He hadn't expected to find the front door to his cottage wide open.
He adjusted his gait to make his footsteps as quiet as possible and crept up to the door. Peering in, he saw the back of a woman. Aunt Agatha's companion, if her pale blond hair and small frame were any indication.
He had been intrigued with her the day before. He didn't realize just how much until he saw her just now leaning over his copy of Francis Bacon's ESSAYS.
Francis Bacon? For a burglar, the chit had rather highbrow reading tastes.
Watching her was almost hypnotic. Her face was in
profile, and her nose scrunched up in the most amusing manner as she examined the book. Silky tendrils of flaxen hair had escaped her bun and curled along the back of her neck.
Her skin looked warm.
James sucked in his breath, trying to ignore the heat that was curling in his belly.
He leaned in as close to the doorframe as he could without revealing himself. What the devil was the girl saying? He forced himself to concentrate on her voice, which wasn't easy, since his eyes kept swaying to the gentle curve of her breasts, and that spot on the back of her neck where—
He pinched himself. Pain usually acted as decent antidote to one's baser needs.
Miss Hotchkiss was muttering something, and she sounded rather annoyed.
". . . stupid . .."
He'd agree with that. Sneaking into his rooms during the light of day was not a smart move on her part.
"... Mrs. Seeton . .."
Who the hell was that?
James peered at her more closely. She was shaking her hand and glaring at his lamp. He had to smile. She looked so furious that he wouldn't have been surprised if the lamp had spontaneously burst into flame.
And she was letting out little mewls of pain that did strange things to his stomach.
His first instinct was to rush to help her. He was still a gentleman, after all, beneath any disguise he chose to don. And a gentleman always came to the aid of a woman in pain. But he hesitated. She wasn't in that much pain, after all, and what the devil was she doing in his cottage, anyway?
Could she be the blackmailer?
And if so, how could she have known that he was here to investigate? Because if she weren't investigating him, why would she rifle through his belongings? Nice girls— the sort that acted as companions to aging countesses— didn't do that sort of thing.
Of course she might be nothing more than a petty thief, hoping that the new estate manager might be a down-on-his-luck gentleman with a few family heirlooms in his possession. A watch, a piece of jewelry of his mother's— the type of thing a man might be loath to part with, even if his circumstances had forced him to seek employment.
She closed her eyes and sighed, turning around as she did so. "I am the clumsiest girl in all England, the biggest nodcock in all Britain—''
He moved in closer, arching his neck as he tried to catch all of her words.
"Damn," James mouthed, moving quickly so that his back was pressed up against the outside wall of the cottage. It had been years since he'd taken such a careless step.
"Who's there?" she called out.
He couldn't see her any longer; he'd moved too far away from the door for that. But she sounded panicked. As if she were going to run outside at any moment.
He scooted away, quickly positioning himself between the stables and the cottage. When he heard Aunt Agatha's companion leave the building he would stroll out into the open, looking for all the world as if he'd just arrived on the scene.
Sure enough, he heard the front door to his cottage click shut a few seconds later. Footsteps followed, and then James made his move.
"Good day, Miss Hotchkiss," he called out, his long strides taking him right into her path.
"Oh!" she yelped, jumping a foot. "I didn't see you."
He smiled. "I apologize if I gave you a fright."
She shook her head, her cheeks beginning to turn pink.
James pressed a finger against his mouth to hide a triumphant smile. She was guilty of something. A blush like that didn't come about for no reason.
"No, no, it's all right," she stammered. "I—ah—I really must learn to watch where I'm going."
"What brings you out this way?" he asked. "It was my impression that most of your duties required your presence in the house."
"I do. I mean, they do. But actually, I was sent to find you. Lady Danbury would like to speak with you."
James's eyes narrowed. He didn't disbelieve the girl; she was obviously too intelligent to lie about something that could be so easily disproved. But why, then, would she have sneaked into his rooms?
The chit was up to something. And for his aunt's sake, he had to find out what. He'd had to question women before, and he had always been able to get them to tell him what he needed to know. In fact, his superiors at the War Office had often laughed that he had perfected the art of questioning women.
Women, he'd long since realized, were a somewhat different breed from men. They were basically self-absorbed. All one had to do was ask a woman about herself, and she was likely to spill all of her secrets. There were one or two exceptions to this rule, of course, Lady Danbury for instance being one, but—
"Is something amiss?" Miss Hotchkiss asked.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You were so silent," she pointed out, then bit her lip.
"Merely woolgathering," he lied. "I confess I cannot think of why Lady Danbury should require my presence. I saw her just this morning."
She opened her mouth, but had no answer. “I do not know," she finally said. "I have found it best not to question Lady Danbury's motives. It's far too taxing on the brain to try to understand how her mind works."
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