“What do you mean? I shall play. What else can I do?”
He indicated the governess with a subtle motion of his head. “You have a perfect excuse for canceling.”
“I can’t do that,” Honoria replied, but there was more than a twinge of regret in her voice.
“You don’t need to sacrifice yourself for your family,” he said quietly.
“It isn’t a sacrifice. It’s – ” She smiled sheepishly, maybe a little wistfully. “I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t a sacrifice.” She looked up, her eyes huge and warm in her face. “It’s what I do.”
“I – ”
She waited for a moment, then said, “What is it?”
He wanted to tell her he thought she was quite possibly the bravest, most unselfish person he knew. He wanted to tell her that he would sit through a thousand Smythe-Smith musicales if that was what it took to be with her.
He wanted to tell her he loved her. But he couldn’t say it here. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Just that I admire you.”
She let out a little laugh. “You may take that back by the end of the evening.”
“I could not do what you do,” he said quietly.
She turned and looked at him, startled by the gravity in his voice. “What do you mean?”
He was not quite sure how to phrase it, so he finally went with, haltingly, “I don’t enjoy being at the center of attention.”
Her head tilted to the side, she regarded him for a long moment before saying, “No. You don’t.” And then: “You were always a tree.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Her eyes grew sentimental. “When we performed our awful pantomimes as children. You were always a tree.”
“I never had to say anything.”
“And you always got to stand at the back.”
He felt himself smile, lopsided and true. “I rather liked being a tree.”
“You were a very good tree.” She smiled then, too – a radiant, wondrous thing. “The world needs more trees.”
By the end of the musicale, Honoria’s face ached from smiling. She grinned through the first movement, beamed through the second, and by the time they got through the third, she might as well have been at the dentist, she’d shown so much of her teeth.
The performance had been every bit as awful as she had feared. In fact, it had quite possibly been the worst in the history of Smythe-Smith musicales, and that was no shabby feat. Anne was reasonably accomplished on the piano, and had she been given more than six hours to figure out what she was doing, she might have done a decent job of it, but as it was, she’d been consistently one and one-half bars behind the rest of the quartet.
Which was complicated by the fact that Daisy had always been one and one-half bars ahead.
Iris had played brilliantly, or rather, she could have played brilliantly. Honoria had heard her practicing on her own and had been so stunned by her level of skill she would not have been surprised if Iris had suddenly stood up and announced that she was adopted.
But Iris had been so miserable at having been forced onto the makeshift stage that she’d moved her bow with no vigor at all. Her shoulders had slumped, her expression had been pained, and every time Honoria cast a glance at her, she’d appeared on the verge of running herself through with the neck of her cello.
As for Honoria herself . . . Well, she’d been dreadful. But she’d known she would be. Actually, she thought she might have been even worse than usual. She’d been so focused on keeping her mouth stretched into that rapturous smile that she’d frequently lost her place in the score.
But it had been worth it. Much of the first row of the audience was filled with her family. Her mother was there, and all of her aunts. Several sisters, scads of cousins . . . They were all beaming back at her, so proud and so happy to be a part of the tradition.
And if the other members of the audience looked mildly ill, well, they had to have known what they were getting into. After eighteen years, no one attended a Smythe-Smith musicale without some inkling of the horrors that lay ahead.
There was quite a round of applause, almost certainly to celebrate the end of the concert, and when they were done, Honoria kept on smiling and greeted the guests with courage enough to approach the stage.
She suspected most doubted their ability to maintain a straight face while congratulating the musicians.
And then, just when she thought she was done having to pretend that she believed all the people who were pretending they had enjoyed the concert, the final well-wisher arrived.
It wasn’t Marcus, blast it. He appeared to be deep in conversation with Felicity Featherington, who everyone knew was the prettiest of the four Featherington sisters.
Honoria tried to stretch her now clenched jaw into a smile as she greeted –
Lady Danbury. Oh, dear God.
Honoria tried not to be terrified, but dash it all, the lady scared her.
Thump thump (went the cane), followed by: “You’re not one of the new ones, are you?”
“I beg your pardon, ma’am?” Honoria replied, because truly, she had no idea what that meant.
Lady Danbury leaned in, her face twisted into such a squint that her eyes nearly disappeared. “You played last year. I’d check my program, but I don’t save programs. Too much paper.”
“Oh, I see,” Honoria answered. “No, ma’am, I mean, yes, I’m not one of the new ones.” She tried to keep track of all of the double negatives and finally decided that it didn’t matter if she’d said it correctly, Lady Danbury appeared to understand what she’d meant.