Iris broke off midcheer as they all turned to the door. Sarah’s mother, their aunt Charlotte – known to the rest of the world as Lady Pleinsworth – was hurrying into the room, followed by a young, dark-haired woman who was dressed in well-made yet terribly plain clothing that marked her instantly as a governess.
Honoria had a very bad feeling about this.
Not about the woman. She looked perfectly pleasant, if perhaps a little uncomfortable at having been dragged into a family squabble. But Aunt Charlotte had a frightening gleam in her eye. “Sarah has taken ill,” she announced.
“Oh, no,” Daisy cried, sinking dramatically into a chair. “Whatever will we do?”
“I’m going to kill her,” Iris muttered to Honoria.
“Naturally, I could not allow the performance to be cancelled,” Aunt Charlotte went on. “I could never live with myself if such a tragedy came to pass.”
“Her, too,” Iris said under her breath.
“My first thought was that we could break with tradition and have one of our former musicians play with the group, but we have not had a pianist in the quartet since Philippa played in 1816.”
Honoria stared at her aunt in awe. Did she actually remember such details, or had she written them down?
“Philippa is in confinement,” Iris said.
“I know,” Aunt Charlotte replied. “She has less than a month left, poor thing, and she’s enormous. She might have managed with a violin, but there is no way she could fit at the piano.”
“Who played before Philippa?” Daisy asked.
“Well, that can’t be true,” Honoria said. Eighteen years of musicales, and the Smythe-Smiths had produced only two pianists?
“It is,” Aunt Charlotte confirmed. “I was just as surprised as you. I went through all of our programs, just to be certain. Most years we are two violins, a viola, and a cello.”
“A string quartet,” Daisy said needlessly. “The classic set of four instruments.”
“Do we cancel, then?” Iris asked, and Honoria had to shoot her a look of warning. Iris was sounding a bit too excited at the possibility.
“Absolutely not,” Aunt Charlotte said, and she motioned to the woman next to her. “This is Miss Wynter. She will substitute for Sarah.”
They all turned to the dark-haired woman standing quietly to the side and slightly behind Aunt Charlotte. She was, in a word, gorgeous. Everything about her was perfection, from her shiny hair to her milky-white skin. Her face was heart-shaped, her lips full and pink, and her eyelashes were so long that Honoria thought they must touch her brows if she opened her eyes too wide.
“Well,” Honoria murmured to Iris, “at least no one will be looking at us.”
“She is our governess,” Aunt Charlotte explained.
“And she plays?” Daisy asked.
“I wouldn’t have brought her over if she did not,” Aunt Charlotte said impatiently.
“It’s a difficult piece,” Iris said, her tone bordering on truculence. “A very difficult piece. A very very – ”
Honoria elbowed her in the ribs.
“She already knows it,” Aunt Charlotte said.
“She does?” Iris asked. She turned to Miss Wynter in disbelief and, to be completely honest, despair. “You do?”
“Not very well,” Miss Wynter answered in a soft voice, “but I have played parts of it before.”
“The programs have already been printed,” Iris tried. “They have Sarah listed for the piano.”
“Hang the program,” Aunt Charlotte said irritably. “We will make an announcement at the beginning. They do it all the time at the theater.” She waved her hand toward Miss Wynter, accidentally batting her in the shoulder. “Consider her Sarah’s understudy.”
There was a slightly impolite moment of silence, and then Honoria stepped forward. “Welcome,” she said, firmly enough so that Iris and Daisy would understand that they were to follow her lead or else. “I am delighted to meet you.”
Miss Wynter dipped into a tiny curtsy. “And I you, er . . .”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” Honoria said. “I am Lady Honoria Smythe-Smith, but please, if you are to play with us, you must use our given names.” She motioned to her cousins. “This is Iris, and this is Daisy. Also Smythe-Smiths.”
“As I once was,” Aunt Charlotte put in.
“I am Anne,” Miss Wynter said.
“Iris plays cello,” Honoria continued, “and Daisy and I are both violinists.”
“I shall leave the four of you to your rehearsals,” Aunt Charlotte said, making toward the door. “You have a very busy afternoon ahead of you, I’m sure.”
The four musicians waited until she was gone, and then Iris pounced. “She’s not really sick, is she?”
Anne started, clearly surprised by the fervor in Iris’s voice. “I beg your pardon?”
“Sarah,” Iris said, and not kindly. “She’s faking. I know it.”
“I really couldn’t say,” Anne said with great diplomacy. “I didn’t even see her.”
“Maybe she has a rash,” Daisy said. “She wouldn’t want anyone to see her if she had spots.”
“Nothing less than permanent disfigurement would satisfy me,” Iris growled.
“Iris!” Honoria scolded.
“I don’t know Lady Sarah very well,” Anne said. “I was hired only this year, and she doesn’t need a governess.”