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Just like heaven, p.5
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       Just Like Heaven, p.5

           Julia Quinn
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  “He’s a good dancer, though,” Cecily said.

  All eyes turned to her.

  “He is,” she insisted, looking a bit surprised that her statement had garnered so much attention. “He danced with me at the Mottram Ball.” She turned to the other girls, as if to offer an explanation. “We are neighbors, after all. It was only polite.”

  Honoria nodded. Marcus was a good dancer. Better than she was, that was for certain. She never could understand the intricacies of rhythm. Sarah had tried endlessly to explain the difference between a waltz and common time, but Honoria had never been able to grasp it.

  “We shall persevere,” Mrs. Royle said loudly, placing a hand over her heart. “Two of the other four gentlemen have already accepted, and I am certain that we will hear from the others in the morning.”

  But later that night, as Honoria was heading upstairs to bed, Mrs. Royle took her aside and quietly asked, “Do you think there is any chance Lord Chatteris will change his mind?”

  Honoria swallowed uncomfortably. “I’m afraid not, ma’am.”

  Mrs. Royle shook her head and made a little clucking sound. “Such a pity. He really would have been the feather in my cap. Well, good night, dear. Pleasant dreams.”

  Twenty miles away, Marcus was sitting alone in his study with a hot cup of cider, mulling over his recent missive from Honoria. He had burst out laughing upon reading it, which he imagined had been her intention. Perhaps not her primary intention—that had certainly been to stop him from attending Mrs. Royle’s party—but she would have known that her words would amuse him to no end.

  He looked down at the paper again, smiling as he reread it. Only Honoria would write him such a note, begging him to decline the invitation that she had put forth but two sentences prior.

  It had been rather nice, seeing her again. It had been an age. He did not count the numerous times their paths had crossed in London. Such meetings could never be like the carefree times he had spent with her family at Whipple Hill. In London he was either dodging the ambitious mamas who were absolutely certain their daughters were born to be the next Lady Chatteris, or he was trying to keep an eye on Honoria. Or both.

  In retrospect, it was remarkable that no one thought he was interested in her himself. He’d certainly spent enough time discreetly meddling in her business. He’d scared off four gentlemen the previous year—two of them fortune hunters, one with a cruel streak, and the last an aging, pompous ass. He was fairly certain that Honoria would have had the sense to refuse the last, but the one with the cruel streak hid it well, and the fortune hunters were, he was told, charming.

  Which he supposed was a prerequisite for the position.

  She was probably interested in one of the gentlemen who would be attending Mrs. Royle’s party and didn’t want him there to ruin things for her. He didn’t particularly want to be there, either, so in that they were in agreement.

  But he needed to know on whom she had set her sights. If it wasn’t someone with whom he was familiar, inquiries would have to be made. It wouldn’t be too difficult to obtain the guest list; the servants always knew how to get hold of things like that.

  And maybe if the weather was fine, he would go for a ride. Or a walk. There was a path in the woods that wandered back and forth across the property line between Fensmore and Bricstan. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d walked it. It was irresponsible of him, really. A landowner ought to know his property in intimate detail.

  A walk it would be, then. And if he happened along Honoria and her friends, he could converse with them just long enough to get the information he needed. He could avoid the party and find out who she planned to set her cap for.

  Marcus finished off his cider and smiled. He couldn’t imagine a more pleasing outcome.

  Chapter Three

  By Sunday afternoon, Honoria was convinced she had made the right choice. Gregory Bridgerton would make an ideal husband. They had been seated next to each other at the supper at the Royles’ town home a few days earlier, and he had been utterly charming. True, he had shown no signs of being particularly smitten with her, but neither had he seemed taken with anyone else. He was kind, courteous, and had a sense of humor to match her own.

  More to the point, Honoria thought that if she made the effort, she had more than a passing chance at capturing his interest. He was a younger—no, a youngest son—which meant that ladies hoping to snag a title would consider him beneath their notice. And he would probably need money. His family was passably wealthy and would likely provide him with an income, but younger sons were notoriously in need of dowries.

  Which Honoria had. Nothing staggering, but Daniel had revealed the amount to her before he’d left the country, and it was more than respectable. She would not enter into a marriage empty-handed.

  All that was left was to make Mr. Bridgerton see that they were perfectly matched. And Honoria had a plan.

  It had come to her in church that morning. (The ladies went; the gentlemen somehow managed to get out of it.) It wasn’t terribly complicated; she needed only a sunny day, a halfway acceptable sense of direction, and a shovel.

  The first was easy, and indeed already a given. The sun had been shining brightly when she’d entered the small parish church, which was probably what had given her the idea in the first place. More to the point, it was still shining when she left, which, given the vagaries of English weather, was not something one could always count upon.

  The second would be trickier. But they had taken a walk through the woods the day before, and Honoria was fairly sure that she could find her way again. She might not be able to tell north from south, but she could follow a well-tended path.

  As for the shovel, she was going to have to figure that one out later.

  When the ladies returned to Bricstan after church, they were informed that the gentlemen had gone shooting and would return for a late lunch. “They will be extremely hungry,” Mrs. Royle announced. “We must adjust our preparations accordingly.”

  Honoria was apparently the only one who did not realize that this meant she required an assistant. Cecily and Sarah immediately rushed upstairs to choose their afternoon dresses, and Iris spouted some nonsense about a stomachache and fled. Honoria was immediately drafted to serve on Mrs. Royle’s committee of two.

  “I had planned to serve meat pies,” Mrs. Royle said. “They are so easy to handle out of doors, but I think we shall need another meat. Do you think the gentlemen will enjoy chilled, roasted beef?”

  “Of course,” Honoria replied, following her to the kitchen. Didn’t everyone?

  “With mustard?”

  Honoria opened her mouth to reply, but Mrs. Royle must not have been expecting an answer, because she kept right on talking: “We shall serve three kinds. And a compote.”

  Honoria waited for a moment and then, when it became apparent that this time Mrs. Royle did expect her to comment, she said, “I’m sure that would be lovely.”

  It was not the most vibrant example of her conversational skills, but given the subject matter, it was the best she could do.

  “Oh!” Mrs. Royle stopped and whirled around so suddenly that Honoria nearly crashed into her. “I forgot to tell Cecily!”

  “Tell her what?” Honoria asked, but Mrs. Royle was already six steps down the hall, summoning a maid. When she returned, she said, “It is very important that she wear blue this afternoon. I have heard that it is the favorite color of two of our guests.”

  How she had determined that Honoria could not begin to guess.

  “And it complements her eyes,” Mrs. Royle added.

  “Cecily has lovely eyes,” Honoria agreed.

  Mrs. Royle looked at her with a queer expression, then said, “You should consider wearing blue more often, too. It will make your eyes look less uncommon.”

  “I’m fond of my eyes,” Honoria said with a smile.

  Mrs. Royle’s lips pressed together. “The color is very unusual.”

s a family trait. My brother’s are the same.”

  “Ah, yes, your brother.” Mrs. Royle sighed. “Such a pity.”

  Honoria nodded. Three years ago she would have taken offense at the comment, but she was less impetuous now, more pragmatic. And besides, it was true. It was a pity. “We hope he may return someday.”

  Mrs. Royle snorted. “Not until Ramsgate dies. I have known him since he was in leading strings, and he’s as stubborn as an ass.”

  Honoria blinked at that. Such plain speaking from Mrs. Royle was unexpected.

  “Well,” Mrs. Royle said with a sigh, “there is nothing I can do about it, more’s the pity. Now then, Cook is making individual trifles for dessert, with strawberries and vanilla cream.”

  “That is a wonderful idea,” Honoria said, having by now figured out that her job was to agree with Mrs. Royle whenever possible.

  “Perhaps she should bake biscuits, too,” Mrs. Royle said with a frown. “She does quite a good job with them, and the gentlemen will be very hungry. Shooting is quite strenuous.”

  Honoria had long thought that the sport of shooting was far more strenuous for the birds than the humans, but this she kept to herself. Still, she could not help saying, “Isn’t it interesting they went shooting this morning instead of to church?”

  “It is not my place to tell young gentlemen how to conduct their lives,” Mrs. Royle said primly. “Unless they are my sons, in which case, they must do as I say at all times.”

  Honoria tried to detect irony in the statement but could find none, so she simply nodded. She had a feeling that Cecily’s future husband would be included in the “must do as I say” group.

  She hoped the poor man—whoever he might turn out to be—knew what he was getting into. Daniel had once told her that the best advice he’d ever received on the subject of marriage had come (unsolicited, of course) from Lady Danbury, a terrifying old dowager who seemed to enjoy giving advice to anyone who would listen.

  And quite a few who didn’t listen, either.

  But apparently Daniel had taken her words to heart, or at the very least committed them to memory. And that was that a man should understand that when he married, he was marrying his mother-in-law just as much as he was marrying his bride.

  Well, almost as much. Daniel had laughed slyly as he’d added his own postscript. Honoria had just looked at him blankly, which had made him laugh all the more.

  He really was a wretch sometimes. Still, she missed him.

  But in truth, Mrs. Royle wasn’t that bad. She was simply determined, and Honoria knew from experience that determined mothers were a fearsome lot. Her own mother had once been determined. Her sisters still told stories of their days as young unmarried ladies, when their mother had been as ambitious a parent as the ton had ever seen. Margaret, Henrietta, Lydia, and Charlotte Smythe-Smith had been outfitted in the very best of clothing, had always been seen in the right places at the right times, and they had all married well. Not brilliantly, but well. And they’d all managed to do it in two seasons or less.

  Honoria, on the other hand, saw season three looming ahead, and her mother’s interest in seeing her well-settled was tepid at best. It wasn’t that she didn’t want Honoria to marry; rather, she just couldn’t bring herself to care overmuch.

  She hadn’t cared overmuch about anything after Daniel had left the country.

  So if Mrs. Royle ran about cooking extra sweets and forcing her daughter to change gowns based upon something she might have overheard about someone’s favorite color, she was doing it out of love, and Honoria could never fault her for that.

  “You’re a dear to help me with the preparations,” Mrs. Royle said, giving Honoria a pat on the arm. “All tasks are made easier with an extra pair of hands, that is what my mother always told me.”

  Honoria rather thought she was providing an extra set of ears, not hands, but she murmured her thanks nonetheless and followed Mrs. Royle to the garden, where she wished to supervise the picnic arrangements.

  “I think Mr. Bridgerton has been looking rather keenly at my Cecily,” Mrs. Royle said, stepping out into the not-quite-sunshine. “Don’t you?”

  “I had not noticed,” Honoria said. She hadn’t noticed, but drat it all, had he?

  “Oh, yes,” Mrs. Royle said, quite definitively, “at supper last night. He was smiling most broadly.”

  Honoria cleared her throat. “He’s a rather smiling sort of gentleman.”

  “Yes, but he was smiling differently.”

  “I suppose.” Honoria squinted up at the sky. Clouds were rolling in. It didn’t quite look like rain, though.

  “Yes, I know,” Mrs. Royle said, following Honoria’s gaze and misinterpreting the reason for it. “It is not quite as sunny as it was this morning. I do hope the weather holds for the picnic.”

  And for at least two hours thereafter, Honoria hoped. She had plans. Plans which—she looked about; they were in the garden, after all—required a shovel.

  “It will be such a tragedy if we have to move indoors,” Mrs. Royle continued. “One could hardly call it a picnic in such a case.”

  Honoria nodded absently, still analyzing the clouds. There was one that was a bit more gray than the rest, but was it drifting toward or away?

  “Well, I suppose there is nothing I can do but wait and see,” Mrs. Royle said. “And no true harm done. A gentleman is just as likely to fall in love indoors as out, and if Mr. Bridgerton does have his eye on Cecily, at least she will be able to impress him at the pianoforte.”

  “Sarah is quite accomplished as well,” Honoria remarked.

  Mrs. Royle actually stopped and turned. “She is?”

  Honoria wasn’t surprised that Mrs. Royle sounded surprised. She knew for a fact that she had attended last year’s musicale.

  “We probably won’t be inside, anyway,” Mrs. Royle went on before Honoria could comment further. “The sky doesn’t look so terribly ominous. Hmmph. I suppose I must admit that I had been hoping Mr. Bridgerton might take an interest in Cecily—oh, I do hope that maid catches her in time to get out the blue dress; she’ll be cross if she has to change—but of course Lord Chatteris would be even more exciting.”

  Alarmed, Honoria spun back around to face her. “But he’s not coming.”

  “No, of course not, but he is our neighbor. And as Cecily said the other day, this means that he will dance with her in London, and one must seize one’s opportunities where one can.”

  “Yes, of course, but—”

  “He does not bestow his favor on many young ladies,” Mrs. Royle said proudly. “You, I suppose, due to your prior connection, and maybe one or two others. It will make it easier for her to capture his attention. This way, Lady Honoria,” she said, motioning toward a row of flower arrangements on a nearby table. “And besides,” she added, “our property is like a little bite out of his. Surely, he’ll want it.”

  Honoria cleared her throat, not at all certain how to respond.

  “Not that we could give it all to him,” Mrs. Royle continued. “None of it is entailed, but I couldn’t possibly slight Georgie that way.”


  “My eldest son.” She turned to Honoria with an assessing eye, then waved her hand through the air. “No, you’re too old for him. Pity.”

  Honoria decided there could not possibly be an appropriate reply to that.

  “We could add a few acres to Cecily’s dowry, though,” Mrs. Royle said. “It would be worth it, to have a countess in the family.”

  “I’m not sure he’s looking for a wife just yet,” Honoria ventured.

  “Nonsense. Every unmarried man is looking for a wife. They just don’t always know it.”

  Honoria managed a small smile. “I shall be sure to remember that.”

  Mrs. Royle turned and gave Honoria a close look. “You should,” she finally said, apparently having decided that Honoria was not mocking her. “Ah, here we are. What do you think of these flower arrangements? Are they a bit
too heavy on the crocuses?”

  “I think they’re beautiful,” Honoria said, admiring the lavender ones in particular. “Besides, it is still so early in the spring. Crocuses are what is in bloom.”

  Mrs. Royle let out a heavy sigh. “I suppose. But I find them rather common myself.”

  Honoria smiled dreamily and trailed her fingers across the petals. Something about the crocuses made her feel utterly content. “I prefer to think of them as pastoral.”

  Mrs. Royle cocked her head to the side, considered Honoria’s comment, and then must have decided it required no response, because she straightened and said, “I think I will ask Cook to make biscuits.”

  “Would it be acceptable if I remained here?” Honoria asked quickly. “I rather enjoy arranging flowers.”

  Mrs. Royle looked at the flowers, which were already expertly arranged, and then back at Honoria.

  “Just to fluff them out,” Honoria explained.

  Mrs. Royle waved her hand through the air. “If you wish. But don’t forget to change before the gentlemen return. Nothing blue, though. I want Cecily to stand out.”

  “I don’t believe I even brought a blue dress,” Honoria said diplomatically.

  “Well, that will make it easy,” Mrs. Royle said briskly. “Have fun . . . er . . . fluffing.”

  Honoria smiled and waited until her hostess disappeared back into the house. Then she waited a bit more, because there were several maids dashing about, fussing with forks and spoons and the like. Honoria poked at the flowers, gazing this way and that until she saw the flash of something silver over by a rosebush. With a glance to make sure the maids were occupied, she took off across the lawn to investigate.

  It was a small spade, apparently forgotten by the gardeners. “Thank you,” she mouthed. It wasn’t a shovel, but it would do. Besides, she hadn’t exactly figured out how one might use the words “shovel” and “inconspicuous” in the same sentence.

  The spade was still going to take some planning. None of her frocks had pockets, and even if they did, she somehow did not think she’d be able to conceal a piece of metal half the size of her forearm. But she could stash it somewhere and pick it up later, when the time was right.

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