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!”