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Just like heaven, p.24
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       Just Like Heaven, p.24

           Julia Quinn
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  He smiled. It was an entertaining image.

  Pitcher in hand, he made his way through the door Lady Winstead had indicated, moving quietly so as not to disturb whatever rehearsal might be underway.

  There was no rehearsal.

  Instead, he saw four women arguing as if the fate of Great Britain depended on it. Well, no, actually, only three of the women were arguing. The one at the piano, whom he assumed was the governess, was wisely staying out of it.

  What was remarkable was that the three Smythe-Smiths managed to do it all without raising their voices, a tacit agreement, he assumed, in light of the guests they knew must be arriving soon in the next room.

  “If you would just smile, Iris,” Honoria snapped, “it would make it all so much easier.”

  “For whom? For you? Because I assure you, it won’t make it easier for me.”

  “I don’t care if she smiles,” the other one said. “I don’t care if she ever smiles. She’s evil.”

  “Daisy!” Honoria exclaimed.

  Daisy narrowed her eyes and glared at Iris. “You’re evil.”

  “And you’re an idiot.”

  Marcus glanced over at the governess. She was resting her head against the pianoforte, which led him to wonder how long the three Smythe-Smiths had been at it.

  “Can you try to smile?” Honoria asked wearily.

  Iris stretched her lips into an expression so frightening that Marcus almost left the room.

  “Good God, never mind,” Honoria muttered. “Don’t do that.”

  “It is difficult to feign good humor when all I wish is to throw myself through the window.”

  “The window is closed,” Daisy said officiously.

  Iris’s stare was pure venom. “Precisely.”

  “Please,” Honoria begged. “Can’t we all just get along?”

  “I think we sound wonderful,” Daisy said with a sniff. “No one would know we’d only had six hours to practice with Anne.”

  The governess looked up at the sound of her name, then back down when it became clear she need not reply.

  Iris turned on her sister with something bordering malevolence. “You wouldn’t know good— Euf! Honoria!”

  “Sorry. Was that my elbow?”

  “In my ribs.”

  Honoria hissed something at Iris that Marcus supposed only she was meant to hear, but it was clearly about Daisy, because Iris gave her younger sister a disparaging glance, then rolled her eyes and said, “Fine.”

  He looked back over at the governess. She appeared to be counting spots on the ceiling.

  “Shall we try it one last time?” Honoria said with weary determination.

  “I can’t imagine what good it might do.” This came from Iris, naturally.

  Daisy gave her a withering stare and snipped, “Practice makes perfect.”

  Marcus thought he saw the governess try to stifle a laugh. She finally looked up and saw him standing there with his pitcher of lemonade. He put his finger to his lips, and she gave a little nod and smile and turned back to the piano.

  “Are we ready?” Honoria asked.

  The violinists lifted their instruments.

  The governess’s hands hovered over the keys of her pianoforte.

  Iris let out a miserable groan but nonetheless put her bow to her cello.

  And then the horror began.

  Chapter Twenty

  Marcus could not possibly have described the sound that came forth from the four instruments in the Smythe-Smith rehearsal room. He was not sure there were words that would be accurate, at least not in polite company. He was loath to call it music; in all honesty, it was more of a weapon than anything else.

  In turn, he looked at each of the women. The governess seemed a little frantic, her head bobbing back and forth between the keys and her music. Daisy had her eyes closed and was weaving and bobbing, as if she were caught up in the glory of the—well, he supposed he had to call it music. Iris looked as if she wanted to cry. Or possibly murder Daisy.

  And Honoria . . .

  She looked so lovely that he wanted to cry. Or possibly murder her violin.

  She did not look as she had in last year’s musicale, when her smile had been beatific and her eyes aglow with passion. Instead she attacked her violin with grim determination, her eyes narrowed, her teeth gritted, as if she were leading her troops into battle.

  She was the glue holding this ridiculous quartet together, and he could not have loved her more.

  He wasn’t sure if they had intended to do the entire piece, but thankfully Iris looked up, saw him, and let out a loud enough “Oh!” to halt the proceedings.

  “Marcus!” Honoria exclaimed, and he would have sworn she looked happy to see him, except that he wasn’t so sure he trusted his judgment on the matter any longer. “Why are you here?” she asked.

  He held up the pitcher. “Your mother sent me in with lemonade.”

  For a moment she stared, and then she burst out laughing. Iris followed suit, and the governess even cracked a smile. Daisy just stood there, looking baffled. “What is so funny?” she demanded.

  “Nothing,” Honoria sputtered. “It’s simply—good heavens, the entire day—and now my mother has sent an earl in to serve us lemonade.”

  “I don’t find that funny,” Daisy said. “I find it inappropriate in the extreme.”

  “Pay no attention to her,” Iris said. “She has no sense of humor.”

  “That is not true!”

  Marcus held himself extremely still, allowing only his eyes to glance over at Honoria for guidance. She gave a tiny nod, confirming Iris’s assessment.

  “Tell us, my lord,” Iris said with great exaggeration, “what did you think of our performance?”

  Under no circumstance was he going to answer that. “I’m just here to serve lemonade,” he said.

  “Well done,” Honoria murmured, standing up to join him.

  “I hope you have glasses,” he said to her, “because there were none for me to bring in.”

  “We do,” she said. “Please, won’t you pour for Miss Wynter first? She has been working the hardest, having joined the quartet only this afternoon.”

  Marcus murmured his assent and walked over to the piano. “Er, here you are,” he said a bit stiffly, but then again, he was not used to proffering drinks.

  “Thank you, my lord,” she said, holding forth a glass.

  He poured, then gave her a polite bow. “Have we met?” he asked. She looked deuced familiar.

  “I don’t believe so,” she replied, and she quickly took a drink.

  He gave a mental shrug and moved on to Daisy. He would have supposed that the governess simply had one of those faces that always looked familiar, except that she didn’t. She was staggeringly beautiful, but in a quiet, serene way. Not at all the sort of person a mother usually wished to hire as a governess. He supposed that Lady Pleinsworth had felt safe in doing so; she had no sons, and if her husband ever left Dorset, Marcus had never seen him.

  “Thank you, my lord,” Daisy said when he poured for her. “It is most democratic of you to take on such a task.”

  He had no idea what to say to that, so he just gave her an awkward nod and turned to Iris, who was rolling her eyes in open mockery of her sister. She smiled her thanks when he served her, and he finally was able to turn back to Honoria.

  “Thank you,” she said, taking a sip.

  “What are you going to do?”

  She looked at him questioningly. “About what?”

  “The musicale,” he said, thinking that should be obvious.

  “What do you mean? I shall play. What else can I do?”

  He indicated the governess with a subtle motion of his head. “You have a perfect excuse for canceling.”

  “I can’t do that,” Honoria replied, but there was more than a twinge of regret in her voice.

  “You don’t need to sacrifice yourself for your family,” he said quietly.

  “It isn’t a sacr
ifice. It’s—” She smiled sheepishly, maybe a little wistfully. “I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t a sacrifice.” She looked up, her eyes huge and warm in her face. “It’s what I do.”

  “I—”

  She waited for a moment, then said, “What is it?”

  He wanted to tell her he thought she was quite possibly the bravest, most unselfish person he knew. He wanted to tell her that he would sit through a thousand Smythe-Smith musicales if that was what it took to be with her.

  He wanted to tell her he loved her. But he couldn’t say it here. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Just that I admire you.”

  She let out a little laugh. “You may take that back by the end of the evening.”

  “I could not do what you do,” he said quietly.

  She turned and looked at him, startled by the gravity in his voice. “What do you mean?”

  He was not quite sure how to phrase it, so he finally went with, haltingly, “I don’t enjoy being at the center of attention.”

  Her head tilted to the side, she regarded him for a long moment before saying, “No. You don’t.” And then: “You were always a tree.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  Her eyes grew sentimental. “When we performed our awful pantomimes as children. You were always a tree.”

  “I never had to say anything.”

  “And you always got to stand at the back.”

  He felt himself smile, lopsided and true. “I rather liked being a tree.”

  “You were a very good tree.” She smiled then, too—a radiant, wondrous thing. “The world needs more trees.”

  By the end of the musicale, Honoria’s face ached from smiling. She grinned through the first movement, beamed through the second, and by the time they got through the third, she might as well have been at the dentist, she’d shown so much of her teeth.

  The performance had been every bit as awful as she had feared. In fact, it had quite possibly been the worst in the history of Smythe-Smith musicales, and that was no shabby feat. Anne was reasonably accomplished on the piano, and had she been given more than six hours to figure out what she was doing, she might have done a decent job of it, but as it was, she’d been consistently one and one-half bars behind the rest of the quartet.

  Which was complicated by the fact that Daisy had always been one and one-half bars ahead.

  Iris had played brilliantly, or rather, she could have played brilliantly. Honoria had heard her practicing on her own and had been so stunned by her level of skill she would not have been surprised if Iris had suddenly stood up and announced that she was adopted.

  But Iris had been so miserable at having been forced onto the makeshift stage that she’d moved her bow with no vigor at all. Her shoulders had slumped, her expression had been pained, and every time Honoria cast a glance at her, she’d appeared on the verge of running herself through with the neck of her cello.

  As for Honoria herself . . . Well, she’d been dreadful. But she’d known she would be. Actually, she thought she might have been even worse than usual. She’d been so focused on keeping her mouth stretched into that rapturous smile that she’d frequently lost her place in the score.

  But it had been worth it. Much of the first row of the audience was filled with her family. Her mother was there, and all of her aunts. Several sisters, scads of cousins . . . They were all beaming back at her, so proud and so happy to be a part of the tradition.

  And if the other members of the audience looked mildly ill, well, they had to have known what they were getting into. After eighteen years, no one attended a Smythe-Smith musicale without some inkling of the horrors that lay ahead.

  There was quite a round of applause, almost certainly to celebrate the end of the concert, and when they were done, Honoria kept on smiling and greeted the guests with courage enough to approach the stage.

  She suspected most doubted their ability to maintain a straight face while congratulating the musicians.

  And then, just when she thought she was done having to pretend that she believed all the people who were pretending they had enjoyed the concert, the final well-wisher arrived.

  It wasn’t Marcus, blast it. He appeared to be deep in conversation with Felicity Featherington, who everyone knew was the prettiest of the four Featherington sisters.

  Honoria tried to stretch her now clenched jaw into a smile as she greeted—

  Lady Danbury. Oh, dear God.

  Honoria tried not to be terrified, but dash it all, the lady scared her.

  Thump thump (went the cane), followed by: “You’re not one of the new ones, are you?”

  “I beg your pardon, ma’am?” Honoria replied, because truly, she had no idea what that meant.

  Lady Danbury leaned in, her face twisted into such a squint that her eyes nearly disappeared. “You played last year. I’d check my program, but I don’t save programs. Too much paper.”

  “Oh, I see,” Honoria answered. “No, ma’am, I mean, yes, I’m not one of the new ones.” She tried to keep track of all of the double negatives and finally decided that it didn’t matter if she’d said it correctly, Lady Danbury appeared to understand what she’d meant.

  Not to mention that at least half her brain was focused on Marcus, and the fact that he was still talking to Felicity Featherington. Who, Honoria could not help but note, looked exceptionally pretty that evening in a gown the exact shade of primrose she had intended to purchase before she’d had to leave London to care for Marcus when he had a fever.

  There was a time and a place for everything, Honoria decided, even pettiness.

  Lady Danbury leaned over and peered down at the violin in her hands. “Violin?”

  Honoria wrenched her gaze back to Lady Danbury. “Ehrm, yes, ma’am.”

  The elderly countess looked up with a shrewd look in her eye. “I can see that you wanted to make a comment about it not being a pianoforte.”

  “No, ma’am.” And then, because it had been that sort of evening, Honoria said, “I was going to make a comment about it not being a cello.”

  Lady Danbury’s wrinkled face erupted into a smile, and she chuckled loudly enough to make Honoria’s mother look over in alarm.

  “I find it difficult to distinguish between a violin and a viola,” Lady Danbury said. “Don’t you?”

  “No,” Honoria replied, feeling a bit braver now that she was getting warmed up, “but that might be because I actually play the violin.”

  Well, she thought as an addendum, “play” might be too ambitious a verb. But this she kept to herself.

  Lady Danbury gave her cane a thump. “I didn’t recognize the gel at the piano.”

  “That is Miss Wynter, the governess for the younger Pleinsworth girls. My cousin Sarah took ill and needed a replacement.” Honoria frowned. “I thought there was to be an announcement.”

  “There may have been. I’m sure I wasn’t listening.”

  It was on the tip of Honoria’s tongue to say that she hoped Lady Danbury hadn’t been listening to anything that night, but she swallowed the retort. She had a cheerful façade to maintain, and she fully blamed Marcus—and, to a lesser extent, Felicity Featherington—for making her so irritable.

  “Who are you looking at?” Lady Danbury asked slyly.

  Honoria was very quick to answer, “No one.”

  “Then who are you looking for?”

  Good heavens, the woman was like a barnacle. “Again, no one, ma’am,” Honoria said, she hoped sweetly.

  “Hmmmph. He’s my nephew, you know.”

  Honoria tried not to be alarmed. “I beg your pardon?”

  “Chatteris. My great-great-nephew, if one must put a fine point on it, but all those greats do make one feel ancient.”

  Honoria looked at Marcus, then back at Lady Danbury. “Mar—I mean, Lord Chatteris is your nephew?”

  “Not that he visits as often as he should.”

  “Well, he doesn’t like London,” Honoria murmured without thinking.
r />   Lady Danbury let out a sly chuckle. “You know that, do you?”

  Honoria hated that her cheeks were growing warm. “I have known him nearly all my life.”

  “Yes, yes,” Lady Danbury said, rather dismissively, “so I’ve heard. I—” Something seemed to catch her attention, and then she leaned in with a terrifying look in her eye. “I’m going to do you a very big favor.”

  “I really wish you wouldn’t,” Honoria said weakly, because surely nothing good could come of that expression on Lady Danbury’s face.

  “Pfft. Leave it all to me. I have an excellent record with this sort of thing.” She paused. “Well, one for one, anyway, but I’m optimistic for the future.”

  “What?” Honoria asked desperately.

  Lady Danbury ignored her. “Mr. Bridgerton! Mr. Bridgerton!” she called enthusiastically. She waved her hand, but unfortunately that particular appendage was attached to her cane, and Honoria had to weave and bob to the right to avoid getting her ear lopped off.

  By the time Honoria got herself straightened out, they had been joined by a handsome man with a devilish gleam in his green eyes. It took her a moment, but just before he was introduced, she recognized him as Colin Bridgerton, one of Gregory Bridgerton’s older brothers. Honoria did not know him personally, but she had heard her older sisters sigh about him incessantly when they were out and unmarried. His charm was almost as legendary as his smile.

  And his smile was presently directed at her. Honoria felt her stomach flip and quickly set it back to rights. If she weren’t desperately in love with Marcus (whose smile was far more subtle, and thus far more meaningful), this would be a dangerous man indeed.

  “I have been out of the country,” Mr. Bridgerton said smoothly, just after he kissed her hand, “so I am not sure that we have been introduced.”

  Honoria nodded and was about to say something utterly forgettable when she saw that his hand had been bandaged.

  “I hope your injury is not severe,” she said politely.

  “Oh, this?” he held up his hand. His fingers were free to waggle, but the rest of it looked rather like a mitt. “It’s nothing. An altercation with a letter opener.”

  “Well, please do be careful of infection,” Honoria said, somewhat more forcefully than was de rigueur. “If it grows red, or swollen, or even worse, yellow, then you must see a doctor at once.”

 
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