“She wouldn’t listen to you, anyway,” Daisy said. “Are you even older than she is?”

“Daisy!” Honoria scolded. Dear heavens, she was doing a lot of scolding.

Daisy shrugged. “If she is using our Christian names I think I can ask her how old she is.”

“Older than you are,” Honoria said, “which means that no, you cannot ask.”

“It’s of no concern,” Anne said, giving Daisy a small smile. “I am twenty-four. I have charge of Harriet, Elizabeth, and Frances.”

“God help you,” Iris murmured.

Honoria could not bring herself to contradict. Sarah’s three younger sisters were, when taken one by one, perfectly lovely. Together, however . . . There was a reason the Pleinsworth household never lacked for drama.

Honoria sighed. “I suppose we should rehearse.”

“I must warn you,” Anne said, “I’m not very good.”

“That’s all right. Neither are we.”

“That’s not true!” Daisy protested.

Honoria leaned over so that the others couldn’t hear and whispered to Miss Wynter, “Iris is actually quite talented, and Sarah was adequate, but Daisy and I are dreadful. My advice to you is to put on a brave face and muddle through.”

Anne looked slightly alarmed. Honoria responded with a shrug. She would learn soon enough what it meant to perform at a Smythe-Smith musicale.

And if not, she’d go insane trying.

Marcus arrived early that night, although he wasn’t quite sure whether it was to secure a seat in the front, or one at the back. He’d brought flowers – not grape hyacinths, no one had those, anyway – but rather two dozen cheerful-looking tulips from Holland.

He’d never brought a woman flowers before. It did make him wonder what the devil he’d done with his life up to now.

He’d thought about skipping the performance. Honoria had been acting so strangely at Lady Bridgerton’s birthday ball. She had clearly been angry with him about something. He had no idea what, but he wasn’t even sure that mattered. And she had seemed uncharacteristically distant when he had first come upon her after his return to London.

But then, when they’d danced . . .

It had been magic. He would have sworn she’d felt it, too. The rest of the world had simply fallen away. It had been just the two of them amidst a blur of color and sound, and she hadn’t stepped on his feet even once.

Which was truly a feat in and of itself.

But maybe he’d been imagining it. Or maybe it had simply been a one-sided emotion. Because when the music had stopped, she had been short, and curt, and even though she had said she did not feel well, she’d refused all his offers of assistance.

He would never understand women. He’d thought she might be the exception, but apparently not. And he’d spent the last three days trying to figure out why.

In the end, however, he’d realized he could not miss the musicale. It was, as Honoria had explained so eloquently, tradition. He had attended every one since he’d been of an age to be in London on his own, and if he did not attend after claiming it was the very reason he’d come back to London so quickly after his illness, Honoria would see it as a slap in the face.

He could not do that. It did not matter that she had been angry with him. It did not matter that he was angry with her, and he thought he had every right to be. She’d behaved in a most strange and hostile manner and had not given him any indication why.

She was his friend. Even if she never loved him, she would always be his friend. And he could no more hurt her deliberately than he could slice off his right hand.

He might have fallen in love with her only recently, but he had known her for fifteen years. Fifteen years to know what sort of heart beat within her. He was not going to revise his opinion of her because of a single, odd night.

He made his way to the music room, which was a hive of activity as the servants readied for the upcoming performance. He really just wanted to catch a glimpse of Honoria, perhaps offer a few words of encouragement before the concert.

Hell, he thought he needed encouragement. It was going to be painful to sit there and watch her put on the performance of her life just to please her family.

He stood stiffly at the side of the room, wishing that he hadn’t arrived so early. It had seemed a good idea at the time, but now he had no idea what he’d been thinking. Honoria wasn’t anywhere to be found. He should have realized she wouldn’t be; she and her cousins were surely warming up their instruments elsewhere in the house. And the servants were all giving him queer looks, as if to say, What are you doing here?

He lifted his chin and regarded the room in much the same way he did at most formal events. He probably looked bored, he certainly looked proud, and neither one was strictly true.

He suspected that none of the other guests were going to arrive for at least thirty minutes, and he was wondering if he might wait in the drawing room, which would surely be empty. That was when he caught a flash of something pink, and he realized it was Lady Winstead, dashing about the room with uncharacteristic frenzy. She spied him, and then rushed over. “Oh, thank heavens you’re here,” she said.

He took in the frantic expression on her face. “Is something wrong?”

“Sarah has taken ill.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said politely. “Will she be all right?”

“I have no idea,” Lady Winstead replied somewhat sharply, considering that she was talking about the health of her niece. “I haven’t seen her. All I know is, she’s not here.”