What a bloody cock-up the whole thing had been. Marcus had told Daniel not to play cards with Hugh Prentice. But no, Daniel had just laughed, determined to try his hand. Prentice always won. Always. He was bloody brilliant, everyone knew it. Maths, physics, history – he’d ended up teaching the dons at university. Hugh Prentice didn’t cheat at cards, he simply won all the time because he had a freakishly sharp memory and a mind that saw the world in patterns and equations.

Or so he’d told Marcus when they’d been students together at Eton. Truth was, Marcus still didn’t quite understand what he’d been talking about. And he’d been the second best student at maths. But next to Hugh . . . Well, there could be no comparison.

No one in their right mind played cards with Hugh Prentice, but Daniel hadn’t been in his right mind. He’d been a little bit drunk, and a little bit giddy over some girl he’d just bedded, and so he’d sat down across from Hugh and played.

And won.

Even Marcus hadn’t been able to believe it.

Not that he’d thought Daniel was a cheat. No one thought Daniel was a cheat. Everyone liked him. Everyone trusted him. But then again, no one ever beat Hugh Prentice.

But Hugh had been drinking. And Daniel had been drinking. And they’d all been drinking, and when Hugh knocked over the table and accused Daniel of cheating, the room went to hell.

To this day Marcus wasn’t sure exactly what was said, but within minutes it had been settled – Daniel Smythe-Smith would be meeting Hugh Prentice at dawn. With pistols.

And with any luck, they’d be sober enough by then to realize their own idiocy.

Hugh had shot first, his bullet grazing Daniel’s left shoulder. And while everyone was gasping about that – the polite thing would have been to shoot in the air – Daniel raised his arm and fired back.

And Daniel – bloody hell but Daniel had always had bad aim – Daniel had caught Hugh at the top of his thigh. There had been so much blood Marcus still felt queasy just thinking about it. The surgeon had screamed. The bullet had hit an artery; nothing else could have produced such a torrent of blood. For three days all the worry had been whether Hugh would live or die; no one gave much thought to the leg, with its shattered femur.

Hugh lived, but he didn’t walk, not without a cane. And his father – the extremely powerful and extremely angry Marquess of Ramsgate – vowed that Daniel would be brought to justice.

Hence Daniel’s flight to Italy.

Hence Daniel’s breathless, last-minute, promise-me-now-because-we’re-standing-at-the-docks-and-the-ship-is-about-to-leave request:

“Watch over Honoria, will you? See that she doesn’t marry an idiot.”

Of course Marcus had said yes. What else could he have said? But he’d never told Honoria of his promise to her brother. Good God, that would have been disaster. It was difficult enough keeping up with her without her knowledge. If she’d known he was acting in loco parentis, she’d have been furious. The last thing he needed was her trying to thwart him.

Which she would do. He was sure of it.

It wasn’t that she was deliberately willful. She was, for the most part, a perfectly reasonable girl. But even the most reasonable of females took umbrage when they thought they were being bossed about.

So he watched from afar, and he quietly scared off a suitor or two.

Or three.

Or maybe four.

He’d promised Daniel.

And Marcus Holroyd did not break his promises.

Chapter Two

“When will he be here?”

“I don’t know,” Honoria replied, for what must have been the seventh time. She smiled politely at the other young ladies in the Royles’ green and gray drawing room. Marcus’s appearance the day before had been discussed, dissected, analyzed, and – by Lady Sarah Pleinsworth, Honoria’s cousin and one of her closest friends – rendered into poetry.

“He came in the rain,” Sarah intoned. “The day had been plain.”

Honoria nearly spit out her tea.

“It was muddy, this lane – ”

Cecily Royle smiled slyly over her teacup. “Have you considered free verse?”

” – our heroine, in pain – ”

“I was cold,” Honoria put in.

Iris Smythe-Smith, another of Honoria’s cousins, looked up with her signature dry expression. “I am in pain,” she stated. “Specifically, my ears.”

Honoria shot Iris a look that said clearly, Be polite. Iris just shrugged.

” – her distress, she did feign – ”

“Not true!” Honoria protested.

“You can’t interfere with genius,” Iris said sweetly.

” – her schemes, not in vain – ”

“This poem is devolving rapidly,” Honoria stated.

“I am beginning to enjoy it,” said Cecily.

” – her existence, a bane . . .”

Honoria let out a snort. “Oh, come now!”

“I think she’s doing an admirable job,” Iris said, “given the limitations of the rhyming structure.” She looked over at Sarah, who had gone quite suddenly silent. Iris cocked her head to the side; so did Honoria and Sarah.

Sarah’s lips were parted, and her left hand was still outstretched with great drama, but she appeared to have run out of words.

“Cane?” Cecily suggested. “Main?”

“Insane?” offered Iris.

“Any moment now,” Honoria said tartly, “if I’m trapped here much longer with you lot.”

Sarah laughed and flopped down on the sofa. “The Earl of Chatteris,” she said with a sigh. “I shall never forgive you for not introducing us last year,” she said to Honoria.