“Actually,” she continued, “I find it all somewhat endearing.”

Marcus was not sure she would be able to locate another living human being who would agree with that assessment, but he saw no reason to say that out loud.

“So I smile,” Honoria went on, “and I pretend I enjoy it. And in a way I do enjoy it. The Smythe-Smiths have been putting on musicales since 1807. It’s quite a family tradition.” And then, in a quieter, more contemplative voice, she added, “I consider myself quite fortunate to have family traditions.”

Marcus thought of his own family, or rather, the great big gaping hole where a family never had been. “Yes,” he said quietly, “you are.”

“For example,” she said, “I wear lucky shoes.”

He was quite certain he could not have heard her correctly.

“During the musicale,” Honoria explained with a little shrug. “It is a custom specific to my branch of the family. Henrietta and Margaret are always arguing over who started it, but we always wear red shoes.”

Red shoes. That little curl of desire that had been stamped out by thoughts of crusading amateur musicians sprang back to life. Suddenly nothing in this world could have been more seductive than red shoes. Good Lord.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Honoria asked. “You’re looking somewhat flushed.”

“I’m fine,” he said hoarsely.

“My mother doesn’t know,” she said.

What? If he hadn’t been flushed before, he was now. “I beg your pardon?”

“About the red shoes. She has no idea that we wear them.”

He cleared his throat. “Is there any particular reason you keep it a secret?”

Honoria thought for a moment, then reached out and broke off another piece of treacle tart. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” She popped it in her mouth, chewed, and shrugged. “Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t know why it’s red shoes. It could just as easily be green. Or blue. Well, not blue. That wouldn’t be the least bit out of the ordinary. But green would work. Or pink.”

Nothing would work as well as red. Of this Marcus was certain.

“I imagine we’ll begin rehearsing as soon as I get back to London,” Honoria said.

“I’m sorry,” Marcus said.

“Oh, no,” she told him, “I like the rehearsals. Especially now that all of my siblings are gone, and my house is nothing but ticking clocks and meals on trays. It’s lovely to gather together and have someone to talk to.” She looked over at him with a sheepish expression. “We talk at least as much as we rehearse.”

“This does not surprise me,” Marcus murmured.

She gave him a look that said she had not missed his little dig. But she did not take offense; he had known she would not.

And then he realized: he rather liked that he had known she would not take offense. There was something wonderful about knowing another person so well.

“So,” she continued, quite determined to finish the topic, “Sarah will be at the pianoforte again this year, and she really is my closest friend. We have a grand time together. And Iris will be joining us at the cello. She’s almost exactly my age, and I have always meant to spend more time with her. She was at the Royles’, too, and I – ” She stopped.

“What is it?” he asked. She looked almost concerned.

Honoria blinked. “I think she might actually be good.”

“At the cello?”

“Yes. Can you imagine?”

He decided to view the question as rhetorical.

“Anyway,” she continued, “Iris will be playing, as will her sister Daisy, who, I’m afraid to say, is dreadful.”

“Ehrm . . .” How to ask this politely? “Dreadful when compared to most of humanity or dreadful for the Smythe-Smiths?”

Honoria looked like she was trying not to smile. “Dreadful even for us.”

“That is very grave indeed,” he said, amazingly with a straight face.

“I know. I think poor Sarah is hoping she will be struck by lightning sometime in the next three weeks. She has only just recovered from last year.”

“I take it she didn’t smile and put on a brave face?”

“Weren’t you there?”

“I wasn’t looking at Sarah.”

Her lips parted, but not from surprise, not at first. Her eyes were still lit with anticipation, the kind one feels when one is about to deliver a brilliantly witty remark. But then, before any sound emerged, she seemed to realize what he’d said.

And it was only then that he realized what he’d said.

Slowly, her head tilted to the side, and she was looking at him as if . . . As if . . .

He didn’t know. He didn’t know what it meant, except that he would have sworn that her eyes grew darker even as she sat there, staring at him. Darker, and deeper, and all he could think was that she could see into him, right down to his heart.

Right down to his soul.

“I was looking at you,” he said, his voice so quiet he barely heard it. “I was looking only at you.”

But that was before . . .

She put her hand on his. It looked small, and delicate, and pinkishly-pale.

It looked perfect.

“Marcus?” she whispered.

And then he finally knew. That was before he loved her.

Chapter Sixteen

It was extraordinary, Honoria thought, but the world really did stop spinning.

She was sure of it. There could be no other explanation for the headiness, the dizziness, the sheer singularity of the moment, of that moment, right there, in his room, with a dinner tray and a stolen treacle tart, and the breathless longing for a single, perfect kiss.