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Just like heaven, p.23
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       Just Like Heaven, p.23

           Julia Quinn
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  “Really?” Iris gave her a look of utter disbelief. And panic. “Really?”

  Honoria stared at her for a long moment, and then: “Oh, dear God.”

  “I told you you shouldn’t have chosen Quartet no. 1. Sarah’s actually not that bad on the pianoforte, but the piece is far too difficult.”

  “It’s difficult for us, as well,” Honoria said weakly. She was beginning to feel sick.

  “Not as difficult as on the piano. And besides, it really doesn’t matter how difficult the violin parts are, because—” Iris cut herself off. She swallowed, and her cheeks turned pink.

  “You won’t hurt my feelings,” Honoria told her. “I know I’m dreadful. And I know Daisy is even worse. We’d do an equally bad job with any piece of music.”

  “I can’t believe her,” Iris said, starting to pace frantically about the room. “I can’t believe she would do this.”

  “We don’t know that she isn’t going to play,” Honoria said.

  Iris spun around. “Don’t we?”

  Honoria swallowed uncomfortably. Iris was right. Sarah had never been twenty—no, now it was twenty-five—minutes late for a rehearsal.

  “This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t chosen such a difficult piece,” Iris accused.

  Honoria stomped to her feet. “Do not try to lay the blame on me! I’m not the one who spent the last week complaining about— Oh, never mind. I’m here, and she’s not, and I don’t see how that is my fault.”

  “No, no, of course,” Iris said, shaking her head. “It’s just— Oh!” She let out a loud cry of angry frustration. “I can’t believe she would do this to me.”

  “To us,” Honoria reminded her quietly.

  “Yes, but I’m the one who didn’t want to perform. You and Daisy didn’t care.”

  “I don’t see what that has to do with it,” Honoria said.

  “I don’t know,” Iris wailed. “It’s just that we were all supposed to be in this together. That’s what you said. Every single day you said it. And if I was going to swallow my pride and humiliate myself in front of every single person I know, then Sarah was going to have to do it, too.”

  Just then Daisy arrived. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Why is Iris so upset?”

  “Sarah isn’t here,” Honoria explained.

  Daisy looked over at the clock on the mantel. “That’s rude of her. She’s almost a half an hour late.”

  “She’s not coming,” Iris said flatly.

  “We don’t know that for sure,” Honoria said.

  “What do you mean she’s not coming?” Daisy echoed. “She can’t not come. How are we meant to perform a piano quartet without a piano?”

  A long silence fell over the room, and then Iris gasped. “Daisy, you’re brilliant.”

  Daisy looked pleased, but nonetheless said, “I am?”

  “We can cancel the performance!”

  “No,” Daisy said, shaking her head quickly. She turned to Honoria. “I don’t want to do that.”

  “We’ll have no choice,” Iris went on, her eyes lighting with glee. “It’s just as you said. We can’t have a piano quartet without a piano. Oh, Sarah is brilliant.”

  Honoria, however, was not convinced. She adored Sarah, but it was difficult to think of her planning something quite so unselfish, especially under these circumstances. “Do you really think she did this in an attempt to cancel the entire performance?”

  “I don’t care why she did it,” Iris said frankly. “I’m just so happy I could—” For a moment she literally could not speak. “I’m free! We’re free! We’re—”

  “Girls! Girls!”

  Iris broke off midcheer as they all turned to the door. Sarah’s mother, their aunt Charlotte—known to the rest of the world as Lady Pleinsworth—was hurrying into the room, followed by a young, dark-haired woman who was dressed in well-made yet terribly plain clothing that marked her instantly as a governess.

  Honoria had a very bad feeling about this.

  Not about the woman. She looked perfectly pleasant, if perhaps a little uncomfortable at having been dragged into a family squabble. But Aunt Charlotte had a frightening gleam in her eye. “Sarah has taken ill,” she announced.

  “Oh, no,” Daisy cried, sinking dramatically into a chair. “Whatever will we do?”

  “I’m going to kill her,” Iris muttered to Honoria.

  “Naturally, I could not allow the performance to be cancelled,” Aunt Charlotte went on. “I could never live with myself if such a tragedy came to pass.”

  “Her, too,” Iris said under her breath.

  “My first thought was that we could break with tradition and have one of our former musicians play with the group, but we have not had a pianist in the quartet since Philippa played in 1816.”

  Honoria stared at her aunt in awe. Did she actually remember such details, or had she written them down?

  “Philippa is in confinement,” Iris said.

  “I know,” Aunt Charlotte replied. “She has less than a month left, poor thing, and she’s enormous. She might have managed with a violin, but there is no way she could fit at the piano.”

  “Who played before Philippa?” Daisy asked.

  “No one.”

  “Well, that can’t be true,” Honoria said. Eighteen years of musicales, and the Smythe-Smiths had produced only two pianists?

  “It is,” Aunt Charlotte confirmed. “I was just as surprised as you. I went through all of our programs, just to be certain. Most years we are two violins, a viola, and a cello.”

  “A string quartet,” Daisy said needlessly. “The classic set of four instruments.”

  “Do we cancel, then?” Iris asked, and Honoria had to shoot her a look of warning. Iris was sounding a bit too excited at the possibility.

  “Absolutely not,” Aunt Charlotte said, and she motioned to the woman next to her. “This is Miss Wynter. She will substitute for Sarah.”

  They all turned to the dark-haired woman standing quietly to the side and slightly behind Aunt Charlotte. She was, in a word, gorgeous. Everything about her was perfection, from her shiny hair to her milky-white skin. Her face was heart-shaped, her lips full and pink, and her eyelashes were so long that Honoria thought they must touch her brows if she opened her eyes too wide.

  “Well,” Honoria murmured to Iris, “at least no one will be looking at us.”

  “She is our governess,” Aunt Charlotte explained.

  “And she plays?” Daisy asked.

  “I wouldn’t have brought her over if she did not,” Aunt Charlotte said impatiently.

  “It’s a difficult piece,” Iris said, her tone bordering on truculence. “A very difficult piece. A very very—”

  Honoria elbowed her in the ribs.

  “She already knows it,” Aunt Charlotte said.

  “She does?” Iris asked. She turned to Miss Wynter in disbelief and, to be completely honest, despair. “You do?”

  “Not very well,” Miss Wynter answered in a soft voice, “but I have played parts of it before.”

  “The programs have already been printed,” Iris tried. “They have Sarah listed for the piano.”

  “Hang the program,” Aunt Charlotte said irritably. “We will make an announcement at the beginning. They do it all the time at the theater.” She waved her hand toward Miss Wynter, accidentally batting her in the shoulder. “Consider her Sarah’s understudy.”

  There was a slightly impolite moment of silence, and then Honoria stepped forward. “Welcome,” she said, firmly enough so that Iris and Daisy would understand that they were to follow her lead or else. “I am delighted to meet you.”

  Miss Wynter dipped into a tiny curtsy. “And I you, er . . .”

  “Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” Honoria said. “I am Lady Honoria Smythe-Smith, but please, if you are to play with us, you must use our given names.” She motioned to her cousins. “This is Iris, and this is Daisy. Also Smythe-Smiths.”

  “As I once was,” Aunt Charlo
tte put in.

  “I am Anne,” Miss Wynter said.

  “Iris plays cello,” Honoria continued, “and Daisy and I are both violinists.”

  “I shall leave the four of you to your rehearsals,” Aunt Charlotte said, making toward the door. “You have a very busy afternoon ahead of you, I’m sure.”

  The four musicians waited until she was gone, and then Iris pounced. “She’s not really sick, is she?”

  Anne started, clearly surprised by the fervor in Iris’s voice. “I beg your pardon?”

  “Sarah,” Iris said, and not kindly. “She’s faking. I know it.”

  “I really couldn’t say,” Anne said with great diplomacy. “I didn’t even see her.”

  “Maybe she has a rash,” Daisy said. “She wouldn’t want anyone to see her if she had spots.”

  “Nothing less than permanent disfigurement would satisfy me,” Iris growled.

  “Iris!” Honoria scolded.

  “I don’t know Lady Sarah very well,” Anne said. “I was hired only this year, and she doesn’t need a governess.”

  “She wouldn’t listen to you, anyway,” Daisy said. “Are you even older than she is?”

  “Daisy!” Honoria scolded. Dear heavens, she was doing a lot of scolding.

  Daisy shrugged. “If she is using our Christian names I think I can ask her how old she is.”

  “Older than you are,” Honoria said, “which means that no, you cannot ask.”

  “It’s of no concern,” Anne said, giving Daisy a small smile. “I am twenty-four. I have charge of Harriet, Elizabeth, and Frances.”

  “God help you,” Iris murmured.

  Honoria could not bring herself to contradict. Sarah’s three younger sisters were, when taken one by one, perfectly lovely. Together, however . . . There was a reason the Pleinsworth household never lacked for drama.

  Honoria sighed. “I suppose we should rehearse.”

  “I must warn you,” Anne said, “I’m not very good.”

  “That’s all right. Neither are we.”

  “That’s not true!” Daisy protested.

  Honoria leaned over so that the others couldn’t hear and whispered to Miss Wynter, “Iris is actually quite talented, and Sarah was adequate, but Daisy and I are dreadful. My advice to you is to put on a brave face and muddle through.”

  Anne looked slightly alarmed. Honoria responded with a shrug. She would learn soon enough what it meant to perform at a Smythe-Smith musicale.

  And if not, she’d go insane trying.

  Marcus arrived early that night, although he wasn’t quite sure whether it was to secure a seat in the front, or one at the back. He’d brought flowers—not grape hyacinths, no one had those, anyway—but rather two dozen cheerful-looking tulips from Holland.

  He’d never brought a woman flowers before. It did make him wonder what the devil he’d done with his life up to now.

  He’d thought about skipping the performance. Honoria had been acting so strangely at Lady Bridgerton’s birthday ball. She had clearly been angry with him about something. He had no idea what, but he wasn’t even sure that mattered. And she had seemed uncharacteristically distant when he had first come upon her after his return to London.

  But then, when they’d danced . . .

  It had been magic. He would have sworn she’d felt it, too. The rest of the world had simply fallen away. It had been just the two of them amidst a blur of color and sound, and she hadn’t stepped on his feet even once.

  Which was truly a feat in and of itself.

  But maybe he’d been imagining it. Or maybe it had simply been a one-sided emotion. Because when the music had stopped, she had been short, and curt, and even though she had said she did not feel well, she’d refused all his offers of assistance.

  He would never understand women. He’d thought she might be the exception, but apparently not. And he’d spent the last three days trying to figure out why.

  In the end, however, he’d realized he could not miss the musicale. It was, as Honoria had explained so eloquently, tradition. He had attended every one since he’d been of an age to be in London on his own, and if he did not attend after claiming it was the very reason he’d come back to London so quickly after his illness, Honoria would see it as a slap in the face.

  He could not do that. It did not matter that she had been angry with him. It did not matter that he was angry with her, and he thought he had every right to be. She’d behaved in a most strange and hostile manner and had not given him any indication why.

  She was his friend. Even if she never loved him, she would always be his friend. And he could no more hurt her deliberately than he could slice off his right hand.

  He might have fallen in love with her only recently, but he had known her for fifteen years. Fifteen years to know what sort of heart beat within her. He was not going to revise his opinion of her because of a single, odd night.

  He made his way to the music room, which was a hive of activity as the servants readied for the upcoming performance. He really just wanted to catch a glimpse of Honoria, perhaps offer a few words of encouragement before the concert.

  Hell, he thought he needed encouragement. It was going to be painful to sit there and watch her put on the performance of her life just to please her family.

  He stood stiffly at the side of the room, wishing that he hadn’t arrived so early. It had seemed a good idea at the time, but now he had no idea what he’d been thinking. Honoria wasn’t anywhere to be found. He should have realized she wouldn’t be; she and her cousins were surely warming up their instruments elsewhere in the house. And the servants were all giving him queer looks, as if to say, What are you doing here?

  He lifted his chin and regarded the room in much the same way he did at most formal events. He probably looked bored, he certainly looked proud, and neither one was strictly true.

  He suspected that none of the other guests were going to arrive for at least thirty minutes, and he was wondering if he might wait in the drawing room, which would surely be empty. That was when he caught a flash of something pink, and he realized it was Lady Winstead, dashing about the room with uncharacteristic frenzy. She spied him, and then rushed over. “Oh, thank heavens you’re here,” she said.

  He took in the frantic expression on her face. “Is something wrong?”

  “Sarah has taken ill.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said politely. “Will she be all right?”

  “I have no idea,” Lady Winstead replied somewhat sharply, considering that she was talking about the health of her niece. “I haven’t seen her. All I know is, she’s not here.”

  He tried to tamp down the giddy feeling in his chest. “Then you’ll have to cancel the musicale?”

  “Why does everyone keep asking that? Oh, never mind. Of course we cannot cancel. The Pleinsworth governess apparently can play, and she is taking Sarah’s part.”

  “Then all is well,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Isn’t it?”

  She looked at him as if he were a slow-learning child. “We don’t know if this governess is any good.”

  He did not see how the governess’s skills at the piano would make any difference in the overall quality of the performance, but he declined to make this statement aloud. Instead he said something like: “Oh, well.” Or perhaps, “Quite so.” Either way, it served the purpose of making a noise without saying anything at all.

  Which was really the best he could hope for under the circumstances.

  “This is our eighteenth musicale, did you know that?” Lady Winstead asked.

  He did not.

  “Every one of them has been a success, and now this.”

  “Perhaps the governess will be very talented,” he said, trying to comfort her.

  Lady Winstead gave him an impatient look. “Talent matters little when one has had only six hours to practice.”

  Marcus could see that there was no way this conversation was going to go anywhere but in a circle, so
he asked politely if there was anything he could do to facilitate the performance, fully expecting her to say no, which would then leave him free to enjoy a solitary glass of brandy in the drawing room.

  But to his complete surprise and—one must be honest—horror, she took his hand in a fervent grip and said, “Yes!”

  He froze. “I beg your pardon?”

  “Could you bring some lemonade to the girls?”

  She wanted him to— “What?”

  “Everyone is busy. Everyone.” She waved her arms as if to demonstrate. “The footmen have already rearranged the chairs three times.”

  Marcus glanced out at the room, wondering what could possibly be so complicated about twelve even rows.

  “You want me to bring them lemonade,” he repeated.

  “They will be thirsty,” she explained.

  “They’re not singing?” Good God, the horror.

  She pressed her lips together in irritation. “Of course not. But they have been rehearsing all day. It’s strenuous work. Do you play?”

  “An instrument? No.” It was one of the few skills his father had not deemed it necessary that he learn.

  “Then you will not understand,” she said with great drama. “Those poor girls will be parched.”

  “Lemonade,” he said again, wondering if she wished him to bring it in on a tray. “Very well.”

  Her brows rose, and she looked a little annoyed at his slowness. “I assume you’re strong enough to carry the pitcher?”

  As insults went, it was just preposterous enough not to bother him. “I believe I can manage, yes,” he said dryly.

  “Good. It’s over there,” she said, waving her hand toward a table at the side of the room. “And Honoria is just through that door.” She pointed toward the back.

  “Just Honoria?”

  Her eyes narrowed. “Of course not. It’s a quartet.” And with that, she was off, directing the footmen, interrogating the maids, and generally attempting to supervise what appeared to be, in Marcus’s opinion, a rather smoothly run affair.

  He walked over to one of the refreshment tables and picked up a pitcher of lemonade. There didn’t seem to be any glasses set out yet, which did make him wonder if Lady Winstead meant for him to pour the lemonade down the girls’ throats.

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