Elizabeth gasped and then stopped breathing altogether. No man had ever touched her so, and she was probably the worst sort of harlot for thinking so, but there was something almost hypnotic about the warmth of his hand.
"Don't you think?" he whispered.
Elizabeth swayed toward him for the barest of seconds, and then she heard Mrs. Seeton—who, by the way, sounded remarkably like Susan—in her head.
"If you end the conversation," Susan's voice whispered, “he will fantasize over what you might have said next."
And then Elizabeth, who had never felt the heady bliss
of knowing a man was interested, forced the iron back into her spine for the second time that morning and said with remarkable steadiness, "I really must go, Mr. Siddons."
He shook his head slowly, never taking his eyes off of her face. “What are your interests, Miss Hotchkiss?'' he asked. "Your hobbies? Your pursuits? You strike me as an uncommonly intelligent young lady."
Oh, he was definitely bamming her. He certainly hadn't known her long enough to form an opinion on her intellect. Her eyes narrowed. He wanted to know about her pursuits, did he? Well, then, she'd tell him.
"What I really like to do," she said with wide, bright eyes, "is work in my kitchen garden."
"Your kitchen garden?" he choked.
"Oh, yes. Our primary crop this year is turnips. Lots of turnips. Do you like turnips?"
"Turnips?" he echoed.
She nodded emphatically. "Turnips. Some find them dull, rather bland, really, but a more fascinating tuber you'll never find."
James glanced right and left, looking for a means of escape. What the devil was this girl talking about?
“Have you ever grown turnips?''
"Ah ... no, I haven't."
"That's a pity," she said with great feeling. "One can learn quite a lot about life from a turnip."
James's head fell a little forward in disbelief. This he had to hear. "Really? And what, pray tell, can one learn?"
He knew it. She was bamming him. What was she up to? He smiled innocently. “You were saying?''
"Diligence!" she blurted out. "One can learn a great deal about diligence."
"Really? How is that?"
She sighed dramatically. “Mr. Siddons, if you have to ask, then I'm afraid you would never understand."
While James was trying to digest that statement, she chirped, “Oh, look, here we are back at Danbury House. Please tell Lady Danbury that I will be in the rose garden should she need me."
And then, without so much as a farewell, she ran off.
James just stood there for a moment, trying to make sense of what had to be the most bizarre conversation of his life. And that's when he noticed it—her shadow, hanging alongside the building.
Rose garden, his foot. The blasted chit was lurking around the corner, still spying on him. He'd find out what she was up to if it was the last thing he did.
* * *
Ten hours later, Elizabeth dragged her weary feet through the front door of the Hotchkiss cottage. Susan was, not surprisingly, waiting on the bottom step of the stairs, HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS still clutched in her hand.
"What happened?" Susan exclaimed, bounding to her feet. "Tell me everything!"
Elizabeth fought the urge to collapse in a fit of mortified laughter. "Oh, Susan," she said with a slow shake of her head. "We've mastered Edict Number One. He definitely thinks I'm unique."
“Isn't it a beautiful day?"
Elizabeth looked across the breakfast table at her sister's merry visage. Susan's smile was outshone only by the sun, which promised yet another day of uncommonly good weather.
"Isn't it?" Susan persisted.
Elizabeth just ignored her and continued to stab her muffin with a knife.
"If you're not going to eat that, may I have it?" Lucas asked.
Elizabeth started to push her plate across the table.
"Wait! I'd like some more, too," Jane chimed.
Elizabeth pulled the plate back, split the brutalized muffin remains in two, and pushed it back out.
"You're rather grumpy this morning," Jane said as she grabbed her share.
"Yes. Yes, I am."
As if choreographed, all three younger Hotchkisses drew back and exchanged glances. It was rare for Elizabeth to be struck with ill temper, but when she was ...
"I believe I shall go out and play," Lucas said, standing up so fast he knocked his chair over.
"And I believe I shall join you," Jane said, shoving the rest of the muffin in her mouth.
The two children dashed out through the kitchen door. Elizabeth leveled a rather insolent stare in Susan's direction.
"I'm not going anywhere," Susan said. "We have too much to discuss."
“Perhaps you noticed that I am not in a conversational mood?" Elizabeth picked up her tea and took a sip. It was lukewarm. She set it back down and got up to put more water on the stove.
Yesterday had been a total fiasco. Utter disaster. What had she been thinking? She was supposed to have been practicing her social skills and instead she'd been prattling on about turnips.
She hated turnips.
She'd tried to tell herself that she'd had no choice. There was more to Mr. Siddons than met the eye, and he'd clearly been playing some game of his own with her. But turnips? Why did she have to pick turnips? And why had she said they had something to do with diligence? Good Lord, how was she ever to explain that?
He had probably told all of Danbury House about her bizarre fascination with root vegetables. By the time she arrived at work that morning, the story would have probably circulated from the stables to the kitchen and back. Everyone would be laughing at her. And while she didn't much mind the loss of Mr. Siddons as a "pretend marquis," she was going to have to work with the man for months—maybe years!—to come. And he probably thought she was insane.
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