He thought about saying good evening, or perhaps asking if she knew Honoria and, if so, had she seen her. But just before he turned to greet her, she turned in the opposite direction, and he could have sworn he heard her mutter, “Blast it all, I’m getting an éclair.”

She drifted off, weaving her way through the crowds. Marcus watched her with interest; she seemed to know exactly where she was going. Which meant that if he’d heard her correctly . . .

She knew where one could get an éclair.

He immediately took off after her. If he was going to be stuck here in this ballroom without even seeing Honoria, who was the only reason he’d subjected himself to this crush, he was damned well going to get dessert.

He’d long since perfected the art of moving with purpose, even when he had no particular aim or goal, and he managed to avoid unnecessary conversations simply by keeping his chin high and his gaze sharp and above the crowd.

Until something struck him in the leg.


“And what’s that face for, Chatteris?” came an imperious female voice. “I barely touched you.”

He held himself still, because he knew that voice, and he knew there was no escaping it. With a small smile, he looked down into the wrinkled face of Lady Danbury, who had been terrifying the British Isles since the time of the Restoration.

Or so it seemed. She was his mother’s great-aunt, and he would swear she was a hundred years old.

“An injury to my leg, my lady,” he said, giving her his most respectful bow.

She thumped her weapon (others might call it a cane, but he knew better) against the floor. “Fell off your horse?”

“No, I – ”

“Tripped down the stairs? Dropped a bottle on your foot?” Her expression grew sly. “Or does it involve a woman?”

He fought the urge to cross his arms. She was looking up at him with a bit of a smirk. She liked poking fun at her companions; she’d once told him that the best part of growing old was that she could say anything she wanted with impunity.

He leaned down and said with great gravity, “Actually, I was stabbed by my valet.”

It was, perhaps, the only time in his life he’d managed to stun her into silence.

Her mouth fell open, her eyes grew wide, and he would have liked to have thought that she even went pale, but her skin had such an odd tone to begin with that it was hard to say. Then, after a moment of shock, she let out a bark of laughter and said, “No, really. What happened?”

“Exactly as I said. I was stabbed.” He waited a moment, then added, “If we weren’t in the middle of a ballroom, I’d show you.”

“You don’t say?” Now she was really interested. She leaned in, eyes alight with macabre curiosity. “Is it gruesome?”

“It was,” he confirmed.

She pressed her lips together, and her eyes narrowed as she asked, “And where is your valet now?”

“At Chatteris House, likely nicking a glass of my best brandy.”

She let out another one of her staccato barks of laughter. “You have always amused me,” she pronounced. “I do believe you are my second favorite nephew.”

He could think of no reply other than “Really?”

“You know that most people find you humorless, don’t you?”

“You do like to be blunt,” he murmured.

She shrugged. “You’re my great-great-nephew. I can be as blunt as I wish.”

“Consanguinity has never seemed to be one of your prerequisites for plain speaking.”

“Touché,” she returned, giving him a single nod of approval. “I was merely pointing out that you are quite stealthy in your good humor. This I applaud wholeheartedly.”

“I am aquiver with glee.”

She wagged a finger at him. “This is precisely what I am talking about. You’re really quite amusing, not that you let anyone see it.”

He thought about Honoria. He could make her laugh. It was the loveliest sound he knew.

“Well,” Lady Danbury declared, thumping her cane, “enough of that. Why are you here?”

“I believe I was invited.”

“Oh, pish. You hate these things.”

He gave her a little shrug.

“Watching out for that Smythe-Smith girl, I imagine,” she said.

He’d been looking over her shoulder, trying to locate the éclairs, but at that, he turned sharply back.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said with a dismissive roll of her eyes. “I’m not going to set it about that you’re interested in her. She’s one of the ones with a violin, isn’t she? Good heavens, you’d go deaf in a week.”

He opened his mouth to defend Honoria, to say that she was very much in on the joke, except it occurred to him that it wasn’t a joke to her. She knew perfectly well that the quartet was awful, but she carried on because it was important to her family. That she could take her place on the stage and pretend that she thought she was a virtuoso violinist – it took tremendous courage.

And love.

She loved so deeply, and all he could think was – I want that.

“You’ve always been close with that family,” Lady Danbury said, breaking into his thoughts.

He blinked, needing a moment to return to the present conversation. “Yes,” he finally said. “I went to school with her brother.”

“Oh, yes,” she said, sighing. “What a farce that was. That boy should never have been chased out of the country. I’ve always said Ramsgate was an ass.”