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