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Just like heaven, p.4
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       Just Like Heaven, p.4

           Julia Quinn
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  She sighed. She hated how calculated it all sounded, but what else was she to do?

  “Gregory Bridgerton,” Sarah announced, her eyes positively aglow with triumph. “He would be perfect. Brilliantly well-connected. One of his sisters married a duke, and another an earl. And he’s in his final year, so perhaps he will be ready to marry soon.”

  Honoria looked up. She’d met Mr. Bridgerton several times, usually when he’d been dragged by his mother to one of the infamous Smythe-Smith musicales.

  Honoria tried not to wince. The family’s annual musicale was never a good time to make the acquaintance of a gentleman, unless he was deaf. There was some argument within the family about who, precisely, had begun the tradition, but in 1807, four Smythe-Smith cousins had taken to the stage and butchered a perfectly innocent piece of music. Why they (or rather, their mothers) had thought it a good idea to repeat the massacre the following year Honoria would never know, but they had, and then the year after that, and the year after that.

  It was understood that all Smythe-Smith daughters must take up a musical instrument and, when it was their turn, join the quartet. Once in, she was stuck there until she found a husband. It was, Honoria had more than once reflected, as good an argument as any for an early marriage.

  The strange thing was, most of her family didn’t seem to realize how awful they were. Her cousin Viola had performed in the quartet for six years and still spoke longingly of her days as a member. Honoria had half-expected her to leave her groom at the altar when she had married six months earlier, just so she could continue in her position as primary violinist.

  The mind boggled.

  Honoria and Sarah had been forced to assume their spots the year before, Honoria on the violin and Sarah on the piano. Poor Sarah was still traumatized by the experience. She was actually somewhat musical and had played her part accurately. Or so Honoria was told; it was difficult to hear anything above the violins. Or the people gasping in the audience.

  Sarah had sworn that she would never play with her cousins again. Honoria had just shrugged; she didn’t really mind the musicale—not terribly, at least. She actually thought the whole thing was a bit amusing. And besides, there was nothing she could do about it. It was family tradition, and there was nothing that mattered more to Honoria than family, nothing.

  But now she had to get serious about her husband hunting, which meant she was going to have to find a gentleman with a tin ear. Or a very good sense of humor.

  Gregory Bridgerton seemed to be an excellent candidate. Honoria had no idea if he could carry a tune, but they had crossed paths two days earlier, when the four young ladies were out for tea in town, and she had been instantly struck by what a lovely smile he had.

  She liked him. He was amazingly friendly and outgoing, and something about him reminded her of her own family, the way they used to be, gathered together at Whipple Hill, loud and boisterous and always laughing.

  It was probably because he, too, was from a large family—the second youngest of eight. Honoria was the youngest of six, so surely they would have a great deal in common.

  Gregory Bridgerton. Hmmm. She didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of him before.

  Honoria Bridgerton.

  Winifred Bridgerton. (She’d always wanted to name a child Winifred, so it seemed prudent to test this one out on the tongue as well.)

  Mr. Gregory and Lady Honor—

  “Honoria? Honoria!”

  She blinked. Sarah was staring at her with visible irritation. “Gregory Bridgerton?” she said. “Your opinion?”

  “Er, I think he would be a very nice choice,” Honoria answered, in the most unassuming manner possible.

  “Who else?” Sarah said, rising to her feet. “Perhaps I should make a list.”

  “For four names?” Honoria could not help but ask.

  “You’re terribly determined,” Iris murmured.

  “I have to be,” Sarah retorted, her dark eyes flashing.

  “Do you really think you’re going to find a man and then marry him in the next two weeks?” Honoria asked.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sarah replied in a clipped voice.

  Honoria glanced toward the open door to make sure that no one was approaching. “It’s just the three of us right now, Sarah.”

  “Does one have to play at the musicale if one is engaged?” Iris asked.

  “Yes,” Honoria answered.

  “No,” Sarah said firmly.

  “Oh, yes, you do,” Honoria said.

  Iris sighed.

  “Don’t you complain,” Sarah said, turning on her with narrowed eyes. “You didn’t have to play last year.”

  “For which I am eternally grateful,” Iris told her. She was due to join the quartet this year on cello.

  “You want to find a husband just as badly as I do,” Sarah said to Honoria.

  “Not in the next two weeks! And not,” she added, with a bit more decorum, “merely to get out of playing in the musicale.”

  “I am not saying that I would marry someone awful,” Sarah said with a sniff. “But if Lord Chatteris just happened to fall desperately in love with me . . .”

  “He’s not going to,” Honoria said baldly. Then, realizing how unkind that sounded, she added, “He’s not going to fall in love with anyone. Trust me.”

  “Love works in mysterious ways,” Sarah said. But she sounded more hopeful than certain.

  “Even if Marcus did fall in love with you, which isn’t going to happen, not that it has anything to do with you, he’s just not the sort to fall in love with someone quickly.” Honoria paused, trying to remember where she had started her sentence because she was fairly certain she had not completed it.

  Sarah crossed her arms. “Was there a point in there, hidden amid the insults?”

  Honoria rolled her eyes. “Just that even if Marcus did fall in love with someone, he would do it in the most ordinary, regular manner.”

  “Is love ever ordinary?” Iris asked.

  The statement was just philosophical enough to silence the room. But only for a moment.

  “He would never rush a wedding,” Honoria continued, turning back to Sarah. “He hates drawing attention to himself. Hates it,” she repeated, because frankly, it bore repeating. “He’ll not get you out of the musicale, that is for certain.”

  For a few seconds Sarah stood still and straight, and then she sighed, her shoulders falling into a slump. “Maybe Gregory Bridgerton,” she said dejectedly. “He seems like he might be a romantic.”

  “Enough to elope?” Iris asked.

  “No one is eloping!” Honoria exclaimed. “And you are all playing in the musicale next month.”

  Sarah and Iris stared at her with identical expressions—two parts surprise and one part indignation. With a healthy dash of dread.

  “Well, you are,” Honoria muttered. “We all are. It’s our duty.”

  “Our duty,” Sarah repeated. “To play terrible music?”

  Honoria stared at her. “Yes.”

  Iris burst out laughing.

  “It’s not funny,” Sarah said.

  Iris wiped her eyes. “But it is.”

  “It won’t be,” Sarah warned, “once you have to play.”

  “Which is why I shall take my laughter now,” Iris replied.

  “I still think we should have a house party,” Sarah said.

  To which Honoria replied, “I agree.”

  Sarah looked at her suspiciously.

  “I just think that it would be ambitious to think of it as a means to getting out of playing at the musicale.” Foolish more than ambitious, but Honoria wasn’t about to say that.

  Sarah sat at a nearby writing desk and picked up a pen. “We agree on Mr. Bridgerton, then?”

  Honoria looked over at Iris. They both nodded.

  “Who else?” Sarah asked.

  “Don’t you think we should wait for Cecily?” Iris asked.

  “Neville Berbrooke!”
Sarah said firmly. “He and Mr. Bridgerton are related.”

  “They are?” Honoria asked. She knew quite a lot about the Bridgerton family—everyone did—but she didn’t think they’d ever married any Berbrookes.

  “Mr. Bridgerton’s brother’s wife’s sister is married to Mr. Berbrooke’s brother.”

  It was just the sort of statement that begged for a sarcastic comment, but Honoria was too dumbfounded by the speed at which Sarah had rattled it off to do anything but blink.

  Iris, however, was not as impressed. “And this makes them . . . casual acquaintances?”

  “Cousins,” Sarah said, shooting Iris a peevish glance. “Brothers. In-law.”

  “Thrice removed?” Iris murmured.

  Sarah looked over at Honoria. “Make her stop.”

  Honoria burst out laughing. Iris did, too, and then finally Sarah succumbed to her own giggles. Honoria rose and gave Sarah an impulsive hug. “Everything will be all right, you’ll see.”

  Sarah smiled sheepishly in return. She started to say something, but just then Cecily sailed back into the room, her mother at her heels. “She loves the idea!” Cecily announced.

  “I do,” Mrs. Royle affirmed. She strode across the room to the writing table, sliding into the chair as Sarah quickly hopped out.

  Honoria watched her with interest. Mrs. Royle was such a medium woman—medium height, medium build, medium brown hair and medium brown eyes. Even her dress was of a medium shade of purple, with a medium-sized ruffle circling the bottom.

  But there was nothing medium about her expression at that moment. She looked ready to command an army, and it was clear that she would take no prisoners.

  “It’s brilliant,” Mrs. Royle said, frowning slightly as she looked for something on her desk. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier. We will have to work quickly, of course. We shall send someone down to London this afternoon to notify your parents that you will be detained.” She turned to Honoria. “Cecily says that you can ensure that Lord Chatteris makes an appearance?”

  “No,” Honoria answered with alarm. “I can try, of course, but—”

  “Try hard,” Mrs. Royle said briskly. “That will be your job while the rest of us plan the party. When is he coming, by the way?”

  “I have no idea,” Honoria replied, for what had to be—oh, bother it all, it did not matter how many times she had answered that question. “He did not say.”

  “You don’t think he’s forgotten?”

  “He is not the sort to forget,” Honoria told her.

  “No, he doesn’t seem as if he would,” Mrs. Royle murmured. “Still, one can never count upon a man to be as devoted to the mechanics of courtship as a female.”

  The alarm that had been percolating inside Honoria exploded into full-form panic. Dear heavens, if Mrs. Royle was thinking to pair her up with Marcus . . .

  “He’s not courting me,” she said quickly.

  Mrs. Royle gave her a calculating look.

  “He’s not, I promise you.”

  Mrs. Royle turned her gaze to Sarah, who immediately straightened in her seat.

  “It does seem unlikely,” Sarah said, since it was clear that Mrs. Royle wished for her to chime in. “They are rather like brother and sister.”

  “It’s true,” Honoria confirmed. “He and my brother were the closest of friends.”

  The room went silent at the mention of Daniel. Honoria wasn’t sure if this was out of respect, awkwardness, or regret that a perfectly eligible gentleman was lost to the current crop of debutantes.

  “Well,” Mrs. Royle said briskly. “Do your best. It is all we can ask of you.”

  “Oh!” Cecily yelped, stepping back from the window. “I think he’s here!”

  Sarah jumped to her feet and began smoothing her perfectly unwrinkled skirts. “Are you certain?”

  “Oh, yes.” Cecily practically sighed with delight. “Oh, my, but that’s a gorgeous carriage.”

  They all stood still, awaiting their guest. Honoria thought Mrs. Royle might actually be holding her breath.

  “Won’t we feel foolish,” Iris whispered in her ear, “if it is not even he?”

  Honoria bit back a laugh, shoving her cousin with her foot.

  Iris only grinned.

  In the silence it was easy to hear the knock at the door, followed by the slight creak as the butler opened it.

  “Stand straight,” Mrs. Royle hissed at Cecily. And then, as an afterthought: “The rest of you, too.”

  But when the butler appeared in the doorway, he was alone. “Lord Chatteris has sent his regrets,” he announced.

  Everyone slumped. Even Mrs. Royle. It was as if they’d each been pricked by a pin, the air squeezed right out of them.

  “He sent a letter,” the butler said.

  Mrs. Royle held out her hand, but the butler said, “It is addressed to Lady Honoria.”

  Honoria straightened and, aware that every eye was now trained on her, worked a little harder to suppress the relief that she was sure showed on her face. “Er, thank you,” she said, taking the folded sheet of parchment from the butler.

  “What does it say?” Sarah asked, before Honoria could even break the seal.

  “Just one moment,” Honoria murmured, taking a few steps toward the window so that she might read Marcus’s letter in relative privacy. “It’s nothing, really,” she said, once she’d finished the three short sentences. “There was an emergency at his home, and he is unable to visit this afternoon.”

  “That’s all he said?” Mrs. Royle demanded.

  “He’s not one for lengthy explanations,” Honoria said.

  “Powerful men do not explain their actions,” Cecily announced dramatically.

  There was a moment of silence while everyone digested that, and then Honoria said, in a purposefully cheerful voice, “He wishes all well.”

  “Not well enough to grace us with his presence,” Mrs. Royle muttered.

  The obvious question of the house party hung in the air, with the young ladies glancing back and forth between them, silently wondering who would step forward to ask it. Finally, all eyes settled on Cecily. It had to be her. It would have been rude coming from anyone else.

  “What shall we do about the party at Bricstan?” Cecily asked. But her mother was lost in thought, eyes narrowed and lips pursed. Cecily cleared her throat and then said, a bit louder, “Mother?”

  “It’s still a good idea,” Mrs. Royle said suddenly. Her voice was loud with determination, and Honoria almost felt the syllables echo off her ears.

  “Then we shall still invite the students?” Cecily said.

  “I had thought of Gregory Bridgerton,” Sarah put in helpfully, “and Neville Berbrooke.”

  “Good choices,” Mrs. Royle said, marching across the room to her desk. “Good family, the both of them.” She pulled out several sheets of cream-colored paper, then flipped through the corners, counting them out. “I shall write the invitations immediately,” she said, once she had the correct number of sheets. She turned to Honoria, arm outstretched. “Except this one.”

  “I beg your pardon?” Honoria said, even though she knew exactly what Mrs. Royle meant. She just didn’t want to accept it.

  “Invite Lord Chatteris. Just as we planned. Not for the entire party, just for an afternoon. Saturday or Sunday, whichever he prefers.”

  “Are you sure the invitation should not come from you?” Cecily asked her mother.

  “No, it is better from Lady Honoria,” Mrs. Royle stated. “He will find it more difficult to decline, coming from such a close family friend.” She took another step forward, until there was no way Honoria could avoid taking the paper from her hand. “We are good neighbors, of course,” Mrs. Royle added. “Do not think we are not.”

  “Of course,” Honoria murmured. There was nothing else she could have said. And, she thought as she looked down at the paper in her hand, nothing else she could do. But then her luck turned. Mrs. Royle sat at the desk, w
hich meant Honoria had no choice but to retire to her room to pen the invitation.

  Which meant that no one besides Honoria—and Marcus, of course—knew that what it actually said was:

  Marcus—

  Mrs. Royle has asked me to extend an invitation to Bricstan this weekend. She plans a small house party, with the four ladies I mentioned, along with four young gentlemen from the university. I beg of you, do not accept. You shall be miserable, and then I shall be miserable, fretting over your misery.

  With affection, et cetera & et cetera,

  Honoria

  A different sort of gentleman would take such an “invitation” as a dare and accept immediately. But not Marcus. Honoria was certain of that. He might be supercilious, he might be disapproving, but one thing he was not was spiteful. And he wasn’t going to make himself miserable just to make her miserable.

  He was occasionally the bane of her existence, but he was, at heart, a good person. Reasonable, too. He would realize that Mrs. Royle’s gathering was exactly the sort of event that made him want to gouge his eyes out. She’d long wondered why he ever went to London for the season; he always looked so bored.

  Honoria sealed the letter herself and brought it downstairs, handing it to a footman to deliver to Marcus. When Marcus’s reply arrived several hours later, it was addressed to Mrs. Royle.

  “What does it say?” Cecily asked breathlessly, rushing to her mother’s side as she opened it. Iris, too, crowded in, trying to peer over Cecily’s shoulder.

  Honoria hung back and waited. She knew what it would say.

  Mrs. Royle broke the seal and unfolded the missive, her eyes moving quickly across the writing as she read. “He sends his regrets,” she said flatly.

  Cecily and Sarah let out wails of despair. Mrs. Royle looked over at Honoria, who hoped she was doing a good job at looking shocked as she said, “I did ask. It’s just not his sort of entertainment, I think. He’s really not terribly sociable.”

  “Well, that much is true,” Mrs. Royle grumbled. “I can’t remember more than three balls last season at which I saw him dancing. And with so many young ladies without partners. It was downright rude.”

 
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