Iris started, clearly only just realizing that he’d been standing next to her cousin. This did not surprise Sarah; when Iris had her mind set on something she rarely noticed anything she deemed irrelevant.
“Lord Hugh,” Iris said, recovering quickly.
“I am most relieved to hear that you are saved,” Lord Hugh said.
Sarah took some satisfaction in the fact that Iris did not appear to know how to respond.
“From plague?” Lord Hugh inquired. “Pestilence?”
Sarah could only stare.
“Oh, I know,” he said in quite the jolliest tone she’d ever heard from him. “Locusts. There’s nothing like a good infestation of locusts.”
Iris blinked several times, then lifted a finger as if she’d just thought of something. “I’ll leave you, then.”
“Of course you will,” Sarah muttered.
Iris gave her an almost imperceptible smirk, then made her departure, snaking fluidly through the crowd.
“I must confess to curiosity,” Lord Hugh said once Iris had disappeared from view.
Sarah just stared ahead. He wasn’t the sort to let her silence stop him, so there didn’t seem much need to reply.
“From what dreadful fate did your cousin save you?”
“Not you, apparently,” Sarah muttered before she could control her tongue.
He chuckled at that, and Sarah decided there was no reason not to tell him the truth. “My cousin Daisy—that’s Iris’s younger sister—was trying to organize a special performance of the Smythe-Smith Quartet.”
“Why should that be a problem?”
Sarah took a moment to phrase her query. “You have not attended one of our musicales, then?”
“I have not had the pleasure.”
“Pleasure,” Sarah repeated, tucking her chin back toward her neck as she tried to choke down her disbelief.
“Is something wrong?” Lord Hugh asked.
She opened her mouth to explain, but just then the butler came in and called them in for supper.
“Your prayers are answered,” Lord Hugh said wryly.
“Not all of them,” she muttered.
He offered her his arm. “Yes, you’re still stuck with me, aren’t you?”
The following afternoon
And so the Earl of Chatteris and Lady Honoria Smythe-Smith were joined in holy matrimony. The sun was shining, the wine was flowing, and judging by the laughter and smiles at the wedding breakfast (which had long since metamorphosed into a wedding luncheon), a good time was being had by all.
Even Lady Sarah Pleinsworth.
From where Hugh was sitting at the head table (rather by himself; everyone else had got up to dance), she was the very embodiment of carefree English womanhood. She spoke easily to the other guests, she laughed often (but never too loudly), and when she danced, she looked so bloody happy it nearly lit the room on fire.
Hugh had once liked to dance.
He’d been good at it, too. Music was not so very different from mathematics. It was all just patterns and sequences. The only difference was that they hung in the air instead of on a piece of paper.
Dancing was a grand equation. One side was sound, the other movement. The dancer’s job was to make them equal.
Hugh might not have felt music, the way the choral master at Eton had insisted he must, but he certainly understood it.
“Hullo, Lord Hugh. Would you like some cake?”
Hugh looked up and smiled. It was little Lady Frances Pleinsworth, holding two plates. One had a gigantic slice of cake, the other a merely enormous one. Both had been liberally frosted with lavender-hued icing and tiny candy violets. Hugh had seen the cake in all its glory before it had been cut; he had immediately begun to wonder how many eggs such a gateau might have required. When that had proved an impossible calculation, he’d started thinking about how long it would have taken to make the confection. Then he’d moved on to—
“Lord Hugh?” Lady Frances said, cutting into his thoughts. She lifted one of the plates a few inches higher in the air, reminding him of why she’d come over.
“I do like cake,” he said.
She sat down next to him, setting the plates on the table. “You looked lonely.”
Hugh smiled again. It was the sort of thing an adult would never have said aloud. And precisely the reason he’d rather have been chatting with her than anyone else in the room. “I was alone, not lonely.”
Frances frowned, considering that. Hugh was just about to explain the difference when she cocked her head and asked, “Are you sure?”
“Alone is a state of being,” he explained, “whereas lonely is—”
“I know that,” she cut in.
He regarded her. “Then I’m afraid I do not understand your question.”
She cocked her head to the side. “I was just wondering if a person always knows when he is lonely.”
Budding little philosopher, she was. “How old are you?” he asked, deciding that he would not be surprised if she opened her mouth and said she was actually forty-two.
“Eleven.” She jabbed a fork into her cake, expertly picking the icing from between the layers. “But I’m very precocious.”
She didn’t say anything, but he saw her smiling around her fork as she took a bite.
“Do you like cake?” she asked, delicately dabbing the corner of her mouth with a napkin.
“Doesn’t everyone?” he murmured, not pointing out that he’d already said he did.
She glanced down at his untouched plate. “Then why haven’t you eaten any?”