James chuckled despite himself. He didn't want to like this girl, but she seemed to approach life with rare grace and humor. And she had certainly figured out the best way to deal with his aunt. Indulge her and do what you liked—it had always worked for him.

He held out his arm, prepared to charm her until she revealed all of her secrets. "Will you accompany me back to the house? Provided, of course, that you have no further business outside?"


He raised his brows.

"I mean no, I have no further business." She smiled weakly. "And yes, I would be happy to accompany you."

"Excellent," he said smoothly. "I cannot wait to further our acquaintance."

Elizabeth let out a long breath as she slid her arm through his. She had botched her last statement, but other than that, she thought she was holding fast to Mrs. Seeton's rules with admirable diligence. She had even managed to make Mr. Siddons laugh, which had to be in those edicts somewhere. And if it wasn't, it should have been. Surely men appreciated women who knew how to form a witty turn of phrase.

She wrinkled her brow. Perhaps that fell under the bit about being unique....

"You look rather serious," he said.

Elizabeth started. Drat. She had to keep her mind focused on this gentleman. Wasn't there something in the book about giving gentlemen one's full attention? That would have to be during the five minutes before one cut off the conversation, of course.

"Almost," he continued, "as if you're concentrating a bit too hard on something."

Elizabeth almost moaned out loud. So much for her charm appearing effortless. She wasn't precisely certain how it applied to the present situation, but she was fairly sure that one was not supposed to actually appear as if one were following a guidebook.

"Of course," Mr. Siddons continued, clearly oblivious to her distress, "I have always found serious women to be most intriguing."

She could do this. She knew she could. She was a Hotchkiss, damn it, and she could do anything she set her mind to. She had to find a husband, but more importantly she first had to learn how to find a husband. And as for Mr. Siddons, well, he was right here, and maybe it was a little heartless to use him as some sort of test case, but a woman had to do what a woman had to do. And she was one desperate woman.

She turned, pasting a brilliant smile on her face. She was going to charm this man until—until—well, until he was charmed.

She opened her mouth to slay him with something utterly witty and sophisticated, but before she could form even a sound, he leaned in closer, his eyes warm and dangerous, and said, "I find myself unbearably curious about that smile."

She blinked. If she didn't know better, she'd think that he was trying to charm her.

No, she thought with a mental shake of her head. That was impossible. He barely knew her, and while she wasn't the ugliest girl in all of Surrey, she was certainly no siren.

"I do apologize, Mr. Siddons," she said prettily. "Like you, I am prone to getting lost in my own thoughts. And I certainly did not mean to be rude."

He shook his head. "You weren't rude."

"But, you see ..." What was that Susan had read to her from the book? Always invite a man to talk about himself. Men were basically self-absorbed.

"Miss Hotchkiss?"

She cleared her throat and affixed yet another smile on her face. "Right. Well, you see, I was actually wondering about you."

There was a brief pause, and then he said, "Me?"

"Of course. It's not every day we have a new person here at Danbury House. Where are you from?''

"Here and there," he evaded. "Most lately, London."

"How exciting," she replied, trying to keep her voice suitably excited. She hated London. It was dirty and smelly and crowded. “And have you always been an estate manager?"

"Nooo," he said slowly. "There aren't many large country estates in London."

"Oh, yes," she muttered. "Of course."

He cocked his head and gazed down at her warmly. “Have you always lived here?''

Elizabeth nodded. "My entire life. I couldn't imagine living anywhere else. There's really nothing as lovely as the English countryside when the flowers bloom. And one certainly can't—" She cut herself off. She wasn't supposed to be talking about herself.

James's instincts leaped to attention. What had she been about to say?

She fluttered her lashes. "But you don't want to know about me."

"Oh, but I do," he replied, gifting her with his most intensely heated stare. Women loved that stare.

Not this woman, apparently. She jerked her head back and coughed.

"Is something wrong?" he asked.

She shook her head quickly, but she looked as if she had just swallowed a spider. Then—and this made no sense, but he could swear he saw it—she steeled her shoulders as if preparing for some hideous task, and said with impossible sweetness, "I'm certain you have led a much more interesting life than I, Mr. Siddons."

"Oh, but I'm sure that's not true."

Elizabeth cleared her throat, ready to stamp her foot in frustration. This wasn't working at all. Gentlemen were supposed to want to talk about themselves, and all he was doing was asking about her. She had the oddest impression that he was playing some sort of game with her.

"Mr. Siddons," she said, hoping that she had been able to eliminate all traces of frustration from her voice, “I have lived in Surrey since I was born. How could my life possibly be more interesting than yours?"

He reached out and touched her chin. "Somehow, Miss Hotchkiss, I have a feeling that you could fascinate me endlessly if you so chose."


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