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 you 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.