from Mr. Harcourt’s frustrating presence came just after dinner, when the ladies retreated to the drawing room for their own private conversations while the men remained in the dining room. Though Winnie gladly accepted this moment of peace, she still found herself wishing to be home. Her dear mother, the warm and gracious Mrs. Thirley, had wasted no time in launching into her favorite subject. Winnie sat as still as possible beside Mrs. Thirley on the plush couch in the middle of the Wrights’ drawing room, the older woman’s voice droning on and on. Winnie found it easiest to simply tune Mrs. Thirley out when she dominated the conversation.

No matter how many times Winnie heard this same speech, it still left little cracks in her heart if she listened too closely. “Lady Clopton, I am positive our boys would get along so very well if they ever have a chance to meet,” Mrs. Thirley gushed, her eyes sparkling as the woman across from her nodded patiently. Winnie had to stop herself from biting her lip in annoyance. Mrs. Thirley seemed not to notice that her conversation had become boring for the ladies who had the misfortune of sitting nearby. “Your son must be so very bright. My Warren is quite accomplished as well. He always sits so well during his lessons and he loves to tell me all about the things he has learned.” “How lovely,” Lady Clopton agreed kindly. “Now, Mrs. Major, you mentioned something about renovations to your country estate earlier, did you not?” Winnie silently thanked Lady Clopton for tactfully changing the subject, though Mrs. Thirley’s mouth drooped in disappointment. Winnie remained silent, like a wall of ice. She only had to survive a few more hours.

Even as the other ladies moved about the room, joining other conversations, no one approached Winnie. She did not mind being left to her own devices. At least, Winnie always told herself this, especially when snatches of fun or interesting conversations caught her attention. This was who Winnie had to be now—silent and rigid. Mr. Harcourt had made that abundantly clear to both Winnie and seemingly everyone else in Society. She sipped at her punch, trying to wash down the bitter heat building up in her chest. Her plan failed as the door opened and the men returned to the drawing room. Winnie abandoned her spot on the couch, meandering away from the center of the room as the gentlemen joined the ladies for more conversation. She was far too annoyed to engage in pleasant chit chat. Winnie knew the wall would be a safe bet for staying out of the way and unnoticed. She always seemed to blend in seamlessly with the room’s decor, just another inanimate object amongst many. She quietly backed up against the far wall, keeping her eyes on the happy crowd. Her back hit something solid, though she knew immediately that it could not be the wall. The object she had bumped into had moved with her, jerking back at her touch.

Winnie whipped around, already preparing to offer an embarrassed apology. The words died on her lips. Of course, of all the people in this room she might bump into, it had to be him. Winnie grimaced as her eyes involuntarily traveled over his face, over his defined cheekbones and strong nose and soft lips. He always looked as though he were about to tell a joke that she wanted to hear, his dark gold eyes sparkling with humor. “Good evening, Miss Thirley.” He bowed his head to her, his voice warm and friendly. “Are you well?” All of Winnie’s ladylike manners fled from her mind. “I was doing better before you had the nerve to show up at this dinner,” she snarled. Normally, Winnie would never, ever consider speaking like this to someone. Mr. Harcourt was a very special case. The gentleman chuckled, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down almost nervously. “I was invited, just as you were.” Winnie turned her face away, frowning sharply.

“I cannot understand why.” “I swear, will you ever move past that dance?” Mr. Harcourt sighed, frustration echoing through his words. “It was two years ago.” With a nonchalant shrug, Winnie looked up into Mr. Harcourt’s face once more. She wanted him to see the disdain in her eyes. “I assure you I have moved past it. I simply do not like you.” A muscle in Mr. Harcourt’s jaw twitched as he opened his mouth to argue. Winnie did not give him the opportunity. “If you have moved past it, why will you not leave me alone?” she hissed. Winnie could not stand the way she sounded whenever she had to speak to this man. She could not stand the anger and pain that surged through her every time she saw him.

She could not stand this version of herself. Somehow, Winnie just could not control herself around Mr. Harcourt. “That is quite difficult to do when you look like you want to jump across the table and strangle me,” he whispered through gritted teeth. For just a moment, Winnie thought she saw something flash through his eyes—something quite unexpected. If it had been anyone else standing before her, she would have guessed it to be regret. But this was Mr. Harcourt. He had never regretted anything in his life. He thought himself above those silly emotions, those basic manners that governed proper, gentlemanly behavior. Of course, he was right. Winnie would never say that, though. “My apologies, Mr. Harcourt. I am afraid I cannot control my….

How did you put it? Ah, yes—my face of stone.” “Dalton, come along now,” a bright voice called out from just behind Mr. Harcourt. He glanced over his shoulder to a beautiful young woman who Winnie knew to be his younger sister, eyes aglow with the excitement of her first Season in London. Mr. Harcourt turned back to Winnie, fire simmering in his expression. “Until next time, Miss Thirley,” he mumbled before turning sharply on his heel, following Miss Harcourt. Winnie let out a breath she had not realized she had been holding. She watched him walk away, everything in her aching to follow—to argue, to demand answers, to see that excruciatingly charming smile. She hated him. Surely, she hated him. She had every reason to. So why did she feel this powerful force drawing her to him, as if he were the moon and she the tide? MOONLİGHT FİLTERED through the carriage window as Winnie and her parents rode home in silence. Winnie did not mind the lack of conversation. Titus and Lottie Thirley did not speak to each other much, nor to their daughter, save where Warren was concerned.

Warren had been their world since he was born ten years ago—the long-awaited son. Both body and mind tired from the long evening, Winnie trudged upstairs and down the hallway. Her thoughts swirled with Mr. Harcourt and the loving family he had. Winnie had lost the love of her parents the day her brother had been born. From what she had seen tonight, Lord and Lady Welsted doted on both Mr. Harcourt and Miss Harcourt equally. It was hardly fair. Winnie had done her best all her life to be a daughter her parents could be proud of. Mr. Harcourt, on the other hand, did not have to fight for anyone’s affection. Aside from Winnie’s, of course. He would never, ever have her affection or anything close to it. Once her bedroom door came into view, Winnie sped up, eager to get inside, change into her comfortable nightgown, and enjoy some peace and quiet. She longed to lose herself in a book, in some other world devoid of her daily problems.

“Winnie?” a tiny voice called out just as she reached her door. Winnie stopped in her tracks, turning around to see Warren peering out from his bedroom. Her heart immediately softened when she saw his sweet, innocent eyes, bright against the night’s shadows. “Could you come here, Winnie?” he asked, stretching his hand out through the crack in his door. Winnie smiled, feeling more at ease than she had all day. She took Warren’s hand, allowing him to pull her into his room. The boy wrapped his arms around his sister, burying his head in her chest. Winnie guessed she only had a few years left before Warren outgrew her. She had stopped growing at the age of twelve while Warren was already tall for his ten years. She pulled him close, gently brushing his honey blond hair. She knew she must enjoy every moment like this. Soon, Warren would have little use for her—just like everyone else in her life. “Whatever is the matter, dearest?” Winnie asked quietly. Warren pulled back slightly, just enough to peer up into Winnie’s face, his eyes round and his bottom lip clamped between his teeth in that unfortunate habit his governess had been trying to end. Winnie waited patiently.

Her brother had always been a quiet, thoughtful boy, careful with everything from his surroundings to his words. She continued to smooth out his unruly hair, her heart full of nothing but love for this little boy. Winnie had certainly hated him when he had first been born because he took all their parents’ attention. After trying for years after Winnie’s birth, they had finally gotten their beloved son, the child who would carry on their family name and inherit all their Earthly possessions. Luckily, Winnie had always been levelheaded and logical, even as a child. She had soon realized that she could not blame him for their parents’ behavior. Besides, Warren adored her. Now, Warren was the only person in the world Winnie loved. “I had a nightmare,” Warren mumbled before resting his head against Winnie’s chest again. “And I missed you.” Winnie bent down, kissing the top of her brother’s head. “Do you want Father to tuck you back into bed?” Warren shook his head vigorously, his already disheveled hair only becoming more wild. “No, I want you. You are the best at helping me after a nightmare,” he insisted, quietly but firmly. A blissfully warm pride spread through Winnie’s chest.

At least Warren saw some value in her, even if their parents did not. At least she could make her brother happy. He did not find her boring and insufferable like Mr. Harcourt and the rest of Society did. With a hand on his shoulder, Winnie guided Warren back to bed, pulling the covers all the way up to his chin just the way he liked. She sat on the edge of the mattress, thinking of some bedtime tale that would soothe him. He was quite past the age for bedtime tales, only requesting them after a nightmare. By the time Winnie looked back down at Warren, the boy had already started to drift off to sleep. She hummed a familiar melody she often played on pianoforte, the vibrations of her voice barely audible. A powerful wave of melancholy crashed over Winnie as she watched her precious younger brother fall asleep. No, she could never hate him, even though he had ousted her from her spot as Mr. and Mrs. Thirley’s world. They had loved her when she had been their only child, though they had been anxious to have a son. Warren was their miracle.

Everything had been about him since the day of his birth. To Winnie’s great relief, Warren had somehow failed to develop those selfish, arrogant traits present in so many people who had grown up spoiled and loved too much for their own good. Once his chest rose and fell with slow, regular breaths, Winnie planted a quick kiss on his forehead. She slipped from his room, unheard as always. With his door closed behind her, Winnie let out a bitter sigh. Deep down, she knew Mr. Harcourt was right about her. Winnie was uninteresting and stiff. But someone like him would never understand why.


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Updated: 10 April 2021 — 20:39

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