There was a very awkward silence.

Hugh cleared his throat, but Sarah spoke first. “Thank you, Frances,” she said with great dignity. “I appreciate your taking my place at the head table while I danced.”

“He looked lonely,” Frances said.

Hugh coughed. Not because he was embarrassed, but because he was . . . Bloody hell, he didn’t know what he was feeling just then. It was damned disconcerting.

“Not that he was lonely,” Frances said quickly, shooting him a conspiratorial glance. “But he did look so.” She glanced back and forth between her sister and Hugh, apparently only just realizing she might be caught in the middle of an uncomfortable moment. “And he needed cake.”

“Well, we all need cake,” Hugh put in. He could not have cared less if Lady Sarah was put out, but there was no need for Lady Frances to feel ill at ease.

“I need cake,” Sarah announced.

It was just the thing to move the conversation forward. “You haven’t had any?” Frances asked in amazement. “Oh, but you must. It’s absolutely brilliant. The footman gave me a piece with extra flowers.”

Hugh smiled to himself. Extra flowers, indeed. The decorations had turned Lady Frances’s tongue purple.

“I was dancing,” Sarah reminded her.

“Oh, yes, of course.” Frances pulled a face and turned to Hugh. “It is another great sorrow of being the only child at a wedding. No one dances with me.”

“I assure you I would,” he said in all seriousness. “But alas . . .” He motioned to his cane.

Frances gave a sympathetic nod. “Well, then, I’m very glad I was able to sit with you. It’s no fun sitting alone while everyone else is dancing.” She stood and turned to her sister. “Shall I get you some cake?”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary.”

“But you just said you wanted some.”

“She said she needed some,” Hugh said.

Sarah looked at him as if he’d sprouted tentacles.

“I remember things,” he said simply.

“I’ll get you cake,” Frances decided, and walked off.

Hugh entertained himself by counting to see how long it would take for Lady Sarah to cut through the silence and speak to him after her sister departed. When he reached forty-three seconds (give or take a few; he didn’t have a timepiece for a truly accurate measure) he realized that he was going to have to be the adult of the duo, and he said, “You like to dance.”

She started, and when she turned to him, he realized instantly from her expression that while he had been measuring an awkward pause in the conversation, she had merely been sitting in companionable silence.

He found this strange. And perhaps even unsettling.

“I do,” she said abruptly, still blinking with surprise. “The music is delightful. It really does make one stand up and— I beg your pardon.” She flushed, the way everyone did when they said something that might possibly refer to his injured leg.

“I used to like to dance,” he said, mostly to be contrary.

“I— ah—” She cleared her throat. “Ehrm.”

“It’s difficult now, of course.”

Her eyes took on a vague expression of alarm, so he smiled placidly and took a sip of his wine.

“I thought you did not drink in the presence of the Smythe-Smiths,” she said.

He took another sip—the wine was quite good, just as she’d promised the night before—and turned to her with every intention of responding with a dry jest, but when he saw her sitting there, her skin still pink and dewy from her recent exertions, something turned within him, and the little knot of anger he worked so hard to keep buried burst forth and began to bleed.

He was never going to dance again.

He was never going to ride a horse or climb a tree or stride purposefully across a room and sweep a lady off her feet. There were a thousand things he’d never do, and you’d think it would have been a man who’d reminded him of this—an able-bodied man who could hunt and box and do all those bloody things a man was meant to do, but no, it was her, Lady Sarah Pleinsworth, with her fine eyes and nimble feet, and every bloody smile she’d bestowed upon her dance partners that morning.

He didn’t like her. He really didn’t, but by God, he’d have sold a piece of his soul right then to dance with her.

“Lord Hugh?” Her voice was quiet, but it held a tiny trace of impatience, just enough to alert him that he’d been silent for too long.

He took another sip of his wine—more of a swig this time, really—and said, “My leg hurts.” It didn’t. Not much, anyway, but it might as well have done. His leg seemed to be the reason for everything in his life; surely a glass of wine was no exception.

“Oh.” She shifted in her seat. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he said, perhaps more brusquely than he’d intended. “It isn’t your fault.”

“I know that. But I can still be sorry that it pains you.”

He must have given her a dubious look, because she drew back defensively and said, “I’m not inhuman.”

He looked at her closely, and somehow his eyes dipped down the line of her neck to the delicate planes of her collarbone. He could see every breath, every tiny motion along her skin. He cleared his throat. She was most definitely human.

“Forgive me,” he said stiffly. “I was of the opinion that you thought my suffering was no more than I deserve.”

Her lips parted, and he could practically see his statement running through her mind. Her discomfort was palpable, until finally she said, “I may have felt that way, and I cannot imagine I will ever bring myself to think charitably of you, but I am trying to be a less . . .” She stopped, and her head moved awkwardly as she sought words. “I am trying to be a better person,” she finally said. “I do not wish you pain.”