It was what they always said in novels, after all.
“Very well,” she said, taking in the incredulous expressions on both men, “it is what you think. But you can’t hit him.”
Daniel growled. “Oh, can’t I?”
Sarah planted her hand on his chest. “No,” she said firmly, then turned to Hugh with a pointed finger. “And you can’t either.”
Hugh shrugged. “I wasn’t trying to.”
Sarah blinked. He did look astonishingly casual, all things considered.
She turned back to Daniel. “This is none of your affair.”
Daniel’s body went rigid with fury, and he could barely control his voice when he said, “Go to your room, Sarah.”
“You are not my father,” she shot back.
“I’m bloody well in loco parentis until he arrives,” Daniel nearly spat.
“Oh, you’re one to talk,” she scoffed. Daniel’s fiancée used to live with the Pleinsworths, after all. Sarah knew quite well that his romantic pursuit of her had not been entirely chaste.
Daniel crossed his arms. “This isn’t about me.”
“It wasn’t until you barged into the room.”
“If it makes you feel better,” Hugh said, “I was planning to ask Lord Pleinsworth for her hand just as soon as he arrives.”
Sarah snapped her head back around. “That’s my proposal?”
“Blame him,” Hugh replied, with a nod toward Daniel.
But then Daniel did something unexpected. He took a step toward Hugh, leveled a hard stare at his face, and said, “You will not ask Lord Pleinsworth for her hand. You will not say even a word to him until you tell her the truth.”
The truth? Sarah looked from Daniel to Hugh and back again. Several times. But she might not have even been there, for all they noticed her. And for once in her life, she kept her mouth shut.
“What,” Hugh bit off, his temper finally ignited, “do you mean by that?”
“You know very well,” Daniel seethed. “I trust you have not forgotten the devil’s bargain you made.”
“You mean the one that saved your life?” Hugh countered.
Sarah took a step back in alarm. She did not know what was going on, but it terrified her.
“Yes,” Daniel confirmed in a silky voice. “That one. Wouldn’t you think that a woman ought to know before she accepts your offer?”
“Know what?” Sarah asked uneasily. “What are you talking about?” But neither man so much as spared her a glance.
“Marriage is a lifetime commitment,” Daniel said in an awful voice. “A lifetime.”
Hugh’s jaw went rigid. “This is not the time, Winstead.”
“Not the time?” Daniel echoed. “Not the time? When the bloody hell else would be the time?”
“Watch your language,” Hugh snapped.
“She’s my cousin.”
“She’s a lady.”
“She’s right here,” Sarah said weakly, lifting a hand.
Daniel whipped around to face her. “Have I offended you?”
“Ever?” Sarah asked, desperate to break the tension in the room.
Daniel scowled at her pathetic attempt at humor and turned back to Hugh. “Will you tell her?” he asked. “Or shall I?”
No one said a word.
Several seconds went by, then Daniel snapped toward Sarah with a suddenness that almost made her dizzy. “Do you recall,” he said in an awful tone of voice, “how furious Lord Hugh’s father was after the duel?”
Sarah nodded, even though she was not sure he expected an answer. She had not been out in society at the time of the duel, but she’d heard her mother whispering about it with her aunts. Lord Ramsgate had gone mad, they’d said. He was positively unhinged.
“Did you ever wonder,” Daniel continued, still in that terrible tone she now realized was for Hugh even as his words were directed toward her, “how Lord Hugh managed to convince his father to leave me alone?”
“No,” Sarah said slowly, and it was the truth. Or at least it had been until a few weeks ago. “I assumed . . . I don’t know. You came back, and that was all that mattered.”
She felt like an idiot. Why hadn’t she wondered what Hugh had done to retrieve Daniel? Should she have done?
“Have you ever met Lord Ramsgate?” Daniel asked her.
“I’m sure I have, at some point,” Sarah said, her eyes flicking nervously from Hugh to Daniel. “But I—”
“He’s a rat bastard,” Daniel snarled.
“Daniel!” Sarah had never heard him use such words. Or such a tone. She looked to Hugh, but he only shrugged and said, “I have no objection to such a characterization.”
“But . . .” Sarah fought for words. She didn’t see her own father very often; he rarely left Devon, and more often than not Sarah found herself toted around the south of England by her mother, in the endless pursuit of a suitable husband. But he was her father, and she loved him, and she couldn’t imagine standing by while someone called him such awful names.
“We don’t all have genial and benign fifty-three-hound fathers,” Hugh said.
Sarah hoped she was misinterpreting the note of condescension that sat upon his words.
“What does that have to do with anything?” she asked testily.
“It means that my father is an ass. It means he is a sick son of a bitch who hurts people and rather enjoys doing so. It means”—Hugh stepped closer, his voice growing cold with fury—“that he is stark raving mad no matter what sort of face he puts on for the rest of humanity, and there is no, I repeat, no reasoning with him when he’s got his teeth stuck into something.”