Lord Whitehaven blinked in evident surprise, whilst Dinah remained quiet. He did not seem to know what to say, for he looked at her with such astonishment in his eyes that she felt quite certain that either he would make some mocking comment by which to cover up how he had been taken aback, or he would simply shrug and turn away, leaving her without confirmation as to whether or not he would, in fact, forgive her foolish words.
“You have not always believed that another person’s conduct is not to be of your concern,” he said eventually, his tone even and without malice. “You have corrected, commented, prayed for, and frowned over some of my sister’s behavior, I think, and I cannot imagine what you must think of mine.”
Dinah’s lips twisted, knowing full well that she thought Lord Whitehaven one of the most unkind, most unpleasant gentlemen she had ever had the chance to meet. “Regardless of what I think, Lord Whitehaven, it has been pointed out to me that it need not be something that I discuss with either yourself or anyone else. My behavior is my own, as is yours.” She did not mention that it had been Titania who had made the remark only some minutes before, nor that such words had made such an impact upon her that she had realized, only in that moment, that she had been overly critical and harsh, for to admit such a thing would make her far too vulnerable in his eyes.
“Well,” Lord Whitehaven muttered, looking somewhat uncomfortable and running his hand through his hair yet again. “That is quite a surprise, Dinah. To hear you say such things, to hear you ask for forgiveness when it is I who….” Shaking his head, he spread his hands and looked at her. “I have nothing but forgiveness to give you,” he replied quietly, looking back at her with such a calm, steady gaze that, for the first time in as many months, Dinah felt as though he were being entirely open and honest with her. “After how I have treated you, Dinah, it is the very least I can offer you.”
Dinah blinked, a little confused at his words. How he had treated her? Was this his admission that he had been unkind towards her, unwelcoming and seemingly heartless?
“I – I have been reflecting on my own behavior of late,” he admitted, surprising her all the more. “I do not know what I did last evening, but I–”
“You tried to kiss me.”
The words ripped from her mouth before she could hold them back, and Lord Whitehaven, upon hearing this, went completely white. He looked so pale that Dinah almost stepped forward to ensure that he was not about to fall over in a faint, but he merely closed his eyes and shook his head, lowering his head to his chest for a moment.
“Can you forgive me, Dinah?”
It was her turn to be astonished, for the vulnerability in both his expression and his voice took her quite by surprise. Never once had he sought her out to ask for her forgiveness in some matter, to apologize for the way he spoke to her, or for the mocking words that seemed to come to his lips so easily. And yet now, here he stood, doing precisely that.
“I will not be surprised if you cannot,” he told her, when she said nothing. “I know I have not been the family you deserved, Dinah. I know that my conduct, most likely, only added to your grief, and for tha
t, I am truly sorry.” He turned away, meaning to step away from her, only for his leg to buckle. Wincing, he groped about for something to lean on, and Dinah stepped forward at once, unable to prevent herself.
“Your leg is paining you?” she asked softly, aware that this was a subject that Lord Whitehaven had never discussed with her, and he had forbidden even his sisters from mentioning it. “I only ask because–”
“I just need to sit down,” Lord Whitehaven interrupted, his teeth gritting tight. “On occasion, when I have been, perhaps, a little worse for wear, I do not take as good care of it as I should.” This was said with a quick, guilty glance down at her, before he turned his head away again. “It is my greatest weakness, I think.”
Again, Dinah said nothing, surprised that he had been so honest with her when he had never once even mentioned his leg before. Instead, she simply clasped his arm, trying to make it look as though he were accompanying her instead of she helping him.
“You are much too good, Dinah,” Lord Whitehaven murmured, as they walked slowly together towards a few vacant chairs. “Much too good for someone such as myself. Your kindness burns me.”
She swallowed hard, not quite sure what she ought to say in response. Should she remind him that she too had made mistakes, had made errors in judgement and spoken with harshness, in much the same way as he had done?
“This blasted leg,” Lord Whitehaven muttered, saving her the need to say anything at all. “My own fault, really.”
Waiting until he had sat down into a chair and adjusted his seat so that he was comfortable, Dinah took a breath and decided to be brave. “Might I ask what happened?” she began tentatively. “It is quite all right if you do not wish to tell me, of course, for I do not mean to pry.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “Ran out onto the road when I was a boy,” he said, without much emotion in his voice. “We were in London for some reason or other, and my father was busy talking to someone he had met. I saw something on the road that caught my eye – a coin or something like that – and thought I could dart between the carriages to get it.”
Dinah closed her eyes tightly, hardly daring to imagine what would have happened next.
“The carriage wheel and my leg ended up entangled,” Lord Whitehaven finished dully. “It has never been the same since, even though my father got the very best surgeon in all of London.”
“I do not think that makes you any less of a gentleman,” Dinah replied, wondering if this was the reason behind Lord Whitehaven’s demeanor. “You are not any different merely because of your leg.”
Lord Whitehaven’s jaw worked furiously, his eyes narrowing and his lips tugging into a thin, flat line. For a few moments, he looked up at her but said nothing, making Dinah fear that he was about to lay into her with harsh, brutal words that would remind her, once again, that she ought to say nothing at all about his leg. But then, the anger left his face and he sighed, closing his eyes and turning his head away.
“I should not keep you from the many, many gentlemen who I am sure will wish to dance with you this evening, Miss Shepherd,” he said to her, referring to her by her formal title and, in doing so, setting a wall between them. “Lord Irving, I am certain, will be nearby and seeking you out. Pray, do not linger here any longer.”
Dinah wanted to say that she had no reason to go in search of Lord Irving and certainly did not want to be welcomed into his company for it might then lead to a courtship that she would be forced into – but the words died in her throat at the blank expression on Lord Whitehaven’s face as he kept his head turned away.
Without a word, she turned around and walked aimlessly through the guests, her heart aching within her for some inexplicable reason. Was it because she thought there had been the first fragments of friendship between them, only for him to harden his countenance again? What was it she wanted from Lord Whitehaven? It could not be affection or the like, for that would be too mortifying to accept, but a gentle friendship between them would be a good deal better than the anger and frustration that seemed to flourish between them.
And then, the memory of his lips on her own came back to her, making her come to a stop right in the middle of the ballroom. Heat seared her, running from the top of her head all the way down to her toes. Catching her breath and resisting the urge to fan her face, Dinah lifted her chin and continued on her way, trying to push the memory of it from her mind. She did not want to recall it, did not need to linger upon it. It had been nothing more than a moment of drunken idiocy on his part and it meant nothing to him – just as it ought to mean nothing to her.
The sound of Lady Whitehaven’s bright, welcoming voice caught Dinah’s attention, and she turned around to see her aunt approaching, with a gentleman walking beside her. This gentleman was tall and thin, with sharp, angular features and a long, thin nose. His eyes were small and very dark, hidden behind a pair of spectacles that appeared to be pinned onto his nose with the lenses catching the light. His hair was very dark in the candlelight and cropped close to his head, giving him an almost skeletal appearance. Dinah curtsied quickly as Lady Whitehaven introduced the gentleman, trying to remember if she had met him before.