He stared at her in shock.

“As you said,” she said pertly, “consanguinity has never been a prerequisite for blunt speaking.”

“Apparently not.”

“Oh, look, there she is,” Lady Danbury commented. She tipped her head to the right, and Marcus followed her gaze to Honoria, who was chatting with two other young ladies he could not identify from a distance. She didn’t see him yet, and he took advantage of the moment to drink in the sight of her. Her hair looked different; he could not pinpoint what she’d done to it – he never had understood the finer points of female coiffure – but he thought it was lovely. Everything about her was lovely. Maybe he should have thought of some other, more poetic way to describe her, but sometimes the most simple words were the most heartfelt.

She was lovely. And he ached for her.

“You do love her,” Lady Danbury breathed.

He whipped around. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s written all over your face, trite as the expression may be. Oh, go ahead and ask her to dance,” she said, lifting her cane and motioning with it toward Honoria. “You could do a great deal worse.”

He paused. With Lady Danbury it was difficult to know how to interpret even the most simple of sentences. Not to mention that she still had her cane elevated. One could never be too careful when that cane was in motion.

“Go, go,” she urged. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll find some other poor unsuspecting fool to torture. And yes, before you feel the need to protest, I did just call you a fool.”

“That, I think, may be the one privilege that consanguinity does allow.”

She cackled with delight. “You are a prince among nephews,” she proclaimed.

“Your second favorite,” he murmured.

“You’ll rise to the top of the list if you find a way to destroy her violin.”

Marcus shouldn’t have laughed, but he did.

“It’s a curse, really,” Lady Danbury said. “I’m the only person I know my age who has perfect hearing.”

“Most would call that a blessing.”

She snorted. “Not with that musicale looming over the horizon.”

“Why do you attend?” he asked. “You’re not particularly close with the family. You could easily decline.”

She sighed, and for a moment her eyes grew soft. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Someone needs to clap for those poor things.”

He watched as her face changed back to its normal, unsentimental visage. “You’re a nicer person than you let on,” he said, smiling.

“Don’t tell anyone. Hmmph.” She thumped her cane. “I’m through with you.”

He bowed with all the respect due a terrifying great-great-aunt and made his way toward Honoria. She was dressed in the palest of blue, her gown a frothy confection that he couldn’t possibly describe except that it left her shoulders bare, which he decided he approved of, very much.

“Lady Honoria,” he said once he reached her side. She turned, and he bowed politely.

A flash of happiness lit her eyes and then she gave a polite bob, murmuring, “Lord Chatteris, how lovely to see you.”

This was why he hated these things. Her entire life she’d called him by his given name, but put her in a London ballroom and suddenly he was Lord Chatteris.

“You remember Miss Royle, of course,” Honoria said, motioning to the young lady on her right, who was dressed in a darker shade of blue. “And my cousin, Lady Sarah.”

“Miss Royle, Lady Sarah.” He bowed to each in turn.

“What a surprise to see you here,” Honoria said.

“A surprise?”

“I had not thought – ” She cut herself off, and her cheeks turned curiously pink. “It’s nothing,” she said, quite obviously lying. But he could not press her on it in so public a venue, so instead he said the staggeringly insightful and interesting, “It’s quite a crush this evening, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh, yes,” the three ladies murmured, with varying degrees of volume. One of them might have even said, “Indeed.”

There was a little lull, and then Honoria blurted, “Have you heard anything more from Daniel?”

“I have not,” he replied. “I hope this means that he has already begun his return journey.”

“So then you don’t know when he will be back,” she said.

“No,” he replied. Curious. He would have thought that was clear from his previous statement.

“I see,” she said, and then she put on one of those I’m-smiling-because-I-have-nothing-to-say smiles. Which was even more curious.

“I’m sure you cannot wait for him to return,” she said, once several seconds had passed without anyone contributing to the conversation.

It was obvious there was a subtext to her statements, but he had no clue what it was. Certainly not his subtext, which was that he was waiting for her brother to return so that he might ask for his permission to marry her.

“I’m looking forward to seeing him, yes,” he murmured.

“As are we all,” Miss Royle said.

“Oh, yes,” chimed in Honoria’s heretofore silent cousin.

There was another long pause, then Marcus turned to Honoria and said, “I hope you will save me a dance.”

“Of course,” she said, and he thought she looked pleased, but he was finding it uncommonly difficult to read her this evening.

The other two ladies stood there, utterly still, eyes large and unblinking. It brought to mind a pair of ostriches, actually, and then Marcus realized what was expected of him. “I hope you will all three save dances for me,” he said politely.