“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, please, 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.”