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Just like heaven, p.21
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       Just Like Heaven, p.21

           Julia Quinn
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  “Really? Tiny ones?”

  “No. It just sounds better to describe them that way.”

  He chuckled at that, then fell silent. They were both silent, just standing there in the drawing room, uncharacteristically awkward and, well, silent.

  It was odd. It was not like them at all.

  “Would you care to take a stroll?” he asked suddenly. “The weather is fine.”

  “No,” she said, a little more brusquely than she would have liked. “Thank you.”

  A shadow passed over his eyes and then was gone so quickly she thought she might have imagined it. “Very well,” he said stiffly.

  “I can’t,” she added, because she hadn’t really meant to hurt his feelings. Or maybe she had, and now she felt guilty. “My cousins are all here. We’re practicing.”

  A faint look of alarm crossed his face.

  “You will probably want to find some sort of business that removes you from Mayfair entirely,” she told him. “Daisy has not yet managed pianissimo.” At his blank stare, she added, “She’s loud.”

  “And the rest of you aren’t?”

  “Touché, but no, not like that.”

  “So what you are saying is that when I do attend the musicale, I should endeavor to secure a seat at the back?”

  “In the next room, if you can manage it.”

  “Really?” He looked remarkably—no, make that comically—hopeful. “Will there be seats in the next room?”

  “No,” she replied, rolling her eyes yet again. “But I don’t think the back row is going to save you. Not from Daisy.”

  He sighed.

  “You should have considered this before you rushed your convalescence.”

  “So I am coming to realize.”

  “Well,” she said, trying to sound as if she was a very busy young lady with many appointments and quite a few things to do who also happened not to be pining over him in the least, “I really must be going.”

  “Of course,” he said, giving her a polite nod of farewell.

  “Good-bye.” But she didn’t quite move.

  “Good-bye.”

  “It was very good seeing you.”

  “And you,” he said. “Please give my regards to your mother.”

  “Of course. She will be delighted to hear that you are so well.”

  He nodded. And stood there. And finally said, “Well, then.”

  “Yes,” she said hastily. “I must go. Good-bye,” she said again. This time she did leave the room. And she didn’t even look over her shoulder.

  Which was more of an achievement than she would ever have dreamed.

  Chapter Eighteen

  The truth was, Marcus thought as he sat in his study in his London home, he knew very little about courting young ladies. He knew a great deal about avoiding them, and perhaps even more about avoiding their mothers. He also knew quite a lot about discreetly investigating other men who were courting young ladies (more specifically, Honoria), and most of all he knew how to be quietly menacing while he convinced them to abandon their pursuit.

  But as for himself, he had not a clue.

  Flowers? He’d seen other men with flowers. Women liked flowers. Hell, he liked flowers, too. Who didn’t like flowers?

  He thought he might like to find some of the grape hyacinths that reminded him of Honoria’s eyes, but they were small blooms, and he didn’t think they would work well in a bouquet. And furthermore, was he supposed to hand them to her and tell her that they reminded him of her eyes? Because then he would have to explain that he was talking about a very specific part of the flower, at the bottom of the petal, right near the stem.

  He could not imagine anything that might make him feel more foolish.

  And the final problem with flowers was that he had never given them to her before. She would be immediately curious, and then suspicious, and if she did not return his feelings (and he had no particular reason to suppose that she did), then he’d be stuck there in her drawing room, looking like a complete ass.

  All things considered, this was a scenario he’d rather avoid.

  Safer to court her in public, he decided. Lady Bridgerton was hosting a birthday ball the next day, and he knew that Honoria would attend. Even if she didn’t want to, she would still go. There would be far too many eligible bachelors in attendance for her to decline. This included Gregory Bridgerton, about whom Marcus had revised his opinion—he was far too wet behind the ears to take a wife. If Honoria decided that she was interested in the young Mr. Bridgerton after all, Marcus was going to have to intercede.

  In his usual quiet and behind-the-scenes manner, of course. But still, it was another reason why he needed to be in attendance.

  He looked down at his desk. On the left was an engraved invitation to Bridgerton House. On the right was the note Honoria had left for him at Fensmore when she’d departed the week before. It was a stunningly nondescript missive. A salutation, a signature, two ordinary sentences in between. There was nothing that might indicate that a life had been saved, a kiss had occurred, a treacle tart had been stolen. . . .

  It was the sort of note one wrote when one wished to thank a hostess for a perfectly correct and polite garden party. It was not the sort one wrote to someone one might consider marrying.

  Because that was what he intended. As soon as Daniel got his bloody arse back to England, he was going to ask him for her hand. But until then, he had to court her himself.

  Hence his dilemma.

  He sighed. Some men knew instinctively how to talk to women. It would have been very convenient to have been one of those men.

  But he wasn’t. Instead, he was a man who knew only how to talk to Honoria. And lately even that wasn’t working out so well for him.

  Thus, the next night, he found himself in one of his least favorite places on earth: A London ballroom.

  He assumed his usual position, off to the side, his back to the wall, where he could watch the proceedings and pretend he didn’t care. Not for the first time, it occurred to him that he was inordinately fortunate not to have been born female. The young lady to his left was a wallflower; he got to be dark, standoffish, and brooding.

  The party was a mad crush—Lady Bridgerton was immensely popular—and Marcus couldn’t tell if Honoria was there or not. He didn’t see her, but then again he also couldn’t see the door through which he himself had entered. How anyone expected to have a fine time amidst so much heat and sweat and crowding he would never know.

  He stole another glance at the young lady next to him. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t quite place her. She was perhaps not quite in the first blush of youth, but he doubted she was much older than he was. She sighed, the sound long and weary, and he could not help but think that he was standing next to a kindred spirit. She, too, was glancing over the crowd, trying to pretend that she was not searching for someone in particular.

  He thought about saying good evening, or perhaps asking if she knew Honoria and, if so, had she seen her. But just before he turned to greet her, she turned in the opposite direction, and he could have sworn he heard her mutter, “Blast it all, I’m getting an éclair.”

  She drifted off, weaving her way through the crowds. Marcus watched her with interest; she seemed to know exactly where she was going. Which meant that if he’d heard her correctly . . .

  She knew where one could get an éclair.

  He immediately took off after her. If he was going to be stuck here in this ballroom without even seeing Honoria, who was the only reason he’d subjected himself to this crush, he was damned well going to get dessert.

  He’d long since perfected the art of moving with purpose, even when he had no particular aim or goal, and he managed to avoid unnecessary conversations simply by keeping his chin high and his gaze sharp and above the crowd.

  Until something struck him in the leg.

  Ouch.

  “And what’s that face for, Chatteris?” came an imperious female voice. “I barely to
uched you.”

  He held himself still, because he knew that voice, and he knew there was no escaping it. With a small smile, he looked down into the wrinkled face of Lady Danbury, who had been terrifying the British Isles since the time of the Restoration.

  Or so it seemed. She was his mother’s great-aunt, and he would swear she was a hundred years old.

  “An injury to my leg, my lady,” he said, giving her his most respectful bow.

  She thumped her weapon (others might call it a cane, but he knew better) against the floor. “Fell off your horse?”

  “No, I—”

  “Tripped down the stairs? Dropped a bottle on your foot?” Her expression grew sly. “Or does it involve a woman?”

  He fought the urge to cross his arms. She was looking up at him with a bit of a smirk. She liked poking fun at her companions; she’d once told him that the best part of growing old was that she could say anything she wanted with impunity.

  He leaned down and said with great gravity, “Actually, I was stabbed by my valet.”

  It was, perhaps, the only time in his life he’d managed to stun her into silence.

  Her mouth fell open, her eyes grew wide, and he would have liked to have thought that she even went pale, but her skin had such an odd tone to begin with that it was hard to say. Then, after a moment of shock, she let out a bark of laughter and said, “No, really. What happened?”

  “Exactly as I said. I was stabbed.” He waited a moment, then added, “If we weren’t in the middle of a ballroom, I’d show you.”

  “You don’t say?” Now she was really interested. She leaned in, eyes alight with macabre curiosity. “Is it gruesome?”

  “It was,” he confirmed.

  She pressed her lips together, and her eyes narrowed as she asked, “And where is your valet now?”

  “At Chatteris House, likely nicking a glass of my best brandy.”

  She let out another one of her staccato barks of laughter. “You have always amused me,” she pronounced. “I do believe you are my second favorite nephew.”

  He could think of no reply other than “Really?”

  “You know that most people find you humorless, don’t you?”

  “You do like to be blunt,” he murmured.

  She shrugged. “You’re my great-great-nephew. I can be as blunt as I wish.”

  “Consanguinity has never seemed to be one of your prerequisites for plain speaking.”

  “Touché,” she returned, giving him a single nod of approval. “I was merely pointing out that you are quite stealthy in your good humor. This I applaud wholeheartedly.”

  “I am aquiver with glee.”

  She wagged a finger at him. “This is precisely what I am talking about. You’re really quite amusing, not that you let anyone see it.”

  He thought about Honoria. He could make her laugh. It was the loveliest sound he knew.

  “Well,” Lady Danbury declared, thumping her cane, “enough of that. Why are you here?”

  “I believe I was invited.”

  “Oh, pish. You hate these things.”

  He gave her a little shrug.

  “Watching out for that Smythe-Smith girl, I imagine,” she said.

  He’d been looking over her shoulder, trying to locate the éclairs, but at that, he turned sharply back.

  “Oh, don’t worry,” she said with a dismissive roll of her eyes. “I’m not going to set it about that you’re interested in her. She’s one of the ones with a violin, isn’t she? Good heavens, you’d go deaf in a week.”

  He opened his mouth to defend Honoria, to say that she was very much in on the joke, except it occurred to him that it wasn’t a joke to her. She knew perfectly well that the quartet was awful, but she carried on because it was important to her family. That she could take her place on the stage and pretend that she thought she was a virtuoso violinist—it took tremendous courage.

  And love.

  She loved so deeply, and all he could think was—I want that.

  “You’ve always been close with that family,” Lady Danbury said, breaking into his thoughts.

  He blinked, needing a moment to return to the present conversation. “Yes,” he finally said. “I went to school with her brother.”

  “Oh, yes,” she said, sighing. “What a farce that was. That boy should never have been chased out of the country. I’ve always said Ramsgate was an ass.”

  He stared at her in shock.

  “As you said,” she said pertly, “consanguinity has never been a prerequisite for blunt speaking.”

  “Apparently not.”

  “Oh, look, there she is,” Lady Danbury commented. She tipped her head to the right, and Marcus followed her gaze to Honoria, who was chatting with two other young ladies he could not identify from a distance. She didn’t see him yet, and he took advantage of the moment to drink in the sight of her. Her hair looked different; he could not pinpoint what she’d done to it—he never had understood the finer points of female coiffure—but he thought it was lovely. Everything about her was lovely. Maybe he should have thought of some other, more poetic way to describe her, but sometimes the most simple words were the most heartfelt.

  She was lovely. And he ached for her.

  “You do love her,” Lady Danbury breathed.

  He whipped around. “What are you talking about?”

  “It’s written all over your face, trite as the expression may be. Oh, go ahead and ask her to dance,” she said, lifting her cane and motioning with it toward Honoria. “You could do a great deal worse.”

  He paused. With Lady Danbury it was difficult to know how to interpret even the most simple of sentences. Not to mention that she still had her cane elevated. One could never be too careful when that cane was in motion.

  “Go, go,” she urged. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll find some other poor unsuspecting fool to torture. And yes, before you feel the need to protest, I did just call you a fool.”

  “That, I think, may be the one privilege that consanguinity does allow.”

  She cackled with delight. “You are a prince among nephews,” she proclaimed.

  “Your second favorite,” he murmured.

  “You’ll rise to the top of the list if you find a way to destroy her violin.”

  Marcus shouldn’t have laughed, but he did.

  “It’s a curse, really,” Lady Danbury said. “I’m the only person I know my age who has perfect hearing.”

  “Most would call that a blessing.”

  She snorted. “Not with that musicale looming over the horizon.”

  “Why do you attend?” he asked. “You’re not particularly close with the family. You could easily decline.”

  She sighed, and for a moment her eyes grew soft. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Someone needs to clap for those poor things.”

  He watched as her face changed back to its normal, unsentimental visage. “You’re a nicer person than you let on,” he said, smiling.

  “Don’t tell anyone. Hmmph.” She thumped her cane. “I’m through with you.”

  He bowed with all the respect due a terrifying great-great-aunt and made his way toward Honoria. She was dressed in the palest of blue, her gown a frothy confection that he couldn’t possibly describe except that it left her shoulders bare, which he decided he approved of, very much.

  “Lady Honoria,” he said once he reached her side. She turned, and he bowed politely.

  A flash of happiness lit her eyes and then she gave a polite bob, murmuring, “Lord Chatteris, how lovely to see you.”

  This was why he hated these things. Her entire life she’d called him by his given name, but put her in a London ballroom and suddenly he was Lord Chatteris.

  “You remember Miss Royle, of course,” Honoria said, motioning to the young lady on her right, who was dressed in a darker shade of blue. “And my cousin, Lady Sarah.”

  “Miss Royle, Lady Sarah.” He bowed to each in turn.

  “What a surprise to see y
ou here,” Honoria said.

  “A surprise?”

  “I had not thought—” She cut herself off, and her cheeks turned curiously pink. “It’s nothing,” she said, quite obviously lying. But he could not press her on it in so public a venue, so instead he said the staggeringly insightful and interesting, “It’s quite a crush this evening, wouldn’t you say?”

  “Oh, yes,” the three ladies murmured, with varying degrees of volume. One of them might have even said, “Indeed.”

  There was a little lull, and then Honoria blurted, “Have you heard anything more from Daniel?”

  “I have not,” he replied. “I hope this means that he has already begun his return journey.”

  “So then you don’t know when he will be back,” she said.

  “No,” he replied. Curious. He would have thought that was clear from his previous statement.

  “I see,” she said, and then she put on one of those I’m-smiling-because-I-have-nothing-to-say smiles. Which was even more curious.

  “I’m sure you cannot wait for him to return,” she said, once several seconds had passed without anyone contributing to the conversation.

  It was obvious there was a subtext to her statements, but he had no clue what it was. Certainly not his subtext, which was that he was waiting for her brother to return so that he might ask for his permission to marry her.

  “I’m looking forward to seeing him, yes,” he murmured.

  “As are we all,” Miss Royle said.

  “Oh, yes,” chimed in Honoria’s heretofore silent cousin.

  There was another long pause, then Marcus turned to Honoria and said, “I hope you will save me a dance.”

  “Of course,” she said, and he thought she looked pleased, but he was finding it uncommonly difficult to read her this evening.

  The other two ladies stood there, utterly still, eyes large and unblinking. It brought to mind a pair of ostriches, actually, and then Marcus realized what was expected of him. “I hope you will all three save dances for me,” he said politely.

  Dance cards were immediately brought forth. A minuet was assigned to Miss Royle, a country dance for Lady Sarah, and for Honoria he claimed a waltz. Let gossipmongers do with it what they would. It wasn’t as if he’d never waltzed with her before.

 
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