“And furthermore,” Lady Danbury said, ignoring her completely, “it will be a Ruggieri.”

Daisy gasped.

“No, really,” Honoria said. She couldn’t take her eyes off the violin. There was something about it that was absolutely riveting.

“I caused this damage,” Lady Danbury said grandly. She waved her arm through the air, the gesture directed more toward the crowd than toward Honoria. “I must make it right.”

“But a Ruggieri!” Daisy cried.

“I know,” Lady Danbury said, placing a hand on her heart. “They are terribly dear, but in such a case, only the best will do.”

“There’s quite a waiting list,” Daisy said with a sniff.

“Indeed. You mentioned that earlier.”

“Six months. Maybe even a year.”

“Or longer?” Lady Danbury asked, with perhaps a touch of glee.

“I don’t need another violin,” Honoria said. And she didn’t. She was going to marry Marcus. She would never have to play in another musicale for the rest of her life.

Of course she could not say this to anyone.

And he had to propose.

But that seemed a trifling matter. She was confident that he would.

“She can use my old violin,” Daisy said. “I don’t mind.”

And while Lady Danbury was arguing with her about that, Honoria leaned toward Iris and, still staring at the mess on the floor, said, “It’s really remarkable. How do you suppose she did it?”

“I don’t know,” Iris said, equally baffled. “You’d need more than a cane. I think you’d need an elephant.”

Honoria gasped with delight and finally ripped her eyes from the carnage. “That’s exactly what I was thinking!”

They caught each other’s eyes and then burst out laughing, both with such fervor that Lady Danbury and Daisy stopped arguing to stare.

“I think she’s overset,” Daisy said.

“Well, of course, you nitwit,” Lady Danbury barked. “She’s just lost her violin.”

“Thank God,” someone said. With great feeling.

Honoria looked over. She wasn’t even sure who it was. A fashionable gentleman of middling age with an equally fashionable lady at his side. He reminded her of the drawings she’d seen of Beau Brummell, who had been the most fashionable man alive when her older sisters had made their debuts.

“The girl doesn’t need a violin,” he added. “She needs to have her hands bound so she can never touch an instrument again.”

A few people tittered. Others looked very uncomfortable.

Honoria had no idea what to do. It was an unwritten rule in London that while one could mock the Smythe-Smith musicale, one must never ever do so within earshot of an actual Smythe-Smith. Even the gossip columnists never mentioned how dreadful they were.

Where was her mother? Or Aunt Charlotte? Had they heard? It would kill them.

“Oh, come now,” he said, directing his words to the small crowd that had gathered around him. “Are we all so unwilling to state the truth? They’re dreadful. An abomination against nature.”

A few more people laughed. Behind their hands, but still.

Honoria tried to open her mouth, tried to make a sound, any sound that might be construed as a defense of her family. Iris was clutching onto her arm as if she wanted to die on the spot, and Daisy looked simply stunned.

“I beg of you,” the gentleman said, turning to face Honoria directly. “Do not accept a new violin from the countess. Do not ever even touch one.” And then, after a little titter directed toward his companion, as if to say – Just wait until you hear what I have to say next, he said to Honoria, “You are abysmal. You make songbirds cry. You almost made me cry.”

“I may still do so,” his companion said. Her eyes flared and she shot a gleeful look toward the crowd. She was proud of her insult, pleased that her cruelty held such a witty edge.

Honoria swallowed, blinking back tears of fury. She’d always thought that if someone attacked her publicly she’d respond with cutting wit. Her timing would be impeccable; she’d deliver a set-down with such style and panache that her opponent would have no choice but to slink away, proverbial tail between his legs.

But now that it was happening, she was paralyzed. She could only stare, her hands shaking as she fought to maintain her composure. Later tonight she’d realize what she should have said, but right now her mind was a swirling, inchoate cloud. She couldn’t have put together a decent sentence if someone had placed the complete works of Shakespeare in her hands.

She heard another person laugh, and then another. He was winning. This awful man, whose name she did not even know, had come to her house, insulted her in front of everyone she knew, and he was winning. It was wrong for so many reasons except the most basic. She was dreadful at the violin. But surely – surely – people knew better than to act in such a manner. Surely someone would come forward to defend her.

And then, over the muted laughs and hissing whispers came the unmistakable sound of boots clicking across a wooden floor. Slowly, as if in a wave, the crowd lifted their heads toward the door. And what they saw . . .

Honoria fell in love all over again.

Marcus, the man who had always wanted to be the tree in the pantomimes; Marcus, the man who preferred to conduct his business quietly, behind the scenes; Marcus, the man who loathed being the center of attention . . .

He was about to make a very big scene.

“What did you say to her?” he demanded, crossing the room like a furious god. A bruised and bloody furious god who happened to be lacking a cravat, but still, most definitely furious. And in her opinion, most definitely a god.