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Just like heaven, p.9
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       Just Like Heaven, p.9

           Julia Quinn
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  “Yes,” Honoria answered, shaking her head, “not to mention that she’d probably have you married off to Cecily before the end of the month.”

  “Did someone say my name?” Cecily asked brightly, returning to the room with a dark blue blanket.

  Marcus was overcome with another fit of coughing, this one only slightly feigned.

  “Here you are,” Cecily said. She walked over with the blanket, then appeared not to know what to do with it herself. “Perhaps you should help him,” she said to Honoria.

  Honoria took the blanket from her and walked over, unfolding it as she approached. “Here you are,” she said softly, leaning over to spread the soft wool over him. She smiled gently as she tucked the corners in. “Is that too tight?”

  He shook his head. It was strange, being cared for.

  When she was done with her task, she straightened, taking a deep breath before announcing that he needed tea.

  “Oh, yes,” Miss Royle agreed. “That would be just the thing.”

  Marcus didn’t even try to protest this time. He was sure he looked pathetic, all wrapped in a blanket with his foot stuck up on the table, and he couldn’t even imagine what they thought every time he started coughing. But he was finding it rather comforting to be fussed over, and if Honoria wanted to insist that he needed tea, he would be glad to make her happy by drinking it.

  He told her where to find the pull to ring for tea, and she did so, settling back in her spot across from him after a maid came in and took their order.

  “Has a surgeon been by to look at your ankle?” she asked.

  “It’s not necessary,” he told her. “It’s not broken.”

  “Are you certain? It’s not the sort of thing one wants to take chances with.”

  “I’m certain.”

  “I would feel better if—”

  “Honoria, hush. It’s not broken.”

  “And your boot?”

  “His boot?” Miss Royle asked. She looked perplexed.

  “That, I’m afraid, is broken,” he answered.

  “Oh, dear,” Honoria said. “I thought they might have to cut it off.”

  “They had to cut off your boot?” Miss Royle echoed. “Oh, but that’s terrible.”

  “His ankle was horribly swollen,” Honoria told her. “It was the only way.”

  “But a boot,” Miss Royle persisted.

  “It wasn’t one of my favorite boots,” Marcus said, trying to cheer poor Miss Royle up. She looked as if someone had decapitated a puppy.

  “I wonder if one could have a single boot made,” Honoria mused. “To match the other. Then it wouldn’t be a complete waste.”

  “Oh, no, that would never work,” Miss Royle said, apparently an expert on such topics. “The leather would never quite match.”

  Marcus was saved from a lengthy discussion of footwear by the arrival of Mrs. Wetherby, his longtime housekeeper. “I had already started on the tea before you asked for it,” she announced, bustling in with a tray.

  He smiled, unsurprised. She was always doing things like that. He introduced her to Honoria and Miss Royle, and when she greeted Honoria her eyes lit up.

  “Oh, you must be Master Daniel’s sister!” Mrs. Wetherby exclaimed, setting down the tea service.

  “I am,” Honoria replied, beaming. “Do you know him, then?”

  “I do. He visited a few times, usually when the previous earl was out of town. And of course he has come by once or twice since Master Marcus became the earl.”

  Marcus felt himself blush at her use of his childhood honorific. But he would never correct her. Mrs. Wetherby had been like a mother to him growing up, often the only warm smile or encouraging word in all of Fensmore.

  “It is lovely to meet you,” Mrs. Wetherby continued. “I have heard so much about you.”

  Honoria blinked with surprise. “You have?”

  Marcus also blinked with surprise. He couldn’t recall ever having mentioned Honoria to anyone, much less his housekeeper.

  “Oh, yes,” Mrs. Wetherby said. “When they were children, of course. I must confess, I still quite thought of you as a young child. But you are quite grown up now, aren’t you?”

  Honoria smiled and nodded.

  “Now, how do you take your tea?” the housekeeper asked, splashing milk into all three cups after Honoria and Miss Royle gave her their preferences.

  “It has been much too long since I have seen Master Daniel,” she continued, lifting the pot to pour. “He is a bit of a rascal, but I do like him. Is he well?”

  There was an awkward silence, and Honoria looked to Marcus for aid. He immediately cleared his throat and said, “I must not have told you, Mrs. Wetherby. Lord Winstead has been out of the country for several years.” He would tell her the rest of the story later, but not in front of Honoria and her friend.

  “I see,” she said, correctly interpreting the silence as a cue not to pursue the subject. She cleared her throat a few times, then handed the first cup and saucer to Honoria. “And one for you, too,” she murmured, handing the second set to Miss Royle.

  They both thanked her, and she stood to hand Marcus his cup. But then she turned to Honoria. “You will make sure he drinks all of it, won’t you?”

  Honoria grinned. “Absolutely.”

  Mrs. Wetherby leaned down and loudly whispered, “Gentlemen make terrible patients.”

  “I heard that,” Marcus remarked.

  His housekeeper gave him a sly look. “You were meant to.” And with that she curtsied and left the room.

  The rest of the visit passed without incident. They drank their tea (two cups for Marcus, at Honoria’s insistence), ate their biscuits, and chatted about various niceties until Marcus started coughing again, this time with such duration that Honoria insisted that he go back to bed.

  “It is time we left anyway,” she said, standing with Miss Royle. “I am sure Mrs. Royle will be eager for our return.”

  Marcus nodded and smiled his thanks when they insisted he did not stand on their account. He really was feeling dreadful, and he suspected that he might have to swallow his pride and ask to be carried back up to his room.

  After the two ladies left, of course.

  He stifled a groan. He hated being sick.

  Once in the carriage, Honoria allowed herself to sit back and relax. Marcus looked ill, but it was nothing that a week of rest and broth would not cure. But her moment of peace was brought abruptly short when Cecily announced, “One month.”

  Honoria looked up. “I beg your pardon?”

  “That is my prediction.” Cecily held up her index finger, twirled it in a little circle, then snapped it straight. “One month before Lord Chatteris proposes.”

  “To whom?” Honoria asked, trying to hide her shock. Marcus had not shown any marked preference for Cecily, and more to the point, it was unlike her to be so boastful.

  “To you, you ninny.”

  Honoria nearly choked on her own tongue. “Oh,” she said, with great feeling. “Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh, no.”

  Cecily smirked.

  “No, no.” Honoria might have been rendered a monosyllabic idiot, but she was a vocal monosyllabic idiot. “No,” she said again. “Oh, no.”

  “I’d even be willing to make a wager,” Cecily said archly. “You will be married by the end of the season.”

  “I hope so,” Honoria said, finally finding her vocabulary, “but it won’t be to Lord Chatteris.”

  “Oh, so it’s Lord Chatteris now, is it? Don’t think I didn’t notice that you called him by his given name the entire time we were there.”

  “That’s how he is known to me,” Honoria protested. “I’ve known him since I was six.”

  “Be that as it may, the two of you were . . . Oh, how do I say it?” Cecily pursed her lips and glanced up toward the roof of the carriage. “Acting like you were already married, perhaps?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous.”

  “I speak the truth,” Cecily said, looking extrem
ely pleased with herself. She chuckled. “Wait until I tell the others.”

  Honoria very nearly leapt across the carriage. “Don’t you dare!”

  “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

  “Please, Cecily, I assure you, there is no love between Lord Chatteris and me, and I promise you, we will never be wed. Spreading rumors will do nothing but make my life miserable.”

  Cecily cocked her head to the side. “No love?”

  “Now you’re twisting my words. Of course I care for him. He was like a brother to me.”

  “Very well,” Cecily acceded. “I won’t say anything.”

  “Th—”

  “Until you are betrothed. And then I shall shout it to anyone who will listen: I predicted this!”

  Honoria didn’t even bother to respond. There would be no betrothal, and thus no shouting of anything. But what she did not realize until later was that for the first time she had said that Marcus was like a brother to her.

  Past tense.

  And if he wasn’t a brother to her any longer, what was he?

  Chapter Seven

  Honoria returned to London the next day. The season would not begin for over a month, but there was much to be done in preparation. According to her recently married cousin Marigold, who came by to visit the first afternoon Honoria was back, pink was now all the rage, although if one visited the modiste, one had to take care to call it primrose, poppy, or ruby. Furthermore, one simply had to have a collection of bracelets. No one could do without them, Marigold assured her.

  As that was only the beginning of Marigold’s fashion advice, Honoria made plans to visit the modiste later that week. But before she could do more than select her favorite shade of pink (primrose, just to keep things simple), a letter arrived for her from Fensmore.

  Honoria assumed it must be from Marcus, and she opened it eagerly, surprised that he would have taken the time to write to her. But when she unfolded the single sheet of foolscap, the writing was far too feminine to have ever come from his hand.

  Her brow knit with concern, she sat down to read the letter.

  My dear Lady Honoria,

  Forgive my forwardness in writing to you, but I do not know to whom else I may turn. Lord Chatteris is not well. He has been feverish for three days and last night was quite insensible. The doctor has called each afternoon, but he has no advice other than to wait and observe.

  As you know, the earl has no family. But I feel I must notify someone, and he has always spoken so highly of your family.

  Yrs.

  Mrs. Wetherby

  Housekeeper to the Earl of Chatteris

  “Oh, no,” Honoria murmured, staring down at the letter until her eyes crossed. How could this be possible? When she had left Fensmore, Marcus had had a terrible cough, yes, but he hadn’t shown any signs of fever. There had been nothing in his aspect to indicate that he might take such a sharp turn for the worse.

  And what did Mrs. Wetherby mean by sending her a letter? Was she simply informing her of Marcus’s condition, or was she tacitly asking her to come to Fensmore? And if it was the latter, did that mean Marcus’s condition was grim?

  “Mother!” Honoria called out. She rose to her feet without thinking and starting walking through the house. Her heart began to race, and she started moving faster. Her voice, too, grew louder. “Mother!”

  “Honoria?” Lady Winstead appeared at the top of the stairs, waving at herself with her favorite Chinese silk fan. “Whatever can be the matter? Was there any problem at the modiste? I thought you were planning to go with Marigold.”

  “No, no, it’s not that,” Honoria said, hurrying up the stairs. “It’s Marcus.”

  “Marcus Holroyd?”

  “Yes. I received a letter from his housekeeper.”

  “From his housekeeper? Whyever would she—”

  “I saw him in Cambridge, do you recall? I told you about—”

  “Oh, yes, yes.” Her mother smiled. “What a lovely coincidence to have run into him. Mrs. Royle wrote me a note about it. I think she is hoping that he might form a tendre for her daughter.”

  “Mother, here, please read this.” Honoria held out the letter from Mrs. Wetherby. “He is very ill.”

  Lady Winstead quickly read the short note, her mouth pressing into a worried frown. “Oh, dear. This is very bad news indeed.”

  Honoria placed a heavy hand on her mother’s arm, trying to impress upon her the gravity of the situation. “We must leave for Fensmore. At once.”

  Lady Winstead looked up in surprise. “Us?”

  “He has no one else.”

  “Well, that can’t be true.”

  “It is,” Honoria insisted. “Don’t you remember how often he came to stay with us when he and Daniel were at Eton? It was because he had nowhere else to go. I don’t think he and his father got on very well.”

  “I don’t know, it seems very presumptuous.” Her mother frowned. “We are not family.”

  “He doesn’t have family!”

  Lady Winstead caught her lower lip between her teeth. “He was such a nice boy, but I just don’t think . . .”

  Honoria planted her hands on her hips. “If you do not come with me, I will go alone.”

  “Honoria!” Lady Winstead drew back with shock, and for the first time in the conversation, a spark flared in her pale eyes. “You will do no such thing. Your reputation will be in tatters.”

  “He might be dying.”

  “I’m sure it’s not as serious as that.”

  Honoria clutched her hands together. They had begun to shake, and her fingers felt terribly cold. “I hardly think his housekeeper would have written to me if it weren’t.”

  “Oh, all right,” Lady Winstead said with a little sigh. “We will leave tomorrow.”

  Honoria shook her head. “Today.”

  “Today? Honoria, you know such trips take planning. I couldn’t possibly—”

  “Today, Mother. There is no time to lose.” Honoria hurried back down the stairs, calling over her shoulder, “I will see to having the carriage prepared. Be ready within the hour!”

  But Lady Winstead, showing some of the fire she’d possessed before her only son had been banished from the country, did even better than that. She was ready in forty-five minutes, bags packed, accompanied by her maid, and waiting for Honoria in the front drawing room.

  Five minutes later they were on their way.

  The journey to northern Cambridgeshire could be made in one (long) day, and so it was near to midnight by the time the Winstead carriage pulled up in front of Fensmore. Lady Winstead had fallen asleep a bit north of Saffron Walden, but Honoria was wide awake. From the moment they had turned onto the long drive that led to Fensmore, her posture had become tense and alert, and it was all she could do to keep herself from gripping the handle to the door. As it was, when they finally came to a stop, she did not wait for anyone to come to her aid. Within seconds she had pushed open the door, hopped down, and was hurrying up the front steps.

  The house was quiet, and Honoria spent at least five minutes banging the knocker up and down before she finally saw a flicker of candlelight in a window and heard footsteps hurriedly approaching.

  The butler opened the door—Honoria could not remember his name—and before he could utter a word, she said, “Mrs. Wetherby wrote to me about the earl’s condition. I must see him at once.”

  The butler drew back slightly, his manner every bit as proud and aristocratic as his employer’s. “I’m afraid that’s impossible.”

  Honoria had to grab hold of the door frame for support. “What do you mean?” she whispered. Surely Marcus could not have succumbed to his fever in the short time since Mrs. Wetherby had written to her.

  “The earl is asleep,” the butler replied testily. “I will not wake him at this time of night.”

  Relief rushed through Honoria like blood to a sleeping limb. “Oh, thank you,” she said fervently, reaching out and taking his hand. “Now, ple
ase, I must see him. I promise I will not disturb him.”

  The butler looked vaguely alarmed by her hand on his. “I cannot permit you to see him at this time. May I remind you that you have not even seen fit to give me your name.”

  Honoria blinked. Were visitors so common at Fensmore that he could not recall her visit less than a week prior? Then she realized that he was squinting in the darkness. Good heavens, he probably could not see her clearly. “Please accept my apologies,” she said in her most placating voice. “I am Lady Honoria Smythe-Smith, and my mother, the Countess of Winstead, is waiting in the carriage with her maid. Perhaps someone might help her.”

  An enormous change came over the butler’s wrinkled face. “Lady Honoria!” he exclaimed. “I beg your pardon. I did not recognize you in the darkness. Please, please, come in.”

  He took her by the arm and led her inside. Honoria allowed him to steer her along, slowing the pace ever-so-slightly to turn around and look back at the carriage. “My mother . . .”

  “I shall have a footman attend to her with all possible haste,” the butler assured her. “But we must get you to a room immediately. We do not have one prepared, but there are several that can be made ready at short notice.” He paused at a doorway, leaned in, and pulled several times on a cord. “The maids will be up and about at once.”

  “Please do not rouse them on my accord,” Honoria said, although from the vigor with which he had yanked on the bellpull, she suspected it was too late for that. “Might I confer with Mrs. Wetherby? I hate to wake her, but it is of the utmost importance.”

  “Of course, of course,” the butler assured her, still ushering her deeper into the house.

  “And my mother . . .” Honoria said with a nervous backward glance. After her original protests, Lady Winstead had been a marvelously good sport all day. Honoria did not want to leave her sleeping in a carriage. The driver and grooms would never leave her unattended, and of course her maid sat on the opposite cushion, also fast asleep, but still, it did not seem right.

  “I will greet her just as soon as I convey you to Mrs. Wetherby,” the butler said.

 
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