“Devious,” he amended.
“I’m not sure which I prefer.”
He chuckled, a low, hearty rumble that echoed from his body to hers. Then his face sobered. “We will have to be getting back.”
“I know,” she said with a sigh. “We will be missed.”
“I won’t, but you will.”
“I can always tell my mother that I took ill. I’ll say I caught whatever it was that afflicted Sarah. Which is to say, nothing, but nobody knows that but Sarah.” She pressed her mouth together in a peevish line. “And me. And Iris. And probably Miss Wynter, too. Still.”
He laughed again, then leaned down and kissed her lightly on the nose. “If I could, I would stay here forever.”
She smiled as the warmth of his words slid through her like a kiss. “I was just thinking that this is just like heaven.”
He was silent for a moment, and then, so softly she wasn’t sure she heard him correctly, he whispered, “Heaven couldn’t possibly compare.”
Luckily for Honoria, her hair had not been dressed in an elaborate style. What with the extra rehearsals that afternoon, there hadn’t been time for it. So it was not difficult for her to replicate the coiffure.
Marcus’s cravat was another story. No matter what they did, they could not restore its crisp, intricate knot.
“You will never be able to let your valet go,” Honoria told him after her third attempt at it. “In fact, you might need to increase his wages.”
“I already told Lady Danbury he stabbed me,” Marcus murmured.
Honoria covered her mouth. “I am trying not to smile,” she said, “because it’s not funny.”
“And yet it is.”
She held out as long as she could. “It is.”
He grinned down at her, and he looked so happy, so carefree. It made Honoria’s heart sing. How strange and yet how splendid that her happiness could be so dependent on the happiness of another.
“Let me try,” he said, and he took the ends and positioned himself in front of her mirror.
She watched him for about two seconds before declaring, “You’re going to have to go home.”
His eyes did not leave the reflection of his neckcloth in the mirror. “I haven’t even got past the first knot.”
“And you’re not going to.”
He gave her a supercilious look, brow quirked and all.
“You’re never going to get it right,” she pronounced. “I must say, between this and your boots, I am revising my opinion on the impracticalities of couture, male versus female.”
Her gaze dropped to his boots, polished to a perfect shine. “No one has ever had to take a knife to my footwear.”
“I wear nothing that buttons up the back,” he countered.
“True, but I may choose a dress that buttons in the front, whereas you cannot go out and about without a neckcloth.”
“I can at Fensmore,” he muttered, his fingers still trying to work with the increasingly wrinkled cloth.
“But we’re not at Fensmore,” she reminded him with a grin.
“I surrender,” he said, yanking the cravat off entirely. He stuffed it into his pocket, shaking his head as he said, “It’s for the best, really. Even if I did get this blasted thing tied right, it would make no sense for me to return to the musicale. I’m sure everyone thinks I’ve gone home.” He paused, then added, “If they’ve thought of me at all.”
As there were several unmarried young ladies in attendance, and perhaps more to the point, several mothers of unmarried young ladies, Honoria was fairly certain that his absence had been noted.
But still, his plan was a good one, and together they sneaked down the back stairs. Honoria’s plan was to cut through several rooms to the rehearsal space near the musicale, while Marcus was going to slip outside through the servants’ entrance. At the spot where they needed to part ways, Marcus looked down at her, gently touching her cheek with his hand.
She smiled. She had far too much happiness bursting within her to keep it inside.
“I will call upon you tomorrow,” he said.
She nodded. And then, because she could not stop herself, she whispered, “Kiss me good-bye?”
He needed no further urging, and he leaned down, taking her face in his hands as he captured her mouth in a passionate kiss. Honoria felt herself burning, then melting, then quite positively evaporating. She almost laughed with joy, and she rose to her tiptoes, trying to get closer and then –
He was gone.
There was a terrible cry, and Marcus went flying across the small space of the hallway, slamming against the opposite wall.
Honoria let out a shriek and ran forward. An intruder had got into the house, and he had Marcus by the throat. She didn’t even have time to be terrified. Without thinking, she hurled herself at the intruder, jumping onto his back. “Let go,” she ground out, trying to grab his arm to stop him from punching Marcus again.
“For the love of God,” the man snapped. “Get off me, Bug.”
She went slack. “Daniel?”
“Who the bloody hell else would it be?”
Honoria could think of quite a few answers to that, considering that he’d been out of the country for over three years. Never mind that he’d written that he planned to return; he hadn’t seen fit to tell anyone when.
“Daniel,” she said again, and she jumped off his back. She took a step away and just stared at him. He looked older, which of course he was, but he looked older in more than just years. Maybe more tired, maybe more world-weary. Or maybe it was just his recent travels. He was still dusty and windblown; anyone would look tired and world-weary after the long journey from Italy to London.