“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.