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Just like heaven, p.3
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       Just Like Heaven, p.3

           Julia Quinn
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  She tried not to smile. “That is most generous of you.”

  “I am quite certain it is my gentlemanly duty.”

  “To eat cake?”

  “It is one of the more appealing of my gentlemanly duties,” he allowed.

  Honoria giggled, then took a bite. “Oh, my.”


  “Heavenly.” She took another bite. “And by that I mean beyond heavenly.”

  He grinned and ate some of his own, devouring half in one bite. Then, while Honoria watched with some surprise, he popped the other half into his mouth and finished it.

  The piece hadn’t been very large, but still. She took a nibble of her own, trying to make it last longer.

  “You always did that,” he said.

  She looked up. “What?”

  “Ate your dessert slowly, just to torture the rest of us.”

  “I like to make it last.” She gave him an arch look, accompanied by a one-shouldered shrug. “If you feel tortured by that, that must be your own problem.”

  “Heartless,” he murmured.

  “With you, always.”

  He chuckled again, and Honoria was struck by how different he was in private. It was almost as if she had the old Marcus back, the one who had practically lived at Whipple Hill. He had truly become a member of the family, even joining their dreadful pantomimes. He had played a tree every time; for some reason that had always amused her.

  She liked that Marcus. She had adored that Marcus.

  But he’d been gone these past few years, replaced by the silent, scowling man known to the rest of the world as Lord Chatteris. It was sad, really. For her, but probably most of all, for him.

  She finished her cake, trying to ignore his amused expression, then accepted his handkerchief to wipe the crumbs from her hands. “Thank you,” she said, handing it back.

  He nodded his welcome, then said, “When are you—”

  But he was cut off by a sharp rap at the window.

  Honoria peered past him to see who was knocking.

  “Beg your pardon, sir,” said a footman in familiar livery. “Is that Lady Honoria?”

  “It is.”

  Honoria leaned forward. “That’s . . . er . . .” Very well, she had no idea of his name, but he had accompanied the group of girls on their shopping expedition. “He’s from the Royles.” She gave Marcus a quick, awkward smile before standing, then crouching so that she might exit the carriage. “I must go. My friends will be waiting for me.”

  “I shall call upon you tomorrow.”

  “What?” She froze, bent over like a crone.

  One of his brows rose in mocking salute. “Surely your hostess won’t mind.”

  Mrs. Royle, mind that an unmarried earl not yet thirty planned to pay a call upon her home? It would be all Honoria could do to stop her from organizing a parade.

  “I’m sure that would be lovely,” she managed to say.

  “Good.” He cleared his throat. “It has been too long.”

  She looked at him in surprise. Surely he didn’t give her a thought when they were not both in London, swanning about for the season.

  “I am glad you are well,” he said abruptly.

  Why such a statement was so startling, Honoria couldn’t have begun to say. But it was.

  It really was.

  Marcus watched as the Royles’ footman escorted Honoria into the shop across the street. Then, once Marcus was assured of her safety, he rapped three times on the wall, signaling to the coachman to continue.

  He had been surprised to see her in Cambridge. He did not keep close tabs on Honoria when he was not in London, but still, he somehow thought he’d have known if she was going to be spending time so close to his home.

  He supposed he ought to start making plans to go down to town for the season. He had not been lying when he’d told her he had business to attend to here, although it probably would have been more accurate to say that he simply preferred to remain in the country. There was nothing that required his presence in Cambridgeshire, just quite a lot that would be made easier by it.

  Not to mention that he hated the season. Hated it. But if Honoria was hell-bent on acquiring herself a husband, then he would go to London to make sure she made no disastrous mistakes.

  He had made a vow, after all.

  Daniel Smythe-Smith had been his closest friend. No, his only friend, his only true friend.

  A thousand acquaintances and one true friend.

  Such was his life.

  But Daniel was gone, somewhere in Italy if the latest missive was still current. And he wasn’t likely to return, not while the Marquess of Ramsgate still lived, hell-bent on revenge.

  What a bloody cock-up the whole thing had been. Marcus had told Daniel not to play cards with Hugh Prentice. But no, Daniel had just laughed, determined to try his hand. Prentice always won. Always. He was bloody brilliant, everyone knew it. Maths, physics, history—he’d ended up teaching the dons at university. Hugh Prentice didn’t cheat at cards, he simply won all the time because he had a freakishly sharp memory and a mind that saw the world in patterns and equations.

  Or so he’d told Marcus when they’d been students together at Eton. Truth was, Marcus still didn’t quite understand what he’d been talking about. And he’d been the second best student at maths. But next to Hugh . . . Well, there could be no comparison.

  No one in their right mind played cards with Hugh Prentice, but Daniel hadn’t been in his right mind. He’d been a little bit drunk, and a little bit giddy over some girl he’d just bedded, and so he’d sat down across from Hugh and played.

  And won.

  Even Marcus hadn’t been able to believe it.

  Not that he’d thought Daniel was a cheat. No one thought Daniel was a cheat. Everyone liked him. Everyone trusted him. But then again, no one ever beat Hugh Prentice.

  But Hugh had been drinking. And Daniel had been drinking. And they’d all been drinking, and when Hugh knocked over the table and accused Daniel of cheating, the room went to hell.

  To this day Marcus wasn’t sure exactly what was said, but within minutes it had been settled—Daniel Smythe-Smith would be meeting Hugh Prentice at dawn. With pistols.

  And with any luck, they’d be sober enough by then to realize their own idiocy.

  Hugh had shot first, his bullet grazing Daniel’s left shoulder. And while everyone was gasping about that—the polite thing would have been to shoot in the air—Daniel raised his arm and fired back.

  And Daniel—bloody hell but Daniel had always had bad aim—Daniel had caught Hugh at the top of his thigh. There had been so much blood Marcus still felt queasy just thinking about it. The surgeon had screamed. The bullet had hit an artery; nothing else could have produced such a torrent of blood. For three days all the worry had been whether Hugh would live or die; no one gave much thought to the leg, with its shattered femur.

  Hugh lived, but he didn’t walk, not without a cane. And his father—the extremely powerful and extremely angry Marquess of Ramsgate—vowed that Daniel would be brought to justice.

  Hence Daniel’s flight to Italy.

  Hence Daniel’s breathless, last-minute, promise-me-now-because-we’re-standing-at-the-docks-and-the-ship-is-about-to-leave request:

  “Watch over Honoria, will you? See that she doesn’t marry an idiot.”

  Of course Marcus had said yes. What else could he have said? But he’d never told Honoria of his promise to her brother. Good God, that would have been disaster. It was difficult enough keeping up with her without her knowledge. If she’d known he was acting in loco parentis, she’d have been furious. The last thing he needed was her trying to thwart him.

  Which she would do. He was sure of it.

  It wasn’t that she was deliberately willful. She was, for the most part, a perfectly reasonable girl. But even the most reasonable of females took umbrage when they thought they were being bossed about.

  So he watched from afar, and he quietly sca
red off a suitor or two.

  Or three.

  Or maybe four.

  He’d promised Daniel.

  And Marcus Holroyd did not break his promises.

  Chapter Two

  “When will he be here?”

  “I don’t know,” Honoria replied, for what must have been the seventh time. She smiled politely at the other young ladies in the Royles’ green and gray drawing room. Marcus’s appearance the day before had been discussed, dissected, analyzed, and—by Lady Sarah Pleinsworth, Honoria’s cousin and one of her closest friends—rendered into poetry.

  “He came in the rain,” Sarah intoned. “The day had been plain.”

  Honoria nearly spit out her tea.

  “It was muddy, this lane—”

  Cecily Royle smiled slyly over her teacup. “Have you considered free verse?”

  “—our heroine, in pain—”

  “I was cold,” Honoria put in.

  Iris Smythe-Smith, another of Honoria’s cousins, looked up with her signature dry expression. “I am in pain,” she stated. “Specifically, my ears.”

  Honoria shot Iris a look that said clearly, Be polite. Iris just shrugged.

  “—her distress, she did feign—”

  “Not true!” Honoria protested.

  “You can’t interfere with genius,” Iris said sweetly.

  “—her schemes, not in vain—”

  “This poem is devolving rapidly,” Honoria stated.

  “I am beginning to enjoy it,” said Cecily.

  “—her existence, a bane . . .”

  Honoria let out a snort. “Oh, come now!”

  “I think she’s doing an admirable job,” Iris said, “given the limitations of the rhyming structure.” She looked over at Sarah, who had gone quite suddenly silent. Iris cocked her head to the side; so did Honoria and Sarah.

  Sarah’s lips were parted, and her left hand was still outstretched with great drama, but she appeared to have run out of words.

  “Cane?” Cecily suggested. “Main?”

  “Insane?” offered Iris.

  “Any moment now,” Honoria said tartly, “if I’m trapped here much longer with you lot.”

  Sarah laughed and flopped down on the sofa. “The Earl of Chatteris,” she said with a sigh. “I shall never forgive you for not introducing us last year,” she said to Honoria.

  “I did introduce you!”

  “Well, then you should have done so twice,” Sarah added impishly, “to make it stick. I don’t think he said more than two words to me the whole season.”

  “He barely said more than two words to me,” Honoria replied.

  Sarah tilted her head, her brows arching as if to say, Oh, really?

  “He’s not terribly social,” Honoria said.

  “I think he’s handsome,” Cecily said.

  “Do you?” Sarah asked. “I find him rather brooding.”

  “Brooding is handsome,” Cecily said firmly, before Honoria could offer an opinion.

  “I am trapped in a bad novel,” Iris announced, to no one in particular.

  “You didn’t answer my question,” Sarah said to Honoria. “When will he be here?”

  “I do not know,” Honoria replied, for what was surely the eighth time. “He did not say.”

  “Impolite,” Cecily said, reaching for a biscuit.

  “It’s his way,” Honoria said with a light shrug.

  “This is what I find so interesting,” Cecily murmured, “that you know ‘his way.’ ”

  “They have known each other for decades,” Sarah said. “Centuries.”

  “Sarah . . .” Honoria adored her cousin, she really did. Most of the time.

  Sarah smiled slyly, her dark eyes alight with mischief. “He used to call her Bug.”

  “Sarah!” Honoria glared at her. She did not need it put about that she had once been likened to an insect by an earl of the realm. “It was a long time ago,” she said with all the dignity she could muster. “I was seven.”

  “How old was he?” Iris asked.

  Honoria thought for a moment. “Thirteen, most likely.”

  “Well, that explains it,” Cecily said with a wave of her hand. “Boys are beasts.”

  Honoria nodded politely. Cecily had seven younger brothers. She ought to know.

  “Still,” Cecily said, all drama, “how coincidental that he should come across you on the street.”

  “Fortuitous,” Sarah agreed.

  “Almost as if he were following you,” Cecily added, leaning forward with widened eyes.

  “Now that is just silly,” Honoria said.

  “Well, of course,” Cecily replied, her tone going right back to brisk and businesslike. “That would never happen. I was merely saying that it seemed as if he had.”

  “He lives nearby,” Honoria said, waving her hand in the direction of nothing in particular. She had a terrible sense of direction; she couldn’t have said which way was north if her life depended on it. And anyway, she had no idea which way one had to travel out of Cambridge to get to Fensmore in the first place.

  “His estate adjoins ours,” Cecily said.

  “It does?” This, from Sarah. With great interest.

  “Or perhaps I should say it surrounds us,” Cecily said with a little laugh. “The man owns half of northern Cambridgeshire. I do believe his property touches Bricstan on the north, south, and west.”

  “And on the east?” Iris wondered. To Honoria she added, “It’s the logical next question.”

  Cecily blinked, considering this. “That would probably send you onto his land, as well. You can make your way out through a little section to the southeast. But then you would end up at the vicarage, so really, what would be the point?”

  “Is it far?” Sarah asked.


  “No,” Sarah retorted, with no small measure of impatience. “Fensmore.”

  “Oh. No, not really. We’re twenty miles away, so he would be only a little farther.” Cecily paused for a moment, thinking. “He might keep a town home here as well. I’m not sure.”

  The Royles were firm East Anglians, keeping a town home in Cambridge and a country home just a bit to the north. When they went to London, they rented.

  “We should go,” Sarah said suddenly. “This weekend.”

  “Go?” Iris asked. “Where?”

  “To the country?” Cecily replied.

  “Yes,” Sarah said, her voice rising with excitement. “It would extend our visit by only a few days, so surely our families could make no objection.” She turned slightly, sending her words directly toward Cecily. “Your mother can host a small house party. We can invite some of the university students. Surely they will be grateful for a respite from school life.”

  “I’ve heard the food there is very bad,” Iris said.

  “It’s an interesting idea,” Cecily mused.

  “It’s a spectacular idea,” Sarah said firmly. “Go ask your mother. Now, before Lord Chatteris arrives.”

  Honoria gasped. “Surely you don’t mean to invite him?” It had been lovely to see him the day before, but the last thing she wanted was to spend an entire house party in his company. If he attended, she could bid any hopes of attracting the attention of a young gentleman good-bye. Marcus had a way of glowering when he disapproved of her behavior. And his glowers had a way of scaring off every human being in the vicinity.

  That he might not disapprove of her behavior never once crossed her mind.

  “Of course not,” Sarah replied, turning to Honoria with a most impatient expression. “Why would he attend, when he can sleep in his own bed just down the road? But he will wish to visit, won’t he? Perhaps come to supper, or for shooting.”

  It was Honoria’s opinion that if Marcus was trapped for an afternoon with this gaggle of females he’d likely start shooting at them.

  “It’s perfect,” Sarah insisted. “The younger gentlemen will be so much more likely to accept our invitation if they know Lord C
hatteris will be there. They’ll want to make a good impression. He’s very influential, you know.”

  “I thought you weren’t going to invite him,” Honoria said.

  “I’m not. I mean—” Sarah motioned toward Cecily, who was, after all, the daughter of the one who would be doing the inviting. “We’re not. But we can put it about that he is likely to call.”

  “He’ll appreciate that, I’m sure,” Honoria said dryly, not that anyone was listening.

  “Who shall we invite?” Sarah asked, ignoring Honoria’s statement entirely. “It should be four gentlemen.”

  “Our numbers will be uneven when Lord Chatteris is about,” Cecily pointed out.

  “The better for us,” Sarah said firmly. “And we can’t very well invite only three and then have too many ladies when he is not here.”

  Honoria sighed. Her cousin was the definition of tenacious. There was no arguing with Sarah when she had her heart set on something.

  “I had better talk to my mother,” Cecily said, standing up. “We’ll need to get to work immediately.” She left the room in a dramatic swish of pink muslin.

  Honoria looked over at Iris, who surely recognized the madness that was about to ensue. But Iris just shrugged her shoulders and said, “It’s a good idea, actually.”

  “It’s why we came to Cambridge,” Sarah reminded them. “To meet gentlemen.”

  It was true. Mrs. Royle liked to talk about exposing young ladies to culture and education, but they all knew the truth: They had come to Cambridge for reasons that were purely social. When Mrs. Royle had broached the idea to Honoria’s mother, she’d lamented that so many young gentlemen were still at Oxford or Cambridge at the beginning of the season and thus not in London where they should be, courting young ladies. Mrs. Royle had a supper planned for the next evening, but a house party away from town would be even more effective.

  Nothing like trapping the gentlemen where they couldn’t get away.

  Honoria supposed she was going to need to pen a letter to her mother, informing her that she would be in Cambridge a few extra days. She had a bad feeling about using Marcus as a lure to get other gentlemen to accept, but she knew she could not afford to dismiss such an opportunity. The university students were young—almost the same age as the four young ladies—but Honoria did not mind. Even if none were ready for marriage, surely some had older brothers? Or cousins. Or friends.

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