“I do,” she said firmly. “We are friends now, I think.”

“You think.” This time he was definitely smirking.

She tossed him a sarcastic glance. “You could not resist, could you?”

“No,” he murmured, “I think not.”

“That was so dreadful it was almost good,” she told him.

“And that was such an insult I almost feel complimented.”

She felt her lips tighten at the corners. She was trying not to smile; it was a battle of the wits, and somehow she knew that if she laughed, she lost. But at the same time, losing wasn’t such a terrible prospect. Not in this.

“Come along,” he said with mock severity. “Let’s see you walk to the library.”

And she did. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t painless—truthfully, she shouldn’t have been up and about yet—but she did it.

“You’re doing very well,” he said as they neared their destination.

“Thank you,” she said, ridiculously pleased by his praise. “It’s marvelous. Such independence. It was just awful having to rely on someone to carry me about.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “Is that how you feel?”

His lips curved in a wry expression. “Not exactly.”

“Really? Because—” Her throat nearly closed. “Never mind.” What an idiot she was. Of course it hadn’t felt the same for him. She was using the cane to get her through the day. He would never be without it.

From that moment forward she no longer wondered why he did not smile very often. Instead, she marveled that he ever did.

Chapter Thirteen

The blue drawing room

Whipple Hill

Eight o’clock in the evening

When it came to social engagements, Hugh never knew which was worse: to be early and exhaust himself having to rise every time a lady appeared, or to arrive late, only to be the center of attention while he limped into the room. This evening, however, his injury had made the decision for him.

He had not been lying when he told Sarah that his leg would most likely pain him that night. But he was glad she had taken the cane. It was, he thought with a surprising lack of bitterness, the closest he would ever come to sweeping her into his arms and carrying her to safety.

Pathetic, but a man had to take his triumphs where he could.

By the time he entered the large drawing room at Whipple Hill, most of the other guests were already present. About seventy people, if he judged the crowd correctly. More than half of the so-called caravan were being lodged in nearby inns; they frolicked at the house during the day but were gone in the evening.

He did not bother to pretend that he was looking for anyone but Sarah the moment he limped through the door. They had spent much of the day in quiet companionship in the library, occasionally chatting but most often just reading. She had demanded that he demonstrate his mathematical brilliance (her words, not his), and he had complied. He’d always hated “performing” on demand, but Sarah had watched and listened with such obvious delight and amazement that he hadn’t been able to bring himself to feel his usual discomfort.

He had misjudged her, he realized. Yes, she was overly dramatic and given to grand pronouncements, but she was not the shallow debutante he had once thought her. He was also coming to realize that her earlier antipathy toward him had not been entirely without merit. He had wronged her—inadvertently, but still. It was a fact that she would have had that first season in London if not for his duel with Daniel.

Hugh would not go so far as to agree that he had ruined her life, but now that he knew her better, it did not seem unlikely that Lady Sarah Pleinsworth might have nabbed one of those now legendary fourteen gentlemen.

He could not, however, bring himself to regret this.

When he found her—it was her laughter, actually, that drew him to her—she was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room with her foot propped up on a small ottoman. One of her cousins was with her, the pale one. Iris, her name was. She and Sarah seemed to have an odd, somewhat competitive, relationship. Hugh would never be so bold as to think he understood more than three things about women (and probably not even that many), but it was clear to him that those two carried on complete conversations with nothing but narrowed eyes and tilts of the head.

But for now they seemed to be having a jolly time, so he made his way over and gave a polite bow.

“Lady Sarah,” he said. “Miss Smythe-Smith.”

Both ladies smiled and greeted him in return.

“Won’t you join us?” Sarah said.

He sat in the chair to Sarah’s left, taking the opportunity to extend his leg in front of him. He generally tried not to draw notice to himself by doing this in public, but she knew that he would be more comfortable this way, and more to the point, he knew that she would not be shy about telling him how he ought to sit.

“How is your ankle feeling this evening?” he asked her.

“Very well,” she answered, then wrinkled her nose. “No, that’s a lie. It’s fairly dreadful.”

Iris chuckled.

“Well, it is,” Sarah said with a sigh. “I reckon I overexerted myself this morning.”

“I thought you spent the morning in the library,” Iris said.

“I did,” Sarah told her. “But Lord Hugh very kindly lent me his cane. I walked all the way across the house on my own.” She frowned at her foot. “Although after that I did absolutely nothing with it. I’m not sure why it’s being so wretched.”

“This sort of injury takes time to heal,” Hugh said. “It may have been more than a simple sprain.”