“Or from this world,” she said venomously.
“Oh, for the love of Christ,” he swore. Whoever this woman was, she’d long since sacrificed any obligation he had to speak as a gentleman in her presence. “Please” —he bowed, with flair and sarcasm in equal measure—“allow me to kill myself at your tender request, O unnamed woman whose life I have destroyed.”
Her mouth fell open. Good. She was speechless.
“I would be happy to fulfill your bidding,” he continued, “once you get out of my WAY.” His voice rose to a roar, or rather, his version of a roar, which was more of a malevolent growl. He thrust his cane into the empty space at her left, hoping its jabbing presence would be enough to convince her to step to the side.
Her breath sucked the air from the room in a loud gasp worthy of Drury Lane. “Are you attacking me?”
“Not yet,” he muttered.
She snarled. “Because I wouldn’t be surprised if you attempted it.”
“Neither,” he said, eyes slitting, “would I.”
She gasped again, this one a short little puff far more in keeping with her role as an offended young lady. “You, sir, are no gentleman.”
“So we have established,” he bit off. “Now then, I am hungry, I am tired, and I want to go home. You, however, are blocking my sole means of egress.”
She crossed her arms and widened her stance.
He tilted his head and considered the situation. “We appear to have two choices,” he finally said. “You can move, or I can push you out of the way.”
Her head bobbed to the side in what could only be described as a swagger. “I’d like to see you try.”
“Remember, I’m no gentleman.”
She smirked. “But I have two good legs.”
He patted his cane with some affection. “I have a weapon.”
“Which I’m fast enough to avoid.”
He smiled blandly. “Ah, but once you move, there will be no obstruction.” He indulged himself with a midair twirl of his free hand. “Then I may be on my way, and if there is any God in our heaven, I shall never lay eyes upon you again.”
She didn’t exactly step out of the way, but she did seem to lean slightly to one side, so Hugh took the opportunity to thrust his cane out as a barrier and shove his way past her. He made it out, too, and in retrospect he really should have kept going, but then she yelled, “I know exactly who you are, Lord Hugh Prentice.”
He stopped. Exhaled slowly. But he did not turn around.
“I am Lady Sarah Pleinsworth,” she announced, and not for the first time he wished he knew how to better interpret ladies’ voices. There was something in her tone he didn’t quite understand, a little catch where her throat might have closed, just for a millisecond.
He didn’t know what that meant.
But he did know—he certainly did not need to see her face to know it—that she expected him to recognize her name. And as much as he wished he did not recognize it, he did.
Lady Sarah Pleinsworth, first cousin to Daniel Smythe-Smith. According to Charles Dunwoody, she had been quite vocal in her fury over the outcome of the duel. Much more so than Daniel’s mother and sister, who, in Hugh’s opinion, had a far more valid claim to anger.
Hugh turned. Lady Sarah was standing just a few feet away, her posture tight and furious. Her hands were fisted at her sides, and her chin was jutting forward in a manner that reminded him of an angry child, trapped in an absurd argument and determined to stand her ground.
“Lady Sarah,” he said with all due politeness. She was Daniel’s cousin, and despite what had transpired in the last few minutes, he was determined to treat her with respect. “We have not formally met.”
“We hardly need—”
“But nonetheless,” he cut in before she could make another melodramatic proclamation, “I know who you are.”
“Apparently not,” she muttered.
“You are cousin to Lord Winstead,” he stated. “I know your name if not your face.”
She gave a nod—the first gesture she’d made that even hinted of civility. Her voice, too, was slightly more tempered when she spoke again. But only slightly. “You should not have come tonight.”
He paused. Then said, “I have known Charles Dunwoody for over a decade. I wished to congratulate him on his betrothal.”
This did not seem to impress her. “Your presence was most distressing to my aunt and cousin.”
“And for that I am sorry.” He was, truly, and he was doing everything he could to set things right. But he could not share that with the Smythe-Smiths until he met with success. It would be cruel to raise the hopes of Daniel’s family. And perhaps more to the point, he could not imagine they would receive him if he paid a call.
“You’re sorry?” Lady Sarah said scornfully. “I find that difficult to believe.”
Again, he paused. He did not like to respond to provocation with immediate outburst. He never had, which made his behavior with Daniel all the more galling. If he hadn’t been drinking, he would have behaved rationally, and none of this would have happened. He certainly would not have been standing here in a darkened corner of Charles Dunwoody’s parents’ home, in the company of a woman who had obviously sought him out for no other reason than to hurl insults at his head.
“You may believe what you wish,” he replied. He owed her no explanations.
For a moment neither spoke, then Lady Sarah said, “They left, in case you were wondering.”