Honoria flinched, thrown back by his cry. Every now and then her mother would do something that hurt him more than usual, and his entire body bucked against the strips of cloth they’d used to tie him down. It was awful to see, and even worse to feel. It was as if his pain shot through her.
Except it didn’t hurt. It just made her feel sick. Sick to her stomach. Sick with herself. It was her fault he’d stepped in that stupid fake mole hole, her fault that he’d twisted his ankle. It was her fault they’d had to cut off his boot, and her fault he was so sick because of it.
And if he died, it would be her fault, too.
She swallowed, trying to quell the choking lump that was forming in her throat, and she leaned a little closer to say, “I’m so sorry. I could never even begin to tell you how sorry I am.”
Marcus went quite still, and for a breathless moment Honoria thought he had heard her. But then she realized it was only because her mother had paused in her work. It was her mother who had heard her words, not Marcus. But if her mother was curious, she did not pursue it. She did not ask for the meaning of Honoria’s apology, just gave a little nod and went back to work.
“I am thinking that when you are better you should come to London,” Honoria went on, fixing her voice back into a facsimile of good cheer. “If nothing else, you will need a new pair of boots. Maybe something of a looser fit. It’s not the style, I know, but perhaps you can set a new trend.”
“Or we could remain in the country. Skip the season. I know I told you I was desperate to marry this year, but – ” She cast a surreptitious glance at her mother, then leaned closer to his ear and whispered, “My mother seems suddenly quite different. I think I can manage another year in her company. And twenty-two is not so very old for marriage.”
“You’re twenty-one,” her mother said, not looking up.
Honoria froze. “How much of what I said did you hear?”
“Just the last bit.”
Honoria had no idea if her mother was telling the truth. But they seemed to have a tacit agreement not to ask questions, so Honoria decided to respond by saying, “I meant that if I don’t marry until next year, when I am twenty-two, I shall not mind.”
“It will mean another year with the family quartet,” her mother said with a smile. And not a devious smile. A completely sincere, completely encouraging smile.
Honoria wondered, not for the first time, if her mother might be just a little bit deaf.
“I’m sure your cousins will be glad to have you for another year,” Lady Winstead continued. “When you leave, Harriet will have to take your place, and she’s really still a bit young. I don’t think she’s even sixteen yet.”
“Not until September,” Honoria confirmed. Her cousin Harriet – Sarah’s younger sister – was quite possibly the worst musician in the Smythe-Smith family. And that was really saying quite a lot.
“I think she might need a little more practice,” Lady Winstead said with a grimace. “Poor girl. She just can’t seem to get the hang of it. It must be difficult for her, with such a musical family.”
Honoria tried not to gape at her. “Well,” she said, perhaps a little desperately, “she does seem to prefer pantomimes.”
“It’s hard to believe there is no one to play the violin between you and Harriet,” Lady Winstead remarked. She frowned, squinting down at Marcus’s leg, then set back to work.
“Just Daisy,” Honoria replied, referring to yet another cousin, this one from a different branch of the family, “but she’s already been drafted into service now that Viola has married.”
“Drafted?” her mother echoed with a tinkle of laughter. “You make it sound as if it’s a chore.”
Honoria paused for just a moment, trying not to let her mouth fall open. Or laugh. Or perhaps cry. “Of course not,” she finally managed to say. “I adore the quartets.”
That much was true. She loved practicing with her cousins, even if she had to stuff her ears with wads of cotton ahead of time. It was just the performances that were awful.
Or, as Sarah was wont to put it, horrific.
(Sarah always did have a bit of a tendency toward hyperbole.)
But for some reason Honoria never did take the embarrassment personally, and she was able to keep a smile on her face the entire time. And when she touched her bow to her instrument, she did so with gusto. Her family was watching, after all, and it meant so much to them.
“Well, anyway,” she said, trying to bring the conversation back to the previous topic, which was now so “previous” that it took her a moment to remember what it was, “I’m sure I won’t skip the season. I was just talking. Making conversation.” She swallowed. “Babbling, really.”
“It is better to marry a good man than to rush into a disaster,” her mother said, sounding terribly sage. “Your sisters all found good husbands.”
Honoria agreed, even if her brothers-in-law were not generally the sort of men to whom she might find herself attracted. But they treated their wives with respect, every last one of them.
“They did not all marry in their first season, either,” Lady Winstead added, not looking up from her work.
“True, but I believe they all did by the end of their second.”
“Is that so?” Her mother looked up and blinked. “I suppose you’re right. Even Henrietta . . . ? Well, yes, I suppose she did, right at the end.” She turned back to her task. “You’ll find someone. I’m not worried.”