Hugh entered the front hall just in time to hear her say seven words that pierced him like seven stabs of a knife. Seven words she could have said to him, but instead was saying to someone else.
To Lord Ellington, self-professed fortune hunter.
“Yes, my lord. I will marry you.”
Hugh froze on the threshold of the front hall, staring stupefied at the odd tableau on the staircase. Ellington was kneeling halfway up the stairs, one hand outstretched to Grace, who stood at the summit looking as if she was gathering all her courage to take that proffered hand, and allow herself to be dragged into the pit of hell that marriage to Ellington would surely mean for someone of her admirable spirit.
Alas, where was that spirit now, forasmuch as she’d just accepted Ellington’s offer? Had Hugh’s kiss really had no effect on her at all? He silently cursed himself for not letting both of his fists fly into Ethan’s jaws.
“I object!” someone blurted out, his indignant voice reverberating throughout the front hall.
Only then did it dawn on Hugh that he was the one who’d said it. What the devil…?
“You object?” Grace and Ellington exclaimed in unison, and Grace added, “Since when could a third party who isn’t a relation object to a marriage proposal? I thought it was only in the marriage ceremony where one could do that?”
As Ellington, still on his knees, gawped up at her, Hugh thought of how the tableau could be perfected if only Grace held a rod and reel with the hook caught on Ellington’s upper lip.
Notwithstanding, Hugh was all for exhorting her to throw this fish back into the sea.
He planted his fists on his hips. “Would you rather I wait until then?”
She mimicked his gesture. He wondered if it was intentional. “Pray, what are your objections, my lord?”
“In the first place, Lord Ellington is a fortune hunter.”
“What a lucky coincidence! It just so happens I’m a husband hunter, Lord Ashdown. Or huntress. I daresay the viscount and I will suit.”
Hugh hated that he didn’t have what he might consider a very good comeback for that. “In the second place, he would likely leave you alone at his ancestral pile in Derbyshire while he remains in London making your dowry disappear at various gaming tables.”
“I find that an infinitely better prospect than marrying the most reprobate of my cousins, only to be permanently exiled to Ceylon!” Standing at the top of the staircase as if she were on stage orating a Shakespearean speech, Grace held up one arm, index finger pointing at nothing in particular on the ornately coffered ceiling. No wonder everyone else readily believed she was her sister. She was just as much an actress as Charlotte aspired to be.
Hugh, of course, already had firsthand knowledge of that.
Nevertheless, he didn’t have a very good comeback for her second retort, either. She had an excellent point about the reprobate cousin, and a valid complaint about permanent exile to Ceylon. It was not the most hospitable place on earth for Englishwomen.
Ellington, meanwhile, maintained his very impressive imitation of a landed trout, complete with popping eyes and mouth open wide enough to receive a dozen more hooks. He was still kneeling, though by now it looked more like cowering.
“In the third place,” Hugh pressed on, “he should be the one to respond to all of my challenges, not you, Miss Jordan. Frankly, I’m appalled at the way he just kneels there on the steps, lying low as if he’s afraid of being caught in the line of fire. Not the sort who would leap to defend your honor—or even get off his knees to defend it, for pity’s sake.”
Still gawping, Ellington hesitantly rose off his knees, though he remained hunched over like an old man of eighty in need of a cane.
Grace lowered her arm and placed it back on her hip. “And I suppose, my lord, you’re appalled at the way I, a lady, choose to respond to all of your challenges, as if, heaven forbid, I fancy myself just as capable of defending my own honor as any man, and certainly more so than Lord Ellington?”
Bloody hell. Hugh was damned if he could conjure a comeback to that, either. A familiar wave of admiration for her surged through him.
He smiled. “Then surely you fancy yourself meant, as if by divine right, for someone finer, someone more worthy than Ellington?”
He waited for her to respond with something along the lines of, “Do you refer to yourself?” Yet to his dismay, she looked as if she had to think about that, or at least think of some kind of reply that would leave him, yet again, incapable of conjuring a comeback.