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Just like heaven, p.6
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       Just Like Heaven, p.6

           Julia Quinn
slower 1  faster

  In fact, she decided, that was exactly what she would do.

  Chapter Four

  What was she doing?

  Marcus hadn’t been trying to keep himself hidden, but when he came across Honoria digging in the dirt, he couldn’t help himself. He had to step back and watch.

  She was working with a little spade, and whatever type of hole she was digging, it couldn’t have been very big, because after barely a minute she stood up, inspected her handiwork first with her eyes, then with her foot, and then—here was where Marcus ducked more carefully behind a tree—looked about until she found a pile of dead leaves under which she could hide her small shovel.

  At that point he almost made his presence known. But then she returned to her hole, stared down on it with furrowed brow, and went back to the pile of leaves to retrieve her spade.

  Tiny shovel in hand, she squatted down and made adjustments to her handiwork. She was blocking his view, though, so it wasn’t until she went back to the dead leaves to dispose of what was clearly now a piece of evidence that he realized that she had piled up loose dirt in a ring around the hole she’d dug.

  She’d dug a mole hole.

  He wondered if she realized that most mole holes did not exist in isolation. If there was one, there was usually another, quite visibly nearby. But perhaps this didn’t matter. Her intention—judging by the number of times she tested the hole with her foot—was to feign a fall. Or perhaps to cause someone else to trip and fall. Either way, it was doubtful that anyone would be looking for a companion mole hole in the aftermath of a twisted ankle.

  He watched for several minutes. One would have thought it a dull enterprise, staring at a lady who was doing nothing but standing over a homemade mole hole, but he found it surprisingly entertaining. Probably because Honoria was working so hard to keep herself from getting bored. First she appeared to be quietly reciting something, except judging by the scrunch of her nose, she couldn’t remember how it ended. Then she danced a little jig. Then she waltzed, arms outstretched for her invisible partner.

  She was surprisingly graceful, out there in the woods. She waltzed considerably better without music than she ever had with it. In her pale green dress she looked a bit like a sprite. He could almost see her in a dress sewn of leaves, hopping about in the wood.

  She had always been a country girl. She’d run wild at Whipple Hill, clambering up trees and rolling down hills. She’d usually tried to tag along with him and Daniel, but even when they refused her company, she’d always found ways to entertain herself, usually out-of-doors. Once, he recalled, she had walked around the house fifty times in one afternoon, just to see if it could be done.

  It was a large house, too. She’d been sore the next day. Even Daniel had believed her complaints.

  He pictured Fensmore, his own manse. It was monstrously huge. No one in her right mind would walk around it ten times in one day, much less fifty. He thought for a moment—had Honoria ever visited? He couldn’t imagine when she would have done; he’d certainly never invited anyone when he was a child. His father had never been known for his hospitality, and the last thing Marcus would have wanted was to invite his friends into his silent mausoleum of a childhood.

  After about ten minutes, however, Honoria grew bored. And then Marcus grew bored, because all she was doing was sitting at the base of a tree, her elbows propped on her knees, her chin propped in her hands.

  But then he heard someone coming. She heard it, too, because she jumped to her feet, dashed over to her mole hole, and jammed her foot into it. Then, with an awkward squatting motion, she lowered herself to the ground, where she arranged herself into as graceful a position as one might think possible with one’s foot in a mole hole.

  She waited for a moment, clearly on alert, and then, when whoever it was in the woods was as close as he was likely to get, she let out a rather convincing shriek.

  All those family pantomimes had served her well. If Marcus hadn’t just seen her orchestrate her own downfall, he would have been convinced she’d injured herself.

  He waited to see who would show up.

  And he waited.

  And waited.

  She waited, too, but apparently for too long before letting out her second cry of “pain.” Because no one showed up to rescue her.

  She let out one last cry, but her heart clearly wasn’t into it. “Blast it!” she bit off, yanking her foot out of the hole.

  Marcus started to laugh.

  She gasped. “Who’s there?”

  Damn, he hadn’t meant to be so loud. He stepped forward. He didn’t want to scare her.

  “Marcus?”

  He raised a hand in salute. He would have said something, but she was still on the ground, and her slipper was covered with dirt. And her face . . . Oh, he had never seen anything so amusing. She was outraged and mortified and couldn’t quite seem to decide which was the stronger emotion.

  “Stop laughing!”

  “Sorry,” he said, not sorry at all.

  Her brows came together in a hilariously ferocious scowl. “What are you doing here?”

  “I live here.” He stepped forward and offered her his hand. It seemed the gentlemanly thing to do.

  Her eyes narrowed. She didn’t believe him for one second, that much was clear.

  “Well, I live close by,” he amended. “This path ambles back and forth across the property line.”

  She took his hand and allowed him to help her up, brushing the dirt from her skirts as she rose. But the ground had been damp, and bits of earth clung to the fabric, eliciting grumbles and sighs from Honoria. Finally, she gave up, then looked up, asking, “How long have you been here?”

  He grinned. “Longer than you’d wish.”

  She let out an exhausted groan, then said, “I don’t suppose you’d keep this to yourself.”

  “I shan’t breathe a word,” he promised, “but who, exactly, were you attempting to attract?”

  She scoffed at that. “Oh, please. You are the last person I would tell.”

  He quirked a brow. “Really. The last.”

  She gave him an impatient look.

  “Past the queen, past the prime minister . . .”

  “Stop.” But she was hiding a smile as she said it. And then she deflated again. “Do you mind if I sit back down?”

  “Not at all.”

  “My dress is already filthy,” she said, finding a spot at the base of the tree. “A few more minutes in the dirt won’t make a difference.” She sat and looked up at him with a wry expression. “This is where you are supposed to tell me I look as fresh as a daisy.”

  “It depends on the daisy, I think.”

  At that, she gave him a look of the utmost disbelief, the expression so familiar it was almost comical. How many years had she now been rolling her eyes at him? Fourteen? Fifteen? It hadn’t really occurred to him until this moment, but she was almost certainly the only woman of his acquaintance who spoke frankly with him, healthy doses of sarcasm included.

  This was why he hated going down to London for the season. The women simpered and preened and told him what they thought he wanted to hear.

  The men, too.

  The irony was, they were almost always wrong. He’d never wanted to be surrounded by sycophants. He hated having his every word hung upon. He didn’t want his perfectly ordinary, identical-to-everyone-else’s waistcoat being complimented upon for its remarkable cut and fit.

  With Daniel gone, there was no one left who truly knew him. No family unless one was willing to go back four generations to find a common ancestor. He was the only child of an only child. The Holroyds were not known for their procreative prowess.

  He leaned against a nearby tree and watched Honoria, looking all tired and miserable on the ground. “The party was not the success you envisioned, then?”

  She glanced up, her eyes questioning.

  “You made it sound so appealing in your letter,” he remarked.

  “Well, I knew y
ou would hate it.”

  “I might have found it amusing,” he said, even though they both knew that wasn’t true.

  She gave him another one of those looks. “It would have been four unmarried young ladies, four young gentlemen from the university, Mr. and Mrs. Royle, and you.” And while she waited for that to sink in she added, “And possibly a dog.”

  He gave her a dry smile. “I like dogs.”

  That earned him a chuckle. She picked up a twig that lay near her hip and began to draw circles in the dirt. She looked utterly forlorn, bits of her hair falling poker-straight from its chignon. Her eyes looked tired, too. Tired and . . . something else. Something he didn’t like.

  She looked defeated.

  That was just wrong. Honoria Smythe-Smith should never look like that.

  “Honoria,” he began.

  But she looked up sharply at the sound of his voice. “I’m twenty-one, Marcus.”

  He paused, trying to calculate. “That can’t be possible.”

  Her lips pressed together peevishly. “I assure you, it is. There were a few gentlemen last year I thought might be interested, but none came up to scratch.” She shrugged. “I don’t know why.”

  Marcus cleared his throat, then found he needed to adjust his cravat.

  “I suppose it was all for the best,” she went on. “I didn’t adore any of them. And one of them was—well, I once saw him kick a dog.” She frowned. “So I couldn’t possibly consider—well, you know.”

  He nodded.

  She straightened and smiled, looking quite resolutely cheerful. Perhaps too resolutely cheerful. “But this year I am determined to do better.”

  “I am sure you will,” he said.

  She looked up at him suspiciously.

  “What did I say?”

  “Nothing. But you needn’t be so condescending.”

  What the devil was she talking about? “I wasn’t.”

  “Oh, please, Marcus. You are always condescending.”

  “Explain yourself,” he said sharply.

  She looked at him as if she couldn’t believe he didn’t see it. “Oh, you know what I mean.”

  “No, I don’t know what you mean.”

  She let out a snort as she clambered to her feet again. “You are always looking at people like this.” And then she made a face, one he couldn’t possibly begin to describe.

  “If I ever look like that,” he said dryly, “precisely like that, to be more precise, I give you leave to shoot me.”

  “There,” she said triumphantly. “Like that.”

  He began to wonder if they were speaking the same language. “Like what?”

  “That! What you just said.”

  He crossed his arms. It seemed the only acceptable reply. If she couldn’t speak in complete sentences, he saw no reason why he had to speak at all.

  “You spent all of last season glowering at me. Every time I saw you, you looked so disapproving.”

  “I assure you that was not my intention.” At least not about her. He disapproved of the men who courted her favor, but never Honoria.

  She folded her arms and stared at him with a cross expression. He had the distinct impression she was trying to decide whether to take his words as an apology. Never mind that they hadn’t actually been an apology.

  “Is there anything with which I may help you?” he asked, choosing his words—and his tone—with great care.

  “No,” she said succinctly. And then: “Thank you.”

  He sighed wearily, thinking it might be time to change his approach. “Honoria, you have no father, your brother is somewhere in Italy—we think—and your mother wants to retire to Bath.”

  “What is your point?” she bit off.

  “You are alone in this world,” he replied, almost as snappishly. He couldn’t recall the last time anyone had spoken to him in such a tone. “Or you might as well be.”

  “I have sisters,” she protested.

  “Has any of them offered to take you in?”

  “Of course not. They know I live with Mother.”

  “Who wants to retire to Bath,” he reminded her.

  “I am not alone,” she said hotly, and he was horrified to hear a choke in her voice. But if she was near to tears, she pushed them back, because she was all anger and indignation when she said, “I have scads of cousins. Scads. And four sisters who would take me into their homes in a heartbeat if they thought it was necessary.”

  “Honoria . . .”

  “And I have a brother, too, even if we don’t know where he is. I don’t need—” She broke off, and she blinked, as if surprised by the words on her tongue.

  But she said it anyway. “I don’t need you.”

  There was a horrible silence. Marcus did not think about all the times he’d sat at her supper table. Or the family pantomimes in which he’d always played a tree. They’d been dreadful, every last one of them, but he’d loved every branchy, leafy moment. He’d never wanted the lead roles—he was thrilled never to have to speak at all—but he’d loved taking part. He’d loved being there. With them. As a family.

  But he didn’t think about any of this. He was quite sure he wasn’t thinking about any of this as he stood there staring at the girl who was telling him she didn’t need him.

  And maybe she didn’t.

  And maybe she was no longer a girl, either.

  Bloody hell.

  He let out a pent-up breath and reminded himself that it didn’t matter what she thought she felt about him. Daniel had asked him to watch over her, and watch over her he would.

  “You need . . .” He sighed, trying to think of some way to say it that wouldn’t make her irate. There was none, he concluded, so he just said it. “You need help.”

  She drew back. “Are you offering yourself as my guardian?”

  “No,” he said vehemently. “No. Believe me, that’s the last thing I’d want.”

  She crossed her arms. “Because I’m such a trial.”

  “No.” Good God, how had the conversation deteriorated so quickly? “I am merely trying to help.”

  “I don’t need another brother,” she said sharply.

  “I don’t want to be your brother,” he shot back. And then he saw her again, rather, saw her differently again. Maybe it was her eyes, or her skin, high with color. Or the way she was breathing. Or the curve of her cheek. Or the little spot where her—

  “You have dirt on your cheek,” he said, handing her his handkerchief. She didn’t, but he needed something with which to change the subject.

  Now.

  She dabbed at her face with the handkerchief, then looked down at the still snowy-white cloth, frowned, and dabbed again.

  “It’s gone,” he said.

  She returned his handkerchief, then just stood there, giving him a sullen, stony stare. She looked twelve again, or at least was wearing the expression of a twelve-year-old, which was just fine with him.

  “Honoria,” he said carefully, “as Daniel’s friend—”

  “Don’t.” Nothing more. Just don’t.

  He took a breath, using the time to choose his words. “Why is it so difficult to accept assistance?”

  “Do you?” she countered.

  He stared at her.

  “Do you like to accept assistance?” she clarified.

  “It depends upon who is offering it.”

  “Me.” She crossed her arms, looking somewhat satisfied with her reply, although for the life of him, he had no idea why. “Just imagine it. Imagine the tables were turned.”

  “Assuming it was a topic about which you had some expertise, then yes, I would be happy to accept assistance from you.” He crossed his arms, too, rather pleased with himself. It was a perfect sentence, placating and agreeable, and saying nothing at all.

  He waited for her reply, but after a few moments she just gave her head a little shake and said, “I have to get back.”

  “They’ll be missing you?”

  “They should ha
ve already been missing me,” she muttered.

  “The twisted ankle,” he murmured. With a sympathetic nod.

  She returned that with a scowl and marched off. In the wrong direction.

  “Honoria!”

  She turned around.

  He took great care not to smile as he pointed her in the correct direction. “Bricstan is that way.”

  Her jaw tensed, but she just said, “Thank you,” and turned about. But she spun too fast and lost her footing. She let out a shriek as she tried to regain her balance, and Marcus did what any gentleman would instinctively do. He rushed forward to steady her.

  Except he stepped in that damned mole hole.

  The next cry of surprise was his, and somewhat profane, he was ashamed to admit. They both went down when he lost his balance, and they landed on the damp earth with a thud, Honoria on her back, and Marcus right on top of her.

  He immediately rose to his elbows, trying to take some of his weight off her as he looked down. He told himself it was to see if she was all right. He was going to ask her this once he caught his breath. But when he looked at her, she was trying to catch her own breath. Her lips were parted, and her eyes were dazed, and he did what any man would instinctively do. He lowered his head to kiss her.

  Chapter Five

  One moment Honoria was upright—oh, very well, she hadn’t been upright, not completely. She’d wanted so desperately just to get away from Marcus that she’d turned too quickly, slid on the damp earth and lost her balance.

  But she’d almost been upright, and in fact would have been upright in mere moments if Marcus hadn’t come (quite literally) hurtling through the air at her.

  This would have been disorienting enough, except that his shoulder caught her directly in her midsection. Her breath flew from her lungs, and they both tumbled to the ground, Marcus landing squarely on top of her.

  That was when Honoria quite possibly stopped thinking altogether.

  She’d never felt a male body against hers—dear heavens, when would she have done? She’d waltzed, occasionally more closely than was proper, but that had been nothing like this. The weight of him, the heat. It felt oddly primitive, and even stranger, there was something almost pleasant about it.

 
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