He tilted his head in query.

“Aunt Virginia and Honoria. They left as soon as they realized you were here.”

Hugh did not know what she intended with her statement. Was he meant to feel guilty? Had they wanted to remain at the party? Or was this more of an insult? Perhaps Lady Sarah was trying to tell him that he was so repellent that her cousins could not tolerate his presence.

So he said nothing. He did not wish to make an incorrect reply. But then something niggled at his brain. A puzzle of sorts. Nothing more than an unanswered question, but it was so strange and out of place that he had to know the answer. And so he asked, “What did you mean earlier, fourteen men?”

Lady Sarah’s mouth flattened into a grim line. Well, more grim, if such a thing were possible.

“When you first saw me,” he reminded her, although he rather thought she knew precisely what he was talking about, “you said something about fourteen men.”

“It was nothing,” she said dismissively, but her eyes shifted the tiniest bit to the right. She was lying. Or embarrassed. Probably both.

“Fourteen is not nothing.” He was being pedantic, he knew, but she’d already tried his patience in every way but the mathematical. 14 ≠ 0, but more to the point, why did people bring things up if they didn’t want to talk about them? If she hadn’t intended to explain the comment, she bloody well should have kept it to herself.

She stepped rather noticeably to the side. “Please,” she said, “go.”

He didn’t move. She’d piqued his curiosity, and there was little in this world more tenacious than Hugh Prentice with an unanswered question.

“You have just spent the last hour ordering me out of your way,” she ground out.

“Five minutes,” he corrected, “and while I do long for the serenity of my own home, I find myself curious about your fourteen men.”

“They were not my fourteen men,” she snapped.

“I should hope not,” he murmured, then added, “not that I would judge.”

Her mouth fell open.

“Tell me about the fourteen men,” he prodded.

“I told you,” she insisted, her cheeks flushing a satisfactory shade of pink, “it was nothing.”

“But I’m curious. Fourteen men for supper? For tea? It’s too many for a team of cricket, but—”

“Stop!” she burst out.

He did. Quirked a brow, even.

“If you must know,” she said, her voice clipped with fury, “there were fourteen men who became engaged to be married in 1821.”

There was a very long pause. Hugh was not an unintelligent man, but he had no idea what this had to do with anything. “Did all fourteen men become married?” he asked politely.

She stared at him.

“You said fourteen became engaged to be married.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does to them, I would imagine.”

He’d thought they were done with histrionics, but Lady Sarah let out a cry of frustration. “You don’t understand anything!”

“Oh, for the love of—”

“Do you have any idea of what you’ve done?” she demanded. “While you sit in your comfortable home, all cozy in London—”

“Shut up,” he said, only he had no idea if he’d said it aloud. He just wanted her to stop. Stop talking, stop arguing, stop everything.

But instead she stepped forward and, with a venomous glare, demanded, “Do you know many lives you have ruined?”

He took a breath. Air, he needed air. He did not need to listen to this. Not from her. He knew precisely how many lives he’d ruined, and hers was not one of them.

But she would not let up. “Have you no conscience?” she hissed.

And finally, he snapped. Without a thought to his leg, he stepped forward until they were close enough for her to feel the heat of his breath. He backed her against the wall, trapping her with nothing but the fury of his presence. “You do not know me,” he bit off. “You do not know what I think or what I feel or what measure of hell I visit each and every day of my life. And the next time you feel so wronged—you, who do not even bear the same surname as Lord Winstead—you would do well to remember that one of the lives I have ruined is my own.”

And then he stepped away. “Good night,” he said, as pleasantly as a summer day.

For a moment he thought they might finally be done, but then she said the one thing that could redeem her.

“They are my family.”

He closed his eyes.

“They are my family,” she said in a choked voice, “and you have hurt them beyond repair. For that, I can never forgive you.”

“Neither,” he said, his words for his ears alone, “can I.”

Chapter Four

Back at Fensmore

In the drawing room with Honoria, Sarah,

Harriet, Elizabeth, Frances, and Lord Hugh

Right where we left off . . .

It was a rare moment when silence fell on a gathering of Smythe-Smith cousins, but that was exactly what happened after Lord Hugh gave a polite bow and exited the drawing room.

The five of them—the four Pleinsworth sisters and Honoria—remained mute for several seconds, glancing at each other as they waited for a suitable amount of time to pass.

You could almost hear them all counting, Sarah thought, and indeed, as soon as she reached ten in her own head, Elizabeth announced, “Well that wasn’t very subtle.”

Honoria turned. “What do you mean?”

“You are trying to make a match of Sarah and Lord Hugh, aren’t you?”