Elizabeth took a step toward the stairs. "I'm going to be sick."
"Oh, no, you don't!" Susan exclaimed, skidding
around the table and grabbing Elizabeth's arm. "You are going to Danbury House this morning if it kills you."
"It is killing me. Trust me."
Susan planted her free hand on her hip. "I've never known you to be a coward, Elizabeth Hotchkiss."
Elizabeth wrenched her arm free and glared at her sister. "I'm not a coward. I just know when a battle is unwinnable. And believe me, this one has Waterloo written all over it."
"We won at Waterloo," Susan pointed out with a smirk.
"Pretend we're French," Elizabeth snapped. "I'm telling you, Mr. Siddons is not a good choice."
"What's wrong with him?"
"What's wrong with him? What's wrong with him?" Elizabeth's voice rose with frustration. "There's nothing wrong with him. Everything is wrong with him."
Susan scratched her head. "Perhaps it is my tender years, or perhaps my brain is not as fully developed as yours—"
"Oh, please, Susan."
"—but I have no earthly idea what you're talking about. If there is nothing wrong with the man—''
"The man is dangerous. He was playing games with me."
"Are you certain?"
"He has seduced hundreds of women. I'm sure of it."
"An estate manager?" Susan asked dubiously. "Aren't they usually short and fat?"
"This one is handsome as sin. He—"
"Handsome as sin? Really?" Susan's eyes grew wide. "What does he look like?"
Elizabeth paused, trying not to blush as Mr. Siddons's face floated in her mind. What was it about that man that was so compelling? Something about his mouth, perhaps.
His finely molded lips had the tendency to curve ever so slightly, as if they held the key to a secret joke. But then again, maybe it was his eyes. They were a rather regular shade of brown, the same color as his hair, actually, and should have seemed ordinary, but they were so deep, and when he looked at her, she felt...
Hot. She felt hot.
"What?" she asked distractedly.
"What does he look like?"
"Oh. He—oh, goodness, how am I supposed to describe him? He looks like a man."
"How descriptive," Susan said in a droll tone. "Remind me never to advise you to seek work as a novelist."
“I couldn't possibly make up a story any more ridiculous than the one I'm living right now."
Susan sobered. “Is it really as bad as that?''
"Yes," Elizabeth said with a sigh that was two parts frustration and one part irritation, "it is. We are almost completely out of the money Father left, and my wages from Lady Danbury are not nearly enough to support us— especially once the lease on the cottage runs out. I have to marry, but the only available man in the district besides Squire Nevins is Lady D's new estate manager, and he, aside from being far too handsome and dangerous and thinking that I am completely insane, couldn't possibly earn enough to qualify as a suitable candidate. So I ask you," she added, her voice rising in pitch and volume, "since you've already pointed out that I am not going to make a fortune publishing my letters, what do you propose I do?"
She crossed her arms, rather pleased with her speech.
Susan merely blinked and asked, "Why does he think you're insane?"
"It doesn't matter," Elizabeth ground. "What matters is that I am in a complete bind."
"As it happens," Susan said with a slow, deep smile, "I have the answer."
Elizabeth saw her sister reach behind her back for something and felt anger explode within her. "Oh, no, don't you even dare to pull that book out again."
But Susan already had the little red book open. "Listen to this," she said excitedly. " 'Edict Number Seventeen—' "
"We're already up to seventeen?"
"Be quiet. 'Edict Number Seventeen: Life is a rehearsal until you meet the man you marry.' " Susan nodded enthusiastically. "See?"
"You're joking, aren't you?"
Susan looked at the book, then looked back up at her sister. "Noooo," she said slowly, "I—"
"Give me that!" Elizabeth snatched up the book and looked down.
LIFE IS A MERE REHEARSAL UNTIL YOU MEET THE MAN YOU MARRY. THUS YOU MUST PRACTICE THESE EDICTS AT ALL TIMES, ON EVERY MAN YOU MEET. IT DOES NOT MATTER IF YOU HAVE NO INTENTION OF MARRYING A CERTAIN MAN; HE MUST BE DEALT WITH AS YOU WOULD A MARQUIS. FOR IF YOU SLIP OUT OF THE HABIT OF FOLLOWING MY EDICTS, YOU WILL FORGET WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT WHEN YOU DO MEET A MARRIAGE PROSPECT. HONE YOUR SKILLS. BE READY. YOUR MARQUIS MAY BE RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER.
"Has she gone completely mad?" Elizabeth demanded. “This is not a fairy tale. There are no marquises around the corner. And frankly, I find this all rather insulting."
"All of it. To listen to this woman say it, I don't even exist until I find a husband. It's preposterous. If I'm so unimportant, then what have I been doing these past five years? How have I managed to keep this family together? Not by twiddling my thumbs and hoping some kind gentleman will deign to marry me!"
Susan's mouth parted in silent surprise. Finally she said, "I don't think she meant—"
"I know she didn't—" Elizabeth broke off her words, a little ashamed by the violence of her outburst. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean— Please forget I said anything."
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