Just Like Heaven, p.2Julia Quinn
Until the spring of 1821, when Daniel went and ruined it all.
Lady Honoria Smythe-Smith was desperate.
Desperate for a sunny day, desperate for a husband, desperate—she thought with an exhausted sigh as she looked down at her ruined blue slippers—for a new pair of shoes.
She sat down heavily on the stone bench outside Mr. Hilleford’s Tobacco Shoppe for Discerning Gentlemen and pressed herself up against the wall behind her, desperately (there was that awful word again) trying to wedge her entire body under the awning. It was pouring. Pouring. Not drizzling, not merely raining, but pouring proverbial cats, dogs, sheep, and horses.
At this rate, she wouldn’t have been surprised if an elephant tumbled down from the sky.
And it stank. Honoria had thought that cheroots produced her least favorite smell, but no, mold was worse, and Mr. Hilleford’s Tobacco Shoppe for Gentlemen who Did Not Mind if Their Teeth Turned Yellow had a suspicious black substance creeping along its outer wall that smelled like death.
Really, could she possibly be in a worse situation?
Why, yes. Yes, she could. Because she was (of course) quite alone, the rain having taken thirty seconds to go from drip to downpour. The rest of her shopping party was across the street, happily browsing in the warm and cozy Miss Pilaster’s Fancy Emporium of Ribbons and Trinkets, which, in addition to having all sorts of fun and frilly merchandise, smelled a great deal better than Mr. Hilleford’s establishment.
Miss Pilaster sold perfume. Miss Pilaster sold dried rose petals and little candles that smelled like vanilla.
Mr. Hilleford grew mold.
Honoria sighed. Such was her life.
She had lingered too long at the window of a bookshop, assuring her friends that she would meet them at Miss Pilaster’s in a minute or two. Two minutes had turned to five, and then, just as she’d been preparing to make her way across the street, the heavens had opened and Honoria had had no choice but to take refuge under the only open awning on the south side of the Cambridge High Street.
She stared mournfully at the rain, watching it pummel the street. The drops were pelting the cobblestones with tremendous force, splashing and spraying back into the air like tiny little explosions. The sky was darkening by the second, and if Honoria was any judge of English weather, the wind was going to pick up at any moment, rendering her pathetic spot under Mr. Hilleford’s awning completely useless.
Her mouth slipped into a dejected frown, and she squinted up at the sky.
Her feet were wet.
She was cold.
And she’d never once, not in her entire life, left the boundaries of England, which meant that she was a rather good judge of English weather, and in about three minutes she was going to be even more miserable than she was right now.
Which she really hadn’t thought possible.
She blinked, bringing her gaze down from the sky to the carriage that had just rolled into place in front of her.
She knew that voice. “Marcus?”
Oh, good heavens, her misery only needed this. Marcus Holroyd, the Earl of Chatteris, happy and dry in his plush carriage. Honoria felt her jaw go slack, although really, she didn’t know why she should be surprised. Marcus lived in Cambridgeshire, not too far from the city. More to the point, if anyone were to see her while she was looking like a wet, bedraggled creature of the rodential variety, it would be he.
“Good God, Honoria,” he said, scowling down at her in that supercilious way of his, “you must be freezing.”
She managed the barest of shrugs. “It is a bit brisk.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Shopping,” she said, motioning across the street, “with friends. And cousins.” Not that her cousins weren’t also friends. But she had so many cousins they almost seemed a category unto themselves.
The door opened wider. “Get in,” he said. Not Will you please get in or Please, you must dry yourself off. Just: “Get in.”
Another girl might have tossed her hair and said, You can’t order me about! Another, slightly less prideful girl might have thought it, even if she’d lacked the courage to say it aloud. But Honoria was cold, and she valued her comfort more than her pride, and more to the point, this was Marcus Holroyd, and she’d known him since she was in pinafores.
Since the age of six, to be precise.
That was also probably the last time she’d managed to show herself to advantage, she thought with a grimace. At seven she’d made such a pest of herself that he and her brother Daniel had taken to calling her Mosquito. When she’d claimed to be complimented, that she’d loved how exotic and dangerous it had sounded, they’d smirked and changed it to Bug.
Bug she’d been, ever since.
He’d seen her wetter than this, too. He’d seen her completely soaked, back when she was eight and she’d thought she’d been completely hidden in the boughs of the old oak tree at Whipple Hill. Marcus and Daniel had built a fort at its base, no girls allowed. They had pelted her with pebbles until she’d lost her grip and tumbled down.
In retrospect, she really shouldn’t have chosen the branch that hung over the lake.
Marcus had fished her out of the dunk, though, which was more than she could say for her own brother.
Marcus Holroyd, she thought ruefully. He’d been in her life almost as long as she could remember. Since before he was Lord Chatteris, since before Daniel was Lord Winstead. Since before Charlotte, her closest-in-age sister, had married and left home.
Since before Daniel, too, had left.
She looked up. Marcus’s voice was impatient, but his face held a hint of concern. “Get in,” he repeated.
She nodded and did as he said, taking his large hand in hers and accepting his help into his carriage. “Marcus,” she said, trying to settle herself into her seat with all the grace and nonchalance she might exhibit in a fine drawing room, never mind the puddles at her feet. “What a lovely surprise to see you.”
He just stared at her, his dark brows coming ever-so-slightly together. He was trying to decide the most effective way to scold her, she was sure.
“I am staying here in town. With the Royles,” she told him, even though he hadn’t yet asked. “We are here for five days—Cecily Royle, my cousins Sarah and Iris, and I.” She waited for a moment, for some sort of flash of recognition in his eyes, then said, “You don’t remember who they are, do you?”
“You have a great many cousins,” he pointed out.
“Sarah is the one with the thick, dark hair and eyes.”
“Thick eyes?” he murmured, cracking a tiny smile.
He chuckled. “Very well. Thick hair. Dark eyes.”
“Iris is very pale. Strawberry blond hair?” she prompted. “You still don’t recall.”
“She comes from that family of flowers.”
Honoria winced. It was true that her uncle William and aunt Maria had chosen to name their daughters Rose, Marigold, Lavender, Iris, and Daisy, but still.
“I know who Miss Royle is,” Marcus said.
“She’s your neighbor. You have to know who she is.”
He just shrugged.
“At any rate, we are here in Cambridge because Cecily’s mother thought we could all use a bit of improving.”
His mouth tipped into a vaguely mocking smile. “Improving?”
Honoria wondered why females always needed improving, while males got to go to school. “She bribed two professors into allowing us to listen to their lectures.”
“Really?” He sounded curious. And dubious.
“The life and times of Queen Elizabeth,” Honoria recited dutifully. “And after that, something in Greek.”
“Do you speak Greek?”
Marcus nodded thoughtfully. “It is nearly impossible for a gentleman to keep his mind upon his studies in the presence of such overwhelming female loveliness.”
Honoria thought he was serious for about two seconds. She managed one sideways glance in his direction before she burst out with a snort of laughter. “Oh, please,” she said, giving him a light punch in the arm. Such familiarities were unheard of in London, but here, with Marcus . . .
He was practically her brother, after all.
“How fares your mother?” he asked.
“She is well,” Honoria replied, even though she wasn’t. Not really. Lady Winstead had never quite recovered from the scandal of Daniel being forced to leave the country. She alternated between fussing over supposed slights and pretending her only son had never existed.
It was . . . difficult.
“She hopes to retire to Bath,” Honoria added. “Her sister lives there, and I think the two of them would get on well together. She doesn’t really like London.”
“Your mother?” Marcus asked, with some surprise.
“Not as she used to,” Honoria clarified. “Not since Daniel . . . Well. You know.”
Marcus’s lips tightened at the corners. He knew.
“She thinks people are still talking about it,” Honoria said.
Honoria shrugged helplessly. “I have no idea. I don’t think so. No one has given me the cut direct. Besides, it was nearly three years ago. Wouldn’t you think everyone has something else to talk about?”
“I would have thought that everyone would have had something else to talk about when it happened,” he said darkly.
Honoria lifted a brow as she regarded his scowl. There was a reason he scared off so many debutantes. Her friends were terrified of him.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. They were only scared while in his presence. The rest of the time they sat at their escritoires, writing their names entwined with his—all in ridiculous loopy script, adorned with hearts and cherubs.
He was quite the matrimonial catch, Marcus Holroyd.
It wasn’t that he was handsome, because he wasn’t, not exactly. His hair was a nice dark color; his eyes, too, but there was something about his face that Honoria found harsh. His brow was too heavy, too straight, his eyes set a bit too deeply.
But still, there was something about him that caught the eye. An aloofness, a tinge of disdain, as if he simply did not have the patience for nonsense.
It made the girls mad for him, even though most were nonsense personified.
They whispered about him as if he were some dark storybook hero, or if not that, then the villain, all gothic and mysterious, needing only to be redeemed.
Whereas to Honoria he was simply Marcus, which wasn’t anything simple at all. She hated the way he patronized her, watching her with that disapproving stare. He made her feel as she’d been years ago, as an annoying child, or gawky adolescent.
And yet at the same time, there was something so comforting in having him about. Their paths did not cross as often as they used to—everything was different now that Daniel was gone—but when she walked into a room, and he was there . . .
She knew it.
And oddly enough, that was a good thing.
“Do you plan to come down to London for the season?” she asked politely.
“For some of it,” he replied, his face inscrutable. “I have matters to attend to here.”
“And you?” he asked.
“Do you plan to go down to London for the season?”
Her lips parted. Surely he could not be serious. Where else would she possibly go, given her unmarried state? It wasn’t as if—
“Are you laughing?” she asked suspiciously.
“Of course not.” But he was smiling.
“It’s not funny,” she told him. “It’s not as if I have a choice. I have to go for the season. I’m desperate.”
“Desperate,” he repeated, and he looked dubious. It was a frequent expression on his face.
“I have to find a husband this year.” She felt her head shaking back and forth, even though she wasn’t sure what she might be objecting to. Her situation was not so very different from most of her friends’. She wasn’t the only young lady hoping for marriage. But she wasn’t looking for a husband so that she could admire the ring on her finger or bask in the glory of her status as a dashing young matron. She wanted a house of her own. A family—a large, noisy one that didn’t always mind their manners.
She was just so sick of the silence that had taken over her home. She hated the sound of her footsteps clacking across the floor, hated that it was so frequently the only noise she heard all afternoon.
She needed a husband. It was the only way.
“Oh, come now, Honoria,” Marcus said, and she didn’t need to see his face to know his expression precisely—patronizing and skeptical, with just a touch of ennui. “Your life cannot possibly be so dire.”
She grit her teeth together. She despised that tone. “Forget I said anything,” she muttered, because really, it wasn’t worth it, trying to explain it to him.
He let out a breath, and even that managed to be condescending. “You’re not likely to find a husband here,” he said.
She pressed her lips together, regretting that she’d brought up the subject.
“The students here are too young,” he remarked.
“They are the same age as I am,” she said, falling neatly into his trap.
But Marcus did not gloat; he wasn’t the sort. “That is why you’re here in Cambridge, isn’t it? To visit with the students who have not yet gone down to London?”
She looked determinedly straight ahead as she said, “I told you, we’re here to listen to lectures.”
He nodded. “In Greek.”
He grinned at that. Except it wasn’t really a grin. Marcus was always so serious, so stiff, that a grin for him would be a dry half-smile on anyone else. Honoria wondered how often he smiled without anyone realizing it. He was lucky she knew him so well. Anyone else would think him completely without humor.
“What was that about?” he asked.
She started and looked over at him. “What was what about?”
“You rolled your eyes.”
“Did I?” Honestly, she had no idea if she had or not. But more to the point, why was he watching her so closely? This was Marcus, for heaven’s sake. She looked out the window. “Do you think the rain has let up?”
“No,” he replied, not turning his head even an inch. Honoria supposed he didn’t need to. It had been a stupid question, meant for nothing but changing the subject. The rain was still beating down on the carriage mercilessly.
“Shall I convey you to the Royles’?” he asked politely.
“No, thank you.” Honoria craned her neck a bit, trying to see through the glass and the storm and the next bit of glass into Miss Pilaster’s. She couldn’t see a thing, but it was a good excuse not to look at him, so she made a good show of it. “I’ll join my friends in a moment.”
“Are you hungry?” he inquired. “I stopped at Flindle’s earlier and have a few cakes wrapped to take home.”
Her eyes lit up. “Cakes?”
She didn’t say the word as much as she sighed it. Or maybe moaned it. But she didn’t care. He knew that sweets were her weakness; he was the same way. Daniel had never been particularly fond of dessert, and more than once, she and Marcus had found themselves together as children, huddled over a plate of cakes and biscuits.
Daniel had said they looked like a pack of savages, which had mad
He reached down and drew something out of a box at his feet. “Are you still partial to chocolate?”
“Always.” She felt herself smile in kinship. And perhaps in anticipation, as well.
He started to laugh. “Do you remember that torte Cook made—”
“The one the dog got into?”
“I almost cried.”
She grimaced. “I think I did cry.”
“I got one bite.”
“I got none,” she said longingly. “But it smelled divine.”
“Oh, it was.” He looked as if the memory of it might send him into a rapture. “It was.”
“You know, I always thought Daniel might have had something to do with Buttercup getting into the house.”
“I’m sure he did,” Marcus agreed. “The look on his face . . .”
“I hope you thrashed him.”
“To within an inch of his life,” he assured her.
She grinned, then asked, “But not really?”
He smiled in return. “Not really.” He chuckled at the memory and held out a small rectangle of chocolate cake, lovely and brown atop a crisp piece of white paper. It smelled just like heaven. Honoria took a deep, happy breath and smiled.
Then she looked over at Marcus and smiled anew. Because for a moment she’d felt like herself again, like the girl she’d been just a few years ago, when the world lay before her, a bright shiny ball that glittered with promise. It had been a feeling she hadn’t even realized she’d been missing—of belonging, of place, of being with someone who knew you utterly and completely and still thought you were worth laughing with.
Strange that it should be Marcus who should make her feel that way.
And in so many ways, not strange at all.
She took the cake from his hand and looked down at it questioningly.
“I’m afraid I haven’t any sort of utensil,” he said apologetically.
“It might make a terrible mess,” she said, hoping that he realized that what she was really saying was Please tell me that you don’t mind if I spread crumbs all over your carriage.
“I shall have one, too,” he told her. “So that you don’t feel alone.”
Just Like Heaven by Julia Quinn / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes