“I’m—” She cut herself off, then said disgruntledly, “Well, now I am.”
“And here I hadn’t even been trying,” he said.
Sarah had all sorts of retorts to that, but none which would leave him without an obvious parry of his own. Maybe what she really wanted was an only slightly less worthy adversary. Just enough brains to keep it interesting, but not so much that she would not always win.
Hugh Prentice would never be that man.
“Well, this looks like an awkward conversation!” came a new voice.
Sarah turned her head, not that she needed to see the speaker to recognize her identity. It was the Countess of Danbury, the most terrifying old dragon of the ton. She had once managed to destroy a violin with nothing but a cane (and, Sarah was convinced, sleight of hand). But her true weapon, as everyone knew, was her devastating wit.
“Awkward, yes,” Lord Hugh said with a respectful bow. “But growing less so with each passing second now that you are here.”
“Pity,” the elderly lady replied, adjusting her grip on her cane. “I find awkward conversations to be very diverting.”
“Lady Danbury,” Sarah said, dipping into a curtsy, “what a lovely surprise to see you this evening.”
“What are you talking about?” Lady Danbury demanded. “This should be no surprise at all. Chatteris is my great-grandnephew. Where else would I be?”
“Ehrm,” was all Sarah got out before the countess demanded, “Do you know why I made my way across the entire room, specifically to join the two of you?”
“I cannot imagine,” Lord Hugh said.
Lady Danbury shot a sideways glance at Sarah, who quickly put in, “Nor I.”
“I have found that happy people are dull. You two, on the other hand, looked ready to spit nails. Naturally I came right over.” She looked from Hugh to Sarah and then said plainly, “Entertain me.”
This was met with dumbfounded silence. Sarah stole a look at Lord Hugh and was relieved to see that his usual bored expression had been cracked with surprise.
Lady Danbury leaned forward and said in a loud whisper, “I have decided to like you, Lady Sarah.”
Sarah was not at all certain this was a good thing. “You have?”
“Indeed. And so I will give you some advice.” She nodded toward Sarah as if granting an audience to a serf. “You may feel free to share it at will.”
Sarah’s eyes darted to Lord Hugh’s, although why she thought he might come to her aid she could not say.
“Our current conversation notwithstanding,” Lady Danbury continued imperiously, “I have observed you to be a young lady of reasonable wit.”
Reasonable? Sarah felt her nose wrinkling as she tried to figure that out. “Thank you?”
“It was a compliment,” Lady Danbury confirmed.
“Even the reasonable part?”
Lady Danbury snorted. “I don’t know you that well.”
“Well, then, thank you,” Sarah said, deciding this was an excellent time to be gracious, or at the very least, obtuse. She glanced over at Lord Hugh, who looked mildly amused, and then back at Lady Danbury, who was eyeing her as if she expected her to say something more.
Sarah cleared her throat. “Ehrm, was there any reason you wished me to know of your regard?”
“What? Oh, yes.” Lady Danbury thumped her cane on the ground. “Despite my advancing age, I forget nothing.” She paused. “Except occasionally what I’ve just said.”
Sarah kept her face fixed with a blank smile and tried to tamp down a gnawing sense of dread.
Lady Danbury let out a dramatic sigh. “I suppose one can’t reach the age of seventy without making a few concessions to it.”
Sarah suspected that seventy missed the mark by at least a decade, but there was no way she was going to make this opinion public.
“What I was going to say,” Lady Danbury continued, her voice dripping with the long-suffering tones of the endlessly interrupted (despite the fact that she was the only one who had been talking), “is that when you expressed surprise at my presence, which we both know was nothing more than a feeble attempt to make conversation, and I said, ‘Where else would I be?’ you should have said, ‘Apparently you don’t find polite conversation very diverting.’ ”
Sarah’s lips parted and hung there in an astonished oval for a full two seconds before she said, “I am afraid I can’t follow you.”
Lady Danbury fixed her with a vaguely aggravated stare before saying, “I had told you that I found awkward conversations to be very diverting, and you said that nonsense about being surprised to see me, then I quite rightly called you foolish.”
“I don’t believe you called her foolish,” Lord Hugh murmured.
“Didn’t I? Well, I thought it.” Lady Danbury thumped her cane on the carpet and turned back to Sarah. “At any rate, I was only trying to be helpful. There’s never any point spouting useless platitudes. Makes you seem a bit like a wooden post, and you don’t want that, do you?”
“It really depends on the location of the wooden post,” Sarah replied, wondering how many wooden posts one might find in, say, Bombay.
“Well done, Lady Sarah,” Lady Danbury applauded. “Keep sharpening that tongue. I expect you’ll wish to keep your wits about you this evening.”
“I generally wish to keep my wits about myself every evening.”
Lady Danbury gave an approving nod. “And you—” She turned to Lord Hugh, much to Sarah’s delight. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten you.”