The gentleman standing across from her recoiled. Actually, quite a few people recoiled; Marcus did look a bit wild.
“What did you say to her, Grimston?” Marcus repeated, not stopping until he was directly in front of her tormentor.
A flash of memory lit through Honoria. It was Basil Grimston. He’d been away from town for several years, but during his heyday he had been known for his brutal wit. Her sisters had hated him.
Mr. Grimston lifted his chin and said, “I said only the truth.”
One of Marcus’s hands made a fist; his other hand cradled it. “You would not be the first person I struck this evening,” he said calmly.
That was when Honoria finally got a good look at him. He looked positively untamed – his hair was sticking every which way, his eye was ringed with shades of black and blue, and his mouth looked as if it was beginning to swell on the left side. His shirt was ripped, stained with blood and dust, and if she wasn’t mistaken there was a tiny feather stuck to the shoulder of his coat.
She thought he might be the most handsome man she’d ever seen.
“Honoria?” Iris whispered, her fingers digging hard into her arm.
Honoria just shook her head. She didn’t want to talk to Iris. She didn’t want to turn her head away from Marcus for even a second.
“What did you say to her?” Marcus asked yet again.
Mr. Grimston turned toward the crowd. “Surely he must be removed. Where is our hostess?”
“Right here,” Honoria said, stepping forward. It wasn’t strictly true, but her mother wasn’t anywhere to be found, and she figured she was the next best thing.
But when she looked at Marcus, he gave her a little shake of his head, and she quietly stepped back into place next to Iris.
“If you do not apologize to Lady Honoria,” Marcus said, his voice so mild as to be terrifying, “I will kill you.”
There was a collective gasp, and Daisy faked a swoon, sliding elegantly into Iris, who promptly stepped aside and let her hit the floor.
“Oh, come now,” Mr. Grimston said. “Surely it won’t come to pistols at dawn.”
“I’m not talking about a duel,” Marcus said. “I mean I will kill you right here.”
“You’re mad,” Mr. Grimston gasped.
Marcus shrugged. “Perhaps.”
Mr. Grimston looked from Marcus to his friend, to the crowd, and then back to his friend again. No one seemed to be offering him any advice, silent or otherwise, and so, as any dandy about to get his face smashed in would do, he cleared his throat, turned to Honoria, and said to her forehead, “I beg your pardon, Lady Honoria.”
“Do it properly,” Marcus bit off.
“I apologize,” Mr. Grimston said through clenched teeth.
“Grimston . . .” Marcus warned.
Finally, Mr. Grimston lowered his gaze until he was looking Honoria in the eye. “Please accept my apologies,” he said to her. He looked miserable and sounded furious, but he said it.
“Thank you,” she said quickly, before Marcus could decide the apology did not pass muster.
“Now leave,” Marcus ordered.
“As if I would dream of staying,” Mr. Grimston said with a sniff.
“I’m going to have to hit you,” Marcus said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“That won’t be necessary,” Mr. Grimston’s friend said quickly, casting a wary eye at Marcus. She stepped forward, grabbed his arm, and yanked him back a step. “Thank you,” she said to Honoria, “for a lovely evening. You can be sure that if anyone asks, I shall say it passed without incident.”
Honoria still didn’t know who she was, but she nodded anyway.
“Thank God they’re gone,” Marcus muttered as they departed. He was rubbing his knuckles. “I really didn’t want to have to hit someone again. Your brother has a hard head.”
Honoria felt herself smile. It was a ridiculous thing to smile about, and an even more ridiculous time to smile. Daisy was still lying on the floor, moaning in her faux swoon, Lady Danbury was barking at anyone who would listen that there was “nothing to see, nothing to see,” and Iris would not stop asking her questions about heaven knew what.
But Honoria wasn’t listening to Iris. “I love you,” she said, as soon as Marcus’s eyes fell on her face. She hadn’t meant to say it right then, but there was no keeping it in. “I love you. Always.”
Someone must have heard her, and that someone must have told another someone, who told another someone, because within seconds, the room fell into a hush. And once again, Marcus found himself at the absolute center of attention.
“I love you, too,” he said, his voice firm and clear. And then, with the eyes of half the ton on him, he took her hands, dropped to one knee, and said, “Lady Honoria Smythe-Smith, will you do me the very great honor of becoming my wife?”
Honoria tried to say yes, but her throat was choked with emotion. So she nodded. She nodded through her tears. She nodded with such speed and vigor that she almost lost her balance and had no choice but to sway into his arms when he stood back up.
“Yes,” she finally whispered. “Yes.”
Iris told her later that the entire room was cheering, but Honoria didn’t hear a thing. In that perfect moment, there was only Marcus, and her, and the way he was smiling as he rested his nose against hers.
“I was going to tell you,” he said, “but you beat me to it.”
“I didn’t mean to,” she admitted.
“I was waiting for the right time.”