Hugh choked back a laugh, finally understanding her silly little mind. She was blaming him for the loss of her London season. “And those fourteen eligible gentlemen are now forever lost to you.”
“There is no reason to be so mocking.”
“You have no way of knowing that one would have proposed,” he pointed out. He did like things to be logical, and this was . . . not.
“There is no way of knowing that one wouldn’t have done,” she cried. Her hand flew to her chest, and she took a jerky step back, as if surprised by her own reaction.
But Hugh felt no sympathy. And he could not stave off the unkind chuckle that burst from his throat. “You never cease to astonish me, Lady Sarah. All this time, you’ve been blaming me for your unmarried state. Did it ever occur to you to look somewhere closer to home?”
She let out an awful choke and her hand came to her mouth, not so much to cover it as to hold something in.
“Forgive me,” he said, but they both knew that what he’d said was unforgivable.
“I thought I did not like you because of what you did to my family,” she said, holding herself so rigid that she shook, “but that’s not it at all. You are a terrible person.”
He stood very still, the way he’d been taught since birth. A gentleman was always in control of his body. A gentleman didn’t flail his arms or spit or fidget. He did not have much left in his life, but he had this—his pride, his bearing. “I shall endeavor not to press myself into your company,” he said stiffly.
“It’s too late for that,” she bit off.
“I beg your pardon?”
Her eyes bored into his. “My cousin, if you recall, has requested that we sit together at the wedding breakfast.”
Apparently he did forget some things. Bloody hell. He had promised Lady Honoria. There was no getting out of it. “I can be civil if you can,” he said.
She shocked him then, holding out her hand to seal their agreement. He took it, and in that moment when her hand lay in his, he had the most bizarre urge to bring her fingers to his lips.
“Have we a truce, then?” she said.
He looked up.
That was a mistake.
Because Lady Sarah Pleinsworth was gazing up at him with an expression of uncommon and (he was quite sure) uncharacteristic clarity. Her eyes, which had always been hard and brittle when turned in his direction, were softer now. And her lips, he realized now that she wasn’t hurling insults at him, were utter perfection, full and pink, and touched with just the right sort of curve. They seemed to tell a man that she knew things, that she knew how to laugh, and if he only laid down his soul for her, she would light up his world with a single smile.
Good God, had he lost his mind?
Later that night
When Sarah came down for supper, she was feeling a bit better about having to spend the evening with Hugh Prentice. The row they’d had that afternoon had been awful, and she could not imagine they would ever choose to be friends, but at least they’d got everything out in the open. If she was to be forced to remain at his side for the duration of the wedding, he would not think she was doing so out of any desire for his company.
And he would behave properly as well. They had struck a bargain, and whatever his faults, he did not seem the type to go back on his word. He would be polite, and he would put on a good show for Honoria and Marcus, and once this ridiculous month of weddings was over, they would never need speak with each other again.
After five minutes in the drawing room, however, it became delightfully clear that Lord Hugh was not yet present. And Sarah had looked. No one was going to accuse her of shirking her duty.
Sarah had never much liked standing alone at gatherings, so she joined her mother and aunts over by the fireplace. As expected, they were nattering on about the wedding. Sarah listened with half an ear; after five days at Fensmore, she could not imagine there was any detail she had not yet heard about the upcoming ceremony.
“It is a pity the hydrangeas aren’t in season,” her aunt Virginia was saying. “The ones we grow at Whipple Hill are just the shade of lavender-blue we need for the chapel.”
“It’s blue-lavender,” Aunt Maria corrected, “and you must see that hydrangeas would have been a terrible mistake.”
“The colors are far too variable,” Aunt Maria continued, “even on a cultivated shrub. You would never have been able to guarantee the shade ahead of time, and what if they did not match Honoria’s dress perfectly?”
“Surely no one would expect perfection,” Aunt Virginia replied. “Not with flowers.”
Aunt Maria sniffed. “I always expect perfection.”
“Especially from flowers,” Sarah said with a little chuckle. Aunt Maria had named her daughters Rose, Lavender, Marigold, Iris, and Daisy. Her son, whom Sarah privately thought might be the luckiest child in England, was called John.
But Aunt Maria, though generally kindhearted, had never had much of a sense of humor. She blinked a few times in Sarah’s direction before giving a little smile and saying, “Oh yes, of course.”
Sarah still wasn’t sure if Aunt Maria had got the joke. She decided not to press the matter. “Oh, look! There’s Iris!” she said, relieved to see her cousin enter the room. Sarah had never been as close to Iris as she was to Honoria, but they were all three almost the same age, and Sarah had always enjoyed Iris’s dry wit. She imagined the two of them would be spending more time together now that Honoria was getting married, especially since they shared a profound loathing for the family musicale.